The making of a professional academic: an analysis of Swedish doctoral supervision policy


The making of a professional academic: an analysis of Swedish doctoral supervision policy

Joel Jansson* and Henrik Román

Department of Education, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden


The general aim of this article is to develop an understanding of the historical and contemporary frames for professional socialisation through doctoral supervision. Supervision is a crucial component of doctoral education, in the reproduction of future researchers and a research competent labour force. Special attention is directed towards Swedish doctoral supervision policy. Sweden shares the characteristics of a social democratic type of welfare regime in which national politics takes a special responsibility for and interest in higher education including doctoral education. In government policy texts providing the basis for two major reforms of doctoral education, in 1969 and 1998, we map and analyse what is expressed about supervision and its context, and how this is expressed, paying attention to both similarities and differences. Drawing on a governance perspective, including a critical policy analysis, we discuss the findings in terms of frames for the professional socialisation of doctoral students. In both reforms, we recognise a dominant supervision ideal which emphasises efficiency, but it is complemented and partly challenged by very different ideals: in 1969 by an academic ideal and in 1998 by an ideal promoting good doctoral working conditions. Altogether, this implies a shift in the framing of professional socialisation from emphasising efficiency as a matter of compliance to efficiency as a matter of interaction and cooperation.

Keywords: professional socialisation; governance; policy analysis; doctoral education; supervision.

Citation: NordSTEP 2016, 2: 32734 -

Copyright: © 2016 Joel Jansson and Henrik Román. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 29 November 2016

*Correspondence to: Joel Jansson, Department of Education, Uppsala University, von Kraemers allé 1 A, 752 37, Uppsala, Sweden, Email:


The aim of this article is to develop an understanding of the historical and contemporary policy frames for professional socialisation through doctoral supervision, by focusing Sweden. Drawing on a governance perspective (Foucault, Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991), we explore how supervision is articulated in government policy texts produced in connection with two major Swedish doctoral education reforms. The policy is analysed as frames for professional socialisation (cf. Durkheim, 1956). Sweden has many of the characteristics of the social democratic type of welfare regime (Esping-Andersen, 1990), in which national commitments and interests extend beyond the absorption of negative risks, embracing what is favourable to economic development and prosperity. In Sweden, academic institutions for doctoral education are government authorities run by laws, national regulations, government statements, reforms and different kinds of nationally initiated evaluations. Thus, in Sweden, national policy is very significant in the framing of doctoral education (cf. Elmgren, Forsberg, Lindberg-Sand, & Sonesson, 2016).

Supervision has been a topic of political interest in Sweden ever since doctoral education came under political scrutiny in the mid-20th century. In policy as well as in research, supervision is identified as a central prerequisite for the reproduction and socialisation of future researchers as well as for other highly qualified positions (Jones, 2013; Lindén & Helin, 1998). Supervision is put forward as being of great importance not only to the individual’s well-being and career but also to the overall scientific community. Research in different policy contexts is presented as crucial for welfare, international competitiveness and economic growth, which in turn makes doctoral supervision an important means of achieving the welfare objectives associated with research. Supervision becomes a central factor not only in doctoral education policy but also as part of general research policy goals and ambitions, both nationally and internationally. Supervision is no vacuum phenomenon (cf. Lindén & Helin, 1998).

Most research on doctoral supervision has been cantered on doctoral student perceptions of the supervisory situation focusing on its consequences for well-being and educational achievement (Green & Bowden, 2012; Halse & Malfroy, 2010; Jones, 2013; Löfström & Pyhältö, 2014). This approach, with the individual experience in the limelight, also dominates research on doctoral student socialisation in general (cf. Bragg, 1976; Gardner, 2010; Karlsson, 2004; Peixoto, 2014; Trocchia & Berkowitz; 1999).1 We present a different approach. Making use of national policy, we direct the attention towards the collective properties of socialisation, that is, the knowledge, norms and values constituting the institutional environment of doctoral supervision. Thus, from our point of view, national doctoral education policy establishes frames for the professional socialisation of doctoral students into becoming professional academics.

Theoretical and methodological points of departure

We investigate professional socialisation from a governance perspective. Certain knowledge, norms, values and skills produced, managed and maintained by a governing authority frames the field of possible alternatives of action and ultimately give grounds for a particular kind of ‘professional self’ (in Foucauldian terms: enabling certain subject positions, cf. Foucault et al., 1991).

National directives (regulations and guidelines) regarding doctoral education are thus regarded as formal decrees of what should be characteristic for a professional position demanding or favouring a doctoral degree. Such national decrees are generally based on preparatory work done by the government or an appointed committee, providing arguments for the actions taken. We treat the preparatory work and the decrees of a certain doctoral education reform as one national policy body, producing certain frames for the professional socialisation of doctoral education students. In this article, we analyse a number of national policy texts produced to support new doctoral education regulations and guidelines.

Technologies of governance relate to the different ways in which the framing is done, that is, different ways to socialise subjects in a desirable direction; in this study, this refers to policy argumentation when presenting, promoting and comparing different supervision ideals, and giving priority to one or two of them. Techniques of governance refer to the concrete measures proposed in a specific supervision policy, reflecting the played out governance technologies, as a means to realise them. This, in other words, refers to what such policy state as mandatory components and requirements of doctoral supervision (cf. Dean, 1999).

Methodologically, we draw on a critical policy analysis (cf. Bacchi, 2000; Ball, 2006). Like Ball, we analyse policy texts from both a constructivist and a materialistic perspective: identified discourses are created from material circumstances but with ever-present discursive elements. National claims that doctoral education should be reformed due to a lack of scientifically educated workers can, for example, be considered to be a two-sided argument with both a material and a discursive side. On the one hand, our analyses recognise that this notion of a labour deficit is based on a material fact (for instance, a decreased number of PhD exams in a certain research area). On the other hand, arguments claiming a ‘lack’ or ‘deficit’ discursively establish a desirable relationship between the labour market and doctoral education that allows for certain types of interventions.

To develop an understanding of the historical and contemporary policy frames for professional socialisation through doctoral supervision, we address the following questions:

What different doctoral education ideals are at stake in supervision policy, and which ideals dominate in a certain reform era?

How are the dominating doctoral supervision ideals argued for, and how are they prescribed to be materialised?

How is stability and change played out in national supervision policy?

In the final section, we will analyse the empirical findings, categorised as supervision ideals, in terms of national policy frames for professional socialisation, making use of the Foucauldian concepts of technologies and techniques, and discussing possible inherent discursive policy tensions in terms of continuity and change.

Empirical data management

The main focus is to identify certain policy patterns to analyse and discuss these as frames for professional socialisation. We have refrained from presenting a broader historical context of Swedish higher education and doctoral education, not going into detail when it comes to decision-making processes or policy makers and actors. Our study is restricted to text analyses of a number of policy texts, which we argue, provided a crucial basis for decision-making during two major doctoral education reforms, in 1969 and 1998. These documents were sourced using the Swedish Parliament search service. We have performed conceptual readings of the documents, thereby identifying relevant chapters and sections. The selected parts have become the subject of several critical readings in relation to the theoretical and methodological points of departure and the research questions. We have conducted a simple word search for ‘supervision’ (‘handledning’) and ‘doctoral supervision’ (‘forskarhandledning’) with inflections, to gather and obtain a generalised as well as detailed picture of all the materials written on supervision. The empirical data consist of the following policy texts, representing the two reforms analysed.

The 1969 reform

  • SOU 1966:67 Doctoral education and research careers (Forskarutbildning och forskarkarriär; a Swedish Government Official report, referred to as SOU 1996:67 or the 1966 government report)

The 1998 reform

  • Ds 1996:35 Study funding and examination in doctoral education (Studiefinansiering och examina i forskarutbildning; a Swedish Ministry report, referred to as Ds 1996:35 or the 1996 ministry report)
  • Prop 1997/98:1 The budget bill for 1998 (Budgetpropositionen för 1998; a Swedish Government Bill, referred to as prop. 1997/98:1)
  • SOU 2004:27 A new doctoral education- Mobilizing for excellence and growth (En ny doktorsutbildning – kraftsamling för excellens och tillväxt; a Swedish Government Official report, referred to as SOU 2004:27 or the 2004 government report)
  • All the above-mentioned reports include government directives, usually clearly defining the scope of the action given to a specific committee. The main reason we only use one source for the 1969 reform compared with three sources for the 1998 reform is that the SOU 1966:67 report is very extensive in comparison. In addition, it led to no government bill revisions relevant to doctoral education, before the final decision was made in 1969 (Gov. bill [prop.], 1969:31, Parliament’s written communication [Rskr], 1969:222). In contrast, prop. 1997/98:1 revised a number of proposals made by the Ministry Committee of 1996 (Ds 1996:35). SOU 2004:27, which was mainly an evaluation report of the 1998 reform, is included because it provides complementary information about supervision, which is otherwise scarcely discussed in the 1998 reform policy texts. We are aware that we thereby stretch the width of the 1998 reform to include some political measures very briefly introduced in 1998, but more elaborately dealt with later on as a consequence of the reform. Supervisory education, for instance, became mandatory in 2000 as a means to enhance the quality of doctoral education (Gov. bill [prop.], 2000/2001:3, paragraph 8.3.3).

Although we treat this material as two comparable bodies of documents, we admit that they are different in character, since the 1969 reform analysis is based on one single type of document, whereas the 1998 reform analysis is based on three different types of documents, whereof one is complementary to the decision made rather than a basis for decision. Committee and ministry reports share many features, but it is worth noting that ministry reports generally are less extensive and arguably more closely tied to government directives. Government bills are basically different compared with the reports, as they by definition express the will of the government, even though they may include sections of reasoning and investigating, similar to the style of the reports. We will touch briefly upon this difference in our concluding section.

All empirical sources are originally in Swedish but have been translated by the authors.2

Two major doctoral education reforms: a short introduction

The doctoral education reforms in 1969 and 1998 were initiated in different ideological climates and times. A rapid growth of the welfare state in the middle of the 20th century resulted in a general shortage of manpower, especially of skilled labour, in the public sector as well as in industry. The Working line (cf. Torfing, 1999) provided a solution to this problem, based on the assumption that society and its population may be treated as units of a potential labour force. In accordance with this rationale, the political interest towards doctoral education and researchers increased. Doctoral students began to be conceptualised as labour (in a general sense), and doctoral education was prescribed a new role as a general source of scientifically educated labour (cf. Sörlin & Törnqvist, 2000). The academic institutions – nurtured in a tradition of academic autonomy – were not, however, customised for this new feature; the number of degrees far from covered the proclaimed needs of the labour market. The comprehensive concerns of the efficiency of doctoral education were what the government depicted as the main reason for reform in terms of low efficiency not satisfying the needs and demands of the labour market (SOU 1966:67, p. 13). Seeking increased governability (Hultqvist & Petersson, 1995), a new set of regulations was prescribed in the 1969 reform policy, and this established the administrative framework for today’s doctoral education, including the following components:

  • A larger and a more uniform set of course
  • The thesis transformed from a lifetime achievement into an apprentice examination task
  • Emphasis on team work
  • Reduction and standardisation of quantitative requirements
  • The introduction of supervisory groups
  • More intensive and regular supervision
  • The introduction of a shortened 4-year doctoral degree (SOU 1966:67, prop. 1969:31)

In 1998, partly as a result of academic resistance (prop. 1997/98:1; cf. Benner, 2001) against the development towards increased efficiency and standardisation, the Swedish Parliament decided to initiate the next big reform. The 1998 reformers also stressed the need for more efficiency by referring to a lack of scientifically educated labour (see, e.g. prop. 1997/98:1, p. 90). The general solution introduced was, as in 1969, to implement more efficiency and standardising measures. Within this common framework, however, the 1998 reforms imply some significant changes and shifts. In the 1990s, Sweden experienced a major financial crisis. The Social Democratic Government started a programme, with the aim of transforming Sweden into a knowledge-based nation, such that Sweden would compete in the new knowledge-based economy with a skilled population.

