Research supervision is a vital underpinning of research institutions

Academic supervision is a vital underpinning of research institutions, but recognition is not always concomitant with the influence of the role. Keeping on top of training and development is more important than we think.

PhD students are beholden to their supervisors to a degree unseen in other professions: a supervisor often guides the content of research, significantly impacts the direction of careers, and, in a large part, determines whether or not their candidacy even goes forward.

The supervisor-student relationship is so vital that when it goes wrong, it goes very badly wrong. The closed and unequal power dynamic can result in students dropping out and non-completion, but also lends itself to bullying and in the worst-case scenario, genuine abuses.

But the relationship can also go very right, of course—everyone wants one of those “rock star” supervisors.

The role is vital to the success of individual academics. It often, therefore, forms an invisible underpinning of an institution as a whole. It is with this understanding that many universities publish guidelines about how to manage the supervisor-candidate relationship. Additionally, although the role isn’t subject to standard regulation, institutions have their own criteria for registration to supervise, with training often spanning an online micro-credential or an in-person workshop covering the practical aspects of supervision.

But navigating the supervisor-student relationship is a skill distinct from the particular vagaries of IP and copyright, admission guidelines, or how to conduct milestone reviews. It benefits from professional development outside these nuts-and-bolts fundamentals. International research tells us that it is the relationship itself that drives academic skills development. It’s even been suggested that the same skillset as is required to manage a team of adult professionals can meaningfully contribute to high-quality research supervision.

Additional training opportunities that do exist are not often highly rated components of continuing professional development among academics. And, unfortunately, advice on how to supervise well still often begins with a plea to actually complete any training at all.

The impact of a supervisor upon a candidate is not always consistent with the training or recognition afforded to the role. The ‘rock star’ supervisors are the exception rather than the norm— but the education and support of well-trained, high-quality home-grown researchers really does seem to take a village.

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