A PhD will typically involve very little in formal teaching. Your department or graduate school may run events, workshops or programs and you might receive specialist method training if it is relevant for your research. You will be working under the guidance of a ‘supervisor’, but in most cases this is secondary to your independent management of the project – and it would be misleading to expect this person to drive it. Your supervision is likely to be infrequent, informal (individual meetings rather than structured sessions), and provided to steer you broadly in the right direction.
Your supervision will fall somewhere in the spectrum of being vitally important to your success, or a major obstacle to it. Regardless if you knew your supervisor before taking on the PhD, your relationship is likely to change over the course of your project, along with the challenges and opportunities it brings.
Maintaining a good relationship is the responsibility of both parties but ultimately has the greatest impact on the student, which means it’s a good idea to be proactive about it from the beginning of your position.
Some critical self-reflection can be a good place to start. Both you and your supervisor will have different working preferences:
Level of independence:
Do you work well with micro-management or resist it? Do you want to be left alone or are you seeking to feel connected and involved? Are you self-motivated or do you struggle to set yourself goals and targets?
Preference for personal relationships:
Do you want a personal touch in your interactions or do you feel more comfortable partitioning your PhD into a purely ‘professional’ realm of your life?
Preference for business-like interaction:
Are you product and task oriented or do you like the process of working through your research in a relaxed, personable manner? Do you like to make and meet agreements and need reliable feedback? Do you like to plan goals and timing and be held accountable to them?
Wadee, Keane, Dietz and Hay have written about this here, and offer a basic model to evaluate the spectrum of possible approaches:
|Relationship Behaviour||Business Like||Personal|
|Task Behaviour||Task Focused (to product or process)||Not Task Focused|
The product of these mixtures will significantly define the communication style, expectations, levels and type of management, approach to feedback and deadline and focus of your interactions with your supervisor. When you begin your PhD, try to have a direct conversation with your supervisor to establish both of your expectations and roles. Of course, many of these issues become explicit quickly, if for example your supervisor calls you into their office in your first month to set up monthly meetings or deadlines, or if in that time you don’t hear from them at all.
As you progress with your research you are likely to become more of an expert on your subject than your supervisor. You will need to know who else can engage with you and give you helpful feedback and not rely solely on your supervisor. Maintaining good communication with your supervisor as you do this will be key- keep them in the loop about what you are doing and who you are engaging with, they may have helpful experience and insight for you.