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Establishing a Support Framework for Research Supervision

The How and Why of Supporting Doctoral Research Supervisors

Dr Janet Carton
Graduate Education Development Manager, UCD Graduate Studies

This article explores the development of a support framework for research supervisors in an educational environment heavily focused on impact. What really counts in doctoral training?

Research Supervision

In any academic year, there are 6,000–7,000 doctoral students in training in Ireland (HEA, n.d.). The movement of skilled and qualified doctoral students is seen as one of the newest forms of renewable energy (Neumann and Tann, 2011), contributing significantly to the knowledge-based economy (Bryan and Guccione, 2018). These students are initially placed in the hands of supervisors who, in some universities, are offered professional development training of varying formats, levels, and duration. Supervision is arguably the highest form of teaching accessible in higher education today (Taylor et al., 2018), so it is surprising that the training offered to academic staff is rarely a requirement or prerequisite for supervising doctoral candidates, who pursue the highest award a university can offer.

What role do supervisors play in doctoral education? They play a critical role in doctoral training, and ‘good’ doctoral supervision is crucial to successful doctoral education programmes (Seagram et al., 1998; Golde, 2000; Harman, 2002; Walker et al., 2008). It is generally accepted that healthy relationships between supervisors and students increase research outcomes (McCormack and McCance, 2017), while unhealthy relationships can lead to increased dropouts.

Interestingly, supervisors are often unaware of their role in student attrition (Gardner, 2009), in spite of extensive literature linking dissatisfaction over supervision to student dissatisfaction and degree abandonment. Many of the concerns regarding graduate supervision pertain to a mismatch in expectations between supervisors and students about their roles and responsibilities (Adkins, 2009), something which can be resolved if addressed at early and appropriate stages in the doctoral life cycle. Specifically, these mismatches can adversely affect the working relationship, resulting in delays and non-completion (Bair and Haworth, 2004; Golde, 2005; Crede and Borrego, 2014).

As supervisors play a major role in student satisfaction, persistence, and academic achievement (Murphy et al., 2007; Zhao et al., 2007; Solem et al., 2011), the absence of specialised supports seems a folly. In UCD, we therefore aim to draw the research supervisor into a community of practice, where peer learning, training, and experience-sharing are the norm in a student- and supervisor-centred educational environment.

Support and Development Framework: UCD’s Person-Centred Approach

Where did the impetus for changing focus to supervisory supports come from? The Salzburg Principles II (European University Association, 2010) state that universities have a responsibility to provide training for doctoral supervisors. UCD has proactively taken a person-centred approach to this directive in developing an inter-institutional Research Supervisor Support and Development Programme (RSSDp), now running for ten years in the university. This training programme forms a core component of the proposed Research Supervisor Support and Development Framework (RSSDf). Moving towards a person-centred research supervision practice has advantages when considering impact in higher education, as it can enhance the research environment, improving completions and throughput rates.

The proposed support framework has evolved out of the success of the existing RSSDp and the culmination of participant feedback. In addition, insight for supports development was gained in a collaborative project in 2011, when UCD co-authored the guide ‘Developing an institutional framework for supporting supervisors of research students’ (NAIRTL, 2011). This unique collaboration between seven higher education institutions in Ireland, under the National Academy for the Integration of Teaching and Learning (NAIRTL) umbrella, formed NAIRTL’s Supervisor Support and Development Working Group. The working relationships extended well beyond the completion of the original project, with UCD, Trinity College Dublin, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland going on to contribute to the first inter-institutional RSSDp in Ireland. International and national experience and best practices have thus informed the principles of UCD’s proposed RSSDf.

With the advent of the framework, the university aims to embed research supervision in an active, contemporary learning environment, which is fit for purpose in training the new generation of doctorates. This is increasingly important because current research supervisors are not, in general, training students for the same kind of roles that they themselves occupy.

Applying the definition of person-centredness by McCormack and McCance (2017) to graduate research supervision implies that person-centred supervision is an approach to research supervision that should focus on forming healthy relationships between supervisors and students. This aim is at the core of any support activity, training, or development offered by the university. The aims of the Supervisor- and Student-Centred Framework are to facilitate:

  • peer learning among supervisors throughout the RSSD training programme
  • direct access for novice supervisors to mentors or experienced academics
  • appropriate and relevant new academic and supervisor orientation
  • registration and recognition of supervisory experience
  • access to online supports
  • sharing of practices externally (to UCD) as well as internally
  • exposure to international norms and best practice through symposia and seminars
  • recognition of excellence via an Award for Exemplary Practice, in line with UCD principles and strategy
  • evaluation of student and supervisor experience
  • ongoing review informing professional development.


