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Supervision (of PhD students)

You must cite this article if you use its information in other circumstances. An example of citing this article is:
Ronny Gunnarsson. Supervision (of PhD students) [in Science Network TV]. Available at: https://science-network.tv/supervision/. Accessed May 21, 2024.
Suggested pre-reading What this web page adds
None This web page describes important aspects of the relation between a PhD student and their supervisor. However, most of the advice you find here would also apply for supervision in other situations (such as masters or Honours students) where a person needs supervision to help them complete a scientific project. You will find valuable information about how to ensure that the relation between the student (the person in need of supervision) and the supervisor is positive and constructive. This web page is of value both for students and supervisors.

The need for advisors

What direction should I take?
What direction should I take?

Supervision – Supervisor – Advisor

By tradition the more senior experienced researcher helping a student or less experienced researcher has been denoted as the supervisor. This has implied that the more experienced researcher always knows what is best and hence should be the one at the rudder. This may or may not be true. It is probably true more often than it is not. However, it is not always true and this may rise concerns. This often becomes more pronounced in PhD supervision where the PhD student after a while often knows more about the particular subject than their supervisors. Although we still use the label supervision, it is a clear trend to move from the label “supervisor” to the label “advisor”.

Do I need an advisor at all?

The importance of having a good advisor can’t be emphasized enough if you lack own experience (don’t have a PhD). The role of the advisor depends on your role. If you enter a research team then the advisors role is to explain what kind of problems you are expected to solve and the plan to do this. The advisor also helps when you get into trouble. A completely different situation is if you have your own idea for a research project and need an advisor to help you with that. The advisor is in control in the former situation. However, you are at the rudder in the latter situation and your advisor is a resource you use to understand the sometimes complicated navigation map. You need to understand that even if you do 99% of the job the 1% that a good advisor contributes with can often make the difference between success and less success (or in worst case a failure).

One or several advisors?

You probably need three different kinds of support during your project:

  • One type of support is a general support from someone with long experience from research. This advisor should give support on general problems around time management, exhaustion and other general issues. One very important task for this advisor is to encourage and arrange for celebration of any kind of success. It is very important to learn how to arrange your work so research becomes fun. Recognizing and celebrating success is an important task for the advisor.
  • You need someone that is skilled in the research methodology relevant to your project. In the beginning it is likely to be one that can give you instructions. However, after a while your need will probably change to have access  to someone who can discuss different methodological choices where you make the final call.
  • You need someone that is familiar with your topic. It might be one or several persons.

In theory all these different kinds of support can be given by a single person. However, it is more likely that you will need input from more than one person. The person giving general support and encouragement is usually the most important person and should officially be labelled as your principal advisor. The other types of advice you need around different aspects of research methodology or a topic may be more limited in time. The persons giving you advice around methods and topics should be labelled co-advisors if you need their advice during an extended period, otherwise they can be labelled as experts temporarily giving you advice. These roles are not written in stone. Perhaps you get general encouragement from several people. Thus, it is not always clear cut who should be labelled principal advisor. In some contexts the tradition is that the principal advisor takes a large responsibility and other experts are linked in temporarily. In other settings the tradition may be that you have an advisory panel where all advisors have a similar role. Experience from PhD students is that 2-3 advisors, complemented with temporary expert consultations, is often enough. Having more advisors can sometimes cause problems.

What should I look for in an advisor?

Please look at this short three minute summary by Tara Brabazon:

How do I find an advisor?

The first question you should ask yourself is if you have limitations to where you want to study. Distant supervision can work but it is useful if you can physically meet your advisor at least sometimes. Some universities accept distant PhD education but most requires you to physically attend at least some courses and seminars. Thus, your first task is to decide if you have geographical limitations or if you are prepared to move to another town or country. This first decision will guide your future search. There are different ways to find a potential advisor:

  • Different universities usually have lists of available advisors. The advantage with this is that you are likely to find a person that is also accredited by that university to supervise PhD students.
  • Search for publications with content similar to your interest and look up the authors of those publications.
  • Go to a conference with a topic of your interest. You may find an interesting presenter that you can approach.
  • Listen to recommendations from other students. The advantage with this approach is that you can get some idea of how this person might behave as an advisor. Will it be fun… …or the opposite?

A project usually lasts for quite some time. It is therefore important to try and pick advisors you think would be fun to spend time with. This aspect is quite important.

The first contact and the first meeting with a potential advisor

Once you found a potential advisor and decided to make a first contact prepare yourself. Read a few of the potential advisor’s publications and also read what you can find on the web about this person. An e-mail is often a good first contact in these busy times. Ask for a first appointment in person or by videolink to have a short discussion. Emphasize that accepting this first discussion does not require that they say yes to adopt you as an advisor. The first e-mail and the first meeting can have two quite different preconditions:

  • You have seen an advertisement for a research opportunity. The opportunity is already planned by the advisor in more or less detail. In this situation you need to clarify to the advisor why you find this research opportunity interesting and how it would fit well into your own long term plans. The advisor want to be reassured that your motivation is so high that you will not abandon the project after a while.
  • You have your own idea and want to find one or more advisors that can support you. In this situation you need to describe the research questions you want your project to answer and your preliminary ideas about how to find these answers. A common mistake is that you have lots of ideas about methods but no idea about what questions your ideas are supposed to answer. Your potential advisors is much more interested in the research questions and how your proposed methods are suited to answer these questions. The potential advisor would also like to know why you chose them.

You should address the above briefly in your first e-mail but keep it rather short, between 100-300 words. Be prepared to address this more if you get a first meeting.

