Saturday, 14 August 2010

Research degrees and supervision

This summer marks the end of a significant aspect of my academic career, as both my last research students have recently submitted their theses and await their oral examinations (more formally known as the viva voce, or viva).

One of these students,a Ukrainian, has been doing full-time research for her PhD in economics at my university for over three years and I have been her principal supervisor. We have met often, or exchanged e-mails, and I have read several drafts of most of her work; other colleagues have made big contributions to the supervision, especially for the more technical econometric part of the thesis which has never been my forte. The whole process has been hugely interesting, and I keep my fingers firmly crossed that she will manage the oral successfully - in fact my last stage in advising her will take place next week, when we meet to enable me to advise her what sorts of question to expect in the viva. Other than that, I am not of course involved at all in the examination process, in keeping with standard UK practice (this would be different in the US, for instance).

My other student is a Norwegian whom I have not yet met - with luck we shall finally meet on the day that he comes over to Edinburgh for his viva, and I look forward to that. He is a distance learning DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) student of the Edinburgh Business School (EBS), where I was working part-time until end-April this year. Despite formally ending my employment at EBS, however, I agreed with the School that I would continue supervising this particular student through to completion, since anything else would have been quite disruptive to the student concerned. He is already employed and works full-time at a Norwegian consulting firm, so for the most part his research has had to be fitted into spare time, including holidays, though his employer is also very supportive. The research is not in economics, but in risk management, a subject quite new to me, and about which I have learned a great deal in the past couple of years.

Supervision 'at a distance' is very different from what I have been used to, and has taken the form of a mix of e-mails and telephone conversations, the latter almost weekly at critical points of the research. Some of the correspondence has involved detailed commentary on draft chapters or longer chunks of the thesis. What is missing from this sort of supervision is the quick informal chat resulting from a chance meeting in the corridor, the sort of link that has been very useful with my on-campus students. But I think we have nevertheless managed to establish a good working relationship and mostly communicate quite well.

Another complication, though, is that because the DBA is quite a new 'product' of the Edinburgh Business School, some of the supervision is - in effect - conducted by committee, something I haven't encountered before and don't like very much. What happens is that a draft of all or part of the thesis is circulated to some or all of the DBA research committee, with comments coming back to the committee for discussion, then being cast as advice to go back to the student. With the best will in the world this is a problematic approach to supervision, since it's extremely hard to avoid mixed and confusing messages going back to the student concerned, though I've done my best to act as a 'filter' where I thought this would be useful. Officially, though, I'm probably not supposed to do that as this could be viewed as 'diluting' the committee's views. That said, my guess is that this fairly inefficient approach to supervision will be largely dropped once the DBA is more established and the School feels more confident that good standards of research and scholarship are being maintained.

So, my last two research students, and two very different styles of supervision. This makes me wonder how I learned to be a supervisor in the first place. But I started supervising PhD students back in the mid-1970s, only shortly after I finished my own PhD, and I have no recollection of receiving any formal training at all. As far as I remember, my first few students always had someone more senior as principal supervisor, so I guess I learned quite a lot from observing their practice - this sort of on-the-job learning was standard in those days, as there was very little proper training for anything then. Before long, I was encouraged to take on students as a principal supervisor in my own right, and also saw the other end of the process as I was increasingly invited to serve as a PhD examiner by various universities. Gradually, therefore, I picked up the elements of what supervision was all about.

Nowadays, the same learning process takes place but it is more formally structured, with more systematic training of new supervisors (to which I have contributed on occasion); clearer codes of practice for research students and supervisors so everyone knows what to expect and how to operate; and regular reviews of progress to identify emerging problems in good time (I don't recall any reviews taking place in my early years as a supervisor). All this makes the supervision of research students rather more professional than it sometimes was in the past, though I doubt whether good practice has really changed all that much. Supervising bright and imaginative research students has always been fun, and long may it remain so!

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