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Informationen für Promovierende und Postdocs - Information for doctoral candidates & postdoctoral researchers


PhD Supervision – Information for Doctoral Candidates

1 What Does the Supervision of a PhD Project Entail?

PhD supervision can be understood as the mentoring or accompanying of the otherwise independent and self-reliant scientific work of a doctoral candidate (Carmesin et al, ed.). Supervisors – in German even sometimes called ‚doctoral father or mother‘ – are the central contact persons for doctoral candidates. Usually, doctoral candidates have a main/first supervisor and a second supervisor, but there can also be more than those two.
The quality of supervision is central to the success of the doctoral project.

2 Tasks and Responsibilities of the Supervisor

The responsibilities of the supervisor entail (amongst others) the following points:
Advising and feedback
  • Advising the doctoral candidates with regard to the thesis topic, i.e. delineating and limiting the topic/field
  • Advising the candidates with regard to planning of future research
  • Supporting and advising the candidates during challenging stages of their doctoral project
  • Talking about the current state of their work and progress
  • Offering feedback for interim results etc.
Managing the doctoral project
  • Supporting the candidates during the structuring of their thesis to ensure the timely finalization of the thesis
  • Scheduling definite milestones in consultation with the doctoral candidates
  • Encouraging doctoral candidates to participate in qualification programs and seize further training opportunities
  • Encouraging candidates to work independently
Career support
  • Advising doctoral candidates in their career choices
  • Supporting them in their efforts to integrate into the national and international scientific community (e.g. through encouraging them to publicize or present their results at conferences)
  • Supporting doctoral candidates in the process of publication
Dissertation assessment and conduct of examination
  • Assessing and grading the final dissertation
  • Preparing the candidates for the oral examination (i.e. with regard to the exam topics which diverge from the thesis topic – see ‚Oral Examination‘)
  • Conducting the exam itself
Expert knowledge
  • Teaching expertise and skills concerning methodology
  • Support for and monitoring of good scientific practice
Since most supervisors tend to be rather busy, there can be some conflicts between their time schedule and the wish of doctoral candidates for intensive supervision and guidance.

3 Who Is Eligible for the Supervision of a Doctoral Project?

The doctoral degree regulations of the various faculties define who may serve as a dissertation supervisor. Usually, all researchers with a venia legendi (Habilitation) are eligible, i.e.
  • Full professors
  • Junior professors
  • “PrivatdozentInnen”
  • Retired professors
At least one of the supervisors needs to be a full-time employee at the faculty at which the candidate wishes to conduct his or her doctoral project.
The PhD board of the Faculty can confer the right of supervision to appropriately qualified members of other faculties or universities and comparable research institutions.
For the following supervision situations an application needs to be filed with and approved by the Faculty’s PhD board:
  • If the main supervisor is a staff member of a different faculty or university
  • If the main supervisor is a staff member of a foreign university or college
  • If there is a change in supervisors during the time of the doctorate

4 How Do I Find a Suitable Supervisor?

It is often the case that post-graduate students receive an offer for supervision from professors who have supervised their master’s thesis. In structured doctoral programs, too, doctoral supervisors are often designated. If this is not the case, the doctoral candidates need to find suitable supervisors themselves, which can sometimes prove to be a challenge.

When post-graduate students have chosen a topic for their dissertation, they can check the internet for professors who are experts in the field of their desired dissertation topic. The professor which they would like to have as their supervisor should then be contacted via (a friendly) e-mail to schedule a personal meeting.

In this personal meeting, the exposé can be decisive in convincing the professor of your intended dissertation project.

