Not another ‘how to handle your supervisor’ blog post…???

A publication from a supervisory team!

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

Tea makes everything better – even with hot chocolate! 🙂

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.

Developing the Theoretical Framework

image1.JPGAs part of my research planning and development, I need to have a theoretical framework that underpins the research. The purpose of the theoretical framework is to support the research study and to help justify why the research should be done. Normally, the theoretical framework would originate from the PhD discipline you are studying, however, my PhD is slightly different. My theoretical framework will differ from those in the normal information science domain (as mine is a PhD in information science) as it will encompass all aspects of the research – both information science and not. Although my PhD lies predominantly within the information science domain, it is highly multi-disciplinary. This can be seen by my supervisory team – an expert in the information science domain and an expert in the work and employment domains (often referred to as organisational studies domain). As my research crosses many disciplines form information science and organisational studies to psychology, I knew it would be a challenge to develop a theoretical framework. I am not yet at the sage where my theoretical framework is set, but I am going to share some of the things I have encountered from literature I have explored over the last 10 months.

I have decided to explore some of the theories that I thought might be relevant and tell you about reasons why this is not the case. As my research has covered a lot of literature so far, I am only going to focus mainly on the learning theories as I am studying workplace learning. However I might mention other theories along the way, some mentioned in the literature that caught my eye but would not do my research justice as the theoretical framework yet.

So what does it mean to learn and how can I develop a theoretical framework that encompasses learning in the workplace? Well, that was my challenge indeed. As I am studying how workplace learning can be used to enhance innovation, I thought the most obvious place to start would be the learning theories, however, quite soon into my research I discovered that some theories just do not cut it for my research and I am now going to tell you why.

Firstly, I found out that there are two main theories of leaning – classical conditioning and operant conditioning. This was great for me as I had studied these during my BSc and MSc  degrees and knew them inside and out. Classical conditioning has roots in behaviourism as it is how we learn by association. For example, if we associate a positive behaviour with a certain stimulus we are more likely to repeat this behaviour again. The two stimuli / responses are linked together and we soon realise the link, hoping for a replication in the behaviour intended. You can see great example of this in a study by Ian Pavolv when he conditioned dogs to salivate when hearing a bell. To this end, the dogs then learned they were going to get food every time they heard the bell and salivated in anticipation of such food. However, operant conditioning sees something different. This is where we learn by reinforcement. For example, if a behaviour is carried out and has negative consequences it acts as a deterrent for that behaviour. But if the behaviour if has positive consequences it will encourage such behaviour. Another good example of this is the Skinnerbox by a psychologist called Frederick Skinner who helped rats learn behaviours by association. By means of repeating behaviours, the rats learned pulling a lever would result in food being dropped into their cages, therefore positively reinforcing behaviours presented. However, I soon realised that neither of these theories would help my research.

This is because each theory is directed to learning certain behaviours and does not take into account any social factors involves. Although both clearly show how people (and animals) can learn, for me, workplace learning was not so simple and something needing further exploration.  At work, we won’t always have time to keep repeating behaviours to see if they work, nor do we have resources to be constantly reinforced (by others or supervisors) and to be quite honest, managers might not have the time full stop. We do, however, have lots of support and social interactions which is something these theories do not consider and something I feel is important with consideration to my research.

I then moved onto some learning theories that encompass social interaction and contextual factors, and for me this was what I was looking for (or so I thought!).This was Kolb’s experiential learning model. The idea of experiential learning was first developed by Kolb (1984) and later explored in terms of learning in the workplace (Kolb, 2015). Experiential learning suggests people learn by gaining concrete experience and then taking time to reflect upon that experience. Reflection is then followed by the generation of rules describing the experience and the application of theories known to this. From the abstract conceptualisation, individuals are then able to modify the next experience based upon previous similar experiences and reflection on these (Kolb, Boyatzis & Mainemelis, 2001, p.229). I found this model to be heading in the direction of my research, but it had too much focus on reflection. It also did not explain much of the social interaction or the role the environment plays in learning so to me it was not applicable in underpinning my whole research.

