Postgraduate student supervision workshop


A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on postgraduate supervision, presented by some of the more experienced research supervisors on campus. While I couldn’t stay for the full session, I did manage to see two of the presenters. Here are the notes I took.

Introduction (Prof. Ramesh Bharuthram)

All academics will be required to complete a 6 month course in teaching and learning from next year onwards.

As academics we need to have a profile that demonstrates leadership in a niche area that inspires confidence in students who are interested in postgraduate studies. We need to develop a track record in student supervision and publication that draws students to want to study and develop under your supervision.

You need to lead from the front.

The student-supervisor relationship is embedded within the structure of the institution and is beyond the personal relationship between people.

The role of the supervisor for successful postgraduate research supervision (Prof. Meshach Ogunnyi)

They may come to the supervisor thinking that they have an idea of what they want to study, but have not yet read widely and deeply enough. They need to begin with literature and have a deep understanding of what they are looking at. They need to be embedded in the discourse of the discipline, which can be achieved through reading the literature and discussion.

We need to think of the relationship on human terms. They should feel comfortable in your home, spending time with your children, cooking together. However, the boundaries of the relationship should ensure that familiarity does not breed contempt.

We also need to be able to counsel students who are facing crises in their lives. When students have real problems in their lives, it is unlikely that their research will make much progress. We need to understand that students are embedded within families who also need their time and input.

Students confidence and sense of self is often lacking and they need to be nurtured and encouraged when they are down and struggling. You must be strong so that you can drive the process, but flexible to be able to adapt when students will not respond positively.

Being able to write well is absolutely essential. The ability to present ideas simply and well is a foundation of doing good research. Academic, as well as English, literacy must be developed and guidance needs to take this into account. Make use of the Writing Centre to help students develop their language skills.

The ideal student-supervisor relationship for successful postgraduate research supervision (Prof. Tammy Shefer)

Important to note there is no “ideal” relationship. Every relationship with a student will be different. Some students need more / less structure, no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Discuss expectations with students and find ways to work together e.g. decide how to communicate, when to meet, etc.

Essential for supervisors to constantly be reflecting on their process.

The goal of supervision is not only a successful thesis and graduation, it is also about induction into scholarly communities of practice and the formation of identity and practices.

There is an assumption that undergraduate students will be able to transform themselves independently into researchers without careful guidance.

Components of the relationship:

  • Student-centred: student as active agent in their own learning (the facilitation and development of empowerment and agency in the student)
  • PG student inducted into scholarly and research identity
  • Transition student-teacher relationship into a peer relationship
  • Complicated negotiation of roles and responsibilities

There needs to be an understanding and appreciation of the student context and their individual challenges, as well as being sensitive to the power relationship where the bulk of the power rests with the supervisor.

Students need to have an understanding of the limitations of the supervisor, especially in terms of when they can expect to receive feedback.

Set clear boundaries with students and ensure that they know what your limitations are.

Maintain regular contact with them even if only an email to catch up. Ensure that the process is transparent.

Consider joint / group supervision where students can assist and guide each other. Breaks the isolation and provides a sense of community where students can share and discuss ideas and challenges. Helps them learn new skills e.g. presentation and argument. However, this requires that students are at least working in similar areas.

Try to draw students into existing collaborative research projects, as it can be a valuable learning framework for PG research.

Ensure that you understand the process so that you can help students understand how their work will move through the system, from registration to final submission. It can be difficult for the relationship if students miss deadlines that the supervisor should have been aware of.

Do not assume that the student is disembodied. They have aspirations and dreams and full lives that they’re involved in.

Be careful of editing your students work. You run the risk of changing their ideas as well as their words. Also, they need to actively engage with the process and find their own voice.

They also need to make their own choices about how best to present themselves and when we change their work from a position of authority, they may not challenge it.

Supervision is a journey and not a task. It’s not just about “going the distance”.

Basic presentation skills for postgraduates

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation to our postgraduate students who were preparing to submit their Masters proposals. One of our requirements in the department is that any student wanting to submit a proposal must present to the the department for critical feedback. We want our proposals to be as strong as possible when they serve at our faculty Higher Degrees committee. Many of our postgraduate students come from other African countries, and very often have formally presented before. I was asked to give a short presentation giving them a few tips on academic presentations.

