NPC Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research (1992)

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The National Postgraduate Committee's Guidelines for Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research is given here in the form of a draft Code of Practice. It is intended to define the relationship of students doing research degrees to their Supervisors and Departments. We would hope that institutions with postgraduate research students would accept the Code as a basis on which to build their own specific codes, or, if such codes have already been drafted, to use the Guidelines as a yardstick to ensure that all points have been covered.

The Guidelines are the result of considerable consultation work and surveys for staff and students at several institutions. Specific responsibilities for Supervisors, Students and Departments are the result of work at colleges of the University of London, while procedures for implementation and monitoring result from surveys at Strathclyde University. Additionally, use was made of Codes of Practice in place at other institutions, Research Council guidelines, and the CVCP Guidelines on Postgraduate Research and Training.

For completeness, Sections 1 on Admission and 7 on Appeals Procedure are included in the Guidelines. It is to be expected that these would be replaced by institution specific guidelines of a similar nature.

The Introduction and Preamble are an integral part of the Code of Practice. These set the framework for the relationship between supervisor and student which is a vital part of the research degree process.

The National Postgraduate Committee was formed in 1982 to represent the interests and aspirations of postgraduate instructional and research students. All institutions with postgraduate students are entitled to representation on the Committee.

We would be very pleased to discuss further the points raised in the Guidelines, and to receive comments on them. If you would like any further details on the Guidelines or on the NPC itself, please contact the National Postgraduate Committee.

Introduction

A student's first venture into original research is for the student a learning experience of the most utmost importance. Nothing in his or her academic career is of comparable importance, even though to the supervisor it may represent only the filling in of a missing part of a large jigsaw. However, for the supervisor, it is a way in which they can improve their own understanding of the field in which they are working. The job of supervision should not, therefore, be looked upon as a chore, but as a way of training new researchers, and, at the same time, carrying out good quality research.

The supervisor's advice is essential to guide the student past the traps, morasses and pitfalls which lie in wait everywhere for the inexperienced researcher. The supervisor should provide advice and moral support in those periods of self-doubt and frustration which affect all researchers.

The establishment of a harmonious relationship between a research student and his or her supervisor is obviously of utmost importance to both people. Such harmony can only be established and maintained if both participants understand each other's concerns, treat each other with courtesy and respect and are agreed on what constitute the code and conventions on which such courtesy should be based.

For a student, a research degree is an exercise in intellectual exploration and development within which training in research techniques takes place. These techniques are designed to tackle new material, develop new ideas or test out new research methods. The training can only be effective if the student is working on some issue or question no-one has successfully tackled before.

It has to be understood that when a supervisor accepts a student, whatever the formal rules may be, both have entered into an implied moral contract which lasts until one of the three, supervisor, student or research undertaking expires.

The Institution and the Head of Department must keep watch over relations between student and supervisor. If this relationship breaks down there must be procedures by which it can be repaired, if this is possible, or a substitute found. To prevent such breakdown happening, there should be understanding, from the inception of the relationship, of the conventions by which it is to operate. What follows is an attempt to spell out these conventions for the benefit both of the supervisor and the research student.

The Institution should encourage students to communicate with each other, and ensure that there is an adequate student representative organisation to raise problems and encourage cross fertilisation between students. It is vital that these codes of practice are implemented, and student associations are active in ensuring they are effective if the high quality of research training present in some institutions is to be effected throughout the United Kingdom.

Code of Practice for Postgraduate Research

  1. This code of practice sets out the minimum guidelines for research students, their supervisors and Departments. It is anticipated that these will be supplemented by separate Departmental codes and guidelines covering specific Departmental practice.
  2. Throughout this code, the following terminology is used. Departments are small scale administrative divisions within the institution and a faculty is an administrative grouping of departments. Student refers to those people registered to study for a research degree, supervisors to those members of staff who guide their research, research coordinators to members of staff who organise research within a department and head of department to the chairman or director of the department. "Student Association" refers to the student body recognised by the institution as representing students attending the institution. It should be recognised that such terns are generic, and specific, locally used terms should replace them where required.
  3. These guidelines should be published annually by the Institution, and students and their supervisors should acquaint themselves with them.
  4. Subject to the Institution's regulations, an M.Phil thesis should be either a record of original work or an ordered and critical exposition of existing knowledge in any field. A PhD thesis must form a distinct contribution to knowledge of the subject and afford evidence of originality, shown by the discovery of new facts or by the exercise of independent critical power.
  5. The Institution considers that full-time research students should be able to complete a satisfactory thesis within three or four years (and part-time students within five or six years) and recommends that they should initially plan their thesis research accordingly. This Code of Practice establishes good practice to enable students at the Institution to complete their theses within the recommended times.

