Supervising students is part of the academic role, but for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) starting out in supervision it can sometimes mean spending a lot of time without being particularly effective. The postdocs in CBCS/CEED at UQ asked the resident Chief Investigators to share their tips for student supervision, aka “What I wish I’d known when I started”. I’ve summarised the major points below, any misinterpretations are my own!
To start off - Why should you supervise students?
Because supervising students is fun! Particularly if you enjoy working with people and research, it can be rewarding. It can also benefit your career, by demonstrating that you can supervise people, have experience building a team, and increase your publication output. Importantly – it can increase the impact we have on conservation by training people to go out into the world and do good work.
1. Set expectations from the start.
When the expectations of a supervisor and a student do not match, frustration for all parties can ensue. Those in the know report that the student's expectations for what supervisors can provide have been growing in the last decade. To set the record straight, give the student a some time to think about what their expectations might be early on in their candidature, then have a dedicated meeting to discuss these. Think carefully about how much time you can commit to the student, and communicate your boundaries clearly. Expectations can be around the frequency of meetings (once a week/ fortnight is recommended), and how much help they should receive on different skills (planning, data collection, analysis, and writing).
2. Supervision is about leadership: recognise your own weaknesses
Understanding your own leadership strengths and weaknesses will make you a better supervisor. What are you leadership qualities? What are your weaknesses? A common weakness is jealousy – how do you feel if your student has a great success? Its important to be aware of how you’re feeling around your student’s and your other colleagues’ success. Other weaknesses include being a control-freak which can cause conflict. Being aware of your weaknesses enables you to manage them.
3. Find out what the student wants from their PhD experience (but realise this may change over their time).
If a student isn’t looking for a career in academia, then there may not be much point pushing them to publish non-applied science in high impact journals. Be flexible with your supervision style, and try to orient your students towards their own personal goal. When things get tense, bring the discussion back to what the student wants out of the PhD experience and how they could get there.
Racing to the finish line is not always a useful strategy, despite university processes that might drive this. Make sure you are looking after the student even if it takes a bit longer. Also, be aware that the strongest students often don’t get enough support, when support is being focussed on other students that need more help.
4. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that is universally effective.
Tailor your approach to supervision, because students are all completely different. No point trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all strategy – there isn’t a magic supervisory formula. Be aware of each student’s strengths, and where they might need more support; but also their way of operating.
5. A PhD is more than a series of papers – your supervision should reflect this.
It’s a whole course of study, and your job is to make sure the student is getting the necessary skills of investigation and research, beyond just publishing papers (or writing a thesis).
6. Work with the team.
You’re never on your own while supervising, you will always be with a panel of other supervisors and other support within the university. The supervisory panel needs to have the skills required to get the student through. Meeting with all the supervisors in one room is necessary, as lots of time can be wasted by students meeting with each supervisor alone. Try to make sure the student is including all supervisors along the way.
7. Check the student-supervisor fit before signing up.
Is it a topic you know well and are interested in? Are you qualified to supervise the student on their ideas? You should be excited about the topic. If not, you are making lots of work for yourself. Also make sure the student is qualified for the job before getting on board. Check everything first: their CV, their academic record, their papers, and project ideas. Signing up a student who doesn’t have the necessary skills (and isn’t interested or equipped to learn them) is not fair on them, or you. Finally – make sure you meet them before signing up. You’re match-making for a long-term (3-4 year) relationship. You don’t want to be stuck with someone you don’t get along with. Same goes for the other supervisors.
8. Don’t take on too many students at once (particularly when you’re starting).
This is particularly essential when things go pear-shaped – you’ll need more time to sort things out.
9. Catch issues early: meet regularly, see outlines and drafts early, discuss issues as they emerge.
It’s much easier to nut out a decent rough outline, than to read 12,000 words of text that isn’t relevant to the topic of the chapter. Don’t forget what it was like to be a PhD student. Don’t forget what it was like to get negative criticism, the first rejection of a paper. It can feel like everything crashing down, even if you think it’s an ordinary everyday occurrence. It’s important to raise any issues at the confirmation of candidature stage – this is the process for picking up issues. Don’t wait till the student is 3 years in and everything is in crisis mode.
10. Focus on quality supervision, rather than quantity
Early on in the supervisory game, you may end up putting in lots of work – and some of this might end up erring on the side of “high quantity, low quality”. For example, it is better for the student to teach themselves skills, find papers, etc; than you to spend your time on menial tasks rather than crucial supervisory needs. It might mean doing less of some things, but doing a better job of the tasks you engage in. Of course, in some cases, quality supervision might mean quantity: e.g. helping students regularly.