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I am a relatively new tenured professor. My responsibilities increase gradually, and this year I have started supervising students' thesis: a bachelor thesis and a master thesis. (This is in Europe, so master thesis is not PhD-lite).

Somehow it feels like I am expected to already know how to be a supervisor. There are no resources anywhere that I can find. The training I received at the start of my tenure focused exclusively on classroom teaching, and my PhD/postdoc only prepared me to be a researcher, not a supervisor. Of course, I already know more or less what a supervisor does - after all, I have been supervised through many academic endeavors myself and I was able to observe. I also have experienced colleagues who have supervised students for years that I can observe or to whom I can ask advice.

But I don't think that this is "good enough". There are certainly some skills that I can improve, some issues that I can plan ahead for, etc, that I haven't noticed while I was myself supervised: after all, I was busy with my own project at the time, I was not learning how to supervise. I'm also sure that there are some things that were done / should have been done by my former supervisors that I can't have noticed (e.g. how to set an agenda and stick to it for a meeting, how to adapt to roadblocks, etc). Moreover, like everyone, my own experience is unique, and the students I'm going to supervise are not me: what do I do if a student loses a relative, becomes discouraged, or on the contrary outperforms everything I've expected, needs more guidance than I can provide, needs a less hands-on supervision, needs career advice about a career I've never thought about...???

I realize that this is a huge task, so I am certainly not asking for a full answer right now - knowing stackexchange's reputation, such a question would probably get closed immediately for being too wide without concern for whether the question would actually be helpful to myself and, I hope, many other people. Anyway. I will instead ask for resources on supervisory skills: books, websites, classes, etc. What have you found that helped you become a good supervisor?

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  • 2
    You seem to have the right attitude about it. Flexibility, for example. I think you'll do fine.
    – Buffy
    Jan 26 at 14:01
  • 4
    Have you checked whether your university provides any relevant staff training courses? At the universities I've seen in Europe, this would be pretty standard. Jan 26 at 14:12
  • I won't give a formal answer, since it isn't what you specifically ask for, but I think your colleagues are your best resource. The department coffee lounge (now zoomed, I guess) is a good place to ask and get advice. Not all of the advice will be good, of course, so filter it.
    – Buffy
    Jan 26 at 14:12
  • @lighthousekeeper I have checked and I did not find any resources, no. French universities are drastically underfunded.
    – user134438
    Jan 26 at 14:15
  • I've never checked, but the EUA Council for Doctoral Education should have some guidelines and resources (may need membership).
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 26 at 14:16
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There are three sources that I would look into.

  1. Internal: you got a PhD and had fellow students share their experiences. What worked for you? What didn't? Advising is a very personal process so I think it's wise to make it your own.

  2. Departmental: what are the advising norms in your department? Do you have a department mentor, or does the university offer workshops to new faculty? If so - attend them. They are invaluable for you to understand how your university perceives the advisory role, which may be different from place to place.

  3. External resources: there are several online resources, I personally found this piece by The Professor is In here useful; this Science article is also very useful. TL;DR: be consistent, honest (for better and worse), supportive and attentive.

Good luck!

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    I agree with consistent and honest. In most cases a "Spark" of understanding and kindness also does not go amiss. In very rare cases, strictness is necessary, but better not to onboard students who need this in the first place. Jan 26 at 16:38
  • 1 and 2 can perpetuate bad practices. Jan 27 at 10:55
  • Well, since OP's advisor has produced at least one student who's managed to secure a tenure track faculty position, then they're doing something right. Also note that I specifically mention that you should look at what didn't work as well as what worked.
    – Spark
    Jan 27 at 15:50
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  • Tara Brabazon and the Office of Graduate Research at Flinders Universities have very good resources on PhD supervision. See for example Why do students change supervisors?.
  • Also ALLEA the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities.
  • There are journals like Accountability in Research with interesting papers on academic issues.
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There is an online course "Supervising Doctoral Studies" https://www.epigeum.com/courses/research/supervising-doctoral-studies/ which can be purchased. Usually it is purchased by a whole university, not a particular faculty member. I did the course. You might find it useful if you have absolutely no idea what you are doing.

Read your university's policies for the degree programs of students you are supervising. No external training program can prepare you for your university's weird rules.

If your university does not have internal training in supervision, you could ask administration to fund it. They really should have it.

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Congratulations on a relatively recent permanent academic position. This all sounds... very familiar. While I actually had to attend a mandatory "PhD supervisor training", the whole thing lasted for maybe an hour. Yet in my first year I ended up supervising a MSc (by coursework as opposed to by research) project, a MSc intern, a BSc inter, a postdoc, and starting with a second postdoc now (for various reasons, no PhD students as such). I was also expected to get involved in many other things I've never done before (mainly grant writing) and I sorely missed all the watercooler wisdom I couldn't get due to WFH and the pandemic.

It was a mixed success: while I think I handled an intern dealing with an extremely painful and difficult personal situation as well as I could have, I am currently categorically refusing to even consider supervising that person in the future as I fear I may not be able to do right by them if something like that happens again. (And I'm still trying to decide if this makes me a bad person or a bad supervisor.) However, my MSc student recently let me know that when considering job applications after working with me, they realised what excites them the most is research and are looking into PhD programmes. I have not stopped bragging yet :)

The sources I would recommend are very similar but slightly different to what Spark is suggesting:

  • Are you still in touch with any of your former colleagues from your PhD?

    I did this by chance rather than planned, but I had a reunion with my PhD-mates just before the pandemic hit and I started the new post. We did a bit of reminiscing, but we also ended up discussing our PhDs and supervision and how that influenced our careers after our PhDs. A lot of "my supervisor did this and that had this effect", and "my supervisor never did that and it took me a couple of years to realise it on my own".

  • I relentlessly ask for help and advice. Very politely and never insisting that I deserve somebody's attention straight away. Don't rely on any one person's help, but by all means, do ask for it (and take opportunities when they're offered).

    Do your best, try to improve, but if you get stuck, don't postpone asking for guidance. That is, in the end, what I was hoping for from my students, so I just got over myself and followed my own advice.

    Try to talk to colleagues with different supervision styles and research styles from yours if possible. A curious thing I noticed is that despite the fact that I am very much a "beginner" in my new role, people are suddenly wary of giving me advice. I found that what helps is making it crystal clear that I am asking for advice - a datapoint - to help me reach a decision, but the decision itself is still mine and I take full responsibility of it.

    Involve a third person in the meetings to help, or to moderate, if you still can not make it work.

  • Do your own research into supervision, look for materials, learn from them. As you say, your education so far prepared you to do research. From the looks of it, your main area of expertise is not pedagogy, but you should have the skills to tackle a new area, even it if is quite removed from what you know.

    To be fair, starting with full-blown research texts and literature would have been too much for me. The best and most accessible resource I found was this Vlog by the Dean of Graduate Research at Flinders University (no affiliation). The Dean is an absolutely amazing and intense Professor who worked and supervised students all around the world. While most of the Vlogs (counting over 250 30min videos at this point) are aimed at PhD students, some are also specifically made for early career researchers, the topics presented are meticulously researched and presented through supporting literature rather than personal experience, and they're fantastic.

    Spend 30 minutes to an hour every week (day?) learning about supervision. Watch some videos, read some papers, read academia.se. Check out the training offered by your University, even if scoffed on by your colleagues, and decide for yourself how useful they are.

In the end, I think you are already doing the most important thing: caring, considering the right questions, and trying to find the answers.

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