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Supervising a Doctoral Thesis: Lessons and Guidelines


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Professor Orit Hazzan of Technion's Department of Education in Science and Technology

Since joining the Technion 20 years ago, I have supervised 32 graduate students (half of whom were MSc students, the other half doctoral students). Their research works naturally focused on my three areas of research: a) computer science, software engineering and data science education, b) STEM education policy, and c) a variety of education-related topics pertaining to different organizations (IDF, Israel Police, schools, and industry). Based on this experience, I will present in this blog 10 guidelines for supervising graduate students, which I have learned and adopted during these supervising processes. I will focus on the supervision process of doctoral students, since this process is more meaningful compared with that of supervising Masters' students in terms of research duration, responsibilities, commitment required of both the supervisor and the student, the contribution of the research to the scientific community's knowledge, and the risk that both the student and the supervisor take.

Metaphors for the supervision process

A metaphor is the description of one idea in terms of another idea to improve understanding and communication (Lakoff and Johnson, 2002). The metaphor I use for supervision processes is raising a child together by two parents for four years, whereby the child is the research and the parents are the student and me. Like child raising, doctoral research is a joint project. It is a partnership that comes with commitment and requires cooperation, where each of the partners has his or her role.

Guidelines for a supervision process

In what follows, I share 10 guidelines that I have adopted over the years in my supervision of doctoral students. The 10 guidelines will be presented according to three stages of the 'raising a child together' metaphor: The early stage focuses on the couple checking their fitness for raising a child together; the second stage concentrates on actually raising the child, and the third period deals with the stage in which the child leaves home. 

Acquaintance stage: Checking fitness for raising a child together

In this stage, the supervisor and the student check whether they can work together on the student's doctoral research.   

1. Do not commit prematurely: When a candidate approaches me (in most cases by email) asking if I can supervise him or her in their doctoral studies, I ask them (still by email at this stage) about their background, what research topics interest them, why they decided to approach me, and what they find interesting in my research works. Only when I see some potential for a common research interest do I suggest a meeting. If we meet, I give them several additional tasks, such as reading several of my papers and theses I have supervised. During this period, I keep telling them that we are both not yet committed to pursuing a Ph.D. research together. Only after some time (which may be up to a year), during which the student keeps showing interest and exhibiting appropriate writing and cognitive skills, as well as dedication, will I agree to supervise him or her. In terms of the metaphor, during this process, we both clarify to ourselves whether we wish to raise a child (that is, do research) together for four years.

2. Let the candidate suggest the research topic: When a student comes and asks for a research topic, I tell them that it is their Ph.D., and therefore they should suggest the research topic, as far as it falls within the ambit of my expertise. The fact that the student suggests a research topic that he or she finds interesting ensures that he or she will be connected to the research, will be passionate about it, and as with raising a child, will care about the research at all times: from the moment he or she wakes up in the morning, throughout the work day, until he or she goes to bed at night. At the same time, the fact that the students bring their own topics enables me to further promote my knowledge in new fields, to explore new areas together with the student, and to transfer relevant knowledge among all of my graduate students.

3. Encourage the candidate to talk with other researchers about possible supervision: When I meet with the student, I encourage him or her to talk to other faculty members as well. At this stage, I present them with the metaphor of child-raising and propose that they might find a better partner to raise their child (that is, conduct research) with. If, at the end of the process, we both decide we want to work together, this examination period will have sharpened our understanding of our common research topics.  

Supervision stage: The child is raised together

While working together on a doctoral research, there are tasks and feelings that both the supervisor and the students share, as well as some personal tasks and feelings.

4. Meet at the frequency that suits the student: Research projects differ in many aspects, including in the kind and frequency of interaction needed by each individual and at each step. Some students wish to meet with me once a week, while for others, once a month or even less frequently. I adjust myself to their needs. Since it is their Ph.D. (see Guideline #2), I let them manage the research schedule and set the agenda for each meeting; when needed, I adjust and fine-tune the research process. In addition to the practical responsibility for the research management process, this experience also trains the students to be independent researchers after graduation.

5. Write together as soon as possible: When possible, the student and I start publishing preliminary findings as soon as possible; as the research progresses, we get together to write more substantial outcomes. Such writing processes sharpen the student's conception, as well as my own conception, of the research. Furthermore, this experience helps the students gain writing skills, improves their familiarity with the research community and its culture, and encourages them to start establishing their status within this community.

6. Convey the message that you do not know the "answer" – the thesis: In many cases, at this stage in their studies, the students have not yet been in a situation in which their teacher or mentor did not know the answer to a given problem. I therefore keep delivering the message that I do not know the answer — the research thesis – and that it will be uncovered gradually during the research process.  

7. Support students' feelings of vagueness: When doctoral students feel insecure due to their inability to see the big picture – their thesis – and furthermore, the path to finding it is vague, I keep encouraging them to embrace this feeling, to be curious about what they will eventually find as their thesis, and to understand that this feeling indicates their research is innovative and has the potential to add meaningful knowledge to the community.

8. Foster students' intrinsic motivation: According to the self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2000), intrinsic motivation is fostered by the fulfillment of three needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. While the fulfillment of the needs for autonomy and competence are obvious in the context of a doctoral study, the fulfillment of the need for relatedness is more challenging. Guideline #2 states, however, that the student is the one who leads the selection of the research topic, hence the potential to fulfill this need increases. Since doctoral research is a long process that requires many resources (mainly, but not only, cognitive, emotional, and social), intrinsic motivation is crucial and should be fostered incessantly. Among other things, as a supervisor, it is important to keep encouraging and inspiring the doctoral student's autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Graduation stage: The child is going to leave home

After the thesis is submitted, the supervisor and the newly graduated doctoral student should revisit their relationship and determine its future. If they have already established additional co-working channels, they can go on working together; if not, it is time to examine suitable future relationships.  

9. Write a comprehensive thesis paper: If we have not written any joint papers during the doctoral research (see Guideline #5), as the student's graduation approaches, the student and I write a co-authored paper summarizing the thesis. This process also enables the student to prepare towards the thesis defense exam.  

10. Let the graduate students find their way: I treat the new graduate doctors as experts in their fields. Sometimes, I go on working with them as colleagues; in other cases, collaboration is less frequent and we contact each other when an appropriate opportunity arises. For example, when a graduated doctoral student decides to start a new career after graduation as an expert in his or her research field, they frequently contact me requesting introductions, advice, and letters of recommendations. As with a child, I am always there for them, to help and support their decision-making process to the best of my ability.  

Summary

The 10 guidelines outlined above seem to lead to good outcomes. One such outcome is the fact that none of my student have dropped out during his or her Ph.D. research. While researchers attempt to explain drop-out rates from doctoral programs in term of external factors, e.g., marital status, research field, and funding (Wollast et al., 2018), I would like to propose that internal factors, such as the student's responsibilities during the research and intrinsic motivation, that supervisors should be attentive to them as well, are also meaningful for the completion of doctoral degrees.

References

Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior, Psychological Inquiry 11(4), pp. 227-268.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (2002). Metaphors We Live By, 2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wollast, R., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N., Galand, B., Roland, N., Devos, C., De Clercq, M., Klein, O., Azzi, A., and Frenay, M. (2018). Who are the doctoral students who drop out? Factors associated with the rate of doctoral degree completion in universities, International Journal of Higher Education 7(4), pp. 143- 156. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1188721.pdf

 

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion's Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering and data science education. For additional details, see https://orithazzan.net.technion.ac.il/.


 

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