Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs and the Research and EDI Manager. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter @Preece_Kelly for musings about researchers, development…and everything in between! 

One of the challenges of PGR supervision is that it is a bespoke form of teaching, directed towards supporting an individual. Every PGR, and every project, will need the supervisor to reflect and modify their approach to ensure the success of the student and the project. This ‘bespoke’ nature of supervision becomes more complex when it interacts with some form of impairment from outside of the research process.

I spoke to two of our neurodiverse gradutes, Dr. Jane May Morrison and Dr. Edward Mills, about their experience of being a neurodivergent PGR for my podcast Researchers, Development, and the In-Betweens. From this insightful conversation, I have distilled some advice for supervising neurodiverse PGRs.

Awareness raising

 An important part of supervising neurodiverse PGRs in raising your awareness of the challenges associated with different conditions. Information is the key. You can do your own research but be aware that the media and popular culture tend to feed into stereotypes rather than representing the nuanced experience of neurodiversity (for example, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a classic example a one-dimensional representation of autism). The best thing you can do is talk to your student. Every neurodivergent condition, and every individual’s experience of that condition, is different. Your student is the expert, so just be willing to listen and learn.

ILPs can help – but make use of the Supervision Agreement

Individual Learning Plans are a challenge for PGRs because they tend to focus on undergraduates. Traditional recommendations for extra exam time don’t apply, but that doesn’t mean a discussion of adjustments isn’t helpful. Supervisors could us the ILP alongside the Supervision Agreement to discuss individual needs. For example, a student with ADHD might need more structured deadlines, and a student with autism might need clearer more direct communication. Teasing out these challenges can help supervisors and PGRs deal with them more proactively throughout the research process.

Engage in meta-communication

Something you may need to do with neurodiverse PGRs is engage in meta-communication. There are ways we traditionally communicate in academia, for example when giving feedback, that can be vague and obtuse for students with autism. Talking through and reflecting on the ways you communicate can ensure that advice, directions and feedback is clear and understood! This isn’t just the case with neurodiverse PGRs – meta-communication would benefit all PGRs to ensure clarity and more productive ways of working.

Be prepared to challenge academic conventions and ways of doing

A lot of neurodiverse PGRs face challenges due to academic conventions. They experience a lack of flexibility, or willingness to do these differently, based on the idea that ‘this is just how things are done’. This perpetuates an ableist idea that maybe academic isn’t ‘for them’. Be prepared to question why we do things in certain ways, and to find different ways of working where necessary.

For further insight, why not listen to the podcast?