Research Student


The typical student admitted to do research is not only good in the chosen subject but also young and enthusiastic. He may be dogmatic in pursuit of an academic career, but he must be a romantic at the same time, having committed a few precious years of his young life to an uncertain prospect. His romancing begins with a challenge: he needs to find a supervisor he would trust, and who is also willing to take him.

A young supervisor would be prudent in accepting a research student in view of his own lack of experience, but the veteran, out of experience, could be even more cautious. He would have dozens of stories to tell how things hadn’t worked out for some of his own peers, and previous students. Therefore, when a supervisor, young or veteran, decides to take a research student under his wing, it should mean he manages to find sufficient good faith in this young spirit. As such, research supervision often begins hopeful for both student and supervisor, a honeymoon imbued with expectations. At the same time, the duel between the two parties’ hopes and expectations also begins.


Honeymoon duel

Trust is what bonds a human relationship. How the duel plays out is going to spur mutual trust between student and supervisor. The student may or may not be keen on the supervisor’s attention, but he certainly would like some concrete suggestions as how to get started. What should he read, papers or books? What new skills or tools should he learn? What courses should he take? What should he do for research? Generally speaking, he wants answers, and this desire drives his expectations.

As for the supervisor, he may or may not be keen on offering any actionable items. An experimental scientist may have a standard list of techniques and instruments for the student to learn, or some tasks to carry out right away. A bookish scholar, however, may simply send the student off to the library, ask the student to think about what he wants to do for research and come back to talk about his ideas when ready. The nature of the field as well as the supervisor’s style come into play here and his initial advice may be anything from a concrete to-do list to just something to think about. He may assign work and expect some tangible outcome, or he may just encourage exploration and expect the student to come up with ideas.

Unless the student is happy to go with it, the gap between what the student wants and what the supervisor has to offer should be faced with and dealt with early. The supervisor who makes it clear early that he welcomes honest discussions would be a big help to the student who may be used to be submissive to teacher, or still cautious with an unfamiliar environment. To instill trust for discussing differences as they arise should be a fitting aim for the honeymoon period.


Is that not what I should be doing for research?

The research student spends much time alone; alone reading, alone working, alone thinking. Much of that is of course necessary, cultivating discipline and the power to concentrate. But there will be times when he is alone not knowing what to do, or doubting what he is doing, for good or for bad. He just read a paper which seemed to have done what he is planning to do, or invalidated his results. Has he been wasting time? Or he may be lacking in progress for a long time, stuck with some seemingly impossible task, and so on. Should he keep up with a time-consuming but so far unproductive work?

The supervisor may or may not be ready with a technical advice, but his counselling would be most needed in such a time. The research student is not only learning to do research, he is at the same time on a personal journey of significant intellectual and emotional growth. Research learning has a transformative dimension1. The student is not just expanding his mind with more knowledge. He is transforming his mind for a new relationship with the world of knowledge. He was more used to learning by following. Now he has to make his way to some frontier and lead. He has to learn to develop a researcher’s mind that knows how to put doubt, and self-doubt, to productive use.


Becoming a researcher

Besides working on his research project and developing a researcher’s mind, the research student needs to become part of a certain research community. From the start, he is almost totally dependent on the supervisor on this. He joins the supervisor’s research group, gets introduced to his fellow researchers, meetings, and publication venues, to learn the trade so to speak.

However, the student may or may not go after a research career after graduation. The supervisor would help in this important consideration if he is sensitive to opportune times for discussion. While discussion at a high spirited moment, such as when a key paper is done, may be encouraging, a calm discussion otherwise may be more prudent. Times of doubt also tend to instill extra caution, even discouragement. Career counselling for a research student subjected to the ups and downs of research work should be exercised with extreme care, inasmuch as the supervisor is trusted by the student. It is quite possible that a supervisor wants to focus on students aiming for a research career, which means it is important to make this clear to students.


1 Jack Mezirow and Robert Kegan on transformative learning.



Appendixes: Interview reports

Student's Misconceptions of Research (PDF)
By Irene Leung, Junior Research Assistant, CLEAR
Variations in Research Students (PDF)
By Karen Kwok, Junior Research Assistant, CLEAR
The Student-teacher Relationship in Research Supervision (PDF)
By Henry Chiu, Research Assistant, CLEAR