1. Approaches to Supervision

Christine Bruce; Ian Stoodley; and Susan Gasson

Why read this chapter?

In this chapter we explore three approaches to supervision of higher degrees by research as the highest form of learning and teaching:

  • Scaffolding – building detailed plans that guide research progress
  • Direction setting – taking a big picture view of the outcomes to be realised
  • Relationship – building a rapport that will let everyone endure the challenges and thrive during candidature.

Three different perspectives on the approaches are also explored:

  • Higher Degree Researcher perspectives – learning and developing as a researcher, accounting for prior experience
  • Supervisor perspectives – maintaining research standards, building supervisory capacity, and imparting expertise
  • Wider community perspectives – making original contributions through broader engagement.

The approaches outlined below are the outcome of research involving interviews with supervisors within a science and engineering research education community (Bruce & Stoodley, 2013). The research was funded as part of an Australian Learning and Teaching Council grant.

Familiarity with the approaches may allow supervisors to consciously select their preferred approach for a particular context and broaden their repertoire of approaches to enable healthy and holistic candidature experiences.

Approaches to supervision

In this chapter we introduce three approaches that accommodate a range of supervisor and candidate contexts. These approaches have been adopted by supervisors working with higher degree researchers, who each come to studies with a unique set of skills and abilities, life circumstances, as well as expectations of their research education experience.

As supervisors, you are encouraged to come to this chapter ready to reflect on your own supervisory experiences as you engage with the approaches and perspectives described. The approaches offer alternative practices, and perspectives, and may support you in reflecting on your supervision of higher degree researchers. In doing this you may wish to account for broader considerations such as the expectations of key stakeholders including employers, industry, or community partners in supporting your higher degree researcher’s career aspirations. You may also examine the relationships between the higher degree researcher’s project and your broader body of research (see also Chapter 3).

Approach One – Scaffolding

♦ The idea

The first approach to consider is scaffolding- building detailed plans to guide the higher degree researcher. Your selection of an approach will be informed by what is happening in the supervisory process. When supervisors adopt a scaffolding approach, higher degree researchers will be encouraged to make systematic, planned progress.

A project management approach, for example, may support higher degree researchers’ engagement with the research process. The scaffolding may also involve negotiating a project plan that clearly sets out the respective roles of higher degree researchers and supervisors in the project. In this approach,  the focus is on acquiring research skills and capabilities and defining tasks and responsibilities that will be required at various points along the way. Such exposition of roles can inform the creation of a plan, perhaps including monthly, or even weekly outputs during critical phases. When scaffolding supervisors build into plans expectations for reporting on progress toward completion.  Plans create an opportunity for discussion of deliverables. Deliverables might include aspects of the research process (e.g., data collection and analysis), required elements (e.g., candidature milestones), research outputs (e.g., journal or conference papers), or research compliance requirements (e.g., ethics applications, data management plans and intellectual property agreements).


♦ When to use this approach?

Supervisors can use the scaffolding approach to great effect at the start of candidature when introducing higher degree researchers to the notion of evolving a researcher identity. Establishing shared expectations can give higher degree researchers direction, helping them establish a pattern of work. Sharing expectations will also help them to avoid confusion or misunderstanding that can confound progress (see also Tracking Postgraduate Research Tool [Word document]). Scaffolding can also be applied to realise key objectives such as confirmation and publication deadlines, or thesis submission. The project plan may need to be set out in more detail toward the end of the candidature. A shared completion project plan will ensure that supervisors incorporate the final review of the thesis into their busy calendars and that details for finalisation of intellectual property, authorship, and data storage are taken into account. In using the scaffolding approach, it is important to empower higher degree researchers to take ownership of their projects, and responsibility for planning as the candidature unfolds.

Approach Two – Direction setting

♦ The idea

The application of direction setting requires supervisors to take a big-picture view of the research project being undertaken. Adoption of this approach helps higher degree researchers understand the work required in creating a significant and original contribution to knowledge. Supervisors can contribute to direction setting because of their deep understanding of the nature of the thesis genre within their discipline. That understanding comes from the experience of completing their own higher degree studies and working as supervisors and examiners of higher degree researchers. Direction setting involves higher degree researchers realising the scope and focus of their knowledge contribution. Higher degree researchers can struggle to identify the aspect of their life’s work to be addressed in the confines of the thesis experience. Direction setting can also be a way of identifying where project plans need additional development, or research questions/hypotheses are poorly defined. Direction setting requires supervisors to emphasise the need for a reasonable set of research objectives, and methods, and theories that can appropriately inform the work. As the scope and focus of projects are established, higher degree researchers’ career plans should also be influential. For those seeking academic careers, for example, projects may involve basic research, conference attendance, and authorship of journal articles. For those wishing to return to their professions, thesis work may be more applied and inform presentations to professional associations, and engagement with industry mentors (see also Chapter 11 and Chapter 13).

