QR:  Supervising PhDs: Dealing with ‘atypical’ students

Supervising PhDs: Dealing with ‘atypical’ students

This is an extract from a guest post on the Supervising PhDs Community Blog, where I explore the experience of “atypical” students, and what research supervisors can do to better support those “atypical” students.

Dealing with “atypical” students


Nicole sitting by the beach with a cup of tea and a book taking advantage of free time to dedicate to her doctoral studies.

Source: N Brown

Wherever we look, each faculty, school or department has its own ‘typical’ doctoral student. In some higher education institutions, the typical doctoral student is the PhD student who enters the full-time doctoral journey directly from undergraduate and postgraduate studies. That student may be in their early twenties, with some family commitments and responsibilities to scholarship funders. In other institutions, the typical student is one who works their journey through a professional doctorate, such as an EdD, DBA or PsyD.



But what about the students that do not fit the description of the institutional definition of the typical doctoral student? And what can we do about these atypical students? In this blog post I aim to address these questions drawing on my experiences as an atypical doctoral student.

The reality of my doctoral life was characterised by many late nights and/or early mornings of work, many missed opportunities where I could not join family outings and making use of every free minute. When I did the school run and I was 10 minutes early, I would use these 10 minutes to do something: reading and highlighting or making notes, anything. Basically, literally every ‘free’ minute became a minute for and of the PhD.

So, what is it that we can do to best support the atypical student?


A sense of belonging

From literature we know that the doctoral journey is a process of initiation, and as such is a difficult experience. But in the case of the ‘atypical’ student that initiation is even more important. For the ‘atypical’ student the sense of belonging is even more warped than for the typical ones.


(Re)considering norms and needs

Building on the idea of developing a sense of belonging, it is key for the supervisors and the graduate schools to consider what the norm is in their institution and how others could possibly feel out of place. Ideally, we would then try to shift the focus and turn the ‘atypical’ into a ‘new normal’.


Key message to take away

Literature asks us to be reflective supervisors and to establish a meaningful relationship with our supervisees, and that is certainly true. What I recommend, however, is to consider the institutional setting we are working in, to recognise our implicit expectations and assumptions around the doctoral journey at our institution, and to compensate for the resulting shortcomings to meet the needs of those students who are ‘atypical’.

Leave a message:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *