M.A.R.B. Castanho and G. Güner-Akdogan (eds.), The Researching, Teaching,
and Learning Triangle, Mentoring in Academia and Industry 10,
DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-0568-9_5, © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
This chapter is aimed at supervisors and PhD students and gives advice about
how the parties can collaborate to ensure a successful supervision process and
ultimately produce a dissertation of high quality. Good supervision is essential for a
successful degree programme. The purpose of the publication is to assist supervi-
sors and PhD students in optimising the supervision process. The overall aim is to
emphasise the importance of positive and productive collaboration between stu-
dents and supervisors.
A good student is a curious and committed individual who is ambitious and pre-
pared to be dynamic and take initiatives during the PhD degree programme.
Similarly, a good supervisor is an individual who – in addition to relevant academic
knowledge, international networks and solid research production – is good at com-
municating, creating the right environment and promoting personal and academic
growth in the PhD student.
Successful PhD Supervision: A Two-Way
Gitte Wichmann-Hansen, Lise Wogensen Bach, Berit Eika,
and Michael J. Mulvany
Faculty of Health Sciences, Aarhus Graduate School of Health Sciences,
Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
This chapter is based on a booklet, with the same title as the title of this article, prepared as the
RESULT OF A WORKSHOP THAT TOOK PLACE IN $ENMARK IN *UNE WITH REPRESENTATIVES FROM THE
Aarhus Graduate School of Health Sciences. Both students and supervisors were deeply involved
in the process of identifying and selecting the typical problems discussed here. Together with the
PhD student counsellor and the leadership of the graduate school, they have identiﬁed solutions
and tools that can help promote a good supervision process. This chapter describes and discusses
a number of these tools.
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7ICHMANN(ANSEN (ELLE 0RTORIUS )BEN -LLER *NSSON *ANE 3KOV ,ISE 7OGENSEN "ACH
56 G. Wichmann-Hansen et al.
It is the aim of PhD programmes to ensure that their PhD students become
SKILLEDRESEARCHERS %ACH STUDENTSHOULD THEREFORE NOTONLY COMPLETE A COHERENT
PROJECTBUTALSOACQUIRETHENECESSARY TOOLSTOBE ABLETOCOMPETEINTHEINTERNA-
tional research environment after ﬁnishing the dissertation. The graduate school
should thus ensure that all students have optimum conditions for developing their
research potential. The responsibility for this lies both with the individual student
to complete the PhD programme, and with the supervisor who is responsible for
providing support throughout this process in the form of qualiﬁed feedback and
general advice. All parties are responsible for ensuring that the process functions
We hope this chapter will contribute to the continued improvement of the quality
of the supervision process for the beneﬁt of both PhD students and supervisors.
5.2 Find the Right Person
There are several ways to commence a PhD programme. Perhaps it will start with a
Panel 5.1 Finding the right person
5 Successful PhD Supervision
procedure, both the student and the supervisor must clearly state their expectations
to the other party before committing to working together.
The questions in Panel 5.1 are intended as a supplement to the basic assessment
of academic qualiﬁcations preceding a serious dialogue about a possible coopera-
tion. The questions can assist both student and supervisor in determining whether
the right person has been found to collaborate with, and that both parties know the
other person’s approach to supervision requirements, supervision style, work meth-
ods, etc., and are able to agree on the way they want to collaborate.
When stating expectations and needs for a working relationship lasting
several years, it is important to understand that both parties are part of a larger con-
text. Both supervisors and students are part of a network of colleagues, manage-
ment, and rules, and both have private life and professional commitments to
5.3 Matching Expectations and Roles
During the initial meetings, the supervisor typically assesses the academic level of
the student, whereas the student primarily checks whether the right chemistry is
present [1, 2]. However, one of the most important aspects of establishing a good
supervision process is to create the right match of expectations and roles . The
whole process works much more smoothly if the parties are able to commence the
collaboration by expressing their expectations to the exact form of the working
relationship and the sharing of responsibilities.
A number of speciﬁc topics should be addressed – and questions asked – during
the initial meetings:
Be open about your thoughts regarding resources – are additional funds required,
DOESTHEPROJECT INVOLVESCONSIDERABLE OPERATING COSTSORAREANYAPPLICATIONS
Many PhD programmes stipulate requirements about active participation in s
research environments and gaining teaching experience. Do the student and the
supervisor agree on the practical interpretation of these requirements?
