Developing an understanding with students

A written understanding between supervisors and students about supervision expectations


Undertaking a PhD is a major time commitment by a student. Students implicitly desire quality supervision and a degree of certainty that they will receive the PhD they seek. The supervision of a PhD also requires a major time investment by an academic. Supervisors implicitly desire that their time investment is not wasted. They want a completion in an acceptable time frame, and they may also have a range of other expectations about publications, fulfilment of obligations to industry partners, etc. A good supervision process benefits all concerned. A bad supervision process can result in dissatisfaction for both student and supervisor and, at worst, can severely affect the life of a student and cause embarrassment or difficulties for the supervisor,  for example, with regard to meeting the requirements of industry partners and/or funding bodies.

As with any collaborative relationship, in PhD supervision each party has expectations of the other: the student of the supervisor, and the supervisor of the student. Sometimes these expectations are shared and understood because of the participation of both supervisor and student in some shared academic discipline or culture. In many cases, however, these expectations are not shared and are frequently not discussed. Students often have little idea as to what they can expect of their supervisor(s). As with many other relationships, often dissatisfaction arises because of a lack of appreciation of the other party’s expectations.

It is the premise of this resource that there should be a facilitated discussion regarding supervision expectations at various points in the supervision process, but particularly so at the beginning. It is also the proposition of this resource that, as with many other professional relationships, writing down the essence of the agreement is important – both to enable a revisiting of what was agreed upon at some later point, and also because the drafting of a document is a way of facilitating the discussion of issues.

The following example is only one of many possible written understandings of expectations around students and supervisors. It is real in that several of the author’s students have signed statements just like it. The example is personal to the author, and it is not expected that other academics and/or their students use this one – they should collaboratively devise their own. Nevertheless, it is likely that other agreements will cover the sorts of issues included in this example. Irrespective of the exact content of an agreement, what is most important is that there is one. Equally important is that there is a discussion process around the agreement so that both student and supervisor are able to learn about each other’s expectations of the collaborative work program that will lead to the satisfactory completion of a PhD.

Why sign an agreement?

Signing an agreement such as the one suggested here signifies a strong statement of commitment. The act of signing cements the bond (trust) between student and supervisor and indicates that this is a real, serious statement declared in good faith. It seems that not to sign the document could reduce the meaning associated with it. Should there ever be a need to refer to the document when discussing a disagreement, having the signed version would be desirable so that there could be no sense that it had been surreptitiously altered.

What the document is not

The agreement is not meant to be a legal document, nor binding in any way. Nor is it meant to replace the myriad of policies a university might have about supervision. It is meant to be nothing more than a personal agreement between a specific student and their supervisor. While it is intended that it be revisited, and while a student or a supervisor might use it in the future to remind the other about what they had agreed to, it is meant as a tool for communication rather than as an enforcement mechanism.

Possible variations on the example

The example used in this resource is designed for students who join larger research projects that have obligations to external parties. In other situations, such as those initiated by a student seeking a supervisor, the agreement might look rather different. The model used here also implies a single supervisor. An alternative version could make mention of all members of the supervisory team and indicate what each brings to the relationship in terms of skills and expectations.


A process to develop an agreement between a student and a supervisor

It should be noted that the sorts of students used in this example have been supported by industry-funded sources and/or have been recruited to a larger research project with the PhD topic being defined by the project they are joining. This partly explains why there is an emphasis on the contribution of the supervisor to the research, and why there is mention of the right of the supervisor to publish using the data collected. In more traditional PhD situations, where the student devises the topic and recruits a supervisor, the discussion of IP might be focused more on protecting the prior IP of the student.

Suggested Process

At first it may feel a little odd to introduce the idea of an agreement to students, but the author has found that students quickly welcome it – they think it is great to have an understanding of what they can expect. Following the author’s  initial introduction of the concept to his students, it has since been introduced very early on in the supervision relationship in the way described below. The process is designed to ensure that there is no pressure on the student and that when they sign they do so with a full understanding of the issues.

