PhD supervisors usually get paid to supervise. They also have the prestige of having lots of students under their belt.

It's common to also have co-supervisor (I think it's mandatory in many fields, in Australia at least). What do these people get in return for their services? Put another way: if I'm asking someone to be my PhD supervisor, expecting them to help me out a whole lot for the next 3-4 years, what do I have to offer them?

  • 10
    Ph.D supervisors don't get paid to supervise in the US. They get paid to teach and do research.
    – Suresh
    Oct 3, 2012 at 6:14
  • 6
    Lots of students ≠ prestige.
    – JeffE
    Oct 3, 2012 at 6:15
  • 8
    We don't get paid to supervise. We have to find money to pay students. Oct 3, 2012 at 6:42
  • 11
    I thought everyone made their students pay back 1/2 of the stipend in cash.
    – StrongBad
    Oct 3, 2012 at 10:15
  • 1
    @DanielE.Shub sssh! Oct 3, 2012 at 10:30

2 Answers 2


Dave's remark on switching to the student's shoes and contemplating what you can get out of a co-supervisor is, in my opinion, a very useful one and should be of primary concern to students.

Let me put some personal perspective on this. I, as a senior post-doc, act as a co-supervisor of two PhD students (with some international twist to it within the EU context) and have colleagues who do the same, hence my observations below. Of course my view is one of a junior researcher, so take it with a grain of salt.

My benefits from being a co-supervisor are the following, in the order of subjective importance:

  1. new horizons: the students act as drivers and catalysts of research topics I do not necessarily care for in a very personal and deep manner. It means that I can broaden my horizons and get somebody pushing me towards learning something new. That is a good thing for me as a curious person, as well as for my career.

  2. publication record: given the first point, obviously, if the students work well and our collaboration works well too, since I get as much influence on their work as they allow me, or ask me to, we get together some useful stuff done and get papers published. I would stress the word "together", where I rather take the passenger's seat and try to help wherever necessary, but the crucial decisions are student's. The finished and delivered projects, as well as papers are obviously a good thing for both of us, too.

  3. project leadership experience: often the collaboration is in a context of a project, where, as the more senior guy,I would take the role of a project manager, or a team leader. Of course this gives me plus points to the CV as well, not speaking about learning how to do this kind of work. Another good thing for my career.

  4. soft skills: by doing the above and by that closely collaborating with people with whom my bond is tighter than just a joint interest (as it would be with a member of my community from a different institution), in a way, we are supposed to work out our ways along each other. At least for me, that is a good training too and good for my life and career, whatever twist should it take in the future.

  5. should the collaborating partner become a friend of mine during the process, I would add it as a benefit too. But obviously this one is not everybody's piece of cake.

All in all, the points above boil down to a single one: being a co-supervisor means for me to become and act as a senior buddy to the student and prepares me for running my own lab/group, should it become reality one day.


Co-supervisors play different roles, which may vary from individual to individual. Sometimes they are there as a backup, either in case things go wrong with the main supervisor, or if the student needs someone else to talk to. They can read the papers (and eventual thesis) of the student and may even participate in the research, adding a different perspective. In some cases, they can be more active than the supervisor (this is often the case if the co-supervisor is a post doc). Often they will be a part of the committee assessing the thesis in the end.

What does the co-supervisor get out of it? Well, a tick on his/her CV. Publications. Experience dealing with students. Contacts. Ideas. And work. In any case, it is part of what an academic is paid to do.

The real question should be: what do I, as a PhD student, get out of having a co-supervisor?

  • 3
    This is also the case in Australia (I'm assuming the OP is from Australia). They often also add domain specific knowledge, in the case of a cross-discipline PhD. The only notable exception to what has been said is that none of the supervisors (in Australia) assess the thesis, the examiners are all independent. As you noted in other comments as well, no-one gets paid over and above their normal salary to do this either (main or co-supervisor). It is however mandatory to have at least two supervisors in Australia, to be the emergency backup. Oct 3, 2012 at 7:49
  • 1
    I would have thought it obvious what a student gets out of a (co)supervisor...
    – naught101
    Oct 3, 2012 at 8:55
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    @naught101: you'd be surprised what is not obvious and what is assumed to be known. Oct 3, 2012 at 9:25

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