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Centre for Doctoral Education



Different ways of co-supervising students

UCL requires all students to have two supervisors: one principal supervisor, and one subsidiary. The responsibilities of these two roles are specified by UCL in the code of practice. Amongst other things, the principal is normally responsible for decisions about the students’ progression, such as admission, upgrading and the arrangements for the final examination. The subsidiary supervisor must, at a minimum, meet with the student, provide support and cover for the principal supervisor and be familiar with the student’s work.

All students who have been accepted since the merger with UCL should have two supervisors. In addition, all students who began their studies before the merger should have two supervisors by 2020.

There are several ways in which co-supervision can be positive for all involved, such as:

  • Complementary expertise, either in terms of the topic or the processes of supervision
  • Continuity if one supervisor is absent or leaves
  • Demonstrating to the student that different positions can be taken, which can model the development of independence and autonomy
  • Mutual support for the supervisors, in the face of difficulties

However, some aspects of co-supervision can be challenging, including:

  • A lack of clarity about each person’s role in the arrangement
  • Failures of consistency, and coordinated advice or guidance to the student, or even conflict between the supervisors
  • Disagreement about expectations or approaches
  • Practical challenges of coordination and logistics
  • Work or issues ‘falling through the gaps’ due to a lack of clarity about areas of responsibility

Examples of different models of co-supervision

To help make the experience of co-supervision more positive, the Departmental Graduate Tutors have drawn up some examples of possible co-supervisory arrangements. These are provided as points of reference when discussing how roles might best be configured for particular students.

The principal supervisor as main point of contact

In addition to holding responsibility for major decision points during the student’s registration, the principal supervisor may also be their primary point of contact. Under this model, they would meet with the student at the majority of supervisions, provide feedback on work and so on. The subsidiary supervisor would meet infrequently with the student, perhaps only at important milestones such as admission, upgrade, annual review and in preparation for the final exam. (They would however need to remain familiar with the student’s work and keep an overview of progress using the Research Student Log.)

Under previous IOE models, this may have been described as a “90/10” split of responsibilities.

The principal supervisor as mentor

Whilst the principal supervisor may hold responsibility for all important decisions, they may do this under advice from the subsidiary supervisor, who may meet more frequently with the student. Under this model, the principal would lead on all important points of review and progression, and would keep an overview of the student’s work at all times via the Research Student Log. However, the majority of meetings might be with the subsidiary supervisor, who may in addition take responsibility for providing feedback on draft work and providing day-to-day support.

Under previous IOE models, this may have been described as something like an “20/80” split of responsibilities.


Where supervisors have complementary areas of expertise, the principal supervisor would retain responsibility for decisions about progression and submission, but the day-to-day work of meeting with the student, giving feedback on draft work and providing support might be split between the team. This might involve the student working on a particular topic or chapter with one supervisor one term, then working on a different topic with the other supervisor the next; or it could involve the supervisors taking turns to meet with the student, with all members meeting together at points such as admission, upgrade and in preparation for the final examination.

Under previous IOE guidance, “50/50” splits of responsibility were not permitted, so that lead responsibility was always clear. This case would equate to a “60/40” split, with supervisors sharing operational duties on a roughly equal basis, but the principal supervisor taking lead responsibility for decisions about progression and standards.

Joint supervision

There may be circumstances when it is appropriate for both supervisors to meet regularly with the student. This should be exceptional, rather than normal practice, but might be useful when:

  • The subsidiary supervisor is inexperienced, and would benefit from sharing meetings with the principal supervisor. (Here, the additional commitment of time might be drawn from the personal development allowance of the WMS.)
  • The topic is of interest to both supervisors, who decide to commit additional time to the project from the allocation for personal research in the WMS.
  • The student has experienced difficulties, or has made poor progress; under these circumstances, the Departmental Graduate Tutor may advise spending more time than usual with the student in order to ensure good progress
  • There have been difficulties in the supervisory relationship; under these circumstances, the Departmental Graduate Tutor may advise that it would be in the interest of all for both supervisors to be present.

Note that under previous IOE practice this may have been expressed as a “60/40” split, since the volume of work (which is higher here than normal) was not indicated.