Admission

Conditions of Offer

On the recommendation of the Head of Department and Postgraduate Study Committee, applicants will be made a formal offer by the Registry. The offer will specify terms and conditions governing entry to and study on the course (including the need to demonstrate a satisfactory level of performance in order to continue). Interviews and English language training may be appropriate in some cases. Departments should satisfy themselves that the applicant is appropriately qualified and that there are proper facilities for the supervision. It is recommended that the Students' Association be informed of the offer before the student is expected to start, especially where this takes place outside of the usual times of year, so that they can make any necessary arrangements.

Supervision

Each Department will have a Postgraduate Study Committee which will have responsibility for reviewing progress and other postgraduate matters. It is recommended that this committee consists of the Head of Department and/or Research Student Coordinator, the Postgraduate Counsellor, two or three members of academic staff, and, where possible, a student representative.

Appointment of Supervisor

Heads of Department will ensure that supervisors are appointed to students. Supervisors would normally be appointed simultaneously with the offer of a place, but if this is not the case one must be appointed within one month of arrival. At least one supervisor should be a full time member of academic staff who is not under probation. In cases where a supervisor is not a member of academic staff, the Institution would assume control of the supervision. The Head of Department must ensure that the supervisor is suitably qualified for the proposed project.

Supervisors are entitled to decide what subjects they can usefully supervise; the Institution cannot guarantee that students will be able to work with any particular teacher they want, or that they will have the same supervisor throughout their period of study at the Institution.

Change of Supervisor

A student may ask for a change of supervisor and the student should take the matter up with the supervisor in the first case. If there is no way to speedily resolve the problem, the matter should be referred to the Postgraduate Study Committee, stating the reasons for the recommendation. The Postgraduate Study Committee would then advise the Head of Department as to whether the student needs to be reassigned, or if the situation could be more easily resolved by the appointment of an additional supervisor.

Counsellor

The Head of Department shall appoint to each student a counsellor, with whom the student can discuss matters which they would prefer not to take to their supervisor.

Responsibilities of the Supervisor

  1. The supervisor should have knowledge of a student's subject area and/or theoretical approach to be applied.
  2. If a student's work goes significantly outside the supervisor's field, the supervisor and the Department should be responsible for putting the student in touch with specialists either inside or outside the Institution who could help.
  3. There should be regular supervisory sessions between student and supervisor, ideally at least once a fortnight. It is usually advisable to arrange the time of the next meeting at the end of each session.
  4. Supervisory sessions will naturally vary in length but on average they should last for at least one hour. It is important that they should be largely uninterrupted by telephone calls, personal callers or Departmental business.
  5. If the student has an urgent problem, the supervisor should deal with the matter over the telephone or arrange a meeting at short notice.
  6. The supervisor should read and critically comment on written work as it is produced.
  7. The supervisor should assist new students to plan their time, draw up a programme of work and monitor their subsequent progress. The supervisor should be aware of the requirements of some funding bodies and/or institutions that renewal of funding can depend on successful upgrade from M.Phil to PhD and should help students on such contracts to plan their work accordingly.
  8. The supervisor should submit a report to the Postgraduate Study Committee every six months and keep the student's record file maintained.
  9. The supervisor must ensure that the student is made aware if either progress or the standard of work is unsatisfactory, and arrange any necessary supportive action.
  10. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that the data, results, and information garnered by the student during their research is freely available to the student.
  11. Research students should be eligible to attend free of charge any course of lectures run by the Institution. Supervisors should advise on courses which may complement their field of research.
  12. The supervisor should take an active part in introducing the student to meetings of learned societies, seminars and workshops and to other research workers in the field. The supervisor should give advice on publication and put the student in touch with publishers where appropriate. The supervisor should give advice on writing up the research work in the form of papers and the final thesis.
  13. The supervisor must make clear the Institution's regulations governing the nomination of the external and internal examiners for a student's viva. Subject to the decision of the relevant bodies, the supervisor should arrange a mutually convenient date for the examiners and the student for the viva.

