Interview: The Essence of Good Supervision

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Good supervision is one of the most essential aspects for a successful doctorate. The supervisor-candidate relationship not only affects the progress and outcome of the dissertation, but also shapes the candidate’s enthusiasm for science & research, as well as personal development. We talked with Prof. Felix Brandt, the winner of the 2021 TUM Supervisory Award, Graduate Dean Prof. Hans-Joachim Bungartz and our Graduate Council Speakers about the most important ingredient for good supervision, benefits and difficulties of remote supervision and how to keep themselves and everybody else motivated.


Since 2018, the TUM Graduate Council has awarded one doctoral supervisor each year with the Supervisory Award for outstanding supervision. Why was the TUM Supervisory Award created?

GC: Supervision is one of the most important topics during a doctorate. After a survey among doctoral candidates, we noticed that not everything was going well here. Although there were already some measures in place to improve doctoral supervision at TUM, such as the mandatory supervision agreement, we had the impression that these were not yet sufficient. We in the Graduate Council wanted to put the topic more on the agenda and create additional positive incentives for supervisors to deal more intensively with their own supervisory activities. After four years, we can say that the award has definitely contributed to the topic now receiving more attention throughout TUM. There are now new initiatives in this area, such as a workshop on good supervision at the TUM Institute for LifeLong Learning.

The winner of the Supervisory Award in 2021 is Prof. Dr Felix Brandt. Why was he chosen and how does the Graduate Council decide on the award?

There were many reasons why Felix Brandt was chosen, first and foremost that he has a presence and is always available for his doctoral candidates at short notice. This includes an open-door policy and regular meetings with the doctoral candidates. He has also distinguished himself through his flexibility in terms of working hours and home office, which was made possible in his working group even before the Corona pandemic. His doctoral candidates also appreciate his leadership qualities and ability to work in a team. Mr Brandt is committed to a pleasant research and working atmosphere and was able to prevail against a total of 70 competitors. Our decision-making process and our list of criteria are publicly accessible and therefore quite transparent: After the nomination phase, in which doctoral candidates can propose candidates, the first step is a school/faculty-wide vote. Our working group then reviews the documents and we then discuss the proposals in the entire Graduate Council. The winner is then chosen in a secret ballot.

Congratulations on receiving the Supervisory Award, Mr Brandt! Did you know in advance that your doctoral candidates were going to nominate you for the Supervisory Award and what did you think the moment you found out about your award?

Thank you for the congratulations! I didn't know anything beforehand. It was a very pleasant surprise. On the day I was supposed to learn about the award, one of my doctoral candidates had announced that representatives of the student council wanted to meet with me to discuss another topic. When a total of three representatives of the GC and all of my doctoral candidates showed up for the appointment, I was very confused and tried in vain to send the uninvolved people out of the room. Of course, I was even more pleased when I found out what it was really about. I am particularly happy that my doctoral candidates seem to be satisfied with their supervision. During the corona lockdowns, I often felt I couldn't care enough for the doctoral candidates. I am very grateful to the GC and my doctoral candidates for the nomination and award.

The Supervisory Award is endowed with €5,000 in prize money from the Bund der Freunde der TUM e.V. (Association of Friends of TUM), which is intended to benefit doctoral candidates. What do you plan to do with the prize money?

I haven't invested it yet. If the pandemic allows it, I plan to organise a "research retreat" at a nice place this year and invite my current and former doctoral candidates. Some of my former doctoral candidates are now professors themselves, so it would be nice if the young doctoral candidates could learn from the experiences of the alumni.

What does "good supervision" mean from the Graduate Council's point of view and what is rather suboptimal supervision? When it comes to raising children, there is often talk of "helicopter parents" who mother their children too much and trust them too little. Can there also be too much care by "helicopter doctor fathers/mothers"?

Good supervision has many facets. For example, in the beginning it is about support in developing a research question or planning a publication strategy. Overall, however, supervision must always be adapted from person to person - it is therefore essential to respect and take into account the different characters of the doctoral candidates and supervisors. It would be suboptimal to always apply the same scheme to all doctoral candidates. Even if the term helicopter father/mother has a negative connotation, there are children who want a lot of contact and it is the same with doctoral candidates. Therefore, it always depends on the perspective whether there can be too much care or not. It is up to the supervisors and doctoral candidates to find the right balance.

