Co-supervision in Doctoral Education: Challenges and Responses

By Dr. Cally Guerin, The University of Adelaide

The supervision of doctoral candidates has been subject to many of the same pressures placed upon other aspects of the contemporary university, where staff are required to do more with less, and get it done faster. This presents challenges to established conventions, but it can also have positive outcomes in which new, more effective practices emerge. One such response has been the introduction of ‘team’ or ‘joint’ supervision in many universities; instead of relying on the traditional model of dyadic, one-on-one supervision, candidates are co-supervised by two or more academics5. This approach sits well with current understandings of the distributed responsibility for research supervision and the limited resources available to ever more diverse doctoral candidates.

Co-supervisors can be brought onto the team for a variety of reasons. Importantly, co-supervisors are available to cover absences of other team members owing to study leave, maternity leave, illness, or particularly busy periods of teaching or administrative responsibilities, thus avoiding the abandonment experienced by ‘doctoral orphans’9. In other situations, co-supervisors are recruited to contribute their expertise in disciplinary knowledge or specific research techniques. For many, co-supervision provides the opportunity for junior academics and early career researchers to learn about supervision by working alongside more experienced colleagues on the team.

Co-supervisors work together along a spectrum of hierarchical structures, from distinctly pyramidal arrangements where the ‘principal’ supervisor is the senior researcher who has the final say on any decisions about the project, through to flatter, more egalitarian relationships between co-supervisors16. Being the more senior member of the team does not always mean playing the most active role; often the junior co-supervisors have more regular contact with the student on a day-to-day basis (which can sometimes lead to disgruntled co-supervisors who regard themselves as doing all the hard work but receiving much less than their share of the glory when the student completes successfully). Some supervisors reserve their co-supervisors for fresh eyes to read over the thesis towards the end of candidature; while this can be very useful, it is problematic if, at this late stage, the new reader identifies serious issues regarding the quality of the research or writing. Regular meetings of the full team and clear communication between members can ensure that all co-supervisors are aware of the project’s direction and progress, giving them opportunities to raise concerns early.

Teams based on flatter hierarchies work well for those attuned to collaborative, collegial research processes, where it is possible to air a range of opinions and ideas before coming to a group decision about the way forward. Such experiences are stimulating and satisfying for both students and co-supervisors, modelling some of the most rewarding aspects of academic debate and creativity. And, as with any committee, airing a plethora of ideas easily leads to confusion — even paralysis — about which path to take. Clear communication between all team members is crucial for students to take maximum advantage of this rich resource. After that lively discussion, what decisions were made for the project? This is where meeting summaries can play an invaluable role to confirm that everyone’s understanding of the final decision is the same.

One of the key challenges of team supervision for students is the potential for conflicting advice from co-supervisors2. This might be in terms of the priorities and timelines for the project, the general direction of the research, or in feedback on the writing. This poses a major concern for students: should they follow the principal supervisor’s opinions because that’s the senior person in the team, or follow their own preference, or simply do what’s easiest? Facing these decisions is deeply unsettling for many PhD candidates, and it is incumbent on co-supervisors to help students manage these conflicts and maintain the student’s trust in their ability to provide proper guidance7.

Just as relationships between supervisors and doctoral candidates are crucial to the success of the project, relationships between co-supervisors themselves can be critical. Working together does mean that colleagues can see first-hand what has previously been done behind closed doors, and can potentially feel more like monitoring than collegial collaboration34. Transparency sometimes moves closer to surveillance, and supervisors’ behaviour might be focused on each other rather than on the student’s needs. Personality clashes in team supervision have the potential to derail the PhD altogether. Ideally, though, team supervision can provide a practical peer training ground for continuing professional development for all parties. Setting up expectations between co-supervisors at the outset can be very beneficial – does everyone agree on their role and why they are part of this particular team? An expectations questionnaire along the lines of that used between supervisors and students would be one way to embark on this discussion.

Co-supervision has great benefits for both doctoral students and supervisors. It needs to be handled carefully, though, to ensure that multiple perspectives and personalities are managed harmoniously and everyone gets what they want from their efforts – successful completion of a high-quality research project and a new researcher launched on their career.

Questions

Here are some questions on the topic to consider. We would welcome you leaving your response in the comments section below:

  1. How does the team supervision described here differ from the US model of a panel of doctoral advisors? Are there valuable elements of that system that should be incorporated into team supervision?
  2. What other dangers are posed by team supervision (for students, for supervisors), and how can they be mitigated?
  3. What are the other benefits for co-supervisors? How is the workload of supervision affected?
  4. Have you experienced other models of team supervision that work well? It would be great to hear about them.

References

  1. Guerin, C., Bastalich, W. & Green, I. (2011). Big love: Managing a team of research supervisors. In Kumar, V. & Lee, A. (eds), Connecting the Local, Regional and International in Doctoral Education. Serdang: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press. http://www.otago.ac.nz/graduate-research/otago416401.pdf
  2. Guerin, C. & Green, I. (2015). “They’re the bosses”: Feedback in team supervision. Journal of Further and Higher Education 39(3), 320-335. DOI:10.1080/0309877X.2013.831039.
  3. Manathunga, C. (2011). ‘Team’ Supervision: New Positionings in Doctoral Education Pedagogies. In A. Lee and S. Danby (eds), Reshaping Doctoral Education: Changing Programs and Pedagogies, 42–55. London: Routledge.
  4. Manathunga, C. (2012). Supervisors watching supervisors: The deconstructive possibilities and tensions of team supervision, Australian Universities’ Review 54(1), 29–37.
  5. Pole, C. (1998) Joint Supervision and the PhD: Safety net or panacea? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 23(3), 259–271. DOI: 10.1080/0260293980230303.
  6. Robertson, M. J. (2017a). Team modes and power: supervision of doctoral students. Higher Education Research & Development 36(2), 358-371. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2016.1208157
  7. Robertson, M. J. (2017b). Trust: the power that binds in team supervision of doctoral students. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-13. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2017.1325853.
  8. Watts, J. (2010). Team supervision of the doctorate: Managing roles, relationships and contradictions. Teaching in Higher Education 15(3), 325–329. DOI: 10.1080/13562511003740908.
  9. Wisker, G. & Robinson, G. (2013). Doctoral ‘orphans’: Nurturing and supporting the success of postgraduates who have lost their supervisors. Higher Education Research & Development 32(2), 300-313. DOI: 10.1080/072

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