Postgraduate Supervision in the COVID19 Era (for Supervisors and Students)

I moved to the University of Victoria (Canada) in January, so I have since been working with my St Andrews PhD students remotely who, for a number of reasons, preferred not to move continents to Victoria with me. This means that we are quite used at the moment to work remotely.

Remote PGR supervision has its challenges, yet I believe it is important to acknowledge that the new constraints imposed by the virus, quarantines, social distancing etc. add an additional layer of complexity to the whole situation. I also believe that postgraduate students are likely to suffer the extraordinary situation particularly hard because with the additional burden to move to online teaching, supervisor’s energy and time will be in shorter supply. Here are just a few of my thoughts regarding remote supervision (first), and regarding supervising during quarantine (second).

Remote Supervision

I think it is important to acknowledge that remote supervision is harder than in-person supervision. For a number of reasons:

  1. It is harder to read the mood of people through a remote connection, even if there is video (this cuts both ways… I know that my students can sometimes tell that I’m in a bit of a mood). Without the ability to judge mood and attitude accurately it is harder to make the right calls regarding next steps, tone etc.
  2. I find that it is just that bit harder to be compassionate, empathetic and understanding when you are separated by a long distance and, perhaps more importantly, by a few hours in our daily cycle. I meet my students in the morning, since I’m 8 or 9 hours behind. This means that my students are mostly at the end of their days when I’m still full of energy; this has a significant effect.
  3. The serendipitous and opportunistic contacts that one has at work are important for students; if you cross them in the hallway, they know you are here, you know they are here. A quick question or two minute talk, or even a sentence might not only give each other acknowledgement of each other’s needs (“yes, I’ll get to read your chapter soon! I have not forgotten!”), but it might also save a significant amount of time if they don’t have to wait until the next meeting to get a little bit of help.
  4. The opportunistic encounters with other members of staff are also important for the students and for the supervisor in order to support the students. For example, that little bit of awareness of the member of the Systems Support Team who tells you that certain service will have to be down soon, or that a certain machine needs replacement.
  5. It simply is harder to critique, point out issues, discuss ideas that have a graphical substrate when you are connecting over video conference. I cannot count the number of times that I had to sketch something on paper and awkwardly held it in front of the camera, trying to point at different areas of the sketch, or the number of times that I tried to scroll on a document which is really just a shared desktop from the other side. This is a real issue in Computer Supported Collaborative Work that has not really been solved yet in the mainstream, despite the efforts of many in the CSCW community, including my mentors Saul Greenberg and Carl Gutwin.

Supervision in COVID19 times

Everything in the previous section applies to the current quarantine situation, sometimes amplified. And some aspects are new:

  1. Both supervisors and students are anxious, even if they are often not ready to admit it to themselves, much less to others. Being a PhD student is more often than not a difficult thing, with the justifiable stress and anxiety of academia and trying to prove oneself. Now imagine how this feels when you add the uncertainty of not being able to run experiments, have access to your usual materials, or having to go through extra hoops to just be able to do what is expected of you. Anxiety and extra work can be particularly damaging for deep work.
  2. Loneliness can be a real issue. Most people rely on looser or tighter communities for support. Postgrads who work remotely tend to find it much harder to find the motivation and energy to sustain focus and work without a group of peers. Self-isolation and social distancing is much more likely to wipe out these sources of peer-support than many other practices, probably because the value and perception of these networks is easy to underestimate.
  3. Some people’s life circumstances are being affected more than others. Being away from family, having to care for dependents, or even trying to help out the communities one belongs to (e.g., elderly residents in the same apartment building) can take a very significant toll on people’s time and energy.

Strategies and tools worth thinking about (for remote, COVID or both)

I have never been a perfect supervisor, but I try hard to do right by my students. Despite knowing that I can get much better at this, I believe that there are some obvious and not so obvious things that can work:

  1. Remember that we are all, above anything else, people. With our vulnerabilities and needs, good and bad moments. It is surprisingly easy to forget to be human, and caring and compassionate and just adopt a role as the conscientious student or the wise and driven supervisor as we interact with each other. Although it sounds obvious, make sure to start every contact with a sincere effort to relate, connect and care. This applies to both students and supervisors.
  2. I believe that it helps to know that it is normal to not be as productive remotely as you imagine you have been in the past. This is even more important within the current unprecedented circumstances. Procrastination and lack of focus is not just a matter of pure will (no matter how many times we convince ourselves that we can just “power through”) and achieving sufficient progress in research work is a constant challenge that we fight everyday, a problem never definitively solved. Therefore, if you did not have a good day, forgive yourself a bit, practice a bit of self-compassion, and reassure yourself that it will get better tomorrow.
  3. It helps to know that for most institutions, the top allegiance is to their students. Despite many people’s cynicism, I have found this to be consistently true throughout my experience (UVic is my 8th institution, not counting Microsoft Research). As a student you might be feeling very insecure about deadlines, regulations and funding. It is good to have some pressure to make sure that the work keeps moving on but, in my experience, an overwhelming majority of people in academia understand Hofstadter’s law, and institutions tend to know to be flexible when they need to be. You still have to do your best, but you will get some leeway.
  4. Listen extra hard. This applies to both sides of the supervision relationship. It is particularly hard to listen and connect when one is stressed and overloaded, so it is particularly important to remember to listen in these circumstances, and give each other the opportunity to share the challenges, problems and feelings arising.
  5. Communicate to your supervisor. They can help you. One of the harder tasks for a supervisor is to assess the state of mind of many of the students. As a student, it is tempting to try to present a flawless appearance of invulnerability and performance, but it is much better to actually share the challenge and the feelings. This, of course, relies on the trust invested in the relationship, and it flows in both directions. Although difficult to do, I think it pays off to share the challenges and vulnerabilities that we experience as supervisors as well.
  6. For supervisors: It helps to have great colleagues (who can be proxies) and are physically closer to the students. This is more relevant to the more general issue of remote supervision than to the current quarantine situation, but it can help as well. I have been lucky to have good collaborators still in St Andrews (call out tothe  amazing Juan Ye, Ozgur Agkun, Alice Toniolo, Uta Hinrichs and Aaron Quigley) who are good points of contact for the students when they need to. They can also supply a bit of that co-located experience that is so reassuring.
  7. It is helpful for both student and supervisor to acknowledge that working remotely requires additional “meta-work” to work smoothly. That is, it takes time and work to figure out how to work together more efficiently. This can take the form of extra thinking about how to best schedule meetings, figuring out substitutes for support, or even spending some time learning and finding new tools and technology.
  8. Some new tools are actually quite amazing, and can help (and they keep evolving!) Although I personally find some of the new communication trends such as Slack quite overwhelming and difficult to keep up on top of (too many “channels” of information to keep track of, when considered on top of e-mail, which is still king for me), some other tools can be fantastic. Sometimes one has to even remind itself to use these tools, even if we know that they will work better. My two favourite examples right now are miro, a collaborative diagramming tool that works well when used synchronously with a source of audio on the side (typically Skype for me), and opening a shared Google Doc when brainstorming ideas, which I found can be transformative.

Some of you might have different tips and ideas. I’m sure I have missed a lot here, and I can learn a lot more. Even better, some of you might disagree with me. In any of these cases, I’ll be very happy if you let me know through a comment or by e-mail.

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