Supervisor enhancement programme strengthens research

Postgraduate supervision is crucial for enhancing research output. The supervisor is, therefore, a key component of the graduate student’s success, yet academics, in particular early-career researchers, do not necessarily receive training to be effective study leaders.

Moreover, supervisors are not only expected to nurture the scholarly needs of their students, they are also expected to provide non-academic support, advice on professional development and ensure their graduate students become valuable contributors to South Africa’s knowledge economy.

In an attempt to address some of these challenges, the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA), in partnership with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), has been hosting supervisor enhancement programmes and will set up communities of practice.

This article is published in partnership with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA). University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Some of the aspects that have been covered during these training events include different models and systems of supervision as well as the role of institutional policies and procedures in supervisor-student relationships.

The goal of the programme is to provide academics with the space to engage further with supervision as an academic and professional practice, locating their experience within a broader national and institutional context and considering the various kinds of students they would have to supervise.

University World News asked two academics who have participated in the programme to talk about their supervision experiences and the value of the programme.

Dr Precious Mahlambi (PM) is based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) school of chemistry and physics. She is involved in method development for the extraction and detection of environmental pollutants in water and sediments. She is also involved in green synthetic approach of silver-based nanoparticles and their antibacterial activity.

Dr Yvette Hlophe (YH) is a researcher in the department of physiology in the school of medicine of the University of Pretoria’s faculty of health. Her focus is on cancer therapeutics in melanoma.

UWN: From the perspective of a supervisor, what are the greatest challenges in postgraduate supervision?

PM: As an academic, you are called to make changes in students’ lives and, thus, we need to treat them as if they were family. But this is a challenge when students do not seem to take their work seriously. However, with more support from programmes like this workshop, academics can improve in this area.

YH: Students have very little insight into the postgraduate opportunities they apply for. They should be sensitised about these while they are still undergraduate. Another significant challenge working with postgraduate students is managing their time and keeping a balance between work and study.

UWN: What are typical problems with supervision that students raise? Do you seek the input of students regarding supervision?

PM: Typically, students’ issues include financial problems, a lack of soft skills, too much work – especially when the project starts and when they are still trying to grasp what it is all about. Also, towards the end when they have to finalise their thesis write-up. I do seek students’ input regarding supervision. I believe that is important as it allows me to reflect on myself and my supervising skills and methods and see where I need to improve. I then ensure that I do.

YH: Students often complain they do not get sufficient time with their supervisors, and that supervisor feedback is not clear. Not all supervisors have the necessary leadership qualities to guide students adequately. I appreciate feedback from post-graduate students so I can improve my supervision. Student evaluation is a good thing because it could hold poor supervisors accountable.

UWN: Are there best practices that can help to solve some of these typical problems mentioned?

PM: Yes, for example, knowing that finances are a problem for my students, I pay their registration through the university cost centre. I provide bursaries where possible and I have started to hire my students as research assistants. They do a portion of research outside their own projects and earn some money which is usually enough for accommodation.

I encourage them to do practical demonstrations for undergraduates and get some money for groceries. While they do this, they also acquire soft skills such as communication and time management.

They also develop leadership skills. Mostly, I encourage them to apply for bursaries. I also encourage them to discuss the results as they come in and to start working on their write-up so that they are not under too much pressure when their submission time approaches.

YH: Supervisors need to take a project management course, which is essential in addition to their teaching and research responsibilities. Feedback in track changes on the students’ documents should be compulsory. In addition, there should be clear departmental policies on supervision.

UWN: Are there any other significant matters that have emerged at the workshop?

PM: Managing supervision and workload. The importance of reflecting on yourself and the type of supervisor you are and understanding your students and their needs.

YH: Funding, how to handle students who exceed the stipulated study time, and opportunities to develop a career and consult with higher education, especially to tackle social justice needs.

Funding for research is limited in the current academic environment in South Africa. THENSA exposed participants to additional funding opportunities. THENSA facilitators gave us practical pointers to assist students who struggle to complete their study programmes within the allocated time period.

Facilitators highlighted the importance of planning and setting short- and long-term goals that are well thought out and practically attainable in career development. In addition, facilitators mentioned the importance of incorporating a social justice aspect aligned to research and teaching goals.

UWN: How will this workshop help to address these issues and what kind of support do supervisors need?

PM: More workshops on effective postgraduate supervision are needed for supervisors. This allows them to share the difficulties they experience and get advice from other supervisors or experienced academics.

YH: In terms of career planning, the THENSA facilitators, especially Professor Urmilla Bob [the dean of research at UKZN], highlighted the importance of daily planning to meet short-term career goals. Accompanied by continuous reflection, the necessary adjustments can be made to ensure that career goals are attained.

UWN: What are the key features of successful supervision?

PM: Skills transfer, knowledge transfer, and project progress are key in the supervision process.

YH: Supervisors who can manage time well, supervisors who listen and treat students with respect, and supervisors who aim to develop the students to the best of their ability – these are key to efficient and effective supervision.

UWN: As a supervisor, how can you motivate a student who is not progressing well?

PM: I first remind the student that, apart from school, she or he has a life to live which has its own challenges. Thus, sharing that you have problems (without specifically sharing the issues), is important. Students should also speak up as soon as a problem emerges so that we can work together to solve it, where possible.

Otherwise, I refer them to university counsellors. I consistently follow up with my students and try to identify what they struggle with. Together we come up with a reasonable solution to the issue that affects progress. Most importantly, I ask the students if they are still willing to finish their projects, remind them of the importance of finishing what you started, and then ask what help they need to improve their progress.

YH: Supervisors should attentively listen to what the actual problem is. If you can manage the problem within the scope of your role as supervisor, it should be done. If additional support is required, for example with mental health or other social matters, a supervisor can help the student seek university support which comes at no additional cost.