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The 'professional knowledge' component of supervisor training

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.

'Professional knowledge' is the first of the three components of professional training.

For ease of reading, the single term 'training' is used on these pages, but do use whatever term is most acceptable in your institution. For a discussion on alternative terminology, see the Basics page.

Knowledge of the discipline

Knowledge of the subject matter of the discipline relating to the research that is being supervised is of course essential. However that should be a fundamental requirement of employment as an academic and a supervisor, and is a matter for the employing institution. If supervisors1 should be deemed inadequate in this respect, then the solution lies with redeployment or additional academic education.

Professional knowledge for research degree supervision

For the training of professionals, the 'professional knowledge' is the knowledge required to practise professionally, in this case as a supervisor of students on research degree programmes - see Table T1.

Table T1: Minimal professional knowledge for new and inexperienced supervisors
  • institutional regulations on postgraduate issues - ie what they encompass and how to find what is in them,
  • national codes of practice on postgraduate issues (which in the UK come from the QAA)2, and,
  • codes of practice for research in the discipline or disciplines concerned, where they exist (normally published by professional bodies).

Additions are needed for the updating of more experienced supervisors, management and training personnel, e.g. relevant trends, government policies and working group reports, etc.

Incorporating 'knowledge' into a training programme

The traditional way of imparting knowledge is of course through lectures, and these do have a place in a supervisor training programme - because they can be inspirational, particularly if the speaker is someone high up in the institutional hierarchy and a good speaker. They can also generate useful discussion. However it is well-known that much of what people hear in lectures is forgotten soon afterwards.

Individualised learning from a book or other medium has much to offer for busy supervisors, in that they can work on it in their own (increasingly little) spare time and at their own pace. The problem of course, again, is how much of this learning sticks.

A good way forward in my experience is to produce on-line tests on the regulations and national codes of practice. Software suitable for presentation and assessment is readily available. The institutional IT officer should be able to advise. The title of 'self-tests' seems more acceptable than 'tests' to supervisors who tend to feel that they should have left 'being assessed' well behind them.

To overcome simple guesswork when taking such tests, multiple choice questions with more than one right answer are ideal.

Provided that the IT officer is on hand to advise on the software, such tests are not difficult or particularly time-consuming to devise, although care must be taken to keep them up-to-date as regulations change.

Supervisors are busy people, and increasingly so. So if they are to take the tests, there need to be carrots and sticks. As most supervisors seem to want to have research students, because it helps with their own research, one way forward is to require them to take the tests every two or three years in order to be allowed to supervise.

I have no experience of self-tests on codes of practice for particular disciplines, but find that supervisors tend to feel positively about interacting with anything that relates to their own discipline.

© 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 link was current at the time of preparing this page, but may not be now. If not a search engine should find the latest versions.

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