5 Supervision

5.1 The supervisory process

Supervisors have a fundamental role in supporting their research students throughout the period of the students’ studies. The supervisory process will operate with some variance because of the nature of particular disciplines and related research environments. There are however a set of minimum requirements for supervisors that must be met across the University.

5.1.1    The minimum requirements for the supervision of all research students are:

Each research student must have a main supervisor, who has primary responsibility for academic guidance and in whose school the student should normally be registered. In addition, the student must have a second point of academic contact and may have other supervisors as appropriate. All members of the supervisory team must have defined roles and responsibilities; students must be made aware of specific roles and responsibilities within the team.

If a student's research requires working elsewhere (e.g. as part of a collaborative project), the School should ensure that appropriate supervisory arrangements, understood by the student, are in place to cover periods spent away from the University.

Information provided to research students that is of relevance to their supervisors’ academic and pastoral responsibilities must be copied to the main supervisor.

5.1.2. The minimum requirements for input from, and interactions with, supervisors for all research students:

Identification of the main supervisor

The normal expectation is that research students will be given the name and contact details of their main supervisor before arriving at the University. For doctoral training entities with an integrated taught component, a named academic will be appointed to provide appropriate support if a supervisor is not in place for the first year of study.

Formal supervisory meetings

Supervisors must take the initiative in making the first contact with their research students. The first meeting should normally take place within a week of a student’s registration.

At the first meeting, it is usual to discuss the student’s outline research plan, and any sponsorship or other financial arrangements, if these have not been agreed beforehand. It is also an opportunity to discuss any specific support or training needs the student may have and to direct them to appropriate sources of support.

After the first meeting, it becomes a shared responsibility between student and supervisors to maintain regular and adequate contact, irrespective of the student’s location. Where a student has more than one supervisor, the supervisors should meet the student together to decide how they will divide responsibility for advice and to agree arrangements for future meetings.

The student and supervisors must agree the frequency, duration and format of their formal meetings, as well as the topics to be covered, and keep them under review thereafter.

The frequency of formal meetings will be determined by the nature and stage of the student’s research. As a guideline, formal meetings to review progress should normally be scheduled for at least once a month. These meetings should take place either in person or through video or audio link. It may be necessary or appropriate to change the frequency of meetings depending on progress and performance.

The student and supervisors must develop a shared understanding of the purpose of meetings, especially those that are about formal review of the student’s progress. A record of formal meetings must be kept, normally by the student.

Supervisors must also be reasonably accessible to their students outside of the formal meeting schedule to provide advice.

Supervisors share responsibility with the student to develop and maintain an effective working relationship.

The supervisory process

Supervisors must comment on their research student’s written work, with feedback being given promptly so as not to impede the student’s progress.

If a student is experiencing serious difficulty with the use of English, supervisors must discuss this with the student as early as possible, and it is recommended that the student should consult staff in the Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies for advice, if this is necessary.

Supervisors must ensure that students are made aware of the academic standards expected for the degree for which they are studying and of their responsibilities as set out in Section 4.5 of these Regulations and Code. This includes the submission of the student’s research project within the period of study.

As set out in Section 7, supervisors must regularly review training needs with the student, including in relation to personal and professional development. 

Early in the programme, at their first meeting if possible, the student and supervisors must agree the nature and timing of any taught components of the student's programme, and discuss the implications of failure to complete them.

Supervisors must provide guidance to their students on how to access pastoral advice and other forms of support from within the school, faculty and University. Students must be informed in detail of the full support structure available to them. Information for students is also available on the Current Students webpage.

Supervisors and the dissertation

Supervisors are responsible for offering guidance to their research students on the preparation of their dissertations, up to and including the final stages of drafting, and on corrections required by the examiners. However, the ultimate responsibility for the content of the dissertation and the decision to submit the work rests with the student. Supervisors should make it clear that their comments are advisory.

Supervisors and students must agree a timetable for discussing the draft submission; students are then responsible for ensuring that drafts are submitted within sufficient time to enable the supervisor to comment. Supervisors in turn must provide written comments in good time so as not to jeopardise the timing of the formal submission of the dissertation.

Supervisors must provide guidance to their students to assist them in understanding the nature and substance of supervisor comments so that, if appropriate, the comments may be incorporated into the final version of the dissertation.

Responsibility for ensuring that proofreading is done to the required standard lies with the student.

5.1.3 Guidance for supervisors on wider support and networking opportunities for their research students

Supervisors are part of a wider support network for their research students, and supervisors should be aware of the other available sources of support. Supervisors play an important part in helping a student to make contact with alternative sources of support within the school and in the wider University; for example: student advisers, school staff with designated responsibilities for pastoral care of research students, career advisers and other sources of pastoral advice and support for current students. Just Ask, a confidential advice service provided by Bristol Students’ Union, is also available to students. See also the practical guide for supervisors in supporting their research students in Annex 12.