PhD programmes involve various more or less compulsory activities such as s
summer schools and targeted courses. What does the programme in question
offer and what are the student’s plans?
For some tasks, the entire responsibility lies with the supervisor, for example s
THEOVERALLFEASIBILITYOFTHE0H$ PROJECT ! NUMBEROFOTHERTASKSREQUIRETHAT
applications, notices convening meetings, etc. Who will be responsible for
58 G. Wichmann-Hansen et al.
Some PhD programmes include a period abroad. What attitude do the student s
and the supervisor have to study periods abroad?
5.4 Project Planning and the PhD Plan
PhD programmes will normally be based on a research and study plan (the PhD
plan) for the individual student [4, 5]. The PhD plan can be more or less detailed,
but should include a timetable, an agreement about the form of supervision, plans
activities, a budget and agreements regarding copyrights and patents, if applicable.
The intention of the PhD plan is to ensure that the student and the supervisor make
their expectations clear.
It is important that both parties are aware of expectations and plans at all times
and are open to changes and new ideas. Regular meetings with the supervisor or the
ENTIRESUPERVISOR GROUPARERECOMMENDEDASA BASISFORFOLLOWINGTHE PROJECTAND
guaranteeing a sufﬁcient progression and quality. These meetings should include
PROJECT STATUS 0H$ PROGRAMME DETAILS COURSES PERIODS ABROAD PARTICIPATION IN
conferences, teaching, etc.) and career planning. In the literature, these meetings are
to attend to process issues . However, it has been argued that supervisors have a
tendency to neglect process issues like students’ writing skills, ability to manage
time, seek realistic goals, ability to communicate verbally, etc. . It is important to
ing/publishing results. It is also a study and learning process that needs facilitation
5.5 Meeting Activities
Regular supervision meetings are essential for the supervision process, as they pro-
vide a regular forum for advice and academic assistance. It is recommended that
meetings should be regular, planned and systematic, whether they focus on process
issues (status, deadlines, well-being, relations, etc.) or product-related issues (data,
analysis, results, drafts for manuscripts, etc.).
Students and supervisors must agree on how often to meet. It is therefore a good
idea to prepare a meeting calendar early in the programme. It ensures ongoing dia-
logue in what is often a busy working life. Planned meetings cannot be replaced by
informal daily contact. The points in Panel 5.2 show some of the points that should
be dealt with. Note that it is recommended that it is the student who takes the initia-
tive to the meetings.
5 Successful PhD Supervision
5.6 Research Environment
Next after the student–supervisor relationship, the research environment is crucial
for a successful PhD programme . Here the size and scientiﬁc excellence of the
department and the institution are central to creating the conditions for a positive
outcome. Another crucial point is the number of PhD students. Here, a delicate bal-
ance exists between assuring the PhD student close contact to other PhD students
and avoiding that the number of PhD students per supervisor is so high that the
individual student does not get sufﬁcient supervision. No exact number can be
given. This being dependent on the supervisor and the students concerned. However,
none of these can be effective if students are not involved in the academic network.
Panel 5.3 shows some of the points that should be considered.
Panel 5.2 Meeting activities
60 G. Wichmann-Hansen et al.
Panel 5.3 Research environment
5 Successful PhD Supervision
5.7 Text Production
Students and supervisors should agree on how they plan to work with manuscripts
and presentations . People have different ways of writing and different needs for
feedback and advice. Some people write many drafts and improve them along the
way in accordance with the overall goal. Others write ﬁnished sections right away
in accordance with a carefully prepared outline. Some need assistance to plan the
material – others need assistance with communication or procedures. Common to
all is the fact that writing an article is something one has to learn and that the feed-
back from the supervisor should match the student’s experience. It should therefore
change character as the PhD programme progresses . The points in Panel 5.4
show some of the points to consider.
The content and structure of the PhD dissertation is normally discussed between
the student and the supervisor, but it is naturally the student who has the ﬁnal
responsibility for the content. The supervisor’s main task is to supervise, i.e. to
support the writing process and ensure that the dissertation can be assessed, which
means that it should be submitted correctly and comply with formal requirements.
5.8 Advice and Assistance
to quickly agree on a solution and no problem is too small to be discussed. Both stu-
dents and supervisors should address any aspects they are unhappy with or puzzled
about and try to solve the problem informally through dialogue. No matter how trivial
the problem may appear, you are encouraged to initiate a discussion as soon as pos-
sible. Students or supervisors can seek advice and assistance from colleagues, who
often have experience with similar situations, co-supervisors who know the entire
supervisor group and the PhD system or the leadership of the graduate school.
