When I started my PhD, the entire cohort of incoming students had an induction session in the university’s great hall. There were around 500 of us, from every department and every imaginable discipline. 

The induction itself was tedious, but there was one comment in particular that stood out immediately and stuck with me throughout my entire PhD journey. When a professor was asked in a Q&A what advice he would give incoming PhD students, he said to remember that, after your mother, your supervisor will be the most important person in your life.

And they were right, to an extent. 

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Each day we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. It is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day.

Now I’m at the other end of the PhD and I’ve graduated, I’ve got some advice of my own to add to his. You see, the professor overlooked something really important, and that is that, by the time we were sitting in the induction, we had already chosen our supervisors (or had them assigned, as in my case).
 

Why should that matter? Primarily because whether or not your supervisor becomes the most important person in your life depends how good that supervisor actually is, how well they are executing their duties, and how well you are managing the student-supervisor relationship. 

In this guide, I want to dig in a little more into what makes a good supervisor, before discussing what they should and shouldn’t be doing, why you need to please them (and how you can go about doing so), and how to make the 

most of your supervision meetings.

Before that, though, I want to give some advice to those who haven’t yet chosen a supervisor about what they should and shouldn’t be looking out for (if you’ve already got one, you can skip the first section). 

How to choose a PhD supervisor 

The most important piece of advice for someone about to embark on a PhD and looking for a potential supervisor is to actually make an effort to talk to them about your research proposal.

Now, for many, your potential supervisor may be someone you already know, such as a lecturer, Master’s dissertation supervisor or tutor. Or, it may be someone from your department who you don’t know so well, but whose work fits your research interests. 

 

In either case, chances are you’ve interacted with them in a teacher-student kind of relationship, where they lecture and you take notes. Well, when thinking about your PhD and their role as a potential supervisor, it’s time to put on a different hat and approach them as a peer. Email them or call them and schedule a phone call or face-to-face meeting to talk about your proposal and solicit their advice. Be explicit about wanting them to supervise you and tell them why. They won’t bite. In all likelihood, they’ll be flattered. 

Now the same applies even if it’s someone you don’t know or have never interacted with (perhaps if it’s someone from a different university or country). Approach them, explain what you intend to do and tell them exactly why you think they should supervise you.
 

In both cases, you’ll need to have at least a draft research proposal to hand.
 
However, when you do approach them, don’t make it all about you. Sure, your proposal is important, but supervising PhD students is a big time commitment for academics, who, chances are, are already overburdened. 
There’s an old adage that marketers and advertising types use: people don’t care about you, they care about themselves. In other words, tell them what’s in it for them if they agree to supervise you. What’s in it for them? How does your proposed research align with their research and current projects? Will your work boost their existing outputs? Will it lead to publications? Will you be able to teach on their modules? Will you be able to work in their lab?
 

As you ask these questions, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to look for in a potential supervisor. For one, their research interests need to align with yours. The closer they align the better. But, more than that, you need to consider whether they have published in your field (and whether they’re continuing to do so).

Often, though, the more high-profile academics will already be supervising a number of students. Try, if you can, to get an idea of how many PhD students they are currently supervising. This will give you a good idea of whether they’ll have the time required to nurture your project over the years it will take you to complete it, or whether they’ll be stretched too thin. Also, look at how many students they have supervised in the past and how many of them completed successfully. This will give you a good insight into their experience and competence.
 

Remember back to that advice I got on my first day: the person you’re choosing to supervise your study will become the most important person in your life, so you need to consider the personal dimension too. Do you actually get on with them? You’ll be spending a lot of time together, and some of it will be when you’re at your most vulnerable (such as when you’re stressed, under incredible pressure or breaking down as the PhD blues get the better of you). Do you think this person is someone with whom you can have a good, friendly relationship? Can you talk openly to them? Will they be there for you when you need them and, more importantly, will you be able to ask them to be?

Once you’ve considered all this, don’t be afraid to approach them at a conference, swing by their office, drop them an email or phone them and run your project by them. The worst they can do is say no, and if they do they’ll likely give you great feedback and advice that you can take to another potential supervisor. But they may just turn around and say yes, and if you’ve done your homework properly, you’ll have a great foundation from which to start your PhD-journey. They’ll also likely work with you to craft your draft proposal into something that is more likely to be accepted. 

Your PhD Thesis.
On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.

What is the role of a supervisor?

Think of your supervisor like a lawyer. They are there to advise you on the best course of action as you navigate your Phd-journey, but ultimately, the decisions you make are yours and you’re accountable for the form and direction your PhD takes.

In other words: they advise, you decide. 

I appreciate that is vague, though. What do they advise on?

Primarily, their job is:

1. To make sure you are on track and doing what you are supposed to and reaching important milestones 
2. To offer intellectual and academic advice on the literature and unit of analysis 
3. To provide feedback on your choice of methodology 
4. To offer counsel on research design decisions
5. To read through and comment on draft chapters 
6. To direct you to relevant training and courses (for example, methods training) 
7. To point you in the direction of relevant funding streams or conferences

8. To a certain extent, they often provide emotional and pastoral support

How many of these jobs they actually do will vary from supervisor to supervisor. You have to remember that academics, particularly those that are well known in their field, are often extremely busy and in many cases overworked and underpaid. They may simply not have the time to do all the things they are supposed to. Or, it may be the case that they simply don’t need to because you already have a good handle on things. 

What does a supervisor not do?