When a suitable supervisor is found, an application for acceptance as a doctoral candidate needs to be submitted to the relevant Faculty.
The DOCTORAL RESEARCHER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM of the Graduate Academy offers courses on ‘Research & Responsibility’ (e.g. ‘Feedback for your own exposé’ or ‘How to write an exposé’)
The following questions are particularly relevant when looking for a supervisor:
  • Is the professor pertinent in the field of my dissertation?
  • Is there an appropriate research environment for the topic of my dissertation?
  • Are there networks into which I and my work can be integrated?
  • Ask fellow students who know the professor in question about their experiences. You can also ask former or current doctoral candidates who were supervised by the professor
  • Be patient if a professor does not reply immediately to your inquiries – professors tend to be very busy, thus it might take a while for them to reply to emails
  • Be flexible with regard to the exact specification of your dissertation topic, this will make finding a supervisor easier

5 Supervision Agreements

At the beginning of the doctorate the form and extent of supervision and the rights and responsibilities of the doctoral candidates are specified in the written supervision agreement. The supervision agreement lays down who the supervisors are, states the working title of the dissertation, and specifies, if necessary, the date until which the doctorate should be completed. The supervision agreement should take into account the individual situation of the candidate such as family circumstances or occupation. It is furthermore advisable to schedule regular supervision meetings.
The different Faculties provide templates for the supervision agreements. In these templates, it is e.g. laid down that a personal supervision meeting needs to be held once per year, or that both supervisor and candidate commit themselves to the rules of good scientific practice.
In addition to the supervision agreements, it is recommended to schedule milestones, and to document all further agreements between supervisor and candidate. 

6 Supervision in the Final Stages of the Dissertation

In the final stages of the doctorate, candidate and supervisor should specify dates of completion for the various subchapters, and whether the candidate should submit the individual chapters for correction, or rather the dissertation as a whole. It should furthermore be determined how much time the supervisor will be allowed for correction, and whether revised chapters can be submitted for correction a second time.
It is important that supervisors prepare their candidates for the oral exam, i.e. through recommending relevant workshops or sitting in on oral exams of other candidates.
Other aspects to be discussed in the final stages are the planning of the publication and professional prospects after the doctorate.
Within the qualification area “Research and Responsibilities”, the DOCTORAL RESEARCHER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM of the Graduate Academy offers preparation courses for the oral exam (i.e. “Viva Toolkit – Preparing for the PhD Defense”).

7 Conflict between Supervisors and Doctoral Candidates

Even when the chemistry between supervisors and doctoral candidate is good, conflicts or misunderstandings can occur. These can be related e.g. to the content of research, organizational aspects, the non-compliance with agreements, differences with regard to methods or approaches, or even personal issues.
If such problems arise, they should be communicated early on in a factual rather than emotional manner to jointly find solutions. It can be helpful to seek the advice of a non-involved mediator. The supervision agreements usually indicate who can be contacted as a mediator in the case of conflict.
A conflict of interest can furthermore result from the calling of the supervisor to another university, or a long stay abroad of the doctoral candidate. In such cases, the supervisor should inform the candidates early on to find viable solutions.
If the parties cannot agree on a solution to one of these problems, a change in supervisors should be considered.
To prevent misunderstandings and conflict, it is recommended to document all agreements between supervisor and candidate, as well as all milestones and deadlines. This is particularly important for the supervision of international students since intercultural differences might increase the risk of misunderstandings.
Within its qualification area “Communication and Management”, the DOCTORAL RESEARCHER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM of the Graduate Academy offers courses on conflict resolution among colleagues, supervisors and doctoral candidates (e.g. “Proper Dealing with Conflicts in Academic Groups”).

Becker, J. (2015). Das Einmaleins der Promotion. Hamburg: academics GmbH.

Carmesin, B., Hoffman, U., Huskobla, G., Huster, S., Küster, J.-A., Neumann, J., Wegener-Feldbrügge, S. (eds.). 2014. UniWiND-Publikationen, Bd. 4/2014 „Betreuung Promovierender: Empfehlungen und Good Practice für Universitäten und Betreunde“.

Knigge-Illner, H. (2002). Der Weg zum Doktortitel. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag.

Qualitätszirkel Promotion (Hrsg.) (2014). Gemeinsam die Promotion gestalten – Handlungsempfehlungen für Promovierende. 3. Auflage. Neustadt a. d. Aisch: Onlineprinters GmbH.

Zuletzt geändert: 06. Jul 2017, 16:39, [v.becker]

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