Supervisor support


PhD supervision by the head of a clinical department

"I am the head of a clinical department. At the start of a PhD project, we usually have a global research plan and funding. In general, we recruit our PhD candidates from among our group of young medical doctors and master students. Currently, I supervise four PhD candidates.

In the first 3 months of the PhD project, the research plan has to develop into a concrete research project: formulating research questions, elaborating on study design, method and patient group. In this first period, I am usually heavily engaged and I act rather directive. Together with my PhD candidate, we lay out a ground plan for a PhD thesis usually comprising 10 to 12 possible chapters. This way, we allow some room for failure: not all studies planned have to come off. We prioritize the research questions into main research lines and sidelines. In the course of the PhD project, we can decide to drop one or two sidelines or, reversely, to change to a sideline if necessary. The final PhD thesis usually contains fewer chapters. This way, chances of success are better.

The next step is to write the research protocol as well as the protocol for approval by the medical research ethics committee. I regularly discuss the protocol with my PhD candidate, usually at least once a week. I make sure I am available for them in this stage of the PhD project.

After approximately 3 months, we usually end up with a detailed research protocol, a review article and a schedule for the entire research project. Also, by then we know who is going to be co‐promotor and who is going to do the daily supervision of the PhD candidate. At the onset of the PhD project, this may not always be self‐evident.

From then, as the day to day PhD supervision is done by others, I meet with my PhD candidates and their daily supervisors every 3 to 4 months during their PhD projects. Towards the end, these meetings may become more frequent as we have to finalize the PhD thesis and prepare the formal steps for the PhD graduation ceremony."

PhD supervision and team building

"In our clinical department with a research staff of eight, we have about 25 to 30 PhD candidates. Supervision is divided equally among our research staff. As a full professor, I am mainly engaged in research and teaching.

We recruit our PhD candidates from the group of students who aspires training as medical specialist in cardiology or internal medicine. Fortunately for us, this group is large so that we have a good choice and are able to pick only the best candidates.

Our selection is very meticulous and elaborate. Applicants have selection interviews with representatives from all research echelons in our department, after which the head of the department decides. This procedure helps ensure that new PhD candidates are both excellent and socially well adapted, and fit in our team.

We discuss the content of the PhD thesis at the start of the PhD project, preferably in a meeting with all team members. The research plan develops into a specific research project. Our strategy is to plan (too) many chapters for a thesis, so that the PhD candidate feels it can not fail, even if some of the research planned does not come off. Thus, the PhD project is well defined from the onset and fits in our research framework. This also makes the PhD candidate feel part of the team. The PhD candidate knows exactly what is expected and has a clear time line. The PhD project has to be finished within 4 years, possibly within 3 years.

Furthermore, all our PhD candidates participate as physicians / researchers in our clinical trials. This offers benefits for both the department and the PhD candidate: we have ample personnel and the PhD candidates gain relevant hands‐on experience.

To enhance team building, all PhD candidates and staff visit international congresses together. We also have a team lunch once a week on the department floor, and organize other social activities in which we all participate.

Despite all precautions, PhD projects sometimes fail due to unforeseen circumstances. We therefore started to evaluate and, if necessary, discontinue PhD projects after the first year. Being a disappointment for both the PhD candidate and the department, we feel in the end this is the best solution for everyone.

In all, we try to create an environment in which our PhD candidates are motivated and stimulated to perform well. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is our motto."

PhD supervision in a 'family model'

"I am an associate professor and my research is translational lab research. I currently have three PhD candidates, one postdoc and two lab technicians. We all share a single room.

A PhD project starts with funding for a new subject of research. Funding is awarded based on a general research hypothesis, not yet a detailed research project. At the onset of a PhD project, I deliberately ask my PhD candidates to work out the subject of research into a concrete research proposal. They have to formulate the research question, design experiments and work out the details themselves. I am available as a supervisor at all times, but I want them primarily to do the thinking. At this point, I do not want to push them too much. Of course, I have an idea which way the research project should go, but I am also open for new ideas. Actually, I welcome any good original contribution. After all, the aim of a PhD project is to learn to become an independent scientific researcher who can design his own studies.

We work as a team, we are like a family. I act as the family mother. This is a very important aspect of my supervision. As a family, we feel solidarity for each other, we help one another and we achieve things together. My PhD candidates also learn from each other, see how they use different approaches and have other attitudes to work. Problems are discussed in the group, when they arise. We also have a lot of contact socially outside the work.

This model of a family works best in a small group with different characters. In selecting new PhD candidates, I always consider how a candidate would fit in."

PhD supervision with a progress evaluation committee

"I am strategic professor in a pre‐clinical department. Our research is mostly done in an experimental laboratory setting and not in patients.

Currently, I supervise three PhD candidates myself, and I am formally promotor to a number of others who are supervised by other PI’s in our department. I meet with my own PhD candidates every week individually to discuss the progress and new experiments. Furthermore, we have a weekly podium where all PhD candidates of the department present on the yearly basis their research to their colleagues and the department faculty. Finally, there is a weekly research meeting where all PhD candidates of the AMC research theme present and discuss their work.

