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Can hands on supervision get out of hand?

Research indicates that the changing institutional context of doctoral education tends to push supervisors to apply a more hands-on approach, which embodies directive, controlling and product-minded supervision. The tendency towards more hands-on supervision has made a growing number of scholars in the research field of doctoral education speculate whether supervisor control and over-involvement succeeds at the cost of developing students’ independence. So far, however, no explicit empirical support is provided in the research literature for the assumption that independence is undermined by hands-on supervision.

The aim of this study is to test correlations between hands-on supervision and students’ feelings of independence, ownership and self-efficacy.


The study is based on a large-scale survey among doctoral students enrolled at Aarhus University representing Arts, Social Science, Health, Natural and Technical Sciences. The questionnaire was sent to 2,130 doctoral students by e-Boks and e-mail early 2021. The survey population included i) all enrolled doctoral students and ii) doctoral graduates who, at the time of the study, had handed in their PhD thesis within the recent six months.  A total of 1,585 PhD students answered the questionnaire, giving a response rate of 74.4 percent.

ANCOVA test will be applied to analyse potential associations between hands-on supervision and the above-mentioned success indicators.


This research will contribute to 1) a more nuanced discussion of the assumed relation between student independence and directive supervision and to 2) inform faculty of the optimal balance between facilitating and directing.

Finally, previous studies have mainly investigated the success of hands-on supervision by means of timely completion. Our study invites for a discussion about the need for including additional success indicators such as students’ feelings of independence, ownership, control, and research confidence.

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The study is part of an ongoing institutional quality development project called Quality in the PhD Process, which is a quadrennial survey that aims at providing specific, local knowledge to support the quality development of Aarhus University’s Graduate Schools as well as to contribute to international research on PhD degree programmes. It was carried out for the first time in 2013. The report from 2013 includes a thorough description of the theory and research behind the questions asked in the survey.

  • Herrmann, K. J., & Wichmann-Hansen, G. (2017). Validation of the Quality in PhD Processes Questionnaire. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 8(2), 189-204.
  • Wichmann-Hansen, G., & Herrmann, K. J. (2017). Does external funding push doctoral supervisors to be more directive? A large- scale Danish study. Higher Education, 74(2), 357-376.
  • Wichmann-Hansen, G., Godskesen, M., & Kiley, M. (2020). Successful development programs for experienced doctoral supervisors: What does it take? International Journal for Academic Development, 25(2), 176-88.


The project is financed by interdisciplinary strategic funding from AU's Talent Development Committee.