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Crossing Boundaries – Doing Situated Urban Ecologies within a Co-tutelle PhD Agreement

Crossing Boundaries – Doing Situated Urban Ecologies within a Co-tutelle PhD Agreement

Marnie Graham reflects with her supervisors on being a co-tutelle PhD student at Stockholm and Macquarie Universities, and part of the Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies project. Her primary supervisors are Dr Henrik Ernstson from Stockholm University (now at Royal Institute of Technology, KTH), and Dr Sandie Suchet-Pearson at Macquarie University. In this blog post Marnie prompts her supervisors to reflect with her on the pros, cons, ins, outs, and great mysteries of administering, studying, supervising, and writing situated urban ecologies within a co-tutelle PhD process.

Say co-what…??

Train in Muizenberg

The logistical bits of a co-tutelle can be quite daunting—but also well worth it. The image shows a Cape Town train at speed.

‘Co-tutelle’ derives from the French educational context, essentially meaning ‘co-tutoring’. In the PhD context a co-tutelle or ‘Joint PhD’ is a formal agreement between two universities, stipulating that the PhD student is enrolled and will be supervised at both participating institutions. The PhD thesis is also examined—sometimes jointly, sometimes separately—and awarded by both institutions [i]. Often undertaken in two different countries, and usually requiring some of the study period to be undertaken at both institutions, PhD programs throughout the world are promoting the co-tutelle or joint PhD experience as a way to enhance international institutional linkages. However, in the English language at least, not much is written that reflects on the co-tutelle experience, either from an institutional or pedagogical perspective. Here I begin the discussion as a co-tutelle PhD student. Prospective co-tutelle students and supervisors, buckle up!

The logistical bits….

In my fourth and final PhD year, I can say in my experience there have been definite pros and cons to being a co-tutelle PhD student. The most significant pro for me, however prosaic, includes having access to networks and research funds from two institutions. Many linkages to peers, colleagues and research institutions seminal in my field have ensued from access to these funds. They enabled extended fieldwork periods and my attendance at conferences, workshops, seminars, and courses. All these interactions and the learnings, reflections, and feedback I took from them have substantially contributed to strengthening my thesis outcomes, and to my progression as a student and researcher within the academy. In this, I have significantly benefited from my PhD being funded by the Swedish Research Council Formas, as part of the larger Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies (WOKUE) research project. In the context of PhD programs throughout the world, including in Australia, but particularly in countries of the Global South, like South Africa, I understand access to this level of funding is a highly privileged position to be in as a graduate student (and one I’m not taking for granted).

So at the risk of sounding petulant, on the other hand and often precisely because of this resource access, the biggest disadvantage of the co-tutelle experience is… SURPRISE! university administration. In adhering to the administrative requirements of two universities, bureaucratic processes are essentially doubled through the co-tutelle process. And since co-tutelle students are relative newcomers on the institutional scene, for students, supervisors and university administrators alike there is often a lot of mystery surrounding their administrative procedures and requirements. For example, it took over a year to have my co-tutelle agreement legally finalised and signed between my two participating institutions, with the fairly simple 3-page agreement to-ing and fro-ing in the ether between uncertain admin and legal staff. I cringe when I think of the (hopefully!) coming examination processes through which I need to fulfil both universities’ thesis and examination requirements….ugh. Admin = definite co-tutelle downside; but hopefully the procedures will become more smooth and standardised as co-tutelles become increasingly common.

Ultimately, the key for me in navigating these logistical bits of the co-tutelle has been planning ahead with my supervisors to stay on top of all the inevitable administrative requirements, setting time aside for admin in the knowledge that processes will likely take longer than expected, and being methodical in keeping track of what needs doing, when, and of the opportunities offered by each institution (e.g. teaching opportunities, PhD courses and academic training, and conference funding schemes). But now, to the thesis-related bits…

Co-tutelle supervision of situated urban ecologies research

The co-tutelle process essentially means students have four supervisors, a primary and secondary supervisor from each institution. All of us in the academic community have probably read, heard or maybe even lived supervisory nightmare stories, so the thought of having four supervisors (who’ve probably never met those from the other institution) directing one’s doctoral research in four potentially disparate ways could be, well, hellish. Especially since the co-tutelle process requires supervisors and candidates to navigate working, co-ordinating and supervising/being supervised across many boundaries: multiple countries, nationalities, disciplines, and time-zones; and working between different research areas, theoretical foci, and country contexts.

