Supporting research students: A guide for supervisors

Introduction

Supervising a research student can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your academic career, intellectually, professionally and personally. It can also be daunting, particularly if you are new to supervising or if you encounter challenges outside your domain of expertise.

The following is meant as a practical guide for supervisors and as a signpost to University resources and procedures that support research students. It deals mainly with non-academic matters, but also touches on some academic matters of a general nature. It is intended to complement the Regulations and Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes, referred to in what follows as the Code of Practice. It is not meant as an alternative version thereof. Questions about formal regulations and procedures must always be referred to the Code of Practice, which takes primacy over this guidance.

There is one golden rule which summarises this guidance: If you're concerned about your student and are not sure what to do, ask for help. 

Supervisors are not expected to sort everything out on their own. You will have colleagues in your school, faculty and in the University who will know how to help with issues you may not be familiar with, for example to do with accommodation, funding, physical and mental health, training, careers advice outside your discipline, etc. 

As a supervisor, your primary responsibility is to provide academic mentoring to your student; this is the cornerstone of postgraduate research education. But another important responsibility is to serve as a point of contact between your student and the University. If your student is experiencing difficulties, then by alerting the relevant University staff at an early stage, you will help to ensure that they get the best and most timely help and support. 

It is important to realise that all research students have, in addition to their main supervisor, at least one other supervisor. The role of each member of the supervisory team may vary depending on the project and on the circumstances of the particular student. Clarifying your role and involvement at the start of the period of study is essential and this should be achieved by means of an open discussion between the supervisory team and the student.

If such difficulties should arise, you should approach the School PGR Director (or equivalent), and, for non-academic matters, a member of staff with a pastoral or wellbeing role. Others who might be helpful are experienced colleagues, your Postgraduate Administrator, and your Head of School, Faculty Education Manager, and Faculty PGR Director.

The guidance below is organised broadly around the student lifecycle.

At the start

If you are supervising a student new to the University, keep an eye on how they are settling in. Arrange regular meetings. Ask, as appropriate, whether there are any problems with, for example, accommodation, funding arrangements, and balancing caring responsibilities and/or employment outside the University with their studies. Non-UK students may face particular challenges - adapting to a new country and culture and using English if it is not their first language. If you have any concerns, seek advice from your School PGR Director (or equivalent)or from a member of staff with a pastoral or wellbeing role. Do also check that the student is joining in the academic life of their research community in the expected way. Are they attending the right lectures, group meetings, seminars?

At the start of a research degree and at appropriate times thereafter, you should discuss your student’s expectations, as well as yours: what they hope to get from their research degree, what they expect of you as supervisor, and what you expect of them.

Supervisory meetings

"How frequently should I meet with my student?   Should notes be kept?  Who is responsible for keeping notes?" 

There is no fixed rule about the frequency of supervisory meetings - this will depend on many factors: the nature of the discipline, the stage of the project, individual preferences, etc. The Code of Practice (Section 5) specifies that formal meetings should normally take place at least monthly. It is good practice for notes to be kept of all meetings, and this is required for formal meetings. It is the student's responsibility to take the notes, but supervisors should ensure that this is happening.

"I'm going to be away for a time.  What do I need to do about my students?"

If you will be out of contact for an extended period, you should let your School PGR Director (or equivalent)know, so that temporary supervision can be put in place if needed – as per the Code of Practice (Section 5). If you will be away but in remote contact with your student, say by email or video conferencing, you should still let your School PGR Director (or equivalent)know. It is important that your student knows whom to approach in the University if any problems should arise during your absence; this could be the second supervisor, for example. If you have concerns about your student's academic progress or wellbeing while you're away, you should tell your School PGR Director (or equivalent)immediately.

Annual progress monitoring

As stated in the Code of Practice (Section 6), all research students are required to have their progress reviewed annually. As a supervisor, you should ensure you are able to advise your students on this process and ensure they are actively engaging with it in a timely manner. You will be expected to contribute to the process by commenting on your student’s progress and highlighting any concerns or issues you have. In your comments, please make note of any issues that are outside the control of the student that may have a subsequent impact on the timely submission of the final dissertation.

