Supervising research higher degree (RHD) candidates is a form of intensive teaching where the interpersonal relationship between supervisors and students is particularly critical to students’ experience and study outcomes.

As experienced supervisors are aware, although pursuing an RHD is generally an extremely rewarding experience, many graduate researchers struggle at times with feelings of isolation, and a lack of ‘connectedness’ to their peers, their departments and the institution. Some students also come to question the outcomes and value of a research higher degree. It is therefore common for many graduate researchers, at some point in their candidature, to become de-motivated, fall in a slump and experience periods of psychological distress.

What can academic supervisors do to support the wellbeing of graduate researchers?

Hear from experienced supervisors from various disciplines about their strategies for fostering a positive and productive supervision relationship and supporting student wellbeing.
(Download a transcript of the video)

It’s a process of engaging with a very flexible and dynamic set of circumstances and not imposing expectations on that; Listen to what you’re not hearing, listen to what’s not being said, and ask “why?” “do you mean … ?” “… is that what you really mean?”
Professor Howard Nicholas, La Trobe University
Mainly it’s about peer support, so ensuring that you have a strong network around the students so that the students can form their own social networks… they play sport together, they go out for lunch together, I think that’s extremely important.
Professor Sandra Kentish, University of Melbourne
Encourage people to support one another. Their projects might not overlap but they do connect. Get people in the lab to help each other. If a student can’t do it, get someone who does know along side so that they can pass on the knowledge.
Professor Phil Batterham, University of Melbourne
I tend to overdo feedback, particularly with early drafts. I think it makes the process quicker if they get detailed feedback straight away rather than spend time trying to read between the lines of what you want them to do.
Professor Helen Lee, La Trobe University
Feedback in the first year is about being very supportive and assisting students in reaching that quality. As you move into 2nd and 3rd year, feedback becomes more pointed: “this really has to be addressed”. But you do have three years to do that.
Professor Kate Darian-Smith, University of Melbourne

Research snapshot 3.3: The experience of PhD students

A range of institutional, disciplinary, social, personal and psychological factors can influence the PhD process, therefore there is no single solution to ensuring success (Norton, 2011). Two prominent factors that appear in the research are:

  • Supervision: Naylor et al. (2016) report that PhD students see their supervisors as a major source of support, but also a major source of distress if the supervision was not adequate, or if they had a poor relationship with their supervisor. The most effective supervisory teams are those that can offer research direction, methodology, emotional support, and administrative procedures (Satariyan, Getenet, Gube, & Muhammad, 2015).
  • Relationships: Family and peer support and informal and formal mentoring are important for PhD students’ success, whereas persistent feelings of isolation or lack of mentoring can lead to attrition (Leonard et al., 2006; Lunsford, 2012; Webb, Wangmo, Ewen, Teaster & Hatch, 2009).