Supervisory Relationships with Co-supervisors

Historically, the model has been for candidates to have a single supervisor. But over the last three decades or so there has been a move to co- or team supervision to enhance the experience of doctoral candidates by reducing their reliance upon a single individual and giving them access to a broader range of expertise and support.

However, co-supervision can have a downside. The involvement of more supervisors in the process can create a potential for disagreement and divergence within the team and leave the candidate playing ‘piggy in the middle’ to the detriment of their experience.

Typical Examples
  • Clarifying roles with co-supervisors and candidates at the start of the candidacy.
  • Clarifying expectations of the project with co-supervisors and the candidate.
  • Regularly reviewing relations between supervisors and with candidates during the course of the candidacy.

Supporting Materials

Literature and Evidence

Usually, supervisory teams include a designated main supervisor and one or more secondary supervisors. As Guerin and Green (2015) have argued, It is important that there is clarity within the team about the respective roles the supervisors will play and that this is understood by the student.

Your evidence here might include consulting institutional and/or research council guidelines of primary and secondary supervisory roles and discussing them with co-supervisors and candidates.

This is particularly important where supervisors come from external organizations and may have a limited understanding of the degree as in the case of many professional doctorates  (see for example Neumann 2005, Fillery-Travis et al 2017), practice-led doctorates (see for example Allpress et al 2012, Duxbury 2012) and  industrial or commercial doctorates (Malfory 2011, Cuthbert and Molla 2014)

As well as clarity of roles, as Parker-Jenkins (2018) has pointed out, there is a need for co-supervisors to clarify their expectations of the research project itself, who supervises what (e.g. one the theoretical foundation, the other the empirical), and arrangements for feedback to the candidate.

Your evidence here might, for example, include informal discussion or formal review, for example using Grossman and Crowther’s (2015) comprehensive list as a basis for negotiating who does what, when, where and how.

Again, this is particularly important in the context of collaborative doctoral programmes.

As well as starting off on the right footing, as Taylor et al (2018) have argued, there is a need for regular reviews of the relationships of co-supervisors with each other and with the student. Such reviews, perhaps once or twice per year, might be undertaken with the candidate present and be used to identify problems stemming from co-supervision at a relatively early stage and before they delay, fatally or otherwise, the progress of the research.

Your evidence might again include informal review or using Kiley’s (2015a) questionnaire as a tool to check how things are going.


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

3. Supervisory Relationships with Co-Supervisors

Allpress, B., Barnacle, R., Duxbury, L. and Grierson, E. (2012)

Supervising Practice-led Research by Project in Art, Creative Writing, Architecture and Design.

In B. Allpress, R. Barnacle, L. Duxbury, L. and E. Grierson (eds) Supervisory Practice for Postgraduate Research in Art, Architecture and Design. Rotterdam, Sense: 1-14.

Cuthbert, D. and Molla, T. (2014)

PhD crisis discourse: a critical approach to the framing of the problem and some Australian ‘solutions’.

Higher Education, 69(1): 33-53.

Fillery-Travis, A, Maguire, K., Pizzolatti, N., Robinson, L., Lowley, A. Stel, N., Mans, P, van Wijk, J., Prodi, E., Sprerotti, F., Dobrinnski, C., Peacock, J., Taylor, R., Vitale, T. (2017)

A handbook for supervisors of modern doctoral candidates. SuperProfDoc.

Grossman, E. and Crowther, N. (2015)

Co-supervision in postgraduate training. Ensuring the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

South African Journal of Science, 111(11-12).

Guerin, C. and Green, I. (2015)

‘They’re the bosses’: feedback in team supervision.

Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39(3): 320-335.

Kiley, M (2015a)

Possible issues to discuss with co-supervisors.

Malfoy, J. (2011)

The impact of university-industry research on doctoral programmes and practices.

Studies in Higher Education, 36(5): 571-84.

Neumann, R. (2005)

Doctoral Differences: Professional doctorates and PhDs compared.

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(2): 173-88

Parker-Jenkins, M. (2018)

Mind the gap: developing the roles, expectations and boundaries in the doctoral supervisor-supervisee relationship.

Studies in Higher Education, 43(1): 57-71.

Taylor, S., Kiley M. and Humphrey, R. (2018)

A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors. 2nd Ed.

London, Routledge.

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:

3. Supervisory Relationships with Co-Supervisors

I myself had a single supervisor who was often away from the university and I often thought that it would have been better if there had been a second supervisor to fill in the gaps. So, it was with a high degree of anticipation that, at the start of my supervisory career, I myself became a second supervisor.

However, it turned out to be a less than perfectly smooth ride; the principal supervisor had very different ideas about how the project should be undertaken and our feedback on draft chapters was often at odds. It ended up with the candidate having to manage us, as apparently is often the case (see Guerin and Green 2015).

When I became a principal supervisor in my own right, I was determined that my co-supervisor and I would work as a team from the start. I looked at some of the literature, and in a paper by Grossman and Crowther (2015) found a very comprehensive check-list covering the what, where, when and how of co-supervision.

My practice now is to go through the checklist with co-supervisors at the start of a candidateship so that each knows what is expected of them, and to share the result with the candidate so that they know who is responsible for what.  Also, we re-visit this annually, just to make sure that we are all singing from the same hymnbook.