Understanding university responses to HDR candidate-supervisor relationship challenges

This pilot study undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Institute examined relationship issues commonly arising between higher degree research (HDR) candidates and their supervisors, as observed by professional and academic staff at The University of NSW (UNSW) and The University of Melbourne.

The project was initiated by the Pro-Vice Chancellors for graduate research at UNSW and The University of Melbourne, and jointly funded by the two universities.

While there has been long-standing informal awareness in Australia around unacceptable behaviour in university environments, this has largely focused on coursework students, overlooking the experiences of the HDR/graduate researcher cohort, particularly in the context of candidate-supervisor relationships. As a result, there is limited systematic research on the impact and incidence of these issues, and a lack of understanding of their severity and extent.

By exploring the observations and experiences of staff who worked closely with postgraduate research candidates and their supervisors, the pilot study sought to understand whether anecdotal awareness of issues in supervision relationships were substantiated and systemic, as well as establish the need for a more comprehensive study.

The focus on university employees with responsibility for graduate research management – rather than the candidates themselves – was intentional. The number of first responders in the two universities is reasonably small and therefore it was relatively straightforward to access a representative cohort.

It is hoped this research will complement existing studies focusing on sexual harassment and assault by examining a broader range of issues.

While the great majority of postgraduate research candidates report 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 include:

  • 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.

It's hoped the research will support better understanding of the range of relationship issues that postgraduate research candidates experience and how staff at the two subject universities respond to and manage such issues. 

The study’s findings will also provide a basis for further investigation of the postgraduate research candidate experience – considering direct testimony from candidates and supervisors themselves – through future research, direct surveys and focus groups. The research team are currently considering options for funding of this next phase.

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

Report