For example, I am an Australian who studies between Sydney and Stockholm in Sweden, and I do my fieldwork in Cape Town, South Africa. Henrik is a Swede, living with his family between Stockholm, the US and South Africa. Located for the most part in Cape Town, Henrik researches urban ecology and human-nature relations from a human geography perspective, and theorises African cities and urbanisation processes. Sandie is a South-African Aussie with her feet planted in Sydney with her young family. She teaches critical resource management studies, and has strong linkages to Bawaka in far northern and remote Australia, where she collaboratively researches Indigenous Yolngu ontologies and relations to Country. So we collaborate across diverse contexts and boundaries like urban/remote foci; Indigenous/non-Indigenous ontologies and methodologies; Australia/ Sweden/South Africa/US country contexts; Macquarie/Stockholm/Cape Town universities; Cape Town/Bawaka; and, human geography/urban ecology/Indigenous rights and knowledges.

The good news is that I’m here to tell you that positive experiences can be had with crossing these boundaries! In fact, my primary co-supervisors provide me with critical support and valuable feedback at every important turn, and my secondary supervisors with extra support when needed on ‘the big things’, like correct university procedure and major academic guidance. This situation is both a credit to their supervisory skills, and has required all of us using forward thinking and intuition to feel out how we might interact, align and find synergies between each other over the course of the four-year period. Importantly, from my perspective, although they’d never met each other before, I knew and had studied with both my primary supervisors previously. I understood and liked both of their respective research interests, theoretical frames, and styles of interaction, and actively sought their involvement in my PhD. So even if you don’t know your prospective supervisor/s, before you’ve signed up it is worthwhile to get to know as much as possible about them, their interests and styles of interaction – email them, arrange to Skype or call with them, and let them meet each other too in this way – see if you gel and if you feel like you might all be able to work together.

In practice, in having these linkages and understandings about each other, I’ve been given significant scope to direct my research where I want it to go. And they also direct and guide (and sometimes gently but firmly push) my research and me in fruitful and sometimes unexpected ways. Getting through intense research periods requires me to effectively communicate, and them to be intuitive, about how I work best. For us the result is that we collaborate together ‘hands-on’ when I let them know that I need help (e.g. jolting my inner-slacker); and more ‘hands-off’ when I need a sense of autonomy to run with my own schtick and at my own pace until I figure ‘it’ out. I think as a potential co-tutelle student you need to know upfront whether they will have and/or want this kind of research autonomy in your PhD.

Through the process I’ve learned more about, and how to work with, Henrik’s and Sandie’s respective strengths and weaknesses as supervisors, and mine as a student. Much to my benefit, their supervisory and research strengths are often complementary, which for me is a key component of the positive potentialities of co-tutelle supervision. Our working relationship required evolving clear communication channels and strategies (sure, they don’t always work), endeavouring to stay connected, and being open about what we need from each other and when (sure, we don’t always deliver on time!). In this, part of why our relationship works is that we are all relatively relaxed and flexible, and keep perspective on work/life balance, personal goals and needs. And most of all, I feel my supervisors’ unwavering generosity and care for my welfare – academic and personal. And that is a really, really big ask of a supervisor, one that I’ve learned a lot from and will take with me into my future career, wherever it goes.

So now that I’ve had my two cents about the co-tutelle supervision experience, I leave the conversation open to Sandie and Henrik to tell it like it is from their end.

Sandie… nourishing conversations ‘across boundaries’

Marnie and Sandie Cape Town 2012

Marnie and Sandie at the Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies meeting in Cape Town in 2012.

