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Guidelines for internal supervisors of trainees’ major research project

These guidelines are intended for internal research supervisors of DClinPsy projects (i.e., staff on the DClinPsy course team), to clarify what is involved in supervising trainees’ major research projects.

Trainees decide on their projects during their first year. They are strongly encouraged to work within the research programmes of research-active course staff members, either by taking up a specific project suggested by the staff member, or by working to develop an idea within their supervisor's area of expertise. Alternatively, occasionally trainees may generate their own ideas for projects, often in conjunction with researchers that they have previously worked with or other external supervisors. In all cases, the project must have an internal supervisor, who is a member of the course team and carries the supervisory responsibility as far as College is concerned. The external supervisor is volunteering their time, and acting in an advisory capacity only.

Who can supervise?

Any member of the academic staff or clinical tutor team can potentially supervise projects once they have been formally approved by Faculty. Supervisors are expected to be research-active themselves. This is important as supervision requires a considerable range of expertise, including an up-to-date knowledge of the theoretical and empirical literature in the area of interest, NHS ethics and research governance procedures, statistics and/or qualitative analysis, APA style, and conventions for writing up the thesis. The only partial exception to this is when the external supervisor is an established researcher and is willing to provide considerable academic input; in this case the internal supervisor may have a less central role.

Background documentation

Internal supervisors need to be familiar with a number of course and external documents before taking on a supervisee. Most of these are listed in the trainee handbook’s Guidelines for the major research project, which gives the scope and parameters of the project, and sets out the timetable for its duration.

The research section of the course website has links to additional research documents. In particular, the Research Governance Checklist summarises the research governance requirements, such as ethics, R&D approval, risk assessment and data protection. Supervisors are also assumed to be familiar with supervisors’ responsibilities as set out in the NHS Research Governance Framework and within the BPS Code of Human Research Ethics. There is also a Project Support Moodle course which sets out the steps involved at each stage of the project, and gives links to be relevant documents.

Establishing the supervisory relationship

We do not have a formal research contract on this course, as we hesitate to introduce too much formality and regulation into what should be a flexible and mutually rewarding supervisory relationship. However, we suggest that, at the start of the project, the supervisor and the trainee discuss what each party’s main roles and responsibilities will be. The main areas to consider are addressed in the rest of this document. They are:

· Setting up and designing the project

· Liaison with the external supervisor

· The trainee’s responsibility

· Supervision meetings and monitoring progress

· Ethics and research governance

· Data analysis

· Reading drafts

· Publication and authorship

The above checklist may, however, give a misleading impression that supervision is a mechanical process; it is important to emphasise the necessity of establishing a good supervisory relationship at the outset. Trainees vary enormously in their previous research experience, and it is vital for the supervisor to explore with them what they anticipate their needs will be throughout the course of the project.

Setting up and designing the project

Trainees start looking for projects and supervisors in the second term of their first year following the project orientation meeting, at which internal supervisors have the opportunity to present their research interests and any potential projects to trainees. There is often an element of shopping around by trainees: they may approach several supervisors before deciding on a project. We ask them to keep all potential supervisors informed of their plans, so that supervisors are not left in doubt about whether their projects are taken. It is up to individual supervisors to decide how to deal with having more requests than projects: some have a first come first served system, others wait to see the level of interest before deciding what to offer to whom.

Projects may be in various degrees of specification when they are offered to trainees. They range on a continuum from being a general topic area to being a well mapped-out piece of work. Generally it works best, and serves the goals of the course best, if the trainee can have some input into shaping the project.

Trainees fill out a “statement of intent” at the start of term 3 in their first year, which indicates their proposed area of research and their supervisor(s). This should be agreed with both supervisors before it is submitted. They then have the summer to work up a full proposal with their supervisors, which is submitted at the beginning of term 1 in the second year. This again should be carefully looked at before submission by both supervisors, to ensure the project is scientifically viable and practically feasible within the tight time and budgetary constraints imposed by the DClinPsy.

