By Nicola Shaughnessy

The work of a research supervisor is rarely in the academic spotlight, but what we do can make a world of difference to a new generation of scholars. When I was encouraged to apply for my home institution’s inaugural Research Supervisor of the Year Award, a colleague made reference to the diversity of students I supervise and the range of methods I use in working with them. This was the basis for me being shortlisted for a Times Higher Education Award (the UK’s higher education “Oscars”) in 2018 for “working with difference and making a difference,” as my application put it. My research interests in autobiography, participatory arts, and mental health have attracted increasing numbers of postgraduate students who identify as neurodiverse, leading me to develop creative and interdisciplinary approaches to supervision. In this piece, I have identified eleven top tips that could be used with any student, particularly if they are encountering difficulties in their approach to research (fig. 1).

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Fig. 1.

(Source: © Matt Wilson.) Nicola Shaughnessy at a Practices, Hunches, Dialogues event.


1. Ask the Student

What does a good supervisor mean for them? And what does a good PhD student mean for you? How do you want this to work? After a brief discussion, plan the tutorial arrangements around your hopes and desires for your working relationship. Although you may think you know more than the student, this can be a useful point of departure and discovery. This is also a way of exploring learning differences and how to accommodate them without the student feeling they are identified as a special case in need of adjustments. All PhD students are special and all need adjustments as each student and project is unique. If a student identifies as neurodiverse, it can be helpful to create a checklist that can be an open document to be added to as you continue to work together. Key considerations for these students in particular are WHERE to have supervisions (making sure environment is appropriate––fluorescent lights can block thinking), WHEN (more regular supervision in shorter sessions might be preferred as a structure), and HOW (communication preferences such as Skype meetings, recording supervisions, and so on). Encourage students to be aware of their skills and challenges (see below for researcher style).

2. Unsupervision and Group Practices, Hunches, Dialogues (PHD)

Supervisions can feel isolating, but they do not always need to be a one-to-one affair. And not every meeting needs to be a tutorial in an office space, lasting an hour. A coffee chat, library meeting, or walk and talk are all ways of creating dialogue around and about the research. One supervisor I know visited a student in her kitchen, laying out the thesis on a table to help them see the structure in a different environment. As your supervisees, your students have at least one thing in common—you. Your research interests will also create links between the students that you can map together to create connections and build community. I run occasional meetings identified as Practices, Hunches, Dialogues for my practice-based students to share approaches. This could become a group “away day” to focus on a particular theme such as documentation for practice-based approaches or shared ethical issues.

3. Time and Space Matters

Define and observe boundaries. Identify whether your student(s) have preferences for times of day or environment to optimize their learning. Are they a morning person or not? Related considerations may involve child care to ensure the student has built in the time between dropping off and picking up from school. It is equally important for supervisors to identify parameters; for example, telling a student that “this is my lunch break” is okay.

4. Feedback: A Participatory Approach

Feedback can be difficult to digest, particularly if you are drawing attention to typos, confused ideas, referencing problems, and other student sins. As supervisors, it can be helpful to think of feedback as something that is offered, open, and in process, in contrast to marking that is more associated with closure. The student needs to own their work and become the expert, so avoid the “helicopter” supervisor model whereby you act like you are on the helicopter and can see much further than your student who is on the ground. Ask questions in your written feedback and save the commentary for a conversation. Direct the student to proofreaders, academic writing support, and graduate training, encouraging them to make the most of your time together for supervision rather than editing or copyediting. There are three “R”s for good feedback:

  • reality check (be honest and clear);

  • reassurance (indicate that problems can be overcome and that lots of students encounter them, with strategies for reparation);

  • relational approach, remembering that this is not your work as supervisor and you may need to agree to disagree! 

A very useful strategy can be to encourage students to share their work with other PhD students and to obtain feedback from one another. This prepares them for peer review in the future, and it can also mean that tricky issues are identified and addressed through this process. Think of supervision as a participatory practice, involving a relational approach in preference to the helicopter model.

5. Practice What You Preach

Do you find yourself racing to a deadline, requesting extensions as you have said “yes” to too much and rescheduling to get back on track? Then press pause and look in the mirror to reflect on the role you are modeling for your student. If you expect your student to meet deadlines, so should you; if you expect students to respect work/life balance and boundaries, then so should you. Let your students know your working hours, making use of an out-of-office reply on weekends or in the evenings. I know of one supervisor who tells students the times of day when emails are checked, and it works for all.

6. Identifying Students’ Research Styles

Create a skills profile (for example, by using a hands diagram or equivalent), identifying strengths and interests on the dominant hand and areas for development or challenges on the other. For example, a student who enjoys reading and archival research (dominant hand) might recognize the need for training in reference systems and that quantitative methods are an area for development (nondominant, weak hand). Analyze the student’s profile in terms of time management, literature review, and methodology. Do they keep a paper or digital diary, and how can this be utilized for structuring their time? What helps them to concentrate? How do they read and take notes? Are they visual learners who use mind maps, for example, or do they find that writing commentary on reading helps them to absorb their learning. What systems do they use for referencing, and are these efficient? Then troubleshoot to position the student in relation to their profile so that they can feel in control of the thesis rather than being controlled by it. If the thesis becomes an issue, see below for the metaphor exercise.

7. Relating to the Thesis: A Metaphor Exercise

Encourage students to position themselves in relation to their theses so that they feel empowered and in the driving seat. A metaphor exercise can work a treat and is fun to do (individually, with one another, or in groups). If your thesis was a color/animal/shape/food/furniture/clothing, and so on, what would it be and why? One of my students identified her thesis as a faithful labrador that she did not want to let go, but for me as a supervisor it was a yapping dog that needed some training!

8. The “Thesis Hack”

Do this annually or to get unstuck: WHAT is the research about and WHY is it important (objectives, research questions, originality)? WHO is it for (disciplinary audience for the work, research participants, ethical consideration)? HOW are you going to do it (methods and rationale in relation to questions) and WHEN (time management and structure)?

9. Create Creatives: Researchers across Disciplines

Whatever the topic, encourage students to think creatively beyond the box. Helen Kara’s book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences is an excellent interdisciplinary resource with sections on creative thinking, practice, ethics, gathering and analyzing data, writing for research, presentation, and dissemination. I also recommend her blog, available at

10. The Three “R”s for the Viva

  • • Rehearse: Do a mock viva for students, ideally with another staff member who has not done one before—good training for both the student and your colleague.

  • • Revise: Encourage students to create a color-coded map of thesis themes, using post-it notes so that they can navigate it in the viva and then guide you through it.

  • • Reflect: Let the student lead a final tutorial, reflecting on what they have learned, what they would do differently, and what they will do next with the research.

11. Keep It in Perspective

Finally, encourage students to keep their research in perspective as a means to an end—your thesis is not your life!


Work Cited

Kara, Helen, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. Bristol, UK: Polity P, 2015. Print.

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