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Supervision is a relationship requiring trust and respect. Students have the right to expect regular, high quality advice, support and direction in their quest for academic excellence. In return supervisors have the right to expect a high level of commitment from their students who should respond positively to advice and guidance and develop an increasing level of independence in the conduct of their research. At the University of Exeter Postgraduate Research students should be appointed at least two supervisors of which at least one member of the supervisory team normally including the lead supervisor, should possess subject expertise in the student's field of research.

Lead supervisor

Supervisor: Denotes subject experts who provide supervision in the student’s specialist field. Lead Supervisor: The supervisor designated as a student’s primary point of contact, with primary responsibility for the student’s progress and records of progress.


All students will have a co-supervisor, also known as second supervisors. This role can vary a great deal, from someone intimately involved in the project and sharing much of the supervision with the first supervisor (in which case the supervisory split may be up to 50-50), to someone who has a minor role (for example a split of 80-20). The second supervisor is there as an additional person to talk to, and can be very useful for planning future research directions, or if the first supervisor is away for a moderate period. 

Further supervisors

Some students may have further supervisors: typically this happens if their project or funding is linked to an industrial, commercial or government organisation, and the supervisor will be an employee of that body. Again their role can vary considerably depending on the nature of the project and collaboration.

PGR Pastoral Tutor

Further information of the roles of PGR Pastoral Tutors can be found in the Supervision of Postgraduate Research Students: Code of Good Practice.

Ethical issues manifest in a wide variety of research activities and arise especially when the conduct of research involves the interests and rights of others.

The adoption of an ethical position in respect of such research requires that the researcher observes and protects the rights of would-be participants and systematically acts to permit the participants to exercise those rights in full accordance with UK law.

Ethical practice in such cases requires that participants and/or legal guardians, at a minimum, be fully informed, free to volunteer, free to opt out at any time without redress, and be fully protected in regard to safety according to the limits of best practice.

If research (at any level) involves one of the following, it will normally require ethical approval:

  • Research involving human participants or the use of material derived from human participants (this includes questionnaires and interviews).
  • Research involving the use of any personal data.
  • Research involving animals (this applies to all animals, including invertebrates, fish and other non-protected species, and includes behavioural and observation studies).
  • Research that has the potential to raise social issues or have any environmental impact.

Each College has its own ethical review process; please refer to your College intranet or contact your project supervisor, College Ethics Officer or Gail Seymour, the Secretary to University Ethics Committee.

The Research Ethics framework  provides a clear and consistent standard of governance for ethical review procedures across the University of Exeter.

It represents the benchmark for considering existing, or implementing revised, review procedures

Additional information on ethics and good practice can be found at Research Toolkit.

Sources of Support (general)

PGR Pastoral Tutors can offer confidential advice and support in cases where difficulties arise between students and their supervisors.

The Researcher Development run training sessions on Working with your Supervisor as well as have online resource to support Working with your Supervisor available on ELE. 

Students should consider the sources of support available via the Students’ Guild Advice Unit/Falmouth Exeter Students’ Union and their Postgraduate Liaison Representative(s).

Dignity and Respect Advisors are also available in instances of harassment or bullying. They provide a confidential and informal service at the University to all students and staff and you should first seek advice from them if this is pertinent to a complaint you are considering making.  

Requesting a change of supervisor

Students are able to request a change of supervisor in instances where they feel unable to continue the supervisor relationship*. Before formally requesting the change, students are expected to have attempted to resolve the issue informally via discussions with their supervisor or Director of Postgraduate Research (or equivalent) at Discipline level (as above). Requesting a change of supervisor should be considered a last resort.

 In some research areas, changes to supervisors may be challenging due to the research specialism and expertise required, sharing of intellectual property, and/or the nature of the project’s funding. Student wellbeing is the primary consideration, however, there are alternative actions short of a formal change of supervisor that are sometimes appropriate, e.g. provision of an academic mediator to facilitate communications between student and supervisor. There is no obligation of the part of the College to make changes to supervisory arrangements where the College Director of Postgraduate Research does not consider that a change is justified or indeed possible due to a lack of suitable alternatives with the required expertise.

For more information on making changes to the Supervisory Team, please see the ‘Code of Good Practice: Arrangements for the supervision of research degree students’.

*Breakdown of the student/supervisor relationship should be considered as an inability for the student/supervisor to communicate and work effectively on an ongoing basis, despite reasonable attempts to seek support to mediate and address any fundamental concerns from either side. Please note that in instances where there are alleged bullying or harassment, these should be raised with the relevant Dignity and Respect Advisors in addition to following the change of supervisor process.

How to raise general concerns relating to supervisory arrangements (informal complaint)

Where students are not content with aspects of their supervision they are encouraged to address problems as soon as possible through discussions with their supervisor. In instances where students do not feel able to raise the issues with their supervisor directly, they should contact the Director of Postgraduate Research (or equivalent) at Discipline level in the first instance. Discussions about the issues should remain confidential if the student requests this.

For more information about complaints please see the Student Complaints Procedure.

Outcome of an informal complaint

The supervisor/ Director of Postgraduate Research should consider the issues that have been raised and confirm the actions which can be put in place to reach a solution to the issue which is mutually acceptable to both parties. It is expected that both sides will make a genuine and reasonable attempt to resolve any issues at this stage.

If the complaint remains unresolved

In instances where the informal stage does not resolve a student’s concerns a formal complaint should be made. Please see the complaints procedure for more information, noting in particular the time-frames in the procedure for raising a formal complaint. You may also find the sources of support listed above useful – there are also additional sources of advice listed under ‘Before you complain’ in the complaints procedure:

Wellbeing Support

Managing relations with supervisors can be challenging and can place a strain on a student’s wellbeing, if you are struggling with your wellbeing, please also see the information about wellbeing support on the Doctoral College webpages.