This is the second co-tutelle I have played a role in. The first one was as an associate supervisor who joined the supervisory team in the last third of an Australian-Canadian co-tutelle. I totally agree with Marnie that the biggest drawback of a co-tutelle is the administrative load. I’ve seen it whittle away at two students now, a very sad way to focus energy that should be directed towards great research projects. But from what I’ve seen I do think it is worth keeping at it, as from my experience the gain is well worth the pain; and hey at least you pick up great lessons in time management and how to deal with bureaucracy!

One of the greatest benefits I can see for the student as well the supervisors is definitely the nourishing conversations that Marnie talks about emerging ‘across boundaries’. PhD projects in general open up these wonderful opportunities, but in the case of a co-tutelle you get two for the price of one!! But yes, as Marnie says, what is key to making this work is communication and the negotiation of common understandings. Otherwise it could turn into a nightmare with the PhD student caught between conflicting approaches, advice, views and systems – something that could tear an excellent project and student to bits. So as a supervisor I try to be ever conscious of not pulling Marnie off in a direction that would conflict with what Henrik is supporting, and I try and be aware of always considering what alternative advice she may be receiving.

Of course, joint meetings are a great way to avoid views coming into conflict, as any tensions can be discussed in the most interesting and novel ways with new understandings emerging. New technologies also open up really creative and innovative ways of communicating (for example joint meetings utilising Skype). But especially with different time zones and work commitments, joint supervision meetings across two and sometimes three countries if not continents can be difficult to consistently maintain. What is critical here 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.

This is all about the student (as a discussion about a PhD should be), but what about us, the supervisors? Well from my perspective the co-tutelle with Marnie has been a most wonderful learning opportunity (again, well worth the agonising process of securing the agreement). I always learn so much from all my PhD supervisions but what a co-tutelle brings along is a long term relationship of at least 3 years (usually more) with another supervisor – someone based in a different institution, in a different country – often working within different contexts, and coming from different (if complementary) theoretical perspectives. Working through the synergies and the tensions, considering new areas and angles, not only in terms of the research question at hand but also in terms of practical advice, well these are the sorts of learning opportunities that most academics would relish!

Coming from a background working around Indigenous knowledges and rights issues in remote areas and then being introduced to the situated urban ecologies work has been challenging and stimulating for me. Being able to participate in a workshop organised by Henrik in Cape Town was a fabulous opportunity—to feel rather out of my comfort zone (remote, ‘Indigenous’), and yet be exposed to, and contribute to, the very exciting work being done in this area (urban, ‘local’). This was also an amazing opportunity to network with a fabulous new group of people, and for me personally, to connect back into South Africa, the country in which I was born. I think the heart of good human geography is challenging and reshaping boundaries—so challenging the boundaries of universities as individualised institutions, challenging the boundaries of field work locations and theoretical perspectives, challenging the idea of the supervisor as isolated and singular, is all nurtured in a good co-tutelle.

There are certainly logistical challenges in a co-tutelle that go beyond that of a ‘normal’ supervision, e.g. meeting the PhD requirements of two different institutions. However, I believe they are well worth the effort due to the networks that are formed, and critically of course, the formal kudos the student gains through the recognition of their qualification through two different institutions. So long as the student is motivated and confident and there is clear communication, ensuring that the learning philosophies of all those involved are respected and productively align. I don’t see a co-tutelle adding any extra stress or upheaval to my workloads, indeed – the opposite – it is usually self-motivated and disciplined students who take on a co-tutelle, and I see working with these students and their chosen supervisors as a truly wonderful learning and networking opportunity.

Henrik… towards a “cosmopolitical optic”?

I have never been involved in a co-tutelle. In fact, I had no clue what it was until Marnie brought it up. As an experience it has, after all the bureaucratic problems in the beginning, been well worth it. The most valuable aspect for me has been to have an experienced human geographer like Sandie on board as a co-supervisor for Marrnie’s thesis project. She has contributed with her knowledge of the literature, but also with her “outsiders” view of Cape Town, where both Marnie and I have been doing our fieldwork. Beyond that, her contacts to Australian research groups in human geography and natural resource management have benefitted not only Marnie and I, but also the whole WOK-UE research team and project.

