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Research Student Handbook

Research Supervision

Research Supervision

All research students work closely with the academic supervisors. There needs to be regular meetings or contacts between you and your supervisors to plan and discuss your research, and the writing of your thesis.  Producing a successful thesis is a methodical task, not something that can be done to a high standard in a hurry.   For that reason, you should produce written work at regular intervals – it is in your interest to start writing as early as possible.  In turn, your supervisors are there to offer advice and guidance, and to provide help and critical comment upon your writing.  The relationship between students and supervisors is of crucial importance and there needs to be good communication and co-operation alongside a relationship of trust. Please familiarise yourself with the Code of Good Practice Supervision of Postgraduate Research Students.

Each research student is allocated to a supervisory team comprising at least two members of the academic staff. Exactly how the supervision is shared between your supervisors will depend on the nature of your particular supervisory team, so you will need to find out how this is intended to work in your particular case. Supervisory weightings can be found on your MyPGR record.  For example, sometimes supervision is shared equally, sometimes one supervisor takes a major role with the other taking a minor role, and this may vary according to the point in your studies you have reached.  One supervisor might take major responsibility for methodological issues and the other for issues related to the subject area of your thesis. You need to be aware of the pattern of supervision with your supervisory team and this is something for you to discuss with them.

Your primary supervisor is your first port of call for feedback and guidance about your research project and progress. The role of the second supervisor varies considerably over a spectrum between co-supervisor and occasional consultant. Where your primary supervisor is inexperienced, an experienced second supervisor should act as co-supervisor; sit in on meetings, etc. Your second supervisor may also act as co-supervisor in cases where the first and second supervisors have expertise in complementary techniques or domains, or where the supervisors are collaborators.

The functions, in brief, of each member of your supervisory team are as follows:-

Supervisor 1:  

  • He/she will normally have expertise in your chosen research area and/or methodology;
  • The first supervisor is expected to meet research students regularly, provide direction and advice on their project, as well as giving feedback on draft chapters and arranging a substantial discussion of progress each term.

 Supervisor 2:   

  • Your second supervisor will have been assigned either at the application stage or on your enrolment;
  • He/she will normally be a discipline or research methods expert who will support you alongside the first supervisor;
  • He/she may be from a different discipline if your research project is interdisciplinary;
  • The second supervisor will normally attend a termly meeting along with the first supervisor and student;
  • The second supervisor may step in to bridge the gap should the first supervisor become unavailable, for example, becoming the ‘acting lead’ if your first supervisor is unwell for a period of time. However, this may just be a temporary measure and a new first supervisor with appropriate subject expertise may need to be found (i.e. the default position will not always be that the second supervisor becomes the first supervisor, but rather that they can provide continuity and support as part of their role as second supervisor);
  • He/she may have different views and academic interpretations from the first supervisor and this range of inputs should be welcomed. Having said that if conflicts arise advice should be sought from the Pastoral Tutor.

 Pastoral Tutor:            

  • Helps with any non-academic issues that may arise (please see Pastoral Tutor section below).

A Note on Expertise

One crucial aspect of the supervisory relationship is its changing nature as the research project progresses.  You can expect your supervisors to guide you in the area of your chosen project.  However, as time goes by and your research progresses, the relationship changes as you become the expert in your specific project, as a large part of the role of the supervisors is to guide you to understand the standards and norms expected of work at doctoral level and to provide you with constructive and critical feedback. It is not always necessary for your supervisors (and in particular your second supervisor) to have specific subject expertise.

As set out in the Arrangement for the Supervision of Research Degree Students: code of good practice, the ‘pastoral tutor’ is a designated member of staff with a pastoral responsibility for the student (including advising the student in cases when difficulties arise between student and supervisor).  The pastoral tutor will be a member of the College’s academic staff. The role of the pastoral tutor is not that of a ‘supervisor’. A pastoral tutor does not require direct input or knowledge of the student’s research topic.

The purpose of the pastoral tutor is to provide an additional layer of support and the role of the pastoral tutor is set out here.

We want you to enjoy your experience as a doctoral student in CLES and for it to help you become a confident, independent and critical researcher. We want you to feel supported by us and challenged by us; to that end, we outline here a clear set of expectations that should help your supervisory experience to be constructive and fulfilling.

