I am a few months into my PhD and my supervisor and co-supervisor are close friends.

Unfortunately, I find that my co-supervisor is not useful – he doesn’t provide any help or input into my project. Additionally, he has given me a hard time on more than one occasion, e.g. making a derogatory comment about the source of my PhD funding, not including me in discussions with his other PhD candidates (although I was physically present), and asking me to buy items for another PhD candidate using my budget.

I would like to stop being supervised by my co-supervisor, but I have not yet built a relationship with another academic that I could ask to take the role.

Do I need a co-supervisor? Can anyone recommend ways I deal with this situation?

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    Does your department require PhD students to have co-supervisors? If so, you have your answer. If not, you have your answer. – JeffE Apr 30 '14 at 12:04
  • First time I've ever heard of the concept of a co-supervisor. – user1482 May 1 '14 at 15:54
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    Since your supervisor and co-supervisor are close friends, if you decide to go without a co-supervisor, be careful how you raise the issue with your supervisor. Rather than criticising the co-supervisor outright, it may be better to say something like "we just don't click. Our personalities are too different." – mhwombat May 1 '14 at 17:56

The direct answer is not a PhD students does not need a co-advisor. The problem here is to think about the role of co-advisors. I am sure the view on this varies so my view is coloured by situations with which I am familiar, which is the US and Sweden. Co-advisors may be involved because they have specific expertise that may be relevant to part of the work, for example specific investigations, lab work ec. Co-advisors may also be there to provide overall scientific expertise and provide feedback on written articles or the final thesis or both. Hence a co-advisor may not be very active when you start your PhD. At the same time by signing up as a co-advisor, I would expect the co-advisor to be open for discussion during your time as a student but it may fall on you to initiate such contacts when you need it. The main advisor is, after all, the one responsible for the direction of your work within your thesis topic.

So while one does not need a co-advisor, there are many instances where such support is necessary or at least very useful.


Normally, a co-supervisor is not needed. However, there are some circumstances where it can be extremely useful. One such instance (with which I have some experience) is related to supervising students between departments. At some institutes, candidates admitted to department X can work with a primary advisor in department Y (and vice versa) if they have a co-advisor in department X.

Beyond that, though, there aren't many places I know where a co-supervisor is required. If you have concerns with how your co-advisor is treating you, the first thing to do is to speak to both of your advisors. If the behavior continues, then you may also want to consider talking to the faculty member in charge of graduate affairs within your department.

  • I'm studying in The Netherlands where cases of scientific fraud among psychology professors have been surfacing lately, and one of the conclusions was that students should be co-supervised as a safety measure. Another potential reason is to have a clear idea what will happen with the student if the main supervisor would at some point become unavailable for supervision. This is the case in the institute where I am, and so far the co-supervision on my project is on paper only, and will remain that way. – Ana May 2 '14 at 6:43

A co-supervisor must be useful. It is not fair to take a role of "useless supervisor" who can later be added as a co-author with relatively little input to the published works.

This of course depends somewhat on the status of the co-supervisor. Some professors already do not spend much time on experimental research, focusing on lectures or department-level supervision instead. In such case the department may have several intermediate supervisors, each having small own research group. In such case, without co-supervisor, you stay alone and may not even be able to get equipment and reagents you need for work.

However situation when some freshly baked post-doc starts "teaching" a good PhD student without use is also common. The goals may be to get into co-authors or even to take over the promising research topic. Sometimes such co-supervisor may be even obviously less competent than his student, so why to piggy-back him?

In case a co-supervisor is not useful, talk to professor and ask to remove co-supervisor out of your head. Simply say you do not think you benefit from additional supervision, explaining that the problems you are supposed to solve with ones help you can solve no worse or maybe even better yourself. Some cases / examples would be good.


Generally, the co-supervisor is somebody to guide you when your primary supervisor is not available. A good co-supervisor can boost your research power as he/she can share alternative viewpoint about research information. This supposes to encourage your research/work to become more rounded and more suitable for larger group of people.

Nevertheless, my suggestion is based on my experience in Australian system that heavily relies on the guidance of the supervisors. To deal with this situation, I suggest you seek for the person with the higher power as he/she can make a change or comments on your co-supervisor. One of the options is the primary supervisor usually holds more power than the co-supervisor. Also, he may know who is more proper than that guy, if they aren't friends. A more safe option is to consult with the head of the postgraduate office who has more power as the person has to take care of everyone in the school. So, he/ she should be able to regulate the inappropriate conduct or move him from your supervision panel.

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