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Lessons from students on effective research supervision

Richard Godwin shares lessons in effective research supervision based on his former students’ feedback

Richard Godwin's avatar
Harper Adams University
11 Nov 2021
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Advice on what matters most to students in effective research supervision

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Shortly after having agreed to give my thoughts on research supervision, I was asked to examine a PhD thesis where, in his acknowledgements, the student stated that without the erudite guidelines, scholastic criticisms and affectionate encouragement of his research supervisor, it would have been impossible to conduct the research. He then extended his gratitude to his supervisor for creating a supportive and comfortable working environment, in which he enjoyed unrestricted access and idea-sharing facilities when necessary. From the initial stage of the research work, the supervisor acted as a professor, mentor and real friend.

Following my own master of science in Illinois and doctoral studies in the UK, I could, and should, have written similar acknowledgements to my supervisors.

This caused me to wonder what my own cohort of students would say about my attempts to inspire their research development. Lessons that may be of value to anyone involved in the supervision of doctoral students. So I asked them. This is the consolidated “wisdom” of their responses.

Treat your supervisees as equals

“Your strengths as a supervisor were that you treated me as an equal straight from the start even when it was obvious that I had little experience in conducting research,” wrote one former student. “When I was nervous, you encouraged me to speak by saying: ‘You are among friends.’ You listened to what I had to say whether it was right or wrong and guided me to come to the right conclusion by enabling me to think through the problem rather than tell me what I should do.”

Research supervision is a balance between letting students plot their own path while still checking in and providing guidance when needed. Another student said: “You challenged the findings of your students to ensure we fully understood what we were doing and accepted different opinions as to the scientific protocols that could be adopted.” Encourage students to find their own strategies and solutions, but let them know that your door is open.

Make time (even when you’re busy)

The pressure on supervisory time has been an issue during much of my career, and it seems to be even more of a challenge today. This is a concern for all in the management of research students. Students know this, too: “You always made time to help me when I needed it even when you were obviously very busy.”

They appreciated the demands of my busy academic life, aware that I was juggling teaching and research supervision responsibilities with administrative duties. Despite the supportive comments, it is clear that they would have appreciated even more of my time to discuss technical issues. Set aside windows in your weekly schedule and ensure that students know they can reach you during these hours.

Provide opportunities for students to showcase their work

Find ways to bring your students’ research work to the forefront, whether it’s listing them as first author in journal publications or seeking avenues for them to present work at international conferences and to meet and collaborate with others in their fields. “At these conferences, you introduced us to the top international scientists in our respective areas of work,” responded one student. “Subsequently, you have walked beside us all these years as our careers have developed.”

Encourage collaboration

Team working and team decisions remind doctoral candidates that they’re not alone in their endeavour and help to combat feelings of isolation. And don’t forget the mentorship role in supervision. “Your strengths definitely included being encouraging and supportive while demanding rigour and quality in students’ work. You had authority and respect but provided a form of personal mentorship, which was invaluable.”

Be aware of how your advice will land

We should take note of the impact of our aspirations upon those we supervise, both motivating and demotivating. One former student told me that he learned to take a break before he approached me with his latest results because afterwards he was so motivated to keep on working that there was no moment to take a breath. This was an issue only at the beginning of his studies. Afterwards, he learned to deal with it and arranged his days accordingly.

Provide a clear framework

A clear structure and a solid framework are vital for research, as is the supervisor’s ability to listen and offer quality, constructive feedback. Supervisors need to maintain a realistic vision of what can be achieved over the duration of the programme and to keep asking questions about the research results that help lead to a clear understanding.

They should encourage students to identify the “golden nugget” arising from the work, which may not be immediately obvious but should gather momentum as the project develops. It is vital to help students identify the true scientific merit, the practical significance of their work and its value to society.

Working with sponsors

A number of former students who have forged careers in industry and gone on to sponsor further student projects pointed to the fact that managing the project and reporting the research results in a “businesslike” manner is critical in maintaining the sponsor’s confidence in the work and to ensuring that the results and their significance are taken seriously.

Set up publishing goals

“We have learnt that scientific findings are much less valuable if they are not published in a peer-reviewed paper.” This message is vital to those wishing to follow an academic or research career and should be no hindrance to those in industry. Remember that these papers are the “international gold standard”. Three good papers per doctoral thesis should be a realistic ambition.

Don’t overlook the human side

The human dimension is very important and needs to be considered alongside academic matters: health, financial and domestic pressures can seriously impact a student’s performance. Many of these issues are even more critical when supervising “international” students. I tried, with some success, to encourage my students to take appropriate holidays and to allocate thinking time. Make sure that you earn the trust of students early in the programme and engage with them in visualising their postdoctoral career as well as their immediate research concerns.

International dimensions

“You taught us the benefits of diversity and internationalism that gave us worldwide perspectives. Despite being scattered around the world we, your former students, have developed a strong sense of intellectual and personal companionship and we are attempting to pass this practice on to the next generation.”

Presenting international perspectives helps students to develop as scientists by giving them a greater appreciation of the benefits or impacts of advances in their field than can be gained by just reading peer-reviewed papers.

I want to thank the 60-plus doctoral scholars, from 21 countries, who endured my supervisory demands and have forged impressive careers in all aspects of the profession. I am proud of their achievements. It is very humbling to be told: “Thank you – you have changed my life.”

It brings to the fore that as research supervisors, we are not just fostering “good science and engineering” but shaping the career development and lives of future generations.

Richard Godwin is a visiting professor in agricultural engineering at Harper Adams University. He also holds emeritus and honorary professorships at Cranfield University and the Czech University of Life Sciences, respectively.

He was shortlisted for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

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