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European research universities group: doctoral supervisors should be trained

Europe’s premier university group has outlined a blueprint to drive up doctoral supervision standards across the continent, but the group has also acknowledged that some academics might be beyond help.

In a paper published in February, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) says that researchers should have mandatory training in Ph.D. supervision and that the success of those they supervise should be a key factor in appraisals.

But authors Helke Hillebrand and Claudine Leysinger also acknowledge that it might be worth considering “establishing ‘single contributor’ research careers where talented researchers without sufficient people skills can pursue their research goals without being compelled to supervise junior colleagues.”

“Certain people are really extremely introverted, and I believe it’s almost forcing them into something that they’re not happy about doing,” Leysinger, head of the graduate campus at the University of Zurich, told Times Higher Education, contrasting those who find nudges toward supervision unbearable with peers who are “probably happy about learning more and gaining some more people skills.”

Leysinger accepted that separating those who cannot and will not learn to supervise would be difficult. The LERU paper says “neglect or violation of good supervision practice requires suitable repercussions,” possibly including temporary loss of the right to supervise, intensified training requirements or loss of funding.

The overarching plea of the paper is for “an improved institutional culture of appreciation” for doctoral training. Other recommendations include:

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  • Mandatory supervision training, with professors expected to refresh their learning throughout their careers and with coaching for specific scenarios, such as when a relationship breaks down.
  • Making supervision part of performance indices, with potential metrics including awards won by supervisees, the percentage of students pursuing “ambitious careers in academia and beyond,” and the number of supervisees launching spin-offs.
  • Limiting the number of supervisees that an academic can take on, and the number of supervisors that can be involved in a dissertation.

The LERU paper describes expectation management as being a pivotal part of doctoral training, particularly when academics are recruiting students and agreeing on a thesis topic, because mismatches “will most likely bounce back throughout the course of the project.” The authors endorse the use of supervision agreements that set out obligations on the part of both the supervisor and the supervisee, which have been widely adopted in Germany in particular.

The authors say universities should survey doctoral students about their satisfaction with supervision not only while they are studying but also during their early and middle career stages, “as constructive criticism will grow further over time and in retrospect and may also be reflected in ongoing collaborations between supervisors and their former doctoral researchers.”

“Developing and regularly checking on key performance indicators of employability, career development, and societal impact of former doctoral researchers over a significant period of time would help capture robust results of good supervision practice for further analysis and quality management measures,” the paper says.

Leysinger said the number of staff directly involved in doctoral education and the professionalization of their role have both risen over the past 25 years, a theme the paper summarizes as “it takes a village to raise a Ph.D.,” paraphrasing an African proverb.

While supervision has already gained some prominence in hiring in research evaluation, it was time to look at it “in a qualitative way,” Leysinger said. “What do you believe in? What are your tenets of good supervision? Often, we have to write teaching statements; I think we should also write supervision statements—what we believe is good supervision.”

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