Mr Bungartz, you have two different references to the topic of supervision - once in your function as Graduate Dean and once as dissertation supervisor for your own doctoral candidates. Are there situations where your two roles come into conflict? And what does good supervision mean to you?

There are conflicts, of course, but more in the area of tension between theory and practice. The Graduate Dean in me knows what supervision should look like, especially from the many current discussions on the topic at international level. The dissertation supervisor in me also knows this, but the time constraints often dictate otherwise. In some situations you think you must, could, should do much more, but you just can't get it done. This also has to do with the fact that no two care relationships are the same or run in the same way. The core tasks for me are to provide support where it is needed and at the same time give enough freedom. It is important not to live out one's own project ideas too much, but to let the doctoral candidates do what they want. Another conflict often arises, especially in the STEM subjects, when the supervisor is also the superior of the doctoral candidate. If, for example, there are 2,600 exams to be corrected during the exam phase, I as the superior have to pull my staff together, also out of obligation to the students. I am aware that I then almost take away the time basis for the doctorate for three to four weeks. It's a stupid situation that arises from this double role. But it is precisely in dealing with such difficult situations that good supervision becomes apparent.    

Mr Brandt, how would you define your personal supervision style? In your view, are there different approaches to good supervision - e.g. depending on the personality and situation of the doctoral student, or do you have a fixed approach to supervising all doctoral candidates?

First of all, I would like to join in - supervision is always totally individual, just like the relationship with each doctoral candidate. When it comes to supervision, it is especially important to me to awaken and encourage enthusiasm and fun for scientific work. Because in science, your own motivation and enthusiasm are even more important than in many other professions. At the beginning of the doctorate, when many doctoral candidates find themselves without a concrete plan or much progress, I try to avoid frustration by helping them find a good mix of large and small research questions. I also encourage teamwork and exchange between doctoral candidates right from the start - not only because it's more fun to work together on a problem, but because it's often much more effective. Because our working group is quite small, we have a rather familiar atmosphere, the doors are open. Once a year, I have a longer one-on-one meeting with the doctoral candidates to discuss progress and plans, but also personal concerns. In general, I want to create an open atmosphere where no one is afraid to make mistakes. I exemplify this by occasionally introducing ideas myself that turn out to be half-baked or unfruitful.

What role does supervision and the personality of the supervisor play during a doctorate for the personal development of the doctoral student?

GC: We believe both aspects play a very big role. Supervision is a kind of mirror: doctoral candidates, for example, often have the task of supervising students themselves. Of course, this also reflects their own experiences in supervising students. The same is true if you take a leading position after your doctorate, whether in academia or industry, the supervision you have experienced certainly shapes your professional and personal development and the way you deal with doctoral candidates or staff. This is especially true when dealing with conflicts or difficult situations, which Mr Bungartz mentioned earlier.

HJB: I think that is a very central point that works both ways, both positively and unfortunately negatively. When someone has been in a not so happy supervision situation, one often hears the argument: "I've survived that too". Unfortunately, it is quite typical that one does not learn from a negative example and then consciously counteracts it. That is why it is so important to set an example of good supervision.

Mr Bungartz, from your point of view, how has supervision developed in recent years, e.g. in comparison to when you were doing your doctorate yourself?  Do you supervise your doctoral candidates differently today than, for example, 10 years ago?    

