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Working with supervisors

The working relationship you have with your supervisor is unique, and it is normal for it to be the source of frustration at some point during your PhD. This is because your supervisor is the one person who is likely to be challenging and (constructively) criticising your ideas on a regular basis.

Like any working relationship, the partnership between you and your supervisor has to be negotiated and will change over time; you also have to accommodate each others' learning and communication styles.

Click here for a printable guide on this topic (this is designed to be printed double-sided on A4 paper, then folded to make an A5 leaflet).

This is an introductory guide offering good principles and study strategies for working with your supervisors.

For further guidance relating specifically to the process of PhD supervision here at the University of Reading see 'You and Your Supervisor', one of the Graduate School's Guides for Students

The Reading Researcher Development Programme runs workshops on 'You and Your Supervisor'.  Check the RRDP website for the current timetable and booking details.  

It is also advisable to consult the University's relevant Policies and procedures relating to PhD supervision by following the links on the Graduate School website.

Different styles of supervising

Each supervisor has a different way of going about it, but a common approach is your supervisor will expect that you can manage your research project from the start, and will leave you to get on with it, until you ask for assistance. Of course, there are always exceptions, and some supervisors do give a lot more guidance and close monitoring at the beginning.

Get to know as much as possible about how your supervisor works and thinks:

  • Ask about your supervisor's own experiences as a research student.
  • Talk to other research students who have been supervised by them.
  • Read your supervisor's articles and published works to get an idea of their approaches and the theories they prefer.

Knowing this will help you better understand the direction and purpose behind their advice.

Also identify your supervisor's learning preferences, as well as your own:

  • Does your supervisor prefer details or an overview?
  • Is your supervisor a workaholic, or more laid back?
  • Do they share the same learning styles as you? 

This may help you explain how you work with your supervisor, and how you can compromise if your styles are different.

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Negotiating how you will work together

Good, open communication is the key to managing your relationship with your supervisor. At the beginning of your PhD, negotiate how your relationship will function:

  • The time and frequency of your supervision meetings.
  • An overall plan and timeline for your research, as well as how you will agree on interim deadlines.
  • Whether your supervisor would like to see regular pieces of work, or just finished drafts, and how they will give feedback.
  • How long your supervisor needs to be able to give feedback - they are often very busy so can't return work in only a few days. You need to be courteous and plan ahead when requesting feedback.
  • What kind of skills and training you need (e.g. statistical or research methods, IT training, language support etc).
  • Intellectual property and ethical issues (e.g. if you are working as part of a research team or on human/animal research).
  • Your expected involvement in department research activities, seminars, and conferences.
  • Your career development – e.g. availability of teaching opportunities.
  • Also any times when your supervisor will be away (e.g. on research leave, teaching abroad or at conferences) so you can plan for this and agree how you will keep in touch.

What you can expect from your supervisor:

You can expect your supervisor to give you guidance on your project and on your own development as a researcher.

 Top Tip: Be prepared for your supervisor to "wean you off" their guidance as your research progresses – e.g. in your second year you may ask "Am I going in the right direction?" and they may reply "You should be able to decide that for yourself". Take this as a positive sign that your supervisor thinks you are ready to have more independence.

What your supervisor expects from you:

Your supervisor expects you to take the initiative and take responsibility for your own research. They expect you to be independent, but also to communicate well and keep them informed of how you are doing and what you are thinking.

 Top Tip: It is your responsibility to monitor your own study and contact your supervisor if you are having problems: don't wait for them to email you. If they don't hear from you, they will probably assume you are doing fine.

For more specific guidance on the roles and responsibilities of supervisors and PhD students, see The University's 'Code of Practice on Research Students' by following the links on the Policies and procedures page of the Graduate School website.  

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Before, during and after supervisions

Before supervisions prepare for the meeting by thinking of:

  • Your progress and achievements since the last meeting
  • Any problems or points you need clarifying
  • An action plan of what to do next
 Top Tip: Don't be afraid to put questions to your supervisor, but it is often better to ask specific questions that you have attempted to find answers to first. Instead of asking "How am I doing?" you are more likely to get the detailed answer you need if you ask, "What do you think of the methodology I am using in Chapter 1?"

During your supervisions:

  • Take notes, especially of any actions or things to follow up.
  • Pay attention to the questions your supervisor asks, as these are often crucial in helping you think about the direction of your research.
  • Take the opportunity to explain and defend your ideas verbally – this is all good training for your viva.

