5. Early Intervention: Helping Higher Degree Researchers Thrive throughout Candidature

Anna Kokavec

Why read this chapter?

Sustainable higher degree research supervision requires a supportive and collaborative relationship between supervisors and higher degree researchers, which involves regular communication, clear expectations, and feedback. Higher degree researchers can face many challenges during their candidature which can impact their academic progress and well-being.  When things do go wrong it is essential supervisors have the tools to identify problems early and provide appropriate guidance and support.

The Graduate Research Engagement Assessment Tool (GREAT) has been specifically designed as an early intervention communication tool to assist supervisors and higher degree researchers identify, assess, and problem-solve potential risks. The GREAT includes:

  • self-assessment section to build higher degree researchers’ self-awareness and problem-solve risk
  • questionnaire and scoring criteria to identify and quantify risk
  • opportunity to explore and request support
  • step-by-step guide to give supervision meetings structure
  • step-by-step guide to resolve challenges.


Sustainable research supervision is a multi-factorial construct that includes the creation of a supportive and inclusive research culture, the nurturing of students’ intellectual and personal growth, and the responsible utilization of research resources. The overall aim of sustainable research supervision is to support resilient and socially aware higher degree researchers who can thrive in today’s ever-changing academic world (Kaharudin et al., 2022).

Sustainable research supervisors put the well-being and advancement of their higher degree researchers first by encouraging teamwork, fostering critical thinking, and promoting ethical research practices. In this context, adopting a sustainable approach means prioritizing collaborative problem-solving, mentorship, and two-way communication (Allan, 2019).

Facilitating sustainable supervision through early intervention

Completing a higher research degree involves embarking on a 3–5-year journey that for many can be very rewarding. One of the notable highs of completing a higher research degree is the opportunity for significant intellectual growth. Higher degree researchers engage in deep exploration of a specific subject, which leads to expanded knowledge and expertise in their chosen field of study. There is the potential to make an original contribution and advance knowledge, which can be intellectually fulfilling and professionally rewarding (van Rooji et al., 2021). However, as with any journey, it is not unusual to encounter challenges along the way (Beasy et al., 2021). For example

  1. Goal-oriented challenges revolve around differing opinions or priorities regarding research goals, performance criteria, methodology selection, or project milestones.
  2. Administrative challenges relate to organizational or administrative aspects of research projects, such as defining roles and responsibilities, establishing reporting relationships, and clarifying decision-making authority.
  3. Interpersonal challenges arise from differences in work styles, communication preferences, or personality clashes among researchers, supervisors, and/or team members.

The evidence suggests that if (or when) problems occur, early intervention on the part of the supervisor is critical to the success of a research project (O’Brien et al., 2008). It is essential that any challenges facing higher degree researchers can be identified early and appropriate strategies put in place to mitigate risk and support the higher degree researcher. By recognizing challenges before they become overwhelming, supervisors can empower higher degree researchers to proactively seek the necessary support, and resources, and make timely adjustments to their research plans and methodologies (Norton, 2011; Homer et al., 2021).

Facilitating sustainable supervision through effective communication

The relationship between higher degree researchers and supervisors plays a pivotal role in their academic and personal growth. Supervisors assume a crucial position by offering guidance, mentorship, and expertise, enabling students to navigate the intricate path of their research journey (Brownlow et al., 2023). Leveraging their knowledge, supervisors provide invaluable insights that shape the research project’s trajectory, refine methodologies, and cultivate critical thinking skills (Satariyan et al., 2015).

Recent findings from a systematic review underscore the importance of fostering open, supportive, and frequent communication between higher degree researchers and their supervisors, as it directly correlates with student success and satisfaction. The consistency in shared work values, including communication style, interaction frequency, and adherence to timelines, is perceived by both supervisors and researchers as a measure of the strength of their relationship (Sverdlik et al., 2018). These key elements create a supportive and constructive environment where ideas can be exchanged, any challenges discussed and addressed, and knowledge shared (Berridge et al., 2010).

Incorporating effective communication practices into a sustainable supervisory approach can significantly impact the engagement and progression of higher degree researchers. When faced with challenges, actively involving higher degree researchers in constructive dialogues, and actively soliciting feedback fosters the development problem-solving skills, critical thinking abilities, and emotional intelligence (London et al., 2023).

Graduate Research Engagement Assessment Tool

The Graduate Research Engagement Assessment Tool (GREAT) is a multifaceted early intervention instrument that promotes open and effective communication and instils a sense of empowerment among higher degree researchers as they advance their studies. The complete GREAT tool can be divided into four sections and includes:

  1. Self-assessment section to build higher degree researchers’ self-awareness and problem-solve risk.
  2. Risk assessment questionnaire and scoring criteria to identify and quantify risk.
  3. Opportunity for HDRs to explore and request support.
  4. Step-by-step guide for facilitating group discussion and staying on track.
    • Step-by-step guide for managing and resolving challenges.

For anyone looking to improve their communication skills, the GREAT is an invaluable communication resource, which has the capacity to significantly assist both supervisors and higher degree researchers throughout their collaborative research endeavours. Utilizing the GREAT affords supervisors and higher degree researchers the chance to work together and proactively identify and manage challenges before they turn into obstacles that could jeopardize the project. A copy of the complete JCU GREAT form is available [Word document].

1. Self-assessment

The self-assessment part of the GREAT consists of six items. The aim is to develop self-awareness and accept responsibility for any challenges before they turn into roadblocks. Completing the self-assessment part of the GREAT can ensure supervisors and higher degree researchers are on the same page with respect to progress and expectations. A copy of the JCU HSSDP – HDR Student Self-directed Project Assessment form is available [Word document].

Items 1-4 are completed by all members of the higher degree research team and provide an opportunity for higher degree researchers and supervisors to reflect on:

  • “How are things going?”
  • The information provided by the university pertaining to the expectations of a supervisor and higher degree researchers.
  • “What are my expectations?”

There is also an opportunity to brainstorm and problem-solve any challenges by thinking about possible options and outcomes before deciding on the best option for moving forward.

2. Risk assessment

Before completing item 5 “Do I need additional support?” the higher degree researcher is directed to completing a risk assessment. This provides an opportunity to build self-awareness and identify risk associated with six factors (i.e., physical health, social support, research engagement, mental health, personal wellbeing, and environment), previously shown to negatively impact higher degree researchers (Sverdlik et al., 2018). A copy of the JCU HSPRF HDR Student Potential Risk Factors Assessment Tool form is available [Word document].

The risk assessment contains 25 statements and statements are grouped according to the six factors. For each statement, the higher degree researcher must choose one of three options (Yes, No, Unsure). Each choice is weighted as 0, 1, 4, with responses deemed to suggest high risk = 4, moderate-low risk = 1, and no risk = 0. After reading a statement, the higher degree researcher is required to circle the response that best describes their circumstances. There are no right or wrong answers and the higher degree researcher can choose whether to show the completed form to the supervisor or submit it to the Graduate Research Office.

Scoring allows for six Factor scores and a Total risk score to be calculated. Total risk scores can range from 0 to 100, with a Total score above 12 deemed to suggest the higher degree researcher may be at risk.

After completing the risk assessment, the higher degree researcher is asked to reflect on responses with a risk score of 1 or 4 and use the information provided in the risk assessment scoring criteria as a guide to determine whether a meeting with the primary supervisor needs to be scheduled. If the Total risk score recommends arranging a meeting with the supervisor the meeting should be arranged as soon as possible.

The higher degree researcher is responsible for contacting the supervisor and asking that a meeting be scheduled at a convenient time for all parties involved. Meetings can vary in length, but as a rule, at least 1 hour should be set aside for the meeting to ensure there is plenty of time for discussion. It is important to make sure the location where the meeting will take place is in a private space, and free of interruptions.

3. Exploring and requesting support

Item 5 “Do I need additional support?” is only completed by the higher degree researcher. In this section

  • There is space for the total risk score to be inserted.
  • There is also space to provide more information and justify responses to questions with a weighting of 1 or 4 for the six factors.
  • The risk assessment scoring criteria is used as a guide to prompt the higher degree researcher to book a meeting to discuss support with their primary advisor.

Item 6 “Accessing support” is completed by the higher degree researcher (only). This section

  • Provides an opportunity for the higher degree researcher to let the primary supervisor know support is needed.
  • Acts as an information source, highlighting the type of support that is provided by the organization.
  • Provides an opportunity for the higher degree researcher to find out more about specific types of support.
  • Provides an opportunity for the higher degree researcher to request external support.

4. Facilitating group discussion and staying on track

The GREAT is very useful because it helps to keep supervision meetings between the primary supervisor and higher degree researcher on track. Using the GREAT adds structure to the interaction and forces members of the research team to work through an agenda aimed at assessing the health of the project and student-supervisor relationship in an open, objective, and collaborative manner.

