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 16 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 11

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) are included in these considerations.

The Head of School (or nominee) may request advice from the Faculty PGR Director on the appointment of supervisory teams.

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 at the University of at least 0.5 FTE[1];
  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. 

Exceptionally, a school may appoint an individual who does not satisfy 4 and 5, provided an experienced co-supervisor is also appointed. The Faculty PGR 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 Faculty PGR 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 of co-supervisors

As well as the main supervisor, there must be at least one co-supervisor for each research student.

The following categories of staff may not be the main supervisor but may act as a co-supervisor with the permission of the Faculty PGR 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 policies on Dual 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 Faculty PGR 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.


[1] An open contract of employment carries full 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.