It is suggested that, before a supervisor accepts a student and/or before they are selected as a recipient of any scholarship that may be on offer, a general discussion take place about the project. It is also suggested that a discussion about life in general be held, so that both the student and the supervisor can get to know each other.

Depending on the circumstances, and perhaps during a second or third meeting, it is suggested that supervisors explain that supervision requires a major time commitment and that it is important for there to be a shared understanding of what it entails. Supervisors can then ask the student to complete the Opinions about Research Supervision Questionnaire. Once completed, any variances in the responses can be discussed and the Questionnaire can be used as an opportunity to talk about supervision in general. At the end of that meeting (which should take around an hour), it is a good idea to have a record of understanding about supervision and to have a draft agreement for the student to consider. The student can be presented with the draft, which can then be discussed and any questions answered. However, the student should always be able to take the draft away with them in order to give them time to think about it.

At some later date, and usually after the student has enrolled with you as (a) supervisor, when you feel it is appropriate you should revisit the agreement. In the meantime, the student has had a chance to think about what they want the agreement to say, and has been able to talk about it with friends and colleagues (which should be encouraged). A typical reaction of the author’s students has been that their friends have wished they had one too! At a meeting specifically identified as being for that purpose, the draft template is converted to an actual agreement with the individual student’s name inserted and any items changed as necessary. The student  should be encouraged to make additions/changes at this stage. When the discussion is complete (having allowed about an hour for it), you both sign the document, thus declaring your commitment to the supervision relationship. The signing is a very meaningful act of commitment, a highlight, and an achieved milestone, to be celebrated.

The agreement should be reviewed regularly. It is suggested that it first be reviewed shortly after the submission of the Preliminary Research Plan (or Confirmation) – when the student has clarified what they will actually do. It is then suggested that the agreement be reviewed annually at some meaningful time, either at the beginning of the year as a way of starting each new year, or in conjunction with an annual review process.

Some comments on the use of the agreement

Lain Dare, PhD student
I have been very fortunate to be a PhD student of Professor Vanclay for the past 18 months. I was introduced to the supervisory documents in the first week of my candidature and was very thankful. I have found the MoU document to be very clear about both my role as a student and what I can realistically expect from my supervisory team. This has helped my transition from a professional employee to a PhD student in a university environment, a transition that has certainly been rewarding.

Dr Heather Aslin, Bureau of Rural Sciences, co-supervisor
The Student Supervision Agreement is a particularly valuable innovation and helps formalise what has often in the past been a very vague arrangement between students and supervisors, and encourages both parties to take their obligations seriously. A PhD represents a very significant commitment of time and resources on both sides, and the student may be foregoing considerable income in choosing to do the PhD rather than taking up or continuing paid employment. Also, there is often a very great power imbalance between a PhD supervisor and their student, and so it is desirable for the student to have a formal statement about what they have a right to expect from their supervisor. On the other hand, as the agreement points out, the supervisor has an increasingly significant professional stake in the student completing their PhD. So anything that encourages both parties to recognise their mutual interdependence and mutual obligations, without becoming too legalistic, is to be welcomed. I think the form of an agreement or MoU strikes just the right note to recognise these inter-relationships.

Kevin Redd, PhD student on behalf of the Tasmania University Postgraduate Association
The Tasmania University Postgraduate Association (TUPA) would like to comment on this document from the perspective of postgraduates at UTas. We have gathered opinions from around the postgraduate community and offer the following feedback:

  • This document focuses the thoughts of candidates, describes expectations, raises IP issues for discussion, and puts the topics of authorship and publication on the table very early in the PhD process. These subjects are incredibly valuable and very often are not covered by supervisors or candidates in the early stages of a PhD.
  • These and other issues which otherwise might (and often do) become contentious are up for discussion very early in candidature. The pre-emptive discussions that are likely to arise when drafting the MoU are something that many candidates wish they had done with their supervisors, but often it is too late once a problem has arisen.
  • This document provides a clear statement of intention and shows commitment from both candidate and supervisor. The expectations which are outlined for both candidate and supervisor are an excellent checklist and concise action plan to inform both parties.

