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Supervision of PhD students

By getting involved in supervision, postdocs can provide highly valuable support to PhD students and their supervisors, while developing management skills and experience applicable to multiple roles.

While they can not be principal supervisors for postgraduate students (see exceptions and reasons below), postdocs whose contributions to the training and development of a student is significant, encompassing intellectual insight and guidance beyond the sole provision of technical support and training, can apply to see their role recognised as Assistant Supervisor.

Assistant Supervisor

This new role has been piloted in the MHLS Faculty for the academic year 2019-2020, and, since it received very positive feedback, has been formally adopted in May 2020 by the Research and Postgraduate Committee. Actual implementation outside of the MHLS Faculty was initiated in Summer 2021.

The role of Assistant Supervisor has been created to officially recognise and regulate the significant contribution of postdocs who are involved in the supervision of PhD students but who are not eligible to be listed as Supervisor. It recognises supervision already carried out by postdocs, encourages and provides an opportunity for postdocs to gain supervision experience, and defines a framework to supervision activities by postdocs.

For more information about the role and to see if you are eligible, read the Assistant Supervisor Guidelines.

The advantages for postdocs include an official title to use on their CV, an official appointment letter, the official recording of their contribution by Queen's (on the student system, Qsis), access to the supervisory meetings (which are an important development opportunity) and mentoring on supervision from the student and their principal supervisor.

Once appointed, the Assistant Supervisor is of course considered as a valuable member of the team involved in supervising the student, but they are not considered as part of the "Supervisory team", as defined by the Study Regulations for Research Degree Programmes. In the context of the said regulations, the term "Supervisory team" implies a range of obligations and responsibilities that do not apply to Assistant Supervisors.

Benefits of the Assistant Supervisor role

The role of Assistant Supervisor is not essential (many students do not have an Assistant Supervisor), but it can bring clear benefits to all involved.

We listed some of these benefits below, which reflect the feedback we received from postdocs, students and supervisors involved in the pilot.

  • Benefit for the Postdoc Assistant Supervisor
    • Official recognition: the PDC issues the Assistant Supervisor with an appointment letter and their involvement is recorded in Queen's internal system, appearing on their individual Pure profile (note: at time of writing, this was being developped but wasn't yet functional; expected update in 2021-22)
    • Opportunity to gain supervision experience with students from other groups (usually when their own group doesn't have students)
    • Easier to report on CV
    • Development opportunity: access to supervisory meetings, mentoring from the supervisory team and feedback from the student, in addition to learning by doing (the PDC will in time provide additional training resources such as workshops, panel discussions / Q&A, peer-mentoring etc.)


  • Benefit for the Postgraduate Student
    • Direct training and support to develop technical and analytical skills, wider research skills (experimental design, critical thinking etc.), transferable skills (organisation etc.)
    • Valuable additional perspective on the research, enriching discussions
    • Additional point of contact, who can often be more available and less intimidating than other supervisors
    • Feedback on draft presentations and written work
    • Mentoring on multiple subjects, including navigating a PhD and postdoc life
    • Way for you to recognise their contribution and make them feel valued
    • The official appointment drives their commitment supporting you
  • Benefit for the Supervisors
    • Support for the student when unavailable
    • Valuable insight on the research benefiting the project
    • Assistance with some supervisory duties
    • Can provide initial feedback to presentations and written work
    • Supporting the student with the PhD experience
    • Way to recognise and develop your own postdocs and valued colleagues
    • Potential link to other teams, Schools, Faculties



Process to be appointed as an Assistant Supervisor

  • Check your eligibility (Assistant Supervisor Guidelines)
  • Contact the student and their Principal Supervisor to discuss the possibility of your appointment and define your role and responsibilities
  • Fill the Assistant Supervisor Appointment Form and ensure that the Principal Supervisor (or both Co-Supervisors) and the student (as well as your PI if not a supervisor), fill and sign their part of the form
  • Send the form to the Director of Graduate Studies / Chair of Postgraduate Research Committee or nominee in your School or Centre (see form) for approval and signature
  • Send the final approved form to the PDC (

The postdoc is responsible for the application and the transfer of the form to the relevant people.

Once accepted, you will receive an official appointment letter from the PDC. This is usually quite quick; do not hesitate to ask for the status of your application if you haven't heard back from the PDC after a week.

Supervisor for Postgraduate Research Students

According to the Study Regulations For Research Degree Programmes (6.1.6, 6.1.7), postdocs can normally not be nominated as supervisors (principal, second or third supervisors or advisers for PhD by Published Works) of PhD students. This includes Academic Clinical Lecturers.

This is not solely because of the fact that postdocs' contracts and study periods are rarely fully compatible, postdocs are likely to leave for other jobs or because they may not have sufficient experience, but also because of the responsibility held by supervisors in relation to the funding and success of the research project, as well as their accountability for potential students' complaints. This does not reflect on the ability or skills of individual postdocs to assume a supervisor role but is due to the level of responsibility reasonably associated with their contracted position.

Exception: Senior Research Fellows appointed under the Queen's University Research Fellowship scheme (including Illuminate fellows, Vice-Chancellor's fellows and Patrick G. Johnston fellows) are eligible to be principal or second supervisors of PhD students, provided an experienced supervisor is also involved. Holders of equivalently prestigious personal independent fellowships can also be granted this opportunity but need their Head of School/Institute to submit the RDP Exception Request - Supervisor Appointment form via for the consideration of the Chair of the Research and Postgraduate Committee. As for all supervisors, fellows need to complete QUB's "Supervising Research Students" training course (booking on iTrent).

For more information on supervision, visit the Supervision page of the Academic and Student Affairs website

Supervision of Undergraduate and Postgraduate taught students

The involvement of postdocs in the supervision of students who are not postgraduate research students is regulated at School level, but the PDC and members of the PDC Representatives' Network developed institutional guidance and recommendations on the topic, which were accepted by PROG in 2022 and by the Education Committee (Student Experience) on the 16th of March 2023 (and noted by Academic Council in June 2023).

The aim of this work was to:

  • Promote a reasonable and more consistent approach to supervision by postdocs across the University
  • Enable and officially recognise supervision contributions by postdocs
  • Mitigate potential negative effects that too much supervision by postdocs can have on students and postdocs themselves

The recommendations brought forward and accepted by the Education Committee (Student Experience) are:

  • That postdocs are allowed to be involved in the supervision of students, proposing projects when appropriate
  • That the student projects involving postdocs always involve an established academic and remain part of the academic’s workload, with no ‘transfer’ of responsibility to the postdoc
  • That postdocs’ contributions are captured on relevant forms and systems, notably by enabling the listing of two supervisors per project

For more details on the recommendations and guidance, read the full paper