Supervisors should also help students to network with others working in their field of research, for example by attending relevant conferences and seeking sources of funding for such events, and submitting papers to conferences and journals. Supervisors should also help the student engage with other researchers by providing information of any relevant research being undertaken within the school or University.

5.2 Supervisors’ knowledge, skills and responsibilities

Given their wide-ranging and important responsibilities, supervisors must have the appropriate knowledge and skills to provide effective support for their research students. This includes an awareness of the needs of different types of students and the academic standards and requirements of different research programmes.  Annex 12 provides a practical guide for supervisors in supporting their research students mainly in relation to non-academic matters but it also touches on some academic matters of a general nature.

Heads of School must ensure that the supervisors of research students have sufficient time to provide adequate support for each student. In determining overall workloads, Heads of School must take account of the range of responsibilities assigned to individual members of staff.

Experience of supervising taught Masters students during the dissertation stage of their degree can be a helpful background for a new supervisor of research students. Team supervision can also help new supervisors to acquire the necessary skills and expertise for their role.

There are specific considerations in relation to the supervision of distance learning research students as set out in the Policy for Research Degrees by Distance Learning in Annex 9.

5.2.1 Responsibilities of Heads of School

It is the responsibility of the Head of School (or nominee) to ensure that suitable supervisors are appointed, that they have the appropriate knowledge and skills, and that they have time to carry out their supervisory duties. Each supervisory team must satisfy the relevant Quality Assurance Agency requirements.

With regards to the suitability of supervisors, the Head of School (or nominee) shall consider whether there is an actual or potential conflict of interest before appointing main or co-supervisors. A ‘conflict of interest’ comprises a relationship between a supervisor and a student that would prevent or adversely affect the impartiality of the supervision, such as through personal, family or financial connections. Industrial or other professional supervisors (if involved) shall be included in these considerations.

5.2.2 Appointment criteria for main supervisors

Individuals being nominated for appointment as the research student’s main supervisor should:

  1. Be a member of academic staff holding an open contract of employment of the University of at least 0.5 FTE;
  2. Expect to remain in a research-active position within the University for the expected duration of the student's studies and be able to provide the necessary guidance and support to their research students;
  3. Be reasonably accessible;
  4. Have an understanding of University, faculty and school policies and procedures concerning research students and supervisory responsibilities;
  5. Have a minimum of three years’ experience of research degree supervision and have experience of supervising at least one doctoral student through to successful completion.

Note: An open contract of employment carries fully employment rights and has no fixed end date. Some staff with proleptic appointments will have open contracts depending on the nature of their individual contracts of employment. For further information see here

Exceptionally, a school may appoint an individual who does not satisfy 4 and 5, provided an experienced co-supervisor is also appointed. The Graduate Education Director must approve the arrangement and the main supervisor must comply with any faculty-specific training requirements. In such cases, the experienced co-supervisor will act as mentor to the main supervisor and will also act as the first point of contact for the student for non-academic matters.

The Graduate Education Director must be satisfied that the supervisory team can provide an appropriate level of support and guidance to a candidate before confirming the appointment of the supervisor. Where co-supervisors are appointed, one is to be identified as the main supervisor.

5.2.3 Appointment criteria for co-supervisors

The following categories of staff may not be the main supervisor of a research degree candidate, but may act as a co-supervisor with the permission of the Graduate Education Director.

  • Visiting Professors and Visiting Research Fellows, provided that they will be in post for the duration of the student’s degree and are able to maintain regular contact with the student.
  • Emeritus and retired members of staff, provided that they continue to be research-active and are able to maintain regular contact with the student.  Such staff are permitted to act as co-supervisor for continuing students but should not be appointed to supervise new students.  
  • Members of staff who are themselves currently registered as candidates for research degrees.
  • Members of academic staff who have yet to complete their initial service review.
  • Members of staff on Academic Pathway 2, levels A or B (for example, Research Associates).
  • Honorary and technical staff with relevant expertise and experience.

Schools and faculties should enable new supervisors to have a ‘mentor’ during their first few years in the role. Mentors must be established supervisors who have experience of supervising one or more research students to successful completion of their degree and who have a good understanding of the relevant University, faculty and school policies and procedures.

5.2.4 Supervision of joint or dual doctoral awards with staff from elsewhere

Arrangements for the supervision of joint or dual awards with staff from elsewhere are only permitted in cases where the University has a formal partnership agreement in place with the other institution/organisation, in line with the University’s Policy on Joint and Joint Doctoral Awards. In such cases, the main supervisor will be designated in accordance with the contractual obligations agreed with the partner institution/organisation in advance.

If a student is studying for a doctoral award at an affiliated institution, as defined in Ordinance 23, the main supervisor may be a member of staff of that institution with Honorary Academic Status at the University. In such cases, an academic member of staff from the University of Bristol will normally be appointed as co-supervisor. However, in exceptional circumstances, a suitably qualified member of staff from the affiliated institution may be appointed as co-supervisor with the permission of the Graduate Education Director.

