Successful PhD supervision: A supervisor’s guide

As a PhD supervisor, you have the power to make or break your students’ career hopes. Your influence is immense, and your role crucial.

Studying for a PhD is tough. It demands considerable effort, skill and tenacity from students working for years, often in solitary and pressured conditions. The human cost can be high, with research showing that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress.

This means supervisors have a key part to play in shaping the experience and success of their students. Getting it wrong can do long-lasting damage to a student’s mental and physical wellbeing, as well as their professional goals. But get it right and your students – and the academy itself – will benefit for years to come.

So, as a supervisor, what steps can you take to help your PhD students survive and thrive? Here’s the Global Academy Jobs nine-point plan:

1. Check your motivation

Before committing, ask yourself a few probing questions. Are you agreeing to supervise in the hope your students will take on work you want to be released from? Are you hoping to steer a student in a direction you want to explore for your own personal or professional reasons? Rather than stepping stones to a particular goal, students are future specialists in the making. Make sure your motives stand scrutiny. 

2. Evaluate your workload

What new commitments are the next 3-4 years likely to bring? Taking on a student and then finding yourself unable to support them adequately may sabotage their thesis and your reputation. Appraise the time available to you, and look for ways to make the most of it. If you’re keen to work with a particular student consider delegating another area of responsibility. Don’t run the risk of under-delivering by over-committing.

3. Be realistic

Communication styles and working patterns differ widely. This can be stimulating, but in some cases may lead to tension, conflict and even a breakdown in relations. A supervisory relationship is long and at times intense, so check for a workable fit in approach and style from the outset.

4. Set and stick to expectations

PhD students’ requirements are often simple: they want a supervisor who will answer emails, arrange meetings, schedule next steps, give feedback constructively and without undue delay. Discuss and agree points such as the frequency of meetings and turnaround times for feedback. Accept that emergency, short-notice input is essential at times, but work with your student to plan ahead and make sure these are not the norm.

5. Access training and support

You’ve invested countless hours in your research. It’s also worth investing in your supervisory skills, so – if you haven’t already – sign up for training. This will give you strategies for a range of issues such as a student lacking or losing motivation, and help you recognise warning signs such as sleep issues or substance abuse. Seek feedback from your students and act on it, and consider finding a mentor to help you develop these crucial skills further.

6. Be transparent

You will need to know your ethics, rules and standards inside-out. Make sure you explain them clearly to your students. Set out guidance for what to do if something goes wrong – including your student’s relationship with you. Convey the limits of your responsibility, by letting students know who you’re accountable to.

7. Anticipate issues

Watch out for potential pitfalls and prepare for them. Act earlier rather than later by anticipating and handling conflict proactively. Give your student latitude to make up their own mind on potentially controversial points; it’s their research. Your role is to facilitate, support and maintain stability. Crucially, do all you can to avoid dropping a student in the run-up to submission.

8. Master the art of feedback

The power dynamics of a supervisory relationship make it particularly important to consider the weight and impact of your words. The feedback you’ll need to deliver will be both positive and negative, so develop your skill at giving it. Read our tips here. Present criticism in a way that preserves dignity, maintains momentum and highlights ways to improve.

9. Manage change

PhDs take at least three years to complete, and much can change in that time. If you’re considering a career move or a sabbatical, don’t overlook its impact on your students. Make an effective plan: give sufficient warning, look for and recommend an alternative supervisor, and keep communication channels open.

Finally, embrace and enjoy the challenge. After all, as a PhD supervisor, you’re helping to shape some of the brightest minds of the next generation as they seek to advance your chosen field.

Further reading:

Geoffrey Cantor, professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Leeds:

Supervisors can do a lot more to support PhD students

Dr Sian Townson: ‘I was a terrible PhD supervisor. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.’

Global Academy Jobs’ Successful PhD supervision: A student’s guide

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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.

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