stop reacting, and start supervising with intention

This is a guest post from Anna O’Connell, higher education consultant and Master Facilitator for the National Research Mentoring Network and Center for Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research. Connect with Anna on Twitter at @annaboconnell or through her website.

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Supervising PhD students can be deeply rewarding, but it comes with many challenges even for the most experienced supervisors. Skills related to supervision aren’t taught in graduate programs and most faculty have only their own previous supervisors as models. In workshops that I led at UNC Chapel Hill, I often heard faculty say:

“I feel totally unprepared to supervise students. My current approach is to replicate the strategies that worked for me as student, while trying not to do any of the things that made me or other people miserable.” 

Many PhD supervisors start out this way and only make changes or pick up a new skill when problems arise. This ad-hoc, reactive approach certainly can work but I’m happy to report there is another way. Thanks to a growing body of research on supervising doctoral students you don’t have to go through trial and error to find what works. Effective supervision requires trust, self-awareness, excellent communication, and commitment to the student’s career advancement. Additionally, research shows that effective supervisors have a solid understanding of and respect for cultural and gender issues that impact the experience of students from different backgrounds.

Leadership, supervisor, or mentor training programs are excellent ways to formally learn skills that can help develop you as a supervisor. But you don’t need formal training to learn something new. The process outlined below is a self-guided series of exercises that will help you become a more intentional, and therefore effective, supervisor. 

1. Increase Your Self-Awareness: Supervision is, fundamentally, a relationship that develops and changes over time. To be an effective partner in this relationship it is critical you have a good understanding of yourself both as a person and as a supervisor. Many of us have a sense of what we do and don’t like or how we prefer to work, but it’s not common to spend time reflecting on this in the context of supervision. I encourage you to engage in this work because it will have enormous benefits for you and your students. 

As you build self-awareness you will be able to articulate your needs and put strategies into place that ensure these needs are met. You should also work to distinguish true needs from personal preferences. Preferences represent areas where you can be more flexible to help keep the relationship working for both parties. 

Here are some prompts to think about as you reflect on your role as supervisor:

  • What was your experience as a PhD student and how has this shaped your approach to supervision?
  • What are your other professional responsibilities and professional goals? How much time do you have to devote to supervision and how many students can you responsibly commit to?
  • How does your racial and gender identity shape your experiences as a scholar? How might these experiences impact your view of what the PhD should be like, and are you open to other models of academic success?
  • What are your major sources of work-related stress and how do you typically respond when you are overwhelmed? Do you have a support system at work? Do you have a mentor or colleagues you can turn to when you need advice?
  • How do you typically communicate with students? Are there communication styles or methods that are problematic or triggering for you?
  • What is your comfort level with conflict and difficult conversations? Are you proactive in addressing conflict and, if so, could your approach ever be considered aggressive? Or, do you shy away from conflict and avoid discomfort at the expense of sharing feedback that could help someone develop? When engaging in disagreement are you primarily concerned with being right, or perhaps do you prioritize minimizing the negative impact on you or the other person? 

2. Understand the Context for Supervision: Just as it’s important to have a clear understanding of yourself as a supervisor, it is equally important to pay attention to the experience of PhD students. Supervisors should consider how their behaviors might affect their students with respect to the general challenges graduate students face. When you have a handle on these issues, you can avoid unintended negative impacts on student motivation and confidence.

Here are some guiding prompts to get you started:

  • Do you have a clear model for progression through the PhD and can you clearly articulate where a student is in their development journey, which skills they’ve mastered, and which ones need attention? What guidance and support can you offer them for skill building?
  • What are you doing to build trust with your students? How do your students know that you support them? How do you show them it’s safe for them to ask questions, seek guidance, or admit a mistake?
  • What strategies do you have in place to ensure fair and equitable attention to each student regardless of how much you feel a personal affinity for them or how excited you are about their research?
  • How is your focus and attention during meetings with your students? Are you fully present during dedicated meeting times? Who leads the meetings and how do you ensure the student gets their needs met?
  • Consider that you have power in the supervisor-student relationship. What impact might that have on your students? What can you do to mitigate the negative effects that might have?
  • How much do you know about issues that women and minorities in academia face? Are you comfortable talking with your students about how these issues impact their progress? What can you do to remove barriers and ensure their success?
  • What, if anything, are you doing to model and promote healthy work-life balance for your students? Do your students feel they can attend to personal and health matters without disappointing you? How well do you manage your own stress and what impact might your stress have on your students?

3. Craft a Supervision Philosophy: The work you do to reflect on yourself and on what students need will provide you with a solid foundation to formulate a formal supervision philosophy. A supervision philosophy is a written statement that describes your individual approach to developing PhD students. This should not be an instructional document (like a handbook) but instead should be more like a mission statement, focusing on the big picture of what you value and what you bring to the supervisor-student relationship. Often these statements are aspirational, describing the type of supervisor one strives to be. 

While this might seem like an unnecessary exercise, I strongly encourage you to do this work. Formally writing out a statement will help to crystallize the insights you gained from the first two exercises. If you are having trouble getting started, it can help to remember that current and prospective students are the intended audience for this document. Write this to them with the goal of helping them understand your supervision style better. You can find several examples here (these are written by STEM academics in the US where supervision is called ‘mentoring’) or by doing your own search. 

4. Formalize expectations for working with students: Often referred to as compacts or contracts, a written set of expectations is an important, but often underutilized tool for supervisor-student relationships. If your expectations are not made clear, it is easy for students to fall short of them without knowing. What may seem ‘obvious’ to you may be something your student has never considered before. Perhaps their previous workplace or research experience didn’t use the same strategies, or maybe they have never encountered that specific situation before. When you make assumptions about what is ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ you run the risk of excluding people who have had experiences very different from your own. Likewise, when there are only ‘unwritten rules’, bias can creep in and individuals can be held to different standards. 

Putting expectations and ground rules in writing levels the playing field and holds you and other people you work with accountable. Also, in practical terms, writing out expectations is an easy way to prevent disappointment and upset around common workplace problems like attendance, timeliness, communication preferences, and professional standards. There are numerous examples of compacts and expectations documents online to help you get started. A related post about expectations including an excellent list of things to consider putting into a document, is here. Kristyn Masters and Pamela Kreeger wrote about this in PLOS Computational Biology as well.

These exercises are concrete steps you can take right now to improve your supervision practice. While you can do these on your own, it can be helpful to team up with colleagues and work together on part or all of the process. While the first two exercises are reflective in nature, the second two will produce products you can and should be sharing with others. Post your supervision philosophy on your website or email it to prospective students. Discuss your expectations with each student in a one on one meeting at the beginning of the relationship, so that you can clarify any points that may be confusing. Some supervisors also discuss expectations and group norms yearly at a research retreat. These documents should be a living document with contributions and tweaks from members of your research group. 

Congratulations on making the decision to try a new way of supervising PhD students. Each insight you gain and tool you put into place will make your relationships work better and hopefully help your students be more productive. Best of luck to you as you embark on this journey!

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