Responsibilities of the Student

  1. By the end of the first year (the first 18 months in the case of part-time students) (subject to specific, published Departmental practices which may, because of the nature of the subject, vary from this model) the student should have defined the area of research, become acquainted with the background knowledge required, completed the literature review and have a framework for the future progress of the research with a timetable for the next 2 or 3 years (3 or 4 years in the case of part-time students). The student should have produced a substantial amount of written work, even if only in draft form. "Substantial" should be defined by the supervisor or Department at the outset.
  2. The responsibility is on students to have their own topics that they would like to discuss with the supervisor.
  3. Students must submit written work regularly to their supervisors.
  4. Students should take note of the guidance and feedback from their supervisors.
  5. Students should generally produce all material in word-processed or typed form. Material containing complex equations may be exempted, but the presentation of such must be neat and legible.
  6. Students must inform their supervisor of other people with whom their work is being discussed.
  7. It is the student's responsibility to seek out the supervisor. Any serious problems a student has with the supervisor, including those of access, should initially be taken up by the student with the supervisor at the time.

Responsibilities of the Head of Department and the Research Student Coordinator

  1. The Head of Department is responsible for ensuring that a member of staff is appointed as Research Student Coordinator for the Department.
  2. Each Department must communicate in writing to all its students what expectations it has for their progress, the specific Departmental review procedure, and the timetable for upgrading to PhD where appropriate.
  3. The Research Student Coordinator, in conjunction with the Head of Department, must ensure that no supervisor is overloaded with supervisory responsibilities. The recommended maximum number of registered research students per supervisor must be laid out by each Faculty of the Institution. Supervisors with a heavy load should be offered a reduction in teaching, tutorial, practical and/or administrative duties. The terms of this trade-off should be laid out explicitly.
  4. The Research Student Coordinator, in conjunction with the Head of Department, should ensure that supervisors have the training and support they require to undertake effective supervision. This support might include recommending a supervisor to attend various training courses, conferences and seminars; teaching relief; and adjustment of other Departmental responsibilities to take account of the supervisory load.
  5. The appraisal system might be used to identify training needs but Heads of Departments should also consider reviewing supervisors' responsibilities on an annual basis.
  6. The Head of Department should discuss complaints with the supervisor when the supervisor is criticised for poor supervision, and, where appropriate, either recommend training or, if necessary, give other duties instead of supervision.
  7. In cases where the supervisor being criticised is also the Head of Department, the Dean or equivalent will have the responsibilities set out in paragraph 6 above.
  8. The Research Student Coordinator should annually collate and distribute at least within the Department a list of research topics currently in progress both by research students and academic members of staff. These lists should also be held and made available by the Institution.
  9. The Department must, when asking postgraduates to teach undergraduate students, provide instruction in the use of teaching equipment. Undergraduate teaching should be distributed amongst research students as fairly as possible.
  10. The Department will be responsible for ensuring that students have a place to work, along with adequate facilities for them to carry out their work effectively. Special arrangements must be made where faults or a shortage of specialised equipment causes delay to the student, and the Department should attempt to minimise such disruption.
  11. Departments must make students aware of the facilities available to them, and that new students, and particularly new overseas students, receive appropriate information on procedures, personnel and services relevant to their course of study.
  12. The Department must ensure that the student has access to all the data, results and information collated during the course of their research.
  13. The Department is also responsible for ensuring the students are fully aware of the relevant Health and Safety Regulations.

Absence of Supervisor

Special arrangements must be made by the Research Student Coordinator for maintenance of supervision of students whenever the supervisor is absent and an alternative supervisor must be found if the absence is for more than six weeks. Supervisors should inform students of when they will be away for any extended period so that the student can plan accordingly and special arrangements can be made if necessary.

Seminars

Departments should arrange seminars on a regular basis where students can present work to their peers. Students should see this as an important part of their course and should attend.

Research Training and Student Support

  1. All students are recommended to acquire keyboard and, where necessary, computer skills. If a student does not have these skills before registration, the Computer Service should be asked to advise on suitable training.
  2. All students should have training in appropriate research methods. Each Department should establish, or participate in pre-existing, collective research training programmes.
  3. The Institution is responsible for monitoring the creation and operation of these training programmes and seminars.

Monitoring Progress

Student Record

The Department will keep a portfolio containing a comprehensive record of the student's progress. This would include notes on discussions between supervisor and student on instructions, level of performance, etc., as well as medical and other documents which might have a bearing on the students ability or capability to progress satisfactorily. Where appropriate, students undertaking work or following instructions will be asked to sign a statement which says they understand and agree to its contents.

