Supervisors Matter to Doctoral Students’ Research Experiences, What About Peers?

Dr Faming Wang, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Teaching and Learning Innovation Centre, The University of Hong Kong

Having an optimal research experience is critical for doctoral students to thrive and flourish. Many doctoral students, however, suffer from unsatisfactory research experiences, which have led to high attrition rates (Castelló et al., 2017) and emotional problems (Sverdlik et al., 2018). Much attention in the field has been devoted to identifying the enablers and barriers to doctoral students’ research experiences, with significant emphasis on the role of supervisors (Chugh et al., 2022). In the Hong Kong context, Zeng and Watkins (2010) identified a significant role of peers in enhancing the persistence and satisfaction of Chinese Mainland students with research degrees. However, the value of both supervision and peer support and how they distinctly contribute to doctoral students’ research experiences remains underexplored. This gap is pronounced in areas influenced by Confucian culture, where high power distance and collectivist values might provide a particular context for doctoral students, supervisors, and peers.

Confucian culture may strongly influence doctoral education in Hong Kong, given the significant number of doctoral students from the Chinese Mainland. Around 80% of research students are from the Chinese Mainland, 18% are Hongkongers, and only 2% are international students (UGC 2022). Due to the high power distance in Confucian culture, these Chinese Mainland students and Hongkongers may be more inclined to view their supervisors as authority figures. Hong Kong thus offers a special context for researching the role of supervisors and peers in doctoral education.

Our research explored how supervision and peer support distinctly contributed to doctoral students’ skill development and research satisfaction in the Hong Kong context through an explanatory sequential mixed methods design. Apart from the interviews, we tested two hypotheses: (1) the additive hypothesis, which posited that both supervision and peer support independently contribute to skill development and research satisfaction, and (2) the compensatory hypothesis, suggesting that peer support could compensate for inadequate supervision. The findings supported the additive hypothesis, which means supervision and peer support made distinct contributions to skill development and research satisfaction. In other words, low levels of supervisory support could not be compensated for by the presence of peers. The greatest benefits would emerge when both quality supervision and peer support are present.

The interviews indicated supervisors were more involved in providing directional guidance on the research program, offering research resources and opportunities, and developing research communities. In contrast, peers offered specific, practical support. Meanwhile, both supervisors and peers support students’ socio-emotional development. We discovered that a supervisor’s expertise, the efforts devoted to supervision, the match or mismatch between the support needed and received, and the power distance between students and their supervisors influenced the quality of perceived supervision. Furthermore, the relevance of the research field, peer relationships, and the supervisor’s attitude towards peer support were crucial to perceived peer support.

This study underscores the distinct roles of supervisors and peers in enhancing doctoral students’ skill development and satisfaction with their research experiences. To optimize their doctoral learning journey, on the one hand, they can proactively maintain regular communication with their supervisors, clearly expressing the support they need from their supervisors. To maximize the benefit of their supervisors’ expertise, engaging in more discussions and actively seeking feedback are key strategies. On the other hand, our study indicates that fellow doctoral students’s support is invaluable and irreplaceable. Therefore, students may want to engage purposefully and frequently with each other, both formally (e.g., academic discussions and paper sharing) and informally (e.g., dinner gatherings and hiking), to fully leverage these benefits.


This blog is based on the following article: Faming Wang, Lily Min Zeng, Amelia Yue Zhu & Ronnel B. King (2023) Supervisors matter, but what about peers? The distinct contributions of quality supervision and peer support to doctoral students’ research experience, Studies in Higher Education, 48:11, 1724-1740.


Castelló, M., Pardo, M., Sala-Bubaré, A., & Suñé-Soler, N. (2017). Why do students consider dropping out of doctoral degrees? Institutional and personal factors. Higher Education74, 1053-1068.

Chugh, R., Macht, S., & Harreveld, B. (2022). Supervisory feedback to postgraduate research students: a literature review. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education47(5), 683-697.

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). The PhD experience: A review of the factors influencing doctoral students’ completion, achievement, and well-being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13, 361-388.

University Grant Committee. (2022). Common used statistical tables: Non-local student enrollment by university, level of study, place of origin & mode of study. Retrieved from

Zeng, L. M., & Watkins, D. A. (2010). Adaptation of Mainland postgraduate students to Hong Kong’s universities. In D. W. Chapman, W. K. Cummings, & G. A. Postiglione (Eds.), Crossing borders in East Asian higher education (pp. 343-373). Springer.

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