Maintaining a Good Working Relationship with Your Supervisors

To maintain an effective working relationship with your supervisors there are a number of things that you will need to do. Like any working relationship, the relationship that you have with your supervisors will take time to develop and require effort on both sides to maintain. However, it is important that you work at this and doing so will improve your chances of completing your research degree successfully.

Understand Your Mutual Responsibilities and Expectations

As we have seen, the University's Regulations define the responsibilities that you have as a research student as well as the responsibilities that your supervisors have towards you. However, how these will operate in practice will vary according to your discipline, your mode of registration (full-time, part-time, or distance learning), and the personal preferences of both you and the members of your supervisory team. Every supervisory relationship is therefore different, but to make sure that your supervisory relationship is an effective one it is important that you and your supervisors agree how these formal requirements will work for you.

At the start of your research degree, perhaps in your first meeting with your supervisors, you should discuss the expectations you will each have of the other. In particular, you should confirm your mutual expectations around:

  • responsibilities for setting, agreeing, and reviewing your objectives
  • frequency and format of your formal supervisory meetings
  • the nature of the advice and feedback that your supervisors will provide
  • the submission of draft written and other work and the need to allow sufficient time for your supervisors to read and comment on this

Do take the opportunity to ask questions if there are any points on which you are unclear.  

Show Independence and an Ability to Manage Problems

The PhD/MPhil is your project; as a research student you will be responsible for:

  • planning and managing your active research - your experimental/ laboratory/ archival/ field work and data collection
  • recording and analysing your results/ findings
  • developing your research and other skills
  • presenting your work and conclusions in a written thesis of an appropriate standard and submitted by the required deadline
  • defending your thesis in a viva voce examination and making any changes as required by the examiners

Your supervisors are there to provide you with appropriate advice and guidance - but they are not there to do your thinking for you or tell what you should be doing at each step of the way. It is important to keep your supervisors informed of your progress, but they will expect you to take the initiative in managing your time and overcoming any difficulties that you may encounter.

Show a Positive and Professional Attitude

Just as your supervisors will expect you to show an independent approach, so they will also expect you to show a positive approach to your work.

A positive approach is one characterised by the following types of behaviours:

  • building and maintaining effective working relationships with your supervisors, fellow researchers, and others
  • an openness to constructive feedback from your supervisors and progress review panels
  • a pro-active approach to getting on with your work, expanding your subject knowledge, and developing your skills and employability
  • regularly reflecting on your progress and looking to improve your performance

Start as you mean to go on - remember, that as in any other relationship impressions will be formed early on. A professional and positive approach from you will make it much easier for your supervisors to provide you with the support you will need to successfully complete your research degree.

Maintain Regular Contact with Your Supervisors

Throughout your research degree you should take the initiative in maintaining regular contact with your supervisors. Partly this is to ensure that your supervisors are kept informed of your progress and partly it will allow them opportunities to provide you with appropriate advice and feedback. More broadly however, it will provide you with a structure that will help you to stay on track with your research degree.

Research students who maintain regular contact with their supervisors are more likely to regularly reflect on and review their progress against their agreed objectives and plans and to take action if they have fallen behind or are in danger of not submitting their thesis on time. They are also more likely to find it easier to maintain their motivation over the duration of their research degree - so as a research student, maintaining regular contact with your supervisors offers a number of real benefits.

Finally, maintaining regular contact with your supervisors is particularly important for full-time PhD/MPhil students holding a Tier 4 (Student) visa. Failure to maintain regular contact with your supervisors could result in your visa being withdrawn and you being required to return to your home country.

Meet Agreed Deadlines

Whether or not you completed your research degree on time is something that employers look for; they will be looking for someone who can demonstrate their ability to deliver a research project by a fixed deadline. The most important tool in helping you manage your time effectively and giving you the best chance of completing your degree on time is to have clear objectives and agreed deadlines for meeting each objective.

