Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Supervising Doctoral students

Gina Wisker, University of Brighton


During their careers, many academics are very likely to teach or supervise doctoral students in their research, which can be an enriching, collegial, creative experience and one which is also challenging in terms of differences and demands of people, their research projects, research journeys, discipline and context. Doctoral student numbers are growing internationally as links between higher level study, knowledge construction and contributions to both the knowledge economy and the public good are recognised. Motivations for undertaking a doctorate range from self-development, career enhancement, social justice, fascination with and the desire to delve into research to make new knowledge, problematise existing knowledge and solve problems. Candidates are also increasingly diverse, in terms of culture, gender, economic context, age and learning behaviours. Academics’ roles as supervisors or teachers are to support, challenge and facilitate the research success of doctoral students on their research learning journeys, through their writing and beyond the doctorate into the international collegial community. There are several reports and books which offer research informed suggestions for supervisors of structure and support for the doctoral research journey (Wisker, 2012; Wisker, Morris et al 2011; Lee 2008)

There are three main dimensions to this dynamic practice of doctoral supervision:
  • Institutional;
  • Learning-related;
  • Personal.


We need to know about and how to support our students to work towards achievement in terms of the institutional regulations and stages, or rites of passage, including research proposal approval, transfer to PhD, the examination and (where there is one) the viva. We help manage the expectations of doctoral students regarding their work, and our role. It is important to co-establish effective ground rules, communication norms, and when we are available, regularity of supervisory meetings, and the work expectations in these, feedback times; these are the structures and behaviours which will help us work together.


Doctoral students are constructing new knowledge, pushing the boundaries, and enhancing their own understanding and metacognition, and awareness of themselves as learners. We help scaffold and ‘nudge’ that learning through offering models, questioning and challenging so that they develop well in the three stages of research learning – ideas and process generation, hard focussed ethical analytical theorised work, and ‘completer-finisher’ activities – writing the well-structured, readable thesis that makes a difference and contributes to knowledge. We support their learning leaps and transformations, crossing conceptual thresholds and making breakthroughs in learning at different stages in their work (Wisker, 2012) so that their research and work are more conceptual, critical and creative.


This is likely to be a long-term professional and personal relationship, so establishing the ground rules and remaining supportive of the different doctoral learners is important, but relationships can break down and families, friend and circumstances can be problematic, as well as supportive. We need to be aware of culturally inflected research learning, and avoiding hierarchies of power which disempower to help facilitate the learning achievements of all our doctoral students. We are often the first to know if there are problems but professional counselling is advised for more complex issues not least so we can maintain a supervisory relationship to support the research and researcher. Supervision operates on emotional boundaries (Strandler et al, 2014) and sometimes the relationship falters and students, ‘doctoral orphans’, need new supervisors (Wisker and Robinson, 2012) and we might lose or gain students. These emotional issues need sensitive and appropriate responses and for us to manage our emotions, ensuring support for the doctoral students’ future work, limiting damage.

Doctoral supervision is a dynamic learning experience, matching supervision to learning behaviours and the research practices. We are helping to potentially grow a new colleague or enable a professional practitioner to enhance their work and we are ‘nudging’ and supporting the construction of new knowledge which can make a difference.

References and useful links

Lee, A (2008) “How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision.” Studies in Higher Education, Vol 33, No 3.

Strandler, O., Johansson, T., Wisker, G. and Claesson, S. (2014) “Supervisor or counsellor? –Emotional boundary work in supervision”, International Journal for Researcher Development, Vol.5 (2)

Wisker, G. and Robinson G. (2012) “Picking up the pieces: Supervisors and doctoral ‘Orphans’”. International Journal for Researcher Development, Vol. 3, No. 2

Wisker, G. (2012, first edn 2005) The Good Supervisor, London: Palgrave Macmillan

Wisker, G., Morris, C., et al (2010 ) Doctoral Learning Journeys, report to the HEA at