Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

Roles and responsibilities

University Policy

Every candidate must have a principal supervisor. However, the University believes that no PhD candidate should depend entirely on the advice and guidance of one supervisor only. Such a situation could place the student at some risk especially if the staff member concerned is absent for a period on leave or leaves the employment of the University.

It is therefore a requirement that the primary supervisor be supported in at least one of the following ways:

  • the appointment of one or more co-supervisors
  • the constitution of an advisory panel (also called a departmental advisory committee) to review progress regularly and play a part in the identification and resolution of any disputes which may arise between the student and the supervisor(s).

Some departments also operate a postgraduate committee within a department or school, charged with the responsibility of providing academic and practical support to PhD candidates.


A good supervisory relationship is the essence of a successful PhD programme. Ideally, a PhD will be seen in terms both of its desired end result (the award of the degree) and the process by which that result is achieved. In this latter connection, the key word is relationship. This should be an open, honest and professional interaction between student and supervisors, based on mutual respect, trust and good-will.

There is no single prescription for an ideal supervisory arrangement. It should, however, be viewed as an evolving partnership, in which an initial student/teacher relationship develops towards increasing equality as the project reaches its culmination in the production of the thesis.

Good supervision relies on open communication between the supervisors and the candidate. At the outset of the project, it is important that all parties are clear about their expectations of each other. These expectations will be discussed as part of the "Student-Supervisor Agreement", which should occur early on in candidature and a copy of the agreement must be uploaded in eVision as part of the first progress report process. It should be accepted by all concerned that the early phases of work may lead to problems which will need to be worked through in a constructive manner if the project is to flourish. Although academic matters will be of primary concern, students and supervisors should be prepared to talk candidly about other issues affecting the candidate's ability to make progress with the PhD.

Supervisors and candidates are alerted to the conflict of interest provisions in the Ethical Behaviour Policy which state that any family or personal relationship between a supervisor and a student must be declared to the department as a conflict of interest or a potential conflict of interest. Arrangements to manage or remove the conflict of interest will then be put in place by the department.
The conflict of interest provisions also state that “the University strongly discourages, and staff should avoid entering into, an intimate personal relationship with a student at the university, particularly a student for whom they have responsibility.”
Failure by a staff member to disclose a conflict of interest may be considered a disciplinary matter by the University.
While these provisions apply specifically to staff, candidates are alerted to them because they may suffer disadvantage and distress from any conflict of interest which is not managed in accordance with the policy

The responsibilities of supervisors and candidates are detailed separately below. In order to avoid misunderstandings, individual students and their supervisors may find it useful to draw up a written agreement or memorandum of understanding which can be referred to if difficulties arise and reviewed regularly in the light of changing circumstances. Such agreements would deal with the following:

  • frequency of meetings
  • progress reports to be provided by the student
  • the nature, promptness and limits of feedback on written work
  • involvement in presenting seminars on the research while in progress
  • financial support, if any, to be available to the student once the tenure of any scholarship has ended
  • target dates for various stages of the research
  • principles for establishing authorship of any resulting publications

^ Top of Page

Some Definitions of Key Terms

Primary Supervisor

The primary supervisor is there to provide academic advice and practical support. He or she is the main point of contact for the student and the administration. The primary supervisor will take responsibility for meeting all the responsibilities listed below and will convene meetings with co-supervisors and advisers. The primary supervisor should also ensure that the Head of Department is informed where disagreements between supervisors and/or advisers may be compromising the progress of the project.

Note: Even in cases where two departments are involved, one should take the primary role. EFTS and other details should be arranged by the Heads of Department with the involvement of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor(s).


A co-supervisor provides academic advice and practical support, as well as taking part in review meetings and providing input for reports and recommendations. The role of co-supervisors will vary from project to project. The precise responsibilities of co-supervisors should be determined in each case in consultation with the candidate and the primary supervisor. These may also be formalised in a written agreement, if this is felt to be appropriate.


An adviser is not a supervisor as such. He or she is someone who may provide specialist help, either regularly or irregularly. Typical of the advice offered by advisers are the following: professional expertise; linguistic information; statistical support; and laboratory techniques. Advisers should be named only where they are providing substantial support.

Departmental Advisory Committee

Some departments have a policy of appointing a small committee to oversee the candidate's research project. This committee may or may not include the supervisors. The main purpose of such a committee is to provide additional support for the candidate and supervisor(s), and to assist with any problems that may arise during candidature.

^ Top of Page

Responsibilities of the Head of Department

The Head of Department has the following responsibilities concerning the PhD programme:

  • to maintain an environment within the Department which is conducive to a research culture
  • to check that the candidate's previous level of academic attainment and experience are appropriate for admission to the programme
  • to guarantee that adequate funding and technical assistance are available to support the project
  • to ensure that the supervisory arrangements are satisfactory to both student and supervisor(s)
  • to check that the research interests and expertise of the supervisor(s) are suited to the candidate's needs and to the demands of the project
  • to support the primary supervisor by arranging co-supervision and/or an advisory committee
  • to identify cases where it is desirable to change the supervisory arrangements for academic or personal reasons
  • to administer the reporting process and make recommendations as necessary
  • to determine that supervisors are not over-committed, and to check this annually
  • to deal with complaints and problems promptly
  • ^ Top of Page

Responsibilities of the Supervisor

The supervisor of a PhD candidate is required to provide academic guidance and practical support from the inception of the project to the submission of the thesis.

