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Supervising postgraduates brings the research and teaching aspects of an academic career together. To do it well, Postgraduate Supervision is demanding and challenging, requiring careful attention to details, policies, students’ needs and interests, as well as academic integrity and rigour. However, it can be exciting, rewarding and a wonderful learning experience for both the supervisors and their students.

June 2003, Vol. 6, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Improving the Medical Graduate Programme and Supervision of Postgraduate Students
Associate Professor Khoo Hoon Eng
Vice-Dean (Graduate Studies)
Faculty of Medicine

The number of graduate students has increased exponentially with the expansion of the postgraduate programme in NUS over the last decade. In addition, I believe that the mission of the Faculty of Medicine’s PhD programme—to educate and train competent, reliable and self-directed research scientists who have a strong sense of scientific integrity—has played an important role in improving the quality of our PhD graduates over the years. Unlike the training of technicians, a PhD graduate’s research experience should help the individual understand that research involves:

  • Recognition, formulation and solving of a problem,

  • Evaluation and presentation of the results in a clear manner (both written and oral),

  • The acceptance of the value of scientific research in contributing to society, and

  • The ability to use professional standards in all professional activities such as teaching, practical applications, project management or administration, relations with industrial or other sponsors and research.

In order to achieve our mission, we have implemented various changes to the PhD programme based on the standards recommended by the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology1 (IUBMB). In addition, we have restructured the programme according to the following features that a PhD graduate should have:

  • A general knowledge of all the branches of science (physics, chemistry, biology and cell biology, biochemistry and molecular biology) and a detailed knowledge of his area of research,

  • Familiarity with the research literature of the particular bioscience area and the ability to keep abreast of major developments to acquire a working background in any area,

  • Ability to recognise potential problems and questions for research as well as the necessary technical laboratory skills to solve those problems and questions,

  • Good oral, written and visual communication skills, and

  • Ability to design experimental protocols and conduct productive self-directed research.

Thus we introduced coursework on key topics (e.g. scientific writing, presentation of talks, bio- and professional ethics, information storage and retrieval, recording of experimental protocols and results, intellectual property rights, statistics, grant-writing and English language), as well as some specialised graduate courses to equip students with the necessary general information base and some transferable skills.

Departments were encouraged to organise journal clubs where students could present and share their research results to prepare them for the PhD qualifying examination (including both written submission and an oral examination) which we started that required the candidate to demonstrate the following:

  • Detailed knowledge of his area of research,

  • Familiarity with the background on which he had formulated questions that he was proposing to answer through his research towards the PhD degree, and

  • Technical skills (by presenting his results obtained prior to the examination).

Finally, we also introduced the formation of a thesis advisory committee after the candidate had passed the qualifying examination.

While we have improved the academic programme, the roles and responsibilities of PhD supervisors remain undefined. I welcome your feedback ( ) to improve the following proposed guidelines on the PhD supervisors’ role:

  1. Supervisors should have ongoing research and contributions made to peer-reviewed literature so that they can provide appropriate guidance and supervision to students.

  2. Supervisors should honour the commitment to devote the time and energy required to supervise graduate students until the completion of the programme (i.e. a supervisor should ensure that he has enough time for all his students).

  3. With reference to (2), supervisors should therefore be available for regular consultations with their students to provide constructive and timely feedback. If a supervisor intends to be away for a prolonged period of time, alternative supervisory arrangements should be made.

  4. Supervisors should provide regular evaluations and assessments of their students’ progress and academic performance to the Faculty Graduate Program Committee.

  5. Supervisors should ensure that adequate and appropriate research resources are available to their students so that they can finish their research projects on schedule.

  6. Supervisors should provide guidance, instruction as well as encouragement regarding the research activities and help disseminate their students’ research results further through publications or conferences. Supervisors should also ensure that manuscripts are suitable for publication before submission to a suitable journal.

  7. Supervisors should adjust their style of directing student research according to their students’ maturity level (e.g. give more guidance to a beginner and allow the student to evolve into a self-reliant and professional investigator during the thesis work by decreasing detailed direction as the project proceeds).

  8. Supervisors should see the candidates as partners in a mutual effort but not as equals. Thus any difficulties in supervisor-student relationships should be resolved as soon as possible by reference to a third party (either the Head of Department or the Faculty Graduate Programme Committee).

  9. Supervisors should be familiar with the requirements of the Faculty’s graduate programme in order to advise their students appropriately.

  10. Supervisors should encourage their students to obtain necessary skills and information from appropriate sources (including fellow colleagues). A supervisor’s personal animosities or intellectual differences with his co-workers should not impede his students’ access to his colleagues.

  11. Supervisors should also advise students about career opportunities that include their possible participation in particular research projects.


1 As our programme centres on biomedical research, the standards were taken from a booklet, Standards for the PhD Degree in the Molecular Biosciences, by the IUBMB.

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
Improving the Medical Graduate Programme and Supervision of Postgraduate Students
Graduate Research and Supervision in the School of Design and Environment
Building a Graduate Studies Learning Community
Bibliographic Instruction: Search Strategy for Graduate Students
The Graduate Tutor Training Workshop in the Department of Mathematics