A thesis supervisor, what’s the point?


To embark on a doctorate is to accept to question one’s certainties and achievements to venture on previously unexplored fields. In this face-to-face three to five years at once exciting and challenging that engages with his subject, the young researcher is however not alone. As stated in the decree establishing the national framework for doctoral training in France, it is “under the control and responsibility of a thesis supervisor” (Article 16).

But in what way does this accompaniment consist precisely? How far can the thesis director’s involvement go and what are the limits? The points of view diverge but the question never leaves indifferent. Beyond the personal testimonials, here are some points of reference to better understand what a doctoral student can expect from his mentor.

Guiding without imposing

As supervisor of doctoral work, the main role of the thesis supervisor is to guide the doctoral student in his choices concerning the state of the art, the research methodology, the scientific analysis, and the structure of the thesis. Signed in general by the various stakeholders, the thesis charter can specify these responsibilities, including the development of the subject: the thesis supervisor must “ensure that the project is original and will not duplicate research previously done” , thus recalls the charter of the University Paris-Saclay .

Consider a major difference: if the supervisor is responsible for the scientific accompaniment, it is not for him to dictate the choices that are required. At the beginning of the thesis, it is common for doctoral students to be confused by the extent of the work available around their subject. But the thesis director is not obliged to provide an exhaustive literature review for the doctoral student. He can recommend certain key articles or suggest unavoidable authors or give only vague indications.

The doctoral student remains responsible for his own thesis: his scientific autonomy must develop throughout his PhD so that the thesis defended demonstrates his ability to produce original research. The director accompanies the doctoral student, but does not replace him on the scientific level.

Ensure working conditions

In leaving the purely scientific framework, another important role of the thesis supervisor is to ensure the good working conditions of PhD students. This responsibility is certainly shared with the doctoral school, as well as with the company when the thesis is in CIFRE convention. Most PhD supervisors will be concerned about the funding and working conditions of their doctoral students. Some disciplines, however, have different uses: if in management sciences, as in biology, it is very rare to supervise an unfunded thesis, it may be more frequent in letters.

This responsibility is often shared in France with the management of the research unit, “responsible […] for the quality of the working conditions necessary for the proper implementation of the research undertaken”, as mentioned in the charter of the University of Paris. Strasbourg .

The international opening of doctorates makes this problem a bit more complex. Recent research highlights the complexity of international programs: according to UNESCO statistics, China currently has more than 847 000 students abroad, and India more than 278 000. For both cases, the first host country is the United States. Questions of cultural differences arise, for example implicit standards in addition to all the practical questions of adaptation to the life of the host country, as well as administrative problems that can become real daily difficulties.

Create a relationship of trust

It is sometimes forgotten, the relationship between a thesis director and a doctoral student is above all a human relationship. For some, the thesis director can “make or break” a doctoral student. The thesis director engages in a long-term relationship, with a doctoral student who engages in one of the most important projects of his professional or personal life.

In this relationship that comes out of the strict scientific framework, it is a question of knowing better the motivations of the doctoral student. It is also important to create a relationship of trust so that feedback – whether positive or negative – can be incorporated by the student. Encouraging the doctoral student to overcome difficult moments, being open to new ideas, encouraging PhD students to excel, these are essential dimensions but sometimes difficult to work with and to transmit, especially since PhD supervisors rarely have opportunity to put themselves in the position of learner.

But a few rare international seminars or conferences are starting to offer training courses to teachers-researchers on the subject. A serious game conceived at Grenoble Ecole de Management , aiming at these extra-scientific skills, has also received an award of excellence at “Re-Imagine Education”, the international competition of reference for innovative initiatives concerning learning and learning. employability of students.

Help to build a network

To discuss the professional orientation of PhD students, it is necessary to separate the two main career options: academic careers or careers in business. The thesis director is less involved in this second case, where his influence will necessarily be limited. Since the profiles concerned are often directed to the Cifre device , or have already had business experience, these PhD students will rely more on their own network.

It is therefore in the socialization of the prospective researcher that the thesis director can play an important role. For a doctoral student who wishes to have an international career, it is important that the thesis director be informed as soon as possible about this project. This allows the doctoral student to choose his academic conferences according to his research community and their fame, to develop scientific papers in parallel or instead of the traditional thesis manuscript, and to identify the universities or schools that will be potential recruiters.

Finally, the thesis director can play an important role in the transmission of the researcher’s ethics. For example, practices in terms of plagiarism differ according to national cultures: for some cultures, quoting verbatim from other researchers without explicitly referring to their work is to do them honor. Discussing researcher confidentiality, respect for data, respondent integrity, or database accuracy are topics that a director can discuss and even check with their students. In support of the thesis supervisor, some universities have set up committees, as is the practice in the US with the Institutional Review Board, which examines research protocols for PhD students before the start of data collection.

Author Bio:Valérie Sabatier is an Associate Professor of Strategy, Director of Doctoral Programs at the Grenoble School of Management (GEM)