Co-supervision is becoming more common at Oxford, as it is internationally. Precept 12 in the QAA Code of Practice for Postgraduate Research Programmes states that while each research student should have a minimum of one primary supervisor, that person would normally be part of a team. Each Division at Oxford has a Code of Practice for Supervisors (see links on New supervisors page), which supplements the Education Committee's institutional level Policy on Research Degrees. Although there is some variation between divisional codes, each suggests that all new supervisors be supported by mentoring and/or co-supervision.

Co-supervision not only provides students with access to a greater breadth of expertise, it can also provide support to new supervisors by those who are more experienced.

Recent research into the experiences of new supervisors at Oxford has shed light on the benefits of working with a co-supervisor; here are some comments from both supervisors and students:

Yeah, absolutely, because I’m living on the edge of two disciplines and I was trained in neither... and so ... to some extent, I need to be told that I’m not wasting my time either! So when the student comes back from meetings with his principal supervisor and says, 'yeah – [the principal supervisor] says it’s really good', you think, good! (New supervisor, MPLS)
The co-supervisor was useful in terms of establishing examiners – he made contact with them – and he read drafts and, you know, offered I suppose moral support, and some corrections…of the candidate’s prose basically, which is a good thing. (New supervisor, Humanities)

Students also articulate the value of having more than one supervisor.

I’ve got one supervisor... kind of day to day... who is adept at outlining the short and long term goals for the project... Also, an insightful and helpful professor higher up the chain to provide further leadership and guidance when needed.... I mean, he’s really very helpful for the kind of overarching stuff... the progress of the PhD and what my actual goal is with the entire PhD... because… oftentimes, you just think of the immediate goal, and you don’t think of what you actually want to do, what the timeframe is to actually handing in the PhD, and what I want to do afterwards. (Doctoral student, STEM)
Yeah, I’ve got two supervisors. Em, I would say it’s taken me a little while to realise that they’re different, and... didn’t have the same interest in the data that I always have. So, [my main supervisor] is …very biology oriented. So, that’s the way that she looks at data. … and, very recently … I’ve started to think, actually, my opinion on this is slightly different from hers. Then, the other supervisor, he works on modelling, and the same thing: he has a different interest. So, whenever I present him with data, he’ll see something completely different to what I see. …so I’m somewhere in between. So, he’s all modelling, and she’s all biology, and I’m kind of the person who’s trying to combine the two... So …they have different purposes, and so I try and see different supervisors for different kind of aspects. (Doctoral student, STEM)

As you can see from these quotes co-supervision can be beneficial but can also be problematic.

Of course I’ve got blind spots like everyone else, you know. I think those bits [of the student’s project] that I agree with are probably the biggest blind spot that our working together has. He actually works quite a bit with his other supervisor, who doesn’t as directly work on the topics as I do, but has a sort of quite different orientation and just provides a really helpful alternative picture I think, which is one of the things why I think having multiple supervisors is essential... you know, a different set of views, because, you know, the student who thinks x, and their first supervisor says no, and their second one says no, that’s not giving an alternative view, but it should persuade the student that there maybe is something seriously problematic about the thing that they’re defending. (New supervisor, Humanities) I found it very difficult dealing with somebody [student] who’s on a knife edge about whether they’re going to fail their PhD. You say "I’ve not even heard of anybody in my field who’s failed their D.Phil... you’re not going to fail". But the student’s perception was that there would be a problem... In the end, I went to the other two supervisors and said, “Look, you know, I don’t know how to deal with it. This is a problem. I need your help, and we are going to deal with it”... I was trying to make sure the three supervisors were speaking with the same voice, because there was a certain amount of Chinese whispers and that needed to stop. Well, the three of us sat down and I tried to push that meeting towards establishing a set of mutually agreeable goals, and raising the fact that the student was unhappy and getting stressed out by the whole situation, and why, and what they needed to do. Actually, the other two were quite constructive about that... we then had another conversation with the student present, and it seems to have ironed out the worst [of the student’s] stress. (New supervisor, MPLS)

The following ideas and tools may help you avoid potential difficulties.

  • Find out if there are specific expectations/ procedures regarding co-supervision in your Faculty/ Department.
  • Draw up a list of the different skills, knowledge and attributes you would look for (i.e. ones complementing your own attributes and expertise) in people you might bring together to provide co-supervision for a current or potential student. See the Different support roles tool.
  • Clarify supervisory expectations by taking time, early in the student's career, to discuss a range of issues with her or him and other co-supervisors/ team members.
  • Consider how you would advise your students to make the best use of having more than one supervisor.
  • Ensure decisions about roles and responsibilities are reviewed at least annually since needs change over time.

If you are supporting a new supervisor (either by co-supervising - sharing joint responsibility for working with a student, or mentoring - offering advice as requested) a useful first step is to clarify expectations about your own roles and relationships and those with the student. Co-supervision Expectations: issues for discussion and agreement as a detailed list of issues which may need to be clarified between you.

Case Studies: Driver, a new supervisor, and Mary and Dean, students

Co-supervision: one experience

Driver: The other thing is that…I’m co-supervising, and I think that’s important. I think for a beginning academic to be solely responsible, is just ridiculous, but to be given the opportunity to co-supervise with a very experienced supervisor is a huge learning [opportunity].

Interviewer: How does it work? Do you meet together with the student?

Driver: Yeah, predominantly we meet together, but then we’ll occasionally have the odd…individual tutorial, just depending on timetables and things, but we generally always meet together, which is good because you actually then see another [person’s] style.

Interviewer: Do you end up disagreeing?

Driver: Em…no, I don’t think we disagree… we have different takes on things, but not disagreements. This is my perception and that’s his perception. [But as] a doctoral student – you’ve got to make the decision yourself, you can’t be hand-fed.

