Time for PhD supervision

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 29, 2019

Some aspects of academia show great international variation. There is one on which I haven’t found any good data, and hence thought I’ll ask the crowd here so that we can gather our own data, even if it will be not very scientifically collected.

The question is this: if you are a university teacher/professor and your department awards PhD-degrees, do you get any official time allocated (or time-compensation) for PhD supervision? If it is part of a teaching load model, how many hours (or % teaching load) is it equivalent to? Or is there an expectation that you take on PhD-students but that this does not lead to a reduction in other tasks?

How do international practices of the conditions for PhD-supervisors compare?

In my faculty (Humanities at Utrecht University, the Netherlands), all supervisors together (which generally are two, sometimes three) are collectively given a teaching load reduction of 132 hours in the year follow the graduation of the PhD-candidate. So your teaching reduction upon successful graduation of a PhD-candidate tends to be 66 hours. For the supervisory work you effectively do in the four years prior to graduation, there is no time allocated; so you effectively do this in your research or your leisure time.

To put this into perspective: most (assistant/associate/full) professors teach 50-70% of their time, and a fulltime workload is 1670 hours, or 1750 hours if you are saving for a sabbatical. This can be reduced if you have major managerial tasks (e.g. Head of Department) or if a large part of your wage is paid by a research grant. So without reductions, we teach about 835-1190 hours a year (this includes the time for preparation and examination, but frankly, one always needs more than the teaching load models allocate for a given course. And in general there are no TAs or other support staff to help with the practical sides of teaching).

For writing the grants that are almost always needed to create the jobs for PhD students (with success rates now around 15%), and for supervising those who in the end do not get their PhD degree, there is no time put aside for the supervisor/applicants. That time also goes, effectively, from our research time, or, more realistically, from our leisure time.

Recently, I heard from a British colleague and a Swedish colleague their models for PhD-supervision, which were way more generous (and rightly so in my view), so thought I’ll throw the question on the table here: what, if any, time-compensation/teachingreduction do you get for supervising PhD students?

I am not trying to suggest here that without adequate time set aside for doing this work, it would not be worthwhile supervising PhDs. There are in many cases other forms of rewards for the work one does as a PhD supervisor. One might be the honor of supervising PhDs, and in most cases the intrinsic rewards of the supervisory process – the satisfaction of seeing a young person take their first steps as a scholar, and being able to play a crucial role in this process. There is, after all, a reason why the Germans call their PhD-supervisor mein Doktorvater or meine Doktormutter – since yes, there is this element of helping someone to grow, in a cognitive and professional sense. Professionally, there are few people who had so much influence on me as my PhD-supervisor, and I am hoping that some of my (former) PhD-students will think the same at some point in their lives. So it would be wrong to frame it merely as a burden, since there is the intrinsic value of the rather unique professional relationship. But that cannot be a reason to not give PhDsupervisors the time they need to properly supervise, given how severe time pressure in academia is. I see this as a real tension.

In some academic fields, there may be professional research benefits for the supervisors, such as becoming co-authors on the publications the PhD-students write under your supervision. I recently examined a PhD-thesis in medical ethics, and all chapters (being articles published or under review) had been co-written with several members of the supervisory team. Even raising the funds to hire the PhD is sometimes seen as sufficient reason to be listed as a co-author. In the humanities there is no such a thing: we don’t put our names on articles of our PhDstudents, even if we contributed significantly to the development of that piece (rightly so in my view).

I’m posting this because I am interested in the international comparison in its own right, but also because of its relevance in discussions on higher education policies which are currently very intense in the Netherlands, on which I’ll write another blogpost later.



Chris Bertram 12.29.19 at 9:45 am

In my part of my university each PhD student earns her supervisors around 60 notional hours/1600 total per annum, but that’s usually divided 5/1 between two supervisors, so that the person actually doing the work has about 50 hours, so slightly over an hour/week given annual leave etc. My greatest beef with this is when we admit non-anglophone PhD students. Since they officially have a level of competence in English as a condition of their admission, they do not get any extra time for supervision. But in practice, their work takes much longer to read and you have to put a lot of work into improving their English.


Mike Beggs 12.29.19 at 10:18 am

In my faculty (Arts and Social Sciences at Sydney) the primary supervisor gets 40 hours per year and an auxiliary supervisor gets ten. (There is some flexibility for the 50 total hours to be divided differently.)

In a recent survey of faculty staff with a response rate of around 30%, most reported spending longer per primary supervision: the median was 50 hours.

