Learning Research Student-made Support

Supervisors: friends or foes?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” the opening line in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and one of my favourite books. I reckon this is what I will be saying about my PhD journey when I look back on it years from now. A large part of research, and just working with people in general, is managing relationships; this is no different when it comes to working with your supervisor. A supervisor can be your greatest allay or your worst enemy. They are not ceremonial heads but rather (should be) a source of knowledge, and a helping hand to ease the stress that comes with pursuing a postgraduate degree. University is not cheap, we pay good money to pursue our degrees and part of that goes to paying supervisors to do their job (yeah, I said it).

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So, when you take a step back and look at it, they work for you in a consultancy capacity. Though, the nature of this relationship can be a bit tricky and its success often comes down to how it’s managed. One of the secrets to making this relationship work for you is communication, communication, communication; from the very beginning. The reality of life is that people are different, this goes for everything from the way they work, prioritise and even how they communicate.

The first thing is to get on the same page with your supervisor from the onset, this means discussing expectations, work plans, deadlines, frequency of meetings and so on. This is about laying a foundation for your relationship and managing expectations. The key to this is having open and honest conversations – go on, your supervisors can take it. Be clear about what you want to get out of your degree and how you need them to support you; this will be an ongoing discussion throughout your degree. A supervisor can be an expert in their research field, but they are not an expert in you; so, you will need to let them know how they can best support you and guide your growth as a researcher.

The second thing is accountability. Agreeing to when work will be submitted or when feedback returned is the easy part, ensuring that it is actually done as agreed can be… a bit of a challenge. Yes, it’s true, supervisors are busy people; they are always juggling a million and one things but recall the statement above, they are your consultant. They agreed to take you on as a student, which means they also have responsibilities towards you. Taking meeting minutes and/or having written agreements (emails) between the two of you, regarding things such as delivery dates or the scope of work, is a good start to keeping both of you accountable in a professional and non-aggressive manner.

Disclaimer: there will be times when things don’t get done as planned, despite there being written agreements, and times when you might want to strangle your supervisor (don’t do it – you still need them). During those times, it is worth remembering that supervisors are people too and things sometimes fall through the cracks – or life just happens. They aren’t there to sabotage you; they also have a vested interest in you successfully completing your degree because it also looks good on them. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt and addressing things in a calm, honest manner; refer to what you both agreed on and chart a plan of action for getting things done. The key here is to be proactive and realistic about what is to be accomplished.

There will be frustrations and tough times along the way, and you might never become pals with your supervisor; though the last thing you want is to have your supervisor as an enemy. Remember, open and honest communication is the way to go…and if all that fails, there are always mediators and advisors as part of the supervision team, but things usually don’t get to that. On the flip side, you might end up become friends with your supervisor – anything is possible.