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Dilemmas in supervising postgraduate / graduate research students

About the dilemmas on this website

Although departmental and institutional codes of practice lay down procedures for a wide range of situations in which research degree supervisors* find themselves, they still leave considerable areas open for individual autonomy. It is in these areas that supervisors often experience dilemmas, because arguments can be made in favour of alternative courses of action, and it is not necessarily or immediately clear which are the best in particular instances. The pages in this section aim to help supervisors - particularly at the doctoral PhD and DPhil level - to prepare themselves for acting promptly when faced with such dilemmas. Without preparation, remedial action can get delayed, and matters may, in the meantime, get out of hand. A common outcome can be a great deal of unnecessary, time-consuming and stressful work, or it can lead to withdrawal, which denies appropriate supervision to the students concerned.

The box shows some of the most common dilemmas experienced by supervisors, as volunteered to and discussed with me by academics across disciplines in a range of institutions and in various countries. These discussions are summarised on this website - see the menu on the left, which is in the same order as the dilemmas in the box.

Expertise and experience in research and matters related to research in supervisors' own disciplines are assumed, as without them, supervisors would not or should not be in post. The dilemmas considered here all relate to the practice of supervision.

About the suggestions to resolve the dilemmas

Common dilemmas experienced by supervisors of postgraduate research students

On what basis should I make decisions about accepting and rejecting applicants for research degrees?

To what extent should I advise students to plan in detail or in outline and in the short or long term?

What balance should I strike between informal chats with students and formally documented supervisions?

How far should I encourage my students to aim for originality and how far for conformity?

What balance should I, as a PhD supervisor, strike between guiding students' work closely and giving freedom for independent work?

When 'passing' a thesis / dissertation, what should be my balance between correcting spelling, style and grammar and dealing with academic and scholarly matters?

To what extent should I involve myself in students' personal problems?

How should I handle language and cultural matters?

How should I, as a PhD supervisor*, handle students who complain to me, particularly about other staff?"

Where is the right balance between owning the work myself, sharing it and giving full ownership to the student?

How far should I allow my students' work to stray outside my own area of expertise?

How should I, as a PhD supervisor*, handle suspected plagiarism and fraud?

What balance should I, as a PhD supervisor*, strike between working with my students to help them impress examiners and remaining detached and impartial?

The suggestions are not prescriptive, which means that they do not, in general, favour the perspectives or likely value systems of any one of the interest groups which may be involved; neither do they normally favour any one resolution of a dilemma over another. Instead they describe a dilemma and then go on to present and consider some alternative courses of action for resolving it.

The intention is to stimulate supervisors' own thinking, to help them decide on courses of action which are appropriate for themselves, taking into account such matters as the culture of the department and institution; the norms of the discipline; the student-supervisor relationship; the ability of the student; the stage in the student's work; and of course personal predilections. There are seldom uniquely 'right' resolutions to the dilemmas presented here, and one individual's considered resolution may be very different from another's, even though, on the face of it, the dilemmas may seem to be almost identical.

General information

Foreseeing and preventing dilemmas

As early in students' programmes as seems appropriate, discuss expectations, understandings and courses of action with them so that they know and can influence your 'rules of the game'. Supervisors and academic managers do not have identical rules of the game, even in the same department. So without open discussion and negotiation, students have no alternative but to make assumptions which may easily be wrong. You may find it helpful, early on in the partnership, to negotiate a form of agreement or expectation between yourself and your students, as is standard policy in some institutions and departments. You may, though, prefer to keep negotiations on-going and informal, since formal documents can be overtaken by events and have unfortunate legal implications.

edited extract from

no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.