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Supervising Part IB and Part II students

The Department has many resources for supervising undergraduates taking our courses in the Natural Sciences Tripos. Often these supervisions are given by PhD students in the Department, who are paid by the undergraduates' Colleges for this service.

Undergraduate supervision is provided for students who have opted to take HPS in their second year (Part IB) or third year (Part II). See the undergraduate study pages for more information about these courses.

The Part IB manager is responsible for creating a pool of supervisors for Part IB out of which Colleges' Directors of Studies can hire supervisors. The Part II paper managers are responsible for finding supervisors for their papers. You should consult them if you wish to work as an undergraduate supervisor.

Be warned – supervisions are very time-consuming and can distract you from your own research. But supervisions can also provide excellent teaching experience and rewarding intellectual opportunities. Here is a guide to how these supervisions work.

How supervisors are appointed

Supervisions for the Part IB course are arranged through the Colleges. Most Colleges have a Director of Studies (DoS) specifically for HPS. The DoS will appoint a supervisor for Part IB History of Science and one for Part IB Philosophy of Science by the start of the year. The DoS can arrange an initial meeting with all students at the College taking HPS Part IB and with the supervisors, or else send the students to see the supervisors in person.

Supervisions for the Part II course are co-ordinated by the managers of each paper in co-operation with the lecturers on each course that makes up that paper. Each lecture course will normally be separately supervised by a designated supervisor, appointed by the lecturer.

When and where supervisions happen

Supervisions take place at a regular, agreed time. They should last about an hour, and usually involve two or three students. For Part IB supervisions these times will normally be arranged at the initial meeting with the DoS and the students. Sometimes they are arranged immediately following one of the early Part IB lectures. You should therefore come to these initial meetings prepared with a schedule of available times. Part IB supervisions should take place alternately, once a fortnight for history of science and once a fortnight for philosophy of science, with about ten supervisions in either subject during the year. Wherever possible, you should try to arrange rooms in College for supervisions. There is a grave shortage of supervision space in the Department.

Part II supervisions vary in frequency according to the particular course supervised. Do not, unless under exceptional circumstances, arrange to supervise on a given course more frequently than once a fortnight. Discuss frequency and timing with the lecturer and the paper manager, especially on papers where the students are not expected to take every lecture course or papers where the same supervisor is covering more than one course.

What supervisions are for

You set students topics and questions, and assign readings, on the basis of which the students then write essays which are assessed by you and discussed in the supervision. Supervisions help prepare the student for the Tripos, are co-ordinated with the appropriate lectures, and develop the student's disciplinary skills. These skills include using a quantity of written sources, evaluating their significance and use in answering questions, and ordering argument and reasoning succinctly, clearly yet with sensitivity. The purpose of the supervision is to clarify, focus and extend the work the student has been set. You should normally attend the lectures you are supervising so you can also use supervisions to discuss problems raised in the lectures.


You should discuss essay topics with the lecturers who can often provide you with lists of possible topics. You can sometimes rely on past exam papers, though take care, because the content of lecture courses changes every year, some courses vanish and new ones appear. Remember that one (but not the only) function of supervisions is to get students ready for the exams. Each topic is defined by a question or statement set by you at the previous meeting. Take care framing questions, and don't make them unnecessarily ambiguous. They don't have to be as narrowly focused as exam questions often are. Students read for the essay, so the broader the question the more they will be encouraged to read. But students from a science background often find broad questions daunting and assimilating lots of reading can be really hard for them at first.


You supply students with reading lists for each topic. You can use the reading lists handed out during the lectures, and make your own lists too. There is no harm in setting a list longer than the students can manage at the time, because at the end of term and in revision they will need this help with bibliography. Make sure the readings are easily available for the students in the Whipple Library or the College Library. If you are assigning a text which is much used, have it put on reserve in the Whipple Library. Try to avoid assigning the same readings to a large number of students simultaneously, because this puts too much pressure on the library. We are trying to get all College libraries to stock HPS texts, so tell your DoS about the readings which are heavily used. Part IB students need lots of help with selecting readings and using them. Go through the list beforehand pointing out especially relevant works. There are arguments for and against specifying particular pages in longer works. Try to help the students learn how to read critically and with a focus.


