05 Managing Expectations

05 Managing Expectations

Let's examine the tricky business of managing expectations. Both you and your student will be approaching the supervisory relationship with a very different set of expectations, some of them reasonable, some of them not quite so much. When expectations and reality diverge, then conflict can arise.

[00:00:19] First of all, a question for you. What do you expect from your PhD student? This might be the basics, such as turning up for meetings on time, submitting work on time, being responsive to your feedback and ideas, and ultimately you want them to reflect well on you as a supervisor. Now we'll turn it around and consider what your PhD student is expecting from you.

[00:00:40] Are they expecting you to tell them exactly what to do? Or are they expecting you to leave them alone to get on with their own project? Or is it somewhere in between? The key to a successful supervisory relationship is discussing those expectations and reaching an agreement on how you're going to work together.

[00:00:57] If you don't have an explicit discussion, unhelpful assumptions can persist on both sides. Naturally these discussions can be quite awkward, but if you do get them out of the way early on, it can avoid many problems later on. One way of making it a bit easier is to use a template. This is the Expectations In Research supervision questionnaire.

[00:01:19] What you do is print a copy for both you and your student and then you each fill it in and swap over afterwards. It's a series of questions asking about whether particular areas of the PhD are more the supervisor's responsibility or the student's responsibility or right down the middle. When you compare your responses afterwards, you can see if there are any major differences of opinion.

[00:01:43] Those will be the areas where you need to have an explicit discussion about how that's going to work. Once you've established any differences, you can agree how you're going to work together. This will be areas such as: how often will you meet? There might be a minimum requirement for your institution.

[00:02:00] Usually that's once a month, but maybe weekly or fortnightly is more appropriate during those first three months. And how are you going to schedule those sessions? Are they going to be planned way in advance or are you expecting your student to tell you when they want to meet? It can save both of you quite a lot of admin if you do plan them in advance. Who's going to set the deadlines? Some students will want to manage their own time, although this doesn't necessarily mean that they're capable of doing so. Other students will expect you to set deadlines and keep them motivated. Is this a reasonable expectation of you?

[00:02:35] You might want to explain that self motivation is an essential attribute for a researcher. You don't want to be micro managing them, but on the other hand, you don't want to give them too much freedom in those early months. You need to keep them on track. In what format should work be submitted? We'll look at this in more detail in the writing module, but are you going to be happy to see a rough draft or do you want something that's more polished?

[00:02:59] Some students won't want to part with their work until it's really good. Some students will crave feedback from you at an early stage because they're lacking the confidence to make any progress. This means looking at work that might be quite messy. How quickly will feedback be given and by what method?

[00:03:17] This is a common area of conflict in the supervisory relationship. Your student wants feedback instantly so they can make progress, but you've got lots of competing demands on your time. What's a reasonable service level agreement.

[00:03:30] And what method are you going to use? Are you going to provide written feedback? Will you use track changes in word? Oh, are you going to go through any feedback verbally in your meetings? And any service level agreements are bilateral too. If a student doesn't submit their work by the agreed deadline, then you're not going to be able to turn it around by the original deadline for the feedback.

[00:03:54] And what are the key milestones for the PhD? Your student almost certainly hasn't done a PhD before, so they haven't got much of a structure in their minds about what they need to be doing and when. You can give them some direction about roughly where they need to be at different points over their first year.

[00:04:11] This might be areas such as the literature review or ethical approval or end of year reviews or upgrades. Every student is different. Their expectations and needs might be affected by paid work commitments, caring responsibilities, or the experience of adapting to a completely new culture. This working relationship will be very personal to them and you need to keep reviewing it as well to make sure that it's still effective for both of you.

[00:04:38] Co-supervision can sometimes produce a dream team comprising a perfect blend of skills and perspectives, but that isn't always the case. Again, the expectations have to be discussed and agreed. Often the co-supervision models will be governed by your institution's regulations, but mostly you're going to have to work most of it out between yourselves.

[00:04:59] In some cases, a co-supervisor is essentially an understudy. In other cases, there'll be sharing responsibilities 50/50. Make sure then that you know exactly what's expected, both explicitly and implicitly.in co-supervision arrangements. Here are some questions to ask. Who is the main supervisor? Even if those responsibilities are split 50/50 there should be one supervisor as the main contact for the student, certainly initially. Otherwise they can be confused about who to talk to or they try to email both of you concurrently and get two completely different perspectives. And is that going to change at different stages? Is there one supervisor who will oversee the first year getting the student established and then another one who's going to be more involved in the design and execution of their project.

[00:05:48] How often are you all going to meet together? It's probably unfeasible for you all to meet together for each meeting, but do you need to have a proper summit at least once a term or even more frequently than that? And who's responsible for what areas of the student's PhD? It might be one of you who's more involved in the methodology and another who's more involved in the theoretical framework.

[00:06:11] Students often suffer when co-supervisors pull them in different directions. They could have two supervisors who are both proposing completely different methodologies. The student then feels as though they're having to pick sides. If you can agree your responsibilities at the outset, that reduces the chances of that conflict.

[00:06:30] If a student is confused, they're not going to make any progress. And consider what happens when you don't agree and note that I said when rather than if. Because there will be disagreements amongst supervisors during that PhD. Who's going to arbitrate? If there are just two supervisors, is there a third supervisor who could be brought in to discuss that disagreement?

[00:06:53] Work out in advance how you're going to manage this situation without disrupting the student's research? You absolutely don't want them to get caught in the middle of a disagreement and for their work to suffer. Any co-supervision conflict should be addressed immediately. Otherwise it causes lots of anxiety for the student and impacts on their ability to complete on time, which isn't good for anyone.

[00:07:16] Always make it about the PhD and not about the personalities. If you can all agree that the student's PhD is the priority then that might make it easier to resolve a conflict. To summarise, unless you discuss those expectations, assumptions will persist. Everyone has their own idea of supervision; you, the co-supervisors, and the student too.

[00:07:40] If you know what those ideas are, then it's much easier to deal with them. There's no single model for doctoral supervision. It always involves negotiation, compromise and agreement with each individual student and supervisor. If you anticipate problems and plan accordingly, it's much less likely that there'll be major disruption to your student's PhD.

[00:08:02] Major disruptions further along will take up a lot of your time, and as I mentioned a moment ago, make successful completion of the PhD everyone's priority. That's something that you should be able to agree on.

Expectations in Research Supervision Questionnaire.pdf
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