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.
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:
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:
This may help you explain how you work with your supervisor, and how you can compromise if your styles are different.
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:
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.
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.
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 Doctoral and Researcher College website:
Before supervisions prepare for the meeting by thinking of:
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:
After your supervisions:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.