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Are there any advantages or disadvantages in having two supervisors instead of one? Why would a graduate student want to do this or avoid this?

The context is in an MA where students usually have one supervisor and two committee members (examiners).

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    I am actually a bit surprised that your university doesn't enforce a system with multiple supervisors. Here we always have at least 2 (typically 3) supervisors. One is the head supervisors and responsible for the progress of the student, while the others typical advise on technical parts and learn how to supervise. Considering that we have lost supervisors from the university with very little warning (cancer and a boating accident) recently I wouldn't feel very comfortable if my whole project depended on a single supervisor. The bus factor is very real. – pehrs Mar 19 '15 at 12:36
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    @pehrs: "responsible for the progress of the student" - this strikes me as odd. Why would anyone beside the student themselves be responsible for their progress? – O. R. Mapper Mar 19 '15 at 12:58
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    @pehrs: All regulations I am aware of prescribe two supervisors de jure – but there usually is only one de facto supervisor, who does the vast majority of the supervising. I understood this question here that the asker is trying to decide between having two de facto supervisors and having one de facto supervisor. – Wrzlprmft Mar 19 '15 at 13:00
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    Are supervisors "de jure" related to "committee members"? Where I am, we normally have one supervisor but two other professors sitting on a committee. – curious Mar 19 '15 at 13:28
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    Matthew 6:24 seems relevant here... – Nate Eldredge Mar 19 '15 at 13:31
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Pros:

  • If one supervisor gets hit by a bus, you still have a second supervisor who is familiar with your work and can thus give constructive comments on it, hopefully appreciate it and in particular evaluate it. Often, your supervisor is the only person at your university who is actually capable of fully understanding and properly judging your thesis and defense.

  • If one supervisor turns bad or turns out to be bad and for example gives bad advice, makes ridiculous demands or even expects you to do questionable things, you can still turn to the other supervisor for advice or to have a serious word with the bad supervisor. If the relationship to the bad advisor goes totally awry, you may have the option to drop them and be supervised by the other supervisor alone.

It depends:

  • You may be expected to do more or less work. For example, if you are doing an interdisciplinary work and have one supervisor from each discipline, the supervisors may only understand and value the work you do in their respective half and thus think that you did not do enough. On the other hand, they may also overestimate the work in the respective other half and thus be more easily satisfied.

  • You can benefit from the experience of both supervisors and learn something from one advisor that you cannot learn from the other.

Cons:

  • You may be affected by disputes between the supervisors. For example the first supervisor may tell you to do something in a certain way and then the second supervisor blames you for it.
  • If aspects of your work require input from both advisors, you may need to wait not only for one supervisor to have time for you but for two. This is in particular difficult, if you need to talk about something with both your supervisors at the same time.

Some of the above obviously depends on the details of the relationships between your supervisors and the reason for the co-supervision. Thus, you can only judge yourself, if these points apply to your case and how important they are for you.

  • The "bus factor" also helps you have two knowledgeable references who could write recommendations instead of one. If you're at a doctorate-granting institution, Masters students may not get much specific attention except from their official supervisors. – cactus_pardner Mar 26 '18 at 17:38
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I was co-supervised (one of my supervisors was the former supervisor of the other supervisor, making me my own academic uncle) and also want to do a pro and con list:

Pros:

  • When one supervisor was away, the other might still be available. So I probably got more supvision than I would have otherwise.
  • I could complain about one supervisor to the other if things were going badly.
  • I got two slightly different points of view on everything I did, which was certainly valuable.

Cons:

  • One of them left part-way through my thesis and I was not allowed to switch universities, even though I was mostly working with the one who left by that stage.
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Wrzlprmft's answer is very detailed, and this just serves as my personal experience (since I am doing just this: my Master thesis is supervised by 2 tutors with similar application areas).

If one supervisor gets hit by a bus, you still have a second supervisor who is familiar with your work and can thus give constructive comments on it, hopefully appreciate it and in particular evaluate it. Often, your supervisor is the only person at your university who is actually capable of fully understanding and properly judging your thesis and defense.

This! It is not uncommon for STEM PhD students to do internships or a semester abroad at another institution (this actually happened to one of the supervisors at the middle of my thesis). Having 2 supervisors just gives you the chance to present with the one remaining.

You can benefit from the experience of both supervisors and learn something from one advisor that you cannot learn from the other.

As far as why one would go to the extra trouble of having 2 supervisors think of it as follows: you are able to learn from different PhD students, that can have slightly different fields. In my personal case, one of them is clearly more into physics and engineering concepts and prototyping, while the other is very knowledgeable in computer simulations, programming, etc. This definitely helps!


My piece of advice after having done such a project is (as in most project management):

  • Try weekly/biweekly meetings where everyone is present.
  • Send important updates/pdfs or questions via email with everyone as CC. (Keep in mind to address in the email if you need an answer of supervisor X, as people tend to feel less obligated with this approach)

Best of luck in your project.

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I was co-advised by two people with quite different backgrounds. In my experience, some of the pros were:

  • Crosstraining across disciplines. My two PhD advisors were trained in computer science and chemistry, respectively. I think of this as having two main sub-benefits:
    • You can work on problems for which fewer other people have the appropriate training, which can set your work apart and differentiate you as a scholar from others.
    • You can get a more diverse skill set, which can serve you well both inside and outside of academic research.
  • Access to two different people's professional networks (potentially even in different areas).
  • Experience with different interpersonal styles, styles of leadership, and research philosophies.

Some of the cons were:

  • Double the time spent in and preparing for meetings!
  • More difficulty scheduling. In my experience, difficulty of scheduling scales exponentially, not linearly, with the number of professors you need to get in the same room.
  • Competing priorities. Different advisors will have different ideas of what's interesting or worth following up on. You need to make sure everyone is on the same page about what direction your research should be taking.
  • (Probably) a longer duration of training. Interdisciplinary work can be really rewarding, but it can also mean that both you AND your mentors will be working outside of their respective comfort zones. You can't just rely on what's within a single prof's wheelhouse. Of course it depends on the project and the person, but if, say, you wanted to do a US-style PhD and were dead set on getting out in just 4-5 years, I'd suggest choosing a single advisor instead of two.
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There are cases where the situation is actually neutral, that is, there are no particular pros or cons. Two supervisors come out naturally when there is an on-going collaboration between two groups, and the candidate starts working within this collaboration, or when the candidate is going to work in a non-academic institution and needs an academic supervisor too.

Typically, in the above cases, if the collaborations are well established, things go on smoothly, and the candidate hardly notices that she/he has two supervisors. Sometimes, one of the two supervisors can follow more closely the candidate, while the other can have more bureaucratic functions.

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To add to the list of advantages: If the first supervisor is close to where you work, they may provide frequent and hands-on advice. If the other supervisor is a big shot who flies in only once or twice and writes one of the reports, they can bolster your reputation and write a positive letter of recommendation.

(I know this isn't how academia should work if it were an ideal meritocracy, but in the real world where power and ties matter, this is how it does work, especially in more conservative countries.)

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