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Co-supervision

Seek colleagues who will complement you in supporting the student.

Sometimes your favourite colleague is not the one who will complement you in supporting the 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. Look for co-supervisors with similar expectations of the student but different expertise.

 

Find out if there are specific expectations or procedures regarding co-supervision in your Faculty and Department.

Draw up a list of the different skills, knowledge and attributes you would look for (i.e., ones complementing your own attributes) in people you might bring together to provide co-supervision for a current or potential student. See also the Roles over time page.

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 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?
  • How often will the supervisory team meet as a whole as opposed to having individual meetings with the student?
  • Whose responsibility is it to initiate and organise 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?
  • How will differences in advice to the candidate be handled? Will the student decide which advice to heed?
  • 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 achieve milestones? Whose role is it to ensure that the student knows, and follows, policies related to research ethics and integrity?
  • Who provides funding for the student’s project and research travels?
  • What are the expectations with regard to the student publishing? How will authorships of papers be determined?

Adapted from the University of Oxford's Research Supervision website and Dr. Margaret Kiley.

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 professor's research, so professors 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 for the best interest of the student, expecting that their colleagues will reciprocate by engaging in co-supervision when there might be mutual benefit.

 

A harmonious relationship between co-supervisors benefits students. For example, this student’s two supervisors work well with each other:

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.

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 … it has been a bit rationed with everything else that is going on. … Some of the co-supervised students—which 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.  … I feel the bureaucracy is getting a bit heavy in my end and for the students and so basically one of the students … he was funding… has not been paid for the last year … because the student [had not been submitting something up to his expectation].

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.

A 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, and the existing research has not settled debates of pros vs. cons. Co-supervision reassures students and exposes them and their supervisors to multiple perspectives, but these perspectives might conflict and result in a lack of focus.

 

There is little research that directly addresses co-supervision, but there is reference to it in general studies of supervisory practices.

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 because they feel better protected and get more than one point of view on their inquiry; supervisors because they see different supervisory practices and share responsibility for supporting the student. Still, the following are potential problems:

  • a fragmentation of supervisory responsibilities
  • conflicting advice to the student
  • an absence of overall perspective on the thesis
  • disagreement between supervisors

In other words, while there are benefits, there are caveats; this is not surprising given that co-supervision involves a relationship with more individuals than the traditional one-to-one model. The table below links benefits to policy and practice initiatives which could help to avoid some of these problems. 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.

Benefits of co-supervision

There are two possible developmental purposes for co-supervision:

  1. as a safety net for students in case of academic moves, sabbaticals, and leaves;
  2. to provide a mentoring environment for new 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 pressure related to sole supervision.

Enabling policy and practice initiatives

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. For example:

  • 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;
  • The student’s responsibilities.

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

  • Actual distribution of skills, knowledge, and experience expected of each member;
  • Frequency with which decisions about roles and responsibilities will be reviewed since needs change over time;
  • Whether all members of the team are present at every meeting with the student.

The text of this page was based on:

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

Further resources:

  • Amundsen, C and 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.
  • 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.

Eligibility for co-supervision

There is no specific policy regarding co-supervision at McGill. However, McGill’s Guidelines and regulations for academic units on graduate student advising and supervision has specified who else, besides tenure-track faculty members, may work as co-supervisors: "Faculty Lecturers and Research Assistants may not act as supervisors but in exceptional cases, may be co-supervisors. Emeritus Professors and Adjunct Professors may co-supervise. Certain non-tenure track professors appointed in the Faculty of Medicine may be eligible to supervise or co-supervise graduate students with the approval of the unit and Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies."

 

Acknowledgements: original content prepared by Margaret Kiley and Gerlese Akerlind, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2011. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, April 2013.