by Craig Lennox|

New terms have started at universities all over the world and many new PhD students are trying to get their heads around what they have signed up to. One thing that can feel daunting is developing a working relationship with your supervisor. Here are five key things expectations any good supervisor will have for their students. Understand these and you are on your way to having a great relationship with your supervisor. 

Be proactive

First and foremost this is your doctoral degree and in order to succeed, you will have to take control of your research. Your supervisor will expect you to be responsible for progressing at a reasonable pace and they will want you to ask questions and make suggestions about your studies. At the first meeting do not bombard your supervisor with a tonne of questions. You will find it much more productive to have a handful of questions that are a real priority that you focus on. Other questions can be sent later by email or discussed in later meetings. 

Reach out directly to your supervisor and arrange your first meeting. Understand that your project may be a priority to you but it will be one of many tasks on your supervisor’s to-do list. Be understanding and flexible to your supervisor’s workload. Attend your first meeting with notes on how often you would like to meet, the type of things you think you will probably want to discuss, the help and advice that you feel your supervisor will be able to provide you with, and also with a forward-looking plan of what you will between this meeting and the next. 

Supervisors understand their roles and they are knowledgeable in both the subject area and methodological aspect of your research. They can suggest reading, recommend training for you to consider and also help you understand what research groups and social circles may be nice for you to engage with.

Be organised

A PhD is just as intense as a fulltime job with multiple tasks that need attention. Lots of reading,  note-taking, referencing, plans of action and plenty of admin. Training, teaching, writing papers, meetings, deadlines, not to mention normal life admin will also be on your plate. Get an organisation system in place as early as possible. Sort out your online calendar and have a system so that you know what is expected of you and when. Colour-coding tasks really helps to quickly and easily see what you are working on next.

Be honest

We are all different and sometimes a working relationship takes time to really evolve. Let your supervisor learn about you. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you have preferential methods of learning or particular challenges in learning? This will help establish a plan of working together.

In today’s world people have multiple commitment such as family caring duties and responsibilities or part-time work to help with study and living costs. Letting your supervisor understand more of your lifestyle will help in managing their expectations of you and your research.

Honesty is vital for your studies and if for some reason you aren’t prepared for a meeting with your supervisor its probably best to let them know and reschedule rather than waste time. Also if you are struggling with particular aspects of the research such as getting your head around a theoretical perspective, tell your supervisor as they might be able to explain things in simpler terms. 

Be flexible

It’s expected that through a doctoral journey that your research will twist and turn and sometimes even completely flip out and change direction completely. This typically happens as you read more and more and your knowledge of your subject area increases allowing you to either identify a gap in the literature or perhaps change your perspective in the subject area. All of this is ok but make sure to discuss these changes with your supervisor so that they can make sure you are on the right track and not suddenly off the beaten track. Be flexible and open to these changes in your research.

Not only can your research have some changes, life loves to throw us the odd curveball and challenge us. If something happens that could potentially have an effect on your research then arrange a chat with your supervisor to see if they can offer any possible solutions. Chances are they will have dealt with similar situations or at the very least your university will have a solution to the issue. Don’t freak out.

Your supervisors are human and life may throw them a curveball too. If it does then they will no doubt reach out to you to inform you and also offer some potential solutions to the situation.  Don’t let this worry you as what sometimes can feel like bad news can often work out in a good way and have a positive effect on your studies. 

Be Unique

Lastly, people are all different and that’s the joy of being able to make friends and acquaintances. We all react differently to life events and its good to have an understanding of things that motivate and things that push your buttons. It could be that you are motivated by having a clear plan of action but someone not responding to your email could really wind you up. Knowing how you are wired and being able to talk about this with your supervisor can really help them to try their best not to upset you and to work with you in a capacity that doesn’t cause you unnecessary stress.

We all decide to embark on a PhD journey for our own reasons and as we progress on this journey it is expected that our research will offer a unique contribution to your area of research. So being unique is totally ok and totally expected.

At the end of the day your supervisors are people, generally nice people and most importantly they will only agree to supervise you if they see potential in your research proposal but also in you as a person. Keep the lines of communication open, talk about research but also talk about other interests and develop a collegiate friendship as you would in any other professional role or job. 

Craig Lennox is a Publicity Editor for Pubs and Publications. He is a third-year part-time Doctor of Education student at the University of the West of England and his research utilises participant-led photo-elicitation to explore the marketisation of higher education, neoliberalism and how this may be affecting academic identities. He’s on Twitter here.

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