Managing your supervisor relationship

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Your relationship with your supervisor or supervisory team is vital to your research, to your progress and to your wellbeing whilst undertaking your PhD.

The University clearly outlines what is expected from all parties in the relationship in the Supervision Policy for Postgraduate Research Degrees  which provides the foundations for your relationship. However every supervisory relationship is different, it can depend upon your subject, your mode of study and of course how you (and they) work best. In addition, we have recently published a Statement of Research Contribution Expectations, which explain what the University expects of our academic community and the colleagues who support it, and also what they can expect from the University.

Whether you’re relatively new to your PhD or not it’s always worth taking a step back and examining how the relationship is working. So, here are a few things to think about to help you get the most from the supervision process.

Be proactive and plan contact

Throughout your research degree you should take the initiative in maintaining regular contact with your supervisor.

Be proactive and arrange formal supervisory meetings.  It’s important to have the same expectations from these meetings: talk with your supervisor about the format and frequency of meetings and also about their preferred method of communication.  If possible talk to other students who have the same supervisor and see how they have managed the relationship.

How often you meet with your supervisor(s) can depend on the nature of and the stage of your research, but you should be meeting on a regular basis. Most researchers discuss their research and progress at least monthly. This ensures that your supervisor is kept informed of your progress and makes sure they have opportunity to give advice and feedback. By scheduling meetings you will also know in advance about any extended absences from campus to help you plan your work.  A well planned schedule of meetings will also provide you with a structure that will help you stay on track.

Know what you want… and what to expect

Make sure you know what you want to discuss before you show up. Even better send an agenda or notes to your supervisor so you both know what you want out of the meeting. Think of yourself as a professional (in training), and treat the meeting process professionally, with organisation and clarity. It can be useful to agree who will “chair” or guide your meetings, being responsible for giving appropriate time to each agenda point – ideally this will be you.

Remember the role of a supervisor is to provide advice and guidance and it is very important that you keep them up to date on your progress. However, this is your research and you are expected to take the lead in shaping your research and overcoming problems.

Don’t be afraid to make notes as you talk, share a written summary of meetings and keep a copy for your own records. This will make sure any actions are followed up, and is sometimes critical to clarifying expectations.

Take feedback on board

As your discussions and research progress, expect to receive feedback and to be challenged. Your supervisors’ comments should be constructive – to provide you with guidance to help you progress. Try not to look at it as criticism and learn how to respond in a positive way – by questioning further or accepting you may have missed something.

That said, if there are any aspects of your supervisors’ advice and feedback which are unclear don’t be afraid for ask for clarification – that’s much better than just ignoring it because you don’t understand! You might find it helpful to keep a record of your feedback so that you can refer back to it.

Be clear about deadlines… and meet them

Know what your supervisor expects and when. Are they the kind of person who expects regular written updates? Be clear about any interim deadlines and what you should be providing at that time and equally clear about how long it will be before you get feedback.

Repeatedly missing deadlines looks unprofessional and can impact your progress as it could mean that your supervisor has limited time to give you feedback. Remember they will be juggling many aspects of academic careers (teaching, their own research) alongside your PhD.

Know yourself, and others

A PhD can be an intense time, there are usually major setbacks, and it can feel a lonely time. Many researchers find their PhD is a test of their character! This is an ideal time to find out more about yourself and how you work, as well as to deepen your understanding of others so you can work and collaborate most effectively. It’s useful to reflect on your practice both privately and with others, and do some informal or formal study into understanding yourself and others. As you notice more about your working styles, do periodically discuss this with your supervisor(s) so they understand your preferences and you can build a stronger relationship together.

Ask the right people, be supported

Academics are very busy people so make sure they are the right person to contact. For admin questions, it is often better to contact your department’s student support staff. Other PhD researchers and post-doctoral researchers are valuable sources of information, so build your relationships and create your own research community – who can also support you when research takes unexpected turns.

Supervisors are experts in their field, but you are privileged to have a lot of other support here, so you can turn to others for your Researcher Development, wellbeing and career support. The University has expectations for your professional and career development and you should discuss your plans regularly with your supervisor(s) to ensure you’re on track to complete well and have a career you like.

Further advice and information

Take a look at what our student blogger Unene had to say about working with your supervisor.

Other resources include your school handbook, which may outline specifics about supervision in your area and also see Vitae for some great resources on managing relationships no matter how far along you are with your PhD. Your Researcher Development team runs courses on working with your supervisor, which most researchers do in their first or second year of PhD.