Ways to support research students in nursing and midwifery

PhD supervision requires a specific skill set – from communication to emotional intelligence – to meet its challenges and secure its rewards. Here, Helen Allan shares her advice based on more than 20 years of experience

Helen Allan's avatar
Middlesex University
17 Oct 2022
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PhD supervision takes time, patience, good communication and respect between candidate and supervisor and among members of the supervisory team. It’s a relationship, at the end of the day, that will last up to six years, depending on the mode of study. If the relationship is good, you’ll continue working with your students as postdoctoral researchers – it helps you build your own networks as much as supporting them to develop their careers.

It’s important to develop effective ways of communicating. Recognise that successful completion, especially for those who work full-time while studying for their PhD, is not easy. You need to be inclusive and treat students as individuals. There’s no such thing as a usual PhD journey; no two students are the same.

The challenges, too, are diverse. In many disciplines, including nursing and midwifery, many PhD students have a successful career when they start their research degree. Academics who undertake a PhD later in their career may have a demanding job, work long hours and study part-time. Others may come from non-traditional university backgrounds; they may also study part-time while working and begin at an older age than other PhD students. Writing academically can be a real challenge.

Students might find it difficult to be released from work for allocated study time; their colleagues or managers may lack awareness and understanding of the value of doctoral study.

How do you address these challenges?

Being a successful supervisor involves building your own skill set as much as helping your students develop theirs.

  1. Do training in communication skills, particularly reading critically, giving feedback and editing. (Supervision is essentially communication). Complete in-house supervisor training.
  2. Chair as many progression panels or viva voces as you can. Accepting invitations to examine PhDs outside your own university will also really help you gain perspective of what a PhD is and what’s expected.
  3. Keep up to date on your university’s research degree regulations.
  4. Keep notes on every contact with students. It will help you stay on top of their progress so you can plan with them the best way forward when things feel as if they’re not progressing.
  5. Recognise the emotions involved in undertaking the research process and learning. Don’t be surprised if you’re the butt of your students’ frustration and anger – it’s a tough emotional as well as intellectual journey. Start where each student is and balance challenge with encouragement.
  6. Understand that the doctoral research journey is part of a life change. You will need to support your students through difficulties, challenge them intellectually, help them make substantial contributions to their field, and assist in planning their postdoctoral careers. Support them towards publications and awards, and present with them at internal and external events, especially at cross-disciplinary conferences, which is a crucial experience for students, especially those without traditional research training.
  7. Remember that what you’re doing is important; it will contribute to the enrichment and diversity of the next generation of academics and, no matter how niche the subject, will add to overall knowledge.

PhD supervision is the best part of my job, really. I had good supervision myself and I think I took that positive experience into supervising my own students. But I also draw on other life and professional skills as I recognise that supervision is mostly about communication and a relationship. Of course, it’s intellectual, but unless you’ve got a good relationship, it’s difficult to encourage learning.

Helen Allan is professor in nursing in the Faculty of Health, Social Care & Education at Middlesex University.

She has been shortlisted for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2022. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here.

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