In accordance with this transition – from the working line in an industrial society to a competence line in a knowledge society (Torfing, 1999) – policy makers renewed their interest in doctoral education. Doctoral education was now instead emphasised as a means of competing internationally (see, e.g. prop. 1997/98:1, p. 93). It was this more neoliberal, market-oriented discourse that on this occasion provided the foundation for claims of a lack of scientifically educated labour. The 1998 reform introduced a number of regulations on top of those established by the 1969 reform programme:

  • Individual study plans
  • A special director of study in each faculty providing doctoral education
  • Resource allocation tied to the number of each institution’s exams through a performance management system
  • A government directive (regleringsbrev) towards every single academic authority regarding doctoral education throughput
  • Supervisory education (Ds 1996:35, prop. 1997/98:1)

These regulations were partly sovereign in nature (Foucault, 1979) but also, in accordance with neo-liberal thought patterns, environment-promoting, or with Donzelot (1979) they formed a mobilisation from below. On the one hand, the number of regulations increased, while at the same time, doctoral students were increasingly invited – as well as required – to become active participants in the educational context. The individual study plan, for example, was a very important addition to the regulatory framework, as it certainly includes strong regulative elements, but at the same time it has the function of inviting doctoral students to actively establish, evaluate and revise their educational path.

In sum, the shift from the working line to the competence line (Torfing, 1999) and from government to self-regulation (Nilsson, 2005) has, since the mid-20th century, been a feature which partly characterises political discussions on doctoral education (cf. Odén, 1991; Haraldsson, 2010). This shift is clearly visible in the Swedish context, when comparing the 1969 and the 1998 reforms.

In both the 1969 and the 1998 reforms, supervision is clearly recognised as a politically interesting aspect of doctoral education, attributed to an important role for completing the reform ambitions:

Individual supervision is definitely the most important type of teaching in a doctoral education (SOU 1966:67, p. 26).

It makes little sense to consider that a longer period of study, without the right to supervision, would count as doctoral studies (Ds 1996:35, p. 39).

But what kinds of supervision have been promoted in policy? What demands and expectations have been expressed regarding supervision as activity and supervisors and doctoral students as participants? We will now present the supervision ideals, which we have identified as supported by policy reasoning, and how these ideals were meant to be staged according to the same policy. We distinguish different kinds of ideals: a dominant ideal, an alternative and/or a complementary ideal, and an anti-ideal, that is, a negative point of reference. The dominant ideal of course refers to the ideal which is most prominent, while the alternative and/or complementary ideal refers to an ideal which deviate from, but is more or less compatible with the dominant ideal. This will be further explored in following sections.

The 1969 reform

The dominant ideal: efficient and authoritative supervision

In the 1966 committee report, supervision is clearly incorporated into the general perspective of efficiency and standardisation. The report stressed the importance of well-organised supervision as a means of cutting down periods of study and increasing throughput: ‘Special attention should be paid to the question of how to develop supervision procedures at the different institutions’ (SOU 1966:67, pp. 15–16). Insufficient supervision is identified as an obstacle to increased standardisation and efficiency:

The outspoken criticism of the current system […] can be summarized as follows: long periods of study, which, as a result of a poorly organized education lacking instruction and supervision, lead to excessive quantitative exam requirements. (SOU 1966:67, p. 42)

Supervision is mentioned in 186 sentences in the 1966 report. One hundred and seventy-one of these relate to issues about periods of study, efficiency and standardisation, where supervision often is ascribed a key function for the making of more efficient doctoral education and PhD candidates: ‘Doctoral supervision must, as was initially stated, be considered as the main tool for increased study efficiency’ (SOU 1966:67, pp. 69–70). The core meaning of this sentence, supervision as a ‘main tool for efficiency’ is representative of the main supervision ideal expressed in the 1966 report:

It is especially important] that doctoral supervision is subject to a thorough renovation. This is a basic precondition for achieving efficiency in doctoral studies. (SOU 1966:67, p. 67).

As the thesis work should continue to be the central and most demanding part of [a doctoral] education, doctoral supervision intensity and the design of the thesis are of paramount importance for a PhD student’s ability to complete their education within the prescribed period. (SOU 1966:67, p. 58)

Fixed periods of study are here put forward as a desirable way of achieving efficiency, and the supervisor and the doctoral student are thus prescribed special attentiveness towards the finished product. According to this argument, completing the thesis within a given timeframe should be their first priority. Supervision is thus required to have a certain intensity (implying close and regular interaction between supervisors and doctoral students). In addition, the report prescribes a more efficient thesis production and product, enabled by supervision, as they stress ‘the supervisor’s ability to make the PhD student strive for necessary concentration when writing’ (SOU 1966:67, p. 137). Another feature associated with good supervision is guiding PhD students in their taking of courses. The report recommends course selection in consultation with the supervisor, giving priority – for the sake of improved efficiency – to courses that are ‘particularly adequate with regards to the ongoing thesis work’ (SOU 1966:67, p. 58).

