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In practice most of cases of joint supervision I have observed fall under one of the following categories:

  1. Secondary* supervisor attends occasional joint meetings and may read drafts of manuscripts but does not play much of an active role.
  2. Secondary supervisor has a particular area of expertise that the first lacks (especially in interdisciplinary projects), and provides training and advice in this area, but does little outside of this.

As a postdoctoral researcher I am starting to get involved with supervision of Masters or PhD students. Currently my contribution falls largely under (2) above. My most active contributions might be along the lines of "I've noticed you're having difficulty with process X, shall we have a meeting to talk it through?".

I would like to take a more active, responsible role as a secondary supervisor, for two reasons. I would like to gain some experience in supervision in preparation for the day when I may act as a primary supervisor. I also feel that as a joint supervisor I should be taking on a bit more of the responsibilities of the role, rather than just being an extra source of advice. However, I can see that in some aspects of supervision it's probably better to have a single point of responsibility and a single person who is seeing the whole picture.

I have tried talking to the lead supervisor about this, who was encouraging but fairly vague and didn't suggest any specific changes to what I am currently doing. I think I will need to be proactive and make suggestions myself.

What are some practical ways that a secondary supervisor can take on more responsibility, and make a more active contribution, within the student's supervision?


*I'm aware of some cases where the person who is officially designated as the "first" supervisor actually does very little and most of the job is done by a secondary supervisor. Here I'm referring to "primary" supervisor as the one who actually takes on the bulk of the responsibility, and "secondary" supervisor as anyone else on the supervisory team, regardless of their official designation.

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You want to lighten the load of the primary supervisor, which they will probably appreciate. You could make a list of the things that the primary supervisor does. Then from this list, guesstimate which ones take up most of the time of the supervisor and of those, indicate which ones you want to (and are able to) help out with or just take over, eliminate the rest. From the remaining tasks, pick those that stand out in terms of helpfulness for both you and the primary. Propose to the primary supervisor that you want to take over these tasks and explain how you want to do it, and make a plan together to execute this.

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