Strategies for distance supervision during a pandemic (Dan Bendrups)

Photo by John Barkiple |
Photo by John Barkiple |

In this post, Dan Bendrups compiles the experiences of 50+ La Trobe University graduate research supervisors who attended the Research Education and Development (RED) forum on distance supervision in July 2020. 


In a recent blog post, I drew attention to the ways in which universities have responded to the challenges of graduate research in the COVID-19 pandemic. I had a particular focus on what supervisors can do - in the here and now - to support graduate researchers. 

Many of these involved renewal in supervision relationship strategies, such as making space for hearing (and sharing) personal challenges, and deliberately fostering generosity and kindness in supervision interactions. Supervisors have also been encouraged to stand alongside graduate researchers in finding workable solutions, even where these might entail substantial or previously unconsidered project change and adaptation.

As part of our collective response to the pandemic, the RED team held a supervisor forum on distance supervision on 30 July 2020. Supervisors were invited to talk about their COVID-related concerns and share their ideas about the various ways we might help graduate researchers to challenges like lab closures, interrupted data collection, emotional and financial stresses, and feelings of isolation stemming from an extended period of physical distancing.

To provide some structure to the discussions, supervisors were prompted to frame their ideas around three broad domains: 

  • how technologies enable distance supervision, 
  • sustaining the supervision relationship, and 
  • fostering the research environment
Supervisors shared some really useful insights into how to approach supervision in each of these domains, and I've gathered them here to share on. 

Technology in distance supervision

Collectively, supervisors identified a range of technologies that they are using to maintain contact with graduate researchers over distance. Institutionally-supported platforms (email, Microsoft Teams, Zoom) predominated, alongside other avenues like messaging applications and social media. Even simple measures like text message and picking up the phone were highlighted. 

They offered the following advice on making the most of supervision over distance:

  • Use multiple platforms, but come up with some sort of agreement about how and when (e.g. Zoom for scheduled meetings, but SMS if a short, quick response is needed).
  • Embrace this period as an opportunity to engage in new ways with other researchers outside the university and overseas.
  • Acknowledge that all videoconference participants are navigating a strange environment together - be ready to discuss/reset expectations, and anticipate some muddling around.
  • Recognise that there are a multitude of tech options, and that it is OK to try out new ones if needed, and to disclose the boundaries of your experience. Have open discussions about all options and invite whoever in the team has the most knowledge to train everyone else up.
  • If you don’t do this already, double-down on using clear, consistent file naming conventions. This can save heaps of time/stress when multiple versions of documents are all circulating in the same digital environment
  • Embrace institutional support for micro training and refamiliarisation of tech platforms, even ones you’ve been using for a while.
  • As well as supervision, try having virtual social gatherings and drop-in sessions for candidates.
  • Consider using shared drives, web-based documents, and web-based research lab notes – these can really help everyone to stay accountable and feel connected, especially when one can see they are sharing the space with others in real time.

Supervision relationships

Everyone in the workshop appreciated the importance of supervision relationships, but where supervisors perceived the line between strictly professional and more social interactions varied. Different disciplines and work cultures have different expectations about the extent of social interactions involved in supervision and interpersonal factors also play a role. Through the day, all supervisors agreed that this was something to reflect on. Here are suggestions arising from some of this thinking:

  • It’s important to recognise that we are all experiencing disruption. Individual rather than group interaction may be better for some people. Adding social group opportunities alongside supervision helps, especially to bring candidates into contact with each other.
  • Some candidates are struggling with mental health and resilience and may require side-by-side supervision to help them progress. Be ready to respond to this.
  • In remote learning, the relationship is often more formal, lacking the coffee chats or casual catch ups, so it may help to look for ways to balance this.
  • Supervisors are humans who need social interaction as well.
  • It’s a really good idea to revisit supervision expectations throughout this period, even if not specifically project-related. We may all need to develop new rules for how we work together in a changed supervisory space.
  • Be clear with graduate researchers about what we can change vs. what we can't (at present).
  • Practice checking in and making sure graduate researchers are OK before asking about productivity or task completion.
  • Regular meetings are vital for some: the meeting time can be reserved in our calendars whether they end up being needed or not.
  • Ask candidates, project partners, other supervisors to be upfront with grumblings, complaints criticisms, and commit to being receptive. The normal avenues for ‘blowing off steam’ may simply not be available
  • Try a range of community/relationship-building initiatives, e.g. happy hour, trivia or quiz nights, etc, and draw as many other researchers in as seems manageable.

Research environment

Supervisors’ discussions around communication technologies and relationships led quite seamlessly into a broader discussion about research culture and research environment. Some observed that the lab itself was a crucial research culture-environment that was now temporarily out of reach, while others reflected on university campus as a place of belonging for candidates and for themselves. All agreed that they could do things to help sustain a positive research environment at a distance. 

These were some key thoughts and strategies from the participants:

  • As with the supervision relationship, we should be clear about what we can change and work towards small adjustments, rather than just leaving things in stasis (the lab may be closed, but the supervision continues).
  • It might be worth actively thinking about how to reframe research projects post-COVID, accepting that the pandemic has had real impact, not just an interruption.
  • It’s important to acknowledge that the larger research, academic, and professional environment is less available in distance supervision.
  • It’s also important to consider the physical work environments that graduate researchers may be experiencing in at present (e.g. shared spaces, lack of access to technology, poor internet, caring or home schooling responsibilities) and make adjustments.
  • It can be helpful to have a passive/indirect connection point (e.g. a blog space, or a page in Trello or MS Teams) for logging incidental comments, reflections and questions as they arise.
  • Use co-publication processes to help track and record progress.
  • Encourage more informal get-togethers, deliberately not talking about work, “organised fun” (e.g. games, competitions, Zoom parties).
  • Organise group meetings with all students and staff to help create a feeling of cohesion, even if they are working on different topics. Also creates a sense of accountability, to do something to report at the meeting.

This post has been a compilation of reflections and strategies that supervisors everywhere may be experiencing right now. 

By sharing them, we hope to signal that we are not alone in this, and to encourage supervisors to draw on collective experience from the wider scholarly ecosystem. What other strategies have you used? We'd love to hear about them in the comments. 


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.