Any working relationship can hit problems and this is also true for the researcher relationship with the supervisor and supervisory team. So when things do go wrong, where can we start to support both the researcher and supervisor positively? We can STELPH! The name is quite ‘apt’ given the approach and issues it covers but helps us as training providers consider the support individual researchers may need to manage their supervisor or supervisory team relationships. So what does STELPH stand for:
Project not personal
Maintaining good communication between the student and supervisor is important. The majority of researchers realise this themselves but other things can get in the way. Sometimes where there is a lack of communication, assumptions are made such as the supervisor may feel ill informed, not know where the student is up to but fear they are not making progress. The student may feel the supervisor is not approachable or doesn’t want to bother them. Regular communication, even if it’s to say that there is nothing to report can be productive, everyone feels informed, involved and it avoids incorrect assumptions being made.
It is essential for researchers to appreciate that they are part of a team – this means that everyone is working together for a common goal. Even if the project feels isolated or the researcher is placed off campus, a team environment is important. If students need help there will be others they can turn to in the workplace, in the supervisory team and within the university. The team dynamic also offers other opinions and perspectives. If the student doesn’t agree with their supervisor, having others in the supervisor team allows them to canvass different opinions and ideas. At the very least, knowing you are part of a team can help and make the student feel less isolated. This can help progress the research and generate a sense of belonging and is particularly useful if ‘things go wrong’. The support network of a supervisory team, research team or other group can help support the student work through any barriers or issues.
Using personal experience and the experience of others can help if relationships are breaking down. Students may find support and tips from other researchers in the workplace, perhaps final year PhD students or post-docs who have spent more time with the supervisor. If nothing else they can provide a different perspective. Researchers may be able to draw strength from thinking about their own experiences or if similar things have happened in the past. Using your own experience and the support of others in their team can build confidence, experience and develop positive dialogue.
It’s the researchers PhD not the supervisors and as such it is important that the student takes the lead. This way they can drive the regular communication and set a schedule for meetings. Taking the lead can enhance project management, organisation skills and demonstrate initiative as well as having a sense of control over the project to help keep the focus on the research.
Project not personal
A useful saying to consider is that it is all about the project and not personal. There may of course be differences in personality but usually stresses and strains in the relationship come about because of the pressures of the project rather than as a personal attack. Everyone may be experiencing the same stress but deal with it differently. If problems arise, it’s often helpful to suggest that the researcher sees how their actions affect the project rather then anyone personally. There may be personal issues or indeed unprofessional/unacceptable behaviour but the process of looking at this objectively may provide fresh insight and enable researchers to seek further support if needed.
Where there are personal issues, clashes in personality or simply problems which cannot be resolved, it is important to seek help. The sooner the better! Graduate offices, administrators, student reps, and tutors can all provide advice on the best way to do this. Making the right information and contacts accessible is important to enabling this.
STELPH in practice
So how can we make this accessible to the student? Encouraging a positive exchange between the student and supervisor is important and also knowing where to get help. Opportunities such as induction and personal development workshops are good platforms to generate awareness of the processes in place. Having online resources that can be anonymously accessed will also help. Consider the networks available to disseminate the message, such as student reps, postgrad societies or mentors. The supervisory relationship should be positive, productive and supportive in identifying training needs. Hopefully STELPH is not needed but having the information to sign post students in-case of any issues is worth building into the training provision in some way.
Extract from: Page 23-26, Chapter 1 - Triage: Identifying Training Needs from E.R. Stories - Enabling Researchers Stories by Davina Whitnall (ISBN 978-0-9932312-0-9). Further titles by the same author available at: www.davinawhitnall.co.uk