Financial matters

As stated in the Code of Practice (Section 4), it is understood that research students may undertake paid work whilst doing their degree; for many students, this is necessary to support their studies. Students are also expected to work on their research at a rate commensurate with their registration status (i.e., full-time, half-time, etc.). As supervisor, you should discuss work commitments with your student. Your faculty or school may have guidance about how much work students should take on, as well as restrictions on the amount of paid University employment. 

Research students are eligible to apply for a travel grant from the Alumni Association.

Information about tuition fees and stipends as well as funding advice can be found on the Student Funding Office pages.

Personal and professional development

Personal and professional development for research students encompasses a range of training, from the discipline focused to the broadly aimed.  

As a supervisor, you, alongside the postgraduate team in your school, have primary responsibility for your student's academic training. Given your disciplinary expertise, this should be relatively straightforward to undertake. Do remember to consider not only training geared specifically to their research project but their more general development as researchers. This can be achieved through participating in seminars, workshops and conferences; presenting their work, both within the University and externally, as well as engaging with current literature and active scholars in their field. The annual progress review provides an opportunity for colleagues to suggest academic training that might benefit your student.

Training outside a student's academic discipline can also be very valuable. The University offers a wide spectrum of courses covering, for example: project management, IT skills, applied foreign languages, innovation and enterprise, teaching, public engagement, and mindfulness and well-being.

These courses are coordinated by the Bristol Doctoral College, and are underpinned by the Personal and Professional Development Policy for Research Students (in Annex 12). This policy is in turn informed by the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, which is a national reference point in the planning, promotion and support of personal and professional development for researchers in higher education.

You are not expected to be an authority on the entirety of the University's personal and professional development offering. But through inviting your student to reflect on their own development, providing advice as you can, and encouraging them to take advantage of training opportunities, you will be giving invaluable support to the more general aspects of their postgraduate education.

Discipline-specific and broadly aimed training are complementary. Try to foster both.

Difficulties

Most supervisors know it is not uncommon for a research student to go through a difficult period in their studies, when they may lose confidence and/or motivation. Supervisors will have their own strategies for providing encouragement and support during such a period. Colleagues can often provide helpful advice. 

If difficulties persist over an extended period, say more than a few of months, it is a good idea to inform your School PGR Director (or equivalent)and to consider with them options for going forward. 

In case of academic difficulties, do ask the student if they have suggestions for different ways of working, either on their own, with you, or perhaps with other researchers with whom they are engaged. If the student would benefit from additional structure and monitoring, the enhanced academic support process, described in the Code of Practice (Section 6), might be appropriate. In the most serious cases, it might be appropriate to discuss with your student the option of transferring to another degree (for example, from a PhD to a Masters by research), or withdrawing from the programme.

For non-academic problems, including personal matters and health problems, a suspension of studies might be indicated. Another option is for the student to change their mode of attendance, for example from full-time to half-time (but be aware that normally, students can change their mode of attendance only twice).

Maintaining confidentiality

Maintaining appropriate confidentiality is vital to the dignity of the student and securing trust in the student-supervisor relationship. Personal information confided in you by your student should not normally be shared without their permission, although there may be rare circumstances where this may be necessary. You should consult and adhere to the principles in the University’s Student Services Confidentiality Statement.

It is important to be aware of whether the student is telling you information suggestive of a disability. In such cases, you should encourage the student to disclose their situation, emphasising the level of confidentiality followed by Student Services and the potential additional support they may receive.

Unexpected absences and crises

If your student is unexpectedly absent, do try to establish that they are well and to ascertain the reason for their absence. If they do not respond to attempts to contact them, you should inform, without delay, your postgraduate team (including the School PGR Director, or equivalent, and the local postgraduate administrator, as well as the Faculty Office). Likewise, if your student is acting erratically or if you have concerns about their wellbeing, you should contact your postgraduate team.

