On admission, all doctoral students get one or more supervisors. Their task is to guide the doctoral student through third-cycle education, from the initial choice of courses to the final public defence.

Doctoral supervision is one of the tasks of professors and senior lecturers who are at associate professor level. It is important that the supervisor is an active researcher, so the doctoral student can be provided with insights into front-line research.

Supervision and how the supervisor is appointed can vary greatly between higher education institutions (HEIs) and subjects. According to the Higher Education Ordinance, at least two supervisors must be appointed for each doctoral student, of which one is the principal supervisor. In addition, one or more assistant supervisors may be appointed.

The assistant supervisor does not always have a formal role; instead the doctoral student may create links to as many as he or she wishes. Doctoral students who surround themselves with a supportive network are less vulnerable.

Clarify expectations

Contact the department at which you want to study before admission and try to meet the person you would like to be your supervisor. The doctoral student and supervisor will work together over a long period, which is often intensive and under great pressure. This means it is important that the doctoral student and supervisor have a great deal of confidence in each other.

It is good to clarify the demands and expectations that the doctoral student and supervisor have of each other at an early stage. The individual study plan should include obligations and guidelines for cooperation. If either party does not fulfil his or her commitments, this is taken up at the annual review of the individual study plan.

There are no rules that stipulate exactly how much supervision a doctoral student is entitled to and some departments have established their own guidelines for the number of supervisory hours. The number of agreed hours should be stated in the individual study plan, so that this can be referred to if the doctoral student feels that he or she is not receiving the agreed help.

The doctoral student cannot expect the supervisor to provide support at any time and with no advance notice. However, the doctoral student should be able to count on regular meetings, receiving feedback in a reasonable time and that the supervisor provides information about longer absences, etc.

The role of the supervisor

The supervisor’s primary task is to help the doctoral student to develop into an autonomous researcher who takes an academic approach. The role of the supervisor differs depending on the subject and the needs of the doctoral student.

In laboratory-based faculties it is common for doctoral students to be offered a place in an ongoing research project, and then to have the researcher who is leading the project as supervisor. In these cases, supervision is often practical and well-defined.

In the humanities and social sciences, the supervisor is more of a discussion partner, someone with whom to discuss ideas, texts, issues and limitations.

Close contact initially…

The contact between the doctoral student and the supervisor changes, depending on how far the doctoral student has come in his or her studies. Contacts are often most frequent at the beginning, when the subject is being chosen and studies planned, and at the end of the study period when the thesis is being completed and the public defence organised.

The supervisor should ensure that the doctoral student starts studying as soon as possible. It is also the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure the subject of the thesis is realistic and the research project is feasible.

The supervisor should also

  • Review the manuscript and other material.
  • Recommend courses and relevant literature.
  • Teach research ethics to the doctoral student.
  • Help to establish contacts with other HEIs in Sweden and abroad.
  • Help the doctoral student to participate in international conferences.
  • Recommend funds from which to apply for grants.

…and towards the end

Towards the end of the work on the thesis, the supervisor must reserve time to read and review it. The supervisor must also prepare the doctoral student for the public defence of the thesis.

The supervisor has a great deal of responsibility for the final design of the thesis and for not allowing the doctoral student to publically defend it if it is not of adequate academic quality.

Read more about the public defence below Degree.

Public defence of doctoral thesis

Many doctoral students are dissatisfied

Problems with a supervisor or supervision are among the most common problems experienced by doctoral students.

The former National Agency for Higher Education’s doctoral student survey, Doktorandspegeln, from 2008, found that a majority of doctoral students said they had satisfactory supervision. However, at the same time, a large proportion felt that the supervisor showed little interest in their studies and did not spend enough time providing constructive criticism or discussing methodology and theory. Thirty-seven per cent said they had not received the amount of supervision that they wanted, and more than one in four doctoral students felt that a lack of supervision was a barrier to their research.

Female doctoral students find their situation to be more vulnerable than male students do. The dialogue with the supervisor does not work as well and they feel less accepted by the research community.

Doktorandspegeln 2008:23 R (pdf, 3,57 MB)

Right to change supervisor

According to the Higher Education Ordinance, a doctoral student has the right to change supervisor. Read more about changing a supervisor below Rights and Support.

Changing supervisor

Page last updated 2016-02-19