Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 912-915
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
A Supportive Approach to Supervising Students Reading for a
PhD in Systems and Software Engineering
Richard Lai
Department of Computer Sc ience and Computer Eng ineering, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
Received September 3rd, 2012; revised October 2nd, 2012; accepted October 16th, 2012
Supervising a PhD student is a complex teaching task as it involves a very unstructured environment and
many intellectual challenges and stimuli, and it often requires a compatible student/supervisor relationship
for successful outcomes. It is therefore not surprising that it has been reported that an aspect of teaching
and learning that has been overlooked in higher education is research student supervision. Typical prob-
lems of poor supervision include: high rates of dissatisfaction with supervisors and high attrition rates and
slow rates of completion for students. It has also been reported that there is no set prescription on appro-
priate and successful supervision; rather, the interactions between quality and style of supervision, and the
field of study have all to be considered. It is not easy to know what a student and his/her supervisor
should be doing in order to succeed. We are thus motivated to present in this paper our approach to super-
vising students reading for a PhD in systems and software engineering. This approach is centered on mo-
tivating students to learn and to do research by having supervisory activities that support their develop-
ment throughout their candidature.
Keywords: PhD; Supervision; Systems and Software Engineering; Motivation
A definition of a PhD (LTU, 2006) is “PhD degrees provide
training and edu cation wit h th e objec tive of produ cing grad uates
with the capacity to conduct research independently at a high
level of originality and quality.” Supervising a PhD student is a
complex teaching task as it involves a very unstructured envi-
ronment and many intellectual challenges and stimuli, and it
often requires a compatible student/supervisor relationship for
successful outcomes. It is therefore not surprising that Arm-
strong (Armstrong, 2004) reported that an aspect of teaching and
learning th at has been ov erlooked in higher education is res earch
student supervision. However, the Australian government view-
ed PhD student supervision as important; and as such, the De-
partment of Education, Science and Training Australia, required
universities to describe their support of PhD students and the
supervision outcomes in the 2008 Research Qualify Framework
(RQF) submissions (DEST, 2007).
There is very little cross-institutional agreement on what con-
stitutes a good PhD thesis and what would make sound super-
vision practice (Sinclair, 2004); hence it is not easy to know
what a student and his/her super visor should be d oing in order to
succeed. We often do not have model answers to questions like
“How do we inspire, motivate and support a PhD student?”,
“What topic should he/she conduct research in?”, “How do we
measure the quality of a PhD thesis?”, and “How do we lead
him/her to progress well in his/her research?”. On the contrary,
we do know the problems that are associated with poor PhD
supervisions. Typical problems of poor supervisions include:
high rates of dissatisfaction with supervisors (Cullen, 1989) and
high attrition rates and slow rates of completion for students
(AVCC, 1990). The need for supervisors to provide sound su-
pervision practices is therefore paramount.
Kam (1997) reported that there is no set prescription on ap-
propriate and successful supervision; rather, the interactions
between quality and style of supervision, and the field of study
have all to be considered. Our field of study is Systems and
Software Engineering (SSE) (Glass, 2000). Today, sophisticated
and complex engineering systems are controlled and monitored
by sophisticated computer systems which are requir ed to d eliv er
secured, quality and reliable services. SSE is an engineering
discipline concerned with the processes, techniques, principles
and theories for constructin g a s ophis ticated s oftware s ystem for
a complex engineering system. It involves the application of a
systematic, disciplined, quantifiable approach to the design,
development, operation, and maintenance of complex systems
like aircraft, high speed train, power plant, and telecommunica-
tion. SSE is also heavily used within the US Department of
Defence as it is required to deliver to its arm forces incredibly
effective and powerful weapon systems utilising complex soft-
ware systems. The term software engineering (Sommerville,
2010) first appeared in the 1968 NATO Software Engineering
Conference, and was meant to provoke thought regarding the
perceived “software crisis” at the time.
Given these facts about PhD supervision, we are thus moti-
vated to present in this paper our approach to supervising stu-
dents reading for a PhD in SSE. This approach is centered on
motivating students to learn and to do research by having su-
pervisory activities that support their development throughout
their candida ture. Our approach has been in use for about than 20
Overview of the Approach
Our PhD supervision approach is influenced by two old say-
ings: namely, “The blind leads the blind” and “There are no lazy
people in this world, only unmotivated ones”. We therefore see
that PhD supervision is about leading, inspiring, motivating and
supporting students to learn and to develop their research po-
tentials by making good uses of our mastery knowledge, time,
and resources.
