At the heart of successful postgraduate research is the relationship between the postgraduate researcher and his/her supervisor - a relationship which requires mutual respect and an adaptability on both sides to the changing balance between the academic needs and independence of the postgraduate researcher, the expectations of the supervisor(s), and the requirements of the University.
Frequently, the postgraduate researcher and supervisor begin their relationship as pupil and teacher but later become colleagues. Both have expectations, roles and responsibilities, which change as the research progresses. From the beginning they must negotiate and agree how they will work together. For the supervisor this will always be important; however, for the postgraduate researcher it is even more critical since he/she may have one opportunity only to undertake a postgraduate research degree.
The Concept of Learning Agreements
A Learning Agreement is one tool to help facilitate the discussion and definition of the critical elements of the relationship between postgraduate researcher and supervisor. It encourages both persons to develop a thorough and consistent understanding of their individual and shared roles and responsibilities in their research partnership.
All postgraduate researchers must compile a Learning Agreement with their supervisor(s) and this must be submitted within a three month period from registration. Postgraduate researchers will not be permitted entry into the second year of study, if they have not completed a Learning Agreement.
The content of Learning Agreements varies as much as postgraduate research itself. The range of subjects to be considered are listed in the Standard Questions section. Other headings appropriate to the specific research project should be added as necessary.
The negotiation of the Learning Agreement should create an atmosphere which allows frank exchanges on the postgraduate researcher-supervisor relationship, as well as on the research subject material. A Learning Agreement will therefore provide a measure against ambiguity and also can serve as a subsequent review tool. As the relationship develops, the expectations of postgraduate reearcher and supervisor may change, and mutual flexibility is important to allow for the review of the workings of the partnership. It is therefore quite probable that some provisions of the Learning Agreement will change over the period of the research.
It must be noted that, whilst Learning Agreements detail certain aspects of the postgraduate researcher/supervisor anticipated procedures and outcomes, such matters may be subject to factors beyond the control of the University. Accordingly, no guarantee can be given to the postgraduate researcher in respect of such aspects and the postgraduate researcher, in proceeding to compile a Learning Agreement, accepts that proviso. The postgraduate researcher also accepts that the ownership of intellectual property arising from the research is governed by the University Regulations applicable thereto.
Learning Agreements do not supersede the University Code of Practice for the Conduct of Postgraduate Research Programmes and must be compiled and understood as being complementary to the Code.
The questions listed below should be your starting point when you discuss your Learning Agreement with your supervisor. The list is not exhaustive and it is likely you will have to consider further questions when you think about your specific situation. Additional headings can be added as required.
Approach to the Research
What are the principal purposes of the partnership?
What are the objectives of the research project as a whole?
How are creativity and conceptual understanding going to be stimulated?
What are the critical success factors for the research?
General roles of postgraduate and supervisor
What are the responsibilities of the student and supervisor?
Have you read the "Code of Practice for the Conduct of Postgraduate Research Degree Programmes"?
How will a realistic programme of work be created and monitored?
How will liaison with second supervisor (if applicable) operate?
What opportunities are provided by the postgraduate community?
How will the postgraduate achieve academic independence?
How will the intellectual property rights be allocated?
How will the personal tutor / mentor be allocated and what will they provide?
Does the student have any individual needs, which must be taken into account in providing her/him with the necessary means to complete her/his research? (NB. It is the duty of the supervisor to encourage the student to inform the Equalities Office of their needs in order for appropriate support to be organised.)
Topic specific roles
What are the key characteristics of the literature?
Who are the most appropriate first contacts in the field?
What are the relevant theories associated with the research field?
Are there particular ethical considerations involved?
How will a suitable end point be determined in the future?
How does the postgraduate student's research relate to the research interests of the supervisor(s)?
What specific equipment and facilities are needed for this research?
How will the purchasing of any equipment or special facilities be financed?
Are there identifiable research and/or operational training requirements associated with this research?
Are there any health and safety concerns attached to this work and how will these be addressed?
Will it be necessary to carry out fieldwork as part of this research?
How will the cost of carrying out any field research be met?
If extended periods of field research and collaborative placements (for example, overseas study) will be necessary, how will supervision be organised? For example, will the supervisor find the student a local supervisor or adviser?
How will transferable skills requirements be identified?
Consultation and reviews
What are the expectations concerning preparation and attendance of meetings?
How often will you meet?
Would a research journal / diary be helpful?
What records will be kept of the meetings?
Who will develop and review the programme of work?
What are the expectations about provision and feedback on written work?
What are the expectations about other outputs?
What progress assessment requirements are there?
How will the annual review operate?
What will be the arrangements for any publications?
How will transferable skills development be monitored?
Approach to collaborating organisation (if appropriate)
What are the agreed areas of mutual benefit for all parties?
How will the postgraduate arrange to work in conjunction with the company?
What should the postgraduate's objectives be in relation to the company?
How will the interest of the collaborating company be protected?
How will liaison with the company supervisor operate?
What will be the protocol for contact with the collaborating company?
The aim of these examples is to guide students on the content of the Learning Agreement. However, the LA template has changed slightly for administrative purposes.
The Agreements shown are from previous years and do not necessarily represent the prescribed current template.