Working with a supervisor

Working effectively with your supervisor is critical to your research programme.

Your supervisor is your mentor, not your examiner, and is there to support and guide you. As in any working relationship there may be differences in your learning styles, priorities, opinions and communication styles. In the end, an open channel of communication with your supervisor, based on mutual respect is fundamental to your success.

Take time to develop a good working relationship

Discuss how you can work most effectively together. To do this you could:

  • ask your supervisor about their experiences as a research student
  • talk to other research students of your supervisor about their experiences
  • read your supervisor's published articles and papers to learn about their expertise, research methods and techniques, and current research interests. This may also help you understand the logic behind their advice.

Most importantly, clarify and understand what your supervisor expects of you, both in your written work and during supervision meetings.

Make the most of meetings

Meeting at regular intervals will help you stick to deadlines and give you goals to work on between meetings.  Try to establish a time when you're both unlikely to be distracted by other demands. As a PhD candidate you are expected to be proactive in consulting with your supervisor to organise practical details such as meeting times and agendas, with your supervisor’s agreement.   To get the most out of meetings you need to prepare, and also to follow up on issues arising:

  • Before the meeting

    Make an ‘agenda’ for discussion: achievements since the last meeting, difficulties and problems, questions or issues with resources or reading. List any interesting insights or readings you have done and how they have influenced your thinking about your research. You can send the agenda to your supervisor, with the understanding that they may have other priorities and you may not have time to cover all items. If you wish to discuss any major issues such as changes to your time fraction or your research directions, it is helpful to inform your supervisor in advance.

  • During the meeting

    Take notes: your supervisor’s questions, feedback, insights, tasks and directions. You are expected to act on what took place in the meeting, either by agreeing and following up on feedback or by negotiating and presenting your scholarly viewpoint.

    Be objective about evaluation and feedback. It is in your supervisor’s best interests as well as yours that you succeed, so try to interpret any challenges to your approach as helpful and instructive.  You can disagree diplomatically and the discussion which follows can improve your understanding and your ability to explain your research.

  • After the meeting

    Tidy and clarify your notes, adding any reflections or ideas that came to you as a result of the meeting. Add any new or outstanding issues arising. If you are uncertain or confused about anything discussed, write these reflections down while they are fresh, although you may prefer to keep them somewhere other than the record of the meeting. You can email relevant information from your notes to your supervisor as a record.

Evaluating your relationship

As a research candidate you can expect the following from your supervisor:

  • feedback for your work within an acceptable timeframe
  • feedback which is practical and constructive
  • regular meeting times
  • discussion of problems or difficulties
  • A respectful manner

If, after careful consideration, you believe there are problems in the way you work together, you need to take action. If you have any concerns raise them first with your supervisor; talk with other students about their supervision experiences. If resolutions are not found, there are many supports available.

Final tip

Both you and your supervisor want you to succeed, so work actively to keep communication channels open and your relationship productive.

Explore all resources

    • Online learning module

    The writing journey

    This module is about managing the task of writing a thesis, which for many will be the longest document you have yet undertaken. It will help you to manage time and writing routines and introduce you to approaches to ‘getting the writing done’ that others have found useful.

    • Online learning module

    Thesis structure

    This module explains the classical structure of the thesis, as well as the many possible variations on this structure and when and why to choose them. It gives details about various thesis elements and tips on how to write them. Consult this module for information and guidance about expectations for the various thesis elements and how to achieve them.

    • Online learning module

    The thesis writers' roadmap

    This module gives recommendations about which sections of the Thesis Writers' Community are most relevant at your stage of candidature.

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