Supervision - The Basics

Almost all research students are at the start of their degree somewhat uncertain as to what their supervisors will be like, what they can expect from them, and how well supervision works in practice.

It can be of real benefit over the course of your research degree if you take time at the start to properly understand the basics of the supervisory relationship and, in particular, the responsibilities that you and your supervisors have.

Your Supervisory Team

All PhD/MPhil students have a supervisory team, normally comprising two members. These members of your supervisory team will be members of the University's academic staff, normally - but not always - from the same School/Department as you.

The name of your first supervisor should be included in your offer of admission letter; if it is not, please contact the Admissions Office for advice - email The other member(s) of your supervisory will not normally be confirmed until after you have started your research degree.

Your first supervisor will have primary responsibility for your supervision. They are the member of the supervisory tema with whom you will have most contact - in particular, it is likely to be your first supervisor who:

  • agrees with you objectives for your research and written work and your skills and career development
  • provides advice and guidance on your plans and progress
  • provides feedback on your research findings/ results and draft written work
  • reads and comments on both your probation review report and thesis before these are formally submitted

The role of the other member(s) of the supervisory team will vary according to the circumstances. In some cases they will act as joint supervisor(s) - taking a role broadly equivalent to that of your first supervisor and sharing in the first supervisor's responsibilities. This type of arrangement in humanities and social science disciplines. Otherwise they will act as second supervisor(s) - taking on a role subsidiary to that of the first supervisor and normally taking an active involvement in your supervision only in specific circumstances or for periods when your first supervisor is away. This type of arrangement is most common in science and engineering disciplines.

It is unusual for a supervisory team to have more than two members. Supervisory teams of three or more members are sometimes found where the research project is interdisciplinary in nature or involves an external partner.

You should make time at the very start of your research degree to confirm who the members of your supervisory team are and what sort of role each of them will have. 

Changes in the Supervisory Team

The most important consideration in appointing a supervisory team is to ensure that they have the expertise and experience needed to provide feedback and guidance on your research. The members of your supervisory team will not therefore normally change over the course of your research degree. Where a change is unavoidable - for example, where one of your supervisors will be absent for a significant period of time or is leaving the University altogether - your department will normally appoint a new supervisor unless you are already quite close to finishing.

Research students cannot themselves request to change their supervisors. 

You and Your Supervisors - Making Supervision Work for You

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