As a supervisor, when you see something inaccurate about your student’s research, it’s tempting and easy to tell them that. While doing that in a caring manner is definitely helpful, it doesn’t lead to as much growth in your student compared to asking them questions to help them understand what the problem is.
A PhD is all about learning how to find an answer yourself – not having someone give you the ready-made answer. By asking your students questions, and doing so in an inquisitive manner and not a condescending manner, you help them not only find the answer themselves, but you also help them think about their work in a different way. When you’re doing your projecting day-in day-out, for months on end, it can be easy to get stuck in one way of viewing your project. The funny thing is that everyone will see a project from a slightly different angle. By asking your students questions about their research, you’re effectively inviting them to think about their project, and often in a very different way to how they normally do, to find the answer to your question. Often, they’ll stumble upon other aspects they hadn’t considered and think they could strengthen as well. That’s the value of asking questions.
In addition to helping your student become practiced at finding the answer, you also help them get used to thinking about questions, and they will start asking themselves questions when going through their own work too. That helps them become better researchers, as well.
One thing to bear in mind when asking any of your students questions is the way in which you do it. Tone and word choice play a major part in how your student will interpret the question. If you ask, “What is the point of this research?” in a condescending manner, then most students will feel attacked and their self-esteem will take a hit, especially if the question is coming from someone they look up to. On the other hand, if you asked, “How would you explain the value of this research to an audience?”, in an inquisitive manner, then that will be taken far more positively as your student will understand the point of the question – it’s to help them tease out the value of their work and how to explain it.
Your students can also become demoralized if you ask a question and they can’t answer it – no one likes to feel inadequate, especially in front of their supervisor. So, if you do ask a question that they’re struggling to answer, then you can help them by saying something like, “Let’s think about it”, then start unpacking the question and helping them solve it. By doing that, you effectively make them and you a team. By being on the same team, they feel much more comfortable and not like they are being attacked. By working through it together, they’ll feel like they are also solving the problem (which they will likely have some key inputs), and so they will not feel inadequate.
Asking your students questions about their research is a powerful way of helping them develop. It can also help them feel more confident about their work because they become accustomed to answering questions and so they don’t fear them as much when giving a presentation or even having to respond to reviewers. All of these aspects are highly beneficial for any PhD student, and you will see them become more and more capable researchers as time goes on. That means that they’ll have less and less need for a supervisor, which gives you more time to focus on other students and other tasks you have.
We also have big news. We wrote a book about “How To Write An Academic Paper 101” for your PhD students. It details all the basics about how to write a paper and get it published, which makes it quicker and easier for you to review their papers. You can find it here!
If you want to improve your supervision skills, then take our training: here. It’s called, “Becoming A Better PhD Supervisor – PhD Voice Training”. It addresses issues such as these and more! It makes supervising easier and more efficient.