I have read many blog posts about the student – supervisor relationship within the PhD and it is one of the most unique relationships out there. I mean, who ‘really’ do you get to spend 3 years with (or however many years you do your PhD in) and have someone there all the way through to support you through the journey. I quite often have an issue about blog posts on managing your supervisors as these blog posts tend to be direct and tell you what you should / should not do. In reality, all supervisory relationships differ and what works for one person might not be the best for another. This is kind of why I am writing this blog post today. Many universities have training on how to manage the supervisory relationships but these are generalist and tend to focus on how to get on. In reality, students and supervisors don’t get on, some don’t like each other and some don’t want to work with each other so it’s something to keep in mind.
For me, my supervisory team and I had never met before. We have research and learnings in different research domains and I didn’t even know my supervisors existed before seeing an advert online. I knew nothing about my supervisors, about how they worked and what they did so it was a relationship that was completely new to me. To be quite honest, it was taking a big leap into the unknown as I had no idea how my supervisors worked and what they would expect of me when I began, but it was a decision I made wisely and I had researched all involved beforehand… even asking another PhD student their opinions too.
However, I have heard a few horror stories over the past 10 months and some which have been all but nice. When in a training session a few weeks ago one student explained that they were constantly scrutinised by their main supervisor (the equivalent to my Director of Studies), and that they were always putting them down. When questioned from other people, the student said they just put up with it as they were there to learn and that it was not a bad thing that the relationship was strained. This is something I have heard quite often and something I’m not in agreement with. So this has led me to write my own blog post but not how to handle the supervisors relationship. My blog post is about my own learnings on the relationships involved, and what has helped us to make it work. I summarise my most important learnings below:
Set expectations early
I think it’s really important to work with our supervisors to set expectations really early on. I’m not saying that you NEED to talk about expectations all of the time, but it’s a topic often missed by some students and supervisors, ending up in arguments of what was expected and what was not. I don’t think my supervisory team and I have even sat down and had formal discussions on expectations but it does come up in my supervisor quite often. Not so much as ‘we expect xyz…’ but between us in agreeing deadlines, work, progress and so on. We also tend to discuss next steps of the research, expectations in terms of where I should be and what I am not expected to know at this point. A prime example is of my theoretical framework development, something I am not expected to have solidified at this point in my research but something I am expected to have covered. Expectations have most certainty been an important aspect of supervision for me.
Meet or communicate frequently
I think it’s also important to meet with your supervisors regularly, more frequently in the early days of the research. This has worked for me really well and we meet once each week to see how things are going, review work and discuss and problems that have appeared since we last spoke. For us, we remain in constant communication via email, face to face and phone (if needed) so I understand that frequent communication has been key to help my supervisors and I get along. The most important thing is to do what feels right, some supervisors might not want regular updates and some might. In my opinion I’d rather update my supervisors via email if I know I’m not going to have a supervision for a little while or if something urgent has come up. For us, this seems to work. I think it helps to keep my supervisors involved if they know what I am doing and how I am getting long, but they also know when I do not need so structured support. We agree when I don’t need a supervision a certain week or when I just need to get my head down and get on with research work and this is something we agree on as a team.
Keep supervisors updated
That kind of brings me onto keeping the supervisory team updated, on research progress and much more. For me, I like to make sure my supervisors know what is going on so that they are always part of the progress and are there to help when needed. Also, I think it is important to keep supervisors notified of any problems that may affect the PhD work. For example, time away or problems you are having can be taken into account. More times than not, any problems are probably not as bad as you think and talking to your supervisors (or a supervisor) about them might help to take the burden away and the problems may feel easier. I found that my supervisors get concerned if there are things that could interfere with my work, but they also take care to make sure I’m doing okay and make this a priority over any work I do.
Ask for help when needed
Keeping supervisors updated is important, but I think also asking for help is important to. I mean, who do you go to when you need help with other things – quite often, the person in charge? I have found my supervisors extremely flexible when I need help and they bent over backwards to accommodate my requests. It is normally just clarifying things I need to do or extra help with what I have been given but it’s actually asking for help that I used to find hard. I used to think that asking for help showed weakness but now I think the complete opposite. It shows supervisors that you can’t always do everything perfectly first time round but also that you are continuously evaluating your capabilities and recognising when you need help the moment you ask for it. I think it also keeps supervisors involved in the process of learning. They are the ones who are teaching you how to research like a professional so they are the ones who kind of need to know if you are finding something hard of if there is something you cannot do.
