Good practice in supervising research

Ross Woods, 2016, rev. 2020


Students are usually surprised to learn that providing help is not the supervisor’s primary responsibility. The main task of a research supervisor is to maintain the institution’s standards and procedures. This includes ensuring:

Supervisors should not have to teach basic skills that students should have learned before they were admitted to the research program, such as writing, editing and formatting academic papers, using standard methodologies, applying logical thought, and working autonomously. (In fact, if an institution's students tend not to have been adequately prepared, then it has a systemic problem in program design.)

Research students are expected to be autonomous self-starters who are responsible for their own work. In the end, it is the student who is assessed, not the supervisor. In extreme cases, students who are too dependent on the supervisor to conduct their own research might be asked to transfer to another program.

Students are responsible to:

  1. Find their own resources
  2. Initiate and defend their own original ideas
  3. Notice any new topics of discussion and questions that arise
  4. Commit their work to writing, both in field notes and manuscripts
  5. Report regularly. You might prefer either weekly or fortnightly during semester. When they start putting their work into writing, they should email drafts of recent chapters.
  6. Proof-read all their own spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
  7. Ask for help if they get stuck.



As supervisor, it is your role to give help:

  1. As a service provider, an institution needs to provide sufficient support to give students a reasonable chance of success. (In fact, some accreditation agencies require it and will check during an audit.)
  2. As students, the research is primarily a learning experience and you are the teacher. Students need help, because their programs are deliberately a step more challenging than their previous qualifications.
  3. As consumers of a service, students expect help because that is what students pay for. Lazy supervisers are just passing the buck.
  4. If you supervise well, you will have fewer dropouts and complaints.
  5. If you supervise well, your students will produce better theses and dissertations with less unnecessary frustration.
  6. Good supervision will improve your personal reputation as a supervisor and your institution's reputation. Both of these are helpful in attracting students because students will actively seek someone who gives reasonable amounts of help.
  7. It is quite reasonable for researchers to collaborate with other researchers and have some kinds of help.

In the bigger picture, the question of how much help should supervisers provide is not always easy question. To some extent, it is the student's research and the supervisor's main role is to check that the student's work is correct and up to institutional standards. Supervisors are not there to do the students' work for them; students need to show that they can work independently and still get it right.


How supervisors help

Almost all students need supervisor help at some stage of their projects, although the supervisor's role often varies according to the stage of the project. The student might be more an expert than the supervisor when working through the details of the literature review and the data analysis, or some of the practicalities of the fieldwork situation. The supervisor will be more expert in methodology, validity of research design and structure, general theory, and presentation.

When students submit work, they most want you to get back to them quickly with helpful comments. A long period for turnaround is most discouraging for students, and it is worse in distance education. If it takes time to think through something difficult, at least inform the student so they know you are on the job.

Other than that, the most important kinds of help you can give is to help students develop their ideas:

Supervisor help usually also involves:

You may refer to other experts to seek advice on a specialised issue, or get a second opinion on methodology or assessment.

Some students tend to muddle and procrastinate, so it is good practice to work together to set short-term goals (sometimes as frequently as weekly), then check whether they achieved them. It's a balancing act. Although they would flounder without your help to set and achieve goals, their progress is their own responsibility and there are limits to how much you can nurture them.


Relating to your students

Relationships between supervisors and students are usually close and complex. As supervisor, you may take on any of the following roles at different stages. You might be a research colleague, an adviser (whose advice students might be required to accept), an administrator, or an assessor. As a colleague, the student might might be a friend with whom they interact and discuss their ideas. You might encourage them or (if necessary) give correction. But as an administrator or assessor, you normally have considerable power over their research.

You need to look at student's work from a fairly neutral viewpoint. Students can't easily check their own work; they find it hard to see mistakes in something they wrote and that they think is very good.

A mistake in their work is often simply an opportunity for revision. It might only be that the draft still needs polishing. Perhaps they overlooked something important or included something that should have been omitted.

The supervisor-student relationship sometimes sours. This might be through fundamentally different opinions, lack of contact, misunderstandings through emails, or critique of work. Students are not normally permitted to change supervisors, and your first course of action should be to repair the relationship.



As a rule of thumb, plan to meet with each student once a week for a one-hour meeting. Sometimes it is not at all necessary and sometimes it is not at all adequate. Students need most help at the first stages (literature review and planning) and the final stage (formatting their work). In the middle stages, students might be so busy away doing fieldwork that it can be difficult to meet with them at all. At least try to touch base; when students are in difficulty, they might only be willing to ask for help if they meet with you. In other cases, they might have made a mistake but do not realize it.

