Monday, 15 January 2018

Supervising your First PhD

A version of this article also appeared in the Times Higher Education which you can find here.  

Many cultures have rites of passage whether it involves being sent into the wilderness for a fortnight armed only with a stick and some string or sitting opposite an internal and external examiner for your PhD viva.  Such events mark the transition to full membership of a particular group or community. Passing your PhD grants you permission to operate as an independent researcher without the need for further supervision.  PhD students can draw on many survival guides that offer advice on everything from where to begin to  how to manage your PhD supervisor.  Transitioning from the position of PhD student to that of PhD supervisor tends to garner less attention, but not everyone manages the transition gracefully.  Here are five things that can help you become an effective supervisor.

Begin at the beginning
As an experienced researcher, PhD supervision gives you a chance to share the accumulated wisdom of your own PhD journey and anything else that has followed.  However, you need to start at ground zero with each new student to help build a shared sense of what good practice looks like.  Take a small batch of seminal papers and agree to read them before swapping notes.  This simple step will allow you the chance to demonstrate how to scrutinise the key ideas, assumptions, limitations and contributions that each author or authoring team make in their paper.  Doing so in the style of a collaborative, worked example will help set a particular tone that will pay rich rewards in the months and years ahead.  Being clear about the level of depth and the practicalities of note taking is as important as showing how you approach the basic task of getting to grips with the literature.  This shouldn’t be entirely selfless.  Bear in mind that you might learn something yourself.  Your new PhD student might be a digital native who has some new-fangled means of using Faceweb on the Intertube that you haven’t yet seen.

Give the feedback you wish you’d received
Bemoaning the failings of your supervisor represents one of the most common ways of establishing rapport amongst a group of doctoral students.  They’re never there, they don’t give detailed comments, they’re always in a rush, they’ve forgotten about me, and so forth.  Whilst there is some evidence that dogs become more like their owners over time, each new supervisory relationship represents your opportunity to break the cycle.  Remember back to your own anxieties and needs as a PhD student and try to offer your new student the kind of supervision that you wish you had received.  Draw on your own supervision experiences, whether these were of being micromanaged or involved Zen-like levels of disinterest.  These formative experiences probably mean that you know what you should offer to your new student.  Be bold and strive to provide the right balance between nurturing and challenging.  Yet, whilst you’re trying to be the best supervisor you can be, you’ll also need to balance the other demands that arise in modern academic life. Maybe you’ll find yourself reflecting on the reasons they were always in a rush, never there, etc.

Don’t meddle with the space-time continuum
Even a passing familiarity with the Whovian universe, the plot of Back to the Future or anything Trekkie-related generates the firm conviction that the past should remain another country.  As a new supervisor, one of the worst mistakes you could make would be to overlook quite how inexperienced you were as a new PhD student.  Unfortunately we tend to airbrush out your early, bumbling incompetence and concentrate on the latter-day, polished professionalism that you now exhibit.  Don’t set supervisory expectations around the version of you that completed your own PhD some time ago. Rather, set them at the more modest level of the version of you that started your PhD journey even longer ago.  Visiting unrealistic expectations on your new student is a recipe for unhappiness.  You’ll be disappointed. They’ll be confused. Worse, you might meet your earlier self in a plot twist where parallel universes collide and which is unlikely to end well. 

Be patient, supportive yet demanding
Newly qualified supervisors can be amongst the most demanding because they remember the intensity of writing up and preparing for a viva.  Having recently watched their own work be subjected to unforgiving scrutiny in the context of a viva, new doctoral graduates can, in turn, impose demands when they come to supervise and/or examine.  However, a PhD is more expedition than sprint.  Try to remember this, particularly in the early months because your new student will no doubt experience plenty of false dawns and blind alleys as they grapple with the literature, realise that accessing data might be tricky and worry about their methodological preferences.  Simply being there and empathising isn’t enough either. You face the particular challenge of finding the right times and the right issues over which to demand higher quality work than your student feels that they can produce. Done well this will later be recounted as providing inspiration. Handled badly, you’ll be constructed as the uncaring task master that made the whole thing unnecessarily tense. 