Submit your work on time
I think if you take all of the above points into consideration, another important point is to submit your work on time. If you have an agreed timescale and you have not informed your team of any problems, then this expectation is already set. Not submitting means breaking the trust your supervisor has for you and also messing up their time. If you have a supervisors like mine, they may allocate time to look over major pieces of work for you and have specific times they dedicate to this so late submissions will not only make you
look bad, but will interrupt the time they had set aside too. One thing to remember is that supervisors often have other commitments too, like teaching and additional academic work. Therefore agreeing deadlines and sticking to these deadlines means your work can be prioritised at that time, whilst in the mixt of doing everything else they do. I also feel that being honest about deadlines helps to build trust in your work and abilities – if you are able to manage the project well, you will become aware of deadlines that are suitable and which ones are not so you can make amendments on the not so good ones.
Be honest (and ask them to be honest too)
I think THE MOST IMPORTANT part of the student – supervisor relationship is to be honest. I always work by ‘honesty is the best policy’ and I have found that it has worked so far with all supervisors, both PhD and before (fingers crossed). For me, this means approaching your supervisors if you are not happy with something (they or someone else has done for example) of if you feel something could be done differently. One of my supervisors and I had a ‘moment’ like this a while back and it is something I had never encountered before. It was something I did not know how to approach but simultaneously did not want to leave it either. For us, it was best to get everything out in the open and talk about things, to find that actually it was fixed in the space of five minutes. We were able to talk properly in person and sort out what we thought was a problem when in fact it was no longer a problem at all. I would not recommend discussing big issues via email, text etc as these can be misinterpreted and taken the wrong way, and it also means that things cannot be taken out of context as we all know sarcasm in an email does not go down well at all. I think encountering problems and discussing problems straight away has made us a better team, firstly because it shows honesty within the team (as you don’t want the team bitching behind your back as such) and that no-one will get mad, and secondly as it helps to build up trust within the team knowing we can be honest all of the time. I think if students can’t tell supervisors when they have a problem with something, this can impact on the work a lot. The student might bottle up feelings and start to dislike what is/has happened and this might then impact on the work done. I would always advise students to talk about this when they can so that they and their supervisors know where they stand. In my opinion, I would hope that a supervisors would want to know if there was a problem, whether it is caused by them or not, so that they can help the student work things out and love what they do again.
Understand your supervisors strengths and weaknesses- they are human after all!
I think based on the point above, we have to understand that our supervisors are only human. Some make mistakes and some don’t. If you get to know the strengths of your supervisor, you can work with them for it. Knowing weaknesses of your supervisor can also help you adapt your approach to them and not expect them to do something they may be unable to do. I understand that my supervisors have their own way of doing things, and some approaches are not always agreed upon as a team. However, I understand they are both excellent teachers and mentors and their actions are directed by wanting their students to do well and not by anything less. The both have good research and supervision reputations and would not be part of my supervisory team if they did not feel they could do a good job together and work together as well as they do. That being said, I also try to understand when my supervisors may not be able to do something so I do not set expectations of this too high. For example, setting deadlines for feedback or meeting dates to fit in with schedules and also ensuring that ways of communications (email, face-to-face) are appropriate to get a response back in a good time frame.
Overall I have learned many things and those things are summarised as follows: as a student you need to be considerate, respectful and on-the-ball so that you can help establish the strong relationship with your supervisors. However, you also need to be honest when things are not going right. Such honestly will hopefully allow your supervisors to see that you are the student learning and sometimes students push in the right direction, or reassurance, now and then. That being said, at some point during the PhD, whether it be in the middle or a the end, the student is the one who will become the teacher as they will be the one with the final expertise in the research undertaken in the years of supervision ahead. So ensuring that the student has a hold on the supervisory relationship from day one means by the end, they will be well on their way to achieving the results they want from the degree.