In more elaborate descriptions of what distinguishes efficient and intensive supervision, the supervisor is put forward as a natural and regulating authority who initiates and formulates the research problem, controls and evaluates the process, and gives subsequent advice on how to proceed:

In the broadest sense, good supervision can be said to include at least three elements, namely: (a) the initiation of a well formulated research problem, (b) control of the progress in frequent intervals including constructive criticism, and finally (c) assessment of scientific quality in PhD works and counselling, when such work is summarized in a thesis or in an essay. (SOU 1966:67, p. 68)

The ideal described above implies that a doctoral student is expected to receive and carry out a research problem assigned to him/her by the supervisor and to continuously be attentive to supervisor advice and judgement based on frequent checking and evaluation of the process. What is the socialisation content prescribed through this ideal then? What attitudes become desirable? As mentioned above, completion within a given timeframe emerges as creditworthy, while deviating from the fixed path counts as a failure. As a doctoral student, one should do what the supervisor says, should not delay study time by writing long texts and by taking courses unrelated to the thesis topic. A doctoral student should simply act in a time-efficient manner by adapting to the regulatory framework prescribed.

The alternative ideal: academic supervision

Although the efficiency ideal clearly dominates, another supervision ideal also emerges, what we call the academic supervision ideal. According to this ideal, supervisory attention should rather be directed towards the process, emphasising the doctoral student’s development and demonstration of creativity, originality and independence. This supervision ideal is visible in statements about what abilities, skills and knowledge doctoral students are expected to acquire:

Working on a thesis is mainly about challenging your creative capacity. Since research is concerned with original innovations, this latter component is an especially important part of the talent requirement of a PhD candidate. A supervisor must therefore, in a not-too-late stage, gain proper knowledge about their students’ research talents. (SOU 1966:67, p. 55)

Creativity, originality and innovation emerge here as important aspects of supervision. A creative and original doctoral student should be able to explore, question and even go beyond established truths, ideas and perspectives, and the supervisor is assigned a primary responsibility for enabling such a process. How this supervision should be pursued, in order to promote creativity and originality is, however, left undiscussed in the report.

The two different supervision ideals are generally presented separately but in some sections they coincide. Although the efficiency ideal dominates the report, it also includes arguments for how too excessive regulatory supervision may restrict the doctoral student’s scope of action:

The supervisor must continuously monitor the progress of the research work by having the student account for his work and by continuously helping him make contacts with experts, material or literature. This must, however, take place without suffocating the self-directed activities of the PhD student. The supervisor shall also in time observe and intervene, if the PhD student tends to get stuck on peripheral issues. This part of the supervision, however, must not be designed in such a way that it prevents original contributions from the student. (SOU 1966:67, p. 69)

In addition, the report notes that a more intensive regulatory supervision (occurring in faculties highlighted as efficient) had made it more difficult to evaluate the individual qualities of each doctoral student:

The educational situation itself, with a greatly intensified supervision and an increasing tendency to favor team-work, makes it difficult, however, to perform an unambiguous evaluation of the scientific skills, independence and originality of the PhD candidate. (SOU 1966:67, p. 120)

Thus, the report expresses a concern that regulatory supervision, in combination with a standardised study situation, could potentially prevent students from developing ‘scientific skills, independence and originality’.

Insufficient supervision as enforcement of the efficient and authoritative supervision

The committee contrasts the ideal of intensive regulatory supervision to a negative alternative, insufficient, bad supervision. In insufficient supervision, thesis topics are selected randomly, and the doctoral student will not be supervised at all in finding literature or defining research problems:

In some disciplines, thesis topics are now, not infrequently, chosen very randomly. The supervisor may give the student a vague indication of an appropriate and interesting area for a thesis, and he may be recommended to read some literature to inform himself about the current discussion and relevant problems within the area in question. He is asked to come back in a while (a time period that can sometimes be extended over several weeks) to further discuss the possible thesis topic with his supervisor. Instead, the supervisor should address the research problem from the very first start of the supervision, as if he were in the student’s situation. (SOU 1966:67, p. 70)

The main argument against this non-intensive way of conducting supervision is that the doctoral students will not be able to finish within a given timeframe. Defining this way of conducting supervision as unproductive and ineffective strengthens the intensive regulatory supervision status as the desirable supervision. A fragmented supervision is not compatible with the dominant norms of efficiency and productivity.

Furthermore, we can see how the Natural Sciences and Mathematics are presented as good practices, filling the efficiency requirements. They have short periods of study, high throughput and PhD exams are taken at a relatively low average age. Supervision in Natural Sciences and Mathematics is described as being intensive in character, while the Humanities and Social Sciences are put forward as unproductive and ineffective. The committee points out that a more efficient supervision, therefore, is most needed in these faculties and disciplines:

Periods of study are currently on average longer within the humanistic and comparable faculties; Licentiate and doctorate degrees are in general taken at a far later age than at the faculties of Mathematics and Science. A more efficient education, in which a significantly improved research education is an important part, would probably substantially reduce the periods of study. With regard to the current periods of study increased supervision efficiency thus is most acute within the humanities and methodically related sciences. (SOU 1966:67, p. 70)

The medical and mathematical-natural science subjects generally have more extensive and differentiated teaching and more intensive supervision compared to subjects in the other faculties and colleges; their periods of study are usually comparatively short. (SOU 1966:67, p. 42)

Staging the efficient and authoritative supervision

The 1966 government report consists of three overarching themes: admission, educational path and examination. The aspects of each of these themes are connected to the efficiency of the supervision. One argument given for explaining long periods of study and low efficiency is the simple equation: too many doctoral students per supervisor. Such equations had to that point made it difficult, in the Report Committee’s view, to carry out the intensified regulatory supervision ideal. To enable a realisation of the ideal, the committee proposed that available supervision resources should lead to admission barring. The 1966 government report recommended that the number of doctoral students per supervisor should not be more than 5 or 6:

In our consideration of this question, the committee has chosen to propose 5 to 6 students per supervisor […] International experience suggests that a number of this magnitude is well balanced, in order to accomplish effective supervision. (SOU 1966:67, p 72)

Supervising resources as a means of admission barring is thus mainly seen as an administrative component for rationalising the supervision in the direction of increased efficiency.

