From Excel to Pollock: Postgraduate student supervision in the time of Corona

Have lockdowns been a good motivation for supervisors to relook at their approaches?


Written by
Prof Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Department of Economics, University of Pretoria

Guest – Star and co-contributor
Prof Natasja Holtzhausen
School of Public Management and Administration, University of Pretoria


It seems as if the whole world has changed in 2020. From what was referred to as normal to what is now the “new normal”-whatever that might be. The Higher Education sector is not an exception to the trends and while the attention is focussed on teaching and learning, other activities are left to their own devices (pun intended)… Once I wrote that Supervisors are like coffee, in recent times, supervision feels more like a cocktail, an explosive cocktail, but at the same time, a delicious one with a yummy, yet peculiar aftertaste.

The first and main ingredient in this mix is the students’ needs and expectations. Postgraduate students always debate on their expectations of what constitutes a good supervisor. Opinions vary not only from student to student but also for the student during the period of their studies, from:  “I want a supervisor that is there for me emotionally” to “I don’t want a friend, I want an academic advisor”, from “I want a supervisor that will remind me of my timeline and deliverables” to “I don’t want a supervisor to police me, I can work on my own”, from “I want frequent meetings to share my progress and get feedback” to “I would like to get feedback only when I have final outcomes to share”.

The next ingredient is in the delicate relationship between the supervisor and the student is of course, the supervisor’s style and personality. Just a reminder here (and a surprise to many) is that supervisors are human beings, with their own personalities, styles and behaviours. The supervisors’ personal experience in their own studies also affect their styles. There are different schools of thought in that: “we become the supervisors we had” or “we become exactly the opposite of the supervisors we had” and many in between. Some have the willingness and skill to adapt to the students’ needs up to a level and offer a more individual learning experience. Now that we have all reminded ourselves the picture during normal circumstances, the conditions have become more difficult nowadays that the interpersonal relationship has to be built and maintained remotely. Students deal with a different world and new types of stressful conditions that no one foresaw. Their mental health is in higher imbalance than before but so is the academic supervisors’.

Do we re-invent ourselves as supervisors? Do we need to change our typical supervisory style and structure? My suggestion here is to try to convert the learning supervisory experience in a virtual environment, while being cognisant of the significant changes of the typical student environment during this time.

What has worked this far for me and my students:

The sense of community and belonging

Students have a need to identify with each other and develop a sense of community and common direction. By sharing struggles and wins in their academic life, they learn to deal with their own in a more positive way. Under normal circumstances, students meet in class, in the corridor, in the library and feel part of the “student community”. During these unprecedented times, this feeling and familiar environment is lost, even though many lecturers make an effort in many modules to recreate it.

We (all the students I supervise at all levels) have had a WhatsApp group before the pandemic, however less active and it had more of an announcement board format. Since lockdown, the group has been revived: except for academic articles, we share interesting news, data sources, relevant (and appropriate) jokes, personal stories and others. To kick-start such a group and make sure such a sense of belonging is established, maybe a couple of “get to know each other” tasks can be suggested. We organised a “send a picture of your pet studying with you” or “where you would rather be now, instead of where you are” or a “show us your work station”.

Such tasks are definitely not compulsory but create an ‘online’ community in place of simple everyday habits, such as drink coffee together at the Department or walk together or informally   sharing why we didn’t sleep well last night.

The supervisor is responsible to facilitate the formal discussions, to ensure that appropriate content is posted, and in general to model the ethics and house rules of the group. The supervisor should set a positive example of professional, polite, and ethical behaviour. In other words, if you are someone that doesn’t do well with group chats or any chats at all, maybe this not a good idea for you.

“Weekly” check-ins

The students have also lost their chance to come and knock on our door to say hello, to ask a question, arrange a meeting, or just to share an idea. We should establish how that could work now from the beginning with each of the students on a case-by-case. There are students that need frequent communication, even if it is an email from our side or agreeing that we will expect some form of communication from them more regularly than previously… I have noticed that more students in my group have asked for set “deadlines” (I promised I won’t use this term as it sounds so … final; I prefer timelines which sounds controllable). There are so many things around us that are beyond our control that we all have a need to be in control of whatever we can; that is a possible explanation from my side for this need of student for specifics.

