Eight Things Your (New) PGRs Need You to Talk About

By Dr Joanna Royle, Researcher Development Manager

Speech and thought bubbles in different shapes and colours

Co-ordinating PGR Induction Week is perhaps the most invigorating part of my job.

There’s something about that mix of excitement and discombobulation as so many PGRs get to grips with the next stage of their professional lives. What should they be doing? When should they be doing it? How will this intellectual adventure look and feel? Then there’s the bombardment of answers to those questions from all sorts of sources.

No PGRs seem more lost in this scramble, though, than those who’ve not had communication from their supervisor at this critical juncture. So here are 8 tips to set the scene for your new PGRs – and the tone for your relationship going forward.

[1] Talk about… Time

It’s tempting to say ‘don’t worry’ about the research lifecycle and just focus on first steps. The problem is this rarely stops PGRs from worrying.

Outline the big milestones from the outset. These will vary between disciplines but can include everything from annual progress reviews and reenrolment to conferences and first publications. Try to build on PGRs’ excitement. Explain how all of these contribute towards the end of the PhD and what comes after.

Emphasise the importance of staying on track. Explore what they hope to achieve, and whether this is realistic. Set a path of checkpoints. Discuss contingency planning. Share your own stories and build a relationship that’s a safe space for frank discussion. Stress that productivity is a wave.

[2] Talk about… UofG Structures and Culture

The University of Glasgow has a population similar to the town of Dumfries. Its infrastructure is vast and complex. There is no better guide for your PGRs, however, than you.

Focus on introducing key figures. Identify them using their full names, their roles and how they interrelate with others. Flagging core contacts – the Graduate School, PGR Convener, subject librarians, Students’ Representative Council etc – sets boundaries on your time and responsibilities. Encouraging researchers to share how conversations with others went allows you fuller oversight of their doctoral journey.

Be sensitive to those unfamiliar with the UKHE learning environment, especially those from other cultures or marginalised backgrounds. Try to identify and discuss the many potential cultural gaps, using terms of ‘difference’, not ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

[3] Talk about… Supervision

Discussing your mutual responsibilities and expectations – and putting them into writing – is a kindness that sets researchers up for success. When and where will you meet? Who leads and notes meetings? What is the frequency of writing and feedback? What happens when the project snags? What can you expect of each other? The goal is to support a productive and professional relationship.

Make this a collaboration before it goes onto paper and be ready to make regular adjustments. Listen actively to the preferences of your PGR, and communicate your approach to power dynamics and JEDI. It’s a common PGR complaint that meetings are eaten up by debates between their supervisory team, so air mutual expectations with co-supervisors in advance.

Helpful resources include the University PGR Code of Practice, the UKCGE Good Supervisory Practice Framework, this Masters and Kreeger 2017 article , and this blogpost by Kay Guccione.

[4] Talk about…. Writing

Doctoral-level academic writing is a hard-earned skill.

Supporting formulation of ideas and research design is often easier than providing developmental writing support but researchers must practice writing to get better at it. Require writing regularly from the start. Provide constructive feedback. Model editing by going through short sections together and have them evaluate the writing of other PhDs. Writing not only helps PGRs become better writers: it also gives tangible creative outputs that break up the colossal trajectory of the doctorate.

Discuss the University writing support mechanisms, and how to make informed decisions on when and where to seek guidance. Highlight the technical elements of writing, too, from reference managers to thesis formatting.

[5] Talk about… Principled research

The discipline of carrying out and sharing research is as important as the content. Actively model of how values such as criticality, integrity, data management, ethical communication, intellectual property, and respect are central to scholarship.

The University has detailed policies and processes that support research of the highest standard. Nevertheless, the rapidly-changing technological landscape (especially the advent of AI) means your clear steer on principled research has never been more important.

[6] Talk about… IT

From student records to finance and HR, University IT can feel like a digital labyrinth. Acknowledge this. Ensure PGRs don’t become disheartened and know where to turn for help.

Keep notes of available systems and helpful contacts. In particular, flag university-provided research software and training, and encourage PGRs to experiment with collaborative project management applications to keep the PhD on track. Additionally talk about the value of having an active professional online research presence, and how to use it judiciously to find out about conferences, publications, and jobs.

[7] Talk about… Community

Connection and belonging are key to doctoral retention and completion. Unfortunately, doctoral loneliness and isolation is a widespread problem. Unlike undergraduates, PGRs often seek out social engagement (university clubs, gym, academic talks etc) but don’t always find these offer the depth of connection and shared experience they’re looking for.

Much of the hidden curriculum that nurtures and empowers PGRs sits within their local peer communities, so set a culture for your research group that fosters work-life balance. Stress that engaging with academic peers can constitute work time. Talk about appropriate and accessible opportunities. It mightn’t be your responsibility to facilitate community, but you shouldn’t forget that creating that shared space makes for better researchers – and better research!

[8] Talk about… Opportunities

Your inbox overflows with conferences, academic service, events, and opportunities. Researchers’ inboxes are similarly overwhelming, and they value guidance on how best to enrich their skills, build networks, and accelerate professional prospects.

The pandemic has changed attitudes to opportunities: much of the excitement and adventure is replaced by worry about precarity and, more pressingly, cost. Normalise PGRs’ concerns by openly acknowledging that there’s a fine balance to strike between the desire to gain experience, the need to earn, and the demands of their project. Signposting institutional financial aid and helping navigate the complex landscape of research funding underlines your understanding of these pressures.

As a rule of thumb UofG recommends spending at least 10 days-equivalent each year on researcher development. In addition to mandatory and optional training, GTA work, Research Assistantships and Internships are paid ways to gain valuable development. Help your researchers understand the demands of the job market and ensure they don’t over (or under!) commit. Frame conversations about needing a breadth of experience with good questions and honest reflection on their time, energy and needs.

That seems like a lot…

But it is not about a daunting, one-off, conversation! It’s an ongoing arc that continues throughout the doctorate. Consider how you will check in. Be reflexive to the needs and personality of each PGR. Early relationship-building cultivates their trust that you are interested in their hopes, worries, motivations and goals for the PhD; that you have the big-picture in view and will guide them through the tyranny of opportunities; and that you will not let them waste their time. Transitioning into research is a massive cultural change, champion your researchers by helping them navigate it.

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