If problems arise, the student or the supervisor should ﬁrst of all determine
whether the problem has to do with the relationship between the parties. This most
often happens when the parties have not discussed and agreed beforehand how to
handle the topic . Speciﬁc problems should be discussed at a supervision meet-
ing. The student or supervisor concerned should try to discuss the issue in general
and non-accusatory terms and ask whether it is possible to change the form of the
Prepare thoroughly. What should be said and clariﬁed, and how can it be said and s
still maintain constructive collaboration?
The issue should be clariﬁed in writing and distributed to the participants so they s
have time to think of possible solutions. Formulating a problem in writing also
makes it easier to understand.
Do not address serious topics immediately before holidays or important events.s
Create a good setting for the conversation – make coffee available and make sure s
there is sufﬁcient time and that the meeting will not be disturbed.
62 G. Wichmann-Hansen et al.
Panel 5.4 Text production
5 Successful PhD Supervision
Avoid making accusations. Base arguments on one’s own situation, and explain s
how one experiences the other party’s words or actions.
Use examples to explain one’s situation, if possible.s
5.9 PhD Student Counsellor
It is our experience that the student–supervisor relationship can be strengthened by
the appointment of a PhD student counsellor. This person should be independent of
the Graduate School leadership and someone who can meet conﬁdentially with
both supervisors and students for assistance in case of problems with the supervi-
sion. Such a PhD student counsellor can offer personal conversations with students
or supervisors who experience difﬁculties or unsatisfactory situations with regard
to supervision. The counsellor can also give advice to students concerning personal
motivation, the social environment at the workplace, etc. In that regard, the PhD
student counsellor provides professional assistance by helping the students and
supervisors to clarify their situations and options. In case of difﬁculties with the
collaboration, the PhD student counsellor can also give advice about rights and
obligations within the PhD degree programme and provide an overview of possi-
bilities for conciliation.
If the problem cannot be solved in any other way, the possibility of changing the
composition of the supervisor group should be considered. It is incumbent on both
student and supervisor to take action if circumstances are preventing the completion
In conclusion, successful supervision is not something you can take for granted. It
relies on both supervisor and student to fully engage in the research work as well as
the study process. It requires both parties to regularly and deliberately reﬂect upon
their relationship, roles, responsibilities, ambitions, etc. Successful supervision is a
3rd edn. Open University Press, Buckingham
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64 G. Wichmann-Hansen et al.
(OCKEY* #ONTRACTUAL SOLUTION TOPROBLEMSINTHE SUPERVISIONOF0H$ DEGREES IN THE
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Forlag. Norge, Oslo
%LEY !2 *ENNINGS 2 %FFECTIVE POSTGRADUATE SUPERVISION )MPROVING THE STUDENT
supervisor relationship. Open University Press, Berkshire
8. Delany D (2008) A review of the literature on effective PhD supervision. Centre for Academic
Practice and Student Learning, Trinity College. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/
9. Dysthe O (2009) What factors inﬂuence the improvement of academic writing practices? A
study of reform of undergraduate writing in Norwegian higher education. In: Bazerman C,
+RUT 2 ,UNSFORD +* .ULL 3 2OGERS 0- 3TANSELL ! EDS 4RADITIONS OF WRITING RESEARCH
Routledge/Taylor & Francis, New York, NY
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doctoral students. Nordisk Pedagogik 3:177–189
11. Grant B, Graham A (1994) Guidelines for discussion: a tool for managing postgraduate super-
vision. In: Zuber-Skerrit O, Ryan Y (eds) Quality in postgraduate education. Kogan Page,
12. Karolinska Institutet (2008) Successful supervision – a dialogue facilitator. HTTPKISEKIJSP
POLOPOLYJSPDALEN (a ﬁne check list for the initial discussions about
personal expectations of supervision and work processes)
%XPECTATIONSINSUPERVISION OF - +ILEY AND ' -ULLINS http://www.grad.ac.uk/downloads/
link about matching expectations)
14. Clarifying expectations. The Australian National University. http://researchsuper.cedam.anu.
edu.au/stages-candidature/clarifying-expectations (a very useful link about clarifying and
15. Morrel K. Supervisors’ questions to think about before applying to do a PhD http://www.
kevinmorrell.org.uk/Supervisor%20questions.htm (a list of questions for supervisors to ask
students at an early stage)