Supervising neurodiverse postgraduate researchers

Advice for supervisors to tailor their support and guidance for neurodiverse postgraduate researchers, based on conversations with two autistic PGRs

Kelly Louise Preece's avatar
28 Feb 2023
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One of the challenges of postgraduate researcher (PGR) supervision is that it is a bespoke form of teaching, directed towards supporting an individual. Every PGR, and every project, will need the supervisor to reflect and modify their approach to ensure the success of the student and the project. This “bespoke” nature of supervision becomes more complex when it interacts with some forms of difference that sit outside the research process.

Neurodiversity is a way that we talk about variations or differences in the human brain. This may be regarding sociability, learning attention or mood, and we characterise those as differences rather than pathology. So rather than as something that’s wrong with someone, it’s just a way that they’re different.

I spoke to two of our neurodiverse graduates, Jane May Morrison and Edward Mills, about their experience of being a neurodiverse PGR for my podcast Researchers, Development, and the In-Betweens. Jane and Edward are both autistic. Autism is a form of neurodiversity, but in and of itself refers to a broad range of conditions, which can be characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, but it does not necessarily encompass all, nor is it exclusive to, these things. From this insightful conversation, I have distilled advice for supervising neurodiverse PGRs.

Awareness raising

An important part of supervising neurodiverse PGRs lies in raising your awareness of the challenges associated with different conditions. Information is the key. You can do your own research but be aware that the media and popular culture tend to feed into stereotypes rather than representing the nuanced experience of neurodiversity (for example, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a classic example a one-dimensional representation of autism). The best thing you can do is talk to your student. Every neurodivergent condition, and every individual’s experience of that condition, is different. Your student is the expert, so just be willing to listen and learn.

Individual learning plans can help – but make use of a supervision agreement

Individual learning plans are a challenge for PGRs because they tend to focus on undergraduates. Traditional recommendations for extra exam time don’t apply, but that doesn’t mean a discussion of adjustments isn’t helpful. Supervisors could use the learning plan alongside a supervision agreement to discuss individual needs. For example, a student with ADHD might need more structured deadlines, and a student with autism might need clearer, more direct communication. Teasing out these challenges can help supervisors and PGRs deal with them more proactively throughout the research process.

Be clear about expectations

There are lots of implicit expectations that are a part of research and academic culture. These are not always overt or obvious to PGRs – and identifying and understanding them can be an even bigger challenge if you are neurodiverse. Don’t assume it is obvious that your PGRs are expected to attend departmental seminars or the etiquette around sending emails out of university working hours is clear. Use the supervision agreement to outline these kinds of implicit expectations.

Engage in meta-communication

Something you may need to do with neurodiverse PGRs is engage in meta-communication. There are ways we traditionally communicate in academia – for example, when giving feedback – that can be vague and obtuse for students with autism. Talking through and reflecting on the ways you communicate can ensure that advice, directions and feedback are clear and understood. This should not just apply to neurodiverse PGRs; meta-communication could ensure clarity and productive ways of working to the benefit of all PGRs.

Be prepared to challenge academic conventions and ways of doing

Many neurodiverse PGRs face challenges due to academic conventions. They experience a lack of flexibility or willingness to do things differently, based on the idea that “this is how things are done”. This perpetuates an ableist idea that maybe academia isn’t “for them”. Be prepared to question why we do things in certain ways, and to find different ways of working where necessary.


Be willing and able to listen to your PGRs’ perspective and experience. In my opinion, the founding principle of good supervisory practice is empathy – engaging with the person in front of you as a human being or engaging with the researcher as well as the research.

Kelly Louise Preece is head of academic development and skills at the University of Exeter.

Her advice was originally published on the University of Exeter Doctoral College blog.

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