Supervising remotely: supporting a PhD student during a global pandemic

When there’s a global pandemic, many things come to a grinding halt. In the first lockdown of 2020, we saw universities move to online teaching – see my previous reflection on this here.

The importance and value of online tools such as Microsoft Teams for video calls, and the innovative Mentimeter student survey tool to help engage students was certainly appreciated by me.

In this second lockdown, there is ongoing uncertainty about how and where is best for teaching, learning and support to happen but what is clear is that ‘the show must go on’. For me this means that for all our students, our starting point should be compassion, understanding and flexibility and that we must do what we can to support them in reaching their degree goals. With the ‘blended approach’ in motion, we have room to consider how online technology can best support our remote teaching and learning. The decisions we make about large groups are complicated by varying needs but at least with supervisory relationships we can settle on approaches that are shaped by the needs of the students (and the academics!).

This year, I have the privilege of supervising an ambitious PhD student, and today we had our first supervision session online. There are some simple wins that I will be using over the coming year to smoothly supervise remotely, and in this short piece I will outline these and consider how different technologies may help me to be the best supervisor I can in these uncertain times:

Microsoft Teams

Using Microsoft Teams for video calls is easy and user-friendly. With a simple invitation sent through Outlook, meetings can be easily arranged and joined. It may be worth considering setting up a Team for supervisee and supervisor/s but I’d recommend discussing the pros and cons of this with all parties first and don’t forget that most people are members of quite a lot of Teams already.  Teams can be like an enhanced telephone conversation and the ‘chat’ function and ‘meeting notes’ is a great place for sharing ideas or jotting down notes and reminders. If you haven’t yet looked at the changing background tool, it also allows you to either blur the background behind you or can be used to add a range of fun, illustrated backgrounds for those less formal meetings. I have found with 1-1s that students respond well to these and it can help break down barriers and relived anxieties which would be harder to do if the meetings were in my office for example.

The use of chat functions

The start of our video call was rather problematic with wifi troubles meaning there was delay in the conversation; luckily, we used the ‘chat’ function on the video call whilst the bandwidth adjusted, meaning that the meeting could still continue without wasting everyone’s time or having to rearrange. Thankfully, after other devices had turned off their wifi connection, the videocall improved.

Files on Microsoft Teams

Being able to share files on Microsoft Teams is useful, too, allowing for documents to be uploaded and shared in real time and keeping all your documents in one place for easy location. One cautionary note on this though: it can be tempting to make edits for someone when you receive a shared document and, for obvious reasons, it’s important a PhD (or indeed any) student is authoring all their own work!


As an alternative to document sharing in the ‘Files’ area on Microsoft Teams, although it might seem ‘old school’, I have personally always loved the use of email for sharing documents. In an age where our phones seem too often be in our hands and the push notifications seem to be constantly popping up on our screens, I find that sharing documents via email allows me to check it only when I wish to. I have removed my work email account from my phone, and now have to log onto my laptop to view my emails, meaning it is less consuming! In the first lockdown, I think I was checking my work emails every two minutes… now, I am more focused and responsive when I have to sit at my desk and look at my emails on my laptop – I would strongly suggest this for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed by work emails on their phone! The PhD student is going to send me their work so far via email, so I can check it when I can focus and concentrate properly on their work at a chosen time, rather than spotting an email during my school run, for example, and misinterpreting or missing anything.


As an avid user of Mentimeter, I am excited to see how this tool can help the PhD student share ideas and feelings as we move through their PhD journey; starting with a Menti about initial hopes and goals and timelines, slides in our future supervision meetings will talk about rationales for the literature choices, consideration of research questions, and mind mapping the structure and content of the final thesis. I find Mentimeter gives a very non-threatening way of sharing ideas, and a useful screenshot that you can keep and refer to if needed.

Using the Outlook calendar

With the use of Microsoft Outlook calendar to stay on top of appointments, we have begun to plot out what this academic year will look like for my student and their PhD studies. We have already put the next meeting invitation in the diary for the end of the month.

Speaking to my PhD student today and hearing their excitement about their journey ahead keeps me inspired to try my best. I am sure as this academic year continues, there will be challenges for us all, but also little wins and ‘lightbulb’ moments that remind us why we do this job, and as we see our students progress, there is no doubt that it is all worth it.

For useful guidance and strategies around online supervision, see the UKCGE guidelines here.

Poppy Gibson
Senior Lecturer
Programme Leader BA (Hons) in Primary Education Studies (accelerated)

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