Supervisory Relationships with Candidates

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.

Supporting Materials

Literature and Evidence

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.

As evidence, you may be able to give examples of how you have gone about forming effective relationships and supporting them to overcome challenges.

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).

For evidence, you may be able to give examples of how you have gone about establishing relationships with international students and supporting them in their studies.

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.

You might evidence this through spending some 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.

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.

You might evidence calibrating styles and needs through the initiation of discussions with candidates, using prompts such as the well-known Brown-Atkins (1988) rating scale.

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).

You might evidence might checking that styles and needs remain aligned either informally by raising the issue in supervisions or formally by using instruments such as Gurr’s (2001) monitoring tool.

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).

Here you could provide evidence that you know the relevant institutional procedures and sources of support both for candidates and for yourself.


Expand the section below to view references the academic literature supporting this criterion:

2. Supervisory Relationships with Candidates

Benmore, A. (2014)

Boundary management in doctoral supervision: how supervisors negotiate roles and role transitions through the supervisory journey.

Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.967203.

Boehe, D. (2014)

Supervisory styles: a contingency framework.

Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.927853.

Brown, G. and Atkins, M. (1988)

Effective Teaching in Higher Education.

London, Methuen.

Bui, T. (2014)

Student-Supervisor Expectations in the Doctoral Supervision Process for Business and Management Students.

Business and Management Education in Higher Education, 1: 12-27.

Collins, B. (2015)

Reflections on doctoral supervision: drawing from the experiences of students with additional learning needs in two universities.

Teaching in Higher Education, 20(6): 587-600.

Dann, S. (2008)

Applying services marketing principles to postgraduate supervision.

Quality Assurance in Education, 16(4): 333-46.

Davis, G. (2004)

Advising and Supervising Doctoral Students: Lessons I have Learned.

Deuchar, R. (2008)

Facilitator, director, or critical friend? contradiction or congruence in doctoral supervision styles.

Teaching in Higher Education, 13:4, 489-500.

Doyle, S., Manathunga, C., Prinsen, G., Rallon, R. and Cornforth, S. (2017)

African international doctoral students: Englishes, doctoral writing, and intercultural supervision.

Higher Education Research and Development DOI: 10.1080.07294360.2017.1339182.

Gardner, S. (2009a)

The Development of Doctoral Students: Phases of Challenge and Support

Josey-Bass, San Franciso CA.

Gardner, S.K. (2009b)

Coming out of the Sexual Harassment Closet: One Woman’s Story of Politics and Change in Higher Education.

National Womens’ Studies Association Journal, 21(2): 172-95.

Gardner, S. and Holley, K. (2011)

“Those invisible barriers are real”: The Progression of First-Generation Students Through Doctoral Education.

Equity and Excellence in Education, 44(1): 77-92.

Gardner, S. (2013)

The Challenges of First-Generation Doctoral Students.

New Directions for Higher Education, 163: 43-54.

Gatfield, T. (2005)

An Investigation into PhD Supervisory Management Styles: Development of a dynamic conceptual model and its managerial implications.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(3): 311-25.

Goode, J. (2007)

Empowering or disempowering the international PhD student? Constructions of the dependent and independent learner.

British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(5): 589-603.

Grant, B. (2005)

Fighting for space in supervision: fantasies, fairytales, fictions and fallacies.

International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 18(3): 337-54.

Gunnarsson, R, Jonasson, G. and Billhult, A. (2013)

The experience of disagreement between students and supervisors in PhD education: a qualitative study.

BMC Medical Education, 13: 134

Gurr, G. (2001)

Negotiating the “Rackety Bridge” – a Dynamic Model for Aligning Supervisory Style with Research Student Development.

Higher Education Research and Development, 20(1): 81-92.

Halse, C. and Bansel, P. (2012)

The learning alliance: ethics in doctoral supervision.

Oxford Review of Education, 38(4): 377-92.

Holbrook, A., Shaw, K., Scevak, J., Bourke, S., Cantwell. R. and Budd, J. (2014)

PhD Candidate Expectations: Exploring Mismatch with Experience.

International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 9: 329-346.

Jindal-Snape, D. and Ingram., R. (2013)

Understanding and Supporting Triple Transitions of International Doctoral Students: ELT and SuReCom models.

Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 1(1): 17-24.

Kelly, F. (2009)

Supervision Satirized: Fictional narratives to student-supervisor relationships.

Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 8(3): 368-84.

Manathunga. C. (2014)

Intercultural Postgraduate Supervision: Reimagining Time, Place and Knowledge.

London, Routledge.

