South African universities need to better support doctoral supervisors


South Africa’s government has ambitious plans for doctoral education. The country aims to increase its output to 5,000 doctorates annually by 2030. In 2013, the figure stood at 2,051; by 2019 it was up to 3,445.

It also wants 75% of all academics employed at universities to hold a PhD by 2030. In 2019, that figure was just 46%.

There are several reasons for the drive to prioritise postgraduate education. One is a response to the rise of the so-called “knowledge economy”: universities want to improve their research output and see doctoral graduates as a good group to help achieve this aim. One of the key requirements for a university to produce PhD graduates is to address the supervision capacity by developing emerging supervisors.

When embarking on a PhD, candidates make several choices. What is their central research question? What methodology will they use? And, crucially, who will be their supervisor? A supervisor is a university staff member whose role is to guide and support postgraduate students studying towards a master’s or a doctoral degree. At the doctoral level students are allowed to choose their supervisors based on their expertise in the field of research.

But merely holding a PhD or having spent some years in academia doesn’t make someone naturally able to supervise students. Good supervisors need a variety of skills, research experience and publications.

The South African Council on Higher Education recently released a report on its key findings from a review of doctoral education. It states:
There is clearly a need for additional supervisory capacity across the national system, and programmes for training supervisors are in place in most universities.

My own PhD research found gaps in the system, including where programmes for training are said to be in place. I investigated how 20 of South Africa’s public universities support emerging supervisors. My study findings revealed that emerging supervisors were often simply thrown into the deep end with no development or support. Where professional development was available, it was often presented by facilitators without supervision experience.

I identified five areas that could be strengthened. These included whether training for supervisors was once-off or ongoing; how supervisors viewed the purpose of higher education – merely to ensure a certain number of PhD graduates or as a way to build knowledge – and whether supervisors were given the space to apply lessons learnt in workshops. I believe that if these steps were taken South Africa’s universities would have a much stronger cohort of supervisors.

Five factors

For my PhD I surveyed 186 participants, both emerging (novice) and experienced supervisors, and interviewed 54 academics from multiple disciplines. Some of their institutions offered once-off workshops for PhD supervisors. Others presented short courses or developed mentoring programmes.

From this data, I identified five factors that determined the success and value of institutions’ development of PhD supervisors.

The first was how supervisors understood the purpose of postgraduate education. Many supervisors were under enormous pressure to “get students through the system”. They felt this undermined their role in nurturing the next generation of researchers who could contribute to the stock of knowledge.

Some reported that incentives paid to supervisors had perverse consequences. In some cases, experienced supervisors were not willing to work alongside and mentor a novice because they didn’t want to share incentives.

Key performance indicators related to postgraduate throughput rates also led to an understanding of supervision as managing their pathway through the system rather than advising students in knowledge creation processes.

The second factor centred on efficiency, which refers here to the government’s desire for high graduate returns on its subsidy investments in doctoral enrolments.

Many of those I interviewed felt like workshops were a tick-box exercise designed to ensure compliance with institutional regulations. They responded either by not attending workshops, by attending without meaningfully engaging. This “absent attendance” means that making workshops or courses compulsory won’t address their inherent problems.

The third factor was the credibility of course designers and facilitators. Emerging supervisors told me they appreciated being introduced to the wealth of literature on issues of teaching and learning with postgraduates. But the facilitators were often employed in administrative posts and on contract: they had little research or postgraduate supervision experience. This dented their credibility in the supervisors’ eyes.

Supervisors’ own agency was another factor. My PhD supervisor, Professor Sioux McKenna, and I have argued elsewhere that some supervision development initiatives operate from the problematic premise that supervisors can be trained to “fix” low retention and poor throughput rates.

Good supervision is a necessary condition for a successful postgraduate journey. But it alone won’t repair these problems. If novice supervisors are sent off to workshops to develop generic skills and little is done to ensure that the department, faculty and university have a research-rich environment and student-focused administrative systems, structural issues will persist.

Emerging supervisors also said they emerged from training enthusiastic about the possibilities or alternative approaches to postgraduate education they’d discussed – only to have their ideas dismissed by colleagues or thwarted by institutional processes.

The fifth factor related to whether training was once-off or part of ongoing development. Despite their concerns, most participants who had attended supervisor development initiatives indicated that they benefited at least in some way from such support. However, where the support was offered as a once-off training, often just a half-day workshop, they felt there was an underlying message: good supervision was simply a matter of implementing a few skills.


Overall, the people I interviewed wanted flexible, collaborative, supportive – and ongoing – opportunities. There were calls for more discipline-specific interventions and collaborative spaces where emerging supervisors could engage with experienced supervisors rather than being instructed in a generic best-practice of “how to supervise”.

If these calls are heeded and institutions develop training into something beyond a tick-box exercise, the pool of capable supervisors in South Africa can be dramatically expanded.

Author Bio: Puleng Motshoane is an Academic Developer at the University of Johannesburg