Why I... believe it is time that research supervision had an overhaul

September 12, 2003

Tony Fell Head of the Graduate School, University of Bradford, and executive member of the UK Council for Graduate Education.

Pressure from postgraduates and funding agencies has transformed the landscape of research supervision. The rules of the game have changed - for good. No longer can the backwoodsmen of academia justify their inept engagement with the challenges of supervision with "it was good enough for me, so it's good enough for them".

Mandatory training for all new supervisors (refreshers for the rest, perhaps?), working in supervisory teams, a limit on supervisory load, a formal "training-needs analysis" for each student, with mandatory generic-skills training for greater employability are issues that have emerged since the Higher Education Funding Council for England consultation.

The single supervisor solely responsible for a student's fate will be no more: the supervisory team will handle everything from induction to viva, including pastoral care and skills training. Team supervision should enhance the consistency and quality of the student experience, but paradoxically it may do the opposite unless certain preconditions are met.

First, because the main supervisor-student relationship has such a strong defining role, first-hand experience of completion by the main supervisor is key for effective high-quality supervision. Yet one proposed model sees an inexperienced academic serving as main supervisor supported by an experienced second supervisor.

Second, the supervisory team should meet regularly as a group, and, third, a short report of all supervision meetings should be circulated to all team members. Many are the conflicts that have befallen an unsuspecting student supervised by a team whose members have never met. In small research areas or departments, it can be difficult to find two supervisors with complementary expertise, so the proposal to recognise one experienced supervisor and give responsibility for pastoral and other support to an independent academic seems eminently reasonable.

The consultation proposes to avoid supervision overload by limiting the number of main supervisions to six, but it in effect allows any number of second supervisions, potentially discounting the role of second supervisors in underpinning the quality of research supervision. Another issue is how to manage the high-flying research superstar, who may take on too many students, disregarding the quality of the student experience.

The national debate on generic-skills training has led to a variety of programmes to strengthen the transferable skills of research students. But how can a broad supportive training programme in such skills be established in each institution? Collaboration between regional partners or UK GRAD hubs may help, but it depends on training budgets. The "new route PhD", targeted mainly at the overseas market, has bitten this bullet courageously with a defined research-skills training framework similar to the North American model.

The drive to increase the numbers of overseas postgraduates makes it essential to provide good-quality support for English language. The supervisor cannot, and should not, be expected to edit a student's thesis for language and style. An emerging problem is how to ensure that any external English-language assistance is limited to language only - and is fully transparent.

At the end of the day, we should recognise that doctoral students (and sponsors) invest considerable time, talent and money in their research programmes. We owe it to the next generation of industrial and academic researchers to enhance the consistency and quality of their research training experience - and the prospects for their future careers.

Noa-5 Tony Fell will lead a workshop on "Challenges for research supervision" in the THES-sponsored UK GRAD Programme's annual conference on "Profiting from Postgraduate Talent" in London on September 16.

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