Supervising Online Doctoral Students

I participated in an ICDE Global Doctoral Consortium (GDC) webinar yesterday. The focus of the webinar was student and supervisor perspectives of online supervision. It was presented by Dr Marguerite Koole and Dr Gale Parchoma from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada). The first part about student perspectives was similar to a presentation I attended by Dr Koole last year, so I will only provide my notes about the supervisor perspective.

Online Doctoral Supervision Commitment

  • Doctoral supervision is long-term, significant time commitment.
  • It is a high-stakes undertaking for both the student and the supervisor.
  • Working together online is complex.
  • A supervisor is expected to provide at minimum 900 hours of support (which in practice can be double that time).
  • The relationship continues beyond the degree as the supervisor can provide scholarly and professional support for a career in academics or a professional career.

Supervisory Challenges

  • Different work locations and flexible hours: Managing different time zones and competing responsibilities. This leads to working at strange hours or over weekends.
  • Interdisciplinary supervision: Disciplinary differences between supervisor and student. Some supervisors do not accept students from different backgrounds, while those that do, may not have strategies to overcome discipline differences.
  • Theoretical & methodological diversity: Differences in preferred theoretical frameworks and research methodologies. Some supervisors insist on matching interests in methodologies/frameworks or adapt to student preferences, which requires additional time.

Dealing with Student and Supervisor Differences

  • It can be challenging to help students overcome “knowledge gaps” and to take on “new world views”.
  • If the difference is significant, either students can be passed on to other supervisors who can better support them or  the supervisor has to help them focus and rethink.
  • Experienced supervisors use “structured brainstorming” to find a middle ground that helps “land research questions” and “find a place in a critique” of previous research to make an original contribution.
  • Supervisors help students to understand “the role of theory” in grappling with research problems.

Development of the Relationship

  • There is always a complex series of negotiations for both the supervisor and the student.
  • Trust is formed over time through transparency and openness to diversity.
  • Usually issues are overcome or either party can request a change.





PhD Research Stays

In our third knowledge sharing session of the year, one of the PhD students in our research group shared his experiences in being a visiting PhD scholar for 3 months.

Before the Stay

  • The first step in planning for a research stay to identify the purpose of the visit and what it should achieve. In his case, his purpose was to consult with experts in his particular topic and widen his literature review.
  • He identified a number of universities and research centres in Europe where he could apply to visit and contacted each one.
  • The application consisted of an email with an application letter, a letter of support from the PhD supervisor, a proposed workplan for the visit as well a CV.
  • He finally received a letter of acceptance from an institute in Switzerland. He used this acceptance letter to apply for funding from our university for the research visit.
  • Once the request for funding has been accepted, he needed to organise the logistics of his visit: airfare and a room to rent for the duration of the stay. Other logistics may include visas, health insurance, etc.

During the Stay

  • An important character trait for the PhD student during the stay is patience when things to do not work out as planned and some flexibility is required.
  • Work with the local host/team to identify proposals for the research visit and agree on the deliverables to achieve.
  • Schedule regular meetings with the local research group and look for opportunities to present your work more widely and get involved with related department activities.

After the Stay

  • Present your deliverables to the research group once you have returned.
  • Keep in contact with the research stay contacts and look for opportunities to work together (co-publishing, sharing databases)



Tips for Designing Online Surveys

500px-online_survey_icon_or_logo-svgOur second doctoral research group round table for the year focused on survey design. One of the PhD students shared her tips for designing and validating surveys. The tips are grouped into survey design, piloting and implementation.

Survey Design

  • Background – Follow a theoretical as well as an empirical approach to designing the questionnaire. Review the literature related to your topic of interest and consider how data was collected. Make use of existing questionnaires where possible (that have been already validated). If you want to use an existing questionnaire, you may have to ask permission. More likely you will use items from different questionnaires and design your own items too. If possible, conduct interviews with experts in the field to gather their feedback and identify gaps in your data collection approach.
  • Support: Make use of any institutional training or support (internally or externally) from experts in questionnaire design and validation. Participate in any relevant research methodology seminars and courses. Talk with your fellow researchers.
  • Tools: Use an appropriate tool. Take the time to get to know the tool properly and the features and limitations. Google Forms is a popular choice and is free. Other online tools like SurveyMonkey have free basic designs, with fee structures for more detailed features. There are also licensed tool options such as Netquest.
  • Question types: Remember to consider the type of question used, what information you want to obtain and the analysis that will result from that type of question (open questions, likert scale questions, multiple choice questions, multiple response questions). Limit the use of open questions where possible, as this will require extensive analysis and coding. The more questions that are mandatory, the better.
  • Style: Ensure that each question/statement deals only with one issue and not multiple issues. Ensure questions are written consistently. Demographical questions are important at the beginning of the survey.
  • Length: It is difficult to define an ideal number of questions as it depends on the research topic and design. However the shorter the survey the better and more likely it is to be completed. Questionnaires with too many questions (60+) can lead respondents to abandon them.
  • Process: Clearly document each of the the steps taken in the survey design and implementation, as well as the justification for the decisions taken. For example, why a certain sample size was selected, or why the sample was limited to a certain institution. It is important for research publication and for future studies that your data collection methods are replicable. When you publish your research, you may need to include the instruments and instructions to the respondents.

Pilot Survey

  • Purpose: Pilot the questionnaire to obtain comments, opinions and suggestions. This allows you to validate the questionnaire and test the effectiveness before sending it out to your population sample. Piloting the survey will provide information like how long respondents take to complete the survey, whether there are any wording changes required, etc.
  • Process: Aim for 15-30 respondents to give you data to analyse. The questionnaire should be as “real” as possible in comparison with the final questionnaire.
  • Validity: To check validity, ask pilot respondents:Are you able to clearly understand the questions and the answer options?Do you have any comments or suggestions to improve the survey? For reliability, conduct a reliability test (e.g. Cronbach’s alpha). Review the data collected in the survey to ensure this adequately addresses your research questions and that you are able to analyse the data.

