So, you’re supervising your first research student…

Last week, the blog featured a selection of tips for approaching academic job interviews. This week, it’s time for some advice relevant to a different career stage: supervising your first research student. You’ve got the job, but how do you oversee an honours or higher degree research (HDR) candidate well? Many people simply draw on what they liked or disliked of their own supervisors, or on a few tips exchanged in hallway conversations—or learn by experience. Let’s demystify the experience a bit!

As with the previous entry, I must emphasise that I received these comments just before the COVID-19 pandemic made itself felt in Australian higher education. Right now, even the most experienced supervisors are navigating a very new supervisory environment. So, please keep that in mind. I received comment from the same five generous historians who contributed to last week’s entry—plus I roped in one more! Let’s start with her.

Vera Mackie (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

The key to a successful honours or HDR thesis is working constantly and consistently over the period of candidature. I always meet with my honours/HDR students once a fortnight (except when one of us is away on fieldwork or conference leave). We can supplement face-to-face meetings with e-mail, telephone or skype when needed. I have no strong feelings about whether to meet in an office, coffee shop or other place. The advantage of meeting in my office is that I have various resources close to hand on my bookshelves.

Once we have established the rhythm of our working relationship, I expect students to provide something in writing before each meeting. In the early days, this might just be notes on what they have been reading, dot points, a draft outline of a chapter or an abstract for an upcoming conference presentation. Once they start writing up, though, they will send me draft sections of chapters. I encourage them to think of these drafts as work-in-progress, as the basis for our discussions. If they submit a draft before our meeting, I try to provide feedback by the time we meet. I edit drafts quite closely for all students, particularly international students. I also expect drafts to be fully referenced right from the start. This is important for me in reading the drafts, so that I can follow up references for better understanding, if necessary. It is also important for the student, so that they are not chasing up stray references in the final hours and days before submitting their thesis.

Early on, I ask students to set out a realistic schedule for their work. In the case of honours students, this is the plan for just under a year’s work. I encourage them to write a schedule which includes having a complete draft about one month before the deadline for submission, so that we can take a month for editing and polishing. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but it is good for them to realise that a thesis is not something that can be written at the last minute – it really needs time for editing, polishing and redrafting. Similarly, I ask my PhD students to draft a schedule which involves having a complete draft at the three-year mark, leaving six months for editing, polishing and redrafting. (PhDs can go for four years, but in many cases scholarships are only for three-and-a-half years, and the timeline is particularly tight for international students.)

I try to work on the basis that the student is the one ‘driving’ the project. They are responsible for sending calendar invitations for meetings. At the end of each meeting, we will agree on a date for the next meeting, and agree on a goal for what is to be done before the next meeting. I try not to end meetings without agreeing on these commitments for the next meeting. Many universities advocate or mandate an agreement between supervisor(s) and student, which sets out the expectations with respect to frequency of meetings and other aspects of the supervisory relationship. Even if not mandated, this is an important conversation to have in early meetings.

At honours level, in particular, one may be supervising something which is not closely related to one’s own research interests. The most important thing for supervision, though, is helping the student to establish a workable regime for completing the thesis and to assist in developing writing skills (not only micro-level issues of grammar and style, but also macro-level issues of structuring a long piece of writing). It is a leap from undergraduate essays to an honours thesis, and an even greater leap from honours to a PhD thesis. This also involves encouraging the student to find their own ‘voice’ in writing.
The role of the supervisor is to provide advice and guidance on academic matters. When students are having other issues, it is good to encourage them to consult with student support advisors or counsellors, but it is ultimately the student’s decision to consult with these advisors. In some cases, it may be good to suggest students consult with learning support advisors. It is also good to keep in close contact with the honours co-ordinator or postgraduate co-ordinator. (The titles of these positions will vary from university to university.)

The supervisor-supervisee relationship is a professional relationship and not a friendship. While many supervisors and their former supervisees do go on to become friends and colleagues after the thesis, for the term of the student’s candidacy, this should be treated as a professional working relationship.

Katie Holmes (Professor, La Trobe University)

Supervision of honours or HDR students is quite different: honours is more like a sprint, HDR more like a marathon. But the supervision has some fundamentals in common.

