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Top supervisors go above and beyond

Tuesday, 15 August 2017 2:05pm

supervisor-of-the-year-group-image
The winners and finalists in the 2017 OUSA Supervisor of the Year Award (back row, from left) Dr Shyamal Das of Pharmacy, Professor Mike Colombo of Psychology, Dr Sergio Biggemann of Marketing, Dr Brett Nicholls of Media, Film and Communication, Associate Professor James Crowley of Chemistry, Professor Ralph Adler of Accountancy and Finance and Dr Vivienne Anderson of HEDC (front row, from left) Supervisor of the Year Dr Tamlin Conner of Psychology and Best New Supervisor Dr Gwynaeth McIntyre of Classics. Absent: Dr Shelagh Ferguson of Marketing, Dr Tania Slatter of Pathology and Associate Professor Louise Signal of Public Health at the Wellington campus. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Don’t underestimate the small things, and always give timely feedback. Two valuable pieces of advice for those supervising postgraduate students, from this year’s OUSA Supervisor of the Year Award winners.

Tamlin Conner, a Psychology researcher who regularly makes international headlines for her research into the science of wellbeing, won the 2017 award for Overall Supervisor of the Year, while Gwynaeth McIntyre of Classics won Best New Supervisor.

"Otago boasts some of the best PhD completion rates in the world, and a key ingredient is high quality supervision."

The awards were presented at an event at the Staff Club last Thursday as part of the University’s Graduate Research Festival. Alongside the top prizes, there were winners from each of the University’s four Academic Divisions: Dr Conner for Sciences, Dr McIntyre for Humanities; Marketing’s Dr Sergio Biggemann for Commerce and Pharmacy’s Dr Shyamal Das for Health Sciences.

Dean of the Graduate Research School Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith says the OUSA Supervisor of the Year Awards provide a unique opportunity to celebrate and recognise excellent supervision of graduate research candidates.

“Otago boasts some of the best PhD completion rates in the world, and a key ingredient is high quality supervision. To be a finalist or winner, supervisors must be going beyond the routine supervision meetings with candidates and the provision of constructive feedback; typically they provide excellent pastoral support and a genuine interest in the candidate’s careers, helping them to succeed not only while at University, but in their life beyond.”

Dr Tamlin Conner – Supervisor of the Year

Dr Conner says winning Supervisor of the Year is the fourth happiest event of her adult life, behind getting her PhD, meeting her partner, and having her child, Graham.

"To be recognised as OUSA Supervisor of the Year is extremely reinforcing and motivating. It signals to me that my students appreciate the intense effort and personal attention I give to them."

“To be recognised as OUSA Supervisor of the Year is extremely reinforcing and motivating. It signals to me that my students appreciate the intense effort and personal attention I give to them. It also means I have a really high bar to live up to now.”

Dr Conner has supervised 37 students (10 PhD, nine Masters', and 18 Honours) over the last nine-and-a-half years at Otago. She is currently supervising four PhD students, two Masters' students, and two Honours students.

She has three key pieces of advice for others: firstly, be selective about who you supervise, especially for a PhD.

“Each student represents an enormous investment of physical time and psychological energy,” she says.

Secondly, cultivate a vibrant lab culture, with overlap of knowledge across the years so that older students train newer students, and finally, give timely feedback on students' work.

“Never be the one holding them back from progress.”

Dr Gwynaeth McIntyre – Best New Supervisor

Dr McIntyre, who came to Otago in July 2015, says she is absolutely delighted to have been named New Supervisor of the Year, but emphasises that supervision is “by no means an individual affair.”

“As a new supervisor, I have come to rely on my amazingly supportive colleagues who are always willing to share their own experience and advice. I also had a phenomenal PhD supervisor myself, and I have tried to emulate him in my own practices.”

Dr McIntyre is currently supervising one Master's and two Honours students. She says she tries to see postgraduate students as colleagues.

"A quick hello in hallway, taking a moment to ask how things are going, or even checking to see if any students want to go grab a coffee/tea can help students feel like they are part of something larger than their thesis."

“As these students are only just beginning to learn what it means to be an academic and participate in the University’s teaching and research environment, I feel that it is our responsibility as supervisors to model best practice and to help these students develop into inquisitive researchers and teachers, ready to take on every challenge presented to them.”

Her advice to others is “don’t underestimate the small things.”

“A quick hello in hallway, taking a moment to ask how things are going, or even checking to see if any students want to go grab a coffee/tea can help students feel like they are part of something larger than their thesis. Creating this inclusive academic environment can inspire students to explore and develop a more holistic approach to their research which in turn creates a dynamic research community for the whole department.”

She says she is honoured to work with a talented group of students and looks forward to seeing them develop and flourish.

Dr Conner is equally thankful: “I am deeply grateful for my students, my department, and the wider University. I love my career.”