Supporting Candidates’ Personal, Professional and Career Development

Doctoral candidates are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in their personal lives. Supervisors need at least to be aware of personal issues, particularly in relation to wellbeing and mental health, and able to direct candidates towards the relevant professional services. They also need to recognise that they may be role models for their candidates, particularly in achieving a work-life balance.

Supervisors also have a responsibility to support the professional development of doctoral candidates in terms of socialization within their disciplinary community and, where appropriate, in undertaking teaching duties in the subject.

Traditionally, such activities helped to support doctoral candidates to prepare for academic careers, and supervisors have had a direct role in informing them about faculty work and life. In recent years, however, only a minority of doctoral graduates have become academics, while the majority have found employment in other spheres. Here, supervisors may have a role in supporting candidates to prepare for non-academic careers.

Typical Examples
  • Supporting candidates with personal issues, including those relating to well-being and mental health.
  • Being good role models in terms of work-life balance.
  • Inducting candidates into disciplinary networks and activities.
  • Supporting their development as teachers.
  • Informing them about academic careers.
  • Supporting them to prepare for non-academic careers.

Supporting Materials

Literature and Evidence

Supervisors will normally have some pastoral engagement with candidates over the course of their doctoral studies as events in their private lives impinge upon their professional ones (Hopgood et al 2011, McAlpine et al 2012, McAlpine 2013). Minimally, supervisors need to be alert to the prospect of candidates experiencing personal issues and problems, for example by regularly checking with them. When such issues, including those relating to well-being and mental health, are identified, supervisors need be sympathetic, conscious of the limits of direct involvement, and aware of the professional services to whom candidates can be referred for further support.

Evidence here, for example, could consist of a case study of how you have supported a candidate at a time of personal crisis.

Supervisors need to be good role models for candidates is in terms of achieving an appropriate work-life balance. The latter can be an issue for candidates and there is some evidence that it is a factor in poor mental health ((see Cohen 2011, Margrove et al 2014, Levecque et al 2017), non- or delayed completion (see Barry et al 2018), and in putting candidates off an academic career (McAlpine 2017).

You may be able to evidence this by describing how you have acted as a role model, e.g. by demonstrating your own effective work-life balance to candidates.

As Walker et al (2008) have put the matter, supervisors are ‘stewards of the discipline’ and responsible for inducting candidates into the disciplinary community. This may include encouraging them in joining appropriate networks (see Thein and Beach 2010), attending conferences, giving presentations, and possibly in publishing their work during candidacy (see S 9).

Evidence again might consist of a case study of how you have inducted a candidate or candidates into the community.

Many candidates will engage in teaching during their studies, often on modules led by their supervisors. In such cases, as Muzaka (2009) and Jepsen et al (2012) have pointed out, supervisors have a responsibility to ensure that teaching assistants are adequately prepared and supported to undertake teaching duties and that they are fully informed about assessment methods, topics, and criteria.

Again, you might provide a brief case study of how you have supported a doctoral candidate in their teaching.

Often, candidates embark upon the doctorate in the expectation of an academic career, and one obvious source of information is their supervisor. However, studies (see Austin 2002, 2011, Campbell et al 2005, Austin and McDaniels 2006) have found that their supervisors tended to assume that doctoral candidates either arrived with an understanding of academic work or would acquire one by a process of osmosis during their studies. Good-practice is then for supervisors to least be prepared to discuss what is involved in an academic career, including research, teaching and supporting learning, academic administration, public service, and entrepreneurial activity.

Following Pitt and Mewburn (2016), one way of evidencing this would be if you discuss with candidates the key selection criteria in advertisements for posts in your field.

But if many are called to academic posts, few are chosen, and most doctoral candidates will end up working in other occupations (see Hancock 2014, Hancock et al 2015, McAlpine and Emmioglu 2015, Kweik 2019). While, unless they have worked outside universities, supervisors may be unable to advise candidates seeking non-academic positions, they can support them to acquire the so-called generic or transferable skills deemed necessary to enable them compete for non-academic careers.

You may evidence this through conducting training needs analyses, identifying gaps in skills, and taking advantage of opportunities to close them.


Expand the section below to view references the academic literature supporting this criterion:

7. Supporting Candidates’ Personal, Professional and Career Development

Austin, A. (2002)

Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialisation to the Academic Career.

The Journal of Higher Education 73(1): 94-122.

Austin, A. and McDaniels, M. (2006)

Using Doctoral Education to Prepare Faculty to Work Within Boyer’s Four Domains of Scholarship.

New Directions in Institutional Research, 129: 51-65.

Austin, A. (2011)

Preparing Doctoral Students for Promising Careers in a Changing Context: Implications for Supervision, Institutional Planning, and Cross-Institutional Opportunities.

In Kumar and A. Lee (eds.) Doctoral Education in International Context: Connecting Local, Regional and Global Perspectives. Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia Press: 1-18.

Campbell, S.P., Fuller, A.K., Patrick, D.A.G. (2005)

Looking beyond research in doctoral education.

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 3(3): 153-60.