There’s actually a growing literature on academic time use. Kenny and Fluck have published a series of papers based on a large survey of Australian academics. The median reported time spent supervising a higher degree student per year was 60 hours over all discipline groups, 50 hours for Arts, Law and Humanities. (Kenny and Fluck 2018 ‘Research workloads in Australian universities’, _Australian Universities Review_ — and the companion papers on teaching and admin workloads are also worth googling for the full results over lots of tasks.)


Matt Matravers 12.29.19 at 10:31 am

When we tried to establish a “norm” at the University of York, it turned out that practice varied widely not only across faculties, but within the arts and humanities and social sciences. Some departments simply included it in “research time” and gave zero extra time, others gave a (more-or-less generous) “teaching” allocation. So, I am not sure you can get any useful comparisons even at an institutional level let alone internationally.
Currently, in the Law School at York, a PhD student – during the period of registration (i.e., only for the first 3 years) – earns her supervisors around 80 notional hours of teaching per year. This is split across the supervisory team in proportion to their involvement.
Many colleagues think this is insufficient, in particular with non-anglophone students and it can be particularly galling if one is putting a lot of work into the final “writing up” year.
For what it is worth, I found this very hard to manage when I was Head of Department (and so responsible for workloads). The issue for me was that in many cases senior colleagues had several PhD students and (some) junior colleagues none (or very little involvement. This was back in the day of most students have one supervisor.). Modelling a system where PhD supervision was “properly” rewarded (that is, where I tried to allocate hours in accordance to the amount of time it actually took) resulted in a very hierarchical department where (roughly) senior colleagues did PhD supervision and junior colleagues taught undergraduates. So, I didn’t do it.
For what it is worth (addressing the wider issues of workload), it seems to me that there is an inevitable gap between a workload system conceived of as a mechanism of “counting” (how many hours does this job actually take?) and conceived of as a mechanism of “distribution” (how much work is there to be done and how many people to do it?). Of course, the distributive principles cannot stray too far from the realities revealed in counting, but it (seems to me at least) perfectly okay to think that the distributive principles include other considerations like the “shape” of the department, individual “goals” (having PhD students is good for promotion at York) and personal development, gender, and so on.
Finally, this problem does not seem to be unique to PhD supervision (the current “hot topic” at York is how to count/distribute time for research grant writing, which at the moment is simply included in individual research in most, but not all, departments). York tried to introduce a workload model across the university and never managed it because departmental variations were so huge (in everything from whether/how to include teaching preparation time to how to rank administrative tasks). That said, this may be the result of our particular institutional history (until recently, we had a very flat structure with only relatively autonomous departments and no faculties).


Faustusnotes 12.29.19 at 10:48 am

In Japan as far as I know there is no allowance at all, and senior staff (the professor who is the official supervisor) often dump all supervisory responsibility on the most junior staff. There is also often no limit on how many PhD students the professor can take on (and dump on their assistant prof). This is particularly bad with masters students, whose theses are much more time limited and challenging to supervise.

I don’t know if it’s a general thing but my colleagues in China tell me they are only allowed a PhD student if they publish above a certain level – PhD students are treated as a valuable asset you need to struggle to get. (I think they are paid by the uni but don’t quote me). In the universities I know of in China the PhD student has to publish to graduate (sometimes like 3 papers) so the benefits to the supervisor are obvious.

I’m in public health where publication is relatively easy and quick. I don’t know how it is in other disciplines (but the Japanese professor dumping his responsibilities on junior staff is quite common across disciplines as far as I can tell).


Harry 12.29.19 at 12:34 pm

It’s not part of a workload model for us. We’re expected to teach 2 classes a semester (8 contact hours a week total), then research, service, and graduate supervision on top, but the only thing that is specified is the 2 classes. So no compensation for PhD students. In practice the number of PhD supervisions varies greatly across faculty (as you’d expect), as does the amount of service work we do (if you’re good at it you get asked to do more, if you’re tenured and responsible you generally try to say yes), as does the amount of time we actually spend on the courses we teach.

As do our salaries, to be fair, which reflect years of service, perceived quality of research, how much the people elected to the department budget value the other things we do, and, to some extent, market forces.

What I’ve described is my own department. There’s huge variation across campus, including variation in numbers of courses we’re expected to teach.

Possibly worth mentioning that from what I have gathered expectations of how many courses we teach have fallen dramatically (across campus) over the past 50 years, and the number of course releases granted have increased dramatically: I estimate faculty in the humanities teach 30% less than 50 years ago, and in the sciences 50% less. I imagine this is similar across public research universities and SLACs.


notGoodenough 12.29.19 at 1:47 pm

So, purely anecdotal and from the perspective of a PhD and post-doc in Science at 2 different, fairly well thought of UK Universities (Russel group, etc. etc.).

