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Expert and coach

In this text we describe the changing roles you can have during the PhD supervision process.
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Most of you will have said you need to be both coach and expert when guiding PhD candidates. The role you take depends on what your candidate needs at that moment and the phase of their trajectory.

The first year is often daunting for many PhD candidates. Here they need you for your expertise and coaching. Later on, your expertise may be less important as the student will increasingly gain knowledge and experience. Your coaching skills, however, will be needed throughout the trajectory, depending on what the PhD student needs, and may be called upon in different phases. You can see a general flow of the level of supervisor expertise and coaching in the diagram below.

Level of supervisor expertise and coaching needed throughout the PhD process.

Your role as an expert may become less important after the first couple of years. As the candidate gets deeper and deeper in their topic, their expertise in the area will become possibly deeper than yours. Yet, setbacks and different types of challenges will require you to take on increasingly the role of a coach. How do you deal with negative results from an experiment? How do you deal with personal circumstances that hinder your performance at work? The PhD candidate has a lot to learn, not only in research but also in self-management. When, in their last year, the deadlines become really stressful, you may have to coach your candidate through this process; making decisions, keeping focus, working steadily and keeping a healthy balance.

While the main aspect of your role as supervisor is to provide knowledge as an expert, introducing the PhD candidate (further) into your field of knowledge asks for enthusiasm and didactic skills. As a coach your focus is on listening, asking questions, letting the student find their own solutions and providing advice when the PhD candidates ask for this. However, be aware that not all students are ready to receive this type of coaching attitude, as they might be used to a more hierarchical educational system and might find it challenging to be put in charge of their own learning.

A key aspect of your role as a coach is to master professional communication skills. These we will discuss in the next steps.

© University of Groningen
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