By Laura Harrison |

Our supervisors are both our greatest resources and the most important relationships we will have during the PhD. I have been blessed by the supervision gods, so I have never given this a lot of thought until a conversation at The Burn a few weeks ago. I realised there are a lot of different supervisor relationships, and no one really knows what anyone else’s is like. It seemed that, especially at first, a lot of people didn’t really know how to navigate this relationship, or even what it should look like. It is very different from undergraduate or Masters supervision- it lasts a lot longer, they get more emotionally involved, and you become some entity between a student and a colleague.

So, I decided to go behind enemy lines (so to speak) and asked several supervisors both about their experiences and for some tips on how to make the most of your relationships. I spoke with some who have their first PhD student, some that have been doing this for years, and my own primary supervisor (which was a very meta experience).

It turns out they had a lot to say. I complied the thoughts that came up most often and developed the following Dos and Don’ts of how to get the most out of your relationships with your supervisors:

  • DO manage your relationships.
    • I believe I giggled like a nervous schoolgirl when I first heard about ‘managing’ your supervisors, but it is actually the most useful bit of advice I got. At the vast majority of universities they only receive a small amount of training- so their style is mostly based on the supervision they had, or their past experiences with students. Someone told me that you could say hello to some students at the beginning of their PhD and not see them until the VIVA and they would sail through, others need some hand-holding every few weeks- but both styles are completely fine. They want to know what you need from them.
  • DON’T expect them to read your draft chapter by tomorrow.
    • Supervisors are very busy. If you ask them to read something by tomorrow they will either feel like they need to (and resent it) or will say no (and feel guilty). Resentment and guilt do not foster good relationships; try to give at least a week of reading time.
  • DO take responsibility for your project.
    • At first, your supervisors are very involved in your topic- you are trying to figure out the scope/what it is you are actually doing/how to do a PhD/what exactly a lit review is. But, depending on your supervisors’ background knowledge of your subject, you will quickly become the expert on your topic. At that point, it is time to take flight and leave the nest a bit. Your supervisors are trying to help you reach that stage of autonomy, but you have to actually take responsibility for where your project is going to go and how quickly it will get there. Of course, you are still having meetings and they are guiding the process, but ultimately it is up to you.
  • DON’T compare your relationship with anyone else’s.
    • Every student and every supervisor is different, and thus everyone is going to have a different relationship. They are also going to get more excited about some projects than others. I struggle with this. One of my supervisors also supervises my flatmate, and I spent a long time thinking he secretly hated my topic because he was never as excited in my meetings. It finally clicked that he also studies what my flatmate is doing, so obviously is going to be excited about the new research in that field. It is also impossible to know what actually happens in anyone else’s meetings, so it is entirely possible he is actually just as excited about my project.  Thinking about this too much will drive you crazy, so best to accept early that each relationship is different.
  • DO find outside, unofficial supervision.
    • Unless you are one of the very lucky few, your supervisors are not going to have all of the expertise you will need for your PhD. It is up to you to build your own network of people who can help see the scope of your project. This year I have had nothing but success in asking random people I admire to chat about my project, and it is considerably better because of it. I learned that people like to feel helpful, and are flattered that we are asking for their help.
  • DON’T just talk about your project.
    • The first time my supervisor asked ‘how are you?’ I proceeded to talk about my project for ten minutes. He then said ‘great, but how are YOU?’ and I was speechless. I think we get used to just being students, but our supervisors want to know what else is going on with us. Last semester I bit off way more than I could chew in terms of working and volunteering, and it ended up being important that my supervisors knew why I was getting nothing done on my PhD (This is another thing not to do, by the way).
  • DO know that you can change your supervisor.
    • We have all heard the absolute horror stories of absent, rude, and even vindictive supervisors, and it is important to realise that you do not have to put up with this. It is still an old-fashioned scheme, and there is not the system of checks and balances that is in place at all other levels of teaching- so only you know if your supervisor is doing a good job. If you are in a situation where you feel your supervisor is detrimental to your PhD, talk to someone in your department who can help you do something about it.

Basically, what I learned in this process is that supervisors are there to help us, and that is exactly what they want to do. Fostering a healthy balance amongst your supervision team will make the entire PhD that much easier- and that much better.