At least 2 days prior to the scheduled meeting, it is essential to provide all participants with an agenda and a copy of the GREAT self-assessment form. In the communication, attendees should be instructed to bring the completed self-assessment form with them for group discussion. There is no mandatory requirement to physically exchange responses during the meeting. After all, we need to be mindful that there may be some things a higher degree researcher may either not want to or may not be ready to share with others (for whatever reason), and this needs to be respected. However, if all parties agree, there is no reason why completed self-assessment forms cannot be exchanged, especially if it helps facilitate open and honest communication.

Meeting with a higher degree researcher to discuss progress is not just two people having a chat, all meetings need to have an agenda, and this sent to attendees at least two days before the meeting. The agenda outlines the goals to be achieved during the meeting and should be based on the following:

  1. How are things going?
    • What is working, what is not working?
    • Suggestions for improvement to create positive change
    • Is additional support required?
  2. Moving forward
    • What steps do I need to take to get from A to B?
    • What are the measurable outcomes we want to see along the way?
  3. Setting a review date
  4. Evaluating progress

All discussions between a supervisor and higher degree researcher during a meeting should be meticulously documented. Either the higher degree researcher or supervisor can be responsible for taking minutes of the meeting. At the end of the meeting the primary supervisor is responsible for distributing copies of the minutes to attendees and completing the GREAT Supervision and Progression Assessment form. A copy of the JCU HSPA – HDR Supervision and Progression Assessment form is available [Word document].

The GREAT Supervision and Progression Assessment needs to be an accurate account of group views and the primary supervisor should ensure that a copy of the completed form is sent to all attendees for comment and any errors discussed and corrected before it is submitted to the Graduate Research Office for filing.

Resolving difficulties and moving forward

The GREAT is based on the conflict resolution model proposed by Davidson and Wood (2004) and has as its foundation the six step “no-lose” approach proposed by Gordon (1970), which encourages everyone to accept responsibility and promotes problem-solving, positive relationships and effective communication. This means the GREAT can also be used in instances where communication between supervisor and a higher degree researcher has completely broken down.

In instances where the student-supervisor relationship has become unworkable, the GREAT can act as an objective communication tool for promoting constructive discussion through a mediator. The GREAT when used in conjunction with a mediator allows for a structured communication space to be created where everyone can put their case forward and be heard. There is an opportunity to listen to what others have to say, work together to problem-solve and evaluate options to hopefully reach consensus on the best solution, and move forward.

The agenda to be worked through at this meeting should be based on the following:

  1. Defining the source of the conflict by focusing on the underlying needs.
  2. Generating a range of possible solutions that could potentially meet the needs of all parties.
  3. Evaluating and assessing the potential of each solution.
  4. Collaboratively deciding on a mutually acceptable solution.
  5. Implementing the chosen solution.
  6. Evaluating the effectiveness of the solution at a later point in time.

The GREAT Supervision and Progression Assessment needs to be treated as a confidential document that is an accurate account of group views and discussions. All discussions during a meeting should be meticulously documented and the views of attendees respected. An independent person should be recruited to take minutes during the meeting. Alternatively, the appointed mediator can be asked to take notes.

At the end of the meeting, the mediator is responsible for distributing copies of the minutes to attendees, completing the GREAT Supervision and Progression Assessment form, requesting signatures from attendees, amending any errors, and submitting the signed form to the Graduate Research Office for filing. A copy of the JCU HSPA – HDR Supervision and Progression Assessment form is available [Word document].

Putting it into practice

Case study

Hassan is a higher degree researcher in Engineering from Oman and is 35 years old.  He has been married for 5 years and his second child was born two months after he arrived in Australia to commence studies. After working as an engineer in Oman he completed his Masters in the US. Then he took time out to work as an academic in Oman. Now with government funding for three years, he is hoping to complete his doctorate to be eligible for tenure and progress along his academic career. He has co-authored two mid-level publications and feels confident about his capacity as a researcher. He selected his supervisors after many conversations. His supervisors include a male external industry partner, a senior female primary advisor and a female secondary advisor who is a 3rd year Early Career Researcher.  The team has worked and is working with other higher degree researchers that have a strong presence as a research group.  While he is the first Oman higher degree researcher to join the group – it is a very multi-cultural group.  They often go for coffee and lunch as a group and meet for fortnightly cohort discussions about readings and methods and the latest research. He has struggled to engage with the group, feeling very stressed almost since arriving because he only has 3 years to complete and because he misses his family greatly. He was desolated when he had to request a 3-month extension when he was not ready for confirmation. He has a lot of feedback to address in order to finalise this milestone. He feels the supervisors are being too demanding, having never struggled with deadlines or received so much feedback on his written work before. The supervisory relationship is strained but all are trying hard to be receptive as they exchange ideas and Hassan works on his research design and literature review.