Survey Implementation

  • Permissions: Be sure to contact relevant people (administrators or lecturers) in good time before the survey to obtain permission and cooperation. Ensure you are following any institutional ethical and research processes. Make a list of all stakeholders that you need to contact beforehand and who you can contact if you problems arise.
  • Backup: Always create a backup plan in case you are unable to conduct the survey with your initial target group. Or if your response rate is much lower than expected. A response rate of 10-15% can be considered to average in online surveys.
  • Reminders: Send a maximum of 2 reminders to respondents to complete the survey.

Tips for doing a PhD (and enjoying it)

Today I am back to my studies after having a few weeks off over the summer. This article Five things to think about if you’re considering a doctorate was a good read to get back into focus. From The Conversation, and written by Sioux McKenna, the 5 things are:

  1. Make sure you’re doing it for yourself – consider all your reasons for doing the PhD and ensure the main one is to invest in yourself.
  2. The magic of momentum – “regularity of input, more than the quantity and quality, seems to be key”.
  3. Celebrate small successes – set clear deadlines and share these.
  4. Be kind to yourself – keep a positive outlook and move past poor progress or negative feedback.
  5. Find a community – regularly engage with your fellow travelers.

Developing the Research Proposal

I am in the middle of finalising my research proposal which will outline the focus and plan for the next 2+ years. In upcoming posts I will share different sections of the proposal. This week I will share a list of questions that I found useful in developing the proposal:


  • What is the subject and aim of the research?
  • What phenomenon is a concern for the target group? Who is affected?
  • What do other researchers say? What evidence is there?
  • What does this research aim to do?
  • Is it relevant? Is it feasible? Why is this research interesting?
  • What are the benefits? What is my contribution?


  • What does the literature say about this problem? What are the possible causes?
  • What are the variables? What is the population?
  • What are the gaps in the literature?
  • Why am I doing this research? Or why would someone else want to?
  • What am I going to do about this problem? What is unique about my idea?


  • What do previous studies say? Where are there disagreements?
  • What models are relevant?
  • What concepts am I going to explore? What definitions do I accept?
  • How do I group possible answers or variables?


  • What are the objectives?
  • What are the related problems?


  • What is the research paradigm?
  • Which methods am I going to use and why?
  • Are these methods valid and reliable?
  • Why do I think this is the best method? What are the weaknesses?


  • What is my population and sample?
  • How will I define my sample? Why this way?


  • Where will the data come from?
  • How will I collect it? What methods will I use?
  • Why these methods? Are they valid and reliable?


  • What is the unit of analysis?
  • What is the coding process?
  • What tools will I use? Why?


  • Where are the limitations in the research?
  • What are sampling issues? What are methodology issues?


  • What am I going to achieve?
  • What will my findings be? What are the possible outcomes?
  • Who will this be useful for?

Identifying Leading Journals

The first year Doctoral Students recently were invited to a workshop by the UOC Library on how to identify leading journals. As many of us spend most of our days trawling through journal articles, this workshop came at a very good time. This post summarises my takeaways from the workshop. There some basic questions to consider when reviewing a journal:

  • How are the articles peer-reviewed?
  • Which scientific databases is the journal indexed in?
  • What is the impact factor of the journal?
  • What is the SCImago Journal Rank?
  • Are the editor / editorial board respected researchers in the field?
  • What is the access policy of the journal? E.g. open access

Scientific Databases

There are several databases that index research articles and journals. A few are freely available and most require a subscription. Which ones to use depend which field you work in and which ones your institutional library subscribes to. Some of the well-known ones are EBSCOHost, ScienceDirectScopus and Web of Science. For educational related databases there is also EdITLib and ERIC (Educational Resource Information Center).

The Impact Factor

The impact factor is a measure of how often an article in a particular journal has been cited on average. It is usually calculated by # of citations and # of articles published over a 2 year period. There is also a longer 5 year period impact.

SCImago Journal Rank Indicator (SJR)

The SJR measures scientific influence of scholarly journals that accounts for both the number of citations received by a journal and the importance or prestige of the journal. It is usually calculated over a 3 year period and excludes self-citations and assigns a weighting based on prestige. Journals in a field are organized into quartiles, with Q1 and Q2 considered high-impact journals.

Open Access

Open access journals are listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

H Index

Another useful index is the H index that attempts to measure both the productivity and citation impact of the published body of work of a scientist. You can see a researcher’s H score in Google Scholar. The H index measures publications and citations.

Thank you to Marie and Neus from the UOC Library for organising the very informative workshop.

Reference management & Mendeley

My first day at UOC and into a workshop on reference management and Mendeley! Mendeley is a free reference management tool. Tools like Mendeley or Zotero have made the process of managing citations and reference lists so much easier! Some of the great features of Mendeley:

  • Has a desktop version, app version and in the cloud so you can sync across devices
  • A “watch” folder will automatically import any new research articles you save in a folder on your machine
  • Has a web importer extension to browser to simply save articles
  • Has a Word plug-in to add citations and generate reference lists
  • Able to easily change citation styles
  • Make use of the groups feature to browse or follow specific topics

Some of the other useful tools we explored in the workshop:

  • PlagScan – a commercial tool to check for plagiarism (accessible in the university)
  • NoodleTools – a website to look at different citation styles and examples

Something else I found out about is ORCiD a registry of unique researcher identifiers that links research activities and outputs. This helps distinguish between researchers with similar names.