Supervisors can use this approach to establish the scope and focus of higher degree researchers’ projects. The outcome of direction setting discussions can be establishing research questions, or approaching industry or community groups to assist with data collection. By pointing higher degree researchers in the right direction, they can become more proactive in progressing their research. Adoption of this approach helps higher degree researchers to clarify their research goals.

Direction setting may involve consideration of the methods to be used, the funding required, and the theoretical or conceptual framework for the work. Selecting the domain where the work will occur helps the higher degree researcher to navigate the literature that will inform their work and identify the networks that may become part of their research community into the future. Discussion needs to account for the higher degree researcher’s interests and skills, and the expertise and experience of the supervisors.

Contingency plans can be discussed as part of the direction setting. There are many reasons for requiring a Plan B. If higher degree researchers’ approaches require expertise, skills, or resources beyond the range of the supervisory panel, discuss amending or augmenting the panel. If resource requirements are ambitious, or their provision is doubtful, a contingency plan should be considered. When ethics approval for access to the desired participant group may be complex and time consuming, consideration of alternative ways of gathering data may be needed. When the method or theory to be used is not clear, supervisors may ask their higher degree researcher to source additional readings. In selecting methods and theoretical approaches alignment with supervisors prioritised disciplinary or professional perspectives or expertise should be accounted for.

♦ When to use this approach?

Supervisors may find direction setting valuable at the start of candidature, but it may also be relevant if projects do not progress as planned. Contingency planning is a routine part of research work, as outcomes are necessarily uncertain. At moments of uncertainty, direction setting can help identification of a way forward, accounting for shared interests in research outcomes and resource constraints (see also Tracking Postgraduate Research Tool [Word document]).

Approach Three – Relationship

♦ The idea

Supervisors can use the relationship approach to build rapport that will help everyone endure higher degree challenges and thrive through candidature. Relationship building provides an opportunity for supervisors to focus on establishing a learning community, support networks, and personal interactions. Learning together, building working relationships with other higher degree research cohorts and industry partners, or maintaining collaborations with researcher communities are best progressed using Relationships. This approach fundamentally involves seeing the higher degree researcher as a colleague, and adapting processes and directions according to needs and circumstances of all parties involved.

Where supervisors and higher degree researchers already know each other there may be less need to establish a relationship. Where higher degree researchers are coming to study from another university, city, or country, then establishing a learning community will be more imperative. In both cases, relationships can allow supervisors to devote time to establishing expectations of all involved.

A holistic approach is required to build a relationship of trust and respect, and establish a safe space for research collaboration. As adults with life, work, and family commitments; it is not unusual for higher degree researchers to experience significant life events. Supervisors are not expected to be counsellors or health care providers. It can be challenging to know how to respond when higher degree researchers report life changing events that will impact project progress. Changes may be positive or negative. Even positive changes, such as the offer of a job or starting a family, will require the review of expectations. Where the change is more negative – financial, marital, or wellness concerns – a first response may be an empathetic referral to support services.

In contrast to teaching coursework studies where engagement lasts for an 8-13 week semester, supervising research degrees involves maintaining a relationship for years. Completing a research degree for many higher degree researchers involves negotiating time and financial imposts on their family and workplace. Families and employers have vested interests in higher degree researchers’ progress and completion. Accounting for these interests allows supervisors to be more sensitive in their support and guidance of the higher degree researcher.

The pressure of candidature builds gradually through the degree. After the first spring of delight at admission, the pleasure of immersion in an area of passion can last for much of the candidature. But there are many challenges and demands. Helping the higher degree researcher build resilience to adversity, and persistence in the face of ongoing pressure, is part of the work of the supervisor. Toward completion, higher degree researchers can face numerous conflicting pressure beyond finalising the thesis, such as transitioning to work, and aligning thesis submission with visa, lease, and scholarship end dates (see also Chapter 2).

