A team approach to PhD supervision

Karen Clegg sets out a team based approach for PhD supervision and highlights the positive consequences for research culture

Karen Clegg is Co-Director & Principal Investigator of the Research SuperVision Project

What is meant by Research Culture is being hotly debated, both in the context of REF 2029 and as part of institutional strategy creation.

The Royal Society’s commonly referenced definition signals that: “Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated”.

The CoARA Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment identifies three key principles about the way in which in which research is conducted (with integrity centred on reproducibility, responsible innovation, collaboration, interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity); communicated (to maximise impact, built on transparency and openness, and partnership with the public); and cascaded (by supporting career paths and training to recognise a diversity talents, skills, and outputs, and embrace team science as the way of working). This distillation of the detailed CoARA agreement provides a useful anchor for the debate, enabling us to consider not just how research in our organisations is conducted (compliance with ethics, trusted and open research, creativity, a commitment to EDI) but also the why: to maximise the quality and impact of research.

Commitment to enhancing research culture change is also prominent in the DSIT R&D People and Culture Strategy and is backed up by significant funding from the Wellcome Trust and UKRI. There is a palpable energy and genuine commitment to wanting to demonstrate that as a sector, we care about the people, the process as well as the products of research. Research culture has, arguably, become the zeitgeist of the 2020s.

In this context, and as someone with over 30 years experience in researcher development and Co-Director of the Next Generation: Research SuperVision Project (RSVP) I’d like to make a case for the inclusion of doctoral supervision in the research culture narrative.

Research supervision and research culture

Naturally, I am going to suggest that the relationship between doctoral supervision and research culture is underexplored but it is a wider question on the extent to which we consider culture as relational. Culture is clearly about structures, data, leadership, outputs and much more, but it’s also about the ways in which people work together.

This relationship was recognised in the new deal for postgraduate research. The commitments by UKRI acknowledge that

Good supervision is fundamental to getting good outcomes for the PGR student, research team, Research Organisations, funder and future employer’ and that ‘All PGR students should have access to high quality supervision and Research Organisations should ensure that everyone in the supervisory team is well supported, including through induction for new supervisors and Continuous Professional Development (CPD).

This is further endorsed in the UKRI Revised Statement of Expectations for Doctoral Training (2024) which requires research organisations to “enable supervisors to invest in their continuous professional development as a supervisor, including building awareness of mental health, wellbeing, bullying and harassment, and equality, diversity and inclusion issues.”

UKRI raises some important questions here. Mainly, what does good PGR supervision look like, what does a supervisory team look like and how do they work, and how do we support supervisors to succeed.

Good supervision

The importance of the relationship between supervisors and their PGR students cannot be overstated. Every single talk for prospective PGR students will mention that the most important relationship they will have with their supervisors is the thing that will make or break their studies.

It is therefore surprising how little attention is paid to the quality of this supervisory relationship. The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) indicates that in 2023 overall satisfaction rates with supervision were 79 per cent but satisfaction with research culture is much lower, just 57 per cent felt they were “opportunities to become involved in the wider research community”.

PhD researchers learn about how research is conducted, communicated and cascaded into careers mainly from their supervisors. They are the role models and gatekeepers. If supervisors demonstrate good behaviours of communication, compassion and collegiality there is every chance their doctoral researcher will seek to replicate them. The same is true of conducting ethical, replicable research. If a supervisor goes to a conference and talks about it in a positive way, emphasising the opportunity to make connections, build networks and get peer feedback their students will do likewise (if the funding is available). It doesn’t matter how exceptional the researcher development provision is at an organisation. Unless a supervisor actively endorses training and CPD and models this themselves there’s every chance their supervisee will abstain and they will become one of the 43 per cent who don’t feel part of the research community and who, potentially, become alienated and disengaged.

Good supervision and good supervisory relationships is key not just to the individuals involved but to better research cultures overall.

This supervisory relationship is so important that paradoxically it is too much to expect one person to be able to manage it well. We expect research supervisors to have technical expertise, methodological insights, the ability to support their supervisees to publish and get recognised, to network, to mentor and provide wellbeing advice, and well, we expect an awful lot.

It is possible to imagine a world where a team approach to doctoral supervision becomes the norm. This is both a technical necessity and the opportunity to usher in new cultural norms.

Team science

As the REF indicates more generally there is a move toward team science. A recognition that no single academic can fulfil all research roles. In PhD supervision this team approach translates as formal and informal mentoring (often by postdocs), greater links with specialists like technicians and librarians, and relationships with industry.

It is possible, perhaps even preferable, that more distributed PhD supervision could become the norm.