You should quite early in your research degree have agreed with your supervisors a detailed work plan for your probation period with perhaps a more outline plan for the remainder of your degree. These plans should comprise a number of specific objectives each one of which should have a date for completion framed with reference to key goals such as completion of the probation review and submission of your thesis for examination. It is important that you keep to the deadlines you have agreed with your supervisors whether these are deadlines for completing your active research, writing your thesis, undertaking skills and career development activities, or other tasks such as preparing a conference presentation or contributing work to a written report/article.

You should be also be conscious of deadlines for submitting draft written or other work to your supervisors for comment. Your supervisors are busy people - they have their own teaching, research, and administrative duties and may well be involved in the supervision of other research students not to mention other activities associated with their work. If you regularly miss deadlines for submitting draft work to them, it could give the impression that you are not serious about completing your degree.

Worse though, it will mean your supervisor has limited time to give you feedback on this work. Receiving and making use of feedback on your draft written work is vital if your thesis is to be completed on time and be of an appropriate standard. You should therefore make every effort to meet deadlines agreed with your supervisor for submitting draft work for feedback and make sure to allow sufficient time for them to read and comment on this. It is particularly important that your supervisors have the opportunity to read and comment on your thesis before it is submitted for examination and they may need up to three months for this so you must allow plenty of time.

Use Your Supervisors' Advice and Feedback

We have seen that among the responsibilities that your supervisors have towards you, one of the most important is to provide you with advice and feedback. In particular, they will provide advice on the direction and management of your research and feedback on your results/findings and analysis and on your draft written work such as draft chapters of your thesis.

It is crucial to your success that you make use of your supervisors' advice and feedback. It can be easy to hear the positive comments that your supervisors make and then to find excuses to disregard any negative comments. This is very dangerous and is something all research students should guard against.

It is important to remember that:

  1. Your supervisors' comments are based on experience - their experience as a supervisor of other research students and their experience as a researcher in their own right; you should be keen to apply that experience to your own work and benefit from it - if you are unsure why your supervisor is making a particular suggestion, feel free to ask them about this making sure though not to do this in a way that might seem challenging or defensive
  2. Your supervisors' comments are intended to be constructive - to provide you with guidance to help you improve your work and finish your research degree successfully; comments highlighting a problem or oversight are not intended and should never be interpreted as personal criticism
  3.  If there are any aspects of your supervisors' advice and feedback which are unclear you should ask for clarification as early as possible; it can also be helpful to keep a written record - almost like a diary - of the feedback provided by your supervisors so that you can refer to this later
  4. You should always look to follow whatever advice and feedback is provided by your supervisors; if you have any questions or uncertainties about this, discuss them with your supervisors - do not just disregard comments you do not fully understand or with which you disagree
Be Open and Honest

Just as you should be open to receiving advice and feedback from your supervisors, so you should also be open in giving them honest updates on your work and progress. To be able to support you and help you successfully complete your research degree, at each stage your supervisors need you to provide them with accurate reports as to what you have been doing, how well it has gone, and what you intend to do next.

This openness in reporting on your work and progress is particularly important if you encounter any difficulties. Your supervisors are the people best placed to help you minimise the impact any problems might have on your progress or your work. In particular, your supervisors can provide advice on:

  • overcoming problems directly connected with your research or thesis - for example, by helping you identify an alternative approach, suggesting where additional training might be needed, or pointing you towards other resources or support you might not have considered
  • what to do if you need to take a break from your research degree - for example, by requesting a suspension
  • what to do if you want to change your registration status - for example, by transferring to writing-up status or changing from full- to part-time registration
  • what to do if you need to withdraw from your research degree

It is recognised that research students may be hesitant to approach their supervisors with a problem or to discuss with them something that is causing difficulties. However, it is vital that they are kept informed and, in the long run, they are the ones who can do most to help you avoid a situation which jeopardises your ability to successfully complete your PhD/MPhil.

Of course there may be times when you want to speak with someone who is not one of your supervisors. Your departmental Postgraduate Tutor is available to provide support, advice, and guidance on matters relating to your academic progress or any personal circumstances that may be affecting your progress. Research students are encouraged to take the initiative in contacting or making an appointment with their Postgraduate Tutor if needed.

You and Your Supervisors - Making Supervision Work for You

Graduate School Logo (new)

Share this page: