Understanding HDR candidate-supervisor relationship challenges (Phase 1)

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.

Between 2018 and 2021 the Institute explored these issues in a pilot study (Phase 1). In 2024 the Institute and the Gender Violence Research Network at UNSW are undertaking Phase 2 of the research with 10 Australian universities.

Understanding university responses to HDR candidate-supervisor relationship challenges (Phase 1)

The pilot study (Phase 1) involved a literature review and 47 anonymous interviews with professional and academic staff responsible for graduate research management across all faculties at UNSW and The University of Melbourne, in addition to representatives from central university services. The research explored the observations and experiences of staff who worked closely with higher degree research students (HDRs) and their supervisors, and sought to understand whether anecdotal awareness of issues in supervision relationships were substantiated and systemic.  

While the great majority of HDRs 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