Accountability in supervisor-student relationships: Setting boundaries

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Accountability in supervisor-student relationships: Setting boundaries
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

It was my first meeting with my new supervisor. We had reached about the third point with simple politeness, when he said "Be visible. Be very visible or I'll simply forget about you. I have too many to supervise." This statement got me thinking hard about the difficult balancing act of being very visible without being a nuisance. It also reminded me of the predicament of a postgraduate friend of mine in China. She was one of forty-six postgraduates working on a rare earth minerals project. Her problem was how to be invisible when her work was so singularly based in the university, in fact in a specific laboratory. Her professor was an anxious man who would even chase her down corridors asking for verbal progress reports! 

Clearly, she and I inhabited very different worlds. Or, were they actually so different? 

Were there more researchers struggling to deal with or set boundaries with their supervisors? I wanted to look at global postgraduate student numbers, hopefully clearly segregated by degree type, and figures offered over time. However, the available data is essentially by country and usually looking only at internal figures, with no consideration given to students migrating overseas for their postgraduate education. I delved into looking singularly at China. Taking CEIC (Census and Economic Information Center) base figures, there was a 75.06% rise in doctoral enrolments in China from December 2007 to December 2018. In 2018, there were 389, 518 enrolled for a doctorate degree. For the same period, the number of enrolled master’s students rose to 2,341,739 – an increase of 140.79% .  Note that Chinese master’s courses are lengthy and very much research-based. Also, to note is the substantial numbers of Chinese students who undertake their higher education overseas. Chinese Ministry of Education figures show that the number of Chinese students undertaking higher education overseas rose by 132.28% between 2010 and 2018. 

I began to get a sense of just how pressured the global environment must be for postgraduate students seeking academic placements, those wishing to retain those placements, and those seeking to service these exceedingly high numbers globally. In 2018, 7.5 million students graduated from undergraduate programs in China, while 1.9 million graduated from US undergraduate programs. These are staggering numbers to potentially accommodate into postgraduate education and research. 

I wondered whether teaching faculty numbers had kept pace with student numbers. The negative case is well-proven for Australia and India. It is also worth questioning whether faculty supervision process has been clearly thought through and communicated to both staff and students, particularly to postgraduate supervisors. Alternatively, was everybody just muddling through, rather shell-shocked? To me, it looked like the latter was the case. 

This made me think of more specific questions. How many universities have clearly articulated models of postgraduate student supervision? Further, how many clearly communicate those models to postgraduate student supervisors? Finally, how many supervisors clearly articulate the supervision model and processes to postgraduate students, or is it a case of mutual presumption? In my experience, everything concerning supervision has been a matter of presumption, not a clear articulation, and even less a matter of mutual agreement. Why not create a formal agreement and a counter-signed contract that outlines the scope of the supervisor-student relationship and duties? 

In recent years, a great deal of literature has focused on the supervisory relationship in academia, with an increased emphasis on formal training, monitoring, and accountability of doctoral supervisors. Some studies suggest that pedagogy must be related to a clearly articulated purpose. With professional doctorates and doctorates through publication now available in addition to the traditional PhD, this purpose and pedagogy must be clear. Extending this line of thought, I am of the opinion that considering this and the disproportionate student-supervisor ratio, formalizing the boundaries of the supervisor-student relationship would help add more structure to the system and provide optimal value to both parties. 

I propose a supervision model that includes a formal agreement and counter-signed contract. The contract might cover the following: 

  • Clear exposition of the supervision style offered (and to be agreed upon). Possible options include: 

  • The expert/disciple or apprentice model of the teacher-student relationship, focusing on one-to-one meetings.    

  • A group supervision model that might include seminars and workshops. Seminars are likely to be more presentational, less discussion-based, supervisor-arranged, and drawing on teaching faculty and outside speakers to cover such topics as research methodologies, presentation, academic article writing, and story-telling. Workshops may have more to do with matters arising, may proceed by student suggestion, even be student-led to share expertise and develop solutions. 

  • Mixed-method, involving specified elements of the above styles 

  • Clear exposition of the supervision content on offer (and to be agreed upon) which needs to move on from a past of methodological intervention to teaching researchers how to research – starting from proposal writing, through literature review, analyzing data and managing the research project. 

  • Clear exposition of the supervision process on offer (and to be agreed upon) covering such matters as the number of meetings per period of time, their regularity, duration of individual meetings, outcome expectations for individual meetings, the formality or informality of individual meetings and the place/places of individual meetings. 

My suggestion may sound more than a little fantastic, although we have agreed learning contracts in schools. The proposed model reflects what postgraduate students want: broadly speaking, more structure and clear guidance on specific aspects such as research ethics. All this said, my view is that there must be significant supervision space for simply what is arising as a need for that student or for the supervisor to bring forth what she may regard as deficiencies. To give an example from my personal experience, my supervisor made the plea for more illustration in my thesis, meaning not tables and graphs that I had well-covered, but maps of Australia. She argued that whereas I might have a very clear picture of the shape of Australia in my mind with my UK schooling, that would not be true for a Thai academic (since I was pursuing my PhD in Thailand, the defence committee would include Thai academics), and help with visualisation was needed. A very good cross-cultural point. 

Academics may initially be resistant to a more structured approach, but that might be associated with the anticipation of an increased workload, a matter that universities need to address anyway through extra staffing as postgraduate education is expanding significantly. However, if changes are made as students suggest, the two key performance indicators - completion rates and times to completion - should improve to the benefit of universities and their academic staff. Also, universities must be willing not only to employ more academics but train them in required supervision techniques. 

Pre-training has also been suggested for postgraduate students, an induction whereby students are made aware of what is expected of them. It makes perfect sense that the supervised and supervisor should know at the outset the expectation from each, including a degree of negotiation. I think we must look to the universities to take a lead in this matter. Meanwhile, postgraduate students and supervisors may consider the suggestions in this article as best practice guidelines, things to look out for to improve the supervision and learning process. 

Let’s stop this fiasco of supervisors hiding from postgraduate students or postgraduate students hiding from overly anxious supervisors. Postgraduate education will work better if we all work together. A huge chunk of precious time in my student life was spent in deficit management, using such mechanisms as ResearchGate to locate academic experts in particular areas for support. Let’s incorporate more accountability and professionalism in the supervisor-student dynamics and help facilitate an optimal learning experience for postgraduate students in the years to come. 


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Published on: Oct 28, 2020

A research-addicted Management Sciences academic and serial small business entrepreneur particularly keen to support postgraduate students.
See more from Mark Azavedo


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