Seek colleagues who will complement you in supporting the student

Your favourite colleague is not necessarily the one who will best complement you in supporting your student. Although you might prefer not to engage in co-supervision, it is sometimes necessary for students whose work is partially outside your area of expertise. Co-supervision can have many benefits for both supervisors and students. Look for co-supervisors with similar expectations of the student but different expertise.


Two supervisors and a student stand in a research lab discussing a piece of equipment in the student's hands.

Before you start:

  • find out if there are specific expectations or procedures regarding co-supervision in your academic unit;

  • draw up a list of the different skills, knowledge and attributes you would look for in a co-supervisor (i.e., ones complementing your own attributes); and

  • consider how you would advise your students to make the best use of having more than one supervisor.

Clarify expectations with both the student and other co-supervisors or team members on a range of issues. Discuss the following issues and questions, for example, with the student and your colleagues.


  • What expectations does the student hold of each member of the supervisory team? Are those expectations realistic?

  • What expectations does each supervisor have of the others, including the student?

  • What can be expected of a secondary supervisor compared with a primary supervisor?

  • What are the expectations with regard to the student publishing? How will authorships of papers be determined?

  • What expectations do you have about data management and/or Intellectual property (IP)? What steps do students and supervisors need to take to ensure all expectations are met? Review research policies and regulations, including the McGill Intellectual Property policy 

Division of labour

  • Whose responsibility is it to initiate and organize meetings? Is it the student’s or the primary supervisor’s?

  • How and by whom will the outcomes of joint and individual meetings be recorded and disseminated?

  • What happens if one supervisor goes on sabbatical or is away for more than a few weeks?

  • Who will read drafts of material and when? What is a reasonable turnaround time on drafts? How many drafts is it reasonable for a member of a supervisory team to read?

  • Who is responsible for ensuring the student achieves milestones? Whose role is it to ensure that the student knows, and follows, policies related to research ethics and integrity?

Team logistics

  • How often will the supervisory team meet as a whole as opposed to having individual meetings with the student?

  • How will differences in advice to the candidate be handled? Will the student decide which advice to heed?

  • Who provides funding for the student’s project and research travels?

Adapted from the University of Oxford's Research Supervision website.

See also Clarifying expectations.

How does having a co-supervisor benefit the primary supervisor?

Supervision is often intellectually rewarding and beneficial for a supervisor's research. Having a co-supervisor can reduce pressure on a sole supervisor by enabling a division of labour. It can also provide opportunities for new supervisors to learn from experienced supervisors. While co-supervision can present challenges, most problems can be resolved by establishing clear expectations at the outset. 


Benefits of co-supervision


  • exposes students to different intellectual perspectives;

  • provides a broad range of supervisor expertise (different disciplines, institutions, or from industry);

  • enables a division of labour for supervisory roles;

  • provides an opportunity for new supervisors to apprentice with experienced supervisors; and

  • provides the supervisee with a fall-back in case the lead supervisor is unavailable.

Adapted from Taylor, S. and Beasley, N. (2005)


Questions for reflection:

The purpose of supervision is to act in the best interest of the students; it is important for co-supervisors to remember this throughout their time working together. Consider how your relationship with the other supervisor -- whether it be positive, negative, or not yet exist (perhaps they are from a different faculty) -- may influence how you each work with the student. Before agreeing to co-supervision, consider how you would respond in the following situations.

  • Your co-supervisor continually disagrees with or does not respect your academic perspective, knowledge, or contributions

  • Your supervisee appears to favour your co-supervisor over you

  • Your co-supervisor is frequently unavailable, hard to contact, late with their contributions, or otherwise disruptive to your student’s progress


Taylor, S., & Beasley, N. (2005) A handbook for doctoral supervisors. London: Routledge.



Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

Back to top