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Shining a light on supervisors can improve research culture


Largest-ever study aims to end universities’ blindspot on doctoral training, says Karen Clegg

Doctoral research supervision is a peculiar and complex activity. It is a combination of love of the subject, a drive to identify and solve big problems and a commitment to support the next generation of researchers. As such, doctoral researchers and their supervisors are a crucial part of research culture, but they are often overlooked.

With the evaluation of people, culture and environment set to account for 25 per cent of the weighting in the 2028 Research Excellence Framework, efforts to improve research supervision seem sure to intensify.

In April, UK Research and Innovation published responses to a consultation on its proposed deal for postgraduate research. Consistency in supervision was one of 10 core themes, with one in every five of respondents raising issues around the need for training and support for supervisors. Noting that “supervisors…may not always have the skills required to maximise their input”, the report suggested that mandatory training may be required. 

The Next Generation Research SuperVision Project, a £4.6 million, four-year scheme funded by Research England, seeks to address these issues of consistency. It is supported by all seven UKRI research councils, the Wellcome Trust and the Crick Institute, and will involve over 20 universities and over 400 doctoral students. We believe it is the largest culture-change project on research supervision. 

It will explore the role of team supervision; supervisory practice in different disciplines and contexts; supervision of different types of research degrees; and identification and management of poor supervision.

The project will aim to test and evaluate how professional development, mentoring and reflection on practice can help doctoral research supervisors support a more diverse demographic of researchers through a greater range of doctoral models, such as part-time and distance learning. 

Ultimately, we aim to produce a blueprint for funders and organisations on supporting and professionally recognising doctoral research supervision. 

Time crisis

Universities are not giving supervisors enough support or creating a culture that properly recognises doctoral education. In focus groups by the 2021 UK Research Supervision Survey, supervisors cited a lack of time as the factor that most affects supervision practice.

Over 75 per cent of the 3,000 respondents reported they either did not have or were not aware of a workload allocation for supervision. Only 52 per cent felt that their institution valued research supervision.

A holistic approach to supervision, alongside a cap on the number of students any single supervisor can support, could alleviate this time pressure. But we need to unpack what we mean by team supervision.

Regardless of how many formal supervisors they have, most doctoral candidates will draw on a team of people to get them through. Doctoral researchers typically need support not just from established subject specialists but from postdocs, who are often closer to the doctoral experience, from mentors, industry representatives, and from a range of professional service colleagues including technicians, researcher developers, digital and library specialists and so on.

With the REF in mind, it will be important to consider how supervisors’ contribution to culture is measured. Previous REFs have counted PhD completions. Recording non-completions as well could give a more accurate picture of the need for consistency around supervision.

Similarly, criteria for institutional promotion often count the quantity of PhD completions, but say little about the quality of supervision: was recruitment equitable and transparent? How did the supervisor develop their relationship with the researcher, and with other supervisors in academia and industry?

Signalling importance

REF 2028 could enable institutions to include the number of supervisors who have undertaken some form of continuing professional development or gained recognition for their practice through, for example, the UK Council for Graduate Education’s Research Supervision Recognition Programme.

This metric, coupled with a narrative about time allocation, reward and recognition of supervision, and a true reflection of the people involved in supervision and training would signal the importance of research supervision to research culture. If well communicated, this commitment may also show prospective doctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds that an institution is committed to providing a quality doctoral experience. 

Karen Clegg is the director of the Next Generation Research SuperVision Project (RSVP) and responsible for supervisor development at the University of York

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight