“Out of sight, out of mind”: coping with remote supervision

By: Yi Han (with contributions from Hao Ran Lai, Anna Csergo, Rob Salguero-Gomez, Nathalie Butt & Yvonne Buckley)

Remote supervision with bubbles

Don’t be a stranger: PhD candidate Fleur Maseyk (UQ, Brisbane) provides her supervisor Asst/Prof Marit Kragt (UWA, Perth) with a monthly progress report. With three remote supervisors, Fleur says these regular meetings have been essential in keeping everyone up-to-date and on track and the regular encouragement and guidance is also invaluable. Screenshot by Fleur Maseyk.

What happens when you or your supervisor goes away for long periods of time? This happens more often than you’d think, with sabbaticals, fieldwork, international students and regular travel as common features of the student-supervisor relationship. Our lab is now split between Australia and Ireland. Indeed, it would be difficult to get two locations further away. Thus, before the split, we spent some time talking through how to deal with remote supervision. We pooled our ideas about what the problems are and what we have found to work.

When you are away from your supervisors, they are typically not reminded of your existence. You don’t see them in the corridor and can’t catch up with them at morning tea or group meetings. This means your supervisor may forget to tell you about opportunities for conferences, interesting new papers or fleeting ideas that might prove valuable. It also means they may be less likely to feel the same urgency about reading/commenting on your work as they would if you were in the same place.

To solve these problems, we have the following suggestions:

Set up regular meetings

  • The most important thing for a remote student is to schedule regular meetings with your supervisor – remind your supervisor that you exist!
  • Frequency – with primary supervisor, we found the best meeting frequency for us to be fortnightly for half an hour. However, this frequency can be quite variable for secondary supervisors
  • Use a multiple time zone meeting planning tool to find mutually acceptable meeting times, try http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html. When suggesting a time/day to meet, make it easy on the person you are trying to meet with: in your email suggest a time clearly indicating their time zone, take note of daylight savings alterations to time-zones.
  • You may need additional meetings outside of your routine schedule, for example, when you are working through papers, codes, analyses…etc.
  • Set up an agenda for your meeting. Send out homework for your supervisor a few days in advance at least, as agreed. Tell them what you want from her/him. For example, make them read and comment on your paper, tell them what you are going to do during the meeting, and what is your expected outcome of that meeting. In sending them homework, be aware of the time difference: do not send “homework” when it’s the middle of the day for you but night for them expecting that they will have absorbed it all if the meeting is in their next morning.
    • When you are working on a major project, send out your meeting agenda two weeks ahead, or at least one week, and then a follow-up reminder as well.
    • For general agenda (fortnight catch up chat), send it out 5 minutes before the meeting
  • Ask for additional meetings or to skip a fortnightly meeting as needed.
    • Your regular fortnightly meeting may not be for doing actual work, instead, it is a reminder to your supervisor of what you’re doing, it puts a bit of pressure on the student to progress between meetings and helps to build your student-supervisor relationship.

Suggested software for remote collaboration

  • SKYPE!
    • Do you need a whiteboard to demonstrate your work? SKYPE has built-in function to display your screen to others
  • Google Hangouts is even better than Skype, particularly when it comes to visual interactions with more than two people in more than two regions.
  • Dropbox – for shared files and folders
  • Evernote. For iPad user, using Evernote combined with the apps Penultimate and Skitch can be useful and convenient for two way communications with hand-drawing function and immediate synchronization.
  • Google drive (google doc)
  • Microsoft SkyDrive
  • Mendeley – for sharing and organizing papers
  • Git – for co-development of code

Challenges

  • When Skype-ing, it is natural for people to talk only about work and have no time for a friendly casual chat. Don’t neglect a bit of chit-chat at the start of the meeting (but be aware of time limitations – sometimes all you need is “How are you?” and then “we don’t have much time, so let’s get on with the agenda…”)
  • Remote meeting can get tougher when more people are present, especially when they are not in the same location. You may not be able to see gestures and facial expressions and it’s hard to interrupt when you have a few people in the meeting; the meeting moderator should have good skills – inviting people (especially those who are experiencing internet time-lag) to interject. Google Hangouts allow multi-way video chats with the screen automatically changing size/focus depending on who is talking which can make multi-person video-conferencing more natural and intuitive

Important

  • Occasionally, having some face-to-face time helps greatly
  • If you choose to be remotely supervised, try to at least know the supervisor personally before parting.
  • Whenever you need some specific feedback, send out an email:
    • “I need this from you.” – Explicitly say how you want it? Deadline? What to do?
    • Put the most important questions in the first two lines! (what I need, when I need …etc.)
  • NEVER hesitate to send out a REMINDER! (Don’t be shy to do this but politely.)
  • Ask your supervisor what kind of turn-around time and reminder schedule they would like so that you don’t feel guilty for reminding them too often.
  • Don’t wait until it’s too late to ask for help – this is where having a regular meeting helps as you can talk about your general concerns before they get urgent.
  • Proactively look for internal or external travel support to spend some time at your advisor’s institution. Prior to booking flights, make sure this is not going to conflict with your advisor’s being away at conferences/workshops/fieldwork/vacation.
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3 thoughts on ““Out of sight, out of mind”: coping with remote supervision

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reading | January 2014 | Cindy E Hauser

  2. Pingback: Dbytes #137 (18 February 2014) | Dbytes

  3. Pingback: Four rules for long distance collaborations | Dynamic Ecology

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