We expect you to:

  • Take responsibility and show independence in managing your doctoral study, including:
    • Ensuring you understand the academic conventions of writing a thesis and know where to find support, if needed;
    • Complying with norms relating to academic integrity and the avoidance of plagiarism;
    • discussing the Supervisory Agreement with your supervisory team and signing your acceptance at the start of each academic year; discussing your research training needs annually, using the research training needs analysis form;
    • Carefully considering the feedback from your supervisors: we do not expect you to agree with everything, but in cases of disagreement, please note this in MyPGR;
  • Fulfil your responsibility to maintain your record in MyPGR, including;
    • Maintaining records in MyPGR, summarising the key points of the supervisory discussion, and  specifying actions to be taken;
    • Keeping your supervisors informed of conference attendance, publications planned, and any periods of absence.
  • Take part in the Annual Monitoring of Research process;
  • Understand that your supervisors may not be available outside of arranged appointment times;

You can expect your supervisor to:

  • Understand the expectations of supervision and examining as set out in the TQA Manual;
  • Establish clearly, through the Supervisory Agreement,  the role of first and second supervisors and patterns of contact throughout the year;
  • Hold a supervisory meeting at least ten times through the year (six for part-time): this may be face-to-face, through Skype or equivalent; or via email;
  • Provide timely, critical and constructive written feedback;
  • Review your progress through the Annual Monitoring of Research process;
  • Instigate the Unsatisfactory Academic Progress procedure if  you are not progressing at a rate likely to lead to submission of your thesis within the appropriate time limit;
  • Instigate the Health Wellbeing and Support for Study procedure if ill health impedes your progress;
  • Engage in PGR supervisory developmental activity. 

You can expect the University to:

  • Provide research supervision;
  • Provide a personal tutor who will contact you once a term, and advise you where to find support, if needed;
  • Provide shared or communal study space;
  • Provide opportunities to participate in an active research community;
  • Provide additional support for your studies through, for example, the Researcher Development Programme; AccessAbility; INTO Exeter; and the Guild of Students/FXU.

Why is Feedback Important?

An essential part of the supervisor’s role is to provide feedback to research students on research plans and possible methodologies, on the work that they produce, and on their progress towards delivering work at the appropiate standard. As you progress through your research project, the nature of this feedback will change as you become the expert in the specific field that you are investigating. However, what is constant throughout the process is the expectation that feedback should not simply be a one-way process of ‘expert advice’ from the supervisor to be passively accepted by the research student, but a two-way process of discussion and combined analysis of the research in question. Feedback should have an active dimension, and may consist mostly of questions by the supervisor rather than statements, and effective feedback is often elicited by the research student asking for advice on specific issues. The feedback process should be an active learning process, not the passive acceptance of advice, or simply a process of ‘error correction’.

What Should you Expect?

Timely feedback: If you present your supervisor(s) with written work to consider, you will need to give them time to read it and produce comments. Thus you should submit such work well ahead of any scheduled meeting. (Check with your supervisor how much time is appropriate.) It is important to agree on such timescales to allow supervisors to balance this work with other work they are engaged in, and also to ensure that the feedback you receive is not unduly delayed.

Critical and constructive feedback: Although giving positive feedback is relatively easy (and gratefully received) it is often necessary to provide more critical feedback. A principal aim of feedback is to help you improve your work, so much time will be spent discussing what is not working. For students who have doubts about their work or who feel insecure, this can be difficult. However, the aim should always be constructive criticality, and entering into discussion about the value of your work is not only important as a learning process, but is also good preparation for the viva examination when you will have to defend your thesis. All feedback, including more critical and negative feedback, is useful, so take notes when discussing such feedback so you can think things through later, and check with your supervisor that you’ve understood the feedback given.

Detailed or global feedback? The feedback you receive may be very detailed, looking at specific wording or analyses of data, or it may be more global, looking at the argument as a whole, or how a particular piece of work you have done fits into the thesis as a whole (or the wider academic literature). Be prepared to hear feedback at all ‘levels’.

Preparation for Feedback

It is worth considering asking for feedback on specific areas of your work prior to a supervisory meeting. You may want to consider submitting questions along with any written work relating to issues you have found problematic. For example, you could ask for feedback on areas such as structure, quality of evidence, flow of ideas, style, or visual arrangement of data. As mentioned above, a more active approach to feedback helps the learning process.

Feedback on Draft Written Work

Supervisors should provide guidance on the writing and preparation of the thesis, including commenting on at least one draft.

Much of the feedback you receive will be ‘referential’, dealing with editorial issues and comments on organisation and content. Sometimes the feedback will be more ‘directional’, and make explicit suggestions for changing the work. At other times the feedback will be more ‘expressive’, providing praise, criticism or opinion.

Regarding editing advice and comments on language use, there is great variety amongst supervisors, with some being prepared to guide on spelling and grammar, whereas other see their role principally in terms of offering guidance on the development of  ideas and the structuring of thoughts.

Supervisors are not expected, however, to undertake substantial editing or revision of a draft thesis. Ultimately, you are responsible for your work and the supervisor's’ responsibility is to give you guidance.

It is worth discussing this with your supervisor(s) and if you are aware that your English language skills need support, do take advantage of the free INTO Insessional English Language Courses, and/or the fee-based copy-editing service. Supervisors in general prefer not to spend their time correcting poor English, so do ensure that work that you present to them is always appropriately checked and proof-read.

Sometimes feedback will concern the style of writing, rather than issues of English language grammar usage. This is normal, and relates to academic conventions and disciplinary expectations, and is a common area of discussion.

