Rewarding Excellence in Research Supervision

“If one can do research, then one can presumably supervise it”. So, writing 30 years ago, Earnest Rudd summarised what was then the prevailing orthodoxy underpinning research supervision.

So, other than being a researcher, no other attributes were considered necessary, and neither were incentives. Supervisors were deemed to be privileged to have the chance to work with up and coming research students in their specialist fields, and no further reward was needed.

That said, if supervision was seemingly a doddle and a labour of love, it might seem difficult to explain why so few candidates finished on time and why so many – in some disciplines well over half – never finished at all.

But the fault was seen as lying in the students; many were simply not up to the rigorous demands of the research degrees, the highest awarded by the academy.

Subsequently, all of these presumptions have been questioned. Why, given that research students were apparently the brightest and best undergraduates or taught postgraduates and supposedly carefully selected, were they the least likely to gain their degrees on time or indeed at all?

Why did so many stories abound of supervisors neglecting their students and leaving them to struggle on with little or no support?

And why, even among those students whose supervisors were conscientious, were there so many allegations that their supervision was inadequate and delaying or preventing their progress?

Improving Doctoral Education

In the belief that something was rotten in the state of supervision, research funders and quality assurance agencies began to put pressure on institutions to improve doctoral supervision.

Now, in virtually all UK universities, academic staff new to supervision are required to complete initial professional development programmes and spend a period as a second supervisor before becoming eligible to be a main or principal supervisor.

Many institutions offer experienced supervisors updating workshops and, in some cases, attendance at these is required to continue supervision. Similarly, institutions have begun to included doctoral supervision in their accreditation schemes for Fellowship of the HEA and in their criteria for promotion to senior or principal lecturer or professor; and some institutions have established awards for excellence in doctoral supervision.

Such awards have for long been common in universities in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States as ways of recognising and rewarding supervisors whose practice is exemplary, and they are highly prestigious. But they have not been common in the UK, where so far as I am aware the first award was only established in 2005 (in Durham).

Awarding Doctoral & Research Supervision

As part of a research project currently being undertaken with Alistair McCulloch of the University of South Australia, I recently reviewed the public-facing web sites of 143 UK institutions which provide research degrees to see if they had awards for doctoral or research supervision, and if so what form they took.

Such information was available in 128 cases, and enquiries were made by e-mail of the remaining 15 institutions, of which at the time of writing 5 had replied. Of the 133 institutions where information is available:

  • 6 (Bath, Birmingham, De Montfort, Durham, Imperial College, and King’s College) had institutional awards based on meeting defined criteria;
  • 1 (Sheffield Hallam) had joint institution-student awards based on the responses to the Student Barometer;
  • 1 (Imperial) had both institutional and student-led awards;
  • 17 had student-led awards specifically for research or doctoral supervision:
  • a further 29 had generic awards for supervision at the undergraduate, taught, and research postgraduate levels.

With few exceptions, the student-led awards were based primarily on nominations by individual students, i.e. were based on subjective criteria for excellence. So, of these 133 institutions, 5% had dedicated institutional awards based on defined criteria, 13% had dedicated student-led awards for research or doctoral supervision; and 22% had generic awards.

So the evidence suggests that, overall, the UK is probably lagging behind the other Anglo-American doctoral awarding nations in recognising excellence in research supervision. Elsewhere, it may still be ahead of the game, but it may be noted that excellence awards are being developed apace in other countries including Austria, China, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Now is THE Times for an Award

It is in this context that the THE/UKCGE award for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year – so far as is known the first national award of its kind anywhere – can be seen as having three purposes.

Firstly, and most obviously, it seeks to celebrate the exemplary practice of the nominees and the eventual winner. All of these will be invited to share their practice with the sector through a UKCGE Postgraduate Research Supervisor Network to be launched at an event on February 23rd and through contributing to a UKCGE guide to excellent practice.

Secondly, it offers the sector a definition of excellence in research supervision, which is set out below:

This award will be given to the individual who has created the most supportive, stimulating and inspirational research environment for PhD students or professional doctoral students… Judges will be looking for a supervisor who:

  • Demonstrates enthusiasm for the role, is flexible in regard to supervision sessions, and is prepared to go the extra mile to help navigate students through difficulties, be they academic or otherwise;
  • Challenges students while encouraging them to contribute something substantial to their specific area of academic discourse;
  • Provides additional support and facilities to give greater scope to the PhD, or to enable it to be completed early;
  • Is exceptionally supportive through the planning for assessments and the PhD viva;
  • Offers constructive employment and career advice post-graduation.

This definition is not intended to be ex cathedra, but to offer a starting point both for supervisors themselves and institutions which don’t currently have defined criteria to begin to benchmark excellence in research supervision.

Thirdly, the THE/UKCGE award is a timely reminder to institutions which currently do not have provision of the need to recognise and reward excellence in doctoral supervision and so enhance the profile and status of this important area of academic practice. This is perhaps more important than ever in a post-Brexit world where for UK institutions competition for research students is likely to be even more intense than it is at present.

About Stan Taylor

Stan Taylor is a co-opted member of the Executive of the UKCGE and an Honorary Fellow of the School of Education at Durham University. He has written widely on doctoral education and is currently working (with Margaret Kiley and Robin Humphrey) upon a second edition of ‘A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors’ to be published by Routledge in 2017.

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