The Assistant Supervisor role: enabling and recognising PGR supervision by research staff

The Assistant Supervisor role at Queen’s University Belfast enables the official appointment of postdoctoral researchers involved in supervising PhDs alongside academics, within healthy boundaries set to manage their level of responsibility and workload. For recognition, they get an appointment letter and are added to the students' system. They learn by doing, through mentoring and workshops. The role is popular across disciplines and feedback from postdocs, students and academic supervisors has been positive. Some Assistant Supervisors have received Postdoc Awards and/or AF-HEA as a result.

What kind of an organisation are you in the context of the Concordat?

Queen's University Belfast is a research-intensive university from the Russell Group. It was the first University across Ireland to receive the HR Excellence in Research Award in 2012, and has maintained its commitment to the Researcher Development Concordat ever since, including by becoming a signatory of the 2019 updated version. There are approximately 670 research staff at Queen's, spread across three disciplinary Faculties (Medicine, Health and Life Sciences; Engineering and Physical Sciences; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences).

What challenge were you trying to address with this initiative?

Supervising Postgraduate Research Students is an important development opportunity for postdoctoral research staff, enhancing research leadership and management skills as well as teaching experience and student contact, which are often required in academic (and other) careers. Formal opportunities that support this are lacking, and informal contributions are often not appropriately recognised or monitored.

What did you do and how does this align with the Principles and keywords you have selected below?

Through consultation with postdoctoral researchers, students, supervisors, senior management, and student affairs, we developed a proposal defining the role, eligibility criteria and guidelines, and proceeded through a range of relevant committees to get it approved as an institutional framework.

We established a simple application process, which involves the postdoc, student and supervisors discussing roles and responsibilities and agreeing with the appointment before the School’s Director of Graduate Studies approves it. To avoid adding pressure on Schools, applications are then processed by the Postdoctoral Development Centre (PDC), which records them on relevant systems and issues appointment letters to the postdocs. They can also use their supervision practice to apply for Associate-Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, which the university's institutional review process provides for free. The PDC also organises a yearly supervision workshop for postdoctoral researchers, to complement what they learn ‘by doing’ and from the other supervisors and student. They thus develop key skills valuable for their personal and career development, and some even decide to apply for certification as Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

The role is promoted by Directors of Graduate Studies, by the PDC at new postdoc inductions, and at the mandatory training attended by all academic supervisors.

We ensured the eligibility criteria were fair and had a bit of flexibility to enable postdocs to get involved with PhD supervision and recognised without them being overwhelmed by too much responsibility (e.g. advising on the number of students supervised at once, the extent of postdoctoral experience before getting involved, the overlap between the postdoc’s contract and the PhD etc.).

We believe this contributes to recognising and valuing the contributions of people at different career stages and roles within research, and promotes a culture of mentoring across stages, with postdocs mentoring PhDs and supervisors mentoring postdocs.

What were the challenges in implementation and how did you resolve them?

There was some initial skepticism in disciplines for which postdocs supervising is rare, with an assumption that research staff were employed only to deliver research and that it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to teach. The fact that becoming an Assistant Supervisor is the researcher’s choice as a development opportunity and not imposed on them, as well as the development days allocation mandated by the Concordat was sufficient to alleviate such concerns. As this was a new role, we had to work with multiple teams to adapt informatics systems and enable the recording of Assistant Supervisors in our students’ system.

We received a couple of statements from research staff feeling they were experienced enough to be principal supervisors for students and as a result found the role undermining. While this is likely to be the case for some individuals, we had to take an approach that was consistent and most appropriate for the vast majority of individuals at the same grade, aligning with normal responsibilities at that level.

How did you evaluate the impact of your initiative?

We first introduced the role in one of our three Faculties (Medicine, Health and Life Sciences), where the involvement of postdocs in supervision is common and, after a year, carried out a detailed survey of the postdocs involved, the students and their academic supervisors. The feedback was highly positive from all stakeholder groups and gave us confidence to roll-out the role more broadly and make a few changes to the eligibility criteria. The role is well used now and we receive regular applications.

Were there any surprising or unexpected consequences?

Our initial main driver for this work was to recognise activities that were already taking place. We were delighted to see that it ended up providing a framework to encourage involving postdocs in supervision in disciplines where it wasn’t common, such as the Arts and Humanities. This enabled researchers across the institution to have access to more consistent development opportunities, student contact and management skills. We were also pleased to see appointments across multiple research groups, Schools and Faculties, with the role contributing to support interdisciplinary research.

What advice would you give others wanting to do this?

Ensure you do not consult only with postdocs but also include students, managers / supervisors and their student services or Graduate School equivalent, and adopt a position of compromise that all stakeholders are happy with. It is important to provide a fair status and recognition to the postdocs but also ensure that the supervision responsibility remains with the academic supervisors, who shouldn’t neglect their role because a postdoc is involved. This enables the student to be comfortable with the quality of the supervision they will receive and protects the postdoc from potential complaints, issues or unmanageable workloads, enabling them to develop in a safe environment.

Beneficiaries: Research staff Postgraduate researchers Managers of researchers

Stakeholders: Researchers Managers of researchers Professional staff Senior/executive team

Concordat principles: Environment and culture Professional and career development

Keywords: Mentorship Career development Supervision Recognition