From our own experience, doing a PhD requires an enormous
amount of motivation which is confirmed b y Karimi et al. (2007).
Motivation is at the very heart of personal effectiveness. When
one is motivated, one has great enthusiasm and energy to do the
work and to get it done. There are two types of student motiva-
tion: extrinsic and intrinsic (Ryan et al., 2000). We aim to have
quality interactions and activities with our students, resulting in
extrinsic and/or intrinsic motivation in them (Dev, 1997).
We lead, inspire and motivate students by having mastery
knowledge in the research area and helping them to do likewise.
We motivate them to progress well throughout their candid atures
by giving them the right topics, the supports, the inte ractions, the
guidance, the cares, and the goals they need.
An Active Supervisor
The old saying—“The blind leads the blind”—teaches us that
we would not be able to lead our PhD students well if we do not
have a good knowledge of the subject matter ourselves. The
starting point for us as a supervisor is therefore that ideally we
should have a mastery knowledge in th e research ar ea in order to
be able to inspire and influence them. The better we are as a
researcher, the higher chance that we become a better supervisor.
In addition to keeping up with our research, we maintain our
mastery knowledg e by being scho larly and professionally active.
We serve on the editorial boards of international journals and as
guest editors of special issues of international journals. These
work enhance our skills in judging the qualities of research
papers; as a result, we are able to guide our students better to do
researches that are worthy of publication in internationally re-
puted journals.
We give speeches and participate in panel discussions at in-
ternational conferences, and serv e on the program committees of
international conferences. These heighten our awareness of
some of the latest researches that are conducted in other parts of
the world, and enable us and our students to get connected with
our international peers and to receive feedbacks for our work.
We stay in touch with the SSE industry by attending confer-
ences which are mainly for SSE practitioners so that we can
keep up-to-date with their current practices and the real-life
problems that they encounter. As such, we are able to enhance
our skills in teaching and in influencing our PhD students about
how to make their researches more industrially relevant. Apart
from supervision, we are also interested in teaching in general
(Lai, 1992; Lai, 1994a; Lai, 1994b; Sharma et al., 1995).
Teaching Them the Basics of Doing a PhD
We always ask our students the question: “Why do you want
to pursue a PhD?”. We get them to understand that doing a PhD
is to undergo a training in learning how to do research and that
obtaining a PhD is necessary for having a research or university
career. However, we point out to them that pursuing a PhD in
order to get a doctoral title and to make lots of money is an
inappropriate motive. High motiv ation is bound up with having a
clear sense of direction and a goal. We explain to students that a
PhD project can be one of the most fascinating and exciting
learning experiences. However, it can also be challenging, de-
manding much hard work and a sustained personal commitment
during three or more years. By going throug h a cop y of a former
student’s PhD thesis with them, they understand what constitutes
a PhD thesis and how it can be brought to a completion. They
then develop a positive and proper attitude towards earning a
We share with students about the facts that a research career
can bring rewards unequalled in other professions, that they
could extend their intellectual capabilities, that they could meet
some of the brightest people on earth, that they could solve
problems not solved before, that they could discover things no
one has discovered before, and that they could uncover methods
that could change the way people develop computer systems.
The joy of doing research will keep them motivated for a long
Motivation is ab out enthusiasm an d harnessing one’s energies,
and therefore in a practical sense it relies on a life style which
promotes vitality, rather than fatigue. We encourage students to
maintain an effective balance between their work and personal
activities, to have regular exercise and to connect with friends
and family so that they will not feel isolated and become de-
pressed. Succeeding in a PhD requires an enormous amount of
self-discipline. Unlike a coursework, there is no structure in a
PhD study. Rese arch stud en ts who l ack su ffic ient di sciplin e wi ll
not be able to establish a good work routine, and will soon find
themselves sleeping until late in the morning. We teach them to
have the daily discipline b y emphasising the fact that they should
treat the PhD study like having a paid day job, enabling them to
work productively.
Imparting Research Skills to Them
We teach students the following essential and fundamental
research skills and abilities: effective technical paper reading,
how to identify the key aspects of a problem/area, critical thinking,
evaluation and analysis of related work, acquiring expertise in a
specific area, working independently, and problem solving.
We show them how to grasp the contributions of a research
paper, how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the re-
search technique described, how to summarise the finding after
reviewing technical papers available in the literature, etc. Stu-
dents will then acquire a broad knowled ge in the res ea rch area.