Figure 1: A representation of UCD’s person-centred Research Supervisor Support and Development Framework

An organic, person-centred approach lies at the core of this framework, embracing the student and supervisor as focal points. A number of supports in the form of seminars, online policies and guidelines, and a substantial training programme underpin the framework, dovetailing with peer mentoring by experienced supervisors working in an advisory capacity. A distinct supervision orientation for new academics reinforces UCD’s ethos of its commitment to doctoral research.

Excellence in supervisory practice is then acknowledged and rewarded through registration of experience (licence to supervise register) and student-driven awards for supervisory excellence. The framework will be informed by the professional development of supervisors and will be evaluated and reviewed in this context on an ongoing basis.

The Impact Agenda: Measuring Success

Why has it been all about the numbers? Systematic data collection feeds well into determining impact such as university rankings, with completions, publications, and throughputs rating highly when measuring success in doctoral education. In contrast, the newly developed awards for excellence in supervisory practice often focus on the more nurturing traits, such as ‘ability to integrate students into a postgraduate community’, whether the supervisor is ‘engaging, inspirational, and helpful’, and the extent to which supervisors can ‘act as mentors for doctoral students’ (Times Higher Education, 2018).

The ‘how’ of research supervision can therefore not be limited to focusing on audits of measurements such as enrolments, completions, throughput, and publications: it needs to be qualified, to move towards person-centred supervisory practices. If we want to evaluate the complex processes that underpin person-centredness in research supervision (Heyns et al., 2019), we must develop creative strategies that focus on the supervision experience and an understanding that a person-centred approach is an individualised and not a routine or standardised approach to supervision (Lepledge et al., 2007).

Of course, the supervisor has been in pole position for accountability for this success, or for how success is generally perceived by universities. Recently, however, there has been a cultural shift of responsibility, from the supervisor being solely responsible for the success of postgraduate students to responsibility resting on a wider group of stakeholders (van Schalkwyk et al., 2016). An additional aim of the framework is therefore to recognise and support the role of all players in doctoral training, which UCD will acknowledge going forward. The framework thus embeds the philosophy of creating a community of practice. In the knowledge that it takes a village to raise a child, several professional university staff, at various levels and roles, as well as supervisors are needed to bring doctoral students through to successful completion of the degree. The framework must also therefore recognise and support the distinct roles of all stakeholders in the doctoral training process.

A competitive higher education environment marked by increased accountability and quality-assurance measures for doctoral study, including the desire for structured training of doctoral supervisors, has highlighted the need to clearly articulate and delineate the work involved in supervising doctoral students, and how to describe and theorise the complex, multifaceted work involved has caused a dilemma (Halse and Malfroy, 2010). The factors that influence this key relationship ultimately inform the shape and focus of ‘training’ programmes and professional development supports, which are increasingly being offered as credited certificates and diplomas in university teaching, learning, or professional development.

The impact of this academic development, what constitutes impact, and how we sustain it are two topical areas for discussion in the sector. But the link between teaching training programmes and participant learning outcomes is often indirect, according to Trowler (2008) and Bamber (2008), who concluded that there is no straightforward link between a change initiative and its outcomes. So quantitative measurements are not the only answer when measuring success.

Thankfully, universities are beginning to shape their training provisions for supervisors based on the quality of the experience of the research student when engaging in the doctoral programme, hoping that improved completion rates will be a side-effect of enhancements in professional practice. An effective marriage of qualitative and quantitative metrics to measure impact of supervision and supervisor training has yet to be determined, but placing the student and supervisor experience at the centre of this equation is key.


So are we actually helping supervisors by engaging them with a framework that supports this complex form of teaching? Yes, academic development should be able to show that training is meaningful, valuable, impactful, and worth the effort and time invested in it. The traditional metrics can be hard to measure, and in research supervision and in reality, we now know, they should not be taken in isolation as a measure of success (Sutherland and Hall, 2018).

Feedback from the Research Supervisor Support and Development Programme in UCD shows that supervisors have begun to change their approaches to supervision and fully intend to keep these changes going – a sign that training is having an impact on practice (McCulloch and Loeser, 2016). In fact, 82% of participants agreed that the learning aims of the programme were met, and five years after completion, changes in practice are being attributed to programme learning, with comments such as ‘I feel much better prepared to supervise a PhD student as a result of completing this course’ common in feedback.

The question lies in whether we feel the need or are required to meet the demands of the impact agenda in the traditional sense of measurement. If we accept Einstein’s hypothesis that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts, we are undoubtedly on the right track. It is the university’s job to contextualise this approach for the research community and for all of the stakeholders in doctoral education.


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