How to manage your PhD supervisor

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

January 12, 2017
United Nations peace keeper
Source: istock
‘Doctoral students may need to think like UN peacekeepers, detectives and divorce lawyers at different points of their studies’

Take notes

Write things down or ask permission to record the conversation. There is a fair chance that something insightful will be said that you can’t quite remember – this shouldn’t be seen as a reflection on you. Other than undercover agents, few people have mastered the art of recalling every nook and cranny of a complex, free flowing conversation.

Try to accept that you simply won’t remember everything that comes up in a conversation that might start with social niceties, be diverted through shameless gossip but loiter momentarily on some key insight, or even stumble over a reference or analytical nuance that is critical to the future of your doctorate.

Don’t place the responsibility on your supervisors’ shoulders, either. They may recall the details of an obscure 1973 paper that led to a much better-known and now seminal text, but they won’t remember exactly what they said four sentences ago. Flashes of genius are rarely planned and are devilishly hard to recreate.


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Schedule meetings

Your supervisor might not even have full command of their own diaries, so don’t expect them to manage yours.

Put appointments in your supervisor’s diary, not the other way around. Accept that they have other pressures on their time and that the onus is on you to be proactive enough to get meetings set sufficiently far in advance that there are blank spaces in their busy schedule. If they have a long-suffering PA, charm them, win them over and ask them nicely to populate the diary.

Expecting someone to be free at a few days’ notice might work as a one-off, but probably won’t work regularly enough to rely on as a strategy.

If things aren’t going well, the temptation will be to avoid your supervisor. Locking in a regular pattern helps to reduce the allure of such diversionary tactics.

Establish expectations

Know how much time your supervisor expects to spend with you, and place yourself somewhere between “missing, presumed dead” and “stop stalking me”.

There may be a workload model in operation that allocates your supervisor a particular number of hours per annum for your supervision. There may also be a course handbook that sets out how many times you should meet your supervisor and what you should get feedback on at key milestones in the process. Sometimes there are mandatory obligations that relate to issues such as visas.


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Beyond these practicalities, there are other expectations about the pace at which you’ll progress through the degree. When would your supervisor expect to see a complete draft of your literature review, some pilot study data, a first conference paper or poster presentation, a first journal submission and so on. Map these deliverables out early, put them into your calendar and try to stick to them.

Think like a detective

PhDs are like a complex crime scene. Gather evidence, do background checks, establish alibis, follow up leads and identify prime suspects.

During most of your supervisory sessions, things will be added to your “to-do” list. Sometimes these are explicit requests to go and find and then read particular papers, books or reports. Sometimes, however, they are implicitly raised because your supervisor will mention another academic, a body of theory, methodology or even a research group or institution. Interpret your role as researcher literally.

If these seemingly random names and places were clues in a murder mystery, how would you follow them as leads?

Take the time to do the background research and accept that some leads will be dead ends. You will need to have absolute dominion over the literature during your viva, it is as important to know why something has not made the cut as well as what is in there.

Get feedback

Combinations of coffee, cake, tea and sympathy might make you feel better, but they are no substitute for honest, critical feedback.

A cup of tea might be a very pleasant way to spend your regular supervisory meeting. You may even leave with the false sense of security that nothing was raised that you should worry about. While building social ties and getting to know each other is important for your supervisory relationship, what you really need are written comments on your written work.

The eventual degree is, after all, assessed based on a written thesis and a viva. A cosy set of chats is poor preparation for this. If feedback (preferably written) isn’t offered, ask for it.

Precision is important; informed critique of where your work could improve is the only thing that will drive up the standard of your research. Sometimes you will not like what you hear. Try to get past the initial hurt; hear it clearly because it is necessary.

Follow their advice

This is probably your first PhD, but it won’t be theirs so follow their advice.

Academics are trained to give “sandwich feedback” – nice things followed by difficult messages before closing on a suitably upbeat tone. Better to get the issues ironed out early on, rather than in the viva. Don’t ignore the middle part of the sandwich, however tempting it may be to set it to one side and focus on the good news.

