Monday, 23 July 2012

How to be the perfect research student, part 1: process matters

Posted by Jean Adams & Martin White

Being a research student isn’t always easy. But nor is supervising research students. We have spent many unproductive hours ranting about the things that research students should, but don’t always, do to make their, and our, lives easier. Here they are in one easy list (in two parts…).

1. Prepare for meetings. Send an agenda of things you would like to cover in advance of supervisory meetings. Ask your supervisors if there are items they wish to cover too. If you don’t have anything you need to discuss, ask if the meeting should be cancelled. But remember, sometimes it’s good to touch base even if there's nothing specific to discuss.

Lisa Simpson: the perfect student?
2. Send documents in good time. If you've written something that you would like to discuss during a meeting, send it in advance – it’s hard to discuss your work without having had time to read, think about and comment on it. If possible, agree in advance when you will send documents so that reading can be timetabled into busy schedules.

3. Don’t send things you’re still working on. When you send documents for comment it should be on the understanding that you’ve done your best with them. They might not be the finished article and part of a supervisor’s job is to offer advice on how your best effort can be made better. If you ask for comments on something that you are still actively working on, chances are you will just get suggestions for things you were planning to do anyway – a waste of everyone’s time. An exception to this is getting comments on outlines, which can be useful to check you are on the right track.

4. Negotiate realistic deadlines. One way to avoid sending things that you are still working on is to be sensible when negotiating interim deadlines. If you find that you’re nearing the deadline but are not going to be finished in time, request an extension.

5. Say if your supervisor has got it wrong. Everyone makes mistakes – in designing studies, understanding the literature, interpreting data, and lots of other things. One of the joys of supervising is the new insights that students bring.

6. Use a citation manager (e.g. Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley). These help you store details on things you have read and automatically insert citations into your text. Some are free, others available via your university. On-line tutorials are available for whatever programme you choose.

7. Learn to use your software. A little pain getting to know your software will almost always pay off in the long run. As well as learning how to use your citation manager optimally, you should also learn how to get the best out of your word processor (in particular, the formatting options) and your data management package.

8. If you’re a PhD student, offer to supervise an undergraduate research project. This will help you to appreciate the art of good supervision and the frustrations of a student who fails to do any of the above!

9. Be proactive about the possibility of publication. Lots of our undergraduate, masters and PhD students have published papers based on the work they did with us. The main point of most student projects is to achieve the relevant educational objectives, but many are also worth publishing. This lets you share your findings with the world and gives you something extra to put on your CV. And who doesn't get a buzz out of seeing their name in print?


  1. This, of course, assumes that all supervisors are equal and that they value the same things that appear in this post! Supervisory relationships are so hard to navigate, there are competing egos and diciplines and ideas. I think its about using the right approach for the personalities involved in the team and finding what works.

  2. This is no doubt a UK based ideology of how supervisors and student work together. In any way some ideas here are good ones, others sucks just like the PhD it self.

  3. Absolutely. These points are all personal to the experiences of myself and my co-author. They aren’t ‘rules’, comprehensive, or even necessarily what we think in all situations. All students are different, all supervisors are different, and all student-supervisor relationships are different. These things always have to be negotiated individually.