2. Supervision: Accounting for Time

Susan Gasson

Why read this chapter?

Time is an ever-present concern during candidature for all stakeholders involved. The six concepts of time provide perspectives to enable supervisors to build effective working relationships and realise mutually agreed outcomes with their higher degree researchers. Sharing the concepts of time can help higher degree researchers to build resilience and make progress.

The six concepts of time are:

  • Life time – impact of life events on researcher experiences
  • Career time – influence of career phase on researcher experiences
  • Supervisor time – role of supervisor in realising researcher development
  • Opportunity time – place of optional events in researcher development
  • Candidature time – understand degree requirements
  • Time management – plan progress through a candidature

We will look at strategic applications of these concepts of time which will help supervisors to manage:

  • workloads
  • work-life balance
  • the research education experience
  • research progress

and realise:

  • impactful research outcomes for higher degree researchers and supervisors.
  • independent researcher practices
  • higher degree researchers’ future careers.

Concepts of time in doctoral studies

Six concepts of time were identified in a narrative research study (Gasson, 2023).  The research was aimed at understanding the nature of the early career researcher pathway.  These concepts of time emerged as key to the doctoral experience and transitions to work.

Life time

By being aware of higher degree researchers’ life times, supervisors can negotiate arrangements to ensure that sufficient time is set aside for research studies. Supervisors can explain time requirements so that higher degree researchers are realistic about the demands of candidature. Higher degree researchers will then be able to decide if they are prepared to make any necessary compromises at home or at work. Compromises to accommodate research studies will vary depending on individual circumstances.

As past higher degree researchers, supervisors understand the costs and benefits of time spent enrolled in research education.  Most will remember the time taken in preparing to begin studies. That may have involved talking to family and friends, seeking out suitable supervisors, and applying for admission and scholarship funding. For some supervisors research studies were prompted by a passion for a topic, for others it was necessary for their pursuit of a research career.

Like their supervisors before them, most higher degree researchers come to research studies with family and work commitments. These commitments can delay studies commencing or impact on research progression. Some may intend to pursue an academic pathway, others may be trying to avoid stagnating in a role.

Career time

Higher degree researchers often enrol to advance or accelerate their career progress. Talking to higher degree researchers about their career expectations will help them to use that knowledge to guide the scope and focus of research projects. Together supervisors and higher degree researchers can discuss how best to shape the project to accommodate commitments that may come with career plans.  Commitments may include university teaching or industry engagement. Aligning projects to account for career expectations can provide the additional incentives needed to support higher degree researchers to timely completion.

Another value-add for supervisors in discussing career time with higher degree researchers is that it builds a stronger picture of the skills, capacities and resources they bring to candidature. Knowing the research work they have previously conducted, jobs they have held, infrastructure or data sets they have access to through their work or service, can prompt discussion not only about the project, but also about how it may be conducted. Perhaps they have a familiarity with methods gained from work in a sector, or skills and knowledge about particular techniques and instruments, or connections with industry networks who might fund projects or provide resources.  Discussions can be critical to optimising the shape of the project.

Understanding career time can also raise challenges. An executive worker with a very demanding work role may underestimate the demands of the program. Discussing the time commitments of their work situation can reveal their preparedness and capacity to engage in research education. A mid-career worker managing competing work and candidature commitments may identify ways to align their project with work related priorities.  A part-time worker might be able to combine the demands of work with the challenges of research education. Useful discussions between supervisors and higher degree researchers could potentially revolve around considering time consuming tasks that may either be mutually beneficial or confounding to the realisation of research outcomes. Full-time higher degree researchers hungry to get a leg up to start their career, may wish to discuss how they may use time in candidature to gain work experience, and how best to frame their expected research outcomes to meet the potential demands of future employers (see also Chapter 11).

Supervisor time

Higher degree researchers require the support of their supervisors. As a result, access to suitable supervisory capacity is usually a condition of admission and ongoing candidature. While practices vary globally, at least two supervisors are often appointed to a higher degree researcher.  At many universities, supervisors receive professional development and are required to conform with agreed policy frameworks in the conduct of supervisions.

