Not a one-stop shop – Knowing when to refer the research student to others

There can be a sense when you are a research supervisor that you become all things to all people. An alternative mode of operation is recognising your own limits and knowing when to refer a student to another professional.

I am fortunate in my work to have a very close relationship with the Post Graduate Careers Advisor at our university. She is also a gifted Psychologist and in my many conversations with her, I have gained insight and confidence into referring a student to her, both for counselling help and for career guidance. Recognising a need to refer requires that I firstly recognise a broader agenda of the resources available at the university beyond my own scope of experience. Rather than try to be all things to all people, I have adopted a stance of having a great network and great awareness of resources that are available for research students, so that I can effectively encourage my research students to see other people and use resources other than me.

Being aware of my willingness to refer my research student to particular services and resources makes me alert to other times in the candidature when it might also be beneficial to refer my student to another service provider.

In the early stages of candidature, as a research student is developing their understanding of their topic and of the practices of research, it may be helpful to alert them to the range of resources available in the form of additional workshops. It adds to the strength of a recommendation to your student to attend one of these workshops, if in your own candidature, you attended the same or a similar workshop, so you can make the referral with personal familiarity of the workshop.

Another instance in which a referral might be useful is while a research student is formulating an understanding of their topic and setting some boundaries to their study, to encourage them to speak to other academics about their topic and gain a broader insight into understanding their topic. A colleague informed me of a model which he said was common in the Italian universities in which a research student in their first year of candidature  is encouraged to spend a year away from his designated university, talking with a person outside his supervisor, for the benefit of a different perspective.

This idea of multiple catalysts to the student’s thinking is what often directs the research supervision model of co-supervision. Having two different supervisors spreads the load and broadens the knowledge base available to the research student.

At the other end of candidature, seeking a second opinion in reading a research student’s dissertation, increases the likelihood that you are getting an objective view of the research. The longer candidature progresses, the harder it is for the research supervisor to distance themself from the student’s work, and hence, having a colleague read the draft dissertation is a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into how an examiner might  read it.

Each of these are instances of encouraging your research student to seek alternate sources of knowledge.

As a research supervisor, you may also recognise the value in your seeking outside resources. Part of the role I fulfil at my own university is to offer a service of research supervision coaching to the supervisory staff. This service involves my chatting with a research supervisor about a particular problem they are confronting in their research supervision. Often a listening ear is all that is needed to help them clarify a problem in their practice. Sometimes there is the opportunity to provide an alternate perspective on the problem, and thus open up strategies for resolving the problem that had not previously been considered. These chats are confidential, the confidentiality being an integral part, as few academics desire that their uncertainty regarding how to proceed in a given research supervision becomes known to their peers or to the research administration in their faculty.  

The commitment to supervise a student is a large and daunting one and need not be exacerbated by a belief that you have to do it all. In the long term it pays to undertake a little research of your own into the resources that are provided for research students so that you can appropriately refer when necessary.





About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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