Programme of Work

A Programme of Work is essential. The research topic should be agreed as soon as possible and a programme drawn up and approved by the supervisor during the first semester. The supervisor should ensure that the student is aware of the basis of the supervisor's assessment of progress and understands the amount of work involved. The programme must include:

  • a provisional outline of the thesis, which should be expanded as the course progresses
  • a statement of the research and sources to be examined
  • a provisional timetable for carrying out the research and writing the thesis

There will be some alterations as research proceeds and hypotheses change but every effort should be made to ensure that the programme's basic outline remains intact. Where revisions are made a clear record of the need for revisions and the effect on the timescale should be retained by the student and in the Department's student file.

Reports

Students must submit regular written reports to their supervisor (ideally every 6 months for full time students, every year for part time students). These reports, along with the supervisor's comments, should be submitted to the Postgraduate Study Committee and placed in the student's file. The supervisor's report should be available to the student. Where progress is deemed to be unsatisfactory the student may be interviewed by the Head of Department and the supervisor, and specific instructions and objectives formally agreed. The student should be advised that failure to meet these requirements would normally lead to a recommendation to the Board of Study for termination of registration; or, in the case of PhD, that registration be transferred to study for a relevant masters degree. The student will be advised formally in writing as soon as possible after assessments.

The student should also formally present their work orally at least once each year to Departmental seminars, at which supervisors should be present to ask questions and comment on performance. In cases where conversion from an M.Phil to a PhD is not required, at least one of these presentations should take the form of a mock viva, where the student is assessed by the supervisor and another member of staff.

Conversion

  1. Where a student is registered for an M.Phil degree, there must be a major progress review by the Postgraduate Study Committee sometime in the first 18 months of registration for full-time students and by the end of the second year for part-time students, to consider conversion to PhD.
  2. This review must involve at least one member of the academic staff other than the supervisor. Progress will be reviewed on the basis of the literature review or other substantive areas of the research. The reviewers must have the opportunity of reading this work before the review meeting. The review should be recorded by means of a standard progress report form and signed by all parties.
  3. If a student is not upgraded the case should be reviewed at the end of a further six months for a final decision.

Formal Communication Channels

All policy making committees within the university dealing with postgraduate students should have student representation. Such representatives should be elected by the Students' Association, and should preferably be postgraduates. Additionally, there should be a staff/student committee meeting held at least once a term to discuss issues of relevance and interest to research students and their supervisors. The Institution should offer all research students, as part of re-registration, the opportunity to voluntarily and confidentially assess the quality of their supervision.

Complaints

These should be taken to the supervisor in the first instance as soon as they occur. If no satisfactory resolution results, the matter should be taken to the Head of Department for discussion by the Postgraduate Study Committee. The student will be informed in writing of the action taken. Where the student feels it appropriate, the matter may also be taken to the Dean.

Each Department should ensure that the official channels for complaint remain operational and effective.

Completion

The supervisor and student should agree a timetable for completion which should include approval of the thesis title, nomination of the examiners, entry for the examination and compliance with other regulations of the Institution.

There should be no unreasonable delay in examining a thesis once it has been submitted to the Institution. Three months is a reasonable maximum in most circumstances.

The procedures for examination entry must be set out by the Institution.
In cases where a thesis is referred for re-presentation in revised form the Research Student Coordinator should be appraised of the situation and the student invited to discuss his or her position with the Research Student Coordinator and supervisor. Provided the student has registered, or is willing to re-register, the supervisor should continue supervision until the thesis is re-presented. If there are difficulties between supervisor and student, the Research Student Coordinator should arrange alternative supervision.

Appeals Procedure

Students who have been required to transfer from PhD to M.Phil, had their registration terminated or for whom a recommendation for requirement to withdraw has been made, have the right to appeal. The Faculty Appeals Committee will hear the appeal.

The committee will comprise of the Head of Department, the Dean or equivalent, the Faculty Research Coordinator or equivalent and three other senior members of academic staff. In addition, a member of the Student's Association should be present if the student so wishes. In cases in which any one of these is the student's supervisor, another academic member of the Department should be invited to sit on the appeal committee instead. In cases where the Dean or equivalent is supervisor, an equivalent member of staff should be invited to sit on the appeal committee instead.

The student has the right to appeal to Senate.

If this final appeal is unsuccessful, the student will not be allowed to re-register at any time for the same M.Phil/PhD project.