Academic and clinical supervision: Purpose, relationships and challenges

Liz Beddoe

At first glance academic and clinical or professional supervision might not have a lot in common. As activities they occur generally in quite different realms. They ostensibly have different functions and outcomes. But having read widely about both I find that there are many aspects in common. In this post I want to explore some of these commonalities but also to outline where the two diverge.

Perhaps a useful place to start is with the functions of supervision. Kadushin (2002) delineated three main elements of the supervision process, to be: educative, administrative and supportive.  Proctor (1998) describes similar functions with different terms which I prefer.  Supervision encompasses formative, normative and restorative elements.  In examining the two kinds of supervision there is a reasonably good fit.

Clinical professional supervision:  Kadushin’s functions were focused on professional or clinical supervision and encompass the learning and development, support and oversight aspects of clinical practice particularly in an organisational context.  Proctor’s elements are more nuanced. For me ‘restorative’ encapsulates the place that supervision provides for restoration of hope and optimism in practice where workers’ resilience may be tested by exposure to adversity and stress (Beddoe, Davys & Adamson, 2014). ‘Normative’ and formative’ are easily linked in supervision of professional practice: learning to reflect in and on clinical work; deepening skills over time and of course supervision creates a safe place to explore boundaries and ethical dilemmas.

Academic supervision:  Kadushin’s three functions work well here. Academic supervisors mentor and support research candidates and supervisors often have responsibilities to their administration for candidate progress and adhering to institutional policies. Proctor’s terms also work well. Academic supervisors address the normative aspects of postgraduate research by ensuring ethical standards and rigorous research procedures. The very essence of research supervision is formative if we see postgraduate research as an apprenticeship for academic life and/or a research career. The restorative element is captured within the support element, though perhaps has the weaker fit. Most supervisors and research degree candidates would acknowledge the support aspect and the assistance offered when dealing with committees, ethics procedures and reviewers. And in ‘I’d like to call you my mother’ Viv Cree (2011) has written about the social and emotional support needs of international students, struggling far away from home.

So then what might be the elements we can contrast? These in my view are mainly related to space, place, participants, process, and relationship. Power is an inevitable consideration in both but for quite different reasons.

Social location: academic supervision of research occurs mostly in the university and is bounded by university expectations and cultures. There are however many research studies in medical or other clinical fields in which clinical and particularly ethical considerations might blur the lines between academic and patient or service-user related supervision. Similarly in some social science research supervision, major considerations of harm and risk, unexpected and challenging findings, stress or potential harm to the researcher may bring aspects of clinical discussion into the process. In these aspects academic and clinical supervisors share a duty of care.

Place: Clinical supervision generally takes place in the context of privacy and confidentially between the participants and this applies to information about the third party –the client or patient. It exists under a contract between the person being supervises and the supervisor. Another party such as a manager or employer may be a signatory to the contract. Clinical supervision will occur most often in a clinical setting or a professional office. In academic supervision the parties are brought together by the university and the agreement has a formal structure approved by a graduate studies board or similar. Regular reports are completed at least once a year and these are shared between numerous parties.  Academic supervision may frequently happen in an office or a lab but may frequently be on the phone, by Skype , be held over lunch, in a cafe or at times in participants’ homes. I had a great session with an academic supervisor once in a bar at a conference, when we were briefly in the same country!

Participants: Cornforth and Claiborne (2008, p.157) note that supervision ‘sets in motion chains of responsibility which are much more obvious in clinical settings’  and more importantly  ‘unlike educational supervision, clinical supervision founds itself on care of a third party, the client’.  Clinical or professional supervision is most frequently carried out between two people, although supervision groups are common. The supervisor is most often a more senior practitioner on the field. The relationship is mandated and legitimated by the organisation or professional body. (For discussion of the complexities of these arrangements see Davys and Beddoe (2010) or Hawkins and Shohet (2012).)  Academic supervision may be provide by two or more supervisors – one is usually the principal supervisor. In some countries supervision is provided via a committee for doctoral research.

Time factors: academic supervision is restricted to the period of the research – for a master’s project the relationship may just last one academic year. For doctoral supervision the duration may be for at between four and eight years. Doctoral research supervision is sustained and ideally consistent. Changes may be unavoidable and it is inevitable that one of the supervisory team may have a period of research leave during the life of the project.

Power: choice is a significant aspect of power in supervision. In clinical settings here may be little or no choice or external arrangements may be able to be made. Choices of supervision may be imbued with influences of risk and risk averse culture and anxieties about judgement and power over (Beddoe, 2012).  Similarly in academic supervision choices may be problematic – supervisors may be assigned to a research candidate or choice may be possible.

Focus over time:  it is here where the greater differences may be found. Academic supervision is very structured by timeframes and activities, embedded in the nature of academic qualifications. Clinical supervision on the other hand  may be may be structured but more in terms of an internal process for example the use of reflective processes (Davys and Beddoe, 2010) or structured Critical  reflection (Fook and Gardner,2007).

Relationships: It is in the arena of the relationship that the parallels are very interesting. In both relationships the supervisors are accountable for some outcomes. Academic supervisors are expected to support their research students to meet goals – completing a long proposal, undertaking a literature review, achieving ethics approval, writing thesis chapters and so forth. These are matters of great import to the university administration – there are financial and reputational aspects at stake with timely completion of successful research. The goals and outcomes and indeed outputs are externally driven and policed. The goals and outcomes of clinical supervision are much more amorphous and indistinct.

So this is merely a beginning for exploring these aspects. For me, the next step is to explore more about emotions in research supervision. And the more research supervision I undertake the more I am faced with the sheer complexity of the relationship. A student asked me when faced with delays caused by health problems ‘should I give up’? To which I replied ‘Never!” For me that interchange is worthy of further consideration because there might be times when my answer might be different.


Beddoe, L. (2011). External supervision in social work: Power, space, risk, and the search for safety. Australian Social Work, 65(2), 197-213.

Beddoe, L., Davys, A. M., & Adamson, C. (2014). ‘Never Trust Anybody Who Says “I Don’t Need Supervision”’: Practitioners’ Beliefs about Social Worker Resilience. Practice, 1-18. doi:10.1080/09503153.2014.896888  Read here.

Cornforth, S., & Claiborne, L. B. (2008). When educational supervision meets clinical supervision: what can we learn from the discrepancies? British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 36(2), 155 – 163.

Cree, V. E. (2011). ‘I’d like to call you my mother.’ Reflections on supervising international PhD students in social work. Social Work Education, 31(4), 451-464.

Davys, A., & Beddoe, L. (2010). Best practice in professional supervision: A guide for the helping professions. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Fook, J., & Gardner, F. (2007). Practising critical reflection: A resource handbook. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Hawkins, P., & Shohet, R. (2012). Supervision in the helping professions (4th ed.). London: Open University Press McGraw-Hill.

Kadushin, A. (2002). Supervision in social work (4th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Proctor, B. (1988). Supervision: A working alliance. East Essex: Alexia Publications.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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One Response to Academic and clinical supervision: Purpose, relationships and challenges

  1. Pingback: Best in Mental Health (week of 3/10/2014) - SocialWork.Career

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