Today, these topics are simply much more on the agendas than in the past. This is also thanks to many new associations that regularly organise events on this topic; for example, the University Association for the Qualification of Young Academics in Germany (UniWiND), the Council for Doctoral Education of the European University Association or the Global Summit of the Council of Graduate Schools. Today, quality of supervision is one of the main topics, and this also applies to topics such as mental health or wellbeing. Thirty years ago, hardly anyone talked about these issues, they simply said, "they have to go through it, we've gone through it too". Today, fortunately, these issues are receiving more attention. In the context of supervision, there is a lot of talk about quality assurance and bad-case prevention and handling, which has now found its way into practice. From my perspective, the doctoral context itself hasn't changed too much, e.g. with regard to different subject cultures or large vs. small working groups. Of course, a doctorate at a chair with 100 employees looks different than in Mr. Brandt's working group - but that doesn't mean that good supervision can't take place here, you have to organise it accordingly. What has certainly changed for me is that I have become more efficient over time. I try to keep the quality high with less time. One technique that has proven successful is to make research more of a team affair and to rely on peer-to-peer instruments. Of course, there is sometimes reluctance here due to the natural tendency to guard and secure one's own doctoral topic, but this can be overcome with a good team atmosphere and open communication.

Mr Brandt, how did you manage to provide good supervision for your doctoral candidates during the ongoing Corona pandemic? What were or are the biggest challenges? Has anything changed in your supervision behaviour or will you supervise your doctoral candidates differently after the end of the pandemic than before the pandemic?

The lockdown was a particularly difficult and unpleasant time, as there were cases where employees could not even move into their office and get to know their colleagues at the beginning of the shift. I myself was also tied up in the mornings because of the home schooling of my two sons. Like everyone else, of course, we learned during this time that some online tools can be very helpful - sometimes even better than on-site when working together on documents or slide sets. In addition, the inhibition threshold for online meetings has dropped considerably and some things are easier to organise. In this way, you can catch up on a lot of things. Overall, however, I can't take much positive away from the pandemic. For me, it became clear again how essential it is to work in presence. So many interesting conversations and discussions arise during the daily lunch and between door to door, which cannot be replaced by anything else.

How do you think the Corona pandemic has affected the relationship and supervision between doctoral researchers and supervisors? And will you define "good supervision" differently after the end of the current pandemic, e.g. will the criteria for the Supervisory Award be adjusted to include a "digital supervision component" in the future?   

We see it very similarly to Mr Brandt. On the one hand, there was the very positive development that supervisors and doctoral candidates could now meet online at short notice, where previously the supervisor might not have found the time. On the other hand, we also noticed in the Graduate Council that the personal meetings were simply missing. Therefore, this social aspect of supervision must be given more attention in the future. And of course the topic of home office has become extremely relevant, which we are now thinking more about in the Supervisory Award. All of a sudden, all chairs and professorships were required to make home office possible, something that was still categorically rejected in many places before 2020. How much flexibility is then made possible in the future in terms of work location and working hours is definitely an important criterion.

Mr Bungartz, in your opinion, can the pandemic be seen as a break in previous care practices at TUM, e.g. with regard to the use of digital resources?

The pandemic will go down in history as a watershed event, and that of course also affects doctoral studies. Nevertheless, the doctorate has always been relatively flexible and individual, and therefore less affected, for example, compared to studying and teaching, although of course one has to differentiate between subjects and projects. In terms of supervision, digital methods are much more natural now than they were before. The way of thinking about internationalisation has also changed - you no longer have to get on a plane for every meeting. Adding a co-supervisor who is based in Buenos Aires, for example, is now much easier and more spontaneous. Overall, I don't think the pandemic has changed that much in the area of supervision. The pandemic rather puts its finger mercilessly in the wound: if a supervision relationship was already shaky before, then it has probably become even shakier in the past two years. But where a good relationship was established, ways and means were found very quickly. Of course, it wasn't always nice, but people came to terms with it. Where everything was already hanging by a very thin thread, the risk of this thread breaking was certainly greater in a pandemic situation.

The global pandemic once again underlines the importance of mental health and work-life balance. For many doctoral candidates, the pandemic was also accompanied by, for example, more difficult working conditions, planning uncertainty and fewer social contacts. How important is the question of the mental health and work-life balance of doctoral candidates for the Graduate Council?  