Supervision is about a relationship. The power dynamics are skewed, but both parties have clear responsibilities. Talking about expectations up front is a very good idea. Even consider drawing up a ‘supervision contract’ that you discuss at the beginning of the supervision. It should include the responsibilities and expectations of each party. This can help keep expectations reasonable, e.g.: how regularly you meet, timeframes of the return work, how well developed you expect drafts to be, etc. If things start to go awry, or the student starts to expect more than you can deliver, you can then refer back to what had been agreed upon. The psychological dynamics in HDR supervision can be tricky; be aware that they will be there for both parties and that sometimes they might make the relationship difficult and unproductive. Most universities now expect ECRs to co-supervise a PhD to completion before they are allowed to be a primary supervisor. Make the most of this mentoring opportunity and discuss progress etc. with the more experienced staff member. A lot of research has been done on the supervisory relationship – take some time to read it and learn what works and what doesn’t.

A good supervisor offers both intellectual guidance and engagement, and usually some emotional support, but is clear about their boundaries. You are not their counsellor, or their mother/father, or friend. But it is important to know if a student is struggling emotionally or has significant life issues as it will affect their work and you might be able to direct them to appropriate help. The hardest part of a PhD is the emotional journey and students need to have good support networks in place to help them through it.

Encourage students to talk with other colleagues who might have specific expertise that is useful. Make use of the co-supervisor. Deep knowledge of the field is not necessary, but some knowledge helps. And supervisors might have to do some reading to make sure they have some grasp of the key debates or theoretical frameworks that the student is exploring.

Regular meetings, especially in the early stages, are very important. Make sure to set the time of the next meeting and what is to be done in between, before concluding a supervision meeting. I always meet in my office and ask students to email me a summary of the key points we discussed at a meeting, the next steps and the next meeting date. This way we are both clear about what has been agreed upon.

When students are commencing, I usually ask them to write a few thousand words summarising the key literature or debates in the area. This makes them engage with the historiography early on. Honours students need to start their primary research (whether Trove or interviews or archive based) early, but not so early that they don’t know what they are looking for or what questions to ask. Starting to write early and often is important. As the student progresses, set clear writing deadlines with them. There is a lot of pressure on students and staff for ‘timely completions’. If progress is unacceptably slow, there are often mechanisms such as progress panels where this can be addressed, and the onus is not just on the supervisor to make this call.

Don’t be hesitant about asking for help if you are worried about a supervision. Hopefully you will have more experienced colleagues who can offer advice. It’s better to swallow your pride and seek guidance, than allow a student who is not progressing well to flounder.

Simon Ville (Senior Professor, University of Wollongong)

Try to get experience as a second supervisor alongside a more experienced primary supervisor if at all possible. At first, meet in your office rather than a more informal or public location. Set out expectations from the beginning – most universities have a first meeting document that you can use. Ensure regular meetings occur, especially during the early stages of the candidature, and monitor your student’s progress.

How much should you know about the student’s topic? It depends, especially whether you are the primary or secondary supervisor. You will need to make your own judgement of how great an ability the student has to work independently. Be careful not to do too much – you shouldn’t be doing research for a student. Ensure that they respond to your written feedback, and be clear about their strengths and weaknesses.

Frank Bongiorno (Professor, Australian National University)

Supervisions – whether of Honours or Higher Degree Research students – are potentially intense and personal exercises. You do need to have good social skills to do it well; it’s not just about being ‘academic’ in a narrow sense. You need to be able to reassure, when reassurance is needed, but also to push someone along a little when they’re not meeting deadlines and falling behind. I usually supervise in my office, but on occasion, if things are going well with the candidature, we might sometimes meet over a coffee somewhere. But be sensitive to the possibility that there will sometimes be confidential or difficult matters that should only be dealt with in your office.

If the student is working in a way that’s not using your time effectively – for instance, you’re getting a barely revised draft a week after the last supervision – you need to say so. This kind of interaction can be hard because we’ll always be ignorant of many of the things going on in a student’s life, but it also has to be faced when things are not going well. Honours students, in particular, cannot afford to repeatedly go missing, or to wander off on a four-week research journey that goes nowhere. So it’s important to meet regularly, keep monitoring progress and intervene when necessary. In the end, it’s their project, not yours, but you do have a duty to warn on occasion, as well as support and share expertise. And keep an eye on whether they have all the support they need. Are there resources in the wider university that might help them? For research students, is their panel well-balanced, offering a range of perspectives and expertise?

At the beginning, agree to some ground-rules. How often will you meet? What do you expect of the student in the early period? A regular report? A formal agenda for each meeting? It’s best to make this explicit, and then to stick to it unless you mutually agree to change it for some reason. Probably not very long after a student starts their research, they’ll have more expertise on the topic than you. Don’t be intimidated. You have both knowledge and skills that your student won’t have, and these are often more valuable than lots of specialist expertise on the topic. The reality for most of us in Australian public universities is that we will have to supervise topics that are at right angles to our expertise. Of course, you will sometimes need to say: ‘I don’t think I have sufficient expertise to supervise this thesis’. But you also need show a reasonable flexibility because there are usually many more students than staff, and the topics being pursued will range widely.

