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A framework for supervisor training/enhancement

This section of pages is 'For Management' which is a shorthand for anyone who has responsibility or oversight for the supervision of postgraduate research students (also known as graduate research students). Typically such individuals are likely to be senior academics or training personnel.

The suggestions and recommendations here represent my personal views in the light of my experience in the hope that these may be of some use to others.

‘Training’, ‘development’, support’, ‘enhancement’, 'updating' – what’s in a name?

Being a supervisor1 to research students is primarily a professional matter as far as preparation for the job is concerned. It is only indirectly an academic one. Certainly appropriate academic expertise is essential, but individuals who supervise should not have been given the task by their institutions if their academic credentials in the field concerned were not up to standard.

Assuming that individuals do have appropriate academic expertise and are relatively new to research degree supervision, they need to be inducted into the profession. For this, in my view, what is needed is 'training'. Furthermore such individuals generally want and demand 'training'.

Perhaps understandably, more experienced supervisors holding what are normally high academic qualifications, tend to feel unhappy at the idea of being 'trained', which they regard as patronising. Hence the upsurge of terms like 'development', 'support' and 'enhancement'. Where the supervisors really have been supervising effectively for years, my preferred term is 'updating'.

The QAA2 which regards itself as having the "job to uphold quality and standards in UK universities and colleges" has become quite circumspect in its terminology:

[Supervisors] will wish, and institutions will require them, to engage in development of various kinds to equip them to supervise students. New supervisors will participate in specified development activities, arranged through their institutions, to assure their competence in the role.

Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, Section 1: Postgraduate research programmes, September 2004, p143

Terminology used in this group of pages

For ease of reading, the single term 'training' is used on these pages. However, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". So do use whatever term is most acceptable in your institution for the supervisors concerned in the light of their experience and what seems acceptable to them - see above. Whatever this term is, please read it wherever these pages use the term 'training' in connection with research degree supervisors.

The three components of a supervisor training programme

If you go along with me that senior academic staff and training personnel are primarily in the business of professional training where research degree supervisors are concerned, it makes sense to look for guidance on professional training rather than on academic education.

Such guidance exists. As endorsed by the Great and the Good in UK higher education4, all professional training should rest on a framework of three supports:

I have modified the terminology slightly, without I believe, changing the meaning. Indeed it is the terminology used by the professional body for teachers in higher education teachers SEDA5 and the BBSRC6 TAPPS scheme.

© Pat Cryer


1 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.

The following links were current at the time of preparing this page, but may not be now. If not a search engine should find the latest versions.

2 QAA is the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK. See www.qaa.ac.uk

3 www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Documents/postgrad2004.pdf

4 The undated Professional Standards Framework was developed by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on behalf of Universities UK (UUK), the Standing Conference of Principals (SCOP) and the UK higher education funding councils after consultation with the higher education sector. See www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/ourwork/professional/ProfessionalStandardsFramework.pdf

5 SEDA stands for the Staff and Educational Development Association. See www.seda.ac.uk

6 BBSRC stands for Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.