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.

I Spy With My Little Eyes… A Perfect Supervisor

Is there an algorithm for choosing a supervisor?

If the gods of academia work in my favour, this time next year I, will be a postdoctoral research fellow. While searching for potential postdoc positions, a thought crossed my mind: ‘Could there be an existing algorithm on how to choose a perfect supervisor?’. I then went on a quest to find this hidden treasure, a journal with steps, perhaps a machine learning algorithm that spews out ones’ ideal mentor. To my despair, this journal was non-existent.

However, not all hope is lost because I did discover numerous articles with guidelines on how to choose a supervisor. These guidelines, combined with my personal experience, will surely assist you in your pursuit of a good supervisor. The guidelines outline the best-case scenario where you, as a student, have the power to choose your ideal institution and supervisor. Unfortunately, in some cases, due to funding restrictions or structured study programmes, the student does not have the freedom to choose a supervisor but is allocated one. In the latter instance, one just has to appease the academic gods and hope that they are paired with a good supervisor.

As always, a good starting point is being self-aware. Before pursuing the postgraduate journey, it is essential that you know your working style, work ethics, strengths and weaknesses, hence performing some type of personal SWOT analysis is a good starting point. For example, I knew that I was not a proactive student; therefore, I needed a supervisor with strict working rules. My MSc supervisor had set weekly update meetings, this kept me on my toes and hence worked in my favour compared to a relaxed approach. Doing the personal SWOT analysis will help you find a supervisor who complements your weaknesses and pushes you to be a better researcher. An important aspect of self-reflection is having a bigger picture of the research field you want to pursue. Take note of the broad research field that interests you, then create a list of potential topics that you want to work in.

Once you have a list of topics that interest you, you can now begin to search for a supervisor candidate. An article by the editor of the Prospects website details the steps of actively searching for a potential supervisor. This article indicates that one should start with searching for the most cited papers, published blogs, and recently submitted PhD dissertations in your area of interest. If you are inclined to the social engagement aspect, you should also search for researchers who also do some level of outreach activities. Once you have conducted this search, you should reduce your list to realistic potential researchers. For example, if you have no interest in moving abroad, then all the candidates from other countries should be removed from your list.

Next would be a background check on the list of potential researchers. Although sometimes it is not feasible, a background check is essential, especially for female students (unfortunately, not all researchers have good intentions). One can approach previous students supervised by your potential advisor to understand the type of person they are and their work ethics. Of course, the information will be biased based now the kind of relationship the student had with the advisor. However, if multiple students mention the same thing, especially if it’s sexual misconduct, then you might have to consider removing that person from your list.

An article by the Academic Positions websites clearly outlines how one can then approach the potential supervisors. In summary, you must send an email detailing your research interests, the reasons you would like them to be your supervisor, and ask for a face to face meeting (either personally or virtually) to further discuss the project you are interested in. This email should also include your revamped CV. Once you have made contact, the next phases are out of your control; you can only hope for the best outcome. If the first meeting does take place, make a list of concise questions to ask that will help you in your final decision making. These are the questions you could include: How many students are they currently supervising? Do they have time for more students? What are their expectations of the students under their supervision? If necessary, would they be able to fund you? Do they have affiliations with other institutions?

The academic journey has no guarantees, but make the most of your journey. Postgraduate studies and student-supervisor relationships can be emotionally taxing, as detailed by a previous SAYAS blog; hence it is vital to put in all this effort. Having the ‘right’ supervisor can be a catalyst to your growth in academia and having the ‘wrong’ supervisor could lead to depression. My MSc and PhD supervisor has been a mentor and advisor. In the moments where I felt so defeated and incompetent, he always knew the right things to say to keep me motivated. He has been selfless and transparent when giving advice, even if it meant losing me as a student. As a result, he connected me with multiple international collaborators which immensely advanced my research.

Another SAYAS blog likens supervisors to coffee, funny but very true. Supervisors are very different and have various supervision styles buts once you find your preferential ‘coffee’ it will be magical. It will have a lasting impact on both your academic and personal life.

Even though there are all these ingredients to finding the best supervisor, you as the student have to put in the most effort. There are no guarantees that all these steps will lead you to your ideal supervisor, but you also have to be willing to maximise your potential to gain the most from your postgraduate experience. If the relationship does get toxic, be mindful of the steps you could take to fix it or find another supervisor; hence it is important to be aware of the structures that handle these matters in your institution.