The negotiation of time and the quality of contact and engagement is the concern of supervisory time. Each higher degree researcher will have varying needs over the term of candidature.  Supervisors can enable and facilitate the higher degree researcher in a range of ways. When supervisory time is agreed to the mutual satisfaction of everyone involved, it supports ongoing good relationships through to completion.

Higher degree researchers identify supervisors in a range of ways. Sometimes they have previously met with academics, and after becoming familiar with their work requested their support in making an application. Other higher degree researchers may make ad hoc approaches to potential supervisors at their university of choice.  In agreeing to supervise higher degree researchers, most supervisors are required to indicate that they have assessed the higher degree researcher as suitable, will continue the supervision through candidature, and feel confident to supervise the proposed research. Before agreeing to take on a new higher degree researcher, it is important to consider the time available based on the current workload.

The demands on supervisors during candidature can vary. At the start of candidature, most supervisors will discuss expectations with higher degree researchers. They will agree on how often they will meet, and how they will manage the review of work and progress.  Over time the level of contact and roles of the various supervisors can change.

Supervisors and higher degree researchers may wish to renegotiate roles over time as higher degree researchers become more independent and phases of work roll out. This usually leads to conversations around who will take the lead on key tasks such as supporting the development of laboratory techniques, accessing resources and samples, reviewing key literature, consideration of methods, and development of methodology.

One of the key concerns for higher degree researchers is receiving timely and relevant feedback on research and written work. Be clear about the time required for the review of work, and the role of each supervisor in the process. Discuss how these timelines may vary depending on the amount and frequency of requests for work to be reviewed.

Candidature time

Supervisors are responsible for explaining to higher degree researchers how to manage their candidature time in line with college or university award requirements.  As researchers, you will also need to consider relevant compliance and progress requirements. Management of candidature time can be supported through the use of project management tools such as timelines, publication plans, and compliance checklists.

Discussions between supervisors and higher degree researchers about candidature time are vital when there are any concerns about progress to completion. Normally, the expected term of candidature is set out by the awarding university. However, as supervisors, you may have a preferred approach to achieving completion.  You also need to account for any expectations of higher degree researchers about candidature time based on their personal circumstances or future plans or commitments.

Evaluation of progress needs to be a routine and transparent part of managing candidature time (see also Time Management below).  If progress is slow, supervisors should carefully consider if higher degree researchers need to be pushed to continue to make progress or be encouraged to take a break. Supervisors often develop an ability to celebrate little wins along the way that encourage progress, and craft feedback to recognise effort. It can help to work from an early stage with your higher degree researchers to normalise expectations of high levels of critical feedback designed to stimulate deeper thinking and quality outputs.

Time management

Supervisors will often use a timeline to assist with higher degree researcher time management.  Universities usually expect higher degree researchers to establish and maintain a living timeline for completion that can be shared regularly and discussed with supervisors.  Progress evaluation cycles can act as a prompt to update timelines.  The elements included in the timeline may change over time and all parties should be open to reviewing and revising requirements as circumstances of the candidature change.

Timelines articulate the steps involved in realising completion. Supervisors are aware of the steps involved and the time that each requires.  Higher degree researchers need to know if supervisors think they have not allocated enough time on their timeline for ethics approval, or completion of a cycle of data collection or analysis, or if something is missing. Commonly time for reviewing work, and editing may be left out, but should be a consideration in the timeline.

Timelines can be used to encourage students to generate writing from the very start of their candidature. “Writing up” at the end is a risky practice and impractical for those pursuing a thesis by published paper. Continuous writing throughout the candidature allows for iterative skills development. Written tasks need to be featured within timelines. Higher degree researchers can be helped to appreciate that thesis writing involves writing and reviewing by making time review cycles visible on their timelines.

