PhD Supervisors

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 20, 2007

Last year, I was fortunate to be awarded “a 5-year research grant”: to do work on relatively new or underexplored issues of justice related to socio-demographic changes (ageing, gender roles, and the changing nature of parenthood) – all somehow related to care. The best about the grant is not only that it gave me a new exciting (and tenured) job, but also that I can “now advertise two PhD positions”: for anyone brave enough to want to work with me for the next four years on these topics (selfish as I am, I’ve picked the best topic for myself, alas).

In the process of advertising these positions, I’ve discovered a strange particularity of Dutch law: only very few scholars are legally entitled to be the first supervisor (‘promotors‘). You have to be a hoogleraar, that is, a ‘professor’ in the English terminology, or a ‘full professor’ in the US-terminology. Lecturers, readers (UK terminology), associate and assistant professors (USA terminology) are all not entitled to be the primary supervisors. Officially they can only be co-supervisors. In practice, that doesn’t change much, since these PhD students really will be supervised by me, but it requires someone else to be the official first supervisor.

I can’t think of any reason to defend this law, and am therefore seriously considering writing to “Ronald Plasterk”:, since he’s our new Minister for Education, and presumably could initiate a change in this law. But, he may ask (assuming for a moment he will read my letter), what would I then propose as the legal requirements for PhD supervisors? Holding a PhD and being employed by/affiliated with a PhD-granting research institution seem to be two minimal requirements. Anything else?



aaron 03.20.07 at 8:51 pm

pardon my naïveté, why should there be a legal requirement for phd supervisors in the first place?


Hugh 03.20.07 at 8:53 pm

Other than a sense of humour, those seem like good minimal and maximal requirements. Setting a lot of additional a priori constraints might conflict with what I optimistically see as a general loosening of academic norms. What with and respected independent researchers living on soft money and co-publishing with their traditional ivorytower counterparts and such. And at least some credence should be given to graduate students capacity to choose good supervisor candidates as supervisors.

Perhaps I really am being utopian about some or all of those things. But I’m serious about the sense of humour.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.20.07 at 9:11 pm

hugh, do you want to have that sense of humour as a legal requirement for PhD supervisors? (If we talk about all requirements for good supervising, I think i would add a couple more… but that’s beyond this post).


Hugh 03.20.07 at 9:15 pm

Absolutely. Legal requirement. Tests administered by bored government employees. Dot-matrix printers spitting out standard forms with humour-metrics broken down 5 or 6 ways. Results buried in poorly maintained government websites. Third party enterprise springing up to aggregate and interpret sense-of-humour-scores by district and school for bewildered prospective grad students. The whole enchilada. I’m in.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.20.07 at 9:21 pm

I hope we’re then legally entitled to have weird forms of humour, then… I have a feeling there are only two people (women and also feminists, by accident) in the world with whome I share the same type of weird humour – one is doing research on women in fundamentalist religious movements, and the other is occupying the room in All Souls’s college Oxford that was once Isaiah Berlin’s…


Adam Kotsko 03.20.07 at 11:16 pm



Jay 03.20.07 at 11:20 pm

In the States, we don’t have any legal requirements that I’m aware of. Each Ph.D. granting institution can make its own rules. Universities are usually accredited by outside organizations, which may have their own standards. Various professional societies will also have non-binding standards.

But legally, there’s nothing that says I can’t print out diplomas granting Ph.D.s to whoever I want. I could even start a corporation called “The University of Jay’s Printer” and issue Ph.D.s in that name. The fact that I have a Ph.D. myself (from a good school) has nothing to do with this.

“Diploma mill” is the common American term for a nominal university (generally unaccredited) that gives degrees to anyone who pays. As a result, many employers will ask for a transcript of an applicant’s college coursework.

Of course, in a wired world, it’s not hard for anyone who’s so inclined to figure out if the degree on someone’s resume is real or dodgy.


Martin 03.20.07 at 11:59 pm

Standard rule at Australian universities is that you must have been an associate supervisor for a student who has completed their PhD before you can be the primary supervisor for a PhD student.

Having a PhD is not a requirement, thought it is definitely the exception. There are quite a few people who have excellent research records and excellent PhD supervision who do not have PhDs themselves, this is becoming rarer.


Luc 03.21.07 at 12:22 am

The legal issue is a humorous but a very red herring. It’s because the rules are made by the government that it is written as law. If the rules were left to universities, they would not have been law. But someone has to make some rules about requirements.

Besides that, it used to be the task of a professor to handle promotions/PHD’s. AFAIK it is only since the shift to grants instead of regular budgets, that PHD positions are created outside of the direct responsibility of a professor.

I’d doubt that modernizing these rules are the top priority of Plasterk. I’d say he has more important topics to worry about, but you never know.


dearieme 03.21.07 at 12:24 am

Your proposed requirement that the supervisor have a PhD is unwise. One of the cleverest men who ever taught me didn’t have one and was an excellent PhD supervisor.