One challenge for supervisors is how to motivate higher degree researchers to stay on track. This may require focused skills and capacity building, intense one-on-one support, or referrals to professional services or research networks. Sometimes providing timely feedback, taking time for a coffee catch up, or supporting submission for a journal article can get a candidature back on track.

In extreme cases, a higher degree researcher’s life circumstances may present a major barrier to progress. Ensuring that higher degree researchers appreciate the high levels of cognitive attention vital to their management of limited resources can help them prioritise and work through adversity. Strong relationships will ensure supervisors are aware of concerns and can support applications for leave or time away from higher degree research as required to address pressing concerns (see also Chapter 3 to further explore the role of supervisors in building collaborative research cultures and collaborative capacity).

♦ When to use this approach?

Collegial relationships with their higher degree researchers, university administration, and others frequently allows supervisors to smooth wrinkles in candidatures. Helping higher degree researchers build learning communities and support networks can be a wonderful strategy. This approach allows supervisors to delegate some work. Creating peer-to-peer writing groups allows higher degree researchers to get feedback on early drafts, see the quality of the work of others, and gain experience as reviewers. At cohort gatherings, higher degree researchers can practice presentations and share their challenges and successes. These conversations help higher degree researchers to normalise some of the research difficulties they will face day to day. Industry mentors can help higher degree researchers explore career objectives and also consider how their research may have social impact into the future. Contact with industry can open up access to resources, and create internship, and job opportunities.

The final stages of candidature, when scholarships and visas may be coming to an end, present a particularly demanding time both academically and personally. While needing to focus on completion, the higher degree researcher can be distracted by the need to find work, or return to their home country, or apply for extensions to fund additional time required to complete. Being aware of these demands and pressures is essential. Discussions with your higher degree researcher can help reveal who in the university or community can assist with concerning issues. Resolving financial and career concerns can be key to finalising the thesis for submission (see also Chapter 3).

Perspectives on applying the approaches to supervision

Supervisors tend to have familiar or preferred ways of thinking about teaching in the research context. Their thinking may vary depending on the phase of candidature, or the nature of the research process. Ways of thinking may be informed by role models or past practices. Table 1.1, below, provides a menu that you can call on to extend your practice. This may be in response to a new challenge, or the desire to develop your practice further.

Table 1.1: Supervisors’ ways of thinking about teaching in the research context (adapted from Bruce & Stoodley, 2009)
Focus Content Supervisor’s intention Supervisor’s strategy

Teaching in the research context is viewed as:

Supervisor perspectives


Upholding academic standards


Promoting the supervisor’s development


Imparting academic expertise

Higher degree researcher perspectives


Promoting learning to research


Enabling student development


Drawing upon student expertise

Wider community perspectives


Venturing into unexplored territory


Contributing to society


Forming productive communities

Supervisor perspectives

Ensuring the rigour and quality of the research generated by higher degree researchers requires the application of disciplinary standards and research knowledge. These perspectives may be particularly relevant or useful as higher degree researchers approach milestone events such as the submission of a publication, or ethics application. Your higher degree researchers have probably selected you because of the expertise and knowledge you bring to the process. They look for your role modelling and will be interested in your research outputs, and practices. Encourage them to participate in your institution’s professional development events, and to engage with your research community to acculturate them to your discipline and research culture.

Higher degree researcher perspectives

Particularly at the start of candidature, it can be useful for supervisors to adopt a higher degree researcher perspective. These perspectives open up connections, allowing supervisors to get to know higher degree researchers and explore their readiness for the research journey. By being aware of what they know already, what has prompted them to engage in research, and their expectations of research studies, supervisors can guide their experiences. Being empathetic to their concerns and responsive to their needs, supervisors can guide their transition to research studies and beyond.

Conversation starters

What methodologies have you used previously?

How might this research design impact your work-life balance?

What research approaches are you keen to pursue, and why?

How can we build your confidence in the execution of your research design?

Wider community perspectives

Broader communities can support your higher degree researcher’s development and their research. They may be able to provide the data or site for the research work. They may be able to provide infrastructure to facilitate the research work. They may be able to provide research expertise to enable the implementation of the research work. Identifying suitable communities and engaging with them meaningfully to realise outcomes that can build relationships and partnerships are critical for the success of a project and longer-term research activities.  Mentors from business, government, and the community can also help higher degree researchers build connections and skills that will influence their future career.