Smaller successes lead to bigger accomplishments. We teach
them the princ iple of “Success builds on a success”. If they could
achieve smalle r tasks, th ey will naturall y be on the right tr ack. In
the event that they could not achieve a smaller task, we would
discuss with them about the problems they encounter and
through discussions we always could come up with a solution (or
a partial solution) to the problem; in this situation, only a
minimal amount of time is lost.
We explain to them that SSE researches can include such di-
verse activities as designing and building new computer s ystems,
writing computer software, measuring the performance of a
computer system, or using analytical tools to assess a design.
Research activities vary from project to project and over time in
a single project.
Guiding Them to Work on the Right Topic
All of our former students asked us the question: “What topic
should I be doing for my PhD?”. We get a student to work on a
topic that is of mutual interest so that we become highly moti-
vated about our project and develop a deep rapport for it. Stu-
dents will then be committed to the area of research; and the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 913
research topic provides them with a great source of motivation
and inspiration. A strong belief in the research area is essential to
enable a student to get through a PhD.
Students are motivated from within themselves. They want to
learn a subject or topic taught for different reasons. Once a
specific topic arouses their interest, they will be motivated.
Students should be interested in the research area in which they
have a mastery knowledge. Supervision of PhD student should
be regarded as a shared enterpris e in which both a supervisor and
his/her student have an intellectual investment. Proposed re-
search projects should therefore be of mutual interests.
At the beginning, students usual ly do not have the exp ertise to
know what topic is feasible for a PhD project. If they were to
work out the topic by the mselves, it could easily take them 6 to 9
months to do it. Not all research topics that we have in mind are
suitable as rese arch proje cts for students. We have to guide them
to work on the right topic, based on their strengths, weaknesses
and interests. For instance, there is no point in guiding them to
do a highly mathematical or iented research if they were not good
in mathematics. After deciding th e right topics, we also make the
topics very specific for them to work on. Our former PhD stu-
dents worked in the area of systems and software engineering
which we both had mutual interests, and they were able to grasp
the research issues quickly. They are then inspired because they
have a good start.
Helping them Build a Mastery Knowledge in
the Research Area
We also show them how to be an effective reader so that they
can get a l ot out o f re ading an ar ti cle within the sh orte st possi ble
amount of time, and how to choose what needs to be read. We
teach them how to manage their time well. These basics are very
essentials. Without them, it would be hard for them to finish on
time. We guide them to do a rather compre hensive survey of the
research work done in the area of interest, so that a broad knowl-
edge of the research area is built into them during the process.
An old saying is “You give him a fish today, he feeds himself
one day; you teach him how to fish, he feeds himself all th e da ys
of his life.” Our PhD students cannot rely forever on our master y
knowledge; we have to help them develop their own. When
exploring a new concept, we get them to notice how it is the
same as something they already know. Students are more likely
to remember new information if they can connect it with familiar
previous knowledge or experience. While they explore how
similar two objects are, they are also taught to explore their
differences. Students gain as much understanding of a new
concept by identifying what it isn’t as by identifying what it is.
At this stage in the process, we get them to practice the new
concept to gain conscious mastery. They have reached concept
mastery when they are able to combine a new concept with
previous knowledge or experien ce, and apply the new concept in
new and creative ways.
Giving Them Prompt, Regular and Constructive
Apart from meeting with them very regularly, we make sure
that we respond to their needs and give feedback to them on their
work promptly because students need to know how they are
doing so that they can improve if the performance is below
standards and their confidences would be further built up by
receiving positive feedback fr om us when they have done a good
job. A prompt feedback is v ery important a s stud ents cou ld h ave
gone off track in their work and a mid course correction is re-
quired. If we did not give them prompt feedback, much more
time and energy would have been lost, thus prolonging a stu-
dent’s candidature.
We encourage students to put in writing the ideas, the dis-
cussions that we have, the literature search results, research
findings, and difficulties and problems from the start. Soon,
what they have written down will fall in places and form parts
of their thesis. It is through something in writing that we are
able to give them concrete feedback on their trends of thought,
the quality of the work, future direction, and how to refine and
expand their work. This approach is consistent with research
studies which have shown that those who are required to submit
written work earlier in the candidature were the most satisfied
with the feedback that they received (Davis, 1993).
