The relationship we have with our academic supervisors can make or break the experience of a PhD. So it is no surprise that supervisor relationships are often the number one issue students highlight to me when I ask them to identify their top frustrations with the PhD. There seems to be something in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that can feel inherently disempowering.
In the years that I’ve worked with PhD students, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories ranging from unresponsive supervisors to those who micromanage their students or give insulting feedback. But I’ve also heard more promising stories about supervisors who are available, encouraging and completely supportive of their students.
While it may seem as though it’s just the luck of the draw, I wouldn’t leave everything up to chance. There are things you can do to foster a better relationship with your academic supervisor. Below I will share some top tips for enhancing the supervisor-supervisee relationship.
- OWN YOUR PROJECT
Many students approach the relationship with their supervisors through the lens of an employer/employee dynamic. In reality, your supervisor should be working for you! Even though your supervisor is more senior than you, this is your project and it is highly likely that you are more of an expert on your specific topic than they are. Supervisors are there to guide you through the process, but at the end of the day, this is your project and it’s up to you to shape it the way that you want.
- COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS
Whether it’s more frequent contact, clearer feedback, or joint meetings if you have multiple supervisors, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. While it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about their supervisors, the truth is that your supervisor can’t read your mind and if something isn’t working well, it’s up to us to communicate what your needs are. This will first involve identifying your needs and then making a clear and direct request to your supervisor.
- SET EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE
Unfortunately, there is no guidebook on how supervisors and supervisees should interact. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will function. As with any relationship, we have an opportunity to establish what the expectations are and set out how those expectations are going to be fulfilled. For instance, when it comes to constructing a timetable for completion, you might wish to jointly work on this with your supervisor. In setting out the timetable, you commit to specific dates for submitting individual chapters to your supervisor, while your supervisor commits to specific dates for returning their feedback to you. In this way, you set a mutually workable timetable that establishes what work needs to be done by each person and by what date.
- ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
If there is something you don’t understand, don’t shy away from admitting to your supervisor that you are confused or unsure about it. Pursuing research at the doctoral level will necessarily involve probing into unfamiliar territory or even a particular methodology that is brand new for you. You don’t need to have all the answers, so let go of the expectation that you should be an expert on everything that is related to your research area.
- DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY
As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Coping With Academic Criticism’ receiving a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor can feel extremely demoralising. Remember that it’s your supervisor’s job to spot potential holes in your research so try not to take it personally. Of course, it can be challenging not to take negative feedback to heart. What I encourage students to do is to sift through the feedback and ask yourself: ‘will this feedback ultimately strengthen the project?’ If the answer is yes, it may help you to view it more constructively.
- ASK FOR CLARITY
It could be that your supervisors’ feedback or comments to you are unclear or contradictory to something else they said to you previously. Not only does this often lead students to feel stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for more clarity. It could be that they have overlooked their previous advice to you or that they need to explain their feedback to you more fully. However awkward it may feel to ask for clarity on something, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the end by having this conversation.
- BROADEN YOUR NETWORK
It is not uncommon to see students becoming overly reliant on their supervisors throughout the PhD – depending on them not only for advice about their thesis, but advice more generally relating to job applications, publishing, teaching, funding opportunities and much more. While it’s great to draw on the experience and wisdom of your supervisor, it’s also important to broaden your circle of support throughout the PhD, beyond the tiny bubble of you and your supervisor. For this reason, I encourage students to make their own contacts and connections throughout the PhD, and to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with others. Expanding your connections in the field will not only enrich your research by exposing you to other viewpoints, it will also put less pressure on the relationship with your supervisor.
- REMEMBER THEIR EXPERIENCE IS NOT YOUR EXPERIENCE
Another reason to seek other avenues of support beyond your supervisor is because their experience is not your experience. The world may have changed a lot since they did their PhD and as a consequence, the advice they may be able to offer you about – for instance – job applications, may be quite limited. So graciously accept their advice when it is offered, but don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Talk to others and, above all, follow your own instincts.
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