Notice your own foibles

It is natural for us to develop particular quirks and irks in our reading, reviewing and supervising.  Mine are research questions and contribution statements. I can’t help myself poking and prodding at these in search of either weaknesses and inconsistencies, or in a more benign sense, eloquence and guile.  As you offer feedback on written work, draft presentations, posters and the like, see if you can spot common themes. What piques your interest? What drives you to distraction? Ask your students to share your feedback on their written work with each other.  It is likely that they will spot the common themes for you.  In part, this reflection might help you think about your own development.  Once you know the common themes, it is incumbent on you to offer some exemplars when students ask the not unreasonable question “so what would good look like”? Cultivate a little stock pile of excellent literature reviews, contribution statements, analyses of data, etc. Have these to hand and offer them as a complement to the red ink offered in your feedback.  These examples don’t have to be in exactly the same subject area, methodological tradition or empirical context. Indeed, it may be helpful if they aren’t. They don’t even have to be particularly contemporary. But you should be able to act in the Graham Norton role whilst fronting the imaginary Channel 5 show called “top 10 research papers ever”.  

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Last Chance to Register ...

There is a free webinar running on Friday 15th December @ 11.30 (GMT) ... you can register by clicking here

Friday, 1 December 2017

Thinking About a Doctorate?

Many readers of ThePhDBlog are in the early stages of thinking about a doctoral level qualification. Indeed, the blog was originally set up to help answer many of the frequently asked questions that arose in discussions that I had with applicants to an Executive PhD programme that I used to run at a former institution ... and since then many thousands have read posts addressing pre-doctorate topics.

One of the biggest challenges potential doctoral candidates face is knowing where to start.  I'm therefore delighted to say that a pre-doctoral training programme is being run by colleagues in January 2018.  It will run at Heriot-Watt's Dubai campus and is the first in a series of sessions designed to help you move from the initial inclination to pursue a doctorate to the point of having a well-honed and workable research proposal.  Many of the themes covered in this blog such handling the literature, developing a suitable method and identifying the right supervision for you will be covered in depth and in person. It's a tremendous opportunity to start your doctoral journey on a firm footing. If you are interested in finding out more about this pre-doctoral training you can click here.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Free Webinar - Supervising a PhD for the First Time

I'm delighted to be teaming up with Times Higher Education to offer a webinar on the process of becoming a PhD Supervisor for the first time. is crammed full of advice for PhD students and in December will pass its 350,000th download.  To celebrate and to offer something to those who have been following the since 2009 this webinar offers a chance to hear the do's and don'ts ... useful for supervisors and students alike. Why not sign up here ... it is on the 15th December 2017. I look forward to seeing you there.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Excelling at University Admin

In the modern organisational landscape, universities have stood the test of time yet a quaint perception of tranquillity often colours the expectations of those with limited exposure to the sector.  They imagine ivory towers populated with academics so enthralled by the pursuit of new knowledge that they are impervious to pleas from the wider public to avoid corduroy and sandal/sock combinations. Those inside the sector see a different reality where our universities face a dynamic, challenging and globally competitive landscape of rankings and endless measurement.  Despite this, universities still tend to describe those tasks that relate to the day to day running of our organisations as “admin” with suitable connotations of Civil Service circa 1950.  Vice Chancellors may talk in terms of leadership, Lord Adonis might rail against the growing ranks of “senior management” but early career academics will most likely be invited to take on an admin role.  Here’s how to make the best of the opportunity.

See it as an opportunity
As an academic you’ll most likely be aware that someone is responsible for the allocation of your duties each year.  These duties are typically categorised under the headings of teaching, research and administration.  Whether it is your Head of Department, Subject Leader, Head of Institute or some other title, someone will have to find a “volunteer” to take on a plethora of admin duties such as course leader, year group head, programme director and the like.  Outbreaks of rampant volunteering are rare when trying to find colleagues willing to take on such tasks and therein lies the opportunity. The stark reality is that your university needs someone to fulfil these roles in order to function.  When it comes to annual review conversations and eventually to promotion, your CV will look infinitely more rounded if it demonstrates that you have the capacity to get things done. Yes, your teaching and research need to be good, but unless they are absolutely stellar you’ll be better placed to advance your career if you can point to some admin experience.  That aside, you’ll have marked yourself out from the crowd by the simple act of volunteering.

Clarify what’s expected of you
Admin roles vary in size, shape and complexity.  Don’t just say yes without any discussion. Ask what the role entails. Is there a job description? Can you speak to the current incumbent? What would “good” look like? And, how long would you be expected to hold to the role?  These questions should form the basis of a constructive discussion with whoever is asking you to take on the role.  Done badly this could be heard as a set of ransom demands by your line manager. Done well however, these questions could help shape your own career development. Be open about what you are hoping to achieve from the role and get your colleague(s) to be clear about their expectations.  If possible, ask to shadow someone who is doing the role or find a mentor who is regarded as having been a success in the role.

