Supporting Candidates’ Research Projects

New doctoral candidates may have little or no experience of research, and hence little or no idea of what they are letting themselves in for. Supervisors may then need to induct them into research, including the nature of research itself, the key concepts, what it involves, and of good practice in undertaking it.

Unless the research project itself is pre-determined, supervisors will have a role in advising candidates about their choice of topic and then assisting them to produce a research proposal and to gain ethical approval. Irrespective of the discipline, supervisors will need to make sure that candidates have, or can acquire, the subject-specific knowledge and skills necessary for them to undertake their research topics. These may include the relevant experimental and technological skills to undertake their research projects, in the latter case including information searching, retrieval, storage, and sharing,

If, in these ways, candidates can be started down the slipway, sooner or later they are almost bound to encounter academic problems of one kind or another. It is important that, if and when this happens, supervisors are aware and lend support.

Typical Examples
  • Discussing conceptions and misconceptions of research itself with candidates.
  • Looking at key ‘threshold’ concepts in research.
  • Considering issues of academic integrity, intellectual property rights, and co-publication.
  • Advising on a choice of topic.
  • Advising on theory, methodology and methods.
  • Advising on a research proposal and plan.
  • Advising on gaining ethical approval.
  • Advising on skills development in relation to the project.
  • advising on issues arising in the course of the research.

Supporting Materials

Literature and evidence

As Meyer et al (2005) have shown, doctoral candidates may have odd conceptions or even misconceptions of research at the start of their studies, and there is a clear need for dialogue with supervisors to what research is ultimately about otherwise there can be a potential for conflict and/or delays to completion (see Meyer 2007, Garcia-Perez and Ayres 2012).

Your evidence here may take the form of a policy of asking candidates to critique a recent piece of research in the subject and discussing it with them.

There is a substantial literature (see for example Kiley 2009, Kiley and Wisker 2009, Trafford and Lesham 2009, Kiley 2015b) suggesting that many research candidates struggle to grasp key ‘threshold’ concepts of research, including those of research paradigms, research questions, theory, theoretical frameworks, methodology, methods, analysis, argument/thesis, and theorising findings. So candidates may become ‘stuck’ in a state of liminality and consequently unable to progress their research.

Again, you may help by, for example, pointing to ‘model’ papers or books in the relevant literature and discussing key concepts with candidates.

A further necessary discussion may relate to the ethics of research in terms of integrity, intellectual property rights, and possibly authorship in relation to co-publication. You could evidence that you are aware of institutional policies in these areas and communicate these to candidates, for example through a checklist.

In many cases, supervisors themselves obtain the funding for and design research projects, but in others there may be an element of discretion for the candidate. In such cases, supervisors as Taylor et al (2018) have described, have a system of outlining the key criteria – whether the project is worthwhile, doable in the time available, and viable in potentially leading to the creation of new knowledge – and encouraging candidates to apply them until a suitable project is found.

You could supply a short case study of how you have gone about advising candidates about their choice of projects.

Candidates will also need advice about how to go about undertaking their research projects, including theories and theoretical frameworks, methodologies and methods, and you could give an example of how you have advised them about these matters.

Candidates will then have to produce a research proposal and plan, which can be problematic if they have little or no experience of research. One thing that you might cite as evidence is asking candidates to look at the deliberately erroneous research proposals and plans set out in Delamont et al (2004) and critique them.

In order to undertake their research projects, candidates will need a range of skills, and it is important at the start to identify which ones they already have, those that they will need to acquire, and when and how they will be able to acquire them. Here, you might cite as evidence conducting a development needs analysis early in the candidature.

Candidates may also need support when the research is underway. They may expect that research is conducted in the same way as it is published, i.e. a linear progression. But research in the real world can be very messy and progress is often two steps forward and one backwards. Candidates may, for cultural reasons (see for example Shen 2009, Magyar and Robinson-Pant 2011) or variously through ‘Top Gun’ (see Taylor and Beasley 2005) or ‘imposter’ syndromes (see Kearns 2015) be unwilling to acknowledge that they are ‘stuck’.

You might provide evidence of re-assuring candidates experiencing problems that they would be met with a sympathetic response and encouraging them to identify ways forward.


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

4. Supporting Candidates’ Research Projects

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., and Parry, O. (2004)

2nd ed. Supervising the PhD: A Guide to Success.

Buckingham, Open University Press and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Garcia-Perez, A. and Ayres, R. (2012)

Modelling research: a collaborative approach to helping PhD students develop higher-level research skills.

European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(3): 297-306.

Kearns, H. (2015)

Imposter Syndrome: Why successful people often feel like frauds.

Flinders, Thinkwell.

Kiley, M. (2009)

Identifying threshold concepts and proposing strategies to support doctoral candidates.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3): 293-304.

Kiley, M. (2015b)

‘I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about’: PhD candidates and theory.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(1): 52-63.

Kiley, M. and Wisker, G. (2009)

Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing.

Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4): 431-441.

Magyar, A. and Robinson-Pant, A. (2011)

Special issue on university internationalisation – towards transformative change in higher education. Internationalising doctoral research: developing theoretical perspectives on practice.

Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 17(6): 663-76.

Meyer, J., Shanahan, M. and Laugksch, R. (2007)

Students’ Conceptions of Research: An exploration of contrasting patterns of variation.

Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 51(4): 415-33.

Shen, W-Q., Liu, D. and Chen, H. (2017)

Chinese PhD students on exchange in European Union Countries: experiences and benefits.

European Journal of Higher Education,

Taylor, S. and Beasley, N. (2005)

A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors.

London, Routledge.

Taylor, S., Kiley M. and Humphrey, R. (2018)

A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors. 2nd Ed.

London, Routledge.

Trafford, V. and Lesham, S. (2009)

Doctorateness as a threshold concept.

Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3): 305-16.

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:

4. Supporting Candidates’ Research Projects

Candidates come to me with a fairly general idea of a research field, and one of the main tasks is to help them to develop a research proposal which is worthwhile, doable within three or four years at the most, will engage them for that period, and which has the potential to be awarded a doctorate.

 I do this by asking them to put their ideas down on paper, evaluate them using the above criteria, and then discuss them with me. These discussions are wide-ranging and cover everything from possible theoretical frameworks through methodologies and research methods. By questioning them and asking them to justify their choices, I can assist them to develop a research plan that is coherent, can be done within the time limits, and has the potential to create original knowledge and gain the award.

The task then is to produce a research plan setting time against task. Most candidates understandably have little idea of how to plan a research project, but I have found a way to help them. This is to ask them to look at the deliberately faulty research plans presented in Delamont et al (2004) and ask them to identify the problems and say how they would put them right.

Once the proposal and plan are in place, the next tasks are to gain the relevant approvals. My department requires that all research proposals and plans are approved by the Postgraduate Committee to ensure that they are viable and doable within four years and that any potential risks in the research are minimal and manageable. Once the proposal is approved, any project involving empirical research has to go before the faculty ethics committee. The guidelines are complex, and I work with candidates to interpret them in the light of their projects and ensure that all necessary safeguards are in place.

Once they have the proposal, the plan, and the approvals, they are off down the slipway, but of course their journey is rarely straightforward; research is often one step forwards and then two backwards and occasionally one or more sideways. I alert my candidates to this early on by pointing them towards Harbury’s (1966) humorous illustration of the uncertainties of research and then I take them through one of my own projects from first thoughts on the back of an envelope through the blood, sweat, toils and tears of doing research and so to the final published paper.