5.2.5 External supervision

For some research students it may be necessary to appoint an external supervisor to provide particular expertise within the supervisory team, or if the research project involves a collaboration with an external organisation.

External supervisors will be based in, for example, professional practice or industry. Honorary staff at the University of Bristol are not deemed to be external supervisors. In addition, supervisors from other Higher Education Institutions appointed as part of joint or dual awards are not covered by this term (see Section 5.2.4 on supervision of joint or dual doctoral award with staff from elsewhere).

The role of the external supervisor is to complement the knowledge and expertise of the University of Bristol supervisors, and to provide a critical commentary on the planned research and on the work undertaken. Enabling access to facilities and/or other resources that would otherwise be unavailable to the student may also form part of the role.

An external supervisor may only be appointed where this is covered by a partnership agreement.

Where a research student has an external supervisor, the role of this supervisor within the team must be defined in the partnership agreement.  External supervisors must be able to fulfil the University’s expectations for the role and should have opportunities to engage in developmental and training activities.

If the main purpose of the role is to enable access to facilities and/or other resources, it may be more appropriate to organise a local support contact for the student, rather than appointing a formal external supervisor. A local support contact would not be part of the supervisory team, would not be involved in providing a critical commentary on the research, and would not have to be covered by a partnership agreement.

5.2.6 Training for supervisors

All new staff (Senior Lecturer/Lecturer or equivalent) will be required to complete a development session to support and prepare them for doctoral research supervision at Bristol.  Existing staff are encouraged to undertake continued professional development.

5.3 Change of supervisor

5.3.1 Responsibility of the Head of School

The Head of School (or nominee) is responsible for ensuring that research students have continuous supervision during their period of registered study. If a supervisor is absent for an extended period, leaves the University, or if there is an irreconcilable breakdown in the supervisory relationship, the Head of School (or nominee) must ensure that adequate supervisory support is maintained, including putting alternative arrangements in place where appropriate.

Where a change of supervisor is required, the Head of School (or nominee) must keep the student informed throughout the process. Replacement supervisors must meet the criteria for appointment in 5.2.2 for main supervisors and in Section 5.2.3 for co-supervisors.

The Head of School (or nominee) must take into account the requirements of any sponsors. Where a student is funded on a studentship attached to a particular supervisor or is on a specific research grant, it may not be possible to change supervisor. There may also be other circumstances where it is not feasible to change a supervisor.

In some circumstances, it may not be possible to identify a new supervisor for a student from within the University. If this is the case, the Head of School (or nominee) will explore options with the student.

5.3.2 Temporary unexpected absence of a supervisor

Where a supervisor is temporarily absent for an unexpected reason (for example, through illness), the Head of School (or nominee) must ensure that the research student continues to receive adequate supervision, which could include a new temporary arrangement for the duration of the absence. Students must be informed of their new first point of contact if it is their main supervisor who is unavailable.

Where the period of unexpected absence of a main supervisor is anticipated to exceed six months, the Head of School (or nominee) will normally appoint a permanent replacement or explore other options with the student.

5.3.3 Temporary planned absence of a supervisor

Where a supervisor has a planned temporary absence that prevents them from being reasonably accessible, the Head of School (or nominee) must ensure that the research student continues to receive adequate supervision. This could include a new temporary arrangement. Students must be informed of their new first point of contact if it is their main supervisor who is unavailable.

5.3.4 Breakdown in the supervisory relationship

If the relationship between a research student and their supervisor/s starts to break down, the Head of School (or nominee) will make available an alternative and independent source of advice to the student. In cases where the relationship suffers an irreconcilable breakdown, new supervisory arrangements or further options may be considered.

5.3.5 Requests to change supervisory arrangements

Supervisory responsibilities may be changed at the request of a research student or a supervisor to the Head of School (or nominee), who must take into account the requirements of any sponsors. Normally, any change of supervisor will be by mutual agreement between the student and the University.

5.3.6 Supervisors who move to other institutions

When a supervisor moves to another institution, the Head of School (or nominee) will explore the options available to the research student. This will take into account any sponsor requirements. It may be possible for co-supervision to continue at a distance, but the main supervisor must always meet the requirements set out in Section 5.2.2. Allocating a replacement supervisor from within the University may be the most appropriate action in these cases.

It is the responsibility of the Head of School (or nominee) to take all reasonable measures to appoint replacement supervisors or to facilitate supervision at a distance. In some circumstances however it may be more appropriate for the student to transfer to the supervisor’s new institution.

5.3.7 Supervisors who leave

When a supervisor leaves the University but does not move to another institution (for example, through retirement), the Head of School (or nominee) will explore the options available to the research student, including whether there is an appropriate replacement supervisor.

It is possible however for retired members of staff to act as a co-supervisor for continuing students, as per Section 5.2.3.