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Nine golden rules for a good relationship between PhD supervisors and candidates

The Golden Rules for PhD Supervision were recently posted on the website. Most of the problems that PhD candidates experience stem from difficulties in the supervisory relationship. The Golden Rules show how to improve this.

The Golden Rules for PhD Supervision are just two pages long and three columns wide. The first column details the responsibilities of supervisor and supervisee: ‘Be willing to receive feedback,’ for instance. The second column explains what this means for the supervisor (‘Be aware that for any professional relationship to work, feedback must be a two-way exchange’) and the third column what it means for the PhD candidate (‘Be aware that receiving feedback is very helpful for your progress’). These ‘be aware’s’ are also further specified. Nine aspects of the relationship between supervisor and PhD candidate are covered in total. The advice is based on the wisdom and knowledge of people who have experience of the process and what can go wrong.

Background information

In 2018, Leiden University held an employee satisfaction survey. This ‘Personnel Monitor’ is published every year. PhD candidates were asked to fill in an additional survey because they represent a separate group: employees who need extra support during a three or four-year PhD programme. The survey showed that, in general, PhD candidates are very satisfied. However, there is also a group of PhD candidates who are deeply unhappy. This is for various reasons, but a key one is the supervision they receive. The quality of supervision often has a bearing on whether a PhD is a success. Incidentally, the supervisor no longer has to be a professor, but can now be a senior lecturer or lecturer instead.

PhD ceremony in the Great Auditorium
PhD ceremony in the Great Auditorium

Publicity

Around the same time, a number of leading journals such as Nature and Science published articles about the wellbeing of PhD candidates, and national newspapers such as NRC Handelsblad and Trouw picked up the story. A bleak picture emerged of stress, burnout and mental health problems. A study in 2017 by the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), an institute at the Leiden Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, had already shown that PhD candidates are a vulnerable group at high risk of mental health problems. They are also a large group, encompassing over 18% of the employees of Leiden University.

Workgroup formed

The Board of the University recognised the severity of the picture that was being painted, despite already having taken steps to address the issue. For instance, all PhD candidates now have two supervisors, once a year two independent members of staff discuss supervision and other matters with PhD candidates, and the graduate schools now all have confidential counsellors.

In an unrelated move, a workgroup was formed on the initiative of Eric Eliel, Professor of Quantum Optics, former Scientific Director of the Leiden Institute of Physics and ex-member of the Personnel and PhD Candidate Monitor Steering Group. The workgroup comprised representatives from PhD candidate platforms such as LEO and LAP, and the PhDoc University Council party, the CTWS and the Faculty of Science, which has many PhD candidates. They wanted to use their own experiences and wisdom to address the matter. The Golden Rules for PhD Supervision were the result. The workgroup concluded that the relationship between supervisor and PhD candidate was not clearly defined: both sides needed to know what their tasks were and what they could expect of each other

Marishka Neekilappillai
Marishka Neekilappillai still has a wishlist.

Sharing knowledge and experience

Marishka Neekilappillai was a member of the workgroup. She is a PhD candidate in Private Law and a member of the University Council for PhDoc. In the Council, she is advocating improving the position of PhD candidates, but says that the full honour for the Golden Rules goes to Eric Eliel: ‘He was the driving force behind the Golden Rules. It was an inspiring experience for the PhD candidates in the workgroup to work with him. By sharing his knowledge and enormous experience as a supervisor and scientific director, he created an open environment that left us free to name the problem areas in the PhD supervision. We hope that supervisors and PhD candidates will discuss the Golden Rules in the initial phase of PhD research. That would prevent or reduce frustration, miscommunication and stress.’ The Golden Rules have since been officially adopted by the Executive Board of the University.

Wishlist

Neekilappillai still has a wishlist of questions relating to the legal position of PhD candidates. There is a lack of clarity about whether their contracts can be extended in the event of illness, such as burnout. And what if the PhD programme ends prematurely if the project that it was part of is terminated? Or what about the position of the PhD candidate if the supervisors have too little time or interest in the PhD research or lose confidence in the candidate? Plenty for Neekilappillai to raise in the University Council, therefore.

The Golden Rules have now been posted on the PhD candidate website, but they also have to become part of everyday practice. How to achieve this? Nick den Hollander, Senior Policy Officer Research at the Strategy and Academic Affairs Directorate: ‘Supervisors and PhD candidates must internalise the rules. All new PhD candidates now receive the document through the graduate schools. It could also be added to guides for PhD candidates, and HRM is looking at a good way to turn it into courses for PhD candidates and supervisors. It should also be on the table when supervisors and PhD candidates develop supervision plans.’

Text: Corine Hendriks
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