Next, I learned about situated learning, a term not head before starting my PhD. Situated learning is the theory which explains ‘learning by doing’ and that people (such as students) learn by participating in activities relating to what needs to be learned (Lave, 1990). This theory of learning helps people create meaning from the activities they take part in in relation to real activities of daily living. More importantly, the person is situated in the learning experience and knowledge acquisition is part of that learning experience, the context is situated in and the culture it is bound by. I thought this theory was fab! It encompasses how people learn in certain situations, such as in the workplace and explained how the situation can be influenced by culture an context, an important aspect of y study. However, one thing it did not take into account is the individual themselves, their thoughts and feelings on the learning process and how their individual characteristics can influence their learning overall. For me, the individual is at the heart of learning and the learning experience so a theory which ignores individual characteristics is something I feel is unsuitable and

I then looked a little further at the organisational learning literature to see what was there. I knew organisational learning differed from my research as it is the creation and use of knowledge on the organisational level rather than the individual level, but I decided to take a look and see. This is where I came across organisational learning loops by Argrys and Schön (1996). They explained that single loop learning was addressing a problem head on and looking for a solution to fix the problem. It is one of the most basic principles in learning and aims to address a problem quickly and efficiently. Double loop learning adds depth to this by adding in another ‘loop’. This loop serves to question the function and purpose of the work being done to see if the problem is suitable for the organisational itself. However, as with the organisational learning literature, neither considers the role of the individual in depth and focus primarily on how organisations learn. Therefore, once again, I side-lined this theory in the hope of finding something better.

It was then I decided to give up for a while and concentrate on other literature stuff. I still wanted to find a theory that could encompass all aspects of my work – learning, context and the individual but also one relevant to my information sciences degree. It was when I stopped looking, and started seeing what others had used in their own work that I found the theory that is very likely to underpin my research – The Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 1986).

The Social Cognitive is a psychological theory to explain how we lean. It encompasses aspects of the individual characteristics of a person, the environment they are in and also the behaviours they wish to present. This is called Triadic Reciprocal Causation (or triadic reciprocal determinism) as it explaines how such factors can not be separated or determined by one alone. Either way, it incorporates all of what I was looking for. Now you might remember a while back when I talked about this during my trip to Firbush with the other PhD students, well… this is the theory I was talking about and the theory that won me joint first prize place!!

Triadic reciprocal causation in the Social Cognitive Theory (Pálsdóttir, 2013).

So why am I thinking of using this theory as the basis of my research? Well, there are quite a few reasons:

  1. It has not yet been used in workplace learning, only in educational learning;
  2. It incorporates all aspects of learning that I am exploring – the individual characteristics, the environment (or context) and also the behaviours in learning;
  3. It focuses a lot on motivations in learning, such as self-efficacy where people believe they can achieved a given task. This is particularly useful in skill development (such as learning to innovate) as people are more likely to achieve the goal if they believe they can.
  4. It has been used within the information science domain a lot, a lot more than what I thought which will please my supervisors to know this.

You can read a really good chapter on the Social Cognitive Theory by Pálsdóttir (2013) in Theory in information behaviour by Wilson (reference below) and it explaines the uses of the theory in the information science domain too. I was really surprised to see that is has been used in the application of different information models such as the Model of Information Behaviour (Wilson, 1996) and also by Kurbanoglu, Akkoyunlu & Umay (2006) who developed an information literacy scale in relation to self-efficacy in the Social Cognitive theory. More importantly, it has been seen to bridge the gap between information science theory and psychology theory which is something my research might do due to its multidisciplinary basis and research areas.

Theoreticla framework
The development of the overall theoretical framework incorporating the SCT.

Now there are various other reasons for me wanting to use this theory, most of which I won’t go into just yet. However I do know that this theory (at a later date) will be supplemented with others to reflect the diverse nature of my research, spread out across the multiple disciplines it encompasses.




Argrys, C., & Schön, D. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Kolb, A. D. (2015). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd Ed). Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

Kolb, D.A., Boyatzis, R.E., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions. In R.J. Steinberg, & L.F. Zhang. Perspectives on thinking, learning and cognitive styles (pp. 22). Matiwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Kurbanoglu, S. S., Akkoyunlu, B. & Umay, A. (2006). Developing the information literacy self-efficacy scale. Journal of Documentation, 62(6), 730-743.

Lave, J. (1990). The Culture of Acquisition and Practice of Understanding. In D. Kirshner, & J.A. Whitson (Eds), Situated Cognition. Social, Semiotic, and Psychological Perspectives (pp. 17-X). London, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pálsdóttir, A. (2013). Social cognitive theory. In Wilson, T. D. (Ed.). Theory in information behaviour research. Sheffield, UK: Eiconics Ltd. [E-book] ISBN 978-0-9574957-0-8.

Wilson, T. D. & Walsh, C. (1996). Information behaviour: An interdisciplinary perspective. Sheffield: University of Sheffield Department of Information Studies. Retrieved 24th July 2016, from (Archived by WebCiteR at