Successful PhD supervision: A student’s guide

From the euphoric moment when you receive your offer to the depths of frustration and discouragement that often follow with time, studying for your PhD can be an intense experience.

Research suggests that the key contributing factor to your success or failure is quality of supervision (Berger & de Jonge, 2005). An expert and empowering supervisor can help you flourish, guide you through thorny problems, and introduce you to enlightening new ideas and people in your field.

But the delicate balance of the student-supervisor relationship can be upset by the interplay of many factors, including personality, working style, conscious or unconscious bias and mismatched expectations. There’s no shortage of horror stories about situations that have gone badly wrong.

So, as a student, how can you maximise your chance of establishing and maintaining a successful relationship with your supervisor? And what should you do if it doesn’t work out? Here’s the Global Academy Jobs game plan.

Do your research

It’s in the time before you commit that you have most influence over the quality of the student-supervisor relationship. Don’t be so flattered by an offer that you accept it without due diligence. Now’s the time to think through what you’re looking for and ask enough questions of potential supervisors and their former students to ensure a match. It’s worth considering:

  • Would you prefer a specialist or a generalist? The former may save you significant time over the course of your research.
  • How experienced is your prospective supervisor? A strong track record is evidence of competence in supervising, as well as expertise in your field.
  • What’s your natural working style? Find out if your prospective supervisor’s approach is compatible. Watch out for potential sources of tension like perfectionism or procrastination.
  • How sensitive are you? A supervisor with a blunt, incisive manner may motivate one student but crush another.
  • Do you really want a rising star? What if your supervisor is so in demand they’re never available? It may be wiser to find someone with a lower profile but a higher commitment to supervision.

Lay your groundwork

The relationship you and your supervisor build must be resilient enough to weather storms along the way, so prepare its foundations well. Ill-defined goals and unfounded assumptions can lead to strain and even conflict. Discuss and agree expectations such as meeting frequency and contact times. Then adhere to them. From the outset, it’s worth bearing in mind that:

  • Your supervisor has done this before, probably many times. Acknowledge their seniority and experience. However fresh and exciting your ideas and insight, your supervisor has much to add, so let them.
  • Your views are not going to be confirmed as much as challenged and changed. Flexibility and openness are key.
  • Your supervisor is a real person with their own unique circumstances and pressures. Before focusing on frustrations, zoom out for the full picture. Are they working to meet a tight deadline of their own? Have they recently started working part-time? Aim to maintain trust and respect at all times.
  • Feedback stings. So look proactively to improve the way you receive, process and act on it. This will have a significant impact on how much you learn and grow throughout the process.

Recognise that difficulties are inevitable

Issues are common, and learning to triage them is an essential skill. Is this a teething problem? Is it caused by a shortcoming in your supervisor, or in your own approach? Or is this something unacceptable that needs reporting? Perhaps an overstretched or under-attentive supervisor is leaving you isolated. Or maybe you’re being micromanaged, and suffering rising stress levels as a result. Whatever the challenge, there are a number of measures you can take:

  • Communicate – early and calmly – with your supervisor. Don’t bottle up your feelings and then vent. Your supervisor might be unaware that you’re struggling, and responsive in finding ways to help. Signal problems and explore solutions.
  • Source support from elsewhere. Don’t expect your supervisor to be the solution to all your difficulties. Ask your peers for helpful techniques, resources and input. Read up on common challenges, such as ‘second year blues’ or impostor syndrome.
  • Access university support services. Doing so isn’t a sign of weakness but a sign of courage and initiative.
  • If after raising and exploring issues with your supervisor you find no workable solutions, it may be time to talk to your PhD programme director about a change of supervisor.

Alongside specific expertise in your field, transferable skills such as self-reliance, problem-solving, conflict resolution and negotiation are key areas of development when studying for your PhD. Making the most of opportunities to hone and demonstrate them now will put you in a strong position when you start the search for your first post-doctoral position.

If in doubt, speak out

As within all academic institutions, PhD supervisors have a duty of care towards their students and this arrangement must be fully and lawfully respected, without exception. If you have reason for concern or feel uncomfortable, especially if you suspect bullying, harassment or sexual impropriety, take action immediately. Cases of misconduct are rare but must be taken seriously and reported if they arise.

  • Following procedure in escalating a concern is important, but ultimately in cases such as bullying, harassment or sexual impropriety you can submit a formal complaint to your university ombudsman or a public service body. 

Further reading:

Essential PhD tips: 10 articles all doctoral students should read

PhD completion: an evidence-based guide for students, supervisors and universities

Looking for your next academic role?

Global Academy Jobs specialises in vacancies in the academic and research sector.

Read more

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

Global Academy Jobs Bulletin

The best career advice and a carefully curated selection of the top academic positions, straight to your inbox