Supervising Postgraduate Researchers
This inclusive teaching guide is aligned to Baseline Standard 1 and the Professional Standards Framework A2. It provides advice and guidance for supervising postgraduate researchers inclusively.
Evidencing engagement with the Professional Standards Framework (PSF)
Advance HE are clear that the Descriptors of the PSF can be interpreted in terms of doctoral supervision. They have produced guidance on how doctoral supervisors can evidence their engagement with the Framework. To learn more, please refer to ‘UK Professional Standards Framework: Dimensions of the framework for Doctoral Supervisors’ (Advance HE website).
Foster a culture of inclusivity
- Ask your postgraduate researchers (PGRs) whether they anticipate any barriers or have any concerns about their study from the outset, taking a holistic view of their situation. Make sure relevant information is also passed on to others in the supervisory team. This approach demonstrates a willingness to appreciate difference and gives PGRs an opportunity to talk about disability or other constraints that may be relevant.
- Your PGRs may initially feel more comfortable talking their difficulties through and exploring the available support with someone outside of the supervisory team. Encourage your PGRs with longstanding physical or mental health conditions to seek support from Disability Services. To learn more, please refer to: Disabled Postgraduate Researchers (Student Education Service website) or the Mental Health Team in Student Counselling and Wellbeing Mental Health (Student Education Service website).
- Follow the guidance in Creating Inclusive Learning & Teaching Environments for general tips which apply to working in a student education setting.
Reflect on your experience and practice
- Recognise that your PGRs will have a range of thinking and learning styles, as well as differing motivations for undertaking a research degree. Take an open-minded approach and be prepared to adapt to different ways of doing things.
- PGRs with dyslexia for example, may prefer to map out ideas visually, using mind maps, rather than in a linear format in the initial stages of their project. PGRs who are blind or visually impaired may prefer to verbally describe their ideas, rather than provide diagrams or graphics.
- To learn more, please see our guide to Developing Inclusive Practices.
Be aware of cultural norms
- Be aware that the cultural background of your PGRs may affect the PGR-supervisor working relationship.
- PGRs from some cultures may take a less critical approach to analysis than is expected in the UK context1,2 and may be unused to questioning the ideas of those in supervisory roles.3
- The University’s Organisational Development and Professional Learning team provide a course for PGR Supervisors
Agree strategies for recording notes and actions
- Discuss with your disabled PGRs how their disability might impact on their note-taking in supervisions. Allow them to audio record meetings if this will enable them to concentrate fully on the discussion, or provide a written record of key points at the end of the meeting. Review this strategy periodically with the PGR to ensure it is working effectively for them.4
- Difficulties with memory, concentration, dexterity, anxiety, chronic pain and fatigue and dyslexia, may impair your PGRs ability to listen and take notes concurrently, meaning that the act of taking notes may impact on the quality of the discussion.
- Agree any actions at the end of the meeting so that you and your PGR have a shared understanding. All supervisory meetings are recorded on the GRAD system, with guides available showing the process.
- People with Autism Spectrum Conditions can take a very literal interpretation of language. Where your PGRs have adopted a different understanding of actions that need to be taken, this can lead to tensions in your PGR-supervisor relationship.
Support PGRs with planning
- The lack of structure inherent to PGR study can be challenging for many and can contribute to feelings of isolation and a lack of sense of achievement. Aid them by identifying shorter-term and interim goals and follow this up at regular intervals.5
- This lack of structure can also be problematic for PGRs with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression and may exacerbate these. Difficulty with planning and time estimation are common to people with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Be aware of your PGRs’ mental wellbeing
- Undertaking a research degree can be an isolating experience.6 If you have any concerns about this, encourage your PGRs to seek support from Student Counselling and Wellbeing: Support and wellbeing (For Students website).
- Lack of confidence, uncertainty and isolation can all have an impact on mental wellbeing. During different stages of PGR study, a fear of criticism of ideas can be compounded by insecurities around linguistic abilities, literacy difficulties, educational background and academic writing style.7
Recognise that reading is more effortful for some of your PGRs
- If your disabled PGRs use assistive software to access written text, ask them to demonstrate this or try it out yourself to fully understand the process.
- This can be useful in trying to understand working methods and time constraints, especially when texts include diagrams, which can be difficult to navigate using screen reading software. Disabled PGRs may also have difficulty accessing journals in the right format. Assistance can be provided by the University of Leeds Transcription Services (For Students website).
Mark draft work for content
- Provide your PGRs with feedback on the content of their written work and the quality of the ideas, rather than focusing on issues with technical accuracy in their writing. It is permitted under University policy for PGRs to use a 3rd party proof reader.
- PGRs who speak English as an additional language and those with a disability affecting their written work, may find it demoralising to have these difficulties repeatedly highlighted, unless they have specifically requested this.
- Encourage your PGRs to make use of the Microsoft Immersive Reader in Office 365 which can be used to read aloud your PGRs draft work and notes in Word Online.
- A range of other (free) assistive tools can also be explored in the Assistive Technology Resources site in Minerva.
Facilitate engagement with peers
- Consider whether there are social and environmental barriers to engagement opportunities, particularly if you support a disabled PGR which makes working in shared offices difficult. Some disabilities and chronic health conditions can cause people to be sensitive to noise, light, temperature and odours (e.g. strong-smelling foods eaten in the office).
- Engagement with peers is an important part of the PGR experience and peer relationships can help to prevent isolation. These relationships may not form naturally if your PGRs do not encounter each other.
Manage expectations around fieldwork
- Assist your PGRs in thinking through the activities, logistics and timescales of any proposed fieldwork considering any constraints they may have.
- You will have a greater experience of such activities and be able to make sure that your PGRs have a more realistic idea of what they will involve and whether they will be achievable.
- To learn more, please visit our guide to Fieldtrips.
Consider reasonable adjustments
- If you are supervising a PGR with a disability, health condition or specific learning difference familiarise yourself with guidance available about PGR Reasonable Adjustments (Student Education Service website) and the Oral Examinations - good practice guidelines (Student Education Service website)
- Talking with your PGRs at an early stage about what to expect and discussing possible adjustments that could be made, will help alleviate some of the anxiety involved in preparing for a Viva. Further resources and FAQs about vivas are provided in Minerva.
Further general guidance for PGR Supervisors can be found on the OD&PL Postgraduate Researcher Supervision webpages.
- Guide written by Dr Say Burgin and Jenny Brady | Updated August 2022 by Jenny Brady
- © University of Leeds 2022 | Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
- Wisker, G., Robinson, G. and Shacham, M. (2007) ‘Postgraduate research success: Communities of practice involving cohorts, guardian supervisors and online communities’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(3), pp. 301-320. doi: 10.1080/14703290701486720.
- Eley, A. & Jennings, R. (2005) Effective Postgraduate Supervision. Open University Press
- Melles, G. (2005) Supervising international undergraduate medical students. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia – conference paper
- Farrar, V. & Young, R.G. (2007) Supervising Disabled Research Students. Issues in Postgraduate Education: Management, Teaching and Supervision Series 2 Number 3. Society for Research in Higher Education
- Strategies to support planning an organisation for disabled researchers – vitae Website (2015) Available at: http://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/every-researcher-counts-equality-and-diversity-in-researcher-careers/resources-and-support-for-disabled-researchers/supervising-disabled-researchers/strategies-to-support-planning-and-organisation-for-disabled-researchers (Accessed: 11 November 2016)
- Eley & Jennings (2005)
- Farrar & Young (2007)