Is your message getting through?

Reproduced with kind permission from Times Higher Education Supplement.

Is your message getting through?

Harriet Swain
Published: 27January2006

PhD students need good communications skills - both theirs and yours, whether it's keeping minutes or using draft papers to show them that reaching publication standards takes graft, says Harriet Swain

Whatever happened to that PhD student of yours? The one with the substandard English and overambitious research topic whose details escape you. Must make an appointment to see him sometime.

Yes, you must. In fact, you should have done it already. "You should never let a student leave a tutorial without knowing when the next meeting is going to be," says Estelle Phillips, co-author of How to Get a PhD.

Sara Delamont, sociologist at Cardiff University and co-author of Supervising the Doctorate, says it is a good idea to sort out early the practicalities of when you will meet, then to check regularly that the system is working. She also advises discussing with students how you want to be contacted and what is the best way to contact them. If you make a conscious decision to give them your mobile or home telephone numbers, you cannot then get annoyed if they use them.

Once you are in a supervision, your telephone should be switched off, says Phillips, or you need to tell the person on the other end you are busy.

"Those kinds of things show students that they are important and that their work is appreciated," she says.

She says you should read students' work well in advance so that you know what you are going to talk about. "Don't leave it until the last minute and pick up on one thing."

Delamont recommends creating bullet point minutes for every supervision, written by the supervisor and e-mailed to the student or vice versa. They will then serve as an agenda for the next meeting and will protect the supervisor if anything goes wrong. "If it isn't written down, it becomes your word against the student's," she warns.

The Quality Assurance Agency's code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, published in September 2004, stresses the need for supervisors to receive training and support to ensure they have the "appropriate expertise for their role".

Delamont says that a first step for supervisors should be to find out what training is available and to take it up. Another early step is to read the code of practice and find out how it is implemented in your institution, and who will hear students' complaints about supervision should they have any.

While we're on the subject of regulations, are you sure you've read and understood your institution's rules governing the degree your student is studying for? Are you clear about what is expected from your student in terms of length of thesis and deadline? Are you sure your student understands it, too? "Students aren't good at reading the regulations,"

Delamont says. "A lot of misery, pain and breakdowns come from students thinking supervisors would have told them if they had it wrong and supervisors thinking it was the students' job."

Tim Brown, former general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee and author of a supervision and training charter for early-stage researchers for Eurodoc, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Young Researchers, says supervisors must identify students' training needs and help them to develop a plan to apply research skills beyond their doctorate.

One of the points cited in the code is that supervisors should normally be part of a supervisory team. Delamont says that if you are the sole supervisor, you need to make sure that your department is following the code's guidelines. But Rosemary Deem, professor of education and graduate dean for social sciences and law at Bristol, says you also need to sort out a clear division of labour if there is a team.

She says students must be clear from the outset what they are taking on.

This means they should have a timetable for the year and even a list of chapter headings. "These will change, but it will help them have an idea of what they are trying to do," she says.

Delamont advises getting students to start writing from the first week, incorporating other skills they will need for their final submission, such as using graphs or tables. This will get them into the habit of writing and will highlight whether they need to improve their information technology skills. It will also reveal any language problems of overseas students.

Phillips says you need to be alert to problems where overseas students are concerned because the stakes - and fees - are so high. They could face serious difficulties if their government or family has paid for their studies and they fail to achieve a degree.

Deem suggests encouraging students at some stage of their thesis to work on their writing in groups. She says students need to be given a full set of research skills, not just those relevant to their degree, and advises encouraging them to join a relevant learned society and to send off articles for publication.

Delamont suggests that humanities and social sciences academics should demonstrate how scholars work, such as showing a draft paper, to prove that no one can just sit down and write to publication standard. She says effective supervision should include an apprenticeship element and "exposure to the graft of knowledge making".

Finally, she advises discussing with students how they want to be criticised and explaining to them that criticism is an essential part of academic life - but one that remains painful even for senior academics. She says you should try to help them not to take it personally. Phillips says your criticism should always be constructive.

Now about your shameful neglect of that poor research student... More information Quality Assurance Agency code of practice

Supervising the Doctorate: A Guide to Success, by Sara Delamont, Paul Atkinson and Odette Parry, Oxford University Press, 2004.

How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, by Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, McGraw-Hill, 2005.


Get training

Establish early ground rules about roles

Make contact and meet regularly

Keep minutes

Tell students if their work is below standard

Provide viva practice