This would not mean more work but a greater distribution of roles to recognise the individual strengths of supervisors. Rather than having a single supervisor students would have access to a small team with a mixture of subject expertise, methodological expertise and expertise in progress and development. It would allow students to access a range of advice and supervisor to deploy their expertise where it would have the greatest impact.

This is clearly an enormous change to accepted practice but it is also the natural progression of a research landscape that prizes teamwork, workload models which can only be reasonably achieved through team working, and a growing expectation that PhD students will have access to a range of specialist support.

Expectations

Making a multi-supervisor approach work would need some fundamental changes to the way that current doctoral supervision works.

When students start their doctoral programme they would need clarity on which supervisor is responsible for what. To enable this there would have to be a single agreement between PhD students and their institutions on what they should expect by means of support and by whom.

This would also mean maintaining a register of staff with specific supervisory skills. It would naturally be the case that supervisors would work together but to ensure no single staff member became over-committed the institution would need to know who is specialised in what and how many supervisees they are currently dealing with. Practically, a team approach would also necessitate a deep interrogation of workload models.

Supervisors within domain specialisms is one route to achieve greater efficiency but it has an important cultural element too. Teams of supervisors are by design more inclusive. They embed mutual dependency within their work, they bring people together across structures and disciplines to work for a greater good, and they encourage exposure between more students and more academics towards knowledge development. Like all forms of collaboration, it will inevitably take time to bed in and operationalise and in a climate of restricted time and finance this won’t be immediately popular. It will also require clear agreements about who does what, consideration of intellectual property, and designation of outputs. Yet collaborative working is in the DNA of academics, it’s what we do, we peer review, we help each other out in order to solve important questions and push intellectual boundaries. The pragmatic considerations of making team supervision work are not small but neither are they insurmountable in the spirit of enabling greater research, more impact and a better research culture.

In a world of team science team supervision allows us to consider some new cultural norms.

Culture and practice

For some places team supervision would be a formalisation of the informal networks that already exist. For some it would be a relatively new way of working. For many, as the data bears out, we just don’t know enough about what the supervisory experience looks like.

The Next Generation Research SuperVision Project (RSVP) is a transformative £4.6million Research England funded initiative to revolutionise research supervision culture and practices. Partnering with twenty universities globally and industry giants like GSK and the BBC, supported by UKRI councils, RSVP is a pioneering, extensive, cross-disciplinary effort. It focuses on upskilling and delivering CPD for supervisors across various disciplines, enhancing the quality of doctoral education. Led by the University of York and Sheffield Hallam University, with partners including the University of Nottingham, King’s College London, Coventry University and the UK Council for Graduate Education, RSVP is set to create a positive change in supervisory practices.

Working with partners and industry, RSVP will, over the next four years, develop sustainable, freely available resources and interventions to the full UK doctoral sector, and support for implementation through ‘train the trainer’ sessions. This will enable all institutions involved in doctoral education to select the approaches and tools that best serve their environment and to learn from each other. RSVP offers supervisor CPD via structured onboarding, workshops, mentoring, peer observation of supervision, and recognition of practice.

The aim is to support the review, development and testing of interventions and in so doing create a cultural shift in how supervision practice is understood, supported, managed and recognised across the sector. Rooted in equality, diversity, and inclusivity, RSVP seeks additional ‘Practitioner Partners’ representing the full range of UK institutions in terms of size, culture and disciplines to pilot supervision enhancement strategies.

Recognising change

The People, Culture and Environment (PCE) element of REF 2029 will require research organisations to narrate their approach to research culture and articulate how to make research culture better. Inevitably, and correctly, these narratives will include references to compliance with DORA, Open, Trusted Research, the many Concordats (Early Career Researchers, KE, Public Engagement, Technicians agreement), Athena Swan and EDI. As part of the additional indicators could we also include evidence of a commitment to onboarding for new supervisors and CPD in research supervision? Quantifiable metrics might include numbers of recognised supervisors (through the UK Council for Graduate Education Research Supervision Recognition Programme or similar); PGR completion and attrition rates, recognising why researchers are not completing and if there is a correlation between this and research culture? Academics applying for UKRI Landscape and Focal awards might also wish to consider and narrate how supervisors work together in their case for funding.

If as the rhetoric suggests, doctoral research is an essential part of the UK’s talent pipeline then understanding and recognising how doctoral supervision is embedded in a positive research culture is critical. It’s time to expand team science to team PhD – now there’s an idea.

This article is based on some of the ideas considered in Clegg K, Houston G & Gower O (2024) Doctoral Supervision and Research Culture: what we know, what works and why. Routledge.

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