Supervision can be incredibly rewarding, so it’s worth investing the time and effort in improving one’s performance. It’s also among the most difficult things we do as history academics. I’m always conscious of learning on the job.

Andrea Gaynor (Associate Professor, University of Western Australia)

Most Universities now mandate co-supervision so with any luck you will start out by co-supervising a student alongside a colleague with a reputation for excellent supervision. A good supervisor is one who gives the student room to develop the project and make it their own, while the student knows that the supervisor has their back and can be relied upon to provide good advice and feedback. It is important to have a discussion at the outset about expectations, and develop a mutually satisfying way of working together. This includes setting limits around the reading of draft work, and establishing who has responsibility for initiating the paperwork associated with the program, as well as scheduling meetings.

Regular meetings are a must. Some people have a set day and time at regular intervals; others set the schedule according to the timeline for submission of written work. It is best to insist that prospective students have adequate preparation for the degree and time taken to establish this at the outset is generally well spent. It should become apparent within the first 12 months of a full-time PhD candidature whether the student is up to the task; if not, it is better to move to either downgrade to a lower degree or terminate the candidature than allow the process to drag on for potentially another three years or more with heartache on both sides and an uncertain outcome; how this is done will depend on institutional rules and processes. While early changes are possible, the topic should be well established by the end of the first (full-time equivalent) year and major changes after that point are likely to interfere with timely completion. At least one of the supervisors should have some broad expertise in the topic but even non-expert supervisors can provide useful input in the form of critical review of written work, suggestions for methods and approaches transferable from other areas, and general research mentoring.

Stuart Macintyre (Emeritus Professor Laureate, University of Melbourne)

(André’s note: I am not impartial here. The first person I thought to ask when seeking input for this entry was Stuart. He was my PhD lead supervisor and the experience was, in a word, excellent.)

A good supervisor is supportive, encouraging, provides timely advice, is realistic, encourages the candidate to fulfil their potential. I don’t think it is necessary to have direct expertise on the topic; indeed, too close a knowledge can smother the candidate and restrict the rewards of discovery as well as the opportunity to come to their own understanding of the topic.

At the outset, I think it is important to ask the candidate how it is they decided to embark on the thesis, and how it fits within their career intentions. An honours student might well have no intention of pursuing postgraduate research; a postgraduate might not be wanting to pursue an academic career. But if they articulate their expectations, then it is possible to get them to see the thesis as more than an exercise in research and writing, and to think about the possibilities for acquiring ancillary skills, dissemination, and collegial life. That’s also the time when the supervisor should make clear their own knowledge and interest.

My own practice is to conduct supervisions over coffee in a quiet corner of the staff club, but I’m conscious there might be occasions when greater privacy is needed. A first step is to set the frequency of meetings, and keep to it, while emphasising that email and other opportunities should be used to maintain contact.

Both supervisor and candidate need to be clear about their mutual expectations; that is where questions of excess on both sides can be resolved. And the same holds for habits and style. Some candidates submit rough drafts; that is fine but I think it important to emphasise you want to see finished prose and finished references as soon as possible. Quick feedback is paramount.

The supervisor is familiar with the tasks of planning and execution. The candidate has probably never before attempted to write a thesis of this length and will benefit from advice on practical aspects such as bibliography, the search for sources, note-taking and the logistics of the exercise.

It is critical to win the candidate’s confidence. My most difficult supervisions have arisen where the candidate comes with predetermined conclusions and resists consideration of alternatives. All too soon you find a resistance to consider the alternatives and an excessively polemical treatment of the literature that does not accord with the candidate’s predilections; indeed, you find yourself seen as an obstacle to the thesis the candidate is determined to write.

A supervisor plays the role of the experienced researcher looking over the shoulders of the candidate as they enter into the process of intellectual discovery. The candidate will almost invariably acquire a detailed knowledge of the topic that surpasses that of the supervisor – that is one of the rewards of supervising research. The supervisor will contribute guidance on the practical skills of writing a thesis, time management, facilitating the research (field trips, advice on seminars and conferences, advice on professional development, etc.). Most of all, it is a partnership that sustains the discipline.

One comment

  1. Pingback: New AHA ECR Blog : Student Supervision – The Australian Historical Association

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