Having a good relationship with your supervisor(s) makes your MA/MSc or PhD significantly easier, so building that relationship as early on as possible is beneficial. SU has asked students and supervisors around to share what’s important to know when working together. See below what tips they have shared to help and improve your relationships with supervisor(s).
Building a good relationship
A good place to begin is to establish boundaries in your supervisor-supervisee relationship, such as what you expect from your supervisor, what they expect of you, and how this will change as you progress in your research. Some good questions to consider discussing with your supervisor are:
- What are your ideas about how the relationship will be?
- What are your thoughts about interactions with other students and colleagues?
- What can you and your supervisor talk about?
- Whose responsibility is it to decide the PhD research topic?
- Whose responsibility is it to consider conference participation?
A Supervisors Perspective
It’s important that you also understand your supervisors’ perspective. Here are some things supervisors felt are important to help you establish a good working relationship:
“Keep communication open and honest.”
“Don’t go radio silence on us” – make sure you keep regular contact.
“Try to get the right balance between perseverance and knowing when it’s time to ask for help. It is great to try to figure issues out by yourself, but if it is taking up too much time, or affecting your studies negatively, then ask your supervisor for help. It will always be well-received when supervisors see that you have made efforts to try and resolve issues before asking for help.”
Common supervisory issues
Absent/Unresponsive supervisor: If you have tried to contact your supervisor a couple of times with no response, ask around the department to see if they are on annual leave or off sick. If not, contact your secondary supervisor (if you have one), or the director of postgraduate taught/research studies, and be sure to bring the issues to your student reps for them to bring up in SSLCs. If the issue persists, and you’re struggling to find support, you can use Students’ Union services such as SU Advice, or contact the PGRE team at the university. Alternatively, if you have a good relationship with another member of staff at the university, you can ask them for advice. You can find the contacts of these teams below:
Over-Critical: If your supervisor is constantly giving negative feedback on your work whilst offering no help to correct it, talk to them and explain that although their feedback is valuable in knowing where you have gone wrong, it offers little direction for improvement. It’s crucial to lay out exactly the kind of support and feedback that works best for you to your supervisor so that you can work well together throughout your studies. You can also ask other staff members in your department for feedback on your work if they share similar research interests to you.
Supervisor Conflict: Your research may be multidisciplinary, leading to you having more than one supervisor. At times, these supervisors may clash in opinions, or even dislike each other. This can cause a lot of stress to a student, especially when told to do contrasting things by different supervisors. In scenarios like this try to meet your supervisors separately if meeting with them together doesn’t work. Gather all of the information from both supervisors, and try to work out which advice is best for you to proceed with. Your PhD is your training to become an independent researcher, so although conflict can be overwhelming, talk to your supervisors telling them the effect it has on you and your work, and make use of student support services for further advice.
It is important to remember that supervisors are often spread very thin with responsibilities in areas such as teaching and supervising other students across undergraduate, postgraduate taught, and postgraduate research, managing post-doctoral researchers, writing and applying for grants, conducting their own research, attending conferences, and general administrative responsibilities. Bearing this in mind, be sure to allow some flexibility in the timeframes you expect your supervisors to respond in, and be mindful that you are not their sole priority. However, if you find that your supervisor issues are being raised but are not improving, it may be worth considering changing your supervisor.