Research student allocation must be fair and transparent

Managers must acknowledge that supervising some types of doctoral candidates is more labour-intensive, say Roger Watson and David Thompson

August 7, 2020
A feather and a stone equally balanced
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An academic bone of contention that arises almost as frequently as car parking is PhD supervision load. And it is no more likely ever to be resolved. But the impact of the coronavirus has brought the need for greater attention to be paid to the issue in the UK into sharp relief.

An anticipated fall in international student numbers is likely to see reduced university revenues, staff layoffs and still greater pressure on those who remain to accept as many research students – particularly international ones – as possible.

But what parameters should be considered in workload allocation? Such guidance as we have been able to glean from the internet is typically imprecise. It is all very well taking overall workload “into consideration” and avoiding “overload”, but without hard facts to bring to the table, such vagueness is as much a clarion call to the indolent as it is to faculty managers to exploit the naive and the willing.

First, it is self-evident that not all research students are equal. They need different types and levels of support at different stages in their PhD trajectory. Those in different subjects will also need different levels of support. For example, it is hard to make a reasonable comparison between the largely independent pursuit of a doctorate in literature or history and the almost daily guidance required by students pursuing laboratory projects – even if that support is usually provided by other doctoral and postdoctoral scientists in the laboratory, rather than the principal investigator.

It is also important to acknowledge that international students generally require greater support than home students do. To deny this is not credible; we have both experienced it in the wide range of universities in the UK and internationally that have employed us. The greater support required is not related to international students’ intellectual ability per se – a major but unpredictable factor. But linguistic facility is so important to intellectual progress that research ability often appears to be correlated with the level of English language requirement specified by the university. Nevertheless, even an international student with an IELTS of 7.5 across the board will, generally, still require more support than a native speaker.

Cultural differences also impinge on the support needed. In some global regions, the education system produces students barely capable of critical thinking, while others repeatedly throw up problems associated with the non-attribution of sources. Regarding the latter, it is all very well clarifying ethical practices regarding research and publication in student handbooks; it is quite another implementing them.

Finally, we must not forget the additional requirements around international students ridiculously insisted on by the UK Border Force. Monthly face-to-face meetings and producing the subsequent supervision report are a heavy and unnecessary burden for supervisors.

We both work in universities that set the recruitment of international students – including research students – high on their agenda. We both greatly enjoy the variety brought by supervising international students – not to mention the almost inevitable diligence they display. Nevertheless, the above factors are often not taken into consideration in allocating research students. They should be.

We do not have a precise solution that can be expressed as an algorithm. But we do propose that research student allocation be fair and transparent. All supervisors should be given consistent supervision loads that are varied across the types of students mentioned above, including national origin and PhD stage. And all new supervision allocations should properly take into account the supervisor’s existing workload, as well as their experience and expertise. Where supervision teams are the norm, the relative experience of the team members should also be considered.

Specifically, in universities where the recruitment of research students is high – either through institutional popularity or their low educational or English-language requirements – someone with an oversight of supervision allocations must have the power and willingness to pull up the drawbridge periodically.

Otherwise, supervisors will become overloaded, stressed and ineffective. And even chief financial officers will frown if large numbers of research students start dropping out – taking their fees with them.

Roger Watson is a professor of nursing at the University of Hull. David Thompson is a professor of nursing at Queen’s University Belfast.

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Reader's comments (1)

I find this bizare, and I guess it highlights the disciplinary differences - academics in my field - arn't allocated students - they compete for them. A PhD student is a major boost to your research productivity. International students sometimes require more supervision (althuogh not always), but they also often bring research funding with them, which is yet another boost to your productivity. This creates a dilemma for WL systems - it takes time to supervise a student. Time that could be spent teaching or doing admin, but most academics would much rather be supervising PhD students if they could get away with it.