Doing a Co-tutelle PhD… what the?

Marnie Graham completed her PhD as a co-tutelle student at Stockholm and Macquarie Universities. Her primary co-supervisors were Dr Henrik Ernstson from Stockholm University and Dr Sandie Suchet-Pearson at Macquarie University, and together they work on the ‘Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies’ project. This post is a discussion between Marnie, Henrik and Sandie on the pros and cons of administering, studying, supervising, and communicating within a co-tutelle PhD process. This is a shortened post of the original, posted on

Say co-what…??

Co-tutelle PhD students enter an agreement with two universities, commonly in two different countries, to be enrolled, supervised, and examined by both universities. Many universities now promote co-tutelle agreements to enhance international collaborations, yet not much information exists on actual co-tutelle experiences. At the end of my candidature, I begin our discussion on the pros and cons of the co-tutelle:

Upfront: the Logistical Bits…

highlighter2The biggest pro of my co-tutelle was having access to research funds and PhD opportunities from two institutions. This access enabled extended fieldwork periods and attendance at conferences, workshops and courses, which facilitated meeting colleagues and creating linkages with institutions that substantially strengthened my thinking and my thesis. I recommend finding out ahead of time what funds are available during your PhD, and becoming aware of the many opportunities a co-tutelle affords – like teaching opportunities, PhD courses, academic training, and conference funding schemes.

On the downside, two institutions means double the administration. I found fulfilling both universities’ different financial, student, thesis and examination requirements very stressful. Furthermore, many administrative procedures were uncertain, e.g. it took over a year to have my fairly simple co-tutelle agreement legally finalised. Still, as co-tutelles become more common, administrative processes will hopefully become more streamlined.

Navigating these logistical bits required keeping track of both universities’ different administrative requirements and opportunities. Forward planning required!

Co-tutelle supervision

Having a primary and a secondary co-supervisor at both institutions, co-tutelles potentially expose students to the awful prospect of having their PhD directed in four disparate ways. In addition to working across disciplines, research areas, and theoretical foci, a co-tutelle necessitates communicating, co-ordinating and working across multiple nationalities, time-zones, and languages. My co-supervisors and I live and work between Australia, Sweden, South Africa and the US; we collaborate across distinctly urban empirical contexts (Cape Town, where Henrik and I research), and distinctly ‘remote’ (Bawaka in far northern Australia, where Sandie researches); plus we work across disciplinary boundaries of human geography, urban ecology, urban studies, and Indigenous rights and knowledges.

The good news is I’m living proof that positive experiences can be had! I reckon it’s worthwhile getting to know as much as possible about prospective supervisors’ interests, expectations and styles of interaction before you sign up (email! Skype!). See if you feel like you might all be able to work together. Be upfront and trust your instincts! I like having substantial autonomy in my research, and my co-supervisors respected that. So our working relationship required evolving clear communication channels and strategies, endeavouring to stay connected when required, and being open about what we needed from each other and when (sure, all these things sometimes fell apart!). I think we learned how to work with and between Henrik’s and Sandie’s respective strengths and weaknesses as supervisors, and with mine as a student. I’ve also learned a lot from their generous interactions with me, and of the importance of being flexible and open.

Sandie… nourishing conversations across boundaries

I totally agree the biggest drawback to a co-tutelle is the administrative load, and I’ve seen it whittle away at two other students now. Communication and the negotiation of common understandings are key – otherwise the student could be caught between conflicting approaches, advice, views and systems, which could tear an excellent project and student to bits. I tried to be ever conscious of not pulling Marnie in conflicting directions from what Henrik was supporting, and to be aware of any alternative advice she received. What is also critical is a mature, motivated, confident PhD student who can effectively manage these relationships – communicate clearly, keep in control of their project and sound the alarm if things start going awry.

