Tallinn University of Technology

Do we have too many supervisors? Kaido Kikkas, associate professor of Information Society and Cyber Culture and member of the Academic Ethics Committee, explores the issue.

Kaido Kikkas
Kaido Kikkas

The Procedure of Admission to Doctoral Studies in force since April 2019 establishes the following threshold for the supervision of PhD candidates:

  • Supervisors must have published at least 10 articles at an international level in the last five years.
  • At least five of the published articles must have been cited.
  • Around 50% of the doctoral students supervised by the supervisor must have graduated successfully (except for first-time supervision).

This choice of threshold is oriented towards tenured professors with a substantial output of research. However, looking at the evaluation matrix in the Regulation on Academic Career Management, where the supervision of doctoral theses is also required from, for instance, teaching track associate professors, inevitably leads one to ask how this requirement can be fulfilled by a first-time associate professor, who is not required to have put out such a large body of research when selected for the post.

A teaching track associate professor is expected to have participated as a responsible lecturer in teaching activities at various levels of higher education and in graduation thesis defence committees, to have given guest lectures at foreign universities, to have been active in the area of didactics, to have supervised graduation theses at all levels of education, to have been an executor of a project, and to have published cited articles within the framework of one doctoral thesis. This is a highly diverse set of activities, where the focus is not on research.

Supervision is teaching!

I also dare to say that supervision is teaching – 100% at the level of bachelor’s studies, 90–95% at the level of master’s studies. This percentage is rising as fewer and fewer research-based master’s theses are being written. And even in the case of doctorate studies, where there is a clear research component, the number is around at least 60% or certainly more

than half. As I have said many times, research and teaching are two different things that require different types of people. While some people do bridge that gap, these are people who have managed to acquire two quite different skillsets (here I have previously contrasted singing and playing soccer – soccer players who are excellent singers do exist, but they are probably not in the majority).

So, in our case, we are expecting doctoral thesis supervisors to have reached a very high level in on area, while we are completely ignoring another. The result is a range of negative experiences – from workplace bullying and harassment to the recent scandal at one department.

The current system seems to be geared towards the ‘cloning’ of researchers: take a researcher with a high h-index and assign them 10 doctoral students in the hope that we will soon have 11 top researchers! This logic is similar to the famous anecdote about a Russian travelling by train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, who, after crossing the border, notices a clear change in their surroundings and sighs: what a pity we didn’t conquer Finland in the Winter War, if we had we’d be living as well as them now!

Ten doctoral students and I

Simple logic tells us that if you focus on one thing, that one thing receives 100% of your brain potential. Now, if this imagined top researcher of ours has to divide him- or herself between their own research (on which they are probably expected to work as intensively as before!) and 10 doctoral students, how does this affect the researcher’s h-index? In the best case, it will simply drop, in the worst case, that one researcher too will be lost (to ill health or simple burnout).

The other possible scenario, where the supervisor puts the doctoral students to ‘use’ by assigning each of them a piece of the task and using this to generate research output for the supervisor, meanwhile, is fraught with a number of risks (fragmentation of work, various legal and ethical problems). At present, the supervision threshold is based solely on research performance, and does not take into account the supervisor’s previous experience acting as a supervisor nor, for example, experience participating in defence committees.

If in the world of transport, beginners are usually first given a low-power vehicle to drive, and only later are allowed behind the wheel of a more powerful machine, then why should it be any different in academia? A doctoral thesis supervisor should have experience in

supervising lower-level theses – this would also help avoid situations where the doctoral thesis is approached from an angle more suited to a bachelor’s or master’s thesis. Above all, however, it would help ensure that the person possesses the right personal qualities to act as a mentor.

Not all coaches have been top athletes

If, firstly, the bar for supervising doctoral students is too high and, secondly, is slanted towards research, then we must answer the question in the title of this article. A parallel could be drawn here with coaches in the world of sports – not even close to all coaches are former top athletes. In light of the above, I propose that the prerequisites for supervising a doctoral thesis should be:

1. previous experience acting as a supervisor at both bachelor’s and master’s level (possibly ~10 papers at different levels) and perhaps also experience acting as a (co-)supervisor at doctoral level;

2. previous publishing experience at ETIS 1.1 and 3.1 level (at least 5 publications AFTER doctoral studies; level 1.1 not absolutely mandatory, but could be considered a plus);

3. previous experience as a member of defence committees at various levels of education (at least three occasions; having served on doctoral defence committees not mandatory, but considered a plus). Additional pluses might include international experience, etc.

With this kind of a model, the entry threshold is set at a reasonable level, quality control is carried out during evaluation of both the doctoral students and the supervisor and is also performed by the supervisees – lazy or ill-mannered supervisors are simply walked out on. This would also help identify those supervisors who, though knowledgeable, have problematic personalities.

In conclusion: our university has fortunately started to realise that teaching is the cornerstone of its work. Without good students and bright postgraduates it is impossible to produce top researchers – but all it would get us is a copy of the daft king in that famous children’s play of Urmas Kibuspuu, who cried: ‘I don’t need a foundation, I just need a top!’

The author would like to thank Study Manager Kristel Marmor at the IT College for her input and additions.