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  • How to Be a Good Supervisor: My Top Tips
  • Nicola Shaughnessy (bio)

The work of a research supervisor is rarely in the academic spotlight, but what we do can make a world of difference to a new generation of scholars. When I was encouraged to apply for my home institution’s inaugural Research Supervisor of the Year Award, a colleague made reference to the diversity of students I supervise and the range of methods I use in working with them. This was the basis for me being shortlisted for a Times Higher Education Award (the UK’s higher education “Oscars”) in 2018 for “working with difference and making a difference,” as my application put it. My research interests in autobiography, participatory arts, and mental health have attracted increasing numbers of postgraduate students who identify as neurodiverse, leading me to develop creative and interdisciplinary approaches to supervision. In this piece, I have identified eleven top tips that could be used with any student, particularly if they are encountering difficulties in their approach to research (fig. 1).

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Fig. 1.
(Source: © Matt Wilson.) Nicola Shaughnessy at a Practices, Hunches, Dialogues event.

1. Ask the Student

What does a good supervisor mean for them? And what does a good PhD student mean for you? How do you want this to work? After a brief discussion, plan the tutorial arrangements around your hopes and desires for your working relationship. Although you may think you know more than [End Page E-9] the student, this can be a useful point of departure and discovery. This is also a way of exploring learning differences and how to accommodate them without the student feeling they are identified as a special case in need of adjustments. All PhD students are special and all need adjustments as each student and project is unique. If a student identifies as neurodiverse, it can be helpful to create a checklist that can be an open document to be added to as you continue to work together. Key considerations for these students in particular are WHERE to have supervisions (making sure environment is appropriate––fluorescent lights can block thinking), WHEN (more regular supervision in shorter sessions might be preferred as a structure), and HOW (communication preferences such as Skype meetings, recording supervisions, and so on). Encourage students to be aware of their skills and challenges (see below for researcher style).

2. Unsupervision and Group Practices, Hunches, Dialogues (PHD)

Supervisions can feel isolating, but they do not always need to be a one-to-one affair. And not every meeting needs to be a tutorial in an office space, lasting an hour. A coffee chat, library meeting, or walk and talk are all ways of creating dialogue around and about the research. One supervisor I know visited a student in her kitchen, laying out the thesis on a table to help them see the structure in a different environment. As your supervisees, your students have at least one thing in common—you. Your research interests will also create links between the students that you can map together to create connections and build community. I run occasional meetings identified as Practices, Hunches, Dialogues for my practice-based students to share approaches. This could become a group “away day” to focus on a particular theme such as documentation for practice-based approaches or shared ethical issues.

3. Time and Space Matters

Define and observe boundaries. Identify whether your student(s) have preferences for times of day or environment to optimize their learning. Are they a morning person or not? Related considerations may involve child care to ensure the student has built in the time between dropping off and picking up from school. It is equally important for supervisors to identify parameters; for example, telling a student that “this is my lunch break” is okay.

4. Feedback: A Participatory Approach

Feedback can be difficult to digest, particularly if you are drawing attention to typos, confused ideas, referencing problems, and other student sins. As supervisors, it can be helpful to think of feedback as something that is offered, open, and in process, in contrast to marking that is more associated with closure...


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