Crafting a Compassionate Doctoral Journey: Humanizing Supervision in African Academia

From demystifying supervisor-student interactions to encouraging work-life balance, this insightful article by Anastasiah Ngigi explores key practices to humanize doctoral supervision.

Illustration by Tristan Barnard

Humanizing doctoral supervision: Implementing practices that improve supervision efficiency and humanizing the process of doctoral supervision in Africa 

Globally, a doctorate is widely considered as a great achievement as it is regarded as the highest level of certified education, and is thus coveted by many, particularly in Africa. Africa produces less research outputs than other regions of the world. Thus, there is need for concerted efforts to increase research capacity through doctoral training. However, doctoral journey involves hard work presenting varied experiences to different doctoral candidates. While some candidates recount journeys characterized by a host of challenges, including concerns about future (uncertain) job markets, lack of institutional support, isolation, inadequate funding, and lack of facilities, there are practices that can be effectively managed to humanize doctoral supervision. The practices highlighted herein include; (i) Humanizing research presentations and thesis/dissertation defense (ii) Conflict resolution (iii) Demystifying supervisor/student interactions (iv) Guide on selection of PhD supervisor and responsible supervision, (v) Mentoring novice doctoral supervisors, (vi) Study / work /personal life balance, and (vii) Social activities. The practices which can be viewed from different perspectives are due to several reasons. Included in this are the inherent institutionalized cultural practices, the pressure supervisors face to perform well and produce positive results, which pushes students hard without considering their non-academic needs, financial difficulties, inadequate communication techniques, and supervisors’ lack of exposure to and awareness of the best practices in doctorate supervision.

Key words; humanizing, thesis defense, conflict resolution, policies, work/study balance, social activities

1.0 Humanizing research presentations and thesis/dissertation defense

Doctoral candidates present their research at deferent levels (department, faculty) culminating in thesis/dissertation defense. Some doctoral supervisors and panelists have taken this as an opportunity to disparage the candidate’s research, undermine their arguments and responses, or make remarks that demean the candidate. This practice causes emotional damage, low esteem and should therefore be discouraged. This should instead be an opportunity to guide and hone the presentation skills of the candidates, help them gain courage and correct appropriately or offer insightful critique.

2.0 Conflict with/or between supervisor(s)

Conflict can occur between a supervisor and doctoral candidate due to various reasons including misunderstanding. If unresolved, it can impact negatively on doctoral studies, sometimes irreversibly. The worst scenario is when the conflict occurs among the supervisors. As we say in Kiswahili “Fahali wawili wakipigana, nyasi huumia” meaning “when two bulls fight, the grass suffers.” The doctoral candidate ends up suffering, for example, getting conflicting recommendations on thesis document from the different supervisors, as lightly depicted below. 

Conflict resolution mechanisms should be put in place to remedy such situations. Differences between co-supervisors should be resolved amicably, which can also be a learning experience for the candidate.

Illustration by Lydia Ngugi

3.0 Demystifying supervisor/student interactions

As it was with me, a lot of undergraduates put lecturers on a pedestal and consider them to be someone who only ever appear in lectures; having a one-on-one chat is either unthinkable or extremely rare. Sometimes, this kind of perception persists until doctorate candidates begin their studies. It can be worse when a person is adjusting to a new environment and situation. In these circumstances, the candidate might wind up following the supervisor’s instructions without actively participating or communicating much. Under such circumstances, a supervisor ought to initiate contact and engage the candidate, establish an interactive platform, and foster friendship in order to facilitate efficient communication and foster a positive learning environment (like a supervisor saying, “hey, I am human too”).

4.0 Guide on selection of PhD supervisor and responsible supervision

Graduate supervision requires application of approved policies that are known by faculty and communicated to doctoral candidates. Policies should serve as a guide for the selection of supervisors and the regulation of conduct in doctoral supervision. Even so, the procedure for choosing supervisors should guarantee that the student’s preference is carefully evaluated and consistent with their field of study. Doctoral supervisors should conduct the supervision responsibly throughout the entire process. 