Agreed Actions after Supervisory Meetings

Much of your feedback will come from supervisory meetings. Remember that you must write up these meetings and any action points arising in MyPGR. This succinct review of what you have discussed is an excellent way of focusing on the essential elements of the feedback you have been given.

MyPGR provides an online facility which allows you and your supervisor(s) to track your progress and provides a structure to help you manage your studies. It is a mechanism for recording meetings with your supervisory team and storing drafts of work for review by supervisors.  MyPGR creates a record of all or most of your meetings and discussions where you and your supervisor can summarise the actions that need to be taken as well as matters discussed. Please note that it is a requirement, as set out in the University’s Teaching Quality Assurance Manual, that research students agree a schedule of supervisory meetings and write up records of supervisory and pastoral tutor meetings using MyPGR.

MyPGR is available through iExeter the University’s student portal; click on the Student Record Tab along the top of the screen. 

Key features:

  • A set of pre-specified dates laid out for you to meet with your supervisors and pastoral tutor, and the ability to add ad-hoc meetings.
  • A system which records your progress throughout your research degree programme and allows all information to be stored in one centralised system.
  • A document repository allowing the uploading of up to six documents per meeting from both you and your supervisor or pastoral tutor.
  • A system which allows you to upload AMR and Upgrade documents, and request interruptions and continuation status, as well as nominate examiners.

You will need to keep a written record of your supervision meetings on MyPGR – you should have at least 10 for full-time students (six for part-time students) written records of supervision per year (following the deadlines set on MyPGR). You can add extra supervision records if you wish.

If you do not write up a contact event by the end of the month you will receive an automated email reminder from MyPGR.  Your supervisor will also receive an automated reminder.  If you do not write up the minimum number of contact events appropriate for your mode of study then the PGR Support team will contact you to ensure that you are receiving the appropriate levels of supervision and to see if there are any problems.

In addition to your supervisory team and PGR Pastoral Tutors, the Director of Postgraduate Research for your discipline, the College Director of Postgraduate Research and the STEMM PGR Support team will also have access to your MyPGR records.

Please take the time to look at these Training Documents for Students and Supervisors. If you have any queries about the system or are having technical difficulties please email  or for advice and support.

The University’s Code of Good Practice on the Arrangement for the Supervision of Research Degree Students applies when a change of supervisor is necessary.

Supervisor Leaving the University

A supervisor who resigns from the university should inform the Discipline Director of Postgraduate Research as soon as possible so that a replacement can be appointed and the student informed. Normally a new supervisor within the discipline will be allocated. However in exceptional circumstances, and if it is in the best interests of the student, the above University Codes of Practice allow for a supervisor to be appointed from outside the University thereby enabling the services of the original supervisor to be retained. Such an arrangement has to be approved by the College Associate Dean for Research. Although the original supervisor may continue to be de facto the main academic supervisor, an Exeter supervisor must be appointed as the reporting supervisor who is responsible for the student’s progress and its recording, including completing research supervision reports and leading on the Annual Monitoring Review.

Student Request for a Change of Supervisor

A student who requests that their supervisor be changed should raise the matter with their pastoral tutor, or the discipline Director of Postgraduate Research.

Supervisor Resignation from Student Supervision

If a supervisor does not wish to continue to supervise a particular student, s/he should put the case in writing to the discipline Director of Postgraduate Research. The DPGR, after consulting the supervisor and the student and ascertaining the availability or otherwise of an alternative supervisor, should choose the most appropriate course of action. A prime consideration is what in the best interests of the student.

Well before study leave is taken a supervisor should consider whether or not he/she intends to continue supervision. The University's Code of Good Practice on the Arrangement for the Supervision of Research Degree Students states that supervisors and co-supervisors normally continue their supervisory responsibilities while on study leave. An important consideration in deciding whether the supervisor should continue or be replaced is the best interests of the student. Relevant to this are how far the student has progressed with their research, the location of the supervisor whilst on leave, the availability of a replacement supervisor, and the acceptability to the student of proposed contact and supervision arrangements. The final decision lies with the discipline Director of Postgraduate Research, and the student should be informed of the outcome as soon as possible. If the supervisor is to be replaced, all relevant provisions in the above section should be followed.

Student Gifts

Students are asked not to offer gifts to academic staff. Students from cultures in which the giving of small gifts is regarded as a normal courtesy are requested to co-operate with this in order to avoid embarrassment to staff.

Personal Relationships between Student and Supervisor

If a personal relationship develops between a supervisor and a student, the supervisor must declare it to the Associate Dean for Research in accordance with the University’s Code of Professional Conduct: Relations Between Staff and Students and Between Staff.  The most appropriate course will almost invariably be that a replacement supervisor is appointed. If you feel that your supervisor is making unwanted advances, you should look at the section on Harrassment and look at the University’s policy on Harassment and Bullying. You can also contact one of the University’s dignity and respect advisors.