We have previously noted two prescriptive measures for achieving a more efficient supervision: the supervisor was prescribed to, in consultation with their students, choose courses in line with the thesis topic and to teach their doctoral students to become a concentrated author. An additional measure was the introduction of the supervisory group, explicitly an idea imported from American universities. A supervisory group should, according to the report, be involved throughout the doctoral education, ensuring ‘supervision efficiency during the education’ (SOU 1966:67, p. 123). The tasks of the supervisory group were clearly connected to the striving for increased efficiency and shorter periods of study. They included approval of thesis topics, course selection as well as assisting the ‘doctoral student in getting access to enough material, instruments, room for study, and assistance in solving the task within the given timeframe’ (SOU 1966:67, p. 124). The main supervisor was (of course) included in the supervisory group, but the other two group members were expected to assist the supervisor. In many ways, the supervisory group construction resembles the contemporary construction of having a main supervisor and one or two assistant supervisors, but it is worth noting that the function of the supervisory group was to support and to monitor more regular supervision activities performed by the supervisor and the student. In line with the ideal of an intensified and efficient supervision, the supervisory group is described in terms of a ‘natural regulatory authority’. Its tasks are described in terms of ‘control activities’ and ‘trial’:

The control function that such a group would practice would inevitably at the same time, include an indirect examination of the issue of when a research process and its outcomes could be regarded as fulfilling the requirements for a doctoral degree. Therefore, to some extent, the responsibility for the efficiency of doctoral education regarding supervision will be put on this group. (SOU 1966:67, p. 123)

Finally, we can observe how the use of a so-called ‘middle exam’ is proposed as a measure to help the supervisor ‘more easily get an overview of what types of problem a doctoral student has to face, in order to prepare for a more efficient doctoral supervision’ (SOU 1966:67, p. 56).

The 1998 reform

The dominant ideal: efficient supervision

Supervision is less intensively discussed in the 1998 reform policy texts when compared with 1969 reform policy texts. In the 1969 reform policy texts, supervision was mentioned in 186 sentences, including a detailed description on its ideal implementation. In the 1998 reform policy texts, supervision was mentioned in 73 sentences generally providing thin descriptions of supervision activities. Just as in the 1969 reform, an efficiency perspective dominates the way in which supervision is articulated. Supervision is included in society’s growing need for research-educated labour:

Society’s increasing need for scientifically educated people leads to increased demands regarding the efficiency of doctoral education. This means, in turn, increased interest in and demands on the organization of doctoral education and the quality of supervision. (prop. 1997/98: p. 101)

Efficient supervision is also treated as a financial matter:

A concentration of resources for study funding and supervision as well as of other resources to those doctoral students most suitable to carry out the studies promotes, however, according to statistics and experience, an effective training and increased throughput. (prop. 1997/98:1, p. 97)

In addition, it can be noted that the 2004 government report carried out calculations regarding supervision intensity (number of supervision hours) as a way of collecting information on efficiency and periods of study (SOU 2004:27).

The complementary ideal: interactive supervision

Whereas the supervisor in the 1969 reform texts was described in terms of a ‘natural authority’, the supervisor in the 1998 reform texts becomes ‘an equal colleague’. The supervisor is assigned, as one of their tasks, to ‘help and support’ (SOU 2004:27, p. 48) the doctoral student. In the 2004 government report, the recommended content of the newly introduced education programme for supervisors emphasises communicative and social skills:

Supervisory education should, according to the government, be concentrated on the function and role of the supervision and the supervisor and contain elements such as communication skills, conflict management and research ethics. In addition, the education should offer equality and gender knowledge and knowledge of the regulations and rules governing doctoral education. (SOU 2004:27, p. 173)

The use of words such as ‘help’, ‘support’, ‘communication’ and ‘conflict management’ emphasises what we will define as an interactive supervision which promotes good working conditions, in contrast to a controlling and regulating supervision. We use ‘interactive’, since the supervision ideal not only provides guidelines for what content should be included (such as gender, equality, regulations and research ethics) to promote good working conditions for the doctoral student but also prescribes how supervisors should act to establish such conditions by making the doctoral student a part of the process. The interactive ideal emerges as a complementary ideal rather than an alternative ideal in relation to the efficiency ideal.

It is also worth noting that the academic supervision ideal described in the previous section is very rare in the 1998 policy texts. We only find a hint of this in the 2004 government report, in the following statement: ‘The supervisor has, as one of its tasks, to help and support the doctoral student in the process of becoming an independent researcher’ (SOU 2004:148, p. 4). The ambivalence expressed in the 1969 reform policy texts regarding the relationship between these two ideals is, thus, merely invisible. Concepts such as creativity and originality are now almost completely absent in writings where supervision is mentioned.

Staging the efficient and interactive supervision (with more regulations)

The 1998 reform added a number of supervisory measures to those established in the 1969 reform. The regulatory landscape surrounding supervision now became denser, and individual study plans and supervisory education were introduced. The 1996 ministry report describes the content and function of the individual study plan as a way of setting up an administrative tracking bar for the whole formal component of the educational path. The individual study plan was also part of an ambition to clarify the division of labour and the responsibilities of doctoral students, supervisors, institutions and faculties:

Specific individual contracts should be signed for those who have been admitted to doctoral education. In these [contracts] thesis topics and courses to be passed should be specified. For each year of the educational path, labor input should be translated into credits so that they can be successively monitored. In addition, the commitments of the university department should be made concrete: the extent and forms of supervisory efforts and resources such as office, computers, equipment in general, office assistance, research resources, experiments, fieldwork, etc. which the department contributes to the production of the doctoral thesis. (Ds 1996:35, p. 38f)

Obligations and rights of the doctoral students as well as of the universities and thus of the supervisors and of other teachers should be clearly stated. (SOU 2004:27, p. 172)

