As we struggle with our online working lives, including the hundreds of emails a day, I was pleased to receive in my inbox the UKCGE guide to online doctoral supervision. I am sure many of you, students and supervisors alike, are now meeting regularly via video conferencing to discuss progress and plans for the weeks and months ahead. It has been a rather steep learning curve for my students (I co-supervise three at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation) and my technical and supervisory skills.
So, how well am I doing relative to these guidelines, and I suspect my students will leave comments below if they disagree! First, one of the key benefits of being online is the extra availability of the supervisory team. Since becoming PVC, I doubt my students have seen me as often as they are now (admittedly digitally) as we can meet as a group, bring in other members of the supervisory team. This produces better discussions of the issues and can help to give consistent advice across the team. The opportunity to involve 2nd and 3rd supervisors has certainly increased, and we get to see the insides of their homes and critique their choice of books in the background!
The UKCGE guidance is right to stress that the online relationship should not simply be a continuation of the on-campus experience. While I try to be as approachable as possible in the “real-world” (open door policy etc) it is a false assumption that students know I’m similarly approachable online, especially when dealing with different cultures and student backgrounds. Therefore, all supervisors should reflect on how to proactively reach out to students and explore different technologies as not everyone is chained to their email! In recent weeks I have tried a host of options, including WhatsApp, Slack, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams. While it would be nice to have one communication channel, it is vital to be flexible; in some cases, a phone call may be best!
I have also discovered that I must help my students with their thesis and research timeline and plans. The impact of the lockdown changes with time for both the student and supervisor, and simply expecting normal linear progress would be unfair. Being adaptive and working together to find a pragmatic route to progress is essential. This could include encouraging students to start writing their thesis sooner rather than later, or spending more time on literature searches and data analysis. In astronomy there is a huge amount of high quality online free archival data, and often this can address research questions without collecting new data. It may also be a good time to re-review the original thesis objectives to account for the impact of COVID19, both in the timeline and focus of the research.
Many of us feel isolated during this lockdown and I encourage all supervisors to help in supporting peer-to-peer social events and consider organising departmental gatherings to bring students together around common themes. This could be regular journal clubs, quizzes, seminars and shared working (coding together). If that doesn’t work, some pubs and cafes are now open and your student may welcome some in-person socially-distanced discussions
Finally, I encourage all students and supervisors to familiarise themselves with the support provided by our Graduate School, who are still open for business providing a wide range of advice and training. Likewise each department and faculty have dedicated research degrees coordinators that are available to all PGR students to provide local advice. Please use these great resources to help you through these most difficult times.