Mentoring of Novice Supervisors: Training and Support

By Elly S Grossman, Walter Sisulu University and Nigel J Crowther, NHLS/University of the Witwatersrand

Despite the crucial need for creating the next generation of supervisory expertise, there are few texts available on optimally mentoring the novice supervisor to develop such proficiencies. To address this issue we organised discussions at our Supervisor Support Group to suitably address the matter. [The Supervisor Support Group is an informal discussion group comprising of both junior and experienced postgraduate supervisors based within the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg]. Arising from discussions, it was felt that a co-supervisory approach was best to transfer supervisory skills from the experienced mentor supervisor to the novice and we compiled a suggested schedule to facilitate such mentoring (Grossman and Crowther, 2015). Space constraints preclude a full summary of findings, so we present three fundamentals of training novice supervisors and four key mentoring issues.  Our concerns were pragmatic, rather than the values, beliefs and concepts of supervision per se. Thus we focused on tasks which would ultimately set the novice on their supervisory careers rather than exploring epistemologies of supervisory practice which are excellently reported elsewhere.   

As a point of departure, we felt the following ground rules were basic to novice supervisor mentoring:

1. In their first supervisory role a novice supervisor should never supervise on their own. Even with a co-supervisor, a novice supervisor with a Masters degree should start by supervising Honours students. Those with a PhD should start with a Masters student before negotiating a PhD supervisory role.  The ‘see one, do one’ of novice supervisor development is insufficient: consensus being that the novice should undertake at least three co-supervisions before going solo. If possible, other supervisors with preferably related, but differing, research interests to that of the mentee should do further mentoring. Thereby the novice is exposed to different supervisor styles with the added benefit of widening their research horizons in different research topics and methodologies.

2. The novice supervisor should begin their training by first overseeing a project within her/his field of expertise. It is unfair to expect even the most capable of novices to adequately co-supervise outside their chosen field of interest, even if closely mentored.

3. The first postgraduate assigned to the novice supervisor should be of reasonable standard and preferably the novice should have some say in the selection of the postgraduate. As often happens, senior staff picks the “best” students and novices are assigned less promising candidates.  It is important to take proactive steps at this stage, when the novice is developing their own supervisory skills and testing training strategies, to reduce possible student recalcitrance which can undermine confidence.  For instance, destructive behaviours are often sparked by student perceptions that they are postgraduate ‘guinea pigs’ when they perceive their supervisor is an ‘on the job’ trainee. Hence our structured novice supervisor mentoring has the spin-off of reassuring the supervised postgraduate that experienced oversight is present. Should matters get out of hand, the experienced mentor should support the novice in dealing with the problem, but never take over the situation, further undermining novice confidence.

When does the co-supervisory mentoring start?

Contrary to ordinary co-supervision practice, where co-supervisors are called in at any stage of the research, novice co-supervisors should be involved from the very start of the research process in joint supervisory consultations with postgraduate students. The novice should play an active role in the choice of topic, designing of the research, carrying out the fieldwork and data analysis, giving feedback of written drafts submitted by the student and finally in examination procedures and examiner’s rebuttal.

Establishing goals for the novice supervisor

It is important to clarify the joint novice/mentoring supervisory roles and develop a mutual agreement of tasks as suggested (Boxes 1 and 2 of our paper). In addition, the mentoring supervisor should help draw up an annual plan for the novice co-supervisee with goals and milestones for personal and professional development. This should include time management for both the novice supervisor him/herself and the postgraduate supervisory process. The novice has probably realised from their own experience, that completion of a higher degree inevitably takes longer than hoped for. With the wisdom of hind-sight, an actively mentored time management programme will provide valuable scaffolding in this regard.

Goals should not be limited to supervision skills per se. The mentor is in the unique position to advise the novice on contacts within and outside the academic environment which may be helpful for future research networking. In addition we suggest that the mentoring supervisor should actively assist the novice in developing an independent research and publishing career. After all, a research-inactive novice will probably be a barely adequate supervisor. Thus research mentoring can occur in tandem with novice supervision mentoring.

Engaging with the student and learning supervisory craft

It happens all too often that supervision activity is so directed towards the postgraduate that the interaction between mentoring and novice co-supervisors gets overlooked. It is paramount that the novice and mentor have meetings separate from the postgraduate so that supervision mentoring can take place apart from postgraduate mentoring. 

During supervisions, the novice’s opinion should be sought and the novice encouraged to lead discussions after the first few meetings. Draft critiquing requires particular attention with the suggestion that at first the mentor should forward drafts with comments to the novice for her/his input. With time the process should be reversed with the novice providing initial comments. Meetings between novice and mentor should be arranged prior to the postgraduate supervisory meeting to discuss feedback and present a common front to the postgraduate. We recommend that a continuous feedback programme is built into the novice mentoring co-supervision calendar and our publication offers suggestions in this regard.

Different supervision approaches and styles are probably best learned by encouraging the novice to attend supervision courses. Having said that, we feel that formal training, as the sole means to convey the host of supervision dilemmas is insufficient, and prefer to integrate the “craft” approach of supervision guidance.  A case in point being the on-going problem-solving dialogues and learning conversations intrinsic to supervisory mentoring: this cannot be taught online or in the classroom. Our Group discussions in this area culminated with the feeling that supervision pedagogy is a sophisticated skill, worthy of professional ranking.

Knowledge of the University higher degree administrative and policy requirements.

South African supervisors have greater bureaucratic obligations towards postgraduate throughput than elsewhere and as a result must have intimate policy and institutional knowledge. Such responsibilities are often hidden from the newly graduated novice supervisor, who during their student years, were totally unaware of the administrative activities and regulations which background their research degrees. Consequently novices are surprised when confronted with the range of activities expected of them as supervisors, beyond those related to the research. We suggest that the mentor has copies of all updated documents to hand as reference for the novice. In addition compliance with submission dates, annual registration-fee payments etc. must be observed. A good knowledge of referencing and library assistance goes without saying and we suggest the novice updates themselves on information search strategies on an ongoing basis.

Who would make the perfect novice co-supervisory mentor?

We curiously failed to answer the above question in our Group discussions and despite heated debate could not reach any verdict on who would be best to mentor a novice supervisor. We therefore conclude with a remark from one of our Group on the matter and leave the reader of this blog to come to their own considered opinion.   

‘It would be nice when a novice is co-supervised by a willing hard working mentor with a good track record. Now who is going to make a list of good and bad mentors? What criteria are best to be used? Publications, complaints or comments from others? Regards, Potential novice


What characteristics should the perfect novice co-supervisor mentor have?

Do you find our suggestions, MOU guidelines and interventions for novice co-supervision appropriate for your country, university and Faculty? What would you add to our list, what would you reject? And why?


Grossman ES, Crowther NJ. Co-supervision: ensuring the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. South African Journal of Science 2015;111(11/12), Art. #2014-0305, 8 pages. .

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