The greatest benefits for students and co-supervisors are the possibilities for nourishing conversations ‘across boundaries’. A co-tutelle brings a long-term relationship with another supervisor: working through synergies and tensions, considering new areas and angles in terms of the research questions and regards practical advice. Working on Indigenous knowledges and rights in remote areas and being introduced to the urban context of environmental management has been challenging and stimulating. Participating in a workshop in Cape Town I felt out of my comfort zone (remote, ‘Indigenous’), and yet was exposed to, and contributed to, the very exciting work being done in urban contexts. The heart of good human geography is challenging and reshaping boundaries – of universities as individualised institutions, of fieldwork locations and theoretical perspectives, and of the supervisor as isolated and singular. These are all nurtured in a good co-tutelle, and are the sorts of learning opportunities most academics relish!

Henrik… towards a “cosmopolitical optic”?

I had no clue what a co-tutelle was until Marnie brought it up. Despite all the bureaucracy, it’s been well worth it. It was a practical mission to keep our commitment of having regular joint supervisory meetings over Skype, with plenty of 5am starts for me. Our most intense communication was through email by responding to Marnie’s draft thesis texts. It’s amazing how much you learn through the close reading of other’s texts. As a supervisor, reviewer, and critic, close reading improves both sides of an intellectual conversation, and prompts us to dig down into our own thinking and to improve our own writing. For potential co-tutelle supervisors, I find these close readings are key in engaging your student, and make up for the lack of informal interactions like everyday small talk and popping-by at the office. However, it depends on having a committed student, and being able to find the time to read.

The most valuable aspect has been having an experienced and well-connected human geographer like Sandie on board, contributing her knowledge of the literature, but also her ‘outsider’s’ view of our work in Cape Town. Our collective email conversations and comments on Marnie’s work have created a quite interesting “cosmopolitical optic”, enabling us to collectively see the world through experiences shaped by Swedish, South African and Australian societies and geographies. Is that not an interesting geographical experience and outcome from a co-tutelle? Co-tutelles could even be a crucial ingredient towards a more “cosmopolitical university” – working across borders in the spirit of combining and contesting different knowledge traditions. Our respective institutions have been supportive, so I think it’s critical early on to get their full support, and follow administrative routines as best as possible.

So, would you recommend a co-tutelle PhD?

Marnie: Yes, if you plan ahead, stay calm, and maximise the opportunities the agreement provides!

Sandie: Yes – for the right student, with the right supervisors and institutional support. If all these things align, then absolutely!!

Henrik: You never know exactly what you are getting yourself into, but once you’ve got a good idea, go for it. There are some hassles, but multiple benefits.

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9 thoughts on “Doing a Co-tutelle PhD… what the?

  1. This sounds like a great opportunity, as Sandie says for the right student and supervisors. I was not a co-tutelle PhD student but I did design two PhD chapters which required an overseas stay at another institution, with another supervisor, and with outside funding I had applied for myself. This is something that is also within the reach of many students who might think a co-tutelle is too much to plan and manage. It is a great learning opportunity to work with many people, and in many places, if possible, during a PhD. As well as learning skills specific to a single discipline additional skills, for example those associated with communication and organisation, get refined and enhanced. It is great preparation for managing an academic career.

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  4. Well I think that, considering one of the biggest benefits of college are the connections you make while you’re there, anything that increases the number of connections you can potentially make is worth any cost – you know, within reason of course. And in this case it’s just having to deal with additional administration, which is surely a pain in the butt, but would be worth it in the long run.

  5. I’m doing a co-tutelle PhD right now and I must say even the strongest, most resilient doctoral researchers can falter when faced with less than supportive institutions or supervisors. Speaking for myself (I’m still holding on!) and for colleagues who are long gone and for those considering quitting, don’t rely only on supervisors or on your own strengths, having a strong support system in the form of friends who know exactly what it is like is essential to survival.

    There are certainly many professional and academic benefits to a co-tutelle but I consider the psychological potentialities to also double (thinking of workload, visa and residency issues, health care issues when you are in ‘two countries at once’, discrimination when it comes to funding because one institution will always say ask the other, other PhD students resenting co-tutelles for having ‘double the money’ no matter how untrue, the time and financial cost of flying back and forth between two countries, juggling different and often difficult personalities…). Of course if you survive you get two degrees, the experience of a lifetime, and the much-expanded network of contacts, which is fantastic.

    Simply put, ‘administrative issues’ are more than just mere paperwork and commitment needs to come from all sides, not just the student.

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