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Research postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Introduction

The working relationship you have with your supervisor is unique, and it is normal for it to be the source of frustration at some point during your PhD. This is because your supervisor is the one person who is likely to be challenging and (constructively) criticising your ideas on a regular basis.

Like any working relationship, the partnership between you and your supervisor has to be negotiated and will change over time; you also have to accommodate each others' learning and communication styles.

The suggestions on this page offer some good principles and strategies for working effectively with your supervisors.

Different styles of supervision

Each supervisor has a different way of going about it, but a common approach is your supervisor will expect that you can manage your research project from the start, and will leave you to get on with it, until you ask for assistance. Of course, there are always exceptions, and some supervisors do give a lot more guidance and close monitoring at the beginning.

Get to know as much as possible about how your supervisor works and thinks:

  • Ask about your supervisor's own experiences as a research student.
  • Talk to other research students who have been supervised by them.
  • Read your supervisor's articles and published works to get an idea of their approaches and the theories they prefer.

Knowing this will help you better understand the direction and purpose behind their advice.

Also identify your supervisor's learning preferences, as well as your own:

  • Does your supervisor prefer details or an overview?
  • Is your supervisor a workaholic, or more laid back?
  • Do they share the same learning styles as you? 

This may help you explain how you work with your supervisor, and how you can compromise if your styles are different.

Negotiating how you'll work together

Good, open communication is the key to managing your relationship with your supervisor. At the beginning of your PhD, negotiate how your relationship will function:

  • The time and frequency of your supervision meetings.
  • An overall plan and timeline for your research, as well as how you will agree on interim deadlines.
  • Whether your supervisor would like to see regular pieces of work, or just finished drafts, and how they will give feedback.
  • How long your supervisor needs to be able to give feedback - they are often very busy so can't return work in only a few days. You need to be courteous and plan ahead when requesting feedback.
  • What kind of skills and training you need (e.g. statistical or research methods, IT training, language support etc).
  • Intellectual property and ethical issues (e.g. if you are working as part of a research team or on human/animal research).
  • Your expected involvement in department research activities, seminars, and conferences.
  • Your career development – e.g. availability of teaching opportunities.
  • Also any times when your supervisor will be away (e.g. on research leave, teaching abroad or at conferences) so you can plan for this and agree how you will keep in touch.

What you can expect from your supervisor:

You can expect your supervisor to give you guidance on your project and on your own development as a researcher.

Tip...

Be prepared for your supervisor to "wean you off" their guidance as your research progresses – e.g. in your second year you may ask "Am I going in the right direction?" and they may reply "You should be able to decide that for yourself". Take this as a positive sign that your supervisor thinks you are ready to have more independence.

What your supervisor expects from you:

Your supervisor expects you to take the initiative and take responsibility for your own research. They expect you to be independent, but also to communicate well and keep them informed of how you are doing and what you are thinking.

Tip...

It is your responsibility to monitor your own study and contact your supervisor if you are having problems: don't wait for them to email you. If they don't hear from you, they will probably assume you are doing fine.

For more specific guidance on the roles and responsibilities of supervisors and PhD students, see The University's 'Code of Practice on Research Students' by following the links on the Policies and procedures page of the Graduate School website.  

Before, during and after supervisions

Before supervisions prepare for the meeting by thinking of:

  • Your progress and achievements since the last meeting
  • Any problems or points you need clarifying
  • An action plan of what to do next

Tip...

Don't be afraid to put questions to your supervisor, but it is often better to ask specific questions that you have attempted to find answers to first. Instead of asking "How am I doing?" you are more likely to get the detailed answer you need if you ask, "What do you think of the methodology I am using in Chapter 1?"

During your supervisions:

  • Take notes, especially of any actions or things to follow up.
  • Pay attention to the questions your supervisor asks, as these are often crucial in helping you think about the direction of your research.
  • Take the opportunity to explain and defend your ideas verbally – this is all good training for your viva.

After your supervisions:

  • It can be helpful to email a list of your agreed action points to your supervisor to check there have been no misunderstandings.
  • Reflect on what you have discussed – it is likely to trigger more ideas.
  • Take your supervisor's advice seriously – they don't expect you to follow everything they suggest, but they do expect you to consider it carefully.

Managing joint supervisors

It is normal practice for students to be allocated more than one supervisor. Sometimes students may have a primary supervisor who will be the main source of guidance, and a co-supervisor who may provide specific expertise or be consulted less often. In other cases, two supervisors or a supervisory team will have equal input. Having two supervisors provides a variety of perspectives, but it can be difficult as you may have to juggle conflicting advice and have to please two people instead of just one. Some ways of managing this are:

  • Suggest a joint meeting with your supervisors at the start to clarify how you all will work together.
  • Have a joint supervision at least once a term if possible to help get consensus between all involved.
  • It is easier if your supervisors can agree on defined roles and responsibilities – e.g. one is the lead supervisor, and the other a secondary supervisor, or one provides expertise in a certain field, and the other in a different area of research.
  • Ensure you keep both supervisors up to date and communicate with both.
  • Never play one supervisor off against the other. If you are unhappy with the advice from one supervisor, don't go to the other in the hope of getting different advice, as this can lead to confusion and bad feeling between all parties. If you do get advice that you don't agree with, try to discuss it openly, explaining your own thinking and any doubts you may have.   

If you only have one supervisor, you may ask for a second to be appointed. Do get in touch with them first to check that they are happy to supervise your project.

Dealing with problems

PhD study can be a long, intense, and emotional process, and unfortunately in some rare cases the supervisory relationship can break down. If you are having problems working with your supervisor:

  • Try to talk to your supervisor about your difficulties first – and see if you can work them through.
  • Take a step back and identify what is making it difficult to work together – focus on specific professional difficulties, as opposed to the character or personality of your supervisor.
  • Be tactful and discrete – don't moan about or criticise your supervisor in your department.
  • Get an objective, outside perspective from someone you can trust, such as a friend or Study Adviser.
  • Ask fellow PhD students who you can trust if they have had similar problems and how they have managed them.
  • Try to maintain communications with your supervisor and don't let the relationship deteriorate to a point where you don't talk.
  • If things are very difficult, see if you can find a third person to be a mediator. This could be the Director of Postgraduate Research in your department or your Head of Department. Do not be worried about doing this, as it will not reflect badly on you. The Director or Head will be able to see if the issues can be resolved or, if necessary, consider alternative supervisory arrangements.

As you progress

It is likely that as your research progresses you will become more knowledgeable in your specific research topic than your supervisor. Your supervisor will still have the broader depth and understanding of your chosen field, but you will be the expert in your research. This should give you increasing confidence, but can also make you feel like you are stepping into uncharted territory and your supervisor is less able to guide you.

As you become more expert, you will need tactfully and gently to educate your supervisor in two areas:

  1. Keeping them up-to-date in the leading edge research you are doing and the new developments or findings in your particular (narrow) area.
  2. Letting them know the kinds of support and input you need.

Tip... 

Build up your own support network of peers and fellow researchers in your field – these may be students in your department, people you meet at conferences, or contacts via mailing lists. They can give additional feedback and perspectives to those of your supervisor.

Your relationship with your supervisor will change. In time, they may become less of a mentor and more of a sounding board for your ideas.

They are an important contact who can help introduce you to others in your chosen field, and help you get recognition. If you are both able to communicate effectively and accommodate each other's styles of working it is likely to be a successful and rewarding partnership.