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How to Develop a Good Relationship with your PhD Supervisor

If you're starting your PhD, there are a lot of things you need to get in order, and one of the most important is the relationship with your doctoral supervisor. But, as with everything in higher education, finding a good supervisor and establishing a proactive working relationship with him or her can be tricky. Fear not – we've organized some tips to help you find a great supervisor and get the most out of your PhD studies.

Jan 25, 2016
  • Student Tips
How to Develop a Good Relationship with your PhD Supervisor

The PhD student-supervisor relationship is an important part of the doctoral studies process. Good supervisors can support students through the struggles of independent research and guide them towards productive, innovative, and exciting careers. But we've all heard of bad supervisors, who are either overly controlling and see doctoral candidates as slave-labor for their own agendas or, worse yet, totally absent and uninvolved. So, how can you make sure that your PhD supervisor will be encouraging and available, while still challenging you to be your best? Sometimes, it's just luck – a student and their adviser just click, and the result is a mutually beneficial PhD study. But there's a lot that you can do to make your supervisor experience a positive one. Check out these five tips for maximizing the potential of your supervisor and remember that a PhD isn't just a research project – it's training for life as an academic.

1. Get to know your supervisor before you begin your PhD

Professor and student in the classroom

Many students feel intimidated by the prospect of a PhD supervisor, especially if the professor in question is well-known in the field. But if you're choosing a PhD program for the chance to work with one of the greats, shouldn't you take the time to meet that person first? Just because a professor is an expert in her field or has published some of the definitive articles on his subject, doesn't mean he or she is particularly well-suited to student supervision. Before accepting a studentship or PhD position, meet with your potential supervisor(s) face to face. Do they seem engaged and open to your ideas, or are they dismissive or adverse to your interests? Talk to others in the department and chat with other students. Is your potential supervisor brilliant, but always off on research excursions and speaking tours? Does she have a reputation for being overly (and unnecessarily) critical? These are all factors that should influence your decision-making process, or at least, give you a sense of what to expect.

2. Know what you're expected to do

College tutor with student

Similarly, regardless of your rapport with your supervisor, it's important to establish ground-rules and expectations before your start formal supervision. As with most relationships, a student-supervisor relationship will vary depending on the working styles and personalities of both parties. If you're a fairly independent researcher working with a micromanager, you might feel suffocated or controlled. If you expect a lot of guidance, but your supervisor tends to take a hands-off approach and prefers to critique finished material, you may need to be more assertive when it comes to seeking advice. Either way, it's a good idea to work with your supervisor to develop a supervision plan. Talk about the kind of assistance you might need, and don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Set a schedule and organize the way that you will submit, and your supervisor will assess work.

3. Communicate regularly

College Student Having Meeting With Tutor To Discuss Work

And even if you don't feel like you need it, plan to communicate with your adviser regularly. This can be through informal meetings over coffee to discuss how research (and life) are going, formal meetings where you review work and get instruction for further research or even just regular email correspondence. Find a system that works for you and your supervisor, but ideally, you should be in contact with your adviser at least once a week. This can be difficult if you're busy, or if your supervisor travels a lot, but even a quick email with a chapter section for review can give your supervisor a chance to see how you're progressing. The worst thing you can do is plow full-speed ahead on months of research, only to meet with your adviser and find that they are completely opposed to the direction you have taken.

4. Remember that you're not the only one to attend to

Diverse Students Studying with Their Professor

But remember that professors are busy, and while your studies and research are currently the most important thing in your life, you are only one of many responsibilities for your supervisor. So, make the most of your (hopefully) weekly meetings by coming prepared with questions, ideas, or requests. Try to submit work in a timely fashion and give your supervisor a chance to review it before demanding feedback. Most professors say that they are good about reading emails, but struggle to reply to every piece of correspondence as soon as they receive it, so it's a good idea to wait a few days before banging on office doors or sending angry emails. And even then, a friendly and courteous reminder is probably a better idea.

5. Be honest

If after all your planning, communicating, and friendly reminding, you and your supervisor are still at loggerheads, or you feel that the relationship is detrimental to your studies, you have every right to discuss alternative supervision opportunities with both your current supervisor or the department's administration. Perhaps it's a personality issue, and your learning and working style is too at-odds with that of your adviser. Or maybe your adviser's other commitments are taking a greater toll on their schedule than they had anticipated. Whatever the reason, addressing the issues as soon as possible is your best chance of keeping your studies on track. Some students find that a secondary adviser can alleviate the stress or offer a different perspective. Sometimes a change in supervisor is the solution. Or you may simply need to articulate more fully to your current supervisor what you need and how they can help. Remember, your success as a PhD student should be the goal of your supervisor(s) and the department, but if you're not getting the guidance and assistance that you need, it's your responsibility to bring that to their attention.