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Research supervisors are important and undervalued

Universities undervalue the work of research supervisors, say Owen Gower and Stan Taylor
This article is more than 4 years old

Owen Gower is the Director of the UK Council for Graduate Education

Stan Taylor is an Honorary Professor of the School of Education at Durham University

Research supervision is different from any other area of academic practice.

It sits at the intersection of research and teaching, and requires supervisors to simultaneously use the knowledge and skills needed for success in both kinds of work.

Given that research supervision can’t be categorised wholly as “research” or “learning and teaching”, in many institutions it falls between two stools. This may contribute to it being undervalued: in a 2019 UKCGE survey, only 56 per cent of respondents said that research supervision was “valued” or “highly valued” by higher education institutions.

The changing PhD

This undervaluation is particularly problematic as over the last few years supervision has become far more complex. For one thing, doctoral candidates are – and should be – from increasingly diverse backgrounds. This diversity requires new pedagogical techniques, better interpersonal skills, or at the very least a sensitivity to different kinds of doctoral experiences. Then there’s the policy drive towards solving grand challenges through interdisciplinary research, requiring new kinds of relationships between co-supervisors from disciplines without a shared vocabulary.

Other new considerations include: the growth of industrial and collaborative partnerships; the different kinds of doctoral awards now available; the responsibility to support mental health and wellbeing; the growth of structured professional development opportunities for doctoral candidates; the new doctoral loan scheme which may have an impact on the expectations of some doctoral candidates; and the well-rehearsed but little understood fact that doctoral graduates are most likely to find employment outside academia.

In short, modern research supervision is complicated and takes place in a complex and pressurised environment. These complexities are given greater urgency by the government’s Industrial Strategy research and development goal, which (according to one estimate) requires an additional 25,000 doctoral enrolments by 2027. So, as Griffiths and Warren put it, in “Enhancing Teaching Practice in Higher Education”:

What once seemed a relatively simple role that could be learned experientially […] a role that was played out within a “secret garden” or “private space” has now become a highly complex set of roles which must be learned quickly and then played out within a multi-featured landscape and moulded by a variety of influential stakeholders” (p.167).

More training for supervisors

Given the complexity of the role, and its importance for the doctoral candidate experience and for completion, you would think that there would be considerable professional support available to research supervisors. However, according to research conducted in 2017, of the 143 UK institutions providing doctoral programmes:

  • 124 had mandatory initial professional development programmes for research supervisors, but 75% lasted a day or less, and most focussed on institutional regulations.
  • 60% had no further requirement for experienced supervisors to update their knowledge and skills.

One reason for this lack of support in some quarters is the view that research supervisors can only learn experientially, through doing the job, meaning that further intervention is unnecessary. However, there is now a body of evidence that suggests that supervisors who engage in personal and professional development are more confident in the role, offer a better learning experience to their doctoral candidates, and that the latter are more likely to complete on time. In light of this, it is not controversial to say that more could be done to support research supervision in the UK.

Recognise the supervisors

In order to build momentum to better value, resource and support research supervisors, and the academic developers who support them, the UKCGE has launched a Research Supervision Recognition Programme. This includes a framework of good supervisory practice which was tested by research supervisors across 13 UK institutions, along with resources to support the professional development of research supervision.

Our hope is that by specifically recognising the complexities involved in effective research supervision, we can encourage the sector to invest in and celebrate research supervisors.

One response to “Research supervisors are important and undervalued

  1. Most of which applies to supervising postdocs as well for which there should be (and often) is training about managing people in the research environment. But more is required.

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