Beyond the student-supervisor relationship

This is a resource to discuss supervisory roles. You can use this as a handout for discussion or prepare slides from the Figure and the Table below. It can be used as a follow up discussion from the opinions questionnaires.

In a study of the experiences of doctoral students, Cumming (2008) identified the constellation of individuals, other than candidates and supervisors, who are potentially engaged in the activities of a doctoral candidate. These include a range of academics within and outside the department and university, professionals, business and industry contacts, community members, online contacts, peers, technicians, librarians, industry researchers, other candidates and postdoctoral researchers; in addition to the network of associates, friends, partners and family. To this range of participants in the doctoral enterprise should be added the various community agencies, institutions, organisations, networks and resources that may come into play. Finally, there are the structures, regulations, cultures and infrastructure of the academy.

Rather than situate the candidate and/or supervisor at the centre of a constellation of others – in the sense of occupying a pre-determined or fixed position – it is proposed that individuals engaged in doctoral activity be considered as part of an open and flexible system. Conceptualised in this way, individuals can be seen as in a constant state of flux, moving and establishing a multitude of links over time (2008, p. 91).

Cumming makes the point that we need to understand how our doctoral practices sit inside a host of links with other participants, the academy and the community. He categorises doctoral practices into curriculum, pedagogy, research and work. Curricular practices have to do with negotiating the topic and field of study, the problems that need investigating, the framing of a problem to be investigated, and the design of a study. They include intellectual engagement with academic, professional and industry or community perspectives on the problem; the kinds of skills and attributes being developed over the candidature; the use of the results for commercial or other purposes; and career possibilities upon completion. Pedagogical practices have to do with the processes and activities the candidate engages in to advance their work. These include meetings with supervisors and other advisors, how they interact with ‘stakeholders’ in the doctoral candidature, networking activities, presenting conference papers, seminar attendance and presentations, attending workshops and training sessions, engagement in online discussions etc. Research practices include reviewing the literature, research design, generating data, analysing data, writing, theorising, and complying with institutional requirements such as intellectual property, safety and ethics. Work practices include teaching, publishing, preparing grant applications, negotiating patents, balancing the needs and expectations of industry and academic partners, delivering talks to community groups, and participating in academic governance. Cumming’s model of the doctoral enterprise is depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Model of the doctoral enterprise (Cumming, 2008)

In the above model, supervisors, like candidates, are no longer centre stage. Instead they need to understand themselves in relation to a complex and shifting set of doctoral arrangements and practices. This immediately raises questions about the role of the supervisor and the skills needed to undertake this role. Clearly, supervisors represent the academy and its culture, regulations and structures. They are also engaged in discussion with industry partners and outside organisations and agencies that have an interest in the study. So too are they involved in negotiations and discussions with a range of individuals who have some stake in the research, such as technicians and other academics. Supervisors may also take on responsibility for developing the broader employment-related skills of candidates and be mindful of their role in addressing the range of contemporary concerns about doctoral education.

As such, supervisors can be seen as managers of a very complex and ambiguous enterprise. This is the approach adopted by Vilkinas (1998), who uses the literature on leadership and management to understand the complexity of the supervisory role. She identifies nine management roles that supervisors need to develop and adopt as the circumstances warrant. Table 1 outlines these roles, with some comments linking them to Cumming’s model of the doctoral enterprise.

Table 1 Supervisory roles

Supervisory roles Characteristics Comment
Innovator Flexible and creative. Looks for new ways to do things. Takes a different angle on a problem. Willing to experiment. This role fits in well with curricular doctoral practices. It is useful at the beginning of the candidature in setting up the problem to be addressed. It may also be useful when the candidate becomes stuck on some obstacle.
Broker Secures resources. Introduces students to networks. Influences industry and/or the department. The supervisor engages here with other participants (e.g. other academics, technicians or department heads) and negotiates with industry or community partners.
Producer Focuses on the product and the steps needed to complete the thesis. This is a doctoral practice very much focused on the research – its design, reporting and analysis. The focus is often on producing written material e.g. a literature review, a methodology chapter, or the work practice of producing a publication.
Director Plans, prioritises and provides clarification and structure. Here the supervisor takes on the role of project manager, refocusing the project and its core aims and what needs to be done. The emphasis is often on curricular and research practices.
Coordinator Can anticipate and plan for workflow problems. Links the timing and importance of different activities. The supervisor coordinates different elements of the research – planning ahead and managing risks. This requires an understanding of the needs and expectations of different parties to the study – the academy, the community and participants.
Monitor Evaluates progress – holds regular reviews etc. This role relates to the structures, regulations and culture of the academy. The supervisor ensures that reports on progress are well maintained and that the research complies with relevant policies.
Facilitator Helps students to develop the range of skills necessary to complete a thesis. Provides encouragement and fosters teamwork. The supervisor focuses on pedagogical doctoral practices e.g. regular meetings, seminars, writing groups, attendance at workshops, fosters engagement in teams etc.
Mentor Understands the needs of the students and provides pastoral care. Ensures that students undertake work practices that are congruent with their career aspirations and that they have appropriate work skills.
Integrator Looks broadly at the supervisory process and their strengths and weaknesses in relation to what is needed. Capacity to diagnose problems and move between roles when needed. This is where the supervisor steps back and looks at all the doctoral practices and arrangements in play. This is done in the context of the wider agendas in doctoral education, evident in emerging policies, practices and scholarship.

The model of Cumming and the supervisory roles of Vilkinas provide a good map of the kinds of arrangements, practices and interventions in which supervisors engage. Categorising the roles in this way is really a heuristic device which brings out the complexity and diversity of the doctoral enterprise and hopefully assists supervisors to better understand the scope and nature of the supervisory relationship and the skills they need for effective intervention.


This text was written by Emeritus Professor Mark Tennant, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. It appears in the publication Tennant, M., McMullen, C and Kaczynski, D. (2010) Teaching, Learning and Research in Higher Education. New York: Routledge, pp. 150-154.

Further reading

Deuchar, R. 2008. Facilitator, director or critical friend?: contradiction and congruence in doctoral supervision styles. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), 489-500.

Halse, C. 2011. ‘Becoming a supervisor’: the impact of doctoral supervision on supervisors’ learning. Studies in Higher Education. 36(5), 557-570

Sambrooka, S., Stewart, J. and Roberts. C. 2008. Doctoral supervision . . . a view from above, below and the middle! Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32(1), 71-84

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