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Supervising PhD students: 'the 10+ commandments'

Every year the BCN Education committee distributes a questionnaire among all our PhD students in which we ask about scientific progress, teaching and also about supervision. We ask our PhD students not only about the amount of supervision they receive, but also about the quality of supervision. The answers differ widely, not only between first and fourth year students, but also between faculties and, within faculties, between research groups. And no, unfortunately not all supervision is excellent! Year after year we must conclude that there is definitively room for improvement. This finding has lead to extensive debates in the committee. How can supervision of PhD students be improved? And especially, how can we actually get supervisors to be critical of themselves and try to improve themselves?

This is an extremely important matter: research has shown that failure or success of a PhD project is largely determined by supervision (Berger & de Jonge, 2005). Ofcourse you, as a supervisor, may think that you do your job very well. If this is true, you will only recognize what follows below. However, if you think that you could improve yourself in this respect, please continue reading. And you, as a PhD student, consider the suggestions below as an opening for discussion with your supervisor, if necessary.

We thought it would be best to first decide what determines good supervision. How else can we try and implement good supervision for all our PhD students? So independently, three senior BCN researchers and all PhD students in the PhD council wrote up their 'Ten Commandments of Good Supervision'. To our relief, these lists all agreed! Below the integrated version, in no particular order, is given. Supervisors: please read the commandments, consider them and use them to your and your students' benefit.

  1. A supervisor should be enthusiastic about the project, and able and willing to be actively involved in it. Supervision is part of management: any good manager should be able to motivate an employee, also in difficult times.
  2. A supervisor's knowledge, experience and network should be shared with the student in order to advance the project. No amount of literature study or hard work can replace this. It will help the student build a personal network and experience base, which is an important part of becoming an independent researcher.
  3. Regular and -when necessary - emergency meetings with the student are required. Urgent requests from students should be handled as soon as possible: sometimes it is better to talk for 15 minutes right away then to postpone a meeting for a week to be able to talk for an hour. However, meetings should also be scheduled well ahead of time to ensure the undivided attention of the supervisor.
  4. Manuscripts, abstracts and other texts should be reviewed within a reasonable period of time. Manuscripts should preferably be corrected within a couple of days. This does not mean that a student can ignore a supervisor's agenda!
  5. A supervisor should guarantee the availability of money, facilities and supporting staff needed to finish the project. These matters can hardly ever be directly influenced by the student, but will seriously affect progress and success when unavailable.
  6. Supervisor and student should keep track of the progress of the research project and, where possible, the supervisor should prevent erroneous planning by the student. The project should be finished within the time of the students' appointment or stipend.
  7. A supervisor should actively recommend courses and conferences for the student to attend.
  8. Supervision should balance between independence and guidance for each student.
  9. A supervisor should provide feedback about work and progress of the PhD student, both positive and negative. As for any training program: pay a compliment whenever called for, but also discuss problems as soon as they arise. Problems should be faced head on. No one profits when a problem is not brought out into the open.
  10. Effective supervision prospers in an environment in which discussing and asking questions is easy. A supervisor should listen and be prepared to admit to be wrong when the student is right.
  11. Supervision must be personalized. Personality plays a role in supervision. If it doesn’t “click” between the supervisor and student, mediation may be necessary. Also what works for one student, may not work for the other. Both supervisor and student should signal problems or suggest improvements. A supervisor should not compare his/her own graduate career with that of students. Ambitions and goals differ, as do other claims on time such as family.
  12. Supervision should aim at letting the student develop into an independent scientist. A supervisor should realize that, in accepting a PhD student, responsibility is taken for an important phase in the career of a person, and not not only for progress in research. A student is not a research assistant nor a secretary: a PhD student is a researcher in training. A supervisor should be able to step away from personal interests in the research project and make sure that this higher goal is served. In due time the student should become a specialist in his own field and should therefore be allowed some freedom to develop the project according to personal insights. A student has to defend his/her own thesis in the end.

To conclude: we are convinced that the main goal of supervision is to let a PhD student develop into an independent researcher who can solve scientific and other project-related problems and finish a PhD project in time. A supervisor should thus provide support and structure, correct when necessary and finally, let go.

If this article got you interested: have you considered following a course? UMCG faculty member are advised to take the course: Supervising PhD students organized by the GSMS. Other courses like 'Teaching in the international classroom' are organized in the series Courses Staff Development.

Last modified:30 April 2018 4.12 p.m.