The URV’s Group of Trainers for the Professionalisation of Doctoral Studies updates the definition of doctoral thesis supervisor

A total of 47 languages were analysed and 18 functions identified before a definition of doctoral supervisor was put forward that is applicable to all universities and research centers

Génesis Guarimata is a doctoral student and first author of the article "Redefining the role of doctoral supervisors: a multicultural examination of labels and functions in contemporary doctoral education".

The figure of doctoral thesis supervisor has been constantly evolving and under debate because of changes in PhD regulations since the end of the 1980s. This has meant, and still means, that the roles supervisors have to play and the duties they have to carry out need to develop and expand to include other aspects.

In this context, the URV’s Group of Trainers for the Professionalisation of Doctoral Studies, which trains thesis supervisors to carry out their professional duties, has conducted research on the changes that doctoral studies have undergone in recent decades and how has this affected the roles played by thesis supervisors.

The aim of this study was to propose a universal, global, and shared definition that clearly states the roles and purposes of doctoral thesis supervisors. The approach used adopts the perspective of linguistic relativism and prototype theory to understand how linguistic diversity and different words used in different language to refer to the figure of the supervisor can influence the perception of and the approach to the tasks involved in supervising a PhD thesis.

The 18 functions of PhD supervision

The study examined a corpus of 55 different labels to refer to the doctoral thesis supervisor in 47 languages from 116 countries of Europe, Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania. The detailed study of these labels in English, French and Spanish, and of their associated verbs, identified a total of eighteen functions which are essential if this task is to be carried out effectively. These functions are supervising, directing, guiding, leading, managing, advising, mentoring, taking care, promoting, instructing, training, playing the role of superior, consulting, reporting, governing, conducting, sponsoring, and tutoring.

The article provides a definition of what each of these functions involves, which updates the definition of the doctoral thesis supervisor which has been available to date in manuals and collections of good doctoral supervision practices:

“A thesis supervisor (or corresponding term in each language) is the person who accompanies the doctoral student throughout the process of producing a thesis. They adopt an active role that involves supervising and guiding the doctoral students’ research process, and ensuring that the objectives are met and that quality is high. They provide guidance and leadership throughout the thesis, and ensure that guidelines are complied with and that the outcomes are the ones expected. They also give advice and support on the design and execution of the research, and make sure that the doctoral student is on the right track. They also lead and motivate, provide inspiration and ensure that resources and time are used efficiently. In addition, they offer expert recommendations to improve the quality and relevance of the research. They guide and support the development of the doctoral student’s academic and professional skills, show interest in their wellbeing and work for the research to be successful. Also, they give specific instructions and guidance on technical and methodological aspects of the research project. They are responsible for supervising and guiding the doctoral student’s work, taking decisions and helping to achieve the academic and research objectives. They offer professional advice to improve the focus and quality of the work. They discuss and share the results of the research and how it is progressing with the doctoral student and other interested parties, while guaranteeing adherence to academic and research standards. Finally, they guide and direct the doctoral student throughout the process, accepting responsibility for their own actions and protecting them throughout the learning process.”

The study has been published in a journal specialising in university education Higher Education, by the company Springer Nature, and it has been praised by reviewers because it will be useful for universities and research centres: “It is a highly significant contribution to research into doctoral supervision”, “This article is very useful and innovative”, or “The list of functions put forward will provide a good starting point for academic training workshops for doctoral supervisors”.

This article is the result of the doctoral research carried out by Génesis Guarimata, a predoctoral researcher from the URV’s Group of Trainers for the Professionalisation of Doctoral Studies, a part of the Martí i Franquès COFUND programme, funded by Accions Marie Sklodowska-Curie. However, it has also been influenced by the URV’s Group of Trainers for the Professionalisation of Doctoral Studies, consisting of the lecturers Joan Josep Carvajal, María Dolores Jiménez López, María Ercilia García, Mar Reguero and Mireia Valverde, as well as Génesis Guarimata and another of the group’s doctoral students Debashish Roy.

What is the URV’s Group of Trainers for the Professionalisation of Doctoral Studies?

The Group was founded in 2014 by the URV’s Doctorate School, to which it belongs, with the objective of training the URV’s doctoral supervisors to carry out their professional duties. However, since its creation, the group has transcended the limits of the URV and has taught courses at more than 50 universities and research institutions in Catalonia, Spain, Europe, and Ibero-America. In addition, they have delivered presentations at meetings for national and European university associations: for example, the Vives Network, the Spanish Conference of Directors of Doctoral Schools, the SGroup – Universities in Europe network and the Council for Doctoral Education of the European University Association. They have become a major point of reference in this subject at a national and international level.

Bibliographic reference: Guarimata-Salinas, G., Carvajal, J.J. & Jiménez López, M.D. Redefining the role of doctoral supervisors: a multicultural examination of labels and functions in contemporary doctoral education. High Educ (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-023-01171-0

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