All postgraduate research involves a student working with one or more supervisors.
This student-supervisor relationship is probably the most important academic relationship that the student will have, and may be the single most significant factor for determining a successful outcome for the student’s project.
But typically, very little time is spent on this relationship, which means it is based on a lot of assumptions.
So, how should this all-important relationship work?
In the simplest understanding of the student-supervisor arrangement, the student is responsible for getting the work done, while the supervisor is responsible for guidance and feedback. Both the supervisor and student share accountability for outcomes, but the student will be much more invested.
From my experience, this is about the extent of mutual understanding of both parties. Go much deeper than this and discrepancies quickly appear.
This is fine, so long as there aren’t any complications in the project. However, postgraduate research is not supposed to be easy, so the likelihood of complications is quite high.
Without a clear understanding from both parties, small complications (or “business as usual” for research) can jeopardise the progress of the project.
Here are some of the most common issues that I have encountered:
- The student spends considerable time waiting for direction or clarity from a supervisor.
- The student wants to submit, while the supervisor is not satisfied, or too busy to read the final draft at that time.
- The student feels unsupported.
- The supervisor feels frustrated with the lack of ownership or responsibility being assumed by the student.
- There is confusion or disagreement about authorship or other decisions made on the final publication.
These are just the first issues that come to mind, and of course there are many more that could be added. In this post we will look at a solution to cover these particular challenges.
The preventative solution to many of these challenges comes in the form of a semi-formal supervision agreement. After all, this is the foundation for any workplace arrangement, and is just as applicable as an employee contract.
The details of the agreement should be negotiated and agreed upon by both the student and supervisor/s. It should remain open to review, and be flexible in order to accommodate the complexity of postgraduate research.
Essentially, it should remain as a live document.
It should also be noted that the agreement is not legally binding.
Before getting started, it is worth mentioning that many tertiary educational organisations have existing supervisor agreements for this purpose. Take a look and see if you can find one that is specific to your organisation before starting your own.
The following points will provide some guidance to creating your own supervisor agreement, or to supplement an existing agreement.
Note: Ideally the student and supervisor would independently provide a response to each item prior to meeting, so that discrepancies may be easily identified and resolved.
For a start, remember to include:
- The names of the student, supervisors and any other key personnel
- The programme of study and qualification
- Anticipated completion date
- Date that the agreement was made
Key factors to include in a supervisor agreement
- How will documents be stored and shared?
- What is the prefered method of communication?
- How will tasks be managed?
- How will overall progress be monitored?
- What are the procedures if one or more parties are dissatisfied with the arrangement?
Meetings and communication:
- How often will the supervisor and student meet?
- Where will these occur?
- How will the outcomes of the meetings be recorded and shared?
- When will the next three meetings occur?
- Are there any anticipated periods of absence during the planned project time?
- What is the protocol for missed meetings, or rescheduling?
- How will the supervisor support development of a proposal?
- How many times will the supervisor review proposal documents?
- How will the supervisor support the various stages of the project?
- Proposal and Ethics
- Data collection
- How will the supervisor review the main content? How often? At what time-points?
- In what time-frame, and form, will the supervisor provide feedback?
- What roles will the various supervisors and support personnel have?
- How will information be communicated between individuals?
- When will team meetings be needed?
- What resources will the student need (expertise, software, equipment, storage, financial, etc)?
- What space will the student need (office, kitchen, interview rooms etc)?
- How will the supervisor assist in providing or arranging necessary support?
- What funding opportunities are available (grants, scholarships, part-time work, etc)?
- What opportunities exist for ongoing learning (workshops, conferences, library resources, websites, communities, mentors, etc)?
- What is the required format of the output?
- Word count
- Where to access examples
- What are the guidelines? For instance, around:
- Images and figures
- Will this be published? By whom, and where? How will the authorship work?
- Who owns the rights to any intellectual property that may result?
- How will it be assessed?
The following are suggested prompts to cover in an initial supervisor-student meeting, or over the initial month of the arrangement.
- Supervisor has described their supervisory style, and the general expectations of the student to work within this style
- Publication and authorship expectations have been agreed
- The student has access to
- Proposal templates or examples
- Ethics application forms and support documentation and templates
- Proposal and ethics committee meeting dates and submission procedures
- Relevant enrollment dates, and suspension, extension and submission policy and regulations
- Access to cultural advisor or guiding documentation, if relevant
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all the possible items, however it should cover the most common items and help to identify other issues that are worthy of discussion and consideration prior to commencing the project.
Regardless of the way that the student-supervisor relationship is formed, there exists the potential for misunderstandings and complications which can impact all parties involved. By using a supervisor agreement, many of these misunderstandings can be anticipated and prevented without consequence.
By taking these notes, and combining them with what your organisation has, you’ll quickly, easily and significantly reduce the chance of complications.
Share your stories
- What do you see as the most important factor for students and supervisors to discuss and agree on?
- Are there other supervisory issues that we should post about?