2. Supervisory relationships with candidates

  • Full: Required
  • Associate: Required

Over the past three decades or so, the candidate population has become much more diverse in its composition, and supervisors need to be aware of this in forming effective relationships with candidates.

In order to do this, there is a need right from the start for supervisors and doctoral candidates to have clear expectations of each other and the first task is to discuss these and, where appropriate, negotiate how they are going to be met.

Also, candidates and supervisors need to be able to work effectively with each other. Because each grouping of individuals is, by definition, unique, then each relationship will be different depending upon the style(s) of the supervisor(s) and the characteristics of the candidate, which need to be aligned at the start to be successful.

That said, the relationship can and indeed should change over the course of time. As candidates move through their doctoral studies, their needs should change, and with that the nature of support that they require from their supervisors. However, in a few cases, there may be serious issues leading to the potential or actual breakdown of the relationship, for which supervisors need to be prepared and aware of the sources of support both for candidates and themselves.

Typical examples 

  • Acknowledging the increased diversity of the domestic candidate population and recognizing its implications for supervision.
  • Acknowledging the increased diversity of the international candidate population and recognizing its implications for supervision.
  • Discussing and agreeing expectations with candidates at the start of their studies.
  • Being aware of supervisory styles and their relationship to student needs and being able to align them at the start of doctoral studies.
  • Being aware of how student needs change over the course of doctoral studies and being able to maintain calibration of supervisory styles.
  • Being aware of institutional policies and procedures in the event of the breakdown of a supervisory relationship and of sources of support for both parties.

Historically, the population of doctoral candidates has been disproportionately male, young, from high-status social-economic backgrounds, members of majority ethnic and/​or racial groups, without a disability, and heterosexual (see for example Gardner 2009a, 2009b, Garner and Holley 2011, Petersen 2014).

Now, it is much more diverse in terms of gender, age, class, race or ethnicity, disability, and sexuality (see for example Ostrove et al 2011, Offerman 2011, Gardner 2013, Wakeling and Hampden-Thomson 2013, Collins 2015, Okahana et al 2016). Candidates from non-traditional backgrounds but may face challenges in undertaking doctoral studies. e.g. lack of confidence, isolation and discrimination.

While there is a long tradition of doctoral candidates studying in countries other than their own, over the past two decades or so there has been a huge increase in the numbers studying abroad (see UNESCO 2015).

Such candidates may face the same challenges as non-traditional home candidates plus others including culture shock (see Manathunga 2014), different expectations of academic roles (Winchester-Seeto et al 2014), different styles of learning (Goode 2007), research experience and skills (McClure 2007), and conventions for verbal and written communication (Doyle et al 2017).

Candidates will usually start their doctoral careers with some assumptions about what will be required of them and what support their supervisor will be required to offer but there is no guarantee that these will be complete or accurate (see for example Dann 2008, Kelly 2009, McAlpine 2013, Jindal-Snape and Ingram 2013, Holbrook et al 2014, Sambrook 2017).

The upshot is that there can be mismatches between the expectations of candidates and supervisors which can adversely affect their relationship, and supervisors may need to ensure that these are calibrated.

As numerous studies (see, for example, Pearson and Brew 2002, Davis 2004, Gatfield 2005, Grant 2005, Murphy et al 2007, Wright et al 2007, Deuchar 2008, Halse and Bansel 2012, Boehe 2014, Vehvilinen and Lofstrom 2014) have pointed out, supervisors may have preferred styles of supervision that embody different assumptions about the needs of candidates.

As Malfoy and Webb (2000) have suggested, as long as there is a congruence between the supervisory style, the associated assumptions about the needs of candidates, and their actual needs, there should be no difficulties, problems can occur where there is discongruence.

The relationship between the supervisor and the candidate is not a static one but should change over the course of the candidacy. Usually, at the start the candidate is heavily dependent upon the supervisor and then, as he or she grows and develops towards becoming a researcher in their own right, they should become less dependent and more autonomous (see McAlpine 2013, Benmore 2014, Bui 2014).

In the vast majority of cases, relationships with candidates proceed smoothly and they become friends for life, in a handful there may be serious problems; at the end of the day, supervisors and candidates are human beings who, for one reason or another, may fail to get on leading to serious problems in the relationship (see for example Gunnarsson et al 2013).

  • Can you give examples of how you have gone about forming effective relationships with doctoral candidates and supporting them to overcome challenges?
  • How have you gone about establishing relationships with international doctoral researchers and supporting them in their studies?
  • Do you spend time right at the start with the candidate going through the institution’s Code of Practice or Handbook or checklist, pointing out the formal requirements and discussing how they will be met?
  • How do you calibrate supervisory styles and needs? Do you use prompts such as the well-known Brown-Atkins (1988) rating scale?
  • Do you check that supervisory styles and needs remain aligned? Is this something you do informally by raising the issue in supervisions or formally by using instruments such as Gurr’s (2001) monitoring tool?
  • Do you know the relevant institutional procedures and sources of support both for candidates and for yourself?

Example Application Content

References & Bibliography

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