Both questions are very important for us. We are currently evaluating surveys from the last two years among doctoral candidates, which asked precisely this question: How does the pandemic affect my daily work and also my psychological stress? As the Graduate Council, we want to focus more on these issues and ensure that doctoral candidates can always find a contact point. Our task here is to be able to refer doctoral candidates to the right places, such as courses offered by the Graduate School in this area or existing counselling services at TUM. In addition, it should also be possible to address private topics or problems in a good supervisory relationship.

How do you ensure your own work-life balance?

For us as graduate speakers, it is very important to have a functioning schedule. At the same time, you should also take enough time for completely different things besides your doctorate or your involvement in the Graduate Council to remember that not everything has to revolve around this one big project all the time. Open communication and exchange with others are also very important.

Mr Brandt, as a supervisor, how can you support your doctoral candidates in improving their mental health and work-life balance?

I sometimes struggle with work-life balance myself and am probably not a very good role model. I have the impression that many doctoral candidates manage better than I do to flip the switch when they go home and leave a problem until the next day. Issues like work-life balance seem to be much more present in the younger generation. As far as mental health is concerned, especially during the pandemic, I can only reiterate that I think personal exchange with other people is very important. Many doctoral candidates live in quite small flats, sometimes in foreign cities, and look forward to coming to the university every day to work together. That's why I tried to make it possible to work in presence as soon as possible. Since we are a small group, we fortunately had enough space to spread out over several seminar rooms so that the necessary distance could be maintained.

Mr Bungartz, the ongoing pandemic certainly presents you with an unusual situation yourself. How has the pandemic changed your everyday working life? How do the pandemic and the large number of virtual meetings affect your own work-life balance?

The daily work routine has become much more local, like most others. By this I don't just mean the elimination of travel, but also changes of location within the building to meet with someone. One sits in front of the screen. What has not occurred, however, is more freedom due to the elimination of transfer times. Instead, they were filled very quickly, so that now you are in Brussels by 11:59 and in Berlin from 12:00. You can hardly catch your breath and flip the switch. For me, more per day suddenly became possible - and also a reality. At first glance, the situation may even have led to increased productivity. How it looks at second and third glance is another question.

How do you manage to motivate yourself and your doctoral candidates in the ongoing pandemic?

HJB: This intrinsic or own motivation is simply needed in science. External motivation has certainly become much more difficult. Of course, there were still discussions that were planned via Zoom. But the spontaneous conversations in the corridor, over a meal, they were simply missing. I believe that this regular informal exchange is central to the motivational framework. Overall, however, I would say that the situation has improved again, also because the inhibition threshold for short, casual online meetings is now much lower. For me personally, motivation was never a big issue, but rather a matter of course that didn't need to be particularly encouraged from the outside. This understanding has certainly changed to some extent, because it is definitely more difficult to maintain a high level of motivation and goal orientation across the pandemic situation, in oneself and in others.

To conclude the interview, what advice would you like to give to new colleagues on the subject of "good supervision of doctoral candidates"?

HJB: Oh, such advice is always difficult. Perhaps three points. Firstly, even if you gain experience over the years, every supervision context is different and requires regular adjustment of your own actions. Second: Good supervision is important, but more is not automatically better. Thirdly: It's like flying - whether a supervision relationship is really good becomes particularly apparent when things start to jerk.

FB: I don't know if I'm particularly qualified to give valuable tips to new colleagues. I'm still learning all the time myself. One aspect that is very important to me personally is to make it fun for doctoral candidates to write scientific essays. These are the products of their work and ideally they should write essays that they can still be proud of in ten years' time.

What advice do you have for doctoral candidates who are still at the very beginning of their doctorate on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance?

Not only at the beginning of a doctorate can there be phases in which perseverance is required. A regular exchange with people who have also experienced or are experiencing the time of a doctorate is essential for the entire doctorate. Furthermore, when planning your doctoral period, you should already plan for and maintain time off for activities outside of your doctorate.

Dear Mr Bungartz, Mr Brandt and Graduate Council Speakers, we thank you for the interview!

Call for Nominations - Supervisory Award 2022

The TUM Supervisory Award enters the next round. Nominate your supervisor for the Supervisory Award 2022 until March 14th, 2022. Visit the Graduate Council website for more information!