Results of surveys of research students
(Report from the Lisbon Congress round table on supervision, September 2004. Convenor: Andrew Chesterman)
There have been two surveys of research students undertaken
1. Position of research students in the School and in the University
1.1. Induction both at the level of the department and the university:
At the level of the department: Who’s who in the department? How does the department function? Where do they fit in?
At the level of the University:
The roles of the Finance Office, Admissions Office, Examinations Office etc.
Procedures in respect of registration, progression, submission, vivas
1.2. Entitlements of research students:
Are research students entitled to:
• funding? (What are the sources of funding in the University? How do students apply?)
• training? Where does that training take place – at departmental level or at University level?)
1.3. Responsibilities of research students:
Are they expected to teach – and, if so, for nothing? Or at what rate? Is there a regulation about maximum hours per week a student may teach?
1.4. Social life
Where can research students meet research students from other Departments? Is there a Postgraduate Society?
These may all seem like technical issues, but our experience is that they can pose major difficulties. So much so, that they now form part of our Research Training Programme.
On the issue of research training, it is not only students who may require training; supervisors may need training, too. Last year we ran a Research Training programme which was aimed at both students and supervisors: the take-up on the part of the supervisors was poor, partly because some supervisors did not recognise the importance of training – and partly because some supervisors regarded their research students as their personal property.
Which brings me to the second issue to emerge from the surveys:
2. Relationship with the supervisor
The traditional 1:1 supervisor-student relationship is a residue of the medieval master/apprentice tradition: when it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad, it can be dreadful.
There are two main problems in the traditional 1:1 supervision arrangment:
i. it is relationship of unequals in which the student can be very vulnerable;
ii. the expectations (on both sides), which are mostly unspoken, can differ enormously
A key issue here is the establishment of mechanisms for dealing with breakdown during supervision.
Another aspect which has been largely ignored has been arrangements for supervision after a viva when the student has been asked to make major changes to the dissertation. In this situation the relationship between the supervisor and student may have broken down – what supports are there for the student?
In both surveys students expressed a preference for having more than 1 supervisor.
My own view of team supervision has changed recently as a result of a team supervision I currently am involved in: 3 colleagues at DCU along with the Translation Manager of an IT company are supervising a research student funded by the IT company who is working in the field of Controlled Language/ MT. This student, it seems to me, has a lot of advantages over someone being supervised by a single individual.
Some students surveyed also proposed a more formal arrangement – such as a contract outlining roles, rights and responsibilities:
- frequency and nature of consultations (eg. Once a month/ over coffee or in the office?)
- submission and return of work
In informal discussions with TS colleagues over the years I’ve been struck by the similarity of the problems facing us in the area of research supervision. While institutional frameworks and national traditions may vary, it seems to me that there are a number of issues which are universal. EST is an appropriate forum in which to identify these and – hopefully – agree on a set of principles and procedures of good practice.