Effective Research Supervision Strategies

Research Supervision Strategies to Facilitate Progression

The role of the research supervisor is to encourage, challenge and support the student as they progress through their doctoral journey. The information below will help you to encourage your research student’s writing, effectively deliver feedback, get the most out of your meetings, navigate the common challenges of research supervision, and reflect on your practice.

Encouraging writing and giving good feedback

The earlier you can get your students to submit written material the better. Writing does not have to be presented in chapter format at the early stages, and can include a variety of written materials such as:

  • summaries of meetings attended (internal and external)
  • abstracts for conference papers, local presentations (oral or written)
  • college progress reports, school presentations, project plans and ideas.

As the doctorate progresses, you should establish a pattern of written work submission, review and feedback with your student. Decide how you would like to deliver feedback, while considering how your particular student(s) may learn most effectively from this process. For example, you may be happy to review draft material, giving written feedback by email, followed by an oral discussion at a supervision session in your office. Supervisors are strongly advised to give written and timely feedback to facilitate their student’s learning and progression, and the approach to feedback should be discussed and agreed with your student at an early stage in the candidature.

For further information, refer to the Policy for Supervision of Research Degree Students.

Making meetings count

The frequency and format of meetings should be established at an early stage in the student’s candidature and adapted as appropriate during the doctoral life cycle. Frequency may be discipline-specific, but best practice recommends that supervisor-student meetings take place at least once per semester.

Meetings should be structured, with an agreed agenda (often prepared by the student) that is emailed in advance of the meeting. Ideally, one-on-one meetings should be in a private space where the supervisor can focus on the student; interruptions such as phone conversations should be avoided. Agreed workloads and schedules should be communicated by the student back to the supervisor post-meeting by email (therefore maintaining a written record). Ask your student to do this as standard practice.

Principal supervisors should be clear on the roles that each of the Research Studies Panel (RSP) play in supervising, and the principal supervisor should try to support collective meetings of the RSP for reviewing and assisting a student’s progress.

Managing common challenges

Irrespective of discipline, research supervisors encounter similar challenges during the doctoral life cycle. The list below is a non-exhaustive summary of these common challenges. 

  • Student isolation
  • Language barriers
  • Cultural differences – academic and lifestyle
  • Personal issues
  • Financial issues
  • Operational challenges
  • Inclusivity issues
  • Differing role expectations
  • Communication difficulties
  • Personality clashes

An awareness of the following approaches may help you prepare for some of the common issues that can arise.

  • Awareness of supports for students regarding language skills
  • Students new to the learning environment of university or country – developing study groups, group supervisions
  • Awareness of student counselling services
  • Clarity on expectations, roles and responsibilities of all parties – open communication as well as early and stage-appropriate discussions
  • Keeping of written records and using progress reports
  • Students and supervisors should be open to changing supervisor, adding to the RSP or changing topics
  • Awareness of student behaviour and circumstances
  • Ethics and plagiarism guidelines

If a situation escalates, UCD do have clear guidelines on conflict resolution, which supervisors and students may find helpful.

Supervisors and students should initially attempt to resolve matters locally, with each other, or with the support of the Head of School or other appropriate individual. The Graduate Research Board Representative for the School and ultimately the Deputy Registrar and Dean of Graduate Studies may then be engaged.

Reflecting on your supervisory practice

Actively engaging in reflection or review of your supervisory practice (either alone, or ideally in a structured manner with peers) helps you to identify strengths and weaknesses and is central to experiential learning, or how we make sense of what we do. Everyone engages in this activity to some extent; however, we rarely do this in a systematic structured manner that fundamentally changes our practices.

You are strongly encouraged to incorporate structured self-evaluation into your supervisory approach. Understanding the rationale for how and why you supervise the way you do enables you to make decisions about your practice in a more proactive rather than reactionary way (Brew and Peseta 2010). 

Next page: Research supervisor guidelines for thesis submission and examination