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How to foster PhD excellence

How can PhD supervisors help early career researchers blossom? Support them with finding funding opportunities, understand each doctoral candidate’s motivations and reach out to your own network, suggests Julia Hörnle

Julia Hörnle's avatar
Queen Mary University of London
6 Dec 2023
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Daffodils under blue sky

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“Plant a field of daffodils, one bulb at a time”: this was how a friend who had just submitted her dissertation described what it was like doing a PhD. It was when I was starting mine, almost 20 years ago.

Now, having supervised 14 students myself, I find that students face two main challenges inherent in the process. First, when they start a law PhD, most students expect to find a revolutionary new way of solving law problems and are perhaps surprised, and disappointed, to find that most successful PhDs are about endless incremental steps, not one revolutionary insight.

Second, with rising living costs, PhD students find it increasingly difficult to fund their PhD. It has always been my ambition to make a difference in supporting students who undertake a PhD. One aspect of this is helping students to find funding, looking out for funding opportunities through a variety of sources and tailoring the funding to each student’s circumstances.

Another aspect of this is to link your research opportunities to those of your supervisee and find synergies with your own research activities to promote their early career as a researcher. Networking is key – using your network to create opportunities for PhD students. One of my PhD students has recently spent a year working as a research assistant in Parliament, an experience that added depth of experience to the PhD. Two of my PhD students organised a seminar series, inviting high-profile speakers and participants, which created networking opportunities over the course of an academic year.

Understand your supervisees’ goals and ambitions

Another important aspect is to be ambitious for your PhD researchers. What is the purpose of their PhD? Beyond in-depth research resulting in excellent scholarly work, a doctorate might have many functions, and so it is important to discuss with the student at the outset what they are trying to achieve and to help them individually to reach that goal.

While part of our role is to realistically assess the feasibility of the project within the time and resources available, equally important is to pitch the project to the individual’s capability and appetite for hard work.

While I am proud to say that about half my PhD students have produced brilliant dissertations that were published as books after completion, for some students, that has not been the goal. A PhD may be a route to career change, opening doors through expertise gained through a PhD. For others, it may simply be a lifelong dream to achieve a sustained piece of writing.

For all of them, it is a process of learning how to build a high-quality research method, collect and analyse large amounts of information, and assemble this in a structured piece of writing, communicating the insights to others. This arduous learning process equips them with an important skill that is transferable to many careers.

Use your own network to support candidates through challenges

With a PhD being three to four years of in-depth research, many students will hit a crisis point at some stage. It might be that life intervenes in ways that can be happy (for example, the birth of a child) or unhappy (bereavement). Or the research itself may not go as envisaged. Another of our main roles, I believe, is to support the student through times of crisis. This sometimes requires cajoling or insistence or patience and encouragement.

Whatever the catalyst, it can help for PhD supervisors to involve their own colleagues in this process, especially if the student requires input from a person who is more distant from the research project. Our directors of graduate studies have always been helpful in giving advice and looking at a problem with a fresh pair of eyes. My recommendation to new supervisors is not to hesitate to reach out if they feel they need support in solving a PhD crisis.

Understand the difficulties of interdisciplinary research

Finally, in law, two types of PhD are challenging to do very well: interdisciplinary PhDs and PhDs involving comparative law. The challenge is mainly a question of access, namely accessing foreign laws or accessing the methods of a different discipline without having been trained in it.

My personal experience is that only the most determined and talented PhD candidates are successful in carrying out comparative or interdisciplinary law PhDs, which, if methodologically sound, are an enormous amount of work. Access to foreign law frequently requires a local research stay, funding and language capabilities or translation. For interdisciplinary PhDs, this requires a supervisor in each discipline, good coordination between these supervisors and a willingness to learn, at least in a rudimentary way, the methods of the unfamiliar discipline.

I have had great experiences with both comparative law and interdisciplinary PhDs, which have resulted in solid research and original insights, and believe they are definitively worth the extra effort.

Julia Hörnle is a professor of internet law at Queen Mary, University of London.

Julia has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023. A full list of nominees can be found here. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together on 6-7 December at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in Liverpool.

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Research management

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