Friday, 13 December 2013

Seven secrets of successful students (part 2)

This post is a short reflection following a training event at which postgraduate research students and research supervisors at Teagasc attended a training day provided by Dr Hugh Kearns of Flinders University, Australia. This second post about this event (see the first post) focuses on some of the take-home messages. This report is neither intended to be exhaustive, nor highly original. However, it gives an insight into some (and only some) of the useful discussions that occurred.

  • Be clear on your duties and responsibilities as a student and those of your supervisor (most universities have formal guidance documents). The following questionnaire generated quite a deal of interest among students as a means of investigating the underlying beliefs of supervisors and students about the student-supervisor relationship: Expectations in supervision: questionnaire.
  •  Read PhD theses of former students (even your supervisor's thesis!). As well as seeing the best of the work that usually appears as publications and is widely celebrated in your department, you can also see the other perfectly valid but perhaps less impressive work that very often is a normal part of PhD theses.
  • Request timely feedback on written work, and agree on indicative timescales (if not deadlines).
  • Indicate what kind of feedback you are looking for. There are different types of feedback on writing (storyline, content, argument, critique, student insight and synthesis, paragraph structure, writing style, grammar, spelling etc.)  Let your supervisor know the type of feedback that you are expecting from them so that their expectations are aligned with yours. It's a real good idea to write this expectation on the front of the document you are submitting - supervisors forget stuff real quick!
  • Short, regular meetings are more effective than infrequent mega-meetings. One advantage is that short, regular meetings break large tasks and large meetings into more manageable chunks. They also result in meeting durations that better match normal attention spans. However, a less appreciated fact is that regular meetings foster productivity and reduce procrastination. Meetings that occur reglarly and predictably impose a greater level of accountability (on both students and supervisors). For those students who work to deadlines (like most people), predictable and regular deadlines reduce procrastination or wasted time that may otherwise occur if meetings are frequently postponed.
  • Prepare the meeting agenda, circulate in good time, and circulate short bullet points with the main decisions and outcomes of the meeting.
  • If it is difficult to have regular meetings, propose the use of 'email meetings'. This is especially appropriate to students who may be working at a different location to that of their supervisor (or for a supervisor who is travelling or away a lot). Email meetings have a similar agenda to that of normal meetings, but the student sends a regular progress report as short bullet points For example, the agenda for email meetings coudl be:
    • progress over last 10 days,
    • issues/problems,
    • attached writing assignment for feedback,
    • aims for next 10 days.
    Obviously, email meetings are not intended to replace more interactive meetings (whether they be in person, by telephone or videoconference), but do provide a regular account of progress from you, and remind your supervisor of the progress/problems that you face.
Hugh's consultancy provides a number of resources for PhD students and supervisors, and are well worth exploring.

PhD Skill: It's your PhD, so take control of your progress - and manage your supervisor.

Further reading:
 Ten tips for the first 100 days of a PhD


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