Relatively “free” supervisory styles might not fit in with such a suggestion, so the frequency is not prescribed but suggested. Also, frequent contact does not necessarily mean frequent deliverables. What I am saying is contact might be “Here is a paper that might help you” or “Here is a dataset that I discovered, Prof. What do you think?” For closer and more personal style of supervisory styles, sometimes a simple “How is it going?” can take the student a long way. Overall, the advice is just be accessible, firm but accessible.

It is customary to expect postgraduate students to contact their supervisors, but especially during these times a little kindness can go a long way. You could even consider a WhatsApp video call if you realise a student is in distress, or not. I have seen the wonder of a WhatsApp video call especially when a student’s loved ones are far and they are on their own. You, and their class mates to which they do not have access now physically might be their support system. Think about that for a moment.

Also consider that due to the restrictions imposed by the lockdown it has had major implications on the data collection strategies of most of our postgraduate students. Reach out to your students. Discuss alternative strategies. You are the one with the experience, if you are not, reach out to colleagues and together create a plan-that is why collegiality exist.

Sharing vulnerability

The role of a supervisor is most times coupled with the role of a mentor, a role model and a leader. In the case of teams of students, a supervisor is the leader of the tribe (my students recently called me the mother of the tribe). One of my favourite authors, Brene Brown, discusses that a desirable characteristic of a good leader is sharing vulnerability. She shares that “Vulnerability sounds liked truth and feels like courage”. We, as supervisors, need to be honest about our vulnerabilities; that does not mean sit and cry with our students about what happens in our personal lives. It means being authentic: if we have a bad day, there is nothing wrong about it, ESPECIALLY at current mentally-challenging times. We admit and own our mistakes, and we do not pretend we know everything all the time. We share our fears and insecurities; that can make our students feel that their fears and insecurities are not irrational at current times. We can laugh at ourselves to keep things in perspectives: I apologised to my students that I did not answer to emails this morning because I had to pretend I am Captain America and had to take Hulk and Captain America (my sons) to a mission (clean their playroom). We can share our own paths and journeys that have brought us where we are now: we were not born in our positions, sharing our lessons will firstly help them see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and secondly, they will see they are not the only ones facing similar struggles.

Closing with two thoughts. Always remember that all these need to fit the particular student-supervisor relationship and be in benefit of the final outcome. There is not a one-size-fit-all in supervision, but rather a mix-and-match. Differences are to be celebrated and not feared.

Finally, we all talk about the pre-lockdown and post-lockdown conditions and how we all adjust now but also how we will also go back to the “new normal”.  I am wondering though whether the needs and expectations of the students from their supervisors have always been the same and will always be the same: academic advice, guidance and consultation, sense of belonging, mentorship and inspiration. Hence, whether under lockdown conditions, distance or close circumstances, the responsibility of the supervisor is to aim to adapt and provide the best learning experience for the students – however, nothing can be done without the effort and work by the students: research in postgraduate studies is the student’s primarily.

Students need to acknowledge that as a supervisor you also have various responsibilities and that you too are affected by the current situation. In all of this, communication is key. You cannot be available 24/7 and will have to set some kind of boundaries. You are probably home schooling your children, giving them art lessons about Jackson Pollock while populating that Excel sheet with the students marks your HOD wanted two hours ago.

I always think what if it was me? What if I was now for example a PhD student? What would I need to empower me? Let me be clear, not spoon feed, empower. But in the end, be kind. That is what all of us need more than anything right now.

Locked Down and Dancing – Physical Activity over the Next 21 Days

By Prof Benita Olivier

On Monday evening, 23 March, President Cyril Ramaphosa broke the shocking, nonetheless expected news: South Africa will be under lockdown as of Thursday, 26 March 2020, at midnight.

At that time, many practical challenges raced through my mind. Some of my instantly created questions were answered during the president’s address that same evening while others remained dangling. One of them being: will I be able to take a walk around the block or run a kilometre or five in the hood during the lockdown period? After a spur of confusing communique, along came Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on the morning of the 25th of March  and said something that gave all dogs, strollers, walkers and runners hope – we are permitted to walk our dogs or go for a jog in the street. Brilliant news… until a few hours later when Police Minister Bheki Cele said: “There shall be no dogs that will be walked, the cluster met, discussed and we agreed that it doesn’t enhance the call made by the president. If you do really want to walk your dog around your house, it ends there, it can’t go beyond that.”

