Understanding HDR candidate-supervisor relationship challenges

Why are we doing this research?

While there have been substantial investigations into the challenges faced by undergraduate students in regards to campus sexual violence, there remains a large gap in knowledge regarding the experiences of students undertaking higher degree research, particularly in the context of their relationships with supervisors.

A pilot study published by the Australian Human Rights Institute in 2021 explored the observations and experiences of staff who worked closely with higher degree researchers (HDRs) and their supervisors at UNSW and the University of Melbourne. The research confirmed anecdotal accounts of a range of workplace relationship issues, including mismatched expectations, communication problems, bullying, conflicts of interest, inappropriate relationships and attachments, and sexual harassment and sexual assault.

It also confirmed a strong preference for informal mediation between the parties and ‘in-house’ responses to managing these issues within schools and faculties, with escalation to more senior staff or central university agencies only where necessary.

Phase 2

The next stage of the project, led by the Institute and the Gender Violence Research Network at UNSW Sydney, is exploring the views and experiences of HDRs and supervisors themselves, across 12 Australian universities. 

It is anticipated that the direct testimony of HDRs and supervisors, via quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews, will not only enhance understanding of graduate researchers' experience, but also provide a platform for the development of training materials to support supervision reform.

Research team

Chief investigators
Professor Justine Nolan – Director, Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Sydney.
Professor Jan Breckenridge – Head of the School of Social Sciences, Co-Convener of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW Sydney.
Professor Belinda Hewitt – School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne.
Dr Allison Henry – Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Sydney/Project Manager. Email: allison.henry@unsw.edu.au

Phase 1

The pilot study (Phase 1) explored the observations and experiences of staff who worked closely with postgraduate research candidates and their supervisors, and sought to understand whether anecdotal awareness of issues in supervision relationships were substantiated and systemic.  

While the great majority of postgraduate research candidates reported a strongly positive experience of undertaking their degree, many of the staff interviewed for the project recognised the inherent power imbalance between candidates and supervisors, and for candidates within the university hierarchy, as well as a reluctance to report problems.

Relationship issues observed by interviewees included:

  • Mismatched expectations and communication problems
  • Supervisor performance issues (including overcommitment/too many candidates) and candidate performance issues (including failure to complete work within timeframes)
  • Conflicts of interest in areas such as supervisory, advisory committee and panel relationships, and corporate interests.
  • Bullying occurring in both directions (from supervisors towards candidates, and candidates towards supervisors)
  • Inappropriate relationships and romantic attachments
  • Sexual harassment and assault.

The pilot study helped to support a better understanding of the range of relationship issues that postgraduate research candidates experience and how staff at the two subject universities responded to, and managed, such issues. The Phase 1 study also established the need for a more comprehensive study.

Research team

Chief investigators
Professor Louise Chappell, Scientia Professor, Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney
Professor Andrea Durbach, Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney
Associate Professor Kate MacNeill, Associate Dean, Education and Students, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne

Project researcher
Allison Henry allison.henry@unsw.edu.au