The sharing of time constraints is an important feature of time management (see Life time above). Key time constraints to record on the timeline are maximum candidature, scholarship, and visa duration.  Supervisors leave and workload can impact their availability to support higher degree researchers. Informing higher degree researchers of times of potentially reduced availability will help them to manage their timelines more effectively. Equally, higher degree researchers should record their own holiday plans and other commitments and build these into their progression plans.  An average of four weeks leave per year for all is strongly encouraged.

Opportune time

Opportunities will arise for higher degree researchers during candidature. The challenge is to take the opportunities that align best with candidature priorities. Together supervisors and higher degree researchers should plan out the best use of opportunity time. Supervisors can help in the identification of the opportunities that will advance higher degree researchers’ research projects, capacity development, and preparation for transition for work after graduation.

Opportunities can offer direct and indirect benefits for the higher degree researcher’s project. Direct benefits come from such things as attending induction sessions, engaging with supervisors, and participating in research meetings and seminars. Those with less direct benefit might include joining article publication review groups, representing students on committees, and giving tutorials or guest lectures.

Industry engaged research education is popular globally. Higher degree researchers in some countries are prompted by funded programs to consider internships and work-based mentoring programs. There is usually flexibility and capacity for supervisors and higher degree researchers to plan the nature and timing of internships. Supervisors may be influential in identifying suitable mentors, internships, or industry linked projects.  Such opportunities can help higher degree researchers to build their own research networks and communities.

Supervisors can help higher degree researchers find the right balance between engaging in extension opportunities and getting the research done. They assess the value of opportunities for higher degree researchers’ development while accounting for their candidature and career progress. While encouraging higher degree researchers to enhance their resumes and develop new skills is important; this always needs to be balanced against time to completion.

Apply these ideas in your practice

A workbook is provided below that allows you to document your experiences of the six concepts of time. Below we offer some ways that you might wish to use this workbook in your supervisory practice.

In the Reference Materials box below, use the workbook to:

  • think about what the concepts of time mean for you
  • invite one of your higher degree researchers to complete the workbook
  • discuss with your higher degree researcher a concept of time of concern
  • consider the best use of your supervisory time.

Reference Materials

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.


Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N., Azzi, A., Frenay, M., Galand, B., & Klein, O. (2017). Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: A matter of sense, progress and distress. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 32(1), 61-77. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-016-0290-0

Friedrich-Nel, H. & Mac Kinnon, J. (2019) The quality culture in doctoral education: Establishing the critical role of the doctoral supervisor. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 56(2), 140-149. http://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2017.1371059

Gravett, K. (2021), Disrupting the doctoral journey: Re-imagining doctoral pedagogies and temporal practices in higher education.Teaching in Higher Education, 26(3), 293–305. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1853694

Kaslow, N. J., Bangasser, D. A., Grus, C. L., McCutcheon, S. R., & Fowler, G. A. (2018). Facilitating pipeline progress from doctoral degree to first job. American Psychologist, 73(1), 47–62. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000120

Kendal, E. & Waterhouse-Watson, D. (2022). I’m a unicorn, ask me how! What the rise of ‘quit lit’ and ‘staypieces’ says about higher education and academia. Studies in Higher Education, 47(3), 560-571. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2020.1770714

Mawson, K., & Abbott, I. (2017). Supervising the professional doctoral student: Less process and progress, more peripheral participation and personal identity. Management in Education31(4), 187–193. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020617738182

Pilerot, O. (2016), A practice-based exploration of the enactment of information literacy among PhD students in an interdisciplinary research field. Journal of Documentation, 72(3), 414-434. https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-05-2015-0056

Skakni, I. (2018) Doctoral studies as an initiatory trial: Expected and taken-for-granted practices that impede PhD students’ progress. Teaching in Higher Education, 23(8), 927-944. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1449742

Yue, H., Fu, X. (2017) Rethinking graduation and time to degree: A fresh perspective. Research in Higher Education, 58, 184–213. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-016-9420-4


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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.

Gasson, S. C. (2023). Early career researcher pathways: A narrative inquiry. Queensland University of Technology. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/239442/