A major issue is that pre‐clinical research is centred on hypotheses testing and designing plausible alternatives. Often, a hypothesis is not confirmed and has to be retested in other models, reformulated or replaced by new ideas. This may be a very frustrating expedition at times and tends to lead to delay in the progress of the PhD project. Characteristically, PhD candidates and supervisors may not be satisfied with outcomes and prefer to proceed for the benefit of publishing in high‐ranked journals. In fact, this is not always beneficial to the objective of the PhD project, which has to be finished in time. Therefore, our department favours to appoint a progress evaluation committee for each PhD project.

Ideally, the progress evaluation committee is formed by two senior researchers from our department, not being the supervisor. They meet with the PhD candidate and the PhD supervisor once a year or, if necessary (mostly, after year 3 of the PhD project), more frequently. Their task is twofold:

1) to assess the progress of the PhD project and to discuss with the PhD supervisor and the PhD candidate the data and how to proceed to achieve a timely finalization;

2) to assess the interaction between PhD candidate and PhD supervisor ensuring optimal working conditions.

Typically, at the end of the project period the progress evaluation committee might advise to drop further hypothesis testing and write down the results‐so‐far in a manuscript to be submitted to a somewhat lower‐ranked journal. Their task is to check the balance between realism and excellence, and to stimulate a fruitful research climate by closely monitoring the PhD project."

PhD supervision using project planning from the start

"Our research is in the field of epidemiology. As an associate professor, I currently supervise three PhD candidates. In our department, a new PhD candidate usually starts his or her PhD project on an already funded research project. The study design, subjects and methods are specified. We generally know the number and a global title of the publications that will comprise the PhD thesis in the end.

In the first few weeks of a PhD project, the PhD candidate's agenda is still relatively blank. A new PhD candidate should seize the opportunity to think about the task lying ahead. The PhD candidate can start planning the entire PhD project, including data collection, data analysis, PhD courses, congresses, and writing manuscripts for publication. It is important to also take travelling abroad and training into account, and even holidays, in order to draw up a realistic project plan. Counting backwards from the end of the PhD project (in most cases 4 years from the starting date), and planning the finalization of the draft manuscripts, the PhD candidate can easily get an idea how much time is required to do the data collection and analysis, writing and preliminary preparations for the PhD thesis.

I discuss the project plan with my PhD candidates regularly, and naturally we will adapt it more than once in the course of the project, but it helps to plan and to keep on track during the project. A big advantage is that the PhD candidate has realistic expectations right from the start and that the consequences of changes in pace during the project are visible right away.

Also, in the first few weeks of the PhD project, I plan appointments for my PhD candidate with some of my colleagues. These 30 minute meetings help them to get acquainted with AMC faculty they are going to meet and need later on in their research, and it shows other staff members which projects engage us.

At the beginning of each year, I write the planned research output for the current year (manuscript title plus PhD candidate’s initials) on the white board in my room. In the course of that year, I add the progress information on each publication. This gradually expanding overview is rewarding and stimulating for both myself and my PhD candidates.

As a matter of principle, I schedule meetings with all my PhD candidates individually once a week, whether we have concrete results to discuss or not. It is good to sometimes just ask how things are going. Doing a PhD project can be frustrating at times and I want to give my PhD candidates an opportunity to express those feelings as well as their enthusiasm. "

PhD supervision to a large group of PhD candidates

"I am the head of a large experimental laboratory department containing three research groups. My research group alone consists of 25 people, of which are 20 PhD candidates, two faculty members (not PI, not MD) and two Veni laureates, in two research lines.

Some of the PhD candidates are supervised by one of the Veni laureates, who also act as copromotor. I meet with them ‐ PhD candidate and copromotor together ‐ once a month to discuss and monitor the project, but keep my distance from the daily supervision. The other PhD candidates are under my direct supervision (together with the two faculty members who guide practical details and experiments on the work floor).

With such a large group, it is important to manage the supervision in a tight organization.

We have a weekly 90‐minute lab meeting with all researchers and lab technicians in my research group. One of them gives a scheduled presentation on their research project. The remaining hour is filled by current affairs of topical interest, usually not planned in advance.

Directly after this lab meeting, I sit with my PhD candidates for another 90 minutes every other week. This way, I intermittently meet with my PhD candidates in both research lines every fortnight. We discuss the current experiments in detail with the lab books on the table, in the presence of the two faculty members and other researchers involved.

Furthermore, the faculty members of our research group discuss practical matters with the PhD candidates separately on a need‐to‐have basis.

My door is always open; I make a point of being available for my PhD candidates, although I realize this ambition has become more difficult to accomplish due to other responsibilities in the AMC. Furthermore, I have irregular individual meetings with my advanced PhD candidates.

Finally, we have two‐weekly seminars for all researchers in the department. This way, we keep in touch with the other research groups.

In a large group like ours, it is important to have a balanced mix of relatively new and more advanced PhD candidates. This way, the more experienced PhD candidates can assist the less experienced. My task is to keep a close watch over the projects in general.

Although supervising so many PhD candidates at once is time consuming and strenuous at times, I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world. It is what gives me most pleasure in my job."


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