Cohen, S.M. (2011)

Doctoral Persistence and Doctoral Program Completion Among Nurses.

Nursing Forum, 46(2): 64-70.

Hancock, S. (2014)

Science in action: doctoral scientists and identity construction.

Paper presented to the Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, 10th December. Celtic Manner, Newport.

Hancock, S., Hughes, G. and Walsh, E. (2015)

Purist or pragmatist? UK doctoral scientists’ moral positions on the knowledge economy.

Studies in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.1087994.

Hopwood, N., Alexander, P., Harris-Huemmert, S., McAlpine, L. and Wagstaff, S. (2011)

The Hidden Realities of Life as a Doctoral Student.

In V.Kumar and A. Lee (eds.) Doctoral Education in International Context: Connecting Local, Regional and Global Perspectives. Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia Press.

Jepsen, D., Verhagyi, M. and Edwards, D. (2012)

Academics attitudes towards PhD students’ teaching: preparing research higher degree students for an academic career.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(6): 629-45.

Kweik, M.

Changing European Academics.

London, Routledge and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Levecque, K., Anseel, F. De Beuckelear, A. Van der Hayden, J. and Gisle, L. (2017)

Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.

Research Policy, 46: 868-879.

McAlpine, L. and Amudsen, C. (2012)

Challenging the taken-for-granted: how research analysis might inform pedagogical practices and institutional policies relating to doctoral education.

Studies in Higher Education, 37(6): 683-694.

McAlpine, L. (2013)

Doctoral supervision: Not an individual but a collective institutional responsibility.

Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 36(3): 259-80.

Margrove, K., Gustowska, M. And Grove, L. (2014)

Provision of support for psychological distress by university staff, and receptiveness to mental health training.

Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38(1): 90-106.

McAlpine, L. and Emmioglu, E. (2015)

Navigating careers: perceptions of sciences doctoral students, post-PhD researchers and pre-tenure academics.

Studies in Higher Education, 40(10): 1770-1785.

McAlpine, L. (2017)

Building on Success? Future challenges for doctoral education globally.

Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 8(2): 66-77.

Muzaka, V. (2009)

The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants: perceptions and reflections.

Teaching in Higher Education, 14(1): 1-12.

Pitt, R. and Mewburn, I. (2016)

Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(1): 88-101.

Walker, G., Golde, C., Jones, L., Bueschel, A. and Hutchings, P. (2008)

The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century.

San Francisco, Josey-Bass. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Thein, A. and Beach, R. (2010)

Mentoring doctoral students towards publication within scholarly communities of practice.

In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler and A. Lee (eds.) Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond. London, Routledge: 117-136.

Download the Research Supervisors Bibliography PDF 1.15Mb

Example Application Content

Below is an example of how evidence could be provided for this criterion when applying to the Research Supervision Recognition Programme:

7. Supporting Candidates’ Personal, Professional and Career Development

At Barchester, the supervisory team have a responsibility for the personal welfare of research candidates, and I take this very seriously. I tell my candidates at the start that, if there are issues in their private lives which are impacting upon their research, that they should let me know so that I can direct them towards appropriate support and assistance. Usually, it is a matter of arranging an extension of time to complete the research. So, for example, when one student became pregnant, I arranged for her registration to be suspended for a year after which she returned part-time to her studies.

On occasion, though, it can be more serious. I had one candidate who had always been diligent, produced work on time, and turned up on time for supervisions who then suddenly vanished off the radar. I tried to contact him by e-mail and phone, and eventually he came to see me. He revealed that he had become severely depressed, and as a result had lost all confidence in himself and his work. Fortunately, I had recently become aware of mental health issues among research candidates (see Mackie and Bates 2018), empathised with him, and asked him if he would like me to contact the Counselling Service to provide him with professional support. He agreed, and with the help of counsellors and medics returned to his studies and eventually gained his doctorate.

For me, a key form of professional development is for my candidates to undertake teaching. Usually, they teach on modules for which I am responsible. I ensure that they are well briefed on the aims, objectives, content and outcomes of the module. Also, before they take a class, I ask them to come and observe me teaching the same topic and to give me feedback, and then I do the same for them. I also encourage them to take the university’s course on Introduction to Learning and Teaching, which is accredited for Associate Fellowship by the Higher Education Academy.

Such recognition can be helpful in terms of planning for an academic career, which nearly all of my doctoral candidates aspired to at the start of their studies. I try to be a positive role model and to discuss academic careers (pluses and minuses) with those who are interested so that they have an idea of what they would be letting themselves in for. I also support them to attend conferences and to build up presences on social media, for example Researchgate and Linkedin. But even with all of the pre-requistites in terms of research, teaching, and networking, academic posts are like gold dust and only one of my five doctoral graduates has found employment as an academic.

The remainder, by choice or necessity, work outside academia and I think it is important to help them prepare for this eventuality. Every year, I meet with candidates individually and we go through the university’s training needs template to identify skills gaps and opportunities to fill them. I encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the university to develop their skills. Recently, one of my candidates asked if he could take up a placement in industry for a month, to which I agreed, and I am pleased to say that he returned not only a better researcher but with a job in the bag!