The individual study plans are primarily connected to the efficiency of education by providing an administrative basis for separating inefficient doctoral students from their funding and resources, that is, when a student’s progress is slower than agreed in the plan (prop. 1997/98:1). Although this additional measure within the national regulations of supervision has the potential to have a repressive impact, it also contains one important softer component, which is more closely related to the ideal of promoting good working conditions. The doctoral students are – in close interaction with their supervisors – expected to establish, revise and evaluate their own individual study plans (prop. 1997/98:1; SOU 2004:27). The individual study plan on the one hand works as an additional (repressive) regulation, but the students will on the other hand have the opportunity to determine their own educational situations, at least to some extent. The plan is a controlling and regulatory measure for making doctoral students act as subordinate in the current structure and at the same time a measure for encouraging doctoral students to actively engage in the management of their own educational arrangements. Bearing in mind the ultimate impact of the repressive aspect of this measure, loss of funding and resources, the doctoral student through the individual study plan is not only expected to be actively engaged in the organisation of her/his own education but also potentially in the undermining of it. Supervisory education is another new contribution to the regulatory framework, which at the same time has a function of promoting good PhD working conditions, which is quite evident in the supervisory education guidelines quoted above.

Comparing and concluding the supervision policy ideals

Table 1 summarises the different supervision ideals identified in the policy texts. For each reform, we have identified three kinds of ideal: a dominant ideal, an alternative/complementary ideal and a negative point of reference (the opposite of an ideal according to national policy). We argue that an alternative/complementary supervision ideal is double-sided. Alternative implies it is ‘something else’ and partly conflicts with the dominant supervision ideal, while complementary implies a compatibility with the dominating ideal. The observant reader has noticed a difference in our labelling of these ideals. The academic ideal of 1969 is foremost alternative, but with the potential of being complementary, while the interactive ideal of 1998 is foremost complementary, but potentially alternative. Our definitions of the ideals are closely tied to how policy portrays them. Objective refers to what end doctoral supervision and doctoral education serve as means to. These objectives are more or less explicitly stated in the policy texts. The dominant ideals are given explicitly stated objectives in the policy texts, while objectives for the alternative/complementary ideals are more tacit. Moreover, we also include what policy address as negative points of reference (‘negative ideals’), including what objectives and what kinds of frames for professional socialisation these negative points of reference imply (in the case of the 1998 reform the negative point of reference is implicit, simply defining a counterpart to the dominant ideal). Our descriptions are in these cases more or less linked to explicit lines of reasoning in the policy texts, as we propose two alternatives for each aspect. In the final column, we try to capture what frames of professional socialisation the different ideals support.

Table 1. Identified supervision ideals: definitions, objectives and frames for professional socialisation.
Supervision policy ideals Definition Objective Frames for professional socialisation
Dominant ideal of 1969 Efficient, authoritative, standardised and regulated supervision Meet the need for an increased supply of research competent labour to increase national wealth in order to ensure welfare state development and stability Efficient, standing in line, taking instructions and delivering on time, accountable and visible, possibly team-working, disciplined
Alternative (complementary) ideal of 1969 Academic supervision (supervision promoting independence, originality and creativity) Ensuring independent, free research and researchers Creative and intellectual
Attending and contributing to seminars
Self-disciplined and autonomous
Negative point of reference 1969 (a) Unregulated, time-consuming and vague (b) Impressionistic, associative, intellectual, non-linear, based on informal norms (a) Ensuring an arbitrary idealised system of status quo (b) Ensuring independent, free research done by researchers, who have made it ‘through the eye of the needle’ (a) Inefficient, unproductive and slow
A lifetime project
(b) Free-spirited, decoding informal norms
A life-time project
Dominant ideal 1998 Efficient, standardised and regulated supervision Meet the need for an increased supply of research competent labour to compete with other nations in order to increase or at least not loose national wealth, and thereby at least maintain and hopefully develop welfare state ambitions Efficient, operating within given frames
Complementary (alternative) ideal 1998 Interactive supervision promoting good working conditions for the doctoral student Need for research competent labour with social skills and awareness Active and socially aware participant, included in the structuring of their own educational path
Implicit negative point of reference 1998 (a) Inefficient supervision: supervisor acting superior and not taking the doctoral student into account (b) Efficient supervision, promoting attentive and skilled doctoral students (a) Ensuring a system combining elements of arbitrary authority and Taylorism (b) Ensuring independent, free research done by researchers, who have made it ‘through the eye of the needle’ and adjust to (varying) academic norms (a) Inefficient, standing in line, uncritically and non-independently taking instructions (b) Efficient, standing in line, taking instructions and delivering on time

Alternatives (a) refer to national policy which accordingly only includes negative statements, while alternatives (b) refer to possible positive counter-statements from those advocating the supervision principles referred to as negative in policy. Our main argument for this is twofold. To start with, the two alternatives illustrate the discursive dimension of policy. A policy definition of a certain way of performing supervision as undesirable implies a reference to a more or less specific supervision practice. Accordingly, the defenders of a similar practice (those maintaining it) would approach it differently, as a positive activity which promotes good research and researchers. This brings us to the next part of our argument. The negative points of reference in the 1969 policy share many features with the academic ideal of 1969, while the negative points of reference in the 1998 policy share many features with the efficiency ideal of 1969, arguably revealing or reflecting the main discursive policy tensions within and between the two reforms. And also reflecting the field of tension in which supervisory activities take place, as part of the professional socialisation of the doctoral students. After this outlining of our findings, we will now in following sections discuss them in relation to our research questions and analytical concepts.

What technologies are used in order to execute the different supervision ideals?

We argue that supervision policy may be understood as producing frames for professional socialisation, by reproducing, inventing and reinventing certain supervision ideals and attaching a set of measures to manifest the ideal(s). For analysing how this process works (how the subject is constituted, to put it in Foucauldian terms), we now will make use of the two concepts technologies and techniques.