The external supervisor

All projects have an internal supervisor and many also have an external supervisor (although the latter is not required). The role of the external supervisor varies according to the project, but they generally help with local issues such as managerial and R&D approval, and recruitment of participants. It is a good idea if the internal and external supervisor liaise from the beginning of the project, in order to clarify each person’s roles. A three-way meeting with the trainee is often productive.

A separate course document gives guidelines for external supervisors.

Trainee’s responsibility

Trainees are responsible for the overall progress of their project and the content of their thesis, which they must ultimately defend in their viva. In particular, it is up to the trainee to ensure that they adhere to the course deadlines and that they meet regularly with their supervisors and give them sufficient time to read and comment on their work. It is not the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that the trainee’s work is passable, although it is of course a core part of the supervisor’s role to comment and advise on the quality of the work. The supervisor will advise against submission if they regard the risk of failure to be significant (the research directors should be informed if this is the case).

Supervision meetings and monitoring progress

The frequency of supervision meetings will depend on the nature of the project and how far it has progressed. Meetings tend to be more frequent at the beginning and end of the project. A minimum of two meetings a term is suggested.

The project is monitored by a progress report that the trainee and supervisor jointly fill out every six months (in terms 2 and 3 of the second year, and at the end of term 1 in the third year). At the same time points, the UCL Online Research Log must be completed. This is a good opportunity for the trainee and the internal supervisor to jointly review progress and agree a detailed plan of work for the next six months.

If at any point in the project things are not going to plan, it is important that the supervisor document this. This can be done either in written meeting notes or in an email to the trainee. If the trainee is at risk of serious delay or failure of their project, this must be minuted and the research directors alerted.

Ethics and research governance

The NHS research governance procedures, particularly obtaining ethics and R&D approval, are widely described as a bureaucratic nightmare. They put an enormous load on second year trainees. It is an important part of the internal supervisor’s role to help guide the trainee through this frustrating regulatory maze. See the Research Governance Checklist and FAQ sheet for information on the requirements.

Data analysis

Trainees usually need expert guidance on data analysis, either quantitative or qualitative. Supervisors are assumed to be familiar with routine statistical methods, and if they are supervising qualitative projects, with qualitative analysis methods. The Statistics Demonstrator will consult directly with trainees, and members of the research team will consult with colleagues about the more specialised aspects of quantitative and qualitative analysis.

Reading drafts

A central duty of the supervisor is to read and comment on drafts of all three parts of the trainee’s thesis. 

There has been some debate within the course team concerning how much input trainees can expect from their supervisors, and there is inevitably individual variation between supervisors. The issues are that, on the one hand, the supervisor wants to help trainees learn how to do good research, and supervisory input is part of the learning process. Many academics have had a valuable experience of being mentored by an experienced researcher during their own PhD research, and hands-on input from the supervisor is often part of this process. On the other hand, the supervisor should not write the thesis for the trainee.

It is hard to be prescriptive about the right amount of input, but a minimum is to comment on one draft of each part of the thesis; a normal expectation would be to comment on an outline, an early draft and a near-final draft of each part. It is important to be clear at the outset, so that the trainee is aware of what each supervisor’s input is likely to be.

Publication and authorship

We hope that the empirical paper (Part 2 of the thesis) and possibly the literature review (Part 1) will result in a paper submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The expectation is that the trainee will be the first author on publications arising out of their thesis, with the supervisors as joint authors. There are occasional cases, however, where one of the supervisors will have had such a central role in the conceptual and methodological aspects of the study that it may be appropriate for them to first-author the paper. In such cases, this should be made clear to the trainee at the outset, before the trainee decides whether or not to take on the project. Another exception to the rule of the trainee being first author is that if the trainee has not written it up within an agreed time period after completion, the supervisor has the prerogative to write it up themselves and be the first author, with the trainee as second author. This should be discussed early on. Likewise, any issues of ownership of the final data set may need clarification at the start of the project.

The BPS has produced a useful document on the ethical principles of authorship and publication.