There are specialist wellbeing support available that can help students in crisis (see http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students/wellbeing/services/). Your postgraduate team will know how to engage with them so that intervention, if needed, can be arranged as quickly as possible.

Crises precipitated by physical or mental health problems may require a suspension of studies. In cases where a student is unwilling to suspend despite concerns about their health or wellbeing, the Fitness to Study Policy may be appropriate.

Career Advice

As supervisor, you will be well placed to advise your student on pursuing an academic career, including how to present their work, networking, finding postdoctoral positions and pursuing longer-term career objectives.

It is a fact, though, that most research students do not become academics, but instead pursue careers in other arenas such as education, business, industry and government. 

Many students will benefit from advice about careers in sectors other than academia. Depending on your background and experience, you may be well placed to provide such advice, or not. You can help your student by enabling them to access career advice outside your discipline. This could be through colleagues, the Careers Service, recruitment events and internships. Bear in mind that some students might be reluctant to share an interest in a career outside of academia, for fear that their supervisor might be disappointed, or that they might lose standing as a scholar. In discussions about careers, try to give your best advice without overreaching your area of expertise, and try to be open minded about choices that may lie outside it.

Plagiarism training

Your school or faculty may provide training to research students on how to avoid plagiarism, and students will have opportunities to put drafts of their written work through plagiarism detection software before submitting their dissertation. As a supervisor, you should ensure that your students feel confident about what constitutes poor academic practice and plagiarism, and that they are making trial submissions to Turnitin. Don’t just look at the percentage of matched material in the Turnitin report. A dissertation is a long document, and a single page of contiguous text taken from another source without attribution might well be serious plagiarism, even though it constitutes just a small percentage of the whole.

Submission deadlines and extensions

Submission deadlines are strict. Make sure you know when your student’s submission deadline is (there is variation across programmes), and regularly assess whether they are on track. In most cases, students should plan to submit at least six months before their submission deadline. Also, students in receipt of a stipend should usually aim to submit before their stipend finishes. If a student has funding through to their submission deadline, they should aim to have their dissertation ready to submit well in advance.

As explained in the Code of Practice (Section 6), extensions may be granted in exceptional circumstances, but an application must be made well in advance of the deadline. You should review your student’s progress no later than four months before the deadline, if they haven’t already submitted, and a request for an extension should be submitted shortly thereafter, if it is warranted.

It is the student who applies for an extension, not the supervisor.  As supervisor, you will be asked for a statement of support and to sign off on a timetable for completion.

Not having enough time to do everything in a dissertation that one had hoped is not a good reason for an extension. Students should submit by the deadline unless circumstances outside their control prevent it.

The examination

As specified by the Code of Practice (Section 5), supervisors are expected to provide feedback on their students’ written work, including their dissertation.

The detail into which supervisors review their students’ dissertations varies across and within disciplines. Ultimately, the student is responsible for the content of their dissertation. A supervisor is expected to have assessed whether the work presented is of the appropriate standard, and to convey any concerns on this score to the student before the oral examination.

As specified in the Code of Practice (Section 9), prior to the examination, supervisors should not discuss the examination with the examiners, nor send them copies of the dissertation, either printed or electronic.

Remember that the examiners’ recommendations are just that; the outcome of an examination is decided by the Research Degrees Examination Board (RDEB), which may not meet for several weeks or more after the oral examination. Once the RDEB has made its decision, you will receive a copy of the examiners’ reports. It is good practice to review the reports; supervisors say this can be extremely useful.

If your student is required to make corrections to their dissertation, you are expected to be available to provide advice and support. Students are permitted to contact the internal examiner (or the Independent Chair if there is no internal examiner) just once following the oral examination, in order to seek clarifications about the requested changes. After this contact has occurred, as supervisor you may seek further informal guidance and clarification from the examiners on behalf of your student.