The supervision of PhD candidates is a specialised and demanding activity. In order to undertake PhD supervision, the staff member should have at least an equivalent qualification. Where this is not the case, the staff member will need to demonstrate to the Graduate Research Committee that they have recent research experience and a publication record of a suitable standard. New supervisors may take on the role of primary supervisor, providing a colleague who has supervised a PhD to completion at Otago takes on 33% of the supervision load.  It is expected that the more experienced colleague will provide mentoring support for the new supervisor.  New supervisors are required to attend training sessions organised by the Higher Education Development Centre. All supervisors are encouraged to participate in occasional seminars dealing with PhD matters organised by HEDC.

All supervisors are bound by the University's Ethical Behaviour policy as well as by the specific obligations listed below.


The supervisor should:

  • assist in integrating the candidate into the academic and social life of the department
  • provide a collaborative research environment and encourage open communication
  • ensure that meetings with co-supervisors and/or departmental advisory committees operate in a constructive manner
  • be sensitive to cultural, political or gender issues relating to the research topic or the candidate

Academic advice

The supervisor should:

  • hold regular formal supervision meetings - at least once a month in normal circumstances - at which the candidate is guaranteed uninterrupted individual attention
  • be available, within reason, at other times to provide assistance when particular difficulties arise
  • encourage the candidate to adopt an independent approach to learning
  • ensure that the candidate is involved in setting the timetable for the research and reviewing progress of the research and its timetable
  • provide full, prompt, honest and informative feedback to the candidate on work in progress
  • remain conversant with the issues and the literature relating to the candidate's research
  • provide reliable and well-informed guidance in all matters of sound research practice
  • accept that, in some aspects of the topic at least, the candidate's level of knowledge might eventually exceed that of the supervisor

Practical support

The supervisor should:

  • ensure that the candidate is properly forewarned if the supervisor is to be absent from the University for more than a brief period (for the purposes of academic leave, for example)
  • arrange, through the Head of Department, for adequate alternative supervision during any period of absence, either by assigning another staff member to take over supervision or by setting up other means of communication (by e-mail, for example)
  • be prepared to give advice on sources of financial support, such as bridging grants, or direct the candidate to those who can provide such advice

Professional support

The supervisor should:

  • encourage the candidate to become an active member of the professional community, national and international
  • ensure that the candidate contributes to research seminars within the department
  • encourage the candidate to attend relevant conferences within New Zealand and overseas and offer guidance in the preparation of conference presentations
  • identify work by the candidate suitable for publication in refereed journals or other academic publications and assist in the preparation of articles for submission
  • make clear from the outset how issues relating to joint publication of work arising from the candidate's thesis are to be handled
  • not expect the candidate to work in the capacity of 'technician' or 'secretary' to the supervisor

Staff may not supervise candidates with whom they have a close family or personal relationship. If a close emotional or other relationship develops, the Head of Department must be informed so that appropriate alternative arrangements can be made to ensure that the professional nature of the supervision continues.

In general terms, it is essential that candidates and supervisors meet frequently, that each understands how the other views the progress of the research, and that there is a mutually co-operative personal and academic partnership based on honesty and trust.

^ Top of Page

Responsibilities of the Candidate

PhD candidates have a number of responsibilities. Candidates should accept that the degree requires them to work towards intellectual independence within a supportive supervisory environment.

As the University's most senior students, candidates must demonstrate a high level of commitment and personal initiative. They should expect to take the lead in most matters pertaining to the project, adhering to the principle that theirs is the main responsibility for the conduct and progress of the research. Candidates should also ensure that they have acquainted themselves with the regulations and procedures governing the PhD programme, to which end they are strongly encouraged to attend the orientation sessions run by the University. They must be prepared to "drive" the project and to raise matters of concern promptly, without waiting for others to do so for them.

The specific responsibilities of PhD candidates are as follows:

  • to commit adequate time and effort to the project
  • to display initiative in identifying and resolving problems relating to the research
  • to manage their work efficiently so as not to place unreasonable demands on supervisors
  • to be well organised and capable of setting and meeting deadlines for various phases of the research
  • to acquire any new skills required as part of the project
  • to maintain frequent and regular contact with the supervisors
  • to seek and accept in good faith advice from supervisors and advisory panels
  • to fulfil tasks required by the supervisors as part of the project
  • to produce self-review documents as part of the reporting process
  • to meet the normal scholarly and professional standards required by their discipline
  • to start writing their thesis as early as is practicable
  • to ensure that all written work is of a high standard of expression and organization
  • to present seminars where appropriate and participate in the academic, professional and social life of the department
  • to attend and present papers at conferences and publish sections of the work where appropriate under the guidance of their supervisors

It is essential that candidates accept that, just as it is a requirement of supervisors to provide advice and criticism, it is necessary for them to listen when such advice and criticism are offered. Ideally, this should take the form of a constructive dialogue, but there will, inevitably, be times when this is the source of some tension. In cases where such dialogue is proving difficult or impossible, this must be addressed as soon as possible.

^ Top of Page


A sample checklist for candidates and their primary supervisors (Word, 52KB) is available for download. The purpose of the checklist is to remind all concerned about important admission, ongoing and submission requirements.

^ Top of Page

Performance Review

The performance of Heads of Department, supervisors and candidates is regularly reviewed as part of the report on progress. All parties should be prepared to discuss performance matters at the progress report meeting.

Concerns relating to performance can be raised at any time by Heads of Department, supervisors or candidates (see also Resolving Problems and Disputes).

^ Top of Page

Archiving of Records

Department, Divisional and Student Administration files with paper records of each student's thesis topic, supervisor(s), examination details, progress reports, and other appropriate information (including paper copies of relevant email communications), shall be archived for at least five years. Any relevant information that is not in hard copy on the student's paper files should also be appropriately archived for a period of at last five years.

^ Top of Page