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”.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.