The role of the thesis supervisor goes beyond scientific guidance.
When considering what a thesis supervisor’s role is in a student’s doctoral-level journey, the first answer usually given is to provide scientific guidance to a doctoral student. But beyond scientific supervision, how do thesis supervisors assist their doctoral students? What other roles might they play? How much can they be involved; what are the limits?
Opinions differ, but students, graduates, and supervisors are never indifferent. Ask any doctoral student or graduate, and you will probably get a long answer about their own thesis supervisor’s role in their doctoral work.
A thesis supervisor’s primary role: scientific supervision—guiding without imposing
The main role of a thesis supervisor is to help his/her doctoral student on a scientific level by guiding the student about choices related to the state of the art, the research methodology, the scientific review, and the structure of the thesis. It is important to note that the supervisor does not dictate nor impose scientific choices; the doctoral student must make these decisions.
At the start of a thesis, doctoral students often feel helpless in front of the volume of work around their subjects. A supervisor may provide guidance by citing a few key articles, suggest main authors, and recommend a few texts. Some thesis supervisors will provide a list of articles to read, but others may only give vague suggestions. Thus, methods can vary considerably.
Nevertheless, doctoral students remain in charge of their own theses: their scientific independence must develop all along the doctorate journey so that the theses that are defended show their capacity to produce original scientific research.
Developing an extra-scientific relationship - going beyond a doctorate and a dissertation
We sometimes forget that the relationship between a thesis supervisor and a doctoral student is first, a human relationship. A thesis supervisor commits to a long-term relationship over several years with a student who is embarking on one of the most important projects of a lifetime.
For some, a strictly professional relationship will develop; for others, a bond will be forged that will also develop into an informal context and continue beyond the thesis along with the doctoral student’s professional career. Within this continuum of possibilities, a relationship that suits both parties increases the probability of successful completion of the doctorate.
The supervisor-student relationship should be built on trust; this allows the feedback sent by the supervisor—whether positive or negative—to be maturely accepted by the student. This allows the supervisor to understand the doctoral student’s expectations and motivations, to encourage the student to carry on with the thesis in difficult times, to open up to new ideas, and to spur the student on to excellence.
Assisting in a career choice: the doctorate is the beginning of a career
A thesis supervisor can play a big role in helping an aspiring researcher or lecturer-researcher to build an academic network. For a doctoral student wishing to pursue an international career, it is important the thesis supervisor knows about this as early as possible in order to help the student choose academic conferences according to specific research communities and their reputations, develop scientific articles at the same time or instead of the traditional thesis manuscript, and identify universities and schools that will be potential job recruiters.
A thesis supervisor may have less influence when assisting someone pursuing a successful corporate career. Students with a business profile are often directed towards the Cifre (industrial contracts for training through research) or will rely heavily on their own networks - not forgetting the power of the alumni network.
Transmitting research ethics: the thesis advisor has an influential role
Lastly, a thesis supervisor can play an influential role in the transmission of an ethical approach - essential academic guidance for an aspiring researcher. For instance, the practice of plagiarism differs depending on national cultures: for some, to cite another researcher’s verbatim text without explicitly referring to his work is a way to honor him, although it is not considered an acceptable practice in academia (see, for example, APA guidelines). A supervisor can address or monitor with students topics of confidentiality, data, respondents’ integrity, database accuracy, and other aspects of research ethics.
Conclusion: doctoral thesis advisors, or thesis supervisors, have many roles
In conclusion, the role of a thesis supervisor goes beyond scientific guidance. The supervisor ensures good working conditions, can develop an extra-scientific relationship and build up strong links, supports career choices, and helps the aspiring researcher build an academic network. Nevertheless, the thesis advisor is not the only support role in during the doctoral journey – not forgetting the professional and alumni network.