The 1969 policy emphasises a supervision characterised by time efficiency and productivity where the supervisor acts as a ‘natural authority’. The supervisor initiates and formulates the thesis topic, monitors and evaluates the work process of the doctoral student and gives advice on how to proceed. To act efficiently clearly becomes an offer and a prescription: a doctoral student should be efficient. In addition, as Bacchi (2000) argues, discourses have material consequences. They produce winner and losers. Describing a doctoral student as efficient and productive means a student may also be described as inefficient, unproductive and slow. In addition, intensive supervision and a supervisor acting as a ‘natural authority’ imply that a doctoral student not only should work efficiently but also submit to a supervisor’s directives and advice. The doctoral student becomes someone who ‘stands in line’: not taking initiatives, not acting as an active participant. Competent but tied to authority.

Academic supervision emphasises a process which encourages doctoral student development and demonstration of creativity, originality and independence. The frames for professional socialisation following this ideal brings to mind a ‘free intellectual’ with a creative mindset, more related to the classical bildung ideal than to efficiency and timeframes. This means it also becomes possible to describe a doctoral student as uncreative, passive, simply awaiting orders. The 1969 policy lacks explicit descriptions or prescriptions for the staging of an academic supervision, which speculatively could be interpreted as a desire to refrain from professional interference, that is, accepting well-established academic routines such as integrating seminars into the supervisory domain (thus our notion in italics in Table 1: ‘Attending and contributing to seminars’).

In 1969 policy, a clearly ambivalent and problematic relationship between the academic and the efficiency ideals emerges. The academic ideal works as an alternative, potentially conflicting ideal to the dominating efficiency ideal. The report in general emphasises increased efficiency in doctoral education, and accordingly, the report generally promotes a supervision which is product-oriented, efficient and authority-driven. However, the report does not rule out creative and original researchers or supervision enabling such researchers as something desirable. As part of that frame for professional socialisation, creative and intellectual researchers are identified as highly desirable, as the report stresses the importance of singling out ‘research talents’ (see, e.g. SOU 1966:67, p. 12, 18, 210), crucial for the development of the welfare state, industry and the public sector. From this perspective, the academic ideal works as a complementary ideal of supervision, promoting independence, creativity and originality.

The negative point of reference in the 1969 policy adds to the complexity and ambivalence mentioned above. Frustrated descriptions of supervision, in which doctoral students are abandoned and struggle alone through heavy periods of study, and which explicitly locate such undesirable supervision to the Faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences, could be regarded as a technology for emphasising the need for re-socialisation among certain groups of supervisors and doctoral students into norms of efficiency and standardisation. Highlighting a supervision ideal which emphasises ‘freedom’ and self-activity as a negative reference and portraying supervision in Humanities and Social Sciences as unproductive and inefficient constructs these faculties as groups deviating from the norms of productivity, efficiency and authority. They become constituted as ‘the others’ (cf. Rose, 1996). But the 1969 policy is in this respect inconsistent, since there is an overlap between the negative point of reference and the academic ideal.

What techniques are used for staging the ideal supervision?

Overall, supervision in the 1969 policy emerges as a barrier to admission, a top-down instruction to the doctoral student in which the supervisor decides upon courses in line with the thesis topic, and teaches the doctoral student to compose the thesis in a concentrated way. The introduction of supervisory groups and middle exams could, in Foucauldian terms, be regarded as a set of techniques for the staging of the efficient and standardised supervision ideal: techniques used for increasing the governability (cf. Hultqvist & Petersson, 1995) of supervision and doctoral students in a desirable direction.

The individual study plan, supervisory education and the new formula for the functioning of the supervisory groups, now re-named assistant supervisors, could be regarded as the techniques (Foucault et al., 1991) used for staging the combined supervision ideals of efficiency and good working conditions in 1998 policy. The individual study plan implies expectations of active and collaborative doctoral students, where they, in collaboration with their supervisors, revise, evaluate and potentially also undermine their own educational paths. The supervisory education provides a programme and a vocabulary for supervisory activities that encourage and demand activity and participation. The same is true for the altered tasks of the supervisory groups. As stated above, it is worth noting that both individual study plans and supervisory education actually increase the volume of politically initiated regulations surrounding supervision and also include clearly repressive and regulating elements within and outside the ideal of promoting good working conditions for the doctoral students (cf. Donzelot, 1979), even in spite of its ascribed function of activating and motivating rather than controlling and regulating.

In the 1998 policy, the supervisor is still ultimately connected to norms of efficiency and standardisation but this time in relation to an international competitiveness objective. Academic supervision which emphasises creativity, originality and independence is simply not mentioned, which means its ambivalent and problematic relationship to the norms of efficiency and standardisation also is absent. This possibly implies that the professional socialisation frame over time increasingly adhere to dominating norms of efficiency and standardisation. In Foucauldian terminology: the subject position in which the doctoral student is efficient and productive is repeated, recreated and perhaps even reinforced. This conclusion, though, might be somewhat misleading and unsubstantiated, since there are many different things that might explain the reduced policy concerns for the academic ideal. It may reflect a policy which leaves it to the professionals to autonomously handle the potentially problematic relationship between norms of efficiency and standardisation versus academic values. The ‘academic’ absence in policy could also be a consequence of a normalisation of the potential conflict between the two perspectives, leading to a policy which takes the potential incompatibility for granted. The absence could also be due to the character of the reports. The 1969 reform decision was based on a government committee report, while the 1998 reform was mainly based on a ministry report. A ministry report consists of fewer pages and is more closely tied to the government, allowing less space for other opinions.