  • Selection of supervisors

In an academic setting where promotions are pegged on the number of doctoral supervisions conducted and publications, strive may thrive in selection of doctoral candidates. Choosing a supervisor was one of the disappointing experiences I had while pursuing my PhD. As the department’s first and only PhD candidate at the time, I selected my research topic with the help of a staff member after completion of the coursework. A disagreement emerged between two academic staff members regarding the selection of the supervisor. I opted to change the research topic and obtained three supervisors—two from other universities and one from the university where I was registered—after realizing that there was no information available to me on handling the situation. This was more of a means of survival (a safe way out of an uncomfortable situation). Numerous postdoctoral researchers encounter comparable situations in which prospective supervisors disregard the viewpoint and decisions made by candidates. Some candidates might not be as fortunate as I was and eventually give up on their studies entirely, become frustrated, or waste a lot of time not making any progress. The process of the selection of supervisors ought to benefit both the supervisors and the students.

4.2 Setting boundaries and responsible supervision

Social misconduct is one of the less discussed topics when it comes to PhD supervision. It’s possible that some female doctoral candidates may have fallen victim of supervisors who engaged in “border crossing behavior.” It is important that such conduct is openly discussed and discouraged. A recent experience of a female doctoral candidate shared with me was a case when one of the supervisors kept on making “unbecoming advances”, left her feeling very vulnerable. The supervisor declined to sign the “Letter of intent to submit thesis” after the “advances” were not reciprocated. The doctoral candidate consequently took two more years to complete her studies, resulting in frustrations, higher expenses and lack of career advancement. In addition to serving as role models for the students, supervisors must be made aware of the importance of humane and responsible supervision.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

5.0 Mentoring novice doctoral supervisors

In order to improve their supervision abilities, skills and enhance supervision, novice supervisors should actively participate in doctoral supervision. The supervisors’ training, experiences, and knowledge, among other things, impact and inform the effectiveness and quality of supervision as well as the relationships between the supervisor and the students. A less experienced supervisor who had a challenging PhD program may share that experience with the students. This could entail, among other things, delayed feedback, poor or non-existent supervisor/student interactions. The student(s) can become stressed and frustrated. A novice supervisor can receive training through co-supervision and has to be mentored by more seasoned supervisors.

6.0 Study / work /personal life balance

Sometimes, the PhD students are expected to study all the time (including every weekend). For the working group, it is also expected that they report to work promptly, and sometime work late. Such a schedule is not sustainable. Doctoral candidates also need time for family, friends, and hobbies in order to function optimally by attaining a study/work/personal life balance. Many doctoral candidates suffer burn outs from the effects of having an incredibly overcrowded schedule. Supervisors should be understanding enough and agree on timelines that are realistic and implementable. Doctoral candidates should understand that making time for activities beyond the studies is vital for success. Among other things, cultural events, regular exercise, and a healthy social life all contribute to students’ overall wellness.

7.0 Social activities

Human beings are both social and emotional; being a supervisor or a doctoral candidate does not remove the humanity. Faculties should incorporate activities that foster social and emotional wellbeing. These could include sports, having tea with students and supervisors, going on field trips, celebrating birthdays and other milestones, and performing community service, among other things.


The practices discussed here are by no means exhaustive; rather, they are a partial depiction of what takes place in doctoral supervision. There is potential for and room to support a humanizing pedagogy in the supervision relationship and throughout the doctoral process through the sensitization of doctoral supervisors. It is the duty of supervisors to strike the correct balance between the doctoral candidate’s work’s requirement for academic rigor and the need for humanity in the student-supervisor relationship. The end result is a motivated doctoral candidate who is fully supported with the necessary epistemological groundings and enabled to thrive in a world of lifelong learning.

Anastasiah Ngigi

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