Your supervisor is not there to design your research for you, or to plan, structure or write your thesis. Remember, they advise and you decide. It’s you that’s coming up with the ideas, the plans, the outlines and the chapters. It’s their job to feedback on them. Not the other way around.

Unlike at undergraduate or masters level, their job isn’t to teach you in the traditional sense, and you aren’t a student in the traditional sense either. The onus is on you to do the work and take the lead on your project. That means that if something isn’t clear, or you need help with, say, a chapter outline, it is up to you to solicit that advice from your supervisor or elsewhere. They won’t hold your hand and guide you unless you ask them to.

 

Having said that, their job isn’t to nanny you. At PhD level it is expected that you can work independently and can self-motivate. It is not your supervisor’s job to chase you for chapter drafts or to motivate you to work. If you don’t do the work when you’re supposed to then it’s your problem, not theirs.

It’s also not their job to proofread or edit your work. In fact, if you’re handing in drafts that contain substantial fluency or language issues (say, if you’re a non-native English speaker), it’s likely to annoy them, particularly if you’re doing so at the later stages of the PhD, because they’ll have to spend as much time focusing on how you’re writing as they do on what you’re writing.

 

More troubling would be if you explicitly ask them to correct or edit the language. They won’t do this and will take a dim view of being asked. Instead, hire a proofreader or ask a friend with good writing skills to take a read through and correct any obvious language errors (check the rules laid out by your university to see what a proofreader can and cannot do though. As with everything in your PhD, the onus is on you to do things properly).

 

It’s also not your supervisor’s role to find you a job after your PhD. They can certainly advise and point you in the right direction, but it is down to you to network, make the right contacts and put together the relevant paperwork for your various applications.

What you need to do to please your supervisor

The lines between what your supervisor will and will not do for you are blurred, and come down in large part to how much they like you. That means you should pay attention to pleasing them, or at least not actively irritating them.

There are a few simple things you can do that will make their life easier and, with that, boost their opinion of you and their willingness to go beyond their prescribed role.

First, and by this stage you shouldn’t need to be told this, meet deadlines, submit work to them when you said you would, and turn up to your supervision meetings on time. If you meet the deadlines you’ve set, they’re more likely to return work quicker and spend more time reading it prior to doing so.

Second, when you disagree with their advice, be prepared to make your case with evidence from the data or the literature. For most of your PhD journey, your supervisor will know more about your subject area than you do (there may become a stage where you overtake them, at least within the niche of your PhD study area), so their advice is really valuable. Most of the time, it will be in your best interest to follow it, and they’re giving it because they have the expertise and experience to do so. Occasionally though, you’ll find yourself disagreeing with them, either because of something you’ve read or because of what your data tells you. If that’s the case, don’t just say you disagree with them, but be prepared to show them where their thinking is flawed. They’ll likely respect your academic skills when you do so.
 
Third, don’t chase them and insist on responding to your emails or returning your work ASAP or urgently. Your supervisor is busier than you are and is likely juggling teaching commitments, may be involved in multiple research projects, is probably writing multiple draft journal articles and book chapters and may also be supervising two or three other PhD students. Plus they’re probably involved in admin duties for the department and they’ve got families and lives outside of the university. Emailing them the day before your supervision meeting and demanding that they read and comment on your work beforehand won’t go down well. Instead, respect their workload, give them plenty of time to respond to your emails and read your work and accept that when they have to cancel a meeting or if they haven’t read a draft it’s not personal.
 
Fourth, take an interest in what they’re doing. Chances are, the research projects, publications and teaching that your supervisor is currently involved in align with your PhD study. Reach out and ask if they need research assistance or help as a graduate teaching assistant. Not only will you get some valuable research and teaching experience (and money), you’ll also take some pressure and work off of them, which they’ll greatly appreciate. 
Fifth, organise your work and manage your time effectively. During your supervision meetings, take the lead on setting targets for future meetings, planning milestones for your projects, and scheduling future meetings. Take the lead on your own project, so they don’t have to. When it comes to the actual supervision meeting, report on your current progress, send draft chapters or writing in plenty of time, set future targets and take the lead on organising any paperwork (for example, for conference submissions, funding applications, and so on). 

Wrapping up

Managed well, you too can ensure that your supervisor is the most important person in your life. And you want them to be. Those who succeed in their PhDs and in their early academic careers are those who had effective supervision and approached their supervisor as a mentor.

But things don’t always go to plan, though, and sometimes even with the best will in the world, supervisors under-perform, create problems or, in more extreme cases, sabotage PhD projects. This can be for a variety of reasons, but it leaves students in a difficult position; in the student-supervisor relationship, the student is relatively powerless, particularly if the supervisor is well known and highly esteemed. If this is the case, when things don’t go well, raising concerns with relevant channels may prove ineffective, and may even create more problems. In these extreme cases, you’ll have to draw on levels of diplomacy and patience you may never knew you had.
 

In less extreme cases though, difficult supervisor relationships can be managed by not taking things too personally, making sure you deliver what you promised and seeking out support from elsewhere, whether in the form of academic peer support networks, research groups, or even PhD coaches and online courses.
 
Whether you’ve got a good supervisor or a poor one, it’s your PhD and it’s down to you not just to get the work done, but to manage the way you approach your supervisor as best you can. Life isn’t perfect, and nor is every student-supervisor relationship, but it’s down to you to work with what you’ve got and do so creatively in order to achieve the outcome you’re working towards: graduating your PhD successfully.

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