It really is the stuff that is inconvenient or difficult that you need to deal with. Everybody has some beloved idea or section that you might be told isn’t good enough, isn’t central to your argument or isn’t working.

Don’t cause a diplomatic incident

Beware of tensions between your first and second supervisors. Your supervisory team or PhD panel may be lifelong friends and co-authors.

Alternatively, your project might be the first thing that they’ve worked on together. Worse still, your project might represent an attempt to broker a peace deal or foster collaboration between previously warring factions in the aftermath of some messy academic restructuring exercise.

Be sensitive to the mood music; if you have more than one supervisor, try to keep them both on side. Insist that at least some of your supervisory sessions are joint and create an audit trail by committing to actions that flow from each supervisory meeting.

Don’t hesitate to send an email after the meeting stating what was agreed; there is a fair chance that your supervisors will forget that, too. The audit trail and the occasional joint supervision session will help to minimise the risks of your becoming a pawn in some tit-for-tat point-scoring.

For anyone planning a career in academia, the chance to learn the politics of your supervision setting will develop in you a key transferable skill. Think one part divorce lawyer and one part United Nations peacekeeper.

Don’t go off grid

Radio silence is worrying. Your supervisor is responsible for your progress, and you should be worried if they are having to chase you up.

There are many reasons why a strategy of running away or going into witness protection can seem the right thing to do. Perhaps you’re finding the lack of feedback frustrating. Perhaps your frustrations are being generated by the regular appearance of blunt feedback.

It is only human nature to find excuses when you’ve not been doing the work. “The dog ate my homework” works once. Missed meetings, late submissions and games of email or voicemail tag are signs that something is wrong.

Stay in touch, respond when asked, turn up when invited. It generally ends badly to do otherwise.

If there are major things going on in your life (bereavements, long-term illnesses, births, marriages, divorces and the like), talk to your supervisors. They do care about you and your progress. They will likely help you with extensions or even extra funding if they know what is going on. If you have disappeared for a period of time, it is never too late to drop them an email and get back in touch. They will be relieved to hear from you, and forgiveness is usually readily available.

Be honest

Speak up when you don’t understand something, don’t agree with something or can’t see yourself being able to do something.

Supervisors can seem intimidating; get to know them and you will find they are not really that bad. They often have years of experience that they draw upon; they’ll often use jargon, refer to concepts or name-check individuals with a cheery “of course, you’ll have come across [insert unknown name/fact/book/etc] won’t you?” Resist the temptation to nod politely. Stop and ask for details, get a reference or a weblink. Don’t move on until you are confident that you know what you don’t know.

Your supervisor(s) will get over the momentary hiccup faster than you. Moreover, they will admire the honesty and gumption that it took to admit that you don’t know what they’re talking about.

Know when it’s not working

Supervisory relationships sometimes suffer an irretrievable breakdown. Be patient, but recognise when all reasonable steps have been exhausted.

In an ideal world, your supervisor and you will strike up a great working relationship that lasts a career. You might end up collaborating with them for years post-PhD; you might end up working for them or asking for a reference.

However, like all other relationships, supervision can sometimes break down. There may be good reasons for the breakdown, your thesis might have changed direction, you might be using a different method and need a different skill set, or your supervisor might have fallen out of love with your subject area or have known little about it in the first place.

However, for all concerned, arranging a change in supervisor can be a messy process. It will create anxieties and tensions for you and your supervisor(s).

It will also require your institution to have demonstrated that all reasonable efforts to provide a functioning supervisory structure have been exhausted. There aren’t quickie divorce courts on hand. You’ll probably have to articulate what it is that you’re finding difficult, provide evidence to support your claims and be willing to make reasonable efforts to adjust or improve your current supervisory arrangements.

Of course, you have rights in this process, and you need to be an advocate for those rights. Embarking on a supervisory swap might seem attractive, especially if you are receiving negative feedback on your work.

What makes the process of changing supervisors non-trivial is the need to establish whether there has indeed been an irretrievable breakdown in relations or simply a student who doesn’t want to hear that their work isn’t progressing towards a satisfactory completion in a timely fashion.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data blog.

