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Supervision is vitally important for doctoral students. What are the expectations and requirements? What do you do if you experience problems in the supervision or need to change supervisor? 

There are many different ways of describing what is involved in doctoral supervision, so there is no general definition of supervision as a concept, because different perspectives and practical applications entail different things.

Expectations and requirements

Supervision can take many different forms so, if your cooperation is to work well, it is important to clarify the expectations and demands that you and your supervisors have. Your obligations and the number of supervisory hours must be included in your individual study plan, so an evaluation can be performed every year when the study plan is updated.

Supervision is best understood as a “working alliance” in which there is mutual trust and where each party must be clear about the objectives of the work and the tasks that must be done. Ask your supervisor or director of studies if your subject or research area for doctoral education has produced any documentation that describes the work and responsibilities of the supervisor and doctoral student.

Supervision – practical issues

Supervision for doctoral students admitted to Södertörn University is provided under the terms and conditions in the university's guidelines for supervision (the document will be published later).

Each doctoral student must have at least two supervisors, of which one is the principal supervisor. Supervisors are appointed as soon as possible after the start of the doctoral studentship. At least one of the supervisors must have completed supervisor training or have been assessed as possessing the equivalent competence by the Faculty Board. All doctoral-level supervisors can take a course for supervisors provided by the Development Unit for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education External link, opens in new window..

The number of supervision hours is a maximum of 480 clock hours for the entire period of study, i.e. the equivalent of four years of full-time study, of which 320 clock hours are for the principal supervisor and 160 clock hours are for the other supervisor(s). These hours can be allocated to supervisors according to your needs; they include meeting and administration time for your supervisors. If you have been admitted to another higher education institution, you follow its supervision rules.

The hours must be spread out over the years so that there is supervision time left if there is an extension to your doctoral studentship, i.e. they must last until the public defence of your thesis. A reasonable standard planning for these hours could therefore be 480 clock hours spread over five years if you are studying full time and undertaking departmental duties that lead to the extension that is the fifth year. This gives 96 hours of supervision per year, e.g. 64 hours for the principal supervisor and 32 hours for the assistant supervisor(s).

Contact your head of department or director of studies if you want to know what principle is used to allocate hours in your subject. The supervision hours agreed by you and your supervisor must be entered in your individual study plan, by your supervisor, as clock hours.

Problems with supervision?

Doctoral students who are worried about supervision that they feel is not adequate should not delay initiating a discussion about this.

It is important to look for support so you can gain perspective on the situation. Talk to your director of studies or someone you trust in the supervisory collegium – or to your head of department, as they are your line manager and responsible for work environment issues. In this conversation you will have the opportunity to reflect on your problems and to assess what the roles of doctoral student and supervisor entail, and what is reasonable or not.

Many problems with supervision can also be contextualised if you gain an understanding of the literature that deals with supervision and the supervisory relationship. Troublesome situations are similar to things that other doctoral students have experienced, so it can be helpful to obtain definite information and good advice on how to find a solution. See one item for suggested reading below.

Suggested reading

Doctoral Supervision in theory and practice, Eva Brodin, Jitka Lindén, Anders Sonesson, Åsa Lindberg-Sand, Studentlitteratur 2020

What should you do if you are thinking about changing supervisor?

Read the information about supervision in the university's guidelines for supervision carefully (the document will be published later), as well as your subject’s guidance for doctoral supervisors’ and doctoral students’ work and responsibilities, if such a document exists. Then consult a suitable person about a potential solution – see the proposed procedure below. Do not wait too long to take your own initiative on the issue – you risk losing valuable time, both in your studies and your employment.

Procedure for changing supervisor – what happens in practice?

  1. The doctoral student: first and foremost, consult your supervisor(s) about whether it is possible – either with only the one that is affected or with both your supervisors at a joint meeting. If this cannot be done, contact your…
  2. director of studies. Discuss the issue and jointly draw up a plan for continued work. If the director of studies is also your supervisor, or if there if another reason for not discussing the issue with them, you can contact your line manager, i.e. your…
  3. head of department. Discuss the issue and jointly draw up a plan for continued work. If the head of department is also your supervisor, or if there if another reason for not discussing the issue with them, you can contact…
  4. someone in the doctoral supervision collegium that you trust, or the chair of the steering committee. Discuss the issue and jointly draw up a plan for continued work.
  5. If you, the doctoral student, after consulting one or more of the above people, feel that a change is the best solution, write to the chair of the steering committee of your research area for doctoral studies and request a change of supervisor. You do not need to provide a reason.
  6. The chair of the steering committee receives your request to change supervisor and the document is registered by the secretary of the steering committee. A copy is sent to the director of studies.
  7. The chair of the steering committee contacts the doctoral supervision collegium who suggest a new supervisor without delay. You must be consulted before the director of studies sends the proposal to the chair and secretary of the steering committee for the research area so the case can be put on the agenda for the next meeting. University guidelines must be followed when a new supervisor is appointed: a principal supervisor with expertise equivalent to associate professor or professor, a completed supervisory course, etc.
  8. The chair of the steering committee adds the case to the agenda for the next meeting and checks that regulatory requirements are fulfilled so a new supervisor can be appointed at the meeting. The director of studies presents the case.
  9. The steering committee appoints a new supervisor and the secretary sends out information about the supervisor’s name and start date to all relevant parties, including the head of department. To speed up the process, this item can be checked in the minutes immediately. If the former or new supervisor is a member of the steering committee, they register a conflict of interest and do not participate in the presentation or discussion of the case.


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2023-11-07 by Elisabet Möller