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Being part of a supervisory team

In this text we present the different modalities of co-supervision including some points of reflection and practical tools for the supervisory group.
PhD supervisor and student
© University of Groningen

As we have seen in the discussion of the EU guidelines for PhD projects, supervision is often not a solitary endeavour. Since the Bologna process of 2007, it is a requirement for European universities that each PhD candidate is supported by at least two supervisors, and a maximum of four. In some cases, supervisors are close colleagues working on the same project, whilst in others a “daily” supervisor works closely with the PhD student and another supervisor oversees the overall process.

If we compare the PhD trajectory to a mountain hike, the PhD student has the great advantage of having two or more guides to give direction and support throughout the arduous path. Possibly one of you has more expertise in one area (rock climbing versus long distance hiking, for example), or you might have different working styles (one of you might be more focused on the practicalities of the hike, the other more on encouraging the hiker), or you might decide to have different levels of involvement in the guiding process.

At times, the supervisors come from different disciplines, institutions or even countries, which can enrich the journey, yet might bring about additional complexity.

In this step, we present the different modalities of co-supervision and provide some points of reflection. We also offer some practical tools you can use to ensure that the supervisory group works as a support team for the learning process of the PhD candidate.

Challenges and rewards of co-supervision

In the following video supervisors from the University of Groningen explain both the challenges and the rewards of co-supervision.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

As our supervisors and PhDs explained, the rewards of co-supervision are many. But there are also important challenges. It is worth spending some time to discuss mutual expectations with the co-supervisors well before you meet together with the PhD for the first time. By clarifying with each other mutual roles and areas of responsibility, you will make sure that the co-supervision runs smoothly and to the benefit of all involved parties. Here are some questions you might want to discuss with your co-supervisor:

  • Is it necessary to define who is ultimately responsible for the mentoring of the student, for ensuring that his or her development as a scientist and a researcher progresses in the right direction? If so, who is the one responsible?
  • How will you make decisions? Will you both have the same weight, and how will you manage disagreement (for example in the continuation of a trajectory or a “no-go” decision)?
  • How often will you meet with the PhD student to monitor progress and give advice? Are you in charge of this? If so, how will you coordinate these meetings?
  • Will one of you coordinate these meetings, or will you give your student a role in the coordination?
  • How will you make sure not to overwhelm the student with too many meetings and updates?
  • If relevant, how will the authorship of the resulting paper(s) be handled? Each of you may have different ideas, so it is good to discuss this beforehand, at the beginning of the trajectory and throughout the process if necessary.
  • Will you inform each other about all that you discuss with the candidate? If not all, which aspects? How will you update each other?

Options for forming a supervisory team

The simplest option is to co-supervise with a colleague you know well or with whom you are already collaborating on a project. At first sight it might seem that things tend to go more smoothly. Yet, it is not always the case that a good colleague is also a good co-supervisor. If we compare this with a hiking companion, you might enjoy a day hike with another guide, but will you be able to create a partnership with them to support a learner in the process of becoming an independent mountaineer? Even in this case, it is good to agree beforehand on roles and responsibilities.

Choosing a co-supervisor with a different area of expertise can add interesting viewpoints to the research. Yet when supervisors disagree on method or content it is best to address this disagreement with each other and not leave the PhD candidate with the hard task of resolving the conflict. Conflicting messages from the supervisory team will likely have the effect of delaying the project and will put the PhD candidate in a difficult position.

When the supervisors come from different disciplines or different institutions, it is important to ascertain that the regulations in each of the institutions or schools are comparable, and inform the candidate accordingly. If the regulations are not immediately comparable you will need to help the candidate mediate between them.

  1. Think about a (prospective) PhD candidate. What kind of qualities would you look for in a colleague to be a good co-supervisor for this student?
  2. How would you advise your student to make the most use of the co-supervision?

Please share your thoughts on these questions with other learners.

© University of Groningen
This article is from the free online

Successful PhD Supervision: A Shared Journey

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