I made the logical deduction that my running shoes are not going to hit the tar for the next 21 days… It felt like a basic human right is being taken away. Instant rebellion. How can a solo runner inside an estate in a secluded neighbourhood make less sense than the 100 people hanging around in Pick ‘n Pay? I then came to the realisation that my individual human right to stay healthy and feel good are now second to the collective’s right to heal. In order for the lockdown measures to be implemented effectively, rules need to be applied consistently and stringently. I can imagine that it will be very difficult for the police to enforce control if all of us take to the streets to “walk our dogs”. For the greater good, I will comply, but this does not mean that I will throw my exercise attire into the back of my cupboard. No, we are humans and we have a great ability to adapt, and adapt it will be.

This is the time to look after our physical and mental health. Physical activity is globally recognised as the best medicine for attaining optimal health and preventing non-communicable diseases (diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, obesity, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, hypertension, chronic pain and mental health conditions). Especially relevant to our current situation, physically active people have a stronger immune system and a lower risk of infection. Physical exercise is important to maintain a healthy mental state. Exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, improves mood, self-esteem and cognitive functioning and it reduces anxiety, depression and negative mood. It is therefore clear that during this time, exercise is a lifeline!

I do urge you to keep going if you are already in the habit of doing some form of regular exercise. A decline in cardiovascular fitness present itself after 12 days of no exercising, not even to talk about doing nothing for 21 days. The heart and blood vessels fail to function as they should, while muscle strength, endurance and coordination reduce. Negative effects on blood pressure, blood sugar and the immune system will follow as soon as two weeks after you stopped training.

If you are not a regular, only you will know if this is the right time to start a brand new exercising habit (remember to consult with your doctor if you have an underlying illness). And actually, thinking about it, now is a brilliant time to start exercising! A time to fight the blues with some sweat!

The American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise is Medicine initiative recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity per week. Moderate means that you can talk or sing while you do the activity, while during vigorous physical activity, no comfortable talking or singing is possible. You can do this in short spells of activity throughout the day or, say 30min to an hour at a time. In addition to aerobic activity, strength training is recommended twice a week.

How are we going to achieve the above? Here is where the innovation comes in. You can do it with or without exercise equipment. Body weight works brilliantly, but if you are fortunate to have a stationary bicycle, some weights and maybe a Pilates ball, great stuff. Star jumps, on-the-spot running, squats, lunges, arm dips, sit ups, all of these don’t require any special equipment. You will find a lot of exercise programmes on YouTube. The Exercise is Medicine website also has a few suggestions that can be found here.

Another solution is to download an app to your phone. Go through your app or play store and search for “exercise apps”. You will find quite a few. The one I use is called the “30 Day Fitness Challenge” – it mostly contains strengthening exercises where no special equipment is needed. The app contains various 30 day challenges – different body areas and different levels. It starts gently and slowly progresses. You even get an applause when you reach your daily goal. Another app, which has a specific cardio section is “Daily Workouts – Exercise Fitness Workout Trainer”. I don’t use these apps for any specific reason other than because they work for me, but there are many out there and it will be worth exploring a few options (while you lie comfortably on the couch).

If organised workouts are not the thing that makes you tick, then the good old traditional “counting the steps” is for you. Put on your step counter and get going with your chores while at the same time conquering your goal of 6000 to 10 000 steps per day. And… why not throw some dancing into the mix?

Things are serious out there and the best we can do is obey the rules and stay at home, but that does not mean we have to be miserable. We will be able to look back in 21 days’ time and think, not all was bad. We may be locked down, but our happiness is in our own hands.

#stayhomesavelives #exerciseathome

Benita Olivier is a professor in physical activity, exercise and sports and Research Director of the Wits Institute for Sport and Health at the University of the Witwatersrand. https://www.wits.ac.za/staff/academic-a-z-listing/o/benitaolivierwitsacza/