The same guidelines apply whether interviews are in person, by teleconference, or by email. Students need to prepare proactively:

  1. check that the time and location is suitable
  2. email written work to you beforehand, so that you have time read it and reflect on it appropriately before your interview
  3. list your questions and ideas; I recommend that they write rough drafts of their questions and reflect on them for a few days.
  4. plan their next step.

As a supervisor, you also need to be prepared. Read and reflect on any written work submitted beforehand, and write your comments and questions.

Then, during the interview, keep to the allotted time, usually 60 or 90 minutes.


When you get stuck

Students complain when supervisors change their minds and require students to make a series of changes to their proposals or chapters. It is worse in an online situation where you cannot meet face-to-face. This kind of problem has many causes, for example:

  1. In few cases, of course, the student is getting something wrong and can't figure out how to fix it, even if you tell them. (Fertile places for these kinds of problems are references, English grammar and style, and validity in construct and methodology.)
  2. The student might have simply misunderstood what you said. It's probably not helpful to blame either yourself or the student.
  3. Something in the student's work doesn't seem quite right, but you can't quite pick what it is. You ask for corrections, but the student has difficulties identifying the problem. They do what they can, hand it in again, but somehow it is still wrong.
  4. Some supervisors change their minds because they forget what they said last time. This is more common for supervisors who have many students or see them too infrequently to remember specific advice.
  5. The student is trapped between supervisors who have contrasting opinions.
  6. The same supervisor might give views from different perspectives. "If I have my history head on, I might answer differently from when I have my epistemology head on."
  7. When different papers are unique, it's not always straightforward to respond consistently.
  8. If the student's topic is original, you might be learning about it too.
  9. Some college professors will give an A to a very novel, innovative paper, while others would give it a D because it doesn't contain responses to issues they thought were essential.
  10. In any kind of assessment, assessors differ according to time of day and the order in which tasks are done. Assessors tend to assess more leniently at the end of a series of papers.

Research has been quite prolific on the last two, and most assessment textbooks give an overview.

Supervisors cannot be perfectly consistent in their advice, but some could improve:

  1. Mull it over before you give responses.
  2. Confer with colleages, especially other supervisors with whom you disagree, and present a consistent front to the student. Students should not have to mediate disputes between supervisors.
  3. Put your comments in writing, and check what you said before you say something different.


About external consultants

In some cases, doctoral students might want to engage an external consultant; many companies provide people who help the student through most of the dissertation. Some organizations also provide dissertation coaches. Struggling students can feel stressed, isolated and overwhelmed and are in danger of dropping out. Coaches get the project back on track, mobilize progress, and maintain momentum until graduation. They assist the student to handle the supervisory committee, overcome anxiety and writer's block, and manage time. They might also give advice on methodology, writing, and defense preparation. Ref. Cara Weston-Edell

You have the right to disallow these practices, but many US supervisors give inadequate help and encourage students to get it from external consultants. If your students choose to do so, I suggest that you monitor the situation closely. As a personal opinion, it would be best practice for the institution's supervisory committee to provide these services.

On one hand, the ability to collaborate is an important aspect of research. Students need to be able to pick the brains of others and to gather ideas. In some cases, these simply stimulate the student’s own thoughts and no referencing is necessary. Ethically speaking, consultants can give the same kind of help that you should be giving, with the advantage of being a second opinion and having a different viewpoint. That is, they can probe with extra questions to encourage student thinking.

On the other hand, if a student feels they need the extra help of a consultant, it might indicate either that you have not been doing your job effectively, or that the students did not have the skills for admission into the program in the first place. Moreover, "consultants" are sometimes more like ghost writers and some parts of the student’s final thesis or dissertation might be little more than the thoughts of the consultant. In other cases, they are ghost editors and students have little ability to write, edit, or lay out a dissertation.

You will find out what is happening when you ask questions like Why did you decide to do it that way? Students are exposed when they cannot answer well and can only repeat the reasons given to them by someone else.

In the worst cases, students might be failed for not referencing the thoughts of others. If you, as supervisor, find out that the student knows little about academic writing and layout, you might have to put the dissertation in limbo (i.e. not refer it for assessment) because skill in academic writing and layout are required to pass. In other cases, students might be failed or moved to a lower program because they have been unable to demonstrate that they can work autonomously.