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What supervisors want – Interview: main take-aways

While supervisors can draw on their experience and the time during their own doctorate, current and future doctoral researchers are faced with information deficits. To provide information and guidance for doctoral students we have approached supervisors in four departments at the MLU. The interviews were conducted in German and are therefore only published in German. To make the essential contents of the interviews accessible to a wider audience, we have compiled the answers of the interviewees in the following in a strongly abbreviated version. The following text is based on the structure of the interviews. We explicitly invite you to read the full interviews, as many interesting aspects cannot be reflected in this condensed version.

We held interviews with four professors, Prof. Dr. Daniel Wefers (Food Chemistry), Prof. Dr. Jenny Haase (Spanish and American Literature and Culture), Prof. Dr. Ingo Heilmann (Plant Biochemistry) and Prof. Dr. Konstanze Senge (Economic and Organisational Sociology). Each interviewee is from another scientific field with different expertise and subject specific culture associated with the doctorate and doctoral supervision. For further information on our interview partners please visit the portrait section.

What was the last great experiences with one of your doctoral students?

All interviewees share the same great experience of witnessing and accompanying the progress of their doctoral students and seeing how successes and results are achieved.

As Prof. Wefers describes, one shares the pride of the doctoral researchers and Prof. Haase illustrates how one shares the enthusiasm of doctorates when difficulties and challenges turn into new perspectives and prospects. Prof. Heilmann adds that it is great to meet again with doctoral students after their doctorate and to be able to build on the good relationship from the past.

What does supervising a doctorate mean to you? How do you understand doctoral supervision?

In this question, interviewees placed different emphases and already anticipated a few aspects that were discussed in more detail in the course of the interview. Support in the search for (Senge and Haase) or setting of a topic (Heilmann and Wefers) was mentioned by all of the interviewed professors. All four interviewees also described the discussion of results and challenges and scientific input as elements of supervision, whereby Prof. Heilmann and Prof. Senge in particular referred to concrete aspects, such as discussing data and jointly finding a method. In this context, Prof. Heilmann and Prof. Wefers emphasised that their door is always open to discuss problems with doctoral researchers. Prof. Heilmann highlights the importance of this policy to avoid troubleshooting.

Supervision in humanities is often somewhat different. Prof. Haase explains that her doctoral students do not work at the department but are financed by scholarships and do not usually pursuit their doctorates on-site in Halle. Online discussions and the submission of texts therefore dominate the exchange and supervision. In the groups of the interviewed professors in Natural, Life, and Social Sciences doctoral researchers are mostly financed through budgetary positions or third-party funded positions at the chair which opens the doors for an informal exchange in addition to the official supervision meetings. For instance, a weekly colloquium at the chair of Prof. Senge provides the forum for exchange and introduces doctoral students to the daily business of the chair.

A further aspect of doctoral supervision for Prof. Senge and Prof. Haase is the integration of their doctoral students into their network and the academic world. Prof. Heilmann highlighted in the interview that not only direct supervision, but also the creation of a framework that enables doctoral studies must be seen as a supervisors’ task. For example, by financing and operating the laboratories. This aspect is also reflected in the support of Prof. Haase in acquiring scholarships.

In our online survey a doctoral students stated: “A supervisor has to meet the students at least every two or three weeks and has to know what the student is doing every time” How close should supervision be? And how do you decide on the intensity of supervision necessary?

For Prof. Wefers a needs-oriented supervision and the phase of the doctorate determine the intensity of supervision and frequency of meetings with the doctoral students. Effectively, he meets individually every 3 to 4 weeks with his doctoral students but this is optional. Supervision must therefore always be individually oriented on the doctoral student. On the one hand, supervision may go into depth and detail, but at the same time the claim of independent scientific work must be maintained.

Prof. Heilmann supported the statement of the quote, answering “this is exactly how we handle it in our group”. He emphasised that as much supervision as necessary must be provided. Hence, he jointly with his doctoral students works out where the needs and demands for support are. This varies greatly from individual to individual. In addition to designated meetings for supervision, Prof. Heilmann has regular informal meetings e.g. during lunch breaks where an exchange is possible. This informal exchange is also mentioned by Prof. Senge.

Prof. Senge and Prof. Haase use the approach of needs-oriented support. However, both consider meetings every two weeks (as mentioned in the quote) neither feasible in terms of time nor reasonable. Both emphasise that supervision should not become too rigid and that doctoral researchers must be given freedom. Prof. Haase demands a base line for the dissertation projects with the submission of a text every semester and offers support and supervision where needed. Likewise, Prof. Senge made the experience that rigid support in case of a “writing block” with frequent meetings and submissions didn´t help. On the other hand, she stresses the importance to give doctoral students a structure. Prof. Heilmann and Prof. Wefers also emphasise that it is not only about producing an independent performance, but also about the freedom to try things out.

What do you count as your tasks as a supervisor and where, on the other hand, is an independent approach by your doctoral researchers important to you? Where do you draw a line?

Prof. Heilmann shares his experience in all aspects of a doctorate with the doctoral students.

In his answer, he emphasised in particular the teaching of administrative skills that are necessary to work as biochemist but not examined in a doctorate, e.g. how to write reviews, provide supervision or organize funding. Furthermore, he highlights the necessity of balancing these additional skills, close supervision of the doctorate and an independent approach with increasing autonomy in the research of his doctoral students.

