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Informal chats versus documented supervisions

What balance should I, as a PhD supervisor*, strike between informal chats with students and formally documented supervisions?

Differing perceptions of what constitutes supervision

Many supervisor-student partners bump into each other and even work alongside each other on an almost daily basis. Interestingly, supervisors can feel that this provides their students with the type of open access which is effectively on-going supervision. Many students, on the other hand, regard the informal meetings as neither the time nor place for them to raise their own issues for discussion. Consequently, supervisor and student have a diametrically opposite perception of what is happening in terms of supervision. They need to talk openly about their needs and assumptions, and negotiate something which is mutually acceptable.

Another common difference in perception is the duration of time that supervisors spend with and on students during supervisions, due to interruptions from the telephone and calls at the door. Supervisors for whom this 'rings bells' may like to address the problem, possibly by displaying a 'busy' notice on the door and rerouting telephone calls during supervisions. Students are generally reluctant to voice their concerns on such matters because they do not want to appear rude or unaccommodating.

Setting up supervisions and satisfying institutional quality assurance procedures

Related issues are the frequency of supervisions, on what basis they should be arranged and how formally they should be conducted. It is now common practice for departments to have quality assurance procedures which define the number of supervisions to take place in a given period. Some departments require formal documentation on their own pro forma, signed by the supervisor and student, recording what takes place and the agreed action points.

Such formalised procedures have advantages, but arguments against them are that they are too rigid as on-going requirements and are administratively top heavy. What is really important, it is argued, is that supervisors are available for their students when needed, while at the same time not, themselves, being bogged down in administration. Management holding this view allow considerable autonomy to supervisors to set up supervisions however they see fit. Nevertheless supervisors, in their own interests, would be well advised to keep records to demonstrate their professionalism and to cover themselves against any unfortunate claims against them of inadequate supervision. Such claims are few, but they do happen, even to the most conscientious supervisors, and may be initiated by funding agencies as well as students.

A common way of scheduling supervisions is to put dates in diaries on the basis that they can always be cancelled if not needed. This method can give shy students confidence that their supervisor is available for them, and it can also jog the supervisor's memory to make contact if a student has been quiet for too long.

'Open door' supervisions

In general, permanently 'open door' policies for supervising students are things of the past, although 'open door' availability which is well publicised and for only a few hours per week is quite common. Supervisors have their own work to get on with, and interruptions disrupt this work far more than the duration of even a short unscheduled meeting might, on the face of it, suggest.

Preparing for supervisions

Most supervisors seem to prefer to timetable and conduct supervisions on the basis of written inputs in advance from their students, even if these are no more than points for discussion. Requiring a prior written input ensures that students put in some thought about the supervision beforehand, rather than merely expecting to arrive and see what happens.

Where supervisors do require a prior written input, it is good manners for them to look at it in advance of the supervision, rather than to keep the student waiting while they read.

Negotiations and agreements on supervision

Students' needs for supervisions vary according to the nature of the research, the ability and confidence of the student concerned, and the stage of the programme - and will be different for different supervisor-student partnerships. Differing needs have to be accepted and recognised. Then the frequency and form of supervisions can be negotiated accordingly. Where institutions require supervisors to be available for students in an emergency, further negotiation is necessary on what constitutes an emergency and how contact can be made at short notice.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer

* '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'.