Supervising doctoral students can be very well considered as the essence of the work at the universities. The supervision combines aspects from both research and education. The universities act states, “the mission of the universities is to promote free research and academic and artistic education, to provide higher education based on research, and to educate students to serve their country and humanity.” Supervising doctoral students well and successfully, one might be rather satisfied in following the purpose of the act.
Big question is, what are the elements of good supervision. In order to answer that, one must put oneself into the position of a student and identify what is the very central lesson to be learned.
I enjoyed the way that professor Bengt Holmström from MIT put it in a recent TV interview: “The students up to a master degree have learned to answer questions. The doctoral students have to learn to ask questions.” This is the essence of becoming independent and successful researcher. It is not always so that those who are good in answering are also good in asking.
Based on the duty of the doctoral student it is clear, that the most significant aspects in supervision are not teaching and learning in an elementary school style (even if this has also developed over the years). The student may, of course, learn new things in participating lectures and reading books, but this is hardly the way to learn to ask questions.
As a supervisor, it is so tempting to explain in detail what should be done. However, I believe this should be avoided. It is in the process of the doctoral studies to find your own way. As a supervisor, don’t do things that the student is supposed to do.
However, there is still a lot that needs to be done. In the following I put my short list of three key elements that I consider essential for supervising doctoral students.
Trust! The trust to the ability of the student needs to be unconditionally present. The students that start their process towards doctoral degree have passed already a whole lot of tests and screenings. They are anyway well-selected minority who has all the attributes that are needed for becoming a researcher. Trust their ability and let them show what they can do.
Support! The students do not need you to solve their questions, but they need you to support them in their (sometimes very lonely) work. Most significant part of the support is just to be there, to be available. Keep motivating the students. Keep pointing out the good work that they have done.
Time! This is one of the most challenging elements. We all have a shortage of time, but the students need you for discussions and feedback. Sometimes even to answer their questions. Modern technology makes us very busy, but is also gives us tools for spending time with people, or as the Finns have learned, connecting people. Short email while on a bus or a telephone call when you walk to a meeting may solve big problems.