PhD students are highly valuable. This is because a Masters or summer student are necessarily short term, and it is difficult to fulfil much breakthrough research (sometimes you need a few years of banging your head against a wall…). Post-docs are phenomenally expensive as in the UK as the University charges a huge amount just to have them – e.g. a rough breakdown (from some years ago, so a little out of date) is to just have a post-doc (i.e. no equipment, materials, etc.) is in excess of £110K per year. Some 31000 is for salary, the rest goes to the University to keep the lights on. Having more than a few post-docs, for all but the most successful labs, became prohibitively expensive.

However, as a PhD most of my time was with my post-docs (in my first year I saw my professor once, for 1hr, in later years maybe a few times more, so approximately 15 hr over 3.5 years). As a post-doc, the PhD students had regular meetings in a group format once per month (so, more or less 2-3 hr per month). In both cases it, in principle, was possible to go and meet the supervisor if you felt the need, but generally speaking your post-doc was the point of contact on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis.

I’ve not been a lecturer, so this is very speculative, but my impression is that supervising PhD students is generally considered a research activity, and thus you are not budgeted time for it specifically.

Not sure if any of this is useful, but feel free to hit me up for more details if you think it is useful/interesting.


Karen Anderson 12.29.19 at 2:03 pm

I taught for 15 years at 3 Dutch universities, 3 years at a Russell Group university in England, and am now at an Irish university. I did my PhD in the United States. Like the other posters, I have experienced wide variation in ‘compensation’ for PhD supervision. One of the reasons I left my position at a British university was the bizarre (and I thought, unfair) model for workload allocation. PhD supervision was highly ‘compensated’, and actual classroom teaching of undergrads was not. I had colleagues who met all or most of their teaching obligations with PhD supervision and did not teach undergrads.
I don’t know what the best way to compensate PhD supervision is, but there are a couple of aspects I think need more attention. The first is wide variation in the number of PhD students in any given department and the rules/norms governing who is (de facto) permitted to supervise PhDs. Dutch departments have fewer PhD students than UK/Irish departments (for complicated reasons), and only full (and now associate?) profs are permitted to supervise. PhD supervision is important for promotion (as it is in the UK and IE), so everyone wants to do it, but not everyone has access. I am not sure that an activity that is so important for career progression should be generously compensated.
The second issue concerns co-authoring with a PhD student. I can see the advantages of this (which Ingrid mentions), but the proliferation of the article-based PhD where the supervisors co-author all articles is a cause for concern. Again, I am not convinced that a PhD supervisor should be generously compensated for something (publications) that strongly advances their own career. And it is not clear to me that the supervisor’s contribution to the publication (in many cases, at least) amounts to more than what would be considered ‘normal’ PhD supervision in the US, Canada, and many European universities. This makes it very difficult to evaluate a newly minted PhD’s CV, and it inflates the publication list of more senior academics.
A couple of ideas: 1) cap the number of PhD students that staff can supervise, or at least cap the number for which teaching points are earned. 2) ensure that all academic staff have access to PhD supervision.


praisegod barbones 12.29.19 at 4:32 pm

Private university in Turkey : the basic assumption here is that supervising PhD students and MA theses takes zero time (although people typically budget an hour per week per student.


Neville Morley 12.29.19 at 4:50 pm

The workload allocation for Humanities at the University of Exeter is similar to Chris’s account of Bristol (where I worked previously), though it’s more common for the hours to be divided 70/30, 60/40 or even 50/50 between first and second supervisors, with the latter playing a much more active role. The biggest difference, however, is that you continue to receive an allowance when the student is writing up, and even if they’re revising after a first examination, whereas the Bristol practice was, at least, that you get a workload allowance for the first three years and then nothing for the period which in my experience often required the greatest amount of work…


Phil 12.29.19 at 5:50 pm

I haven’t – yet – supervised a doctoral student, but I did examine a viva this year & was surprised to find that this carried no workload allowance at all, which seems odd given the amount of reading time involved. (Fortunately I wasn’t mad busy.)


likbez 12.29.19 at 7:10 pm

40-60 hours are typical. They do not compensate for the effort but still.


oldster 12.29.19 at 7:16 pm

Former US academic; taught at a few R1 uni’s from 80s to aughts.

To echo the doughty Puritan: ” the basic assumption here is that supervising PhD students and MA theses takes zero time.”

We had a standard teaching load, and expectations for research and service. But there was no calculation of supervisory load — it simply was not tracked, budgeted, or accounted for. As Harry says above, there were wide disparities from person to person, since some people attract a lot of grad students and some do not (and some repel them, either for strategic purposes, or because they are repellent no matter what they try).

