Formalising supervision – A step towards better quality?
(Report from the Lisbon Congress round table on supervision, September 2004. Convenor: Andrew Chesterman)
The quality of postgraduate research in Translation Studies is of major concern to all higher education institutions, and also to EST. At the EST Congress 1998, we had a panel on thesis supervision, at which results of a questionnaire on PhD and Master's supervision in translation studies were presented. The results then were mainly of a quantitative nature, reflecting differences in the structure, expectations, and procedures of postgraduate research.
regard to the quality of programme provision, universities in
This Code was produced by a working group including representatives from Higher Education institutions, research councils, funding councils and other organisations, and the final version is the result of a lengthy consultation process. This code sets out what a PhD student can expect from a university and vice versa. Although the Code is presented as “a statement of good practice”, universities must comply with it in order to secure funding from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE). The code will also be the basis for future audit and review processes. As stated in the forward: “[The Code] provides an authoritative reference point for institutions as they consciously, actively and systematically assure the academic quality and standards of their programmes, awards and qualifications.” Universities are required to have policies and procedures in place that are robust and effective in securing and enhancing the quality and standards of the provision of research degree programmes.
The matters relating to the management of academic quality and standards in higher education which are covered by the Code are presented in the form of system-wide principles (precepts). These precepts express “key matters of principle that the higher education community has identified as important for the assurance of quality and academic standards.”
Since the Code is to give Higher Education Institutions guidance on fundings councils’, research councils’ and QAA expectations in respect of quality and standards of research programmes, the precepts are accompanied by explanations. There are 27 precepts in total, covering the following issues:
In the following part, I will only focus on the Supervision section. The complete list of precepts is given in Appendix 1, followed by a Joint statement by the research councils/AHRB on Skills training requirements for research students (Appendix 2). It is expected that doctoral research students develop these skills during their research training, and institutions are to ensure that this is the case. It is interesting to see that in addition to research skills and techniques, this list of skills also includes communication skills, networking and teamworking skills, and career management skills. With their PhD thesis, research students are expected to make a substantial, original contribution to the knowledge in their area, but at the same time, they are expected to prepare for a professional career in the academic environment. I mention these skills here because they explain the national and institutional context in which the Code and the precepts have to be understood. That is, although the Code says that the precepts “are intended to cover the many different types of students undertaking research programmes in the UK, including full and part-time, students of all ages and with different needs, UK and international, and from all backgrounds”, both the list of skills and the comments in the Code seem to reflect that the typical research student is a young person at the beginning of their career, coming to PhD research after having completed a Master’s programme. This can also be seen in the Code’s section on Development of research and other skills (precept 18), which speaks of skills students require “to become effective researchers, to enhance their employability and assist their career progress after completion of their degree.”
precepts in the Code are interrelated, and although they apply to the
The aspect of Supervision is covered in precepts 11 till 14. These precepts deal with the institutional responsibility to provide regular and appropriate supervisory support, opportunities for interacting with other researchers, advice from independent sources, and arrangements that protect the student in the event of the loss of a supervisor. I will present the precepts, give extracts of the accompanying explanations, and add my own comments.
Precept 11: Institutions will appoint supervisors who have the appropriate skills and subject knowledge to support, encourage and monitor research students effectively.
All supervisors need appropriate expertise for their role. They will wish, and institutions will require them, to engage in development of various kinds to equip them to supervise students.
New supervisors will participate in specified development activities, arranged through their institutions, to assure their competence in the role.
Institutions will expect existing supervisors to demonstrate their continuing professional development through participation in a range of activities designed to support their work as supervisors. Supervisors should take the initiative in updating their knowledge and skills, supported by institutional arrangements that define and enable sharing of good practice and provide advice on effective support for different types of student. Mentoring relationships are one example of how support can be provided for supervisors.