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Reader's comments (24)

great article. very helpful.
Thank you!
Thanks for this - excellent advice for supervisees and with some encouraging words for supervisors too. For new PhD students, I wonder, do you have any advice relating to how managing a PhD supervisor differs from managing, say, the supervisor of Honours or Master's dissertations? Thanks again.
The short answer - it is a totally different dynamic. The biggest difference is the PhD supervisor is never going to mark your work, it is much more of a partnership.
Great article, thank you! I think an important thing for PhD students to keep in mind when considering all of this great advice on is...every supervisor is different. You need to consciously tune-in to how your supervisor operates and do your best to work with their rhythms so you get the best out of them. I learned very quickly that I got far better and more detailed feedback if I left a printed version of my work (with a written note) with my supervisor's PA rather than emailing it to her as an attachment. I also got more of her time if I visited her when she was working from home rather than trying to negotiate a slot in her very busy diary. I think everyone has their own way of working and the better grasp you can get of the way your supervisor(s) works, the more productive and fruitful a relationship you will have. If your supervisor asks for work in advance, don't come empty-handed, reschedule.
I would agree with that, there is no one size fits all.
This was helpful, thanks Robert. I like the idea of recording meetings with supervisors. You are right - absorbing all the information at once can be challenging!
Thank you Josh, please remember to get their permission first!
Interesting - in hindsight I can recognise some of my own foibles here. The importance of dealing with the inconvenient or difficult tasks is particularly fitting advice. My own supervisor stressed this to me - otherwise I'd still be 'putting-off' getting in contact with potential participants.
Never leave until next month something that you could have made a start on now. Easier said than done ... but true nonetheless! Thanks
I'm actually an undergraduate student but was just had a few questions after reading this article. Are there any differences in the relationship between a PhD student and their supervisor and an undergraduate student and their supervisor? Also, when it comes to feedback, once you have received this feedback is this the last time you should discuss this section of your work with your supervisor? Or is it acceptable to look over any corrections/adjustments that have been made? Many thanks.
In my view, all research-based writing is essentially the same Sophie. Though these tips were written with doctoral students in mind they translate pretty well to UG and Masters level dissertations too despite the fact that these relate to shorter pieces of work produced over a shorter time frame. Indeed, there is also a large overlap with co-authoring experiences despite the fact that these might involve two or more peers. One area of difference between taught and research based degrees occurs with your other question. It is more likely for a UG dissertation that you'll get one round of feedback on a specific section or chapter then won't revisit this bit. For a research based degree such as an MPhil, PhD, DBA, DEd, etc. your supervisor will probably give you multiple rounds of feedback on drafts and then one final round of feedback on an assembled whole thesis. Good luck with your own dissertation.
In my opinion, my writing wasn't read in any detail, I tended to receive a compliment about my writing at the top of the chapters and not a lot else (and not all the chapters were returned to me) . In my opinion, I got supervisor 'support' with the statistics but I wasn't confident in this help and had it documented prior to the viva of my concerns. In my opinion, the examiners also had concerns about the statistics but my supervisor sat in the viva and, in my opinion, I made it clear my supervisor had approved them (I kept asking my supervisor by email if the statistics were OK and made sure to keep the emails until the thesis was passed). In my opinion, the main supervisor spent less than 50 minutes reading my draft thesis (in my opinion, the other supervisor didn't provide any feedback on the draft thesis) and only changes were made to the abstract at this stage. I was surprised and delighted to pass (I was preparing myself for a fail) and because of the comprehensive feedback from the examiners my thesis was greatly improved. In conversation, in my opinion, my supervisor was vague and offered no significant input. I liked my supervisors as people and, as expected, have thanked them in my thesis but feel the true thanks must go to me and the examiners as they were very thorough in their approach and provided constructive and useful feedback.
Dear Anonymouse Thank you for sharing your experience. In retrospect, I wonder whether the advice offered above might have helped you though this is a moot point because you eventually passed thanks to the input of your examiners and your hard work. It does sound as though, from your perspective, things weren't working, that there wasn't an honest exchange about this and that expectations were not clear in both directions such that you got the value you wanted from written feedback. Experience however is something that you get just after you actually needed it! I'm sure you'll apply the lessons learnt to your own practice as a supervisor.