Stability and change in national supervision policy

In any case, the ideal supervision, as conceived in 1998, is accompanied by another ideal, stressing the importance of promoting good working conditions for the doctoral student, described in terms of communication, help and support rather than control and evaluation and in addition prescribing a more equal and interactive supervisor–doctoral student relationship. The supervisor is no longer a ‘natural authority’ but rather a colleague, not primarily monitoring and evaluating the doctoral student but encouraging them while protecting their rights. With this change, and with the contingency of efficiency and standardisation in mind, we may identify a new subject position, a new frame for professional socialisation. Supervisors and doctoral students as colleagues communicating in dialogues implies an opportunity for doctoral students to more actively participate in a joint creation of their educational paths. Whereas a doctoral student subordinated to a natural authority was expected to ‘stand in line’, the colleague relationship implies a doctoral student expected to actively participate in supervision as well as in all other activities of doctoral education. This supervision ideal may be regarded as an alternative to the efficiency ideal, but in 1998 policy it rather emerges as a complementary ideal. The doctoral student is still expected to act efficiently, not by awaiting orders but instead by active participation. The unwanted doctoral student is thus possible to describe in terms of inefficient, unproductive, passive and dependent on supervisor directives and judgements. Insufficient supervision – although not explicitly stated in 1998 policy – may accordingly be described as supervision not taking the doctoral student into account, thereby enabling doctoral student passivity and dependence.

The two ideals of 1969 are treated as part of the same ideal in the 1998 policy. But whether they really are compatible is open to question, since they seem to originate from different ideological rationales. The efficiency ideal is grounded in an economic industrial thinking, as a means to ensure societal prosperity and welfare to some degree, whereas the interactive ideal originated as an educator issue and as a labour movement issue and later became a crucial welfare state concern. In that sense, interactive supervision promoting good working conditions for doctoral students could be regarded as a potentially conflicting alternative to the norms of efficiency and standardisation. But, regardless of their compatibility, their being launched as compatible ideals in national policy makes interactive supervision promoting good working conditions a complement to the efficiency and standardisation ideal, in the realm of new public management ideas and neoliberal thought patterns, including its individualising consequences: promoting active participation and individual accountability. In addition, the expectations on supervisors to promote good working conditions for doctoral students arguably is supposed to have similar impact on the working conditions of the supervisor as well, thus encouraging both supervisors and doctoral students to become active participants and individually accountable.

The making of a professional academic, a clear-cut path?

Given the results of this study, what kind of researcher professionalisation is prescribed in national policy? And what does it really mean to become a professional researcher, according to policy? The answer to these questions varies, as we have shown, using the Swedish case. Professional researcher characteristics have been articulated in a complex and partly contradictory set of vocabulary (efficient, productive, follow instructions, passively waiting for instructions, active participant, originality, independence, creativity). Policy has implied and imprinted a number of consistent and inconsistent norms, values and pieces of knowledge. Both the 1969 and 1998 policies stressed societal needs for research competent labour, beyond the world of academia. Academic or research professionality is not restricted to career aspirations within the university hierarchy, but seems more to have become a matter of worldview, a sophisticated way of investigation and analysis. The issue becomes even more delicate when including the role of doctoral education into the production of researchers. The 2004 government report suggested a label change from ‘Research education’ (forskarutbildning) to ‘doctorate education’ (doktorsutbildning), thereby declaring that doctoral education not only produces researchers (within and outside universities), but in addition qualifies labour for doing things that are not primarily research activities (such as white-collar work in industry and in public institutions or teaching inside and outside of universities). As the 1996 ministry report stated:

There is an increased need for research educated people that from the start are directed towards a career outside the academy and aim to make use of other people’s research rather than performing research of their own (Ds 1996:25, p. 61).

Altogether, this makes professional socialisation through doctoral education, and the supervision supporting it, far from a clear-cut path. Where does it lead? To an academic position within the university, to a more general position as a researcher, or even to a position only related to research activities? Doctoral education, it seems, has become more highly specialised on the one hand following an increase in the number of research branches. On the other hand, generalist requirements have increased too. These changes are, of course, not restricted to the Swedish case but are clearly part of an international restructuring of higher education (Baptista, 2011).

Helm, Campa, and Moretto (2012), in their study of doctoral education, define professional socialisation (with reference to Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001) as an individual process of inducing ‘the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for entry into a professional career requiring an advanced level of specialised knowledge and skills’ (Helm et al., 2012, p. 7). This general and at the same temporally specific definition captures the widened and non-located requirements expected from contemporary doctoral education. According to Helm et al., professional socialisation in academic institutions is not in general really aimed at preparing candidates for an outside career. This, they suggest, makes doctoral students internalise ‘a professional identity and role behaviours that are incongruent with who they are becoming and what they will be doing if they work in environments that differ from where they were educated’ (Helm et al., 2012, p. 7). Despite this, referring to an American context, where academic policy is not really a national-federal matter, the argument that Helm et al. make is worth considering in relation to Swedish policy, when addressing the question of the interaction between national policy making and educational practice. The conclusive arguments from Helm et al. indicate that academic institutions have an endurable policy resistance, and that might very well be the case in Sweden too. In other words, parts of Swedish doctoral education policy have probably been ignored, other parts have been suitably modified while other parts has become transferred into educational practice. To more fully understand the interaction between national policy making and academic educational activities with respect to the professional socialisation of doctoral students through supervision, our next step would be to explore local policies and responses.


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1Weidman, Twale, and Stein (2001) have developed a conceptual framework widely used in research on professional socialisation of doctoral students (cf. Gardner, 2010; Helm et al., 2012) where they define such socialisation as an individual process in which the doctoral student internalises the norms and values of a body of knowledge necessary for entering an academic profession. Moreover, such socialisation has at times even been portrayed as a process simultaneously taking place beside concrete educational activities and formal regulations: There is a huge difference between regarding researcher education as a socialisation process or as a clearly defined task with a given objective; a written dissertation (Peixoto, 2014, pp. 27–28).

2The translation process is difficult. Some words have nuances and specific Swedish connotations that are hard to translate into English, without risking misinterpretations, but we think the quotations chosen are relevant and accessible.

About The Authors

Joel Jansson
Uppsala University

Henrik Román
Uppsala University

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