What if my proposed advisors accept?

Congratulations! This is the beginning of a journey that hopefully will be fun. However, don’t take that for granted. There are some features in the relation between a PhD student and their principal advisor that resembles the relation in a marriage. It is usually not the factual matters that causes problems but rather the style of dealing with them. You are much better of if you can discuss principles for supervision with your advisor enabling you to find the style that fits the personalities of you and your advisor. Being able to openly talk about and negotiate expectations and other issues related to differences in personality is essential to make this journey fun. Do this from the beginning. It is a warning sign if that turns out to be impossible.

A good relation between the advisor and the student

How can you prevent and manage problems in the relationship between PhD students and their advisors? Interviews with advisors and PhD students point out eight categories that seems important:

  • Ensure student work is fun. Always celebrate success such as journal acceptance of a manuscript.
  • Clarify expectations and maintain a good structure in supervision.
  • Remember that most choices are not about right or wrong. It is rather about choices and consequences.
  • It is important for the advisor to realize that the student grows in knowledge, maturity and independence.
  • Disarm disagreements by openly acknowledge and discuss them.
  • Have the right amount of advisors. To many advisors might cause problems.
  • PhD students should be allowed to have a large influence in the direction of their project.
  • Remember that one of the advisors main tasks is to always encourage and to be there to support. Advisors not replying are seldom good advisors.

This video presents these eight categories during 41 minutes and 46 seconds. All informants approved the final version of this video.

Link to download this video in full HD 1920×1080, 12MBit/sek. (Opens in new tab or window. There is an option to download in the upper right corner – click on the arrow to download.) It may take quite a while to download due to the large file size (3.35 GBytes).

Disagreements between the advisor and the student

Disagreements are mostly OK. Actually, in many situations reasonable disagreements are more than OK. Some experienced advisors sees disagreements as opportunities where project progress and learning (for both the student and the advisor) is accelerated . Some would even say that something might be wrong if a PhD student never disagrees with their advisors . Interviews with supervisors and PhD students point out five possible problems causing irritation, disagreements and sometimes problems :

  • PhD students lack enough influence.
  • The advisor is not up to date with the project during meetings and discussions.
  • Sometimes the advisor gives bad advice.
  • The PhD student needs to mediate between opinions from different advisors.
  • Personal chemistry and emotions may make the relations between the PhD student and the advisor difficult.

Disagreements early in a PhD project might indicate immaturity in the student.  However, the nature of disagreements change over time . Disagreements later in a PhD project might be a sign that the student has matured and with increasing knowledge and experience starts to take more responsibility . This video presents this during 33 minutes and 5 seconds. All informants approved the final version of this video.

Link to download this video in full HD 1920×1080, 12MBit/sek. (Opens in new tab or window. There is an option to download in the upper right corner – click on the arrow to download.) It may take quite a while to download due to the large file size (2.83 GBytes).

PhD – An education in change

Universities has awarded doctoral degrees since the twelfth century. Up until the nineteenth century a doctoral degree meant that you had enough education to be licensed to teach at the University. Initially they had nothing to do with research. At the beginning of the nineteenths century the degree “research doctorates” were introduced in Germany. The intention was that successful students constructed a research project and then found a senior professor who could supervise them. The research doctorate degree was finally awarded as a recognition that the student demonstrated an ability to perform and defend independent research. The tradition with a research doctorate spread during the latter part of the nineteenth century from Germany to the US. However, in the US the research doctorate took a different form. In Germany the student had all the initiative while in the US the Universities made a more formal course. This formal course had an initial part with studies in research methodology an possibly examinations and actual research came later. In the US they early distinguished undergraduate and graduate education and one consequence was to create graduate universities or graduate research schools. In the early twentieth century research doctorates were mainly produced in Germany and the US. It was not until after world war one when Germany could not any longer take on international students that UK started to offer research doctorates. From there the idea of research doctorates spread throughout Western Europe.

In the latter part of the twentieth century criticism was raised. Many PhD students studied part time and many never completed. It also seemed that the German-European model encouraging curiosity had less completion rate and higher unemployment rates after completion compared to Universities having a more focused education emphasizing applicable interdisciplinary research aimed to solve specified problems. The traditional German – Oxford model aimed to produce academic experts in single topics while the US model produced individuals with broader generic skills and an ability to be research entrepreneurs. In the financial crisis many countries perceived that they cannot afford to encourage free academic curiosity and they wanted more in return on invested money. Attrition rates and completion times were easy to measure and reducing them became a goal. In most countries the PhD education gradually changed to a more formal US like model with firm rules, checks, regulations and a strong emphasis on completion in time. The time for a research doctorate was often reduced from 4-5 years full time to 3 years. What are the strength and weaknesses with these changes and where will it take us? Interviews with supervisors and PhD students point out the possible pros and cons with these changes to the PhD education. The video is 26 minutes 30 seconds long. All informants approved the final version of this video.

Link to download this video in full HD 1920×1080, 12MBit/sek. (Opens in new tab or window. There is an option to download in the upper right corner – click on the arrow to download.) It may take quite a while to download due to the large file size (2.15 GBytes).

More information


Gunnarsson R, Jonasson G, Billhult A. The experience of disagreement between students and supervisors in PhD education: a qualitative study. BMC Medical Education [Internet]. 2013 Sep 28 [cited 2020 May 16];13(1):134. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6920-13-134
You must cite this article if you use its information in other circumstances. An example of citing this article is:
Ronny Gunnarsson. Supervision (of PhD students) [in Science Network TV]. Available at: https://science-network.tv/supervision/. Accessed May 21, 2024.

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