How Close to Supervise?

In this blog I am pleased to welcome William Stevenson as a guest writer.

One thing a research leader needs to establish early on is how closely to supervise the members of his group, in particular how often to get updates on work in progress. I knew one group leader who got daily updates. The first thing in the morning, his group of about six would meet in his office and describe the previous day’s work. The process took about fifteen minutes, two to three minutes per person, about an hour of his time every week. Other group leaders have weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings. Many professors and some group leaders elsewhere have no set schedule for updates, adopting the “management by walking around” method of strolling through the lab and chatting with students or staff whenever they sense the need for input.

Which method works the best?
In reality, there is no one best method for supervision. The best method is the one that works best for you. Some professors and some students like a structured schedule for updates; the professor doesn’t have to worry about losing track of his student’s work and the student has a regular deadline that helps him organize his work. Other professors have sort of mind that doesn’t lose track of such matters; no matter how busy they are with teaching or administration their subconscious alerts them when it’s time for an update and then they will call the student to their office or walk through the lab to check on progress. Similarly, some students like the independence of working on their own but will freely update their professor whenever they have significant progress or encounter problems.
Some research leaders are famous for having a hands-off attitude. One professor in my graduate school was reputed to have little contact with his students. He was well regarded in his field and his students held him in awe. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” remarked a friend of mine. “They only see him when they give him their quarterly reports. That’s why his students worship him.” I suspect this analysis was an outsider’s superficial impression. The professor was pleasant and personable, the sort of boss no underling would hesitate to approach with a problem. He was there if he was needed—a mentor as much as a manager. That was his style and it worked for him. The same management style might work for you. Or it might not.

This post was written by William Stevenson, an English editor with Enago based out of the USA.


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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3 Responses to How Close to Supervise?

  1. These comments emulate the importance of the relationship within research supervision and as a research supervisor I can position myself up the end of the continuum that looks at frequent and strategic involvement with my research students. I have observed the alternate; what is often described as the ‘hands-off’ approach and which I often link to a ‘sink-or-swim’ approach.
    Because of busy schedules supervisors are often not in a position to meet with the student as regularly as the student might like. Some would even argue that this frequent meeting develops too great a dependence on the supervisor. I have also come across supervisors, who in a defense of encouraging the student’s own authorship of their dissertation also justify lack of feedback on their writing.
    There is no one best method for research supervision. One would hope that rather than adopting the hegemony of supervision which seems to me to be embedded in the supervisor hierarchy, research supervisors would adopt sound pedagogy and look at trying to offer supervision which also caters to the individual learning needs of their student.

  2. I can appreciate that there is a very tricky balance to strike, here. I’m coming at this from the perspective of a PhD student, and apart from the obvious pleasure I derive from doing my research, one of the key aspects that sold me on doing a PhD was the freedom it brings in terms of how I structure my work. Before starting my degree, I was fully intent on having as little direct supervision as possible and setting my own goals.

    One year in, that’s still true to some extent: I like setting my own targets when possible, and I think it’s a very important skill to develop to succeed as an academic (correct me if I’m wrong). But what I wished I had realised sooner is how little I actually knew of the PhD process and what it required, both on a practical and theoretical level.

    I think the way my supervisor went about our relationship was ideal. She started out by talking about my research in as much detail as possible without overwhelming me, and asking me how much supervision I wanted. She gathered pretty quickly what type of student I considered my to be, and set me free to do my thing – we met about once a month, and I set my own targets.

    About half a year in I’d managed to get completely entangled in the literature, digging deeper and deeper into it and finding an overwhelming amount of stuff that seemed “really interesting!” without a clear idea of how it added to my research. Yes, that’s a part of the process and Yes it is important, but if it wasn’t for her next step I’m not sure I would have ever stopped reading. She asked me whether I could, realistically, continue on the path I was on and still produce my literature review in 4 months – my honest answer was that I couldn’t. That’s when we sat down and discussed how to proceed, and she suggested that she would help me set realistic and fruitful targets. She didn’t just step in and tell me what to do; we discuss how to proceed and set the targets together.

    This works perfectly for me, because it doesn’t feel like it impinges on my freedom. I can still set my own targets and suggest them to her, and she can either approve or suggest modifications. I don’t know if this is the way she does it with everyone, but it worked wonders with me. Come to think of it, perhaps she should write a post on here… (Not that yours wasn’t good! It was, but different perspectives are always valuable!)


    • Thanks for this comment Martin. It indicates to me that you have quite a perceptive research supervisor who seems to be working to empower you. Some of the stategies you have outlined are also very pertinent to a supervisor developing their repertoire. Your comment also highlights the sometimes different agendas between a supervisor and the student regarading how tightly supervision is executed and as you say one that involves walking a tight rope. I like the sugegstion that she is supervising you in ways that seem to be congruent with your agenda and in a sense of student centredness rather than a one size fits all approach.

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