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.
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’
- Supervisors should have ongoing research and contributions
made to peer-reviewed literature so that they can provide
appropriate guidance and supervision to students.
- 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).
- 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.
- Supervisors should provide regular evaluations and assessments
of their students’ progress and academic performance
to the Faculty Graduate Program Committee.
- Supervisors should ensure that adequate and appropriate
research resources are available to their students so that
they can finish their research projects on schedule.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- Supervisors should be familiar with the requirements
of the Faculty’s graduate programme in order to advise
their students appropriately.
- 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.
- 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.