Although a signed MoU document may not be legally binding as far as the University is concerned, the addition of candidate and supervisor signatures acts as a symbol of commitment and prevents later disputes over issues mentioned in the MoU.

Example of PhD Student Supervision Agreement (MoU)

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a legal document nor binding in any way, nor is it intended to replace any University policy – it is a personal agreement about the act of supervision made in good faith between student and supervisor.

Agreed between (Name of student) and Prof Frank Vanclay, dated: 14 Jan 2008


  • I will assist your reading by pointing you to appropriate references.
  • I will look out for opportunities (grants, jobs, publication opportunities, partnerships, etc) for you.
  • I will try to locate extra resources for you.
  • I will assist you to navigate the administrative tasks and institutional issues but you must appreciate that my role is primarily academic support.
  • I will assist you in determining the appropriate methodology, in undertaking the appropriate statistical tests if applicable, and I will contribute ideas about the project throughout your PhD. Responsibility for the PhD, however, rests with you – it is your PhD.
  • I will assist your professional development by mentoring, and suggesting opportunities for training.
  • I will assist you in learning and meeting the formal and informal expectations of academia and the discipline.
  • I will try to be as accessible to you (in person and by phone and email) as I can be, and I will respond to your queries as soon as I can, but be aware that I may not always be immediately available due to other commitments. I will read your work (papers, draft chapters etc) and return them to you with comments as soon as is possible. It is useful to let me know when you might be giving me material to comment on so that I can plan my time effectively.

(nothing added 14 January 2008)


  • That you appreciate that I am a significant stakeholder in your PhD and that I also invest energy, time and intellectual property (IP) in your PhD.
  • That the PhD will be an important priority in your life and that you will make real effort to make regular progress on it.
  • That you have a strong commitment to finishing the PhD and that you will make every reasonable effort to complete the thesis within a reasonable timeframe.
  • That you make regular backups of your data and maintain a responsible approach to data management.
  • That you look after any computer issued to you and protect it from theft.
  • That you will provide me with an update on your work on a regular basis, and by way of backup protection that you provide me with electronic copies of all materials on a monthly basis.
  • That you prepare an agenda for each meeting with me, and that you take notes from each meeting which you email back to me.
  • That you will develop a Thesis Outline and Overview (see separate document) and update it regularly so that it is a current statement of what your PhD is about.
  • That you will do all research in an ethical way, and that you will not knowingly plagiarise.
  • That you will comply with all reasonable administrative requests and processes by their due date.
  • That you will confer with me about possible coauthorship of any (and all) papers that may arise as a result of your PhD research in advance of writing them, and that you include me as a coauthor unless we have mutually explicitly agreed that should not be the case. In general terms, we shall agree to abide with the Vancouver Protocol on authorship.
  • That you make reasonable attempts to develop publications from your research which I will assist you to do with you as first author (and I as coauthor). However, should you not complete any publications from your research within a reasonable time, that you accept that I will develop publications on which I may be first author (depending on the extent of contribution).
  • That any published work that arises from your PhD (even after graduation) must indicate the University of Tasmania as your affiliation.
  • That you will abide by any confidentiality agreement and Intellectual Property (IP) policy that you enter into with any industry partners and that you are respectful of industry expectations.
  • That we have explicit discussions about IP at various stages during the candidature where our IP agreement can be renegotiated. The starting understanding will be that any IP that is developed during the candidature is shared equally between student and supervisor and that they both bring background IP into the relationship.
  • That you consider potential future partnerships and collaborations with me post PhD.
  • That this agreement (memorandum of understanding) will be reviewed annually in conjunction with the University’s annual review process, and on submission of the Preliminary Research Proposal.

Signed on the ____________ day of _________ in the year _________

Prof Frank Vanclay (Supervisor)__________________  (student)______________________

This resource was written by Prof Frank Vanclay of the Rural Social Research Group, Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research at the University of Tasmania.

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