The essay should be handed in well ahead of time. You have a pigeonhole in the Department where the essay can be left. Write comments on the essay before handing it back. Some supervisors give marks, some don't, but all supervisors should provide students with some form of written feedback on their work. If a student doesn't hand in the essay on time, you can refuse to teach until it appears. You are also within your rights to refuse to reschedule the supervision. But try to be flexible. Essay length is negotiable. Students who get enthused by a topic and write at length can certainly be encouraged, but verbosity is to be avoided and is bad training for writing under time pressure. The opposite problem is at least as common: students need training in what counts as an adequate answer which covers all the important aspects of the problem you set. They also need training in the best way of using the sources they've read. It seems to take some time to learn the difference between copying, quotation, summary and argument, and this is a skill on which you need to concentrate. You can best judge the right style and direction essays should take.

Think about the skills that are valued at the research level as well as those which count in exams. Some female students have reported that argumentative self-assertion seems to be more highly valued than cautious approaches, and that this preference reveals a distinctively masculine approach to writing in the field. It has also been pointed out that male students can often dominate discussion during supervision, and you need to be sensitive to these issues.

What happens during supervisions

There is no one way of supervising. Useful feedback is very important, but too much hostility and criticism can be damaging. You are supervising students who have often been trained to think in terms of a single 'right' answer, and this means they may react with hostility to your comments and also find it difficult to accept the plurality of viewpoints in the field. Argumentation is more important than grammar and spelling, but examiners are often very concerned with the latter. You will often lead discussion, and students often find it helpful to take notes during the meeting. But supervisions are not lectures. Students need to know the worth of the essay they wrote, their understanding of the topic and the further areas they might then explore. This information comes out best in discussion, not only with you but also between the students themselves. You can change the mix of students if the supervisions are not going well. Some students find it very useful to swap essays and provided this does not lead to plagiarism it can be encouraged. Unselfconfident students are often encouraged that their more assertive colleagues are not necessarily more acute.

Reports and payments

For Part IB students, make sure you confirm as early as possible with the DoS the names of all the students you are supervising from that College.

Part II students should give a list of their supervisors' names to their DoS, but they often don't. So find out the DoS of each of your students and contact them directly with a list of the students under their direction whom you are supervising.

The Cambridge Colleges' Online Reporting for Supervisions system (CamCORS) should be used by all supervisors to write supervision reports and claim payment for supervisions. Ask your College to register you to use the system.



In case of genuine trouble, as for example if a student keeps on missing supervisions, or consistently fails to produce work, or they are obviously having major problems with workload, you can and often should contact the student's DoS, rather than leaving the problem until the end-of-term report. Use your discretion and make sure you do not breach the confidentiality of the student. For students' emotional and personal problems, remember that each student will also have a College Tutor, who is responsible for their personal welfare. On some occasions you may feel it is necessary to talk to the Tutor, and, again, use discretion and preserve confidentiality. You should always tell the student beforehand if you do decide to contact either their DoS or their Tutor. Lecturers can also help with problems connected with the course and the teaching. The DoS has the duty to discipline students, or remove them from your supervision, if they judge the problem requires this. Remember that you are in a position of real responsibility for the students under your supervision. Problems of abuse, harassment and misconduct are viewed with the gravest seriousness. The Department's Harassment Officer and College Tutors can also intervene in such cases, and students have every right to appeal to these people for help. The College DoS also has the right to stop you supervising their students if they judge you are part of the problem.

Towards the end of the year, students will be provided with questionnaires on which they can report on the quality of the supervisions they have received. The Department's Monitoring Committee receives these questionnaires and applies their results to future planning.