I wanted to step out of the linear, bullet point style of presenting that Powerpoint defaults to, so decided to try Prezi for a change. I’d played around with it a few years ago but struggled with the interface. This time I found it more agreeable and enjoyed playing around with it. It is a bit all over the place and the spacing doesn’t always work but anyway, here’s the presentation:

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-01-10

Discussion on research supervision

In my department we have bi-monthly research meetings, where we report back on our research activities (we get dedicated research time and so need to account for how we’ve used that time). We’ve recently changed the format of the meeting to include a topical discussion or presentation, rather than simply reporting progress back to the group.

Today was our first session in this new format and we discussed some of the issues around supervision. Everyone in the department is responsible for supervising either a group of 4th year physiotherapy students as they go through the process of conducting a research project, or a group of postgraduate students who are working on their degrees. Here are some notes I took during the session.

Contracts are useful, not only between the supervisor and student, but between the students themselves (in cases of group research). We often find that some students don’t participate or contribute to the process as much as the rest of the group, which has the potential to cause conflict, especially when marks are involved. While conflict does give the opportunity to work through conflict management processes with the group (not desirable, but still a learning opportunity), a contract that outlines responsibilities, roles, expectations, accountability and consequences, may go some way to reducing it’s likelihood.

The issue of supervision style was raised, and it was pointed out that often supervisors will have a different way of approaching supervision. In addition, students have different ways that they want to be supervised. It seems that managing expectations in terms of communicating personal preferences is important to begin with, and probably to keep reviewing during the process.

As a research supervisor, it’s important to have prepared a plan for moving the project forward. At PhD level, it’s largely the responsibility of the student to manage this, but undergraduate and Masters students (generally) aren’t ready to completely manage their own projects. One useful project management tool that was suggested was to use Gantt charts to plan the project over time.

Finally, we need to go over what “academic writing” actually means. Students are often under the impression that it’s about using big words and complicated sentence structure, when all we’re really looking for is argument construction and defense. Academic writing is about conveying ideas in simple language, something our students don’t always understand.

I enjoyed the session, and although it lacked structure, it gave us the opportunity to discuss the issues faced during the supervision process. It’s always nice to be able to draw on the experience of professors and seasoned researchers, and I’m looking forward to our next sessions. I’ll be presenting a session on systematic reviews with a colleague in 2 weeks time, and will be putting that up here too.

Edit: I just had a colleague point out that we also discussed the role of feedback in supervision. I haven’t included those details in this post, because I have a more comprehensive post dealing with feedback that I’m working on at the moment, which can be found here.

Research development workshop: why do research?

I’m attending a research development workshop on campus for all staff members who are just beginning their PhD’s. I’ll post my notes here as we progress.

Why engage in research?

  • It’s expensive (manpower, finance, cost, equipement)
  • Dependent on motivation, commitment, hard work, ability, enthusiasm
  • BUT…
  • It enhances learning and intellectual development of staff
  • Keeps staff abreast of current developments
  • Allows interactions with peers from other institutions
  • Through collaborative programmes, it promotes institutional interactions, generating a source of funding
  • Promotes interaction with parastatal organisations e.g. NRF
  • Contributes to RDP of the country
  • Contributes to the development of a strong PG school
  • Transforms the approach to learning → allows you to engage in parallel thinking

Mechanics of the process

  1. Honours, or Basic Science degree → enthusiast with focus on higher education
  2. Masters → to get a Masters without going through to PhD is a “tragedy”
  3. PhD

Selecting a topic

  • Self choice by virtue of preference
  • Have a general idea of fields of interest e.g. curriculum development
  • No particular preference, explore what’s available
  • Theoretical or experimental / practical

Critical factors for success

  • Self motivation (since one is not driven by examination) → weekends and evenings
  • Choice of supervisor
    • Expert in the area
    • Must give guidance
    • Must inspire the student
    • There must be a relationship that goes beyond the research topic
    • Must be able to agree to regular meetings that have set objectives
  • Work consistently

Benefits of conducting research

  • Develops you as an academic
  • Allows you to engage with your peers more confidently
  • Allows you to rationalise research programmes
  • Promotes inter-departmental / institutional interaction
  • Harness internal and external funding for research, as well as for attending conferences
  • Research reward funds