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Setting Expectations: New Research & Resources Form

last modified Sep 24, 2019 11:20 AM
Clear expectations are a crucial part of a good research student experience. Thanks to great work by our GU VP Mrittunjoy, the University now has an official 'Research and Resources Overview' form which all supervisors will be encouraged to complete with their students.

Research is used to establish or check facts, expand on previous knowledge and work, solve conceptual problems or develop new theories, based on the interaction of minds, exchange of ideas and the collective journey through the conceptual playground of knowledge. In the University of Cambridge, research is a major building block of the academic environment and legacy of the University. Good research-students and researcher training and welfare is crucial to reinforcing this. One important aspect in this is setting expectations, be it about frequency of research interactions and meetings or resources available for a research project as part of a research degree/course. Good supervisors use good teaching practices, goal setting, constructive criticism, a supportive nature and effective formative feedback, without any associated summative assessment or judgement, to motivate and work with the supervisee(s).

The research community in Cambridge comprises of over 4000 PhD students in over 70 academic faculties and departments and 140 University research centres and institutes, and in almost all 12 strategic research initiatives and 7 strategic research networks. There were 7092 applications made for the research degrees in 2017/18 cycle of the University itself. Given these numbers and the responsibility of care of the University to its students, looking closely at their academic welfare and rights is of utmost importance. There have been reported instances of bad supervision in the Collegiate University affecting the mental health of students. In the recently conducted Graduate Union Mental Health Report, 93% of students who reported that their supervisor has unreasonable expectations also reported mental health problems, while 25% of 1803 respondents report that their relationship with their supervisor has negatively affected their mental health.

In our discussions and consultations with students, issues have ranged from low frequency of meetings and research interactions, lack of clear expectations and boundaries in the project, lack of understanding and/or addressing disabilities (both visible and hidden), lack of advice on publications and career-related matters, and ‘feeling lost and unsupported’ during various phases of the research project. Lack of welfare signposting when required and encouragement to students for personal development are issues that were raised, when it came to supervisors’ roles. We believe that all this can be improved with better setting of expectations on both sides.

In December 2018, the University of Cambridge Graduate Union ran a student consultation on academic welfare and supervision. We had a response from several students, which helped us understand the realities and difficulties faced by students. The expectations of students and supervisors with respect to amount of time and nature of supervision provided has consistently been a point of contention, as shown by a testimony (that was given consent of sharing) of a postgraduate student during our consultation:

A post-doc in the lab acts as my supervisor or I'm assigned to that fresh graduate who is not an expert in my field. Since I'm self-funded I don't get any advice or suggestions from my actual supervisor, but he expects me to do his project as my PhD. I don't think this is fair. I don't know who to raise this issue to.

We have also been having discussions with the Students’ Unions’ Advice Service (SUAS), and they have informed us about instances and problems faced by graduate students in the University. For instance, in Case Study 3 of the SUAS Annual Report 2013-2014, we read about the case:

A PhD student drops in to discuss a breakdown in her relationship with her supervisor. She says that her supervisor has been giving her less feedback and is often unavailable to meet to discuss drafts of her writing. The graduate student has said that she had been registered formally for the PhD, this year being her second year.

These are just two of several other instances that have been reported, on how lack of setting of expectations and bad supervisions have affected postgraduate research students.

As GU Vice-President I have prioritized this aspect of student experience and have now successfully been able to include a 'Research and Resources Overview' form in the central University repository. All supervisors will be emailed by the University at the beginning of term to remind them about the Code of Practice (where I have added some constructive changes as well) and will encourage them to download this form and complete it with their students. This form will be a good basis and document to set expectations on paper by both supervisors and students, with regards to a research project. We are happy to share this major win on the Graduate Rights front with our members!

You can find the new form on the University's website here.