Henrik & Sandie at Macassar Dunes Cape Town 2013 bw

Henrik and Sandie at Macassar Dunes in Cape Town in 2012, guided by Marnie at her field work site.

Practically it has been a mission to keep our commitment of having regular supervisory meetings over Skype. For periods it has worked really well, but in other periods it has waned. Emailing has been recourse to keep our dialogue going. Over these years I have also moved with my family (partner and two kids) from Sweden, to South Africa, to USA and been part of various institutions, whilst coordinating two large Formas-funded projects. When Marnie and Sandie are in Australia this has meant getting up really early in the morning, say at 5 am (which I usually do anyway), but this has shifted as Marnie and I have moved about for fieldwork and work. What you lack as a supervisor in this situation is the small talk and popping-by at the office, which you would have if you co-supervise somebody in the same corridor.

During the last year and half, our most intense communication has been through responding to Marnie’s drafts for her articles, which has worked really well. Marnie has kept her deadlines, and Sandie and me have taken turns on responding quickly on how the journal article drafts can be made stronger in style, argument and analysis. This has been followed-up with a new round after Marnie’s revisions and a Skype conversation.

It’s always amazing to me how much you learn through the close reading of other’s texts. As a supervisor, reviewer, and critic, such close readings prompt us to dig down in our thinking and be constructive to get moving and improving on the craft closest to the academic profession—that of writing. Close reading improves both sides of an intellectual conversation and makes such conversations possible and constructive. For potential co-tutelle supervisors, I find these close readings (as in all supervision and academic mentorship) are key in engaging your student, and can help make up for the lack of informal chats and face-to-face meetings. However, it depends on having a devoted student, which Marnie has proven that she is, and supervisors taking the time to read (which we have, by and large, been able to do).

Through the close reading I have also learnt more about Sandie’s intellectual sensitivities. Her comments on Marnie’s writing have given me insights into Australian geographies and natural resource management debates, which are shaped by colonization, dispossession and Indigenous struggle. Without having the time here to develop it further, it seems that our conversations have created a quite interesting “cosmopolitical optic” that collectively has worked to 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? I really hope we will have time to develop that optic more in writing and future collaborations.

In fact, co-tutelle arrangements could be a crucial ingredient towards a more cosmopolitical way of constructing academic knowledge, enabling something akin to a “Cosmopolitical University”, a university that works across borders and nations in the spirit of combining and contesting different traditions of knowledge. For the debates that the three of us are involved in around South/North collaborations and ways of knowing in postcolonial societies, the model of co-tutelle seems to be an important part in developing relevant academic knowledge for a multi-cultural and multi-polar world future.

For us our collaboration works partly because we seem to fit well together and have the ability to look beyond our immediate flaws, keeping the wider project of Marnie’s thesis in focus. Importantly I also think our institutions have been really supportive of us in doing this. So, while some things lie at the inter-personal level, it also is important to get the full support of both institutions. This seems to mean getting both institutions on-board in the beginning through the co-tutelle contract. This then requires us to follow their administrative routines as best as possible, with their active support again required at the end of the thesis, in order for the PhD student to get his or her well-deserved labour recognized as a Doctoral Dissertation at both universities.

So, co-tutelle PhD – recommend it?

Marnie: For me the co-tutelle PhD has been a very positive experience, but I understand agreements can look and work very differently between different institutions and departments. So yes, I recommend it so long as you plan ahead, know what you’re in for, stay calm, and most of all, maximise the opportunities the context provides!

Sandie: Yes, I would recommend it – 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 I say, once you have some idea what you’re likely in for, then go for it. There are some worries, but multiple benefits. For aspiring research leaders, it is a great way to extend and develop new international research collaborations, which is very much needed in this entangled world.



[i] Sometimes also called a ‘Joint PhD’, ‘Conjoint PhD’, or ‘Bi-national Doctorate’, the exact rules and agreements differ between countries and institutions, often relating to how the degree is examined.


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