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How we created the online research supervisor training

UCL’s mandatory programme updated by student-staff partnership

30 October 2018

Dr Alex Standen is an Associate Director of the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education, where she leads on research supervision and early career academic development.

Here, she explains the importance of the research supervisor role at UCL and why the mandatory training programme has been updated and re-designed.

What is the role of a research supervisor?

The role of the research supervisor is to guide and support students through a research project (typically PhD, but also MRes, MPhil, etc) and can be one of the most exciting and challenging roles that academic staff take on.

The relationship between PhD student and supervisor is a unique one which changes and evolves over the course of the project.

Fundamentally, the supervisor’s role is to enable a student to conceive, design, produce and disseminate their own research and to develop their student’s competencies in both research and transferable skills (see Appropriate forms of supervision).

How many people at UCL take on this role?

Hard to judge, but we have around 6,000 research students (which is nearly 4% of the entire UK research student population). 1,200 research degrees are awarded each year and there are over 6,000 academic and research staff.

Why is the role important?

It is a demanding role that draws on your academic expertise, relationship-building skills, and your ability to foster a stimulating learning environment.

You are helping to preparing your students for careers in and out of academia, building their confidence as a researcher, and challenging them to produce their best work.

As Vitae puts it: ‘Supervision requires you to be a combination of guide, mentor, information-source, coach and inspiration. In return, you will see your doctoral candidates grow into competent researchers and develop as individuals.’

Why have you developed the mandatory online programme?

200-300 new staff per year need to be approved as research supervisors at UCL.

Previously there was a mandatory briefing three times a year.

We needed something that was more flexible, inclusive and responsive to supervisors’ needs and that was developmental – for example:

  • focusing on relationship building
  • developing different supervisory styles
  • adapting these approaches to a variety of different contexts
  • exploring ways to support a student’s development beyond the thesis, and so on.

How did you develop it?

The course was developed with a team of students; undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research, in collaboration with Faculty Graduate Tutors and Deputy Graduate Tutors, UCL Doctoral School, Doctoral Skills Programme and Digital Education.

How were the students involved?

Eleven UCL Faculty Graduate Tutors were interviewed by one of the students to learn about common challenges facing supervisors and examples of best practice, which have all informed the course.

The students played a central role in developing content that was engaging. For example they used features in UCL eXtend such as an interactive timeline with all the key milestones of the PhD process and flipcards to challenge possible preconceptions about the role of the PhD.

Here’s what they say about their experience:

'I had the great privilege to interview Faculty Graduate Tutors about supervision at UCL. I listened to a range of perspectives about what good supervision means in different departments and the challenges Faculties experience. I incorporated the advice for good supervision practice in the course and I also had fun assisting with the short videos, in which Faculty Graduate Tutors introduce themselves and offer advice to both new and experienced supervisors. It has been a rewarding experience for me and it also improved my research skills, as I applied qualitative methods to a totally different topic and context than my own PhD research.' Alexandra Bulat, PhD student in SSEES

‘I was involved in designing the structure of the course, the development of resources and activities and the overall evaluation of the course. Together with my colleagues, I thought about how to best structure and present the course and how to deliver the content in a more interactive and fun way. Working with the UCL Arena Centre as a Student Fellow has been an extremely rewarding experience and gaining insight into the area of instructional design and online learning has opened up new career options for me.' Raphael Hofaecker, recently graduated in BSc Psychology with Education

‘I really enjoyed working on the supervisor training course and felt both supported and encouraged to grow independently. I researched different approaches to supervision from a pedagogical as well as a managerial perspective. I also came up with interactive activities to really engage supervisors and invite them to be be more active in the supervisory process. The work done at UCL Arena embodies a participatory approach to higher education enabling students to participate in their education and have a real say in building an educational system that works well for all. It's also rather satisfying to feel like a teacher to my teachers.’ Bissera Ivanova, MSc Cognitive and Decision Sciences

What feedback have you had about the programme?

We presented about the course at the UKCGE (UK Council for Graduate Education) in September. Since then over 10 UK universities have requested viewing access to the course. While there are obviously other institutions who will offer online training I think we are innovating here by moving beyond a ‘repository’ model to something much more interactive. I had one comment from the University of the West of England who said ‘it looks very professional. It really gives the impression of [UCL] being a great place to do a PhD!’

“Commissioned and created as a working collaboration between UCL Arena and the Doctoral School with key input from Faculty and Departmental Graduate Tutors together with a number of doctoral students, it provides a strong basis for further enhancement to the programme of professional development for UCL supervisors”. Ben Colvill, Deputy Director, UCL Doctoral School

“UCL has recognised the need for improved training of research degrees supervisors and in getting greater engagement with this process. Drawing from this, the Arena team have recently worked with students to create a truly excellent, online platform for Supervisor training. This has just been released for use and is already proving popular and effective as a highly accessible and informative resource for new and existing supervisors. I fully expect that this new flagship resource, which makes use of cutting edge, interactive technologies for its delivery, will rapidly improve the quality of our research student supervision in UCL and should act as a paradigm for other Institutions across the UK.” Dr Andy Stoker, Faculty Graduate Tutor UCL Faculty of Population Health Sciences

'The new on-line training provides comprehensive accessible, and flexible training for new supervisors as well as an excellent reference resource for supervisors both new and experienced.' Dr Jill Norman, Faculty Graduate Tutor UCL Faculty of Medical Sciences and Dr Benet Salway, Faculty Graduate Tutor UCL Faculty of Arts and Humanities

What next?

We will continue to evaluate the online course and work with DGTs and FGTs to ensure we are meeting the needs of supervisors and their students. We are looking to create more development sessions for the New Year, including working in partnership with colleagues in Sweden's Karolinska Institutet to co-develop resources around communication and positive working relationships.