Malfoy, J. and Webb, C. (2000)

Congruent and incongruent views of postgraduate supervision.

In M. Kiley & G. Mullins (eds.), Quality in Postgraduate Research: Making Ends Meet. Adelaide: Advisory Centre for University Education

McAlpine, L. (2013)

Doctoral supervision: Not an individual but a collective institutional responsibility.

Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 36(3): 259-80.

McClure, J.W. (2007)

International graduates’ cross-cultural adjustment; experiences, coping strategies, and suggested programmatic responses.

Teaching in Higher Education, 12(2); 199-217.

Murphy, N., Bain, J.D., Conrad, L. (2007)

Orientations to research higher degree supervision.

Higher Education, 53(2): 209-234.

Ostrove, J, Stewart, A. and Curtin, N. (2011)

Social Class and Belonging: Implications for Graduate Students.

The Journal of Higher Education, 82(6): 748-774.

Offerman, M. (2011)

Profile of the Nontraditional Doctoral Degree Student.

New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, 129: 21-30.

Okahana, H., Feaster, K. and Allum, J. (2016)

Graduate Enrolment and Degrees 2005-15.

Washington DC, Council of Graduate Schools.

Pearson, M. and Brew, A. (2002)

Research Training and Supervision Development,

Studies in Higher Education, 27(2): 138-43.

Petersen, E. (2014)

Re-signifying subjectivity? A narrative exploration of ‘non-traditional’ doctoral students’ lived experience of subject formation through two Australian cases.

Studies in Higher Education, 39(5): 823-834.

Sambrook, S. (2016)

Managing the Psychological Contract within Doctoral Supervisory Relationships.

In P. Blessinger and D. Stockley (eds.) Emerging Directions in Doctoral Education (Innovations in Higher Education Learning and Teaching, Volume 6). Bingley, UK: Emerald: 61-87.

UNESCO (2015)

Science Report: Towards 2030.

Paris, UNESCO.

Vehvilainen, S. and Lofstrom, E. (2014)

‘I wish I had a crystal ball’: discourses and potential for developing academic supervising.

Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.942272.

Wakeling, P. and Hampden-Thomson, G. (2013)

Transition to higher degrees across the UK: an analysis of national, institutional and individual differences.

Higher Education Academy.

Wright, A., Murray, J.P., and Geale, P. (2007)

A phenomenographic study of what it means to supervise doctoral students.

Academy of Management Learning and Education, 6 (4): 458-74.

Download the Research Supervisors Bibliography PDF 1.15Mb

Example Application Content

Below is an example of how evidence could be provided for this criterion when applying to the Research Supervision Recognition Programme:

2. Supervisory Relationships with Candidates

As with many supervisors (see for example McAlpine and Amundsen 2011), my initial view of how to supervise was formed by my own experiences as a doctoral candidate. My supervisor was of the old school with a very hands-off attitude to supervision – he was happy to comment on my work but not to help me to do it. As a result, I often struggled to make progress and it was a fraught experience.

So, when I became a principal supervisor myself, my initial inclination was to go to the opposite extreme and be very highly directive. This worked for some candidates but it did not work for all; one candidate who was mature and had a lot of experience in industrial widgetology, clearly resented what she saw as my overbearing attempts to direct her research. I discussed this with my second supervisor, who was content to leave the candidate to get on with it. I asked her how she expected the candidate to make progress. Her answer was that, in her judgement, this candidate was ready and able to go solo. With some misgivings, I lightened the reins, and in fact she flourished with only very ‘light-touch’ supervision. This taught me a valuable lesson, that one size does not fit all and that the supervisory style has to be adjusted to the needs of the candidate.

With regard to expectations, I  try to gauge these right at the start using the Brown and Atkins (1988) questionnaire. This approach was particularly effective in the case of my two international candidates. The questionnaire revealed that both expected me to tell them what to do, when, where and how, which was how they had previously been supervised in their countries of origin. I knew it would come as a shock to them if I just told them to go off and get stuck in, and instead set them a series of mini-research projects involving reviewing key papers, identifying gaps in the literature, and planning research to see if they could be filled. Both got the idea very quickly, and found promising topics which they were then able to develop into full research proposals. They still needed a lot of direction in terms of theories and methods, but soon developed the confidence to work more on their own and they developed into independent – and very hard working – candidates. Of course, approaches need to change over the course of a research degree (see Benmore 2014) and I have a policy of spending part of one supervision a year with candidates reviewing the ‘fit’ of my style to their needs. On occasion, this has thrown up that I have been under- or over-directive and, where appropriate, I have adapted my style accordingly.