There’s only so much you can do with candidates. If we were to raise our completion rates we also had to change supervisors’ approach to the PhD to being much more focused on getting students out rather than letting them drift and doing their own thing. We had twelve academic staff in the department at that stage, spread across two age groups: we had a group of young people and a group of old people who subsequently left. So what we did was try to create a positive culture about supervision being important and that good quality supervision was in everyone’s best interests for our students to complete. I worked more informally with supervisors, talking about the ‘new’ PhD, bringing them along often by example or with the newer staff. There was a level of resistance amongst staff but generally because we were such a relatively tight group it worked out, and a gradual generational change in the staff profile also helped.
In retrospect two activities stand out as being particularly useful in shifting the culture of supervision. The first was the prevalence of co-supervision across the department. Because every student needs two supervisors we would sometimes use this in an explicitly mentoring way, such as bringing together more junior and senior people who would work together harmoniously and not disadvantage the candidate, but also had different supervisory expectations. In my experience I think you learn a lot in co-supervisory relationships, especially when you sit in meetings together, because you learn how people respond and give feedback. The second helpful activity was the annual review interview. In the annual interviews the supervisor would leave the room and then the candidate would be asked to make some comments and you would find out things. If there were problems with supervision it was my role to subtly raise them, or sometimes confront them. It was important to allow both the student and the supervisor the space to talk about the issue, and in some cases to suggest alternative options. This seemed to work, but it was not something I had originally thought I would be doing!