Questions to consider about the case study

What’s your experience with or stance on co-supervision? How does it seem to function here? How would you want it to function? What kinds of problems might surface? What role might the student play in organizing how it works? Does your department have a stance on co-supervision?

Co-supervision: a student perspective

Mary: I’ve got two supervisors, and they both come from quite different backgrounds, and it’s been really good all the way through in that you’ve had this sort of argument going on, but I’ve got to the point now where … sometimes I think their interests… it’s almost now getting in the way, so much so that one of them at one point said, “Well, maybe I should step down and someone else should come in.” I thought, well, I don’t really want that to happen because obviously that person knows a lot of what I’m doing … Yeah, that’s caused some stress recently. …and I don’t want this intellectual argument ...It’s an interesting argument, but …it’s not helping me with the DPhil! So that, occasionally, has caused a bit of stress, just because I feel that I’m getting mixed messages. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Dean: I rarely talk to my other supervisor. I talk to him maybe once a term, and when I send things, he doesn’t read them [laughing], so that can be very frustrating. So, for instance, like when I was finishing my first year, I had to do my transfer. He didn’t read it, and then he went to the presentation that I gave and asked loads of really confusing questions and made me feel really isolated, because he hadn’t really had a lot of influence and then he just suddenly… suddenly was like, “Well, why haven’t you done this better, why haven’t you done this like this?” And then she [main supervisor] told him that he should apologise to me…(Doctoral student, STEM)

Questions to consider about the case study

Can you imagine these instances occurring in a co-supervision? Has either happened to you? Where do you stand on these issues? If you wanted to avoid them, what would you do?

There is little research that directly addresses co-supervision although there is reference to it in general studies of supervisory practices.

The following summarizes the very few studies over the past two decades that address co-supervision directly. Both students and supervisors report co-supervision as beneficial: students because they feel better protected and get more than one point of view on their inquiry; supervisors because they see different supervisory practices and share responsibility for supporting the student. Still, the following are potential problems: a) a fragmentation of supervisory responsibilities; b) conflicting advice to the student; c) an absence of overall perspective on the thesis; and d) conflict between supervisors.

In other words, while there are benefits, there are caveats; this is not surprising given that co-supervision involves a relationship with more individuals than the traditional one-to-one model. The table below links benefits to policy and practice initiatives which could help to avoid some of these problems. Of note, just as with the single supervisor model, it is important to normalize the notion that supervisory relationships may undergo difficulties and to provide all students early on with explicit information regarding mechanisms for seeking help when they have supervisory issues they have not been able to resolve themselves.

Benefits Enabling policy and practice initiatives

There are two possible developmental purposes for co-supervision:

  1. as a safety net for students in case of academic moves, sabbaticals, and leaves;
  2. to provide a mentoring environment for new supervisors.
    Roles and responsibilities for both purposes should be defined institutionally, particularly since a focus on both simultaneously can confound the relationships.
    Forms of co-supervision can vary to suit disciplinary cultures/ pedagogies. Minimal expectations should be defined institutionally. E.g: 
    1. maximum number of people;
    2. distribution of supervisory responsibilities with regard to the student in relation to university regulations (e.g. who completes reports);
    3. relative status of team members (e.g. is one considered more senior with overall responsibility?);
    4. physical availability for meeting with student;
    5. the student’s responsibilities.
      Each team can function differently in relation to their areas of expertise, dispositions, etc.

      In addition to the institutional points above, each supervisory team or partnership needs to clarify:

      1. actual distribution of skills, knowledge, experience expected of each member;
      2. frequency with which decisions about roles and responsibilities will be reviewed since needs change over time;
      3. whether all members of the team are present at every meeting with the student.

        The above text was based on:

        Amundsen, C., & McAlpine, L. (2009) ‘Learning supervision’: trial by fireInnovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 331-342.

        Bourner, T. & Hughes, M. (1991). Joint Supervision of Research Degrees: Second ThoughtsHigher Education Review, 24(1), 21-34. 
        Electronic full-text version not available for this journal. Click on journal name to locate hard copies in Bodleian.

        Cullen, D.J., Pearson, M., Saha, L.J. & Spear, R.H. (1994) Establishing Effective PhD Supervision, DEST, 94/23. This document is no longer available online.

        Frame, I., & Allen, L. (2002). A flexible approach to PhD research trainingQuality Assurance in Education, 10(2), 98-103.

        Humphrey, R., Marshall, N., & Leonardo, L. (2011). The impact of research training and research codes of practice on submission of doctoral degrees: An exploratory cohort studyHigher Education Quarterly, 66(1), 47-64.

        Lahenius, K., & Ikavalko, H. (2014). Joint supervision practices in doctoral education – a student experienceJournal of Further and Higher Education, 38(3), 427-446.

        Pearson, M. (2001) Research supervision: mystery and mastery. In Higgs, J. & Titchen, Practice knowledge and expertise in the health professions. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.

        Pearson, M. & Ford, L. (1997) Open and Flexible PhD Study and Research, DEST 97/16 (chapter 3, pp 55-58) This document no longer available online.

        Pearson, M. & Kayrooz, C. (2004) Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9 (1), 99-116.

        Pole, C. (1998). Joint supervision and the PhD: Safety net or panacea? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 23(3), 259-271.

        Spooner-Lane, R., Henderson, D., Price, R., & Hill, G. (2007). Practice to theory: Co-supervision storiesThe International Journal of Research Supervision, 1(1), 39-51.

        Taylor, S. & Beasley, N. (2005) A handbook for doctoral supervisors. Routledge, London.

        Watts, J. (2010) Team supervision for the doctorate: managing roles, relationships and contradictions. Teaching in higher education., 15(3), 335-339.