The Higher Education Ordinance (in Swedish) gives you the right to supervision during your doctoral studies. Higher education institutions must appoint at least two supervisors, one of which is to be the lead supervisor.
All supervisors, but especially lead supervisors, must be actively involved in research of their own. Their knowledge and contacts are important elements of doctoral programmes.
In addition to the lead supervisor, higher education institutions must appoint one or more assistant supervisors. These may be based in the doctoral candidate’s department, but they may also work at other departments or institutions. Depending on the expertise necessary for the thesis topic, assistant supervisors at universities outside Sweden may also be appointed.
In addition to the supervisor and assistant supervisor(s), other support resources may be appropriate. Colleagues on the doctoral programme and others may be a source of support and help.
The tasks of the supervisor
There are no laws or ordinances that regulate the tasks or responsibilities of supervisors. The content of the role varies between different people and faculties. Generally, however, supervision of doctoral candidates should include:
- Support in the selection and formulation of the thesis topic.
- Continuous review and feedback on thesis texts and related material.
- Support in the selection of third cycle courses.
- Being a dialogue partner regarding literature, projects, field studies etc.
- Guidance regarding ethical standards and generally accepted research principles.
- Help to establish relevant contacts in the academic world.
Supervision may also include help to participate in academic conferences (within and outside Sweden), information on where to apply for funding and much more.
Different traditions and supervision styles
In recent years, it has become increasingly common for higher education institutions to require new supervisors to undergo relevant training before being given doctoral candidate supervision assignments. The objective of this supervisor training is to create a common framework for supervisors, but with or without training it is difficult to ignore the fact that supervisors have different supervision styles. Similarly, there are long traditions concerning thesis work and supervision within certain subject areas and faculties.
Whatever the faculty tradition or supervisor’s style, supervision must be conducted in a professional manner that provides good support for the individual candidate’s thesis work.
Depending on the subject of the thesis, the supervisor and many other factors, supervision may differ considerably between doctoral candidates. It is highly beneficial to schedule regular meetings and discussions that are well prepared by both parties. The frequency of these meetings is determined by the candidate and the supervisor.
Both the doctoral candidate and the supervisors need to review how the thesis is progressing – not just the work with the thesis itself, but also the supervision and the impact of other factors, for example the balance between the time devoted to teaching and to research.
The work should be structured in both the long and the short term, and all important changes should be documented in the individual study plan. In some cases, clearly stated goals might be set and progress toward these assessed at subsequent supervision sessions.
It is the supervisor’s job to guide the doctoral candidate through the thesis process. This also means that it is the supervisor’s responsibility to provide feedback, as well as support and help if the thesis is not progressing according to plan. Supervision meetings can sometimes be challenging, both for doctoral candidates and supervisors, and it is important to build a relationship based on mutual trust.
The supervisor/doctoral candidate relationship
The relationship between a supervisor and a doctoral candidate is often intense and it is vital that it is built on trust. It is essential to keep the relationship professional. If an intimate relationship between a doctoral candidate and a supervisor develops, a change of supervisor is recommended. If this does not happen and the relationship ends, there is a danger that the doctoral candidate will encounter major problems.
Sexual harassment is never acceptable and should never occur within the framework of the supervisor/doctoral candidate relationship. If you experience sexual harassment, contact SULF, your higher education institution’s HR department or the local health and safety representative.
The right to change supervisor
Doctoral candidates have the right to change supervisor if they so request. There can be various reasons for wishing to change supervisor during a doctoral programme, for example if the thesis goes in a different direction than planned or if the supervisor and doctoral candidate have problems working together. This may sometimes cause practical problems, but the department or higher education institution is obliged to provide another supervisor.
If you wish to change supervisor because you find it difficult to work together, we recommend that you have a serious discussion with the supervisor. If this does not result in constructive proposals for change, you should discuss the situation with your department head or someone else at the institution who is responsible for third cycle education.
Fellow doctoral candidates, SULF’s representatives, your local Saco-S associations or the students’ union doctoral candidate representative can offer support and advice in such situations. And you are always welcome to contact SULF’s members’ support service.
Sometimes a supervisor retires before a doctoral candidate has completed their thesis. In such cases, the higher education institution is obliged to appoint a new supervisor.
Withdrawal of supervision
The Higher Education Ordinance states that if a doctoral candidate “substantially neglects their obligations under the individual study plan”, the higher education institution has the right to withdraw supervision and other resources. This happens quite rarely. The Ordinance stipulates that it is the Vice-chancellor of the higher education institution who makes decisions to withdraw supervision, but in some places this power may have been delegated, for example to faculty boards.
Before a decision on withdrawal of supervision is taken, the doctoral candidate and their supervisor have the right to have their opinion heard. An assessment will then be conducted based on these responses and any other evidence available. The assessment will also examine whether the department has fulfilled its commitments according to the individual study plan. Resources may not be withdrawn for the period the person is employed as a doctoral candidate.
The final decision must be in writing and include a full explanation.
Appeals against decisions to withdraw supervision
If the higher education institution decides to withdraw resources, you are entitled to apply to the Vice-chancellor of your higher education institution to have your supervision and other resources restored. In order for this to be approved, you must demonstrate that you are able to fulfil your remaining commitments within the individual study plan, for example by presenting what the Ordinance calls “prospective study results of considerable quality and scope”.