Co-supervision

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.

 

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- see the Roles over time page); 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.

Expectations

  • 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?

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.

Why should a supervisor share the benefit of working with a supervisee?

Supervision is often intellectually rewarding and beneficial for a supervisor's research, so supervisors can be motivated to restrict the access of supervisees to other researchers. For these and other reasons, disagreements sometimes arise between colleagues or co-supervisors. To avoid these problems, supervisors can interact with colleagues with the best interest of the student in mind, and expect that engaging in co-supervision will be mutually beneficial.

 

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 feel and act 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

For further reflection, consider the two quotes below, as well as the The University of Auckland’s guidelines for good practice of joint supervision.

Some co-supervisors work well together; for example, this student’s two supervisors:

I was working well with [this professor] …we worked together for about a year before the decision [of making her my co-supervisor]. So I was always meeting both my original supervisor and this other professor. I was meeting them at the same time and they also communicate pretty well so it seemed to be working well. (STEM PhD student: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

Yet sometimes, due to different supervisory styles, co-supervisors may not work well together, which may affect student success. Below, this assistant professor reflected on the different ways in which he and a senior colleague supervise students:

We definitely have supervision styles, which are exact opposites. …He is very managerial in the sense that, “I’m the guy at the top and I’m billing you” and I’m a lot more on the one-to-one basis … basically he is assigned as co-supervisor and provides the money and so he [has a] very managerial style and asks for progress reports every fourth night. He is very formal in interactions where I’m a lot more informal, so you get bursts of work—times of work where it is very productive and then you have a bit of a lull and then back again. (STEM supervisor: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

Perhaps interactions characterized by openness, humility, and a focus on the student can reduce disagreements and ensure that everyone is working in the best interest of the student.

Lack of research on co-supervision of graduate students

Little research has been done to understand how the outcomes of co-supervision and sole supervision might differ. The small amount of research on co-supervision has not settled clearly on the pros vs. cons. Co-supervision reassures students and exposes them and their supervisors to multiple perspectives; however, these perspectives may conflict and result in a lack of focus.

 

The following summarizes the very few studies over the past two decades that address co-supervision directly. Both students and supervisors report co-supervision as beneficial: students feel better protected and get more than one point of view on their inquiry; supervisors see different supervisory practices and share responsibility for supporting the student.

Benefits of co-supervision

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). A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors.

Furthermore, more naturally than with sole supervision, forms of co-supervision can vary to suit disciplinary cultures and pedagogies. Each team can function differently in relation to their areas of expertise, dispositions, etc. This can reduce some of the pressures related to sole supervision.

Enabling policy and practice initiatives

According to Pole (1998), there are two possible developmental purposes for co-supervision.

  1. As a safety net for students in case of academic moves, sabbaticals, and leaves; and

  2. To provide a mentoring environment for new supervisors.

Roles and responsibilities for both purposes (i.e., the aforementioned safety net and mentoring environment) should be defined institutionally, particularly since a focus on both simultaneously can confound the relationships.

Minimal expectations should be defined institutionally (Pole, 1998), such as:

  • maximum number of supervisors;

  • distribution of supervisory responsibilities with regard to the student in relation to university regulations (e.g., who completes reports);

  • relative status of team members (e.g., is one considered more senior with overall responsibility?);

  • physical availability for meeting with the student; and

  • the student’s responsibilities.

In addition to the institutional points above, each supervisory team or partnership needs to clarify:

  • the actual distribution of skills, knowledge, and experience expected of each member;

  • the frequency with which decisions about roles and responsibilities will be reviewed since needs change over time; and

  • whether all members of the team are present at every meeting with the student.

Potential problems in co-supervision

  • Fragmentation of supervisory responsibilities

  • Conflicting advice to the student

  • An absence of overall perspective on the thesis

  • Disagreement between supervisors

Adapted from Bourner and Hughes (1991); and Spooner-Lane, Henderson, Price, and Hill (2007).

In other words, while there are benefits, there are possible drawbacks as well. This is not surprising given that co-supervision involves a relationship with more individuals than the traditional one-to-one model. Of note, just as with the single supervisor model, in co-supervision, supervisory relationships may undergo difficulties and thus it is important to provide all students early on with explicit information regarding mechanisms for seeking help when they have supervisory issues that they are unable to resolve themselves.

 

References

Bourner, T., & Hughes, M. (1991). Joint supervision of research degrees: Second thoughts. Higher Education Review, 24(1), 21-34. Electronic full-text version not available for this journal.

Pole, C. (1998). Joint supervision and the PhD: Safety net or panacea? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 23(3), 259-271.

Spooner-Lane, R., Henderson, D., Price, R., & Hill, G. (2007). Practice to theory: Co-supervision stories. The International Journal of Research Supervision, 1(1), 39-51.

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

University of Oxford. (2016). Retrieved from http://supervision.learning.ox.ac.uk/Research Supervision

Further Reading

Amundsen, C., & McAlpine, L. (2009).‘Learning supervision’: trial by fire. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 331-342.

Cullen, D.J., Pearson, M., Saha, L.J., & Spear, R.H. (1994). Establishing Effective PhD Supervision, DEST, 94/23.

Frame, I., & Allen, L. (2002). A flexible approach to PhD research training. Quality Assurance in Education, 10(2), 98-103.

Pearson, M. (2001). Research supervision: mystery and mastery. In J. Higgs & A. Titchen (Eds.), Practice knowledge and expertise in the health professions. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.

Pearson, M., & Ford, L. (1997). Open and Flexible PhD Study and Research, DEST 97/16 (chapter 3, pp 55-58).

Pearson, M., & Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.

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