EUA Council for Doctoral Education


Are Portuguese doctoral candidates on board with changes to supervision?

Against the backdrop of ongoing debates in Portugal, this article explores the seeming contradiction between proposed changes in doctoral supervision and doctoral candidates' impressions of them, implying alignment with a more ‘traditional’ understanding of supervision.

Doctoral education in Europe has evolved over recent decades to become more articulated and responsive to societal needs and expectations. This is due to a variety of circumstances, notably the recognition of the doctorate's strategic relevance for the knowledge society and economy.

The traditional concept of the doctorate sees it as primarily focused on developing original research to understand phenomena within a scientific field, based on the 'apprentice-master' relationship, and serving as a gateway to an academic career. However, this has arguably now given way to more instrumental, or utilitarian, concepts. These are based on increased structuring, greater focus on multidisciplinary, collaborative and practice-based knowledge, skills and professional development, and diversity in terms of types distinct from the research doctorate, as well as components of the doctoral process, including supervision.

In response to criticism of its alleged inadequacy toward the requirements of the modern doctorate, the traditional 'apprentice-master' supervision model gives way to multiple supervision models based on supervision teams, dissertation panels, or committees. This is often combined with additional forms of candidate support, such as integration into networks and groups of peers, professors, and researchers. These approaches are thought to aid candidates’ scientific socialisation and integration, as well as their research performance and output, skills and professional development, and, ultimately, the successful and timely completion of the doctorate.

A recent study found that universities in Portugal are adapting to this shift in supervision by adopting regulatory mechanisms and alternative supervision models. Doctoral candidates, on the other hand, do not appear to be as enthusiastic about these developments.

They seem to favour more 'traditional' supervisor roles and functions, strongly tied to providing guidance and support on the development of doctoral research, for which the candidate is primarily responsible. Therefore, they understand the logic of the supervision relationship as 'horizontal'. That is, despite the presence of an underlying hierarchy dictated by the supervisor's competence and expertise, space for candidate opinions, decisions, and autonomy in relation to doctoral work is preserved. Furthermore, they perceive the supervision relationship as based on scientific follow-up and review of the doctoral research. As such, the relationship serves to imprint scientific rigour and accuracy throughout the various stages of research development, rather than to provide guidance and support to candidate competences and professional development.

Candidates also emphasise the importance of selecting the supervisor themselves, based on specific criteria. This may include having previously been supervised by that academic (for example, for their master's degree), the adequacy of the supervisor's profile and expertise in relation to the theme, object, or area of the doctoral research, or recognition of the supervisor’s scientific competency and supervision capacity. Choosing the supervisor was typically the first step, followed by defining the doctoral research topic. The importance of the supervisor and having a close relationship influenced the decision of the co-supervisor (if one existed), which was generally based on the supervisor's recommendation.

Co-supervision was perceived to have positive effects on doctoral work and the candidate’s scientific development – supplementing or assisting supervision, integrating different approaches in doctoral research, and discussing problems and expanding solutions. However, for candidates, it is only feasible as long as it did not interfere with the fundamental 'apprentice-master' relationship. Indeed, they find that supervision by a single supervisor has a special, almost 'sacred' quality, and is self-sufficient.

Co-supervision, on the other hand, may complicate not only the primary candidate-supervisor relationship and communication, but also the development of the doctoral work, due to potential scenarios of conflict of opinion and approaches. As a result, candidates feel that when co-supervision is required, it is critical to clarify and establish the supervisor's higher relevance from the start, as there should be someone who assumes leadership and primary responsibility for supervision.

Candidates' reluctance towards co-supervision is heightened by the possibility of it being undertaken by experts outside of academia. Although they see co-supervision by non-academics as having the potential to strengthen connections to practice-based and professional contexts, they also express concerns that it may introduce entropy, dispersion, or even disruption in doctoral work, as it implies introducing a paradigm different from the academic paradigm and thus distant from academic research.

Previous opinions appear to indicate that candidates have little interest in multiple or plural models of supervision, which are perceived as undermining the privileged apprentice-master relationship through third-party intermediation. This position is further backed by an inconsistent awareness of such models, which is limited to sparse references to supervision by thesis committees, advisory panels, or tutor monitoring.

Certain aspects of doctoral candidates’ perspectives on what and how supervision should be, can be explained in part by the fact that this study was conducted among candidates in the first year of their doctorates. Therefore, the respondents may not have been familiar with the potential benefits associated with supervision models other than the ‘traditional’ one.

However, these perspectives may also be related to the premise that supervision should remain sheltered from the changes, increasingly instrumental in nature, occurring in doctoral education. Interestingly, the study found that supervision was the dimension of doctoral education where candidates were most closely aligned with the aforementioned traditional concept. With regard to several other dimensions (specifically, its underlying rationality and expertise, organisation, and other aspects of the doctoral process) they were closer to an instrumental view.

Whatever the reasons for the candidates' perspectives, it seems important that universities make an effort not only to be more conscious of candidates' expectations regarding supervision and supervisors, but also to make them more aware of the benefits of multiple supervision models.

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Sónia Cardoso

Sónia Cardoso is Assistant Professor and Researcher at Lusófona University, Portugal. She is a full researcher at this university's Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Education and Development (CeiED) and a member of its Doctoral College. Her primary research interests include higher education policies and institutional and organisational analysis, with a recent focus on doctoral education. Her work on this topic covers ongoing structural transformations related to the doctorate, as well as specific dimensions such as supervision.