‘Keep academics without people skills away’ from PhD supervision

European universities outline blueprint to improve doctoral training but acknowledge some professors can’t or won’t change their ways

March 1, 2023
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Europe’s premier university grouping has outlined a blueprint to drive up doctoral supervision standards across the continent, but has acknowledged that some academics might be beyond help.

In a paper published on 28 February, the League of European Research Universities (Leru) says that researchers should have mandatory training in PhD supervision and that the success of those they supervise should be a key factor in appraisals.

But authors Helke Hillebrand and Claudine Leysinger also acknowledge that it might be worth considering “establishing ‘single contributor’ research careers where talented researchers without sufficient people skills can pursue their research goals without being compelled to supervise junior colleagues”.

“Certain people are really extremely introverted, and I believe it’s almost forcing them into something that they’re not happy about doing,” Dr Leysinger, head of the graduate campus at the University of Zurich, told Times Higher Education, contrasting those who find nudges towards supervision unbearable with peers who are “probably happy about learning more and gaining some more people skills”.

Dr Leysinger accepted that separating those who cannot and will not learn to supervise would be difficult. The Leru paper says “neglect or violation of good supervision practice requires suitable repercussions”, possibly including temporary loss of the right to supervise, intensified training requirements or loss of funding.

The overarching plea of the paper is for “an improved institutional culture of appreciation” for doctoral training. Other recommendations include:

  • Mandatory supervision training, with professors expected to refresh their learning throughout their careers and with coaching for specific scenarios, such as when a relationship breaks down
  • Making supervision part of performance indices, with potential metrics including awards won by supervisees, the percentage of students pursuing “ambitious careers in academia and beyond”, and the number of supervisees launching spin-offs
  • Limiting the number of supervisees that an academic can take on, and the number of supervisors that can be involved in a dissertation.

The Leru paper describes expectation management as being a pivotal part of doctoral training, particularly when academics are recruiting students and agreeing on a thesis topic, because mismatches “will most likely bounce back throughout the course of the project”. The authors endorse the use of supervision agreements that set out obligations on the part of both the supervisor and the supervisee, which have been widely adopted in Germany in particular.

The authors say universities should survey doctoral students about their satisfaction with supervision not only while they are studying but also during their early and middle career stages, “as constructive criticism will grow further over time and in retrospect and may also be reflected in ongoing collaborations between supervisors and their former doctoral researchers”.

“Developing and regularly checking on key performance indicators of employability, career development, and societal impact of former doctoral researchers over a significant period of time would help capture robust results of good supervision practice for further analysis and quality management measures,” the paper says.

Dr Leysinger said the number of staff directly involved in doctoral education and the professionalisation of their role have both risen over the past 25 years, a theme the paper summarises as “it takes a village to raise a PhD”, paraphrasing an African proverb.

While supervision has already gained some prominence in hiring in research evaluation, it was time to look at it “in a qualitative way”, Dr Leysinger said.

“What do you believe in? What are your tenets of good supervision? Often, we have to write teaching statements; I think we should also write supervision statements – what we believe is good supervision.”


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Reader's comments (8)

I'm sorry but this simply does not make sense. Every statement is immediately retracted. The wishful parameters bear no relationship to job opportunities where thesis supervision and its absence do not appear in job descriptions Mandatory training: what, how, when, where? Professional-intellectual-collegial-humane supervision begins best by socialization and modeling. That's what's been lost since the 1970s. I cannot be replaced with a "mandatory:" course.
An issue is that PhDs have at least partially shifted from an original exploratory foray into an unexplored academic acea, led by the PhD candidate, into almost a taught course, where the candidate follows a well trodden path i.e. a topic already done by countless PhD candidates before, and the task is now for them to produce a thesis-by-numbers, a set-format long essay. The supervisor is less a knowledge guide in unknown territory, they are now a geography fieldwork teacher guiding the candidate around a well trodden tourist site. As a teacher that is why people skills are now trumping academic knowledge.
“with potential metrics including awards won by supervisees, the percentage of students pursuing “ambitious careers in academia and beyond”” Sure, that’s not going to have any knock-on effects on PhD student selection criteria in favour of the more privileged at all…
The reference to a personality trait such as introversion is completely wrong and inappropriate. Introverts often make the best supervisors because they are more likely to be conscientious and to follow the progress of PhD candidates closely rather than parading themselves in front of their peers. In my experience, the best supervisors are not necessarily the most high flying academics. However, academic knowledge is clearly a key element of the supervisor's portfolio. Thank you, however, for highlighting an important issue.
Introverts often make better advisors and better salespeople, and have superior people skills, to those who are extroverted and "outside-oriented," who often pay only passing attention to those around them. Similarly, the best salespeople for complex products are often introverts and are more often female than male. Listening well matters a lot. It's also a bad idea to excuse people from learning how to be a supervisor and advisor to people simply because it is hard for them--that's what learning is about in the first place.
You can't train people skills, and even if you could it would not be desirable. Some of the best researchers lack people skills. Instead, as PhD students have two supervisors just ensure that at least one has these skills so the PhD student has a shoulder to cry on.
Confusingly, in this article one of the Leru paper authors, Dr Leysinger, appears to associate 'people skills' with extroversion when that's not what the Leru paper talks about. The 'people skills' the Leru paper refers to are: "empathic leadership, availability, responsibility, and consistent and realistic expectation management." To suggest that introverted people might not be suited to doctoral supervision strikes me as controversial, since autistic individuals who may struggle with things like eye contact can make perfectly good, supportive supervisors. The kinds of academics the Leru paper authors recommend be kept away from students are those who neglect or violate good supervision practice. All in all, a baffling read that has left me confused and wondering what the writer of this article is getting at. I note that some other readers have interpreted the message of the article as being that introverts are not best suited to supervision. That's unfortunate given that the Leru paper does not suggest this. Am I missing something?
Applying the metrics suggested will surely result in only those undergraduates thought to be destined for a stellar career being able to embark on Phds. I've known of several unlikely undergraduates later revealing themselves to be excellent researchers.