News - January 16, 2014

‘Fewer PhD students per supervisor’

Roelof Kleis

Supervisors should only be allowed to have a limited number of PhD students as this would improve the quality of the supervision, says the Wageningen PhD Council (WPC).

There are currently too many cases where the day-to-day supervision of PhD students is not up to scratch. This is the lobby group’s response to the report entitled ‘In Gesprek’ (In Dialogue) about inappropriate behaviour.

The report, which was drawn up by an external committee headed by emeritus professor of Communication Studies Cees van Woerkum, revealed that PhD students are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate behaviour because of their dependent relationship with their supervisor. PhD students complain about limited access to their supervisors and the lack of guidance and substantive input.

Day-to-day contact

‘I know of some PhD students who only see their supervisor once every two months. They sit alone in their room, muddling through,’ says Jeroen Candel, WPC chairman. ‘We think PhD students are entitled to a contact who is available on a day-to-day basis. But some supervisors have so many PhD students that they can’t supervise them all properly.’

Candel says supervisors can sometimes be responsible for more than 20 doctoral students. ‘Then you could say, he must be good or he wouldn’t have that many. But you could also say he’s so busy he can’t have enough time to supervise them properly. While it’s not just about the number, there is a limit beyond which you can’t provide decent supervision.’


The WPC has drawn up nine recommendations in an effort to start up a debate about the position of PhD students. The student quota is one of the nine. The WPC also recommends linking PhD students to buddies. This would help international doctoral students in particular. The PE&RC graduate school already has such a buddy system, in which an older PhD student shows the new student the Wageningen ropes.

The WPC also wants supervisors to be sent on courses to learn how to improve their supervision. And if it does not work out with a supervisor, the student should have the option of choosing someone else while still keeping their funding. The Wageningen Graduate Schools have now written a memo on the position of PhD students based partly on the students’ own recommendations. The Executive Board still has to decide on the matter.