Step 1: Download a copy of the JCU HSSDP – HDR Student Self-directed Project Assessment [Word document] and complete items 1-4 using the information provided in the case study.

  • How do you think things are going?
    • List the things that are working well and Hassan seems happy about in the space provided on the form.
    • Is Hassan concerned about or does he want to change anything? Complete your response in the space provided on the form.
    • Overall does Hassan seem happy about his progress?
  • What are Hassan’s expectations regarding his situation?
    • Review the information provided to higher degree researchers pertaining to expectations.
      • Do Hassan’s expectations align with university expectations?
    • Is there anything more Hassan could be doing?
      • Look at your responses to items 1 and 2 and suggest three ways of improving Hassan’s situation.
      • How would implementing these options benefit Hassan?
      • How would each option enhance Hassan’s research experience?
      • How would each option impact the final project?
      • What do you think Hassan’s best option is at this stage?

Step 2: Download a copy of the JCU HSPRF – HDR Student Potential Risk Factors Assessment Tool [Word document] and use the information provided in the case study to answer each of the 25 questions. After you have finished, score the questionnaire, and answer the following:

  • What score did Hassan achieve?
    • Would Hassan benefit from accessing additional support?
      • If yes, what type of support would improve Hassan’s research experience?
    • Would Hassan benefit from meeting with his primary supervisor?

Step 3: Summary and recommendations

  • How do you think Hassan is going?
  • Is his project at risk?
  • Would he benefit from receiving additional support?
  • As the primary supervisor, what recommendations would you give to Hassan?
  • Any other comments?


While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Allan, G. E. (2019). A systematic review of the evidence base for active supervision in PK-12 settings. Behavioral Disorders, 45, 167–182.

Beasy, K., Emery, S., & Crawford, J. (2021). Drowning in the shallows: An Australian study of the PhD experience of wellbeing. Teaching in Higher Education, 26, 602-618.

Berridge, E. J., Mackintosh, N. J., & Freeth, D. S. (2010). Supporting patient safety: Examining communication within delivery suite teams through contrasting approaches to research observation. Midwifery, 26, 512-519.

Davidson, J., & Wood, C. (2004). A conflict resolution model. Theory Into Practice, 43, 6-13. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4301_2

Gordon, T. (1970). Parent Effectiveness Training: The tested new way to raise responsible children. Plume Books.

Homer, S. R., Solbrig, L., Djama, D., Bentley, A., Kearns, S., & May, J. (2021). The Researcher Toolkit: A preventative, peer-support approach to postgraduate research student mental health. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 12, 7-25.

Kaharudin, I. H., Ab-Rahman, M. S., Abd-Shukor, R., Zaharim, A., Mohd Nor, M. J., Mohd Ihsan, A. K. A., Md Zain, S., Hipni, A., Osman, K., & Idrus, R. (2022). How does supervision technique affect research? Towards sustainable performance: Publications and students from pure and social sciences. Sustainability. 14, 5696. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14095696

London, M., Sessa, V.I., & Shelley, L.A. (2023). Developing self-awareness: Learning processes for self and interpersonal growth. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 10, 261-288.

Norton, J. (2011). “Getting to the End”: Psychological factors influencing research higher degree completion. Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, 38, 1-9.

O’Brien, A., Cho, M. A. A., Lew, A-M., Creedy, D., Man, R. H. C., Chan, M. F., & Arthur, D. (2008). The need for mental health promotion and early intervention services for higher education students in Singapore. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education10, 42-48.

Satariyan, A., Getenet, S., & Gube, J., & Muhammad, Y. (2015). Exploring supervisory support in an Australian university: Perspectives of doctoral students in an education faculty, Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, 46, 1-12.

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). Journeys of a PhD student and unaccompanied minors. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13, 361-388.

van Rooji, E., Fokkens-Bruinsma, M., & Jansen, E. (2021). Factors that influence PhD candidates’ success: The importance of PhD project characteristics. Studies in Continuing Education, 43, 48-67.