Supervision of post-graduate students

In successful post-graduate training the aim should be to prepare the students for careers in basic and applied research and extension, for teaching and administrative duties at universities/research institutes, and for careers in the business world, as well as in the public sector. This is valid for PhD training, and to a large extent also for MSc training. To widen job opportunities, students need training not only in their own specific research area; they also need training to obtain a broad base of general competence and skills (Figure 9).


Figure 9. What a PhD student should attain.


To achieve the required knowledge and skills in a limited time, every PhD/MSc study needs to have a clearly defined research task and a time plan for the research, courses and any other activity to be included; there should also be a plan for the financing. A valuable tool for the study is to have an [Individual study plan]; it should be prepared by the student together with the supervisor(s) and, where appropriate, with the student's employer. It is essential to discuss the respective expectations and roles, and that all parties involved agree on the content and time schedule. The study plan should be revised regularly, every half year, or at least yearly; research, courses and other activities performed should then also be recorded.

Quite often, MSc and PhD students do their research work at national or international research institutes, away from the university where they are registered. It is then essential that the university supervisor visits them regularly and that the work is jointly discussed with the host institute supervisor and the student. Being the university supervisor you will then better understand what your student is doing and why he or she maybe cannot do everything that you considered important. It may also help the supervisor contribute to and maybe come to the defence of the student in the final research project examination.

To obtain the maximum benefit from supervisory meetings with your research students, the meetings need to be well planned and structured. Each meeting requires that you are actively listening, questioning, responding, explaining, providing feedback, and summarizing. It is often a good idea to ask the student to write minutes of every meeting. Furthermore, the students should make regular written reports on their work. Such reporting benefits both supervisors and students; it sets out progress, identifies problems and forms a basis for work plans for the next period. Students should also be required to present regular seminars.

Research supervision is a complex form of teaching. The academic experiences and skills of supervisors and of students are the major factors affecting the research training. For supervising research students, however, it is not enough to be an effective researcher. You also need to be an effective supervisor. As a supervisor, you can adopt a range of possible roles, e.g. director, facilitator, advisor, criticizer, supporter, friend and examiner. The roles you take have implications for the roles of the research student and should be influenced by the needs of each student. For example, if you act like a guru, your student will act like a disciple, whereas acting like a guide and friend will make the student an explorer. As in all teaching, a safe learning climate is vital in the supervisory process. Research students usually characterize the "ideal" supervisor as being knowledgeable, available, helpful and stimulating.