No one cared whether you supervised 15 PhD students or zero. Not quite true — there was some unofficial awareness among colleagues who thought collegially about things. And you might get some private thanks or informal kudos for doing more than your share. But there was absolutely no official account of it. And this was true at all 3 R1s I taught at over several decades.

That’s partly because — in a Humanities field — the funding of grad students does not follow the prof, but the program as a whole. So, Central Admin knows that your department is training 25 PhDs, because Central Admin has to figure their tuition, stipends, etc. But the money then flows to your department as a whole, with no closer investigation of who in your department is doing the work.

The picture must be radically different in the Sciences, where there is literal accounting of PhD students, since they are supported by the professor’s grant-money.


hix 12.29.19 at 8:08 pm

Surely there are other ways to offload work to PhD students one would otherwise have to do oneself besides getting research recognition for their thesis. How much of that is possible should also vary across countries. So a comparsion of alocated supervision time only seems a bit one sided.


John Quiggin 12.29.19 at 10:07 pm

As regards co-authorship, my PhD students and postdocs are often keen to include me on the theory that a paper with a more senior author will have a better chance of acceptance. My impression is that, in economics, the expectation is that the main job market paper will be sole-authored or else co-authored with another junior researcher, but that others are likely to be co-authored with the supervisor.

To complicate things further, economics (like philosophy, I believe) works on average quality rather than total contribution. So, a publication with a student in a journal lower ranked than my average paper is actually a negative for me.


Matt 12.29.19 at 10:38 pm

I assume that “Harry” above is Harry B of the blog. If so, he’s showing why comparisons w/ the US on this will be hard, if not impossible. In many countries, there is a weird fantasy that academics can and should be treated like hourly employees, with “hours” assigned to things. (This is certainly so in Australia.) Of course, it’s a fantasy in that, if it in fact takes a lot more “hours” to do the things you’re assigned, you don’t get over-time, comp time, or paid more. The other down-side is that this system leads, in my experience, to more micro-managing – being expected to “account” for your time to a much greater degree. The US system treats academics more like salaried employees – you get paid a certain amount, you have certain tasks to do, and you must do them (some of them at particular times, like teaching classes) but otherwise you’re not dealing with “hours” for things. The down-side is that there can be lots of variation in how much work people actually do – even teaching the same “number” of classes can vary a lot depending on the number of preps, size, how often you’ve taught it, if you have TAs, etc., and having more advisees may not lead to more recognition on its own. The plus side is that less time is spent on being mico-managed and bureaucratic nonsense. The relevant point here, though, is that it’s really hard to make a comparison like the one asked for between systems where one treats academics more like hourly employees and the other more like salaried employees.


Gabriel 12.29.19 at 10:52 pm

My wife (a New Zealand academic with confirmation) is allocated a. 24 hours per year for supervising PhD students. She trusts that the ludicrousness of this number is not lost on those present.


billcinsd 12.30.19 at 1:39 am

I am a Professor in an Engineering discipline at a small, state engineering school in the US. Our workload is departmentally determined. My department is fairly small, ~100 undergrads, but does quite a bit of research. My nominal workload is 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. This is based on 40 working hours per week. My effective workload is 46% teaching, 8% advising (both undergrad and grad), 23% overseeing my funded research projects and about 25% service. This is more than 100%, which is true for almost all faculty at my school.

Thus, I estimate how much time I spend doing various things and then convert that to credit hours, as my contract is specified in terms of 18 credit hours of work per semester, making a credit hour about 2 hours and 40 minutes


Kevin 12.30.19 at 2:11 pm

In Technological University Dublin (formerly Dublin Institute of Technology), supervision of a full-time PhD student attracts a time allowance of 2 hours per week (48 hours per annum), from a weekly teaching load of 16 contact hours for lecturers (18 hours for assistant lecturers). So, for example, a lecturer with two full-time PhD students will allocate 25% (4 hours) of his / her weekly contact teaching duties to this role.


Michael Dunn 12.30.19 at 2:45 pm

In my department (at Uppsala University, Sweden) the workload norm is 88 hours per year supervisory time for the main supervisor and 20 for the assistant supervisor. This time includes the face-to-face hours, as well as reading, commenting, etc. The split can be done differently to reflect other kinds of co-supervisory arrangements. This seems very generous compared to what others are reporting, which is sad, since an average of 1 hour meeting, 1 hour reading per week for 44 weeks in a year would work out as very minimal supervision — and supervisors typically spend much more time on supervision related tasks than this.


