Supervision and Meetings

1 - Building a relationship with your supervisor

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 BehaviourBusiness LikePersonal

Task BehaviourTask 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.

2 - Making the most out of your supervision

Consider these ten tips for making the most out of your supervision:

Schedule Meetings

  • Manage your own diary, don’t expect your supervisor to

  • Avoid last minute requests or unscheduled drop-ins that will inconvenience and possibly annoy your supervisor

  • Lock in patterns of meeting (monthly, or around key deliverables), this will help keep momentum when you are struggling with enthusiasm or progress

  • Be reliable

Take Notes

  • Write down ideas, suggestions and agreements that are made at meetings

  • Always note down verbal feedback after presentations or when you are discussing your work

  • Be prepared to follow up leads you are given (like the title of an obscure paper published in 1980).

Request Written Feedback

  • Don’t annoy your supervisor by making changes to drafts they are reviewing

  • Solicit challenging, critical feedback. Positive suggestions you are ‘on the right track’ don’t further your project and can be false reassurance

Follow Advice

  • This isn’t your supervisor’s first PhD!

  • Don’t leave it to the viva to iron out issues

  • Be ready to hear and act on advice even if it is inconvenient or difficult

Plan

  • Familiarise yourself with formal requirements. Your institute may have workload models, handbooks, formal milestones or mandatory obligations for PhD students. Don’t let yourself be surprised by any of these!

  • Use project and time management apps

  • Plan for meetings – go with questions, ideas and issues to discuss

  • End meetings by mapping deliverables and establishing time frames, then take these as deadlines even if they are informal

  • Schedule down time for your brain to focus on organisation rather than your thesis (such as referencing, organising notes, planning logistics)

Be Diplomatic

  • Watch out for tensions or other relationship dynamics between supervisors, or on panels.

  • Work to keep everyone on side with you

  • If you have joint supervision insist on having some meetings with everyone present

  • Create an audit trail: commit to actions following from supervision meetings that you can refer back to

  • Remember institutions have their own politics – check with your supervisor before seeking out other

Be Honest

  • Voice concerns and disagreements where you have them

  • Don’t agree to deadlines or workloads you can’t meet

  • Don’t smile and nod! Press in with questions or ask for clarification when discussing work with your supervisor, and don’t leave a meeting until you are sure you have understood what was said

Be Independent

  • Don’t ask for ‘solutions’ to your ‘problems’ without trying a number of options yourself

  • Get informed about services available at your institution. Don’t expect your supervisor to deal with your library, administration or IT related issues

  • Seek out and make use of graduate training opportunities within your college, institution or associated research groups.

  • Be proactive about looking for appropriate summer schools, conferences and networking opportunities.

  • Join a peer support group (or if none exists, start one). Engage with others in your position and collaborate to organise writing retreats, research seminars, helpful training or expert seminars (you may be able to apply for funding to resource your group)

Do Not Disappear!

  • Don’t make your supervisor chase you

  • Approach your supervisor if you are having major issues. If they are personal, you don’t have to share details if you are not comfortable to do so but communicating with them is key and may result in getting practical support applying for extensions for writing, or funding.

  • Seek out professional support from your wellbeing team.

Engage

  • If available in your college, consider getting involved in peer mentoring program or talk to your supervisors about possibilities to help with departmental teaching. This will widen your skillset, help you develop teaching skills and show you are an engaged member of the team.

 

3 - Relationship breakdown 

If you feel your supervision relationship is getting close to breakdown, think very carefully about your options. This article has some helpful practical advice about steps you might take to try to resolve issues. This website from the University of Queensland offers some common PhD-Supervisor conflicts and suggests some ways to approach them.

A change in the direction of your research or the method you are using could both be valid reasons for wanting to change your supervisor. However this process can be stressful and complicated for both parties. There is typically no quick fix and institutions will have requirements and processes that you must follow in order to change supervision arrangements. Wherever possible, an alternative solution is nearly always preferable.