Matt 03.21.07 at 2:08 am

I’d agree w/ Dearieme (an unusual position for me) here that while a PhD might be a sufficient condition it might not be good to have it as a necessary one. It would rule out Chris as an advisor, for example, not to mention Jo Wolff, Colin McGinn, among others. (Though less so now it was for quite a while pretty normal for people from the UK to go in to university teaching w/ an MA or a BPhil, depending on where they did their degrees. Such things are _much_ less common in the US though there were some famous cases there, too- Saul Kripke and Burton Dreben, for example.)


Ingrid Robeyns 03.21.07 at 5:45 am

Dearieme and matt: point taken. But I think you’ll agree with me that it is extremely rare these days for people to become tenured without a PhD. So the default could be that PhD supervisors need to hold a PhD degree, and others may be granted that right based on proven scholarly excellence.

adam kotsko’s suggestion of tenure-track (which I take to be either having tenure or being on a tenure track) may be a good idea in the US, but it doesn’t work in the NL (at least, not yet), since most universities/faculties don’t work with this system (I know of a few economics faculties who do, perhaps in the sciences too). Because permant staff are very difficult to fire, and because the number of lecture-level positions has reduced rather significanlty, it is increasingly difficult for young scholars to get a permanent/tenured job and thus it is not uncommon to put one temporary contract after another, also for people who are very good (in fact, it seems plausible that those who are good are more likely to acquire Research Council funding, and are therefore able to ‘create’ their own temporary job). SO tenure ior tenure-track may not be a good requirement under the conditions we’re in.

Luc – I entirely agree that Plasterk has more important things on his mind – which is why it is likely that I’ll reserve the one letter I’ll write to him for a more important topic (he also holds emancipation policies in his portofolio…). On the other hand, if the politicians would change higher education legislation, they may clear up this thing on the way too – at least, if they agree with me that the current requirements for PhD supervision are unjustified.


Patrick Allo 03.21.07 at 7:06 am

Since in Belgium (or at least in Flanders, I’m not sure about the French speaking universities) also those at the level of ‘docent’ and ‘hoofddocent’ can be supervisor, it should make sense to adopt the same requirement. After, all we allready share the same accreditation system.

Of course, this wouldn’t solve the issue with the permanent jobs.


aaron_m 03.21.07 at 10:43 am

What about #8? That seems to make good sense.

The potential chief supervisor has some junior experience before they take on this senior role, and there is a more experienced person that can judge whether or not the junior person is total crap at supervising (i.e. there is at least one person out there that can wave the warning flags if this person attempts to take on the role of chief advisor).


Ingrid Robeyns 03.21.07 at 12:24 pm

Yes, I agree that Martin’s suggestion (#8) of having been an associate supervisor before one can be a primary supervisor would in principle make sense. But again, I’ve seen examples both of those who had been associate supervisors and subsequently were poor primary supervisor, and also of those who just finished their PhDs and were excellent supervisors themselves (the natural teachers who are also brilliant scholars). But I guess as a prudential rule it would definitely be worth considering – either as a legal requirement or as a internal requirement at the university/department level.


Ben 03.21.07 at 10:53 pm

As pointed out above, requiring a PhD would exclude a number of very capable people (including the current holder of Berlin’s chair at All Souls, I’m racking my brain to think who has his room…)

Perhaps you could require potential supervisors to have examined at least one or more PhD theses first? That might give them a good idea what to expect. (Then again, maybe you could make the case in reverse, and argue it’d be good to supervise before examining)


leederick 03.21.07 at 10:58 pm

Ingrid, I don’t think it’s that rare for people to become tenured without a PhD. ‘Academic’ fields are very professionalised with a PhD being used as certification. But in other fields it’s quite common to become very distinguished without one – particularly applied and vocational fields, things like law, medicine, planning, criminology, engineering, social policy, and so on. There just aren’t the same barriers to doing research without a PhD in these areas.

As for supervision, I think it’s all being overegged. It might be a might be a nice exercise to think up rules that include the right people and exclude the wrong people, but I’m not sure preventing people from studying for PhDs unless they get sponsored by the right person is a good idea. Why shouldn’t I be able to sign on to do a PhD without being supervised by anyone? Surely what counts is how good the thesis is at the end of the process? Not getting the right name to sign you on.

The really interesting question, of course, is who should be able to examine a PhD.


Matt 03.22.07 at 2:26 pm

Ben is thinking of G.A. Cohen who has, of course, supervised many excellent political philosophers and who holds a BPhil but not a PhD (or DPhil.) That’s getting more and more rare, it seems, as a PhD or DPhil becomes a standard teaching requirement in the UK, but it’s still not that uncommon to find quite good philosophers in the US and UK who have just an MA or BPhil.


Joe S. 03.23.07 at 2:47 am

Jay isn’t quite right. In most states of the US, you would be committing a crime if you handed out PhDs on your own authority. Much like a bank, a university needs a state charter.

That being said, Jay is mostly right. And he should be. You don’t need a PhD to be a scholar, and many PhDs are not very good scholars. A PhD from a good university is a middling proxy for entry-level scholarship. But if I had to make a judgment, I would rather read your papers than your diploma.

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