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Towards a curriculum for 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.

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.

Institutions have a responsibility to train their new supervisors1 and update their more experienced supervisors. The question is, 'What is the best way of doing so?'

For both groups, attention needs to be paid to the knowledge, skills and values appropriate for research supervision.

Below are some suggestions. Please remember that, in giving them, my intention is to stimulate your thinking on what is best for your supervisors in your institution and not to attempt any imposition.

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures and seminars

The traditional way of 'teaching' is through lectures - or any such activity whereby someone with knowledge tells others about it, with or without visual aids. However, academic research degree supervisors all have different timetables and increasingly deleterious calls on their time. So it is almost impossible to timetable lectures unless they are put into weekends or vacations. Furthermore, most of what is heard in lectures is forgotten soon afterwards without reinforcement activities - of which more below.

In my view, the main advantage of lectures for staff at this level is motivational. A good address by someone at a high level within the institution or even from a reputable outside organisation, can certainly inspire, and is worth having on an occasional basis. Training personnel bought in from outside the institution can also motivate but more often than not, reactions seem to be that they, "Clearly don't know how we do things here".

Where it is considered appropriate for someone to address supervisors on a more regular basis, my preference is for seminar style activities with opportunities for discussion and mutual support, and for the individuals giving the seminars to be respected members of the home institution. They need not always be academics. Indeed someone from the Registry or Legal Team would be appropriate for some topics. Senior academics tend to be pleased to be asked to present such seminars because it reinforces their perceived status of experience. The preparation also contributes to their own updating in a way that is acceptable to them.

All supervisors, irrespective of their experience, need the knowledge referred to on the knowledge page. This is as true for experienced supervisors as for new and inexperienced ones because regulations and codes of practice change. You may prefer to use lectures and seminars for this. Experienced supervisors merely need updating, whereas new and inexperienced supervisors probably have to start from scratch. The knowledge is definitive. Finding out about it is relatively mechanistic, which is why I favour self-tests. It is for the skills and values that seminars and the occasional inspirational lecture come into their own.

Reading and individualised learning/self-study

Research degree supervisors are highly intelligent and educated academics. So reading and other self-study methods comes naturally to them, and they do them well. Furthermore they can be fitted into spare slots of time and worked through at individuals' own pace.

Given the motivation and the time, reading and self-study are ideal for training and updating research degree supervisors. But time is in such short supply that other things crowd out the motivation. Hence the need for rewards and awards.

Essays and reports

It is the task of individuals designing or running the training to provide the learning opportunities, and in so doing they may like to bear in mind something a psychologist told me when I was quite a young academic. He said, "There is no learning without emotion". Over the years I have come to realise how right he was. The greater the quality of the learning, the greater the emotion accompanying its generation and vice-versa.

I am not suggesting that training should include memorable antics as they are normally only remembered as the antics rather than the accompanying 'wisdom'. I do feel, though, and educationalists generally agree, that learning opportunities should be designed to encourage learners to ponder over what they are learning. The accepted term is 'personal reflection'.

Essays and reports, etc encourage personal reflection. Indeed they cannot realistically be written without it, and they are an essential part of an accredited training programme for supervisors.


On the Basics page, I argued that the training of research degree supervisors is primarily a professional activity rather than an academic one. An accepted way of assessing professionals is through a portfolio of their work. Accordingly I believe that a training programme for supervisors which carries recognition or accreditation should incorporate the development of a portfolio.

The evidence displayed in the portfolio should be evidence of a supervisor's competence on various tasks associated with the supervision. Where the portfolio is to carry an academic assessment as well as a professional one, the relevance of the evidence to the knowledge, skills and values should be argued for and appropriate literature should be cited.

Advice on portfolio design and creation is in the section for supervisors.

Considerations for curriculum design

A  course or module for research degree supervisors probably needs thinking about under the following or similar headings:

My own experience is with short courses run in higher education institutes and universities; with single modules run within longer programmers; and with complete programmes containing a choice of several modules. Possibilities for these modules are:

You will probably be able to think of others and of suitable choices and pathways through. All would work well with an assessment on a portfolio but its precise coverage would need to be orientated to the differing learning outcomes and accordingly to the different areas of activity in which skills are to be claimed.

© 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'.