Chronicle your achievements
If you buy the advice that volunteering for admin roles will help you as you move forward in your career, then it follows logically that you should keep records before, during and after your tenure in such roles.  Capture some metrics as you come into the role, how many of, how long things take, how people rate the service, etc. The specifics will depend on the role but you and others will have a sense of what the key measures are (if only because you’ll have been regaled with tales of woe that reflect when and where things have gone wrong).  Set yourself the task of improving some of these measures and keep notes of what you’ve changed, who you’ve worked with to effect improvements and what evidence there is that you have delivered.  In the pre-internet era, one of my first administrative roles was that of Exams Officer.  I simplified the process that I inherited because it involved colleagues completing over 20 different forms.  My radical innovation was to use a single form that logged who approved what, and when.  Hardly ground breaking, but keeping copies of the old and the new forms allowed me to demonstrate the improvement and critically, my role in it. Simply holding a role title won’t be enough come annual review time, promotion panels or interviews. You’ll be asked what you achieved.  Better yet, if the performance measures drop off after you demit office, note these too such that you can present an heroic narrative that all was well when you were in charge.

Use the chance to learn how your industry works
Your university will likely have a turnover in excess of some Premier League football teams.  In that multi-million pound environment, money doesn’t just appear any more than Gold TEF awards or upper quartile rankings in the Times Higher simply happen. Use your involvement in the day to day running of the organisation to help build your understanding of how your industry works.  Admin roles can offer you a first chance to move beyond your own discipline to see how other parts of your own university operate and even how other universities operate. Speak to the people you meet, ask questions of your external examiners, ask your research colleagues how they execute the tasks for which you’ve been given responsibility in their institutions.  It may be that  you find that you have a talent for organizing. If so, you’ll feel yourself being sucked into that specific sub-set of academic life that leads inexorably toward greater and greater administrative responsibility.  Vice Chancellors have to start somewhere after all.  You might equally have a complete aversion to anything that takes you away from the academic purity of learning and advancing human knowledge.  Even if that is the case, you’ll be better able to interface with those who do run your university if you understand your organisation as an organisation. Even better, take the time to learn the language, syntax and grammar of the administrative conversations that influence your working environment.

Make a difference
Take a moment and realise that whatever the admin role and however low-status it may appear to you or to your colleagues, it is probably central to continued functioning of your university.  If you think something is either inefficient or fundamentally wrong with the processes for which you now find yourself responsible, do something about it.  Of course, you could shrug your shoulders and bemoan your misfortune for having taken on this particular admin role at this particular time. Ultimately though, universities don’t do things, people do.  Don’t expect some faceless “other” whether it is the faculty, the university centre, IT or even senior management to sort everything. Instead, recognise that you might be best placed to make a difference. Yes, your computer systems may still operate on punch cards. Yes, the governance structure may require you to get 7 people to sign off on the most basic decisions. Yes, you wouldn’t tolerate this level of hassle from your bank or insurance provider and you can’t believe there’s still a role for coloured carbon copy paper. But, the more impoverished the starting point, the easier it should be to make things even a little better. Make an active choice to see yourself as an advocate for better processes, systems, decisions, etc. The alternative casts you as bystander and being passive isn’t good for you, your students or ultimately your university.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

How to run a tutorial for the first time

Doctoral students are often the opportunity to dip their toes in the world of university teaching. This might be a condition of your funding e.g. when you are a graduate teaching assistant or it could represent a chance to earn a little extra money during your doctorate.  Either way, stepping over to the other side of the lecturer/student divide can be a challenge.  Here are some pointers for anyone taking their first tutorial. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

300,000 visits and counting

The PhD Blog reached a milestone today having received its 300,000th visitor ... the audience for the blog is drawn from all over the globe and readers go far beyond the boundaries of management research. It started in 2009 as a set of frequently asked questions about PhD study and has offered a resource to PhD students ever since. It is gratifying to see the blog still creating a forum for discussion and feedback on all matters PhD. This week also saw the publication of a the top sources of stress for PhD students in the UK's Times Higher Education which you can find here and summarised in the poster below.

Thanks for your continued interest in the PhD Blog.