Prof. Senge stresses in her answer that she is always keen to help her doctoral students in bringing a sociological perspective into their research. In practice, she is more involved in research on project positions, especially when it comes to field research, which also has an impact on the scope of research-related supervisory tasks. Prof. Wefers makes the tasks of supervision dependent on the stage of the project. While he provides more support at the beginning, he expects a learning process in the course of the doctorate that eventually leads to more and more independence of the doctoral researchers.

Both Prof. Heilmann and Prof. Wefers answered that the work in the laboratory, for instance doing experiments, forms a boundary of their supervisory activities. Prof. Wefers elaborates the expectation that doctoral researchers should be able to do laboratory work on their own.  This also applies to Prof. Heilmann, who emphasizes the importance of lab work by doctoral students. Prof. Senge sees the limits of effective supervision in the area of student self-management, which must be assumed to some extent, both in doctoral studies and in teaching. This self-management is beyond her reach as supervisor and can solely be achieved by the doctoral students. Prof. Haase sees the limits of supervision in motivation, enthusiasm, and commitment of the doctoral students, which they must bring along themselves and is a crucial for pursuing a doctorate.

Apart from research, what other activities and tasks are carried out by the doctoral researchers at the department? How much time should they expect to spend on these?

Depending on how the doctoral students are financed, teaching at the chairs of Prof. Senge, Prof. Wefers and Prof. Heilmann plays a major role. In particular, the 4 hours of teaching that doctoral students do in a full position at the chair of Prof. Senge can take up a lot of time in the first semester. In addition, there is committee work as a task that has demanded a lot from the doctoral researchers and the entire department team of Prof. Senge in the last semesters. In the natural and life sciences, in addition to teaching of courses and exercises, supervision of internships and theses of students are tasks covered by doctoral students. Furthermore, the doctoral students are involved in maintaining the infrastructure, for example when it comes to ordering new chemicals or fulfilling reporting duties. Prof. Heilmann finds it particularly important that his doctoral students also take on some responsibility and deal with such issues that are necessary part of research in the field of biochemistry.

In the case of Prof. Haase, her PhD students don´t have additional tasks at the chairs, as her doctoral students are both financed by scholarships and are not located in Halle. In her opinion the doctorate should be the first priority. Nevertheless, looking beyond the horizon, for example by organising a conference, can also provide valuable experience for doctoral students.

In your experience, what leads to the most tensions or challenges between you as supervisor and the doctoral students? And how can these tensions be resolved or perhaps even avoided?

All four interviewees experience no or only very few tensions at the chair and in supervision. Both Prof. Haase and Prof. Wefers state that, in their opinion, expectations that have not been communicated and the associated uncertainties can lead to tensions that can be avoided and resolved through open communication on an equal footing. This aspect is also mentioned by Prof. Heilmann, who also sees the influence of external circumstances as a possible cause, such as different financing of doctoral students, resulting in different salaries and durations of their positions. Furthermore, the selection process is important to find a common ground and understanding.

Another point raised by Prof. Senge is the compatibility of doctoral studies and commuting activities for parents, which can lead to a conflict between the work at the chair and the family. Prof. Senge sees the early permanent contracts and the possibility of more home office as possible solutions here. Currently she is conducting a survey to investigate how barriers for commuting researchers can be removed at the university. Prof. Heilmann summarizes that his recipe for a harmonious work is a friendly and open environment without fear of admitting mistakes.

Do you have anything else to add? A point that has not yet been sufficiently addressed or something that came to your mind during the interview?

On the one hand, Prof. Heilmann highlighted that a doctorate should be seen as a team effort and that supervisors should not be perceived as an opponent in this endeavour. He also emphasised that supervisors should not overreach themselves, for example by supervising too many doctorates, and that critical self-assessment is necessary to recognise how much one can provide positive supervision.

Prof. Haase used the moment to emphasise how important enthusiasm and interest in the subject are to her. The topic of leadership of doctoral researchers was addressed by Prof. Senge in her response. She elaborated that too much guidance can lead to a strong and possibly negative dependence between the supervisor and the doctoral student. Accordingly, doctoral studies should also be possible without the good will of the supervisor. Finally, Prof. Senge stresses the importance of streamlining processes at the university with reference to the amount of administrative and committee her chair had to deal with in the last semesters. In a similar direction goes the concern of Prof. Heilmann to reduce timelines in the administrative processes after submission of a dissertation.

What tip have you got during your doctorate that was particularly valuable? Or perhaps, what would you have liked to know earlier in your doctorate?

Finally, the interviewees were asked for valuable tips for doctoral researchers. Prof. Wefers recommended that in experimental research it is necessary to simply try things out, because that is the only way test assumptions. Prof. Haase gave the tip of “having the courage to accept the status-quo of the own research” to bring projects to a conclusion, as there is always something that can still be looked at and thus a doctorate quickly becomes an endless project. Prof. Heilmann’s tip also refers to the end of the doctorate. At the time, he clearly underestimated the length of bureaucratic processes involved in completing a doctorate. Finally, Prof. Senge warns not to underestimate the uncertainty of a university career.

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