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The COVID-19 pandemic has created diverse challenges for graduate research supervision.
In some disciplines, the closure of labs and research facilities has stopped research programs in their tracks. In others, researchers have had to adapt their methods to manage data collection online or at a distance. Elsewhere, projects may be continuing unaltered, but supervision interactions may have changed or been interrupted.
Meanwhile, graduate researchers (and some of their supervisors) may also be deeply affected by other personal factors, including whether they are based at home or overseas, and whether their funding streams or other income sources have been interrupted. Immediate financial, emotional, or health and wellbeing challenges may be overwhelming for some, while others may find that they are actually benefiting from increased writing productivity in a time of social isolation.
Supervisors may find that different graduate researchers within the same research programs have wildly divergent experiences and expectations.
So, what can supervisors do to balance the needs and expectations of their graduate researchers, their research programs, and themselves?
Universities worldwide have been responding proactively to this question, and there are some prevailing trends emerging in institutional responses to COVID-19 that merit consideration. In preparation for delivering my next round of supervisor development workshops at La Trobe University, I’ve noticed three particular trends that stand out:
1. Focusing on our shared humanityOne heartening response to the pandemic is that universities everywhere are encouraging their supervisors to set aside some formality and engage with their graduate researchers on a personal level, even if this isn’t the sort of relationship they’ve had before. This includes being open about the effects of the pandemic, making space for graduate researchers to express their concerns and vulnerabilities, and responding with compassion and empathy. In other words, not pretending that this is ‘business as usual’ for any of us.
A case in point is the University of Southampton Doctoral College’s Tips for Continuing a Supervisory Relationship at a Distance. Created in response to the pandemic, this resource foregrounds relational factors and encourages supervisors to review their supervision practices to ensure that they are suited to the changing circumstances of their candidates. Crucially, the document advises to ‘assume good will at all times’ to ensure web-mediated interactions stay positive.
At La Trobe, the Graduate Research School provided supervisors with advice on supervising at a distance (PDF file) early in the first phase of Australia’s lockdown, in which we emphasised the need to embrace flexibility and review our assumptions about how research might be affected by physical distancing and other restrictions. A key message in this document was for supervisors not to be complacent about research planning and, instead, to review project (and graduate researcher) requirements proactively.
2. Embracing the ‘hidden curriculum’ of graduate researchThe ultimate goal of graduate research is to produce independent researchers with the critical capacity to work effectively in whatever future endeavours they may pursue, and for many of them, this is likely to be outside of academia. Globally, universities have recognised that the broad professional development graduate researchers receive while at university – sometimes referred to as a ‘hidden curriculum’ - can play a huge role in preparing them for future careers.
Where the pandemic has interrupted research programs, this may be a really crucial time for supervisors to redirect candidates towards new developmental opportunities. This may involve a pivot towards more extensive literature-based research or taking on a side project that keeps graduate researchers engaged with their peers. Or it may involve signing up for professional development programs, such as those offered by the La Trobe University RED Team, that might have previously taken second place to the actual doing of the project. A hiatus in a research program does not mean graduate research education and development also comes to a stop, and supervisor support can be crucial in helping their students navigate these changes.
3. Recognising and mobilising the skills we already possessFinally, many responses to the pandemic have highlighted the fact that supervisors may already have a range of skills to help negotiate supervision over distance. All we may need to do is make the mental adjustment to mobilise these skills in the current context.
For example, in a multi-campus university like La Trobe, most discipline groups will have people in more than one place and processes to enable communication for staff meetings and teaching. Now is the time to adapt these tools to reach out to and consistently engage with graduate researchers. Your candidates will definitely appreciate the effort!
One of the key prevailing messages from universities and supervision experts around the world is that now is also the time to review and renew our assumptions about how supervision works, and to treat distance supervision as a normal experience. This means getting used to the technology but also rethinking how we interact: what previously unspoken messages of support (or constructive critique) now need to be articulated directly? Do we need to bring all members of the supervision team together more systematically (or do we do this already)? Do we have agreed protocols for what happens if a meeting drops out?
A well-considered guide that addresses many of these (and other) questions was produced by the UK Council for Graduate Education (PDF file) this year. As the authors point out, the guide is timely for the COVID-19 pandemic but contains advice that would be useful anyway, due to the gradual increase in online supervision around the word.
What next?In some cases, projects may require major change; in other cases, candidates may need unanticipated time off. Every university has formal processes for these situations, so make use of them - don’t just let candidature time tick over. For some graduate researchers, the research group may have been central to their emerging sense of identity. While supervisors have other things keeping them connected to their disciplines (like teaching, reviewing, etc.), graduate researchers may feel considerably more adrift. The lab may be closed, but some may need supervisor contact more than ever.
Similarly, supervisors who normally leave it to their graduate researchers to contact them for meetings might consider switching to more regular meetings as a way of helping preserve a sense of connection to the university, even if there’s no new work to discuss.
For supervisors and graduate researchers, working to manage continuity of the supervisory relationship is one of the most important things we can do for each other right now.
Dan Bendrups is a Senior Lecturer in the RED team. His disciplinary background spans anthropology, cultural studies, and creative practice, and he is known internationally for his work concerning Rapanui (Easter Island) cultural heritage. As well as researching in these domains, he also provides broad-based doctoral supervision in ethnographic methods. He has a particular interest in doctoral supervision and leads the RED supervision portfolio.