Comment: The qualifications of supervisors are a crucial aspect. In the
But when does a supervisor have ‘appropriate expertise’? The supervisory role includes expertise in the subject domain and also interpersonal skills. Anybody who has completed a PhD themselves should have proved their expertise in a relevant topic and subject, which will enable them to give guidance to the supervisee. The interpersonal level is crucial for the success of supervision. Supervising a young full-time research student who is a novice to research requires different skills from supervising a colleague who is working part-time for a PhD and who may already have published and/or given papers at conferences. Age and gender may be important factors in the relationship as well. The country of origin of the research student is also crucial, since expectations about the role of the supervisor are different (e.g., supervisor as a fountain of knowledge, as a facilitator, as a friend). Institutional training for supervisors can be helpful in this respect if it is organised as exchange of experience and raising awareness of potential problems. Developing expertise in supervising is a gradual process, and training as such can be useful in speeding up this process. However, there is also the danger that institutions may overact in their quest to comply with the Code (structured programmes that lead to a postgraduate certificate in supervision, awarded after completion of sessions and examinations have already been developed in some institutions).
Precept 12: Each research student will have a minimum of one main supervisor. He or she will normally be part of a supervisory team. There must always be one clearly identified point of contact for the student.
[…] Involvement with a supervisory team can provide valuable staff development and grounding in the skills required to become an effective research supervisor. A supervisory team can give the student access to a multi-faceted support network, which may include: other research staff and students in the subject; a departmental adviser to postgraduate students; a faculty postgraduate tutor; or other individuals in similar roles.
Between them, the main supervisor and, where relevant, other members of the supervisory team, will ensure that research students receive sufficient support and guidance to facilitate their success.
At least one member of the supervisory team will be currently engaged in research in the relevant discipline(s), so as to ensure that the direction and monitoring of the student's progress is informed by up-to-date subject knowledge and research developments.
[…] In all cases, a student should have an identified single point of contact, normally the main supervisor. […]
As and when a main supervisor is not able to continue supervising the student, an appropriate supervisor will be appointed to assume the role.
[…] It is important that, if a student/supervisor relationship is not working well, alternative independent sources of advice are available to the student. […]
Students will have sufficient opportunities for contacting and receiving advice and guidance from their supervisor(s) throughout their programme, irrespective of their geographical location. […]
Comment: These explanations again highlight the fact that supervision is
perceived as an institutional responsibility.
On the one hand, this can be interpreted in a positive way: research
students are integrated into the research environment and they are encouraged
to see themselves as members of a research community, and not just as ‘a
student of Professor X’. On the other hand, having a supervisory team is also a
kind of insurance policy for universities against potential failure, complaints
and appeals. In the UK, research
students have to pay a fee, unless they receive a scholarship or a bursary
and/or the fee is paid by sponsors, employers, or research councils
(universities also receive some money from the funding councils, depending on
the number of research students, and only for a specified time; recently, plans
have been announced to fund only research students at universities that got the
highest scores of 4 or
Precept 13: Institutions will ensure that the responsibilities of all research student supervisors are clearly communicated to supervisors and students through written guidance.
It is important that supervisor(s) and student are fully aware of the extent of one another's responsibilities, to enable both to understand the supervisor's contribution to supporting the student and where the supervisor's responsibilities end.
Depending on institutional and research council guidance, supervisory responsibilities may include:
• providing satisfactory guidance and advice;
• being responsible for monitoring the progress of the student's research programme;
• establishing and maintaining regular contact with the student (where appropriate, guided by institutional expectations), and ensuring his/her accessibility to the student when s/he needs advice, by whatever means is most suitable given the student's location and mode of study;
• having input into the assessment of a student's development needs;
• providing timely, constructive and effective feedback on the student's work, including his/her overall progress within the programme;
• ensuring that the student is aware of the need to exercise probity and conduct his/her research according to ethical principles, and of the implications of research misconduct;
• ensuring that the student is aware of institutional-level sources of advice, including careers guidance, health and safety legislation and equal opportunities policy;
• providing effective pastoral support and/or referring the student to other sources of such support, including student advisers (or equivalent), graduate school staff and others within the student's academic community;
• helping the student to interact with others working in the field of research, for example, encouraging the student to attend relevant conferences, supporting him/her in seeking funding for such events; and where appropriate to submit conference papers and articles to refereed journals;
• maintaining the necessary supervisory expertise, including the appropriate skills, to perform all of the roles satisfactorily, supported by relevant continuing professional development opportunities.
