Supervising PhD Students: A Collaborative Approach

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Teaching Portal, Teaching Portal: For Teachers | 0 comments

In July 2018, Professor Julie Anderson, Professor of Modern History at the University of Kent, was the first winner of the Royal Historical Society’s Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching and Supervision in History. Here she provides an account of her supervisory method and practice in guiding students through the PhD process.

Supervision differs from one academic to the next, and my own method has points of similarity to and divergence from what other historians find successful.


Getting Started

At the beginning of the PhD candidate’s research, I outline a three-year plan of achievable goals. It has six elements:

  1. Specific writing targets
  2. Attend and present at conferences
  3. Teaching experience
  4. Engage with non-HEIs
  5. Mentor
  6. Publish

In addition to planning, I have found that establishing a community is important, and the two are woven together in my methods. One does not require a significant number of PhD candidates to create a community; one can call on research clusters and departmental colleagues. It is important to foster a sense of community amongst research students, as it reflects the current state of academia; research projects and teaching are more often collaborative in nature. Sitting alone in an archive for months, however pleasant, is not the working life of historians in universities. I believe that setting postgraduates against each other and fostering a critical, competitive environment will not develop well-rounded historians, and is detrimental to their mental health.

“It is important to foster a sense of community amongst research students, as it reflects the current state of academia; research projects and teaching are more often collaborative in nature.”

Specific writing targets

I encourage my students to practice their writing. We set formal writing targets for each year, which divides the thesis into manageable parts. In the first three months, candidates write a 10,000 word literature review to engage with the historiography. The completion of 10,000 words often gives a real boost to their confidence early on. I expect 20,000 at the end of the first year and 40,000 at the end of year two, which leaves plenty of time both for a final chapter in the final year and for editing. Word targets mean that if a student gets stressed about a chapter, they are not obliged to finish it, and lose confidence in their abilities. This method prevents PhD candidates getting stuck for two years trying to ‘finish’ one chapter.



We all know that PhD candidates benefit from attending conferences, as it gives them a chance to get feedback on their work in progress and introduces them to a wide range of scholars, which reduces their dependency on their supervisor. I plan with my supervisees to attend conferences as soon as possible, and present at three of them. Preparation is key to this: for their first presentation, the student produces a paper in consultation with me and then they present it to a cohort of PhD students. I role play – usually taking the part of the ‘difficult’ audience member. We discuss ways of dealing with issues, and then I leave the room, and let the more experienced research candidates engage with the presenter and offer their own constructive criticism.


Teaching experience

Many PhD students want to gain teaching experience, but it can be daunting. In order to make the transition from being a participant in the seminar to leading it, preparation is key. In the first year of their PhD, I encourage student observation of seminars, and they look at a sample of essays to compare what mark they would give, to the actual mark awarded. I often do group marking with seminar leaders which new PhD candidates are invited to attend as observers, in order to more clearly understand the marking process. When my postgraduates teach, usually in the second year, I ask them if they would like to offer a lecture under my supervision. They usually accept, and the undergraduates in my classes are always willing when I ask them to help ‘train future academics’, offering helpful suggestions and constructive criticism, and engaging wholeheartedly in the process. None of the teaching development is compulsory, but my PhD candidates reported it gave them added confidence when they lead a seminar for the first time.


Engage with organisations beyond higher education

Many PhD students want to work in academia. Yet they must be realistic, so I plan with each individual student to do some work with an organisation outside higher education in order to widen their range of skills. With encouragement, all of my PhD students have found partners to work with, such as museums, archives, arts organisations, charities, and publishers and find the experience uniformly rewarding.



One way to ensure that PhD candidates remain part of a community is to assign mentors. Usually, it is a second or sometimes a third year student mentoring a first year student. They meet informally, and the more experienced research candidate is able to answer concerns and ask questions – their recent experience really helps a first year PhD student feel more confident. I host a dinner once a year, where we all get together and discuss what we feel are our collective and individual goals for the academic year – and then see how well we have done at the following year’s dinner.



Publishing PhD research is a thorny issue and views differ on whether this is appropriate for PhD candidates. I feel that it is better to learn alongside an experienced academic who can assist them with navigating the publishing process – how a reader’s report is interpreted, how to respond positively to what seems like hurtful criticism, and to understand unfamiliar jargon and strange job titles. In the first instance, I encourage a PhD candidate to publish a book review, then progress to a journal article. Finding books to review is relatively easy: I just ask a book editor if they would mind if one of my students reviewed a book they offered to me, under my supervision. A journal article is a bigger undertaking, but all of my PhD candidates have managed it and become more confident as a result. For those supervisors who experience anxiety about ‘publishing’ PhD research, an article usually takes so long to appear that the candidate has often had their viva before their article is published.


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