Johan Karlsson Schaffer 12.30.19 at 4:44 pm

A couple of years ago, I did a survey of the formal teaching duties at polisci departments at Scandinavian universities for a report published by the Swedish Institute for Labour Market Evaluation. The survey looked at the formal percentage of teaching duty for senior lecturers and full professors, and the formal compensation in terms of hours allotted for various teaching activities (e.g., lectures, supervision at different levels, examination and so on).

We found, first, that the formal teaching duty varied quite a lot across Scandinavian universities, but that all Swedish universities had less generous conditions than Danish and Norwegian universities, which came closer to the Humboldtian ideal of unity of teaching and research.

Second, by multiplying teaching duty and compensation for a standard set of teaching activities, we found that the consequences for the individual lecturer could be quite drastic: over a hypothetical career from age 35 to retirement at 67, a lecturer at the least generous university could have ten whole years more of teaching duty than their colleague at the most generous university.

The report is, unfortunately, only available in Swedish, but the graphs and tables (which also includes detailed information on the compensation for PhD supervision) should be rather self-explanatory.

Here’s a blog post summary of these findings that include the most important graphs:


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 12.30.19 at 6:53 pm

I’m an Associate Professor in Computer Science at a US R1 university.

As Matt says, the description in Ingrid’s post is totally unlike how things are thought of at all in US universities. My load is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service, which is standard for tenure-track faculty in my department (and I think across departments here). The standard teaching load is 3 courses per year (2 in one semester, 1 in the other). However, there are several exceptions to this: before tenure, faculty are assigned only 2 courses per year. Also, if you support (with external grant funding) 3 PhD students or post-docs in the previous year then you only teach 2 courses the next year. Additionally, pre-tenure faculty are asked to do considerably less service.

Furthermore, there are several additional differences that are relevant. First, and most importantly, the distinction between “research” and “PhD supervision” does not exist in science. Effectively all of my research is joint with PhD students, although sometimes they are not “my” students, but those of my collaborators. Second, not all students are funded by grants; PhD students can also be funded by teaching. So it’s possible to have one or two students without bringing in funding. Third, there’s a strong expectation that training PhD students is part of the job, you wouldn’t get tenure/promotion/etc if you just didn’t do it.


Z 12.30.19 at 8:33 pm

In my institution, you don’t get any teaching load reduction, whereas you do get a tiny but non-zero reduction for supervising a master thesis, or even an undergraduate research project. I believe that is the norm in France in science in general, and most likely overall. The logic behind that choice is that supervising a PhD student is supposed to bring its own benefits: the student will do a lot of lab work for the superviser, the superviser will cosign the research papers etc.

In math (my own field), there is no lab work to be done and the French tradition is that papers drawn from the PhD should be signed by the student alone, so the arrangement is quite unfavorable to us.

On the other hand

So without reductions, we teach about 835-1190 hours a year

Did I read that right? Can you clarify how many hours are counted for one hour in front of the students? That number looks like madness to me (and I have a heavy teaching load myself).


CdnNew 12.30.19 at 9:11 pm

Canadian math prof:

“Highly research-active” profs teach one fewer course per year. There is some flexibility as to how to maintain this designation, but typically you must have at least 2 active graduate students at any given time (and meet various other requirements).

Going through our standard courseload: if you ignore the other work related to maintaining status, your first two Ph.D. students are worth about 90 hours/year, and the remainder are worth nothing.


likbez 12.31.19 at 12:57 am

John Quiggin 12.29.19 at 10:07 pm @14

As regards co-authorship, my Ph.D. students and postdocs are often keen to include me on the theory that a paper with a more senior author will have a better chance of acceptance.

This is an important point. I agree that it is somewhat dishonest to use your post-grad students to increase you number of publications. But it should be weighted against the real difficulties of young researchers to get their papers published. And the fact that sometimes brilliant papers from them are rejected. Nobody can abolish clan behavior in the academy. And the “academic kitchen” is pretty dirty, and takes years to understand ;-).

Sometimes publishing oversees helps here, and young researchers should keep this in mind. For many foreign journals, just the fact that you are a foreigner from a prestigious university is a plus that weights on the acceptance.


Chris Stephens 12.31.19 at 7:50 pm

I’m at UBC (Canada) in Philosophy; our situation is almost exactly the same as Harry’s: we have our standard teaching load (2 courses per term) plus service and teaching – no compensation for PhD students (though it is considered a “positive” to have supervised them when up for promotion). Also lots of individual variation within the department over how many graduate students one has; also lots of variation across campus (with the sciences faculties having less teaching etc.). In many sciences of course, you are expected to have graduate students to help you carry out your research; in most humanities, research is less collaborative. As Matt says, we’re treated as “salaried”, not “hourly” employees.

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