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The 'professional skills' 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 skills' is the second of the three components of professional training.

What is a skill?

Broadly speaking, a skill is the ability to do something well within minimal time and with minimal effort.

For example, a skilled typist, can type a report quickly and accurately, probably without even looking at the keyboard, whereas an unskilled person would have to keep looking for keys and would probably press the wrong ones by mistake. The typing would be awkward, would require excessive concentration and would take an excessive time. It might still get done eventually, but the final product would almost certainly have an amateur look about it. Typing is an example of a skill which is largely manual, and it is given as an example here because it explains the idea of a skill so well. However there are other types of skills.

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.

Skills also be interpersonal and intellectual. For example a skilled speaker can comparatively effortlessly hold an audience spellbound; an unskilled speaker might have a go, but the task would consume a great deal of preparation time and emotional energy, and would probably not be received particularly well by the audience anyway.

The straight division of 'skilled' and 'unskilled' is of course an over-simplification, as there are varying degrees of skills-proficiency.

What professional skills does a research degree supervisor need?

No list of the skills that a research degree supervisor1 needs can ever be definitive or complete. Table T2 shows some examples which you will want to extend and modify for supervisors in your institution.

Table T2: Core professional skills for research supervisors

A skilled research degree supervisor should be able to work effectively in the following areas of activity:

  • playing an appropriate part in ensuring that the student, the supervisor, supervisory team and research topic are suitably matched
  • guiding the student in developing a research proposal that is suitable for the award concerned
  • agreeing an appropriate supervisory process
  • using an appropriate range of teaching and supervisory skills to ensure the studentís education, attainment and professional development
  • providing appropriate support to the student on academic and pastoral issues
  • using an appropriate range of methods to monitor and assess student progress and attainment
  • reflecting on their own practice, and assessing and planning for their future needs and continuing development as a research supervisor and researcher.

How can a research degree supervisor's skills be developed?

As already mentioned, the straight division of 'skilled' and 'unskilled' is an over-simplification, as there are varying degrees of skills-proficiency. No-one can ever be perfectly skilled. Skills have to be developed over time, and training alone in any of its forms can do no more than alert supervisors to what the skills of research degree supervision are.

The acknowledged way of developing any skill is a never-ending and cyclic process of:

The task of whoever is designing or offering the training is to provide opportunities for supervisors to know what the skills are that they need to develop, and to explain the above process of skills development.

Personal reflection on performance plays a crucial part. There are ways to encourage reflection. For the way that I have been most involved with, see rewards and awards.

Feedback can be received in various forms. One of the most appropriate for supervisors is to watch and analyse reactions to their practice, either from their students and/or from other supervisors in a supervisory team. Personally I am not in favour of student questionnaires, which tend to ask the wrong questions and put students in difficult positions if they answer honestly.

© 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'.