Research intelligence: key strategies for supporting PhD students

Three professors shortlisted for Times Higher Education’s Research Supervisor of the Year award discuss their approach to mentoring

December 23, 2020
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As a mother of seven, Tara Moore has a certain affinity with some of the PhD students she mentors, especially those feeling the strain of combining their studies and other commitments.

“They are sometimes reluctant to admit that they are struggling to do a PhD and look after two children, but I am always happy to talk – even if it is to acknowledge that these things can be difficult,” said Professor Moore, director of the Biomedical Research Institute at Ulster University, who was named Research Supervisor of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards last month.

As well as Professor Moore, we spoke to several of the outstanding supervisors shortlisted about how they support doctoral students in achieving their potential.

Include postdocs

Professor Moore, whose research group focuses on potential cures for blindness, has supervised more than 90 postgraduate research students in her 18-year academic career.

That would not have been possible, however, without input from colleagues, especially early career researchers, she explained. “I cannot claim to do everything on my own – the postdoctoral researchers and co-supervisors are essential to supporting PhD students,” said Professor Moore.

“Having enthusiastic researchers in the supervision team is very important – students want to see new methods or ideas in action, so they are often better placed to explore these ideas with them,” she said. “We will have regular weekly meetings – now online due to Covid – so everyone can listen to each other.”

Frequent communication

While many academics are still adapting to the new world of Zoom supervisions, Professor Moore is a veteran of supervision at a distance. In addition to overseeing PhDs at Ulster’s Coleraine campus in Northern Ireland, she has remotely supervised dozens of students in different countries and time zones. “Some are working in clinical settings and others in industry, so scheduling meetings takes a lot of organisation,” she explained.

Things can get even more difficult, however, if PhD candidates bottle up their problems until the next weekly meeting, she said. “I always ask students to email or text me rather than leaving it until the next lab meeting. I might be dealing with 10 emails in a day, but I would rather that happened than they left a problem for a week.”

Build ties to industry

With nine out of 10 PhDs eventually leaving academia, exposing them early to different sectors is vital, said Professor Moore. “My PhD students will work with a patent attorney at some point to help them understand this process,” she said.

That is particularly important for another THE-shortlisted supervisor, Anant Paradkar, director of the Centre for Pharmaceutical Engineering Science at the University of Bradford.

“I have supervised 28 PhD students over the past 12 years – only one left with the intention to enter academia, with the rest applying their knowledge in industry or companies they created,” reflected Professor Paradkar, who, aided by a business development manager, spends much of his time speaking to industry about how his researchers might assist on their research-related problems.

“We are registered with [research careers organisation] Vitae for the various professional development courses, but this experience working with companies on real problems is just as important for them,” he said.

Securing a short-term paid placement in an industry research role can be particularly motivating, added Professor Paradkar: “If they can become part of an industrial project for five or 10 weeks and show their strengths, that is very important as they can see there is demand for their PhD.”

Help students adapt to adversity

“All of my students have heard my speech where I tell them that ‘99 per cent of what we do will fail, so don’t expect to get a lot of results quickly’,” said Bill Hunter, professor of structural biology at the University of Dundee, who was also shortlisted for this year’s Research Supervisor category.

That high attrition rate is largely explained by Professor Hunter’s research area – growing crystals that can be used in biochemical or drug discovery processes – but it is maybe a good analogy for the nature of PhD study, which may end with a null result or solid but unspectacular findings.

That said, the skills and mindset developed during doctoral study are invaluable, said Professor Hunter. “These are smart young people who have self-selected to do something very difficult, and it’s our job to encourage them to take ownership of the science,” he reflected.

For him, publishing a journal paper during the PhD journey is important not just because “publications are the currency of science” but because “students have to learn to write and organise what has been done, so if they can publish before their thesis, that is a godsend”.

With many PhD students – including his own – locked out of labs or facing other disruptions related to the pandemic, it has been a tough year for students and mentors alike. “I’ve had to meet students on park benches when the lab has been shut,” he said.

However, despite the stresses of the coronavirus-hit year, mentoring PhD students has remained a pleasure, he said. “Teaching postgraduates is one of the things I enjoy most about my job – they have self-selected who they want to work with, so supervisors and PhD students generally get on well. If I had to pick someone to accompany me up a Scottish mountain, it might well be a PhD student.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Be a better mentor to PhD students

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