PD Dr. habil. Helmut Brentel Consulting & Training in Higher Education
PD Dr. habil. Helmut BrentelConsulting & Training in Higher Education

Principles of Doctoral Supervision


Suggestions for a joint understanding of good and successful practice in doctoral supervision and supervisors training


  1. Outstanding research supervision and supervisors training are a core strategic task for universities in order to improve the quality of the doctorate and the skills acquired during the PhD trajectory.
    This defines an indispensable effort which has to go together with establishing newly structured doctoral schools.
    To gain best practice and leadership in research supervision and supervisors training has to become a core element of the strategic development plans of our universities.

  2. Research supervision and doctoral schools are an outermost important interface for acquiring urgently needed skills for all societal challenges and needs as well as for career paths both inside and outside the university.
    The product of doing a PhD is no more only the thesis or rather the direct research result but the doctoral candidate with all of his or her outstanding skills. So joint skills development of supervisors and supervisees has to be in the centre of the overall training concept.

  3. Designing measures for research supervision and supervisors training has fully to be aware that it serves for the needs of the new hybrid type of doctoral candidates who are able and eager to take over leading positions and roles in academia as well as in industry or non-governmental institutions worldwide.
  4. Supervisors training should be implemented in a first step with priority to the new generation of young supervisors.
  5. It is highly important for universities starting with supervisors training to reach a critical mass of newly trained supervisors in a relatively short time.
    So, according to the university seize, at least 100 to 150 supervisors should be trained within two years.

  6. Making a clear and strong impact from the beginning and to show the continuity and sustainability of the training concept enables to establish a self-organised community of best professional practice in research supervision with the aim of creating an utmost productive and supportive research culture
  7. With regard to the still lacking situation in many Continental European countries it is of high importance that at least a few universities in each country are willing and able to go into the lead with designing and establishing comprehensive concepts and measures.
  8. Best benchmarks and practice examples should be chosen and used all over Europe or rather worldwide.
    It is not recommendable and in fact misleading to mainly compare with regional or national universities or partner universities who are more or less in the same lacking situation.

  9. It is crucial to develop a comprehensive and integrated concept and training which makes it possible to catch up with the international state of the art in research supervision from the beginning.
    The concept should comprise all activities and measures necessary to reach outstanding performance in research supervision and supervisors training and to gain high synergy effects.

  10. Supervisors training for professionalising PhD supervision should comprise at least:
    - two-days initial workshops for younger supervisors
    - one-day follow-up workshops for younger supervisors
    - training measures for experienced supervisors
    - long term ongoing fresh-up and improvement training element for young
      and experienced supervisors (e.g. supervising international doctoral
    - one-day supervision training for doctoral candidates (directly after being  
    - information and training for heads of doctoral schools

  11. It is highly recommendable to establish a parallel training concept which provides at the same time (within one semester) initial 2-days training courses for young supervisors and 1-day training courses for their doctoral candidates.
    This enables both parties - in the sense of a professional couple - to start with similar knowledge and awareness into the joint PhD trajectory tasks and challenges.

  12. Sustainable supervisors training concept should in a long perspective also comprise the training of future trainers of supervisors.
    Some of the newly trained trainers should get the offer and opportunity to participate in a ‘train the trainer programme’ which enables the university and some of its members to strengthen its own resources and to systematically acquire further valuable knowledge and skills.

  13. Discussions and feedback in training sessions with very good and motivated supervisors show the need and request for additional skills qualification in three areas
    - time and self management
    - single and group coaching (techniques)
    - project management
    Such courses can of course not substitute the core supervisors training but  endow the participants with helpful additional knowledge and techniques for a sensible and effective task and live management.

  14. Supervisor training has to be based on a deep analytical and practical understanding of the approaches, tasks and challenges of research supervision. But nevertheless it has to start from the experiences, problems and worries of the participants. Thus the methods used have to bring together both perspectives and contributions:
    - the state of the art input of the trainer – “food for thought”
    - exchanging experiences and interactive exercises in working groups,
      participants elaborating their own insights and solutions
    - practical knowledge and skills – working with a toolkit, peer group
      coaching techniques
    Research supervision has to be well understood as a demanding and in a certain extend complex task. It is beyond the idea of simple effectiveness by nice recipes, tips and tricks.

  15. In order to successfully implement a comprehensive supervisors training concept it is necessary to have the commitment and backing of the university heads and to inform and to mobilize the relevant university’s actor system of all the stakeholders in the field.
  16. If the university does not have any experience with supervisors training yet it is recommendable to start in a first step with volunteer but strongly recommended training offers for supervisors and supervisees.
  17.  After an introductory period of two or three years supervisors training should become obligatory for scholars who are starting to supervise doctoral candidates: newly appointed professors in their first academic position, junior professors, leaders of junior research training groups, experienced post docs with well defined co-supervision tasks.
  18. In order to gain outstanding performance and the full commitment of the supervisors as well as the doctoral candidates it is necessary to reduce all avoidable bureaucratic burdens and to clearly improve the institutional practices and regulations.
    It is strongly recommendable to elaborate a set of guidelines, regulations and tools which define and assess the responsibilities and tasks in research supervision e.g.
    - Guideline for doing a PhD – jointly
    - Guidelines for progress monitoring and reporting
    - Guidelines for good scientific practice
    - Code of good practice for supervisors
    - Requirements for supervisory teams
    - Transparent criteria for selection
    - Self-assessment tools for supervisors and doctoral candidates

  19. Universities should do their best to strongly improve the often missing full recognition of the supervisor’s efforts, responsibilities and tasks by emphasising these efforts, but also by offering rewards e.g. reduction of teaching load.
  20. Providing awards for the best supervisors of the year is a highly recommendable measure in order to improve a joint understanding of quality criteria and procedures and to help to establish an overall supervision culture.



Published January 2016 for the


9th EUA-CDE Workshop


DOCTORAL SUPERVISION - practices and responsibilities


Delft University of Technology