Supervisors will be sensitive to the diverse needs of individual students, including international students, and the associated support that may be required in different circumstances. […]
Institutions may find it helpful to include in their code(s) of practice […], guidance on the minimum frequency of contact advisable between students and supervisors. […]
Comment: This list of responsibilities reflects the different roles of the
supervisor (subject expert, advisor, mentor, assessor, ‘agony aunt’, …). It
also highlights the supervisor’s responsibility both towards the research
student (in the narrow sense of producing a PhD and in the wider sense of
becoming a member of the research community) and towards the institution
(reporting on progress, informing of problems). It could be argued that the
whole list of tasks referring to the responsibility towards the research
student is common sense. Each academic should be interested in enhancing
knowledge in their respective discipline, and subsequently, each supervisor
should be interested in seeing new scholars emerge and helping them getting
established – and a successful PhD thesis of high quality is a major step in
this process. In the environment of
Precept 14: Institutions will ensure that the quality of supervision is not put at risk as a result of an excessive volume and range of responsibilities assigned to individual supervisors.
In appointing supervisors, institutions need to be aware of and guided by the overall workload of the individual, including teaching, research, administration and other responsibilities, […]
Supervisors need time to provide adequate contact with each research student and to fulfil the responsibilities listed under Precept 13 above. Supervisors and students should agree between themselves the level of interaction required and what constitutes sufficient time, in terms of quality as well as quantity, to devote to the supervisory role. […]
Comment: This point again highlights the institutional responsibility. Even if
in reality, potential research students very often contact an individual
academic whom they would wish to have as a supervisor, in the end it is the
institution that appoints the supervisors. In other words, academics are not
selecting their supervisees themselves. Institutions are expected to specify a
maximum number of research students one supervisor may have at the same time
As should have become clear in the extracts of the
Code, research degrees in the
The Code needs to be seen in the context of the UK,
where universities are expected to function like companies (a business and
management culture), where most universities are short of money, where research
students have to pay a fee, where research output is measured effectively in
financial terms (the score in the Research Assessment Exercise, the number of
PhD students, the completion rate, and similar factors decide on the amount of
money universities can get from the government). In such an environment, it is
understandable that universities develop policies and procedures with which to
assure themselves and the government of the quality of research degree
programmes. The QAA Code of practice sets out minimum standards for such
programmes against which universities can judge their own practice. In view of
all the required openness and transparency of research degrees, it is
surprising to see that the final assessment of the PhD is still to be done
‘behind closed doors’, so to speak. In contrast to other countries where the
final assessment is conducted in the form of a public defence or dispute, the
practice in the
Based on my own experience as a PhD supervisor in the UK, and also familiar with the system in Germany, I would say that supervisors in the UK do indeed work within specific constraints, but that these constraints can also be seen as facilitating factors. Regular monitoring helps all parties to become aware of potential problems which otherwise might not have come to light (e.g. because the supervisee was too shy to mention problems). I would not want to be required to get a formal qualification as a supervisor, e.g. being made to attend a training programme where I have to sit exams and get a certificate. But I would have appreciated some form of training, had it been available, when I got my first PhD student. I would have found it useful had I been given some advise about what to expect from research students from particular countries, about how to (re)act when faced with particular problems at the interpersonal level. Without such advice at the beginning of the ‘career’ as a supervisor, we probably all try to do as our own supervisor did but not repeating things we were not happy with. New supervisors might be reluctant to ask more experienced colleagues for help when faced with a particular challenge, because they may not want others to know that not everything is working smoothly in the supervisory arrangements. Training at an institutional level, which allows for exchanging experience and sharing good practice, can thus be very useful for new supervisors.
short, although the Code has been produced for the context of the