After your supervisions:

  • It can be helpful to email a list of your agreed action points to your supervisor to check there have been no misunderstandings.
  • Reflect on what you have discussed – it is likely to trigger more ideas.
  • Take your supervisor's advice seriously – they don't expect you to follow everything they suggest, but they do expect you to consider it carefully.

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Managing joint supervisors

It is normal practice for students to be allocated more than one supervisor. Sometimes students may have a primary supervisor who will be the main source of guidance, and a co-supervisor who may provide specific expertise or be consulted less often. In other cases, two supervisors or a supervisory team will have equal input. Having two supervisors provides a variety of perspectives, but it can be difficult as you may have to juggle conflicting advice and have to please two people instead of just one. Some ways of managing this are:

  • Suggest a joint meeting with your supervisors at the start to clarify how you all will work together.
  • Have a joint supervision at least once a term if possible to help get consensus between all involved.
  • It is easier if your supervisors can agree on defined roles and responsibilities – e.g. one is the lead supervisor, and the other a secondary supervisor, or one provides expertise in a certain field, and the other in a different area of research.
  • Ensure you keep both supervisors up to date and communicate with both.
  • Never play one supervisor off against the other. If you are unhappy with the advice from one supervisor, don't go to the other in the hope of getting different advice, as this can lead to confusion and bad feeling between all parties. If you do get advice that you don't agree with, try to discuss it openly, explaining your own thinking and any doubts you may have.   

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Dealing with problems

PhD study can be a long, intense, and emotional process, and unfortunately in some rare cases the supervisory relationship can break down. If you are having problems working with your supervisor:

  • Try to talk to your supervisor about your difficulties first – and see if you can work them through.
  • Take a step back and identify what is making it difficult to work together – focus on specific professional difficulties, as opposed to the character or personality of your supervisor.
  • Be tactful and discrete – don't moan about or criticise your supervisor in your department.
  • Get an objective, confidential, outside perspective from someone you can trust, such as a friend or Study Adviser.
  • Ask fellow PhD students who you can trust if they have had similar problems and how they have managed them.
  • Try to maintain communications with your supervisor and don't let the relationship deteriorate to a point where you don't talk.
  • If things are very difficult, see if you can find a third person to be a mediator. This could be the Director of Postgraduate Research in your department or your Head of Department. Do not be worried about doing this, as it will not reflect badly on you. The Director or Head will be able to see if the issues can be resolved or, if necessary, consider alternative supervisory arrangements.

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As you progress...

It is likely that as your research progresses you will become more knowledgeable in your specific research topic than your supervisor. Your supervisor will still have the broader depth and understanding of your chosen field, but you will be the expert in your research. This should give you increasing confidence, but can also make you feel like you are stepping into uncharted territory and your supervisor is less able to guide you.

As you become more expert, you will need tactfully and gently to educate your supervisor in two areas:

1) Keeping them up-to-date in the leading edge research you are doing and the new developments or findings in your particular (narrow) area.

2) Letting them know the kinds of support and input you need.

 Top Tip: Build up your own support network of peers and fellow researchers in your field – these may be students in your department, people you meet at conferences, or contacts via mailing lists. They can give additional feedback and perspectives to those of your supervisor.

Your relationship with your supervisor will change. In time, they may become less of a mentor and more of a sounding board for your ideas.

They are an important contact who can help introduce you to others in your chosen field, and help you get recognition. If you are both able to communicate effectively and accommodate each other's styles of working it is likely to be a successful and rewarding partnership.

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Supervisors for Masters dissertations

The advice in this guide focuses on PhD supervisors, but the principles also apply if you are being supervised for a Masters dissertation. However, the relationship you have with your Masters supervisor will be over a far shorter period (months not years) and you will have far fewer meetings.

The main difference with a Masters supervisor is you will spend less time negotiating how you will work together as this will probably be fixed – a set number of meetings. The input your supervisor will be more contained, aimed at helping you do a manageable project within the limited time you have.

As you have fewer meetings, it is important you make the most of your time with your Masters supervisor from the start. The best way to do that is prepare some specific questions to ask them about the direction of your project for each meeting.

The kinds of things your Masters supervisor could advise on are:

  • Whether your project is manageable in the time you have
  • If you need to have a more focused title or question
  • Whether your dissertation proposal is reasonable / workable
  • Suggestions for books and resources to get you started
  • Advice on the structure and plan of your dissertation
  • Feedback on specific chapters or sections of chapters

If you are considering carrying on to do a PhD, your Masters supervisor is a good person to talk to for advice as they will know the standard of your work and your interests.

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For more on this topic, see....

Vitae - supervisors

Supervision (Postgraduate Online Research Training)

Your supervisor (Skills4Study)