Conversation starters

How might this work help you in the future?

How might (a field leader) respond to this idea?

Who might benefit from the findings from your study?

How might you better engage the research partners with your research?


Table 1.1 above describes different teaching contexts and perspectives on research education. Work through each row to consider how different supervisory approaches could help you to navigate different contexts. Consider how these approaches allow your expertise to inform the context. Consider using or sharing the workshop and brochure reference materials provided below (see Reference Materials).

Reference Materials

The following materials were developed as part of a Higher Degree Researcher-focused Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) Grant:

Bruce, C. S. & Stoodley, I. D. (2009). Student resources for the use of supervisors. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/28585/  

Bruce, C. S., & Stoodley, I. D. (2010). Science and technology supervision resources: Towards a pedagogy of supervision in the technology disciplines. Australian Learning and Teaching Council. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/38456/

Bruce, C. S. & Stoodley, I. D. (2012). Resources to assist research student supervision [Unpublished manuscript]. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/50553/

Bruce, C. S. & Stoodley, I. D. (2013). Experiencing higher degree research supervision as teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 38(2), 226-241. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2011.576338

Additional Resources

While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Bøgelund. P. (2015). How supervisors perceive PhD supervision – And how they practice it. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 10, 39-55.

Boud, D. & Lee, A. (2005). Peer learning’ as pedagogic discourse for research education, Studies in Higher Education, 30(5), 501-516. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070500249138

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., & Parry, O. (2004). Supervising the doctorate: A guide to success. McGraw-Hill Education.

Denholm, C., & Evans, T. (2012). Doctorates downunder (2nd ed.). ACER Press.

Fillery-Travis, A. & Robinson, L. (2018). Making the familiar strange – A research pedagogy for practice, Studies in Higher Education, 43(5), 841-853. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2018.1438098

Halbert, K. (2015) Students’ perceptions of a ‘quality’ advisory relationship, Quality in Higher Education, 21(1), 26-37. https://doi.org/10.1080/13538322.2015.1049439

Hands, A. & Buchanan, S. (Eds). (2024). The self-determined doctorate. Brill.

Huet, I. & Casanova, D. (2021). Exploring the professional development of online and distance doctoral supervisors, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 58(4), 430-440. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2020.1742764

Johansson, C., & Yerrabati, S. (2017). A review of the literature on professional doctorate supervisory styles. Management in Education, 31(4), 166-171. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020617734821

McCulloch, A., Kumar, V. van Schalkwyk, S. & Wisker, G. (2016). Excellence in doctoral supervision: An examination of authoritative sources across four countries in search of performance higher than competence. Quality in Higher Education, 22(1), 64-77. https://doi.org/10.1080/13538322.2016.1144904

National Academy of Sciences. (2019). The science of effective mentorship in STEMM. Online Guide V1.0. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/resource/25568/interactive/

Robertson, M. J. (2017). Trust: the power that binds in team supervision of doctoral students. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(7), 1463-1475. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2017.1325853

Sagers, J. (2019, April, 4). Five reasons to do an internship during your PhD programme. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01087-9

Taylor, R., Vitale, T., Tapoler, C. & Whaley, K. (2018). Desirable qualities of modern doctorate advisors in the USA: A view through the lenses of candidates, graduates, and academic advisors. Studies in Higher Education, 43(5), 854-866. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2018.1438104

Taylor, S., Kiley, M., & Humphrey, R. (2017). A handbook for doctoral supervisors. Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315559650


While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Bruce, C. S. & Stoodley, I. D. (2009). Student resources for the use of supervisors. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/28585/  

Bruce, C. S., & Stoodley, I. D. (2010). Science and technology supervision resources: Towards a pedagogy of supervision in the technology disciplines. Australian Learning and Teaching Council. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/38456/

Bruce, C. S. & Stoodley, I. D. (2012). Resources to assist research student supervision [Unpublished manuscript]. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/50553/

Bruce, C. S. & Stoodley, I. D. (2013). Experiencing higher degree research supervision as teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 38(2), 226-241. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2011.576338



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Confident Supervisors: Creating Independent Researchers Copyright © 2023 by Christine Bruce; Ian Stoodley; and Susan Gasson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.