Teaching @ Sydney

October 2013

Professor Des Richardson on motivating and inspiring PhD students

Successful supervision of PhD students has been an integral part my entire career as a full-time medical researcher. It has been a great honour to have my contribution recently acknowledged by a 2013 Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Research Higher Degree Supervision followed by a 2013 OLT Citation award for post-graduate supervision.

I have been invited to share some insights into motivating and inspiring PhD students.

I feel that PhD supervision strategies should belong to the “new academic world” rather than the one that many of us endured that tended to treat us all as one entity and that lacked open communication. In contrast, I prefer an approach based on academic and personal freedom. Successful supervision is centered on students being individuals and creating flexibility, space and opportunity for their own growth as scholars. I guide students to choose a project in our program that most deeply interests them rather than stating: “I have this idea that I would like you to work on”.

A second initiative I use is an “open mind policy” which applies to both sides: student and supervisor. As a supervisor, it is vital to be open to students' ideas, encourage them and show deep interest; while the students need to harness their own creative drive. Paramount to success is the specific tailoring of supervising strategies based on understanding the individual student’s personality, intellectual abilities and needs.

My PhD candidates often start as Honours students in my laboratory. This experience enables students to make a well informed decision about undertaking their PhD in my research program. Great care is taken to ensure students can approach me easily. The door to my office is almost never closed as I believe that frequent communication is crucial to students’ advancement. Clearly, my students and I also have regular, scheduled meetings (usually weekly, depending on need and progress). I direct students to draw their own hypotheses and come up with suggestions for further experiments, thus developing their critical and independent thinking. We spend countless hours preparing and writing manuscripts together so that their skill improves.

To achieve this level of communication and guidance, I also rely on the co-supervising senior members of my team who markedly expand my supervisory capacity. Our diverse research group is structured into several smaller groups headed by excellent post-doctoral fellows. It is within these small collaborative research teams that PhD students experience the daily collaboration within the team and are inspired by the outstanding former students who have remained in the program as post-doctoral fellows. Within these groups the more experienced PhD students are given opportunities to play a role in mentoring Honours and undergraduate students.

I am extremely proud of the achievements of my doctoral students. However, in the end, inspiration is a fuzzy, poorly defined entity and supervision/mentoring always takes a lot of work, time and care. I strongly feel that to inspire others, one also has to demonstrate a strong commitment, drive and passion for the research itself – without that – successful mentoring and inspiration would be difficult, if not impossible!

Professor Des Richardson, Sydney Medical School