How to do less for your students (and be a better supervisor at the same time)

This post was authored by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn who also blogs over on The Thesis Whisperer.

I’ve been working in research education for over ten years now, but it’s only relatively recently that I’ve managed PhD students of my own. A strange mix of circumstances, job changes and a vanishingly small research specialty accounts for my relative lack of hands on experience. Of course, I have played a consulting role on many, many candidatures, but those were of the “all care and no responsibility” type, where someone else was managing the paperwork.

Now I manage the paperwork too.


screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-3-19-10-pmThe level of responsibility and stress just doesn’t compare to my previous experiences of supervision. I’m starting to understand – at a visceral level – why people complain so much about university processes and paperwork. I’m also close to understanding the feeling of having too many students and not enough time to give them attention. I don’t think I’m alone in my struggle to keep up with the demands of multiple students. I’m becoming familiar with the feeling of “supervisor guilt” – a sneaking suspicion I am not giving everyone everything they need. Much of the overwork problem in academia stems from this feeling – the guilt leads to late nights reading drafts and lunchtime meetings just so you can fit everything into the day.

While we all complain about overwork, there is, at the same time, a strange reluctance to ‘outsource’ some of the work of supervision. I see this all the time in my work as director of research training at ANU. Students who are surprised at how amazingly helpful ‘general specialists’ like me are and wish they’d known sooner. When I asked them why they haven’t turned up before they tell me they never realised they were ‘allowed’ to use the academic skills centre, the counselling service, or come to the workshops we offer.

Supervisors often assume that PhD students will work stuff out for themselves, and most of the time they can – if they know where to look. Ignorance of help is a big problem in many universities. Sometimes supervisors don’t know these services exist, or assume they are there for undergraduates only. Other supervisors know about the services, but never think to suggest which service or opportunity might be beneficial to a student. Supervisors are amazing influencers – not using this power of influence to help your student suceed is a form of benign neglect. The worst, however, are supervisors who actively tell students to avoid everything extra on offer – either because it’s “useless” or “a distraction from your PhD”.

A supervisor who thinks they are all a student needs to get through a PhD is arrogant. A supervisor who thinks these services are a distraction is really misguided – and making a lot of work for themselves. Let’s be frank – it’s nigh on impossible to combine the role of mentor, writing teacher, career advisor, paperwork sorter-outer, technical skills trainer and mental health care. There is a veritable army of these specialists in most universities. Don’t leave it to your students to find their way there – many are waiting for permission, probably without even realising it. Here’s five services you need to have on speed dial:

Your local Thesis Whisperer

I’ve made my name from being a ‘general specialist’ on the topic of doing a thesis. People sometimes think I am unique, but I assure you I am not. There are many people who work in research education in most universities. Some of us are academics who do research, others are on a professional contract and work as teachers and advisors. Most research educators are in touch with the vast literature on research learning and can help supervisors with all parts of the PhD student journey, from writing and presenting, to paperwork and problem solving. You are most likely to find them heading up your research supervisor development program. Get their card, stick it on your wall. I spend half a day a week at ANU making myself available to my colleagues to talk through issues they are having with their students, or ideas they have to run research training. Your true research education nerd like myself relishes the opportunity to talk about the trade.

The academic skills and learning unit

They are called various things in different universities, but these are clusters of learning advisors with particular specialties. Most will offer one on one help to a student and honestly – they are likely to be a better writing teacher than you are. You might be a fabulous writer, but teaching writing is a highly technical craft and I think we all need help from experts. It’s particularly important to put any student who has a non English speaking background in touch with the academic skills and learning unit at the first available opportunity.

The counselling service

Our counselling service at ANU is insanely popular – why? It’s not because all our PhD students are sobbing into their pillows every night (at least I hope not!). The counselling service are not only experts at handling stress, they are expert at helping people who are on a learning journey. Learning is change. Change can be hard. Talking to someone helps. A good university counselling service can help you students with everything from sleeping problems to stage fright and beyond.

Your library

I heart librarians. What these delightful creatures don’t know about database searches is not worth knowing, but librarians are often reservoirs of other, unexpected talents. Some are really good at working programs like Endnote, and can fix a broken bibliography with one hand tied behind their back. Others are experts on copyright and IP, or they are well versed in the dangers of predatory publishers. Many librarians have developed advanced skills in bibliometrics, the ‘Dark Arts’ as our head librarian, Roxanne, calls them. Skills in bibliometrics can help you target your writing efforts to the right journals so you get more bang for your buck.

Your dean, or other administrator with bureaucratic superpowers

Look – there are just some things that are above your pay grade. If you discover your student is plagairising or falsifying results, straight on the phone to the research services division for advice. Your student has a visa problem? Talk to the administrators in your school – likely they have helped dozens of students sort this stuff out. Always enlist tactical support and don’t be afraid to take problems to your Dean. If you are not getting along with a student, or are worried about their progress, it’s really best someone else knows before the whole thing becomes a mess.

How about you? Have you ‘outsourced’ some of the work of research supervision? What services have you found most helpful?

Related links

Useful resources page on the Thesis Whisperer



Thesis Whisperer

Associate Professor Inger Mewburn (better known as @thesiswhisperer) was born on Nuenonne country, which is now known as Tasmania, Australia (always was, always will be, Aboriginal land). She has a background as a designer and a researcher, which was nurtured at the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Since 2006, she has worked exclusively with PhD students and early career academics, helping them finish complex research projects with (sometimes very) demanding stakeholders. She’s passionate about people reaching their potential as researchers and helping to create a kinder, more inclusive academy. Inger is currently the Director of Researcher Development at The Australian National University where she oversees professional development workshops and programs for all ANU researchers. Aside from creating new posts on the Thesis Whisperer blog, she writes scholarly papers, books and book chapters about research education, with a special interest in post-PhD employability. You find out more via her Linkedin profile, Amazon author page, or view a selection of her non-blog writing on the Thesis Whisperer About page. A full list of her scholarly work is available via her Google Scholar page or OrcidID.

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