Dear Professors, A really interesting set of advice for both students and supervisors who wish to read it! I can certainly reflect on some of the things above with my excellent supervisory team, both of whom are eminent scholars in their own right, so it can sometimes be difficult to get them in the same country at the one time, let alone the same room! Please keep posting, as I find your articles really interesting to read and reflect on myself. Thanks, Jordan
I would say I actually learned much, much more from my examiners than my supervisors and although the viva was a horrible experience I thought the examiners were very thorough and took their responsibility seriously. I couldn't fault them and, looking back, I'm very grateful to them. Part of the problem was I liked my supervisors as people and didn't want to hurt or offend them and I only really became very concerned towards or in the last year and so I should have addressed things sooner but it's not easy to do. The authors raise good points and I would also say to people to try and establish expectations from the first meeting, discuss turnaround of feedback but I'm not sure how you can encourage supervisors to give feedback, or feedback of worth. I did try a number of things but nothing really worked, in my opinion. Good article though and points we can all learn from, in my opinion.
A very interesting read. What guidance who you give to a student suffering from illness whilst undertaking a PhD?
This is advice is bang on. I only wish I had a time machine so i could back and tell younger me to read this and follow this BEFORE stressing out over my PhD. Well said. Well written and BANG ON!!!!
Dear E.M. Godsman - thank you for your post. Well, any illness will of course add to the stress of the PhD, but like everything, tell your supervisors and use all the help that is available to you. If it is something more substantial than a cold you might want to stop the clock (go into academic suspension) so time does not run away from you. If for any reason you can't talk to your supervisor, there are many others you could take into you confidence, e.g. Director of PGR programmes, Programme Administrators, University student support, Heads of Department, or any other supervisor. My over arching advice is never 'suffer in silence' there are many people there to support you.
Great advice! In terms of an undergraduate student, can you offer any advice in transforming the student-supervisor relationship from a transactional experience to a relational experience? My supervisor will mark chapters but there is little empathy in our relationship.
Supervision is considered to be a composite activity, happening in varied settings, with different definitions, functions and methods of implementation. Depending on the functions and forms of delivery, supervision may be defined in various ways (S. Kilminster & Jolly, 2000; Severinsson, 2012) and most of these definitions are related to practice-based supervision in teaching, social work, psychology, counselling and clinical healthcare contexts. In the healthcare context, the emphasis is on the promotion of professional enhancement and nurturing patient well-being. However, a definition that is logical across professions and which has most relevance to research supervision is that of Proctor (S. Kilminster & Jolly, 2000) who sketched out three primary functions of supervision – normative (administrative), formative (educational) and restorative (supportive). Research supervision can therefore be defined as a combination of pedagogical, administrative and facilitative processes.
To coneill3 ... it rather depends what you want out of the supervisory relationship. It needs to deal with the formative stuff mentioned by #21Gladsonford ... i.e. your supervisor(s) are there to guide you toward the appropriate standard of work in order that you pass the examination process. That doesn't need to get beyond being transactional and some perfectly effective supervisions never do. If you want empathy you probably need to give some ... making an effort to understand what makes someone tick, what their interests are and building some linkages on non-PhD topics might begin to evoke some of the rapport you're after. If, after repeated attempts at learning about stamp collecting, cricket, Gregorian chant or new wave heavy metal you are still getting nowhere it could be time to recognise that transaction is just fine!
Thanks for the comment Gladsonford and for the helpful definitions ... supervision can, and should be, a multifaceted thing.
We have always had to write up a supervision record for all meetings. At the end of every year a plan for the next year is done. However, sometimes radio silence will occur. I have a well-paid stressful full time job and at peak times I will disappear. My supervisor knows that and knows I will be back. Hoping to submit later this year. Overall, an excellent article though and I do think as a PhD candidate you do have to manage your supervisor!

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