Imparting to Them the Skills in Presenting
Research Results
After a student agree s to go ahead in a certain research direc-
tion, we are eager to seek the reactions of a wider audience by
sending a paper on the PhD work to a conference programme
committee for consideration for presentation as we admit t hat we
do not know everything. This opens us to public scrutiny. We
help our students develop a positive attitude towards criticisms
or negative comments. The tru th is that if on e decides to embark
on something new in his/her life, then he/she has to accept
criticisms made b y our peer s on t he in adeq uac y of the w ork, and
he/she will learn and grow in competence. Thus, criticisms
become not an indicator of personal inadequacy, but a sign that
he/she is expanding his/her horizons and making progress. Re-
ceiving criticisms on the inadequacy of the work is a form of
feedback and a necessary part of the learning process so that we
can move on to achieve bigger goals.
When presenting a paper, they have an opportunity to interact
with researchers from around the world and to get feedback fro m
them. Studies have shown that there is a significant relationship
between the level of research student satisfaction and feedback
and advice received from oral presentations (Heath, 2002). We
teach students how to develop the contents of a presentation;
they include: a statement about its aim, the motivation of doing
the work, some brief discussions on how the work is compared
with those of oth er researchers, th e research res ults, the str engths
and weaknesses of the technique used, and a conclusion that
summarizes the contribution of the work. We discuss with them
some of the good presentation skills which include focusing on
the audience instead of looking at the slides, speaking naturally
instead of reading word by word from the notes or slides,
speaking clearly and slower, and preparing well for the presen-
tation. We teach them how to answer queries and objections
raised by the audience; the key to handling them well lies
largely within their know ledge and conf iden ce in the wor k th at
they have done, and it is not a human weakness to acknowledge
the shortcomings of the technique/approach they have devel-
Imparting to Them the Skills in Publishing
Quality Papers in SSE Journal
After more solid research results have been obtained, we en-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 915
courage and teach them to write a paper for submission to the
editorial board of a SSE journal for consid eration for publication
so that more serious feedback can be obtained from experts in
the research area. The interactions and feedback help them stay
motivated and stimulated.
We explain to students the review process of a journal paper,
the persons responsible for the review, and the time taken for
revie wing a paper wh ich is usually at least about six months (or
possibly twelve months). We show them how to make a right
judgement in sending a paper to the right journal by studying the
scope of the jou rnal and the s tyl e and the standard of papers that
have been previously published in that journal, as the cost of
having a paper r ejected is too hi gh. W e tea ch them the im portant
ingredients of a quality journal paper. For examples, the abstract,
the introduction and the conclusion parts must be well written,
concise and clear about the contribution and significance of the
research conducted; these parts should also explain why the
work is better than similar work done by others; the technique
employed in conducting the r esearch normally has to be novel or
innovative; and the arguments developed are to be convincing.
We teach them how to revise a paper by responding appropri-
ately to reviewers’ comments, especially the negative ones.
We have used this approach to supervising SSE PhD students
over the last 20 years, during which nine PhD students had
been supervised to completion. Notably, all of them were born
and educated in an overseas country before coming to Australia
to pursue a higher degree. They had the special need of being
able to complete their PhD as quickly as possible. Incidentally,
the Australian Government’s grants to universities for local
PhD students are limited to a candidature of four years only
(Sathye, 2005).
With our approach, w e were able to lead, inspire, m otivate and
support them to achieve quality research results within the de-
sired period of candidature of between three to four year, during
which they were also able to publish quality journal and con-
ference papers o n their thesis. To support this claim, we mention
below the outcomes of a couple of our former PhD students. In
November 2007, Student A (just a name in order to preserve his
identity) submitted his thesis for examination after having pub-
lished three journal and one conference papers on his thesis
during a candidature of 3.5 years. In February 2008, without
having received his PhD results yet, he was awarded an
Early-Career Researcher grant by a learned society in Australia
for conducting research in an overseas country for two months;
and in 2009, he was awarded a research thesis merit citation by
the Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering of La Trobe
University. In July 2010, Student B submitted his thesis for
examination after having published two journal and one con-
ference papers on his thesis during a candidature of merely 3
years. In January 2012, he was awarded an outstanding young
researcher award by the Vice-Chancellor of the University
here he has been working since completing his PhD. w
We thus conclude that the approach to supervising SSE PhD
students we having been using is about supporting them by
being: 1) their teacher who imparts knowledge to and provides
training for them; 2) and their coach who builds skills and con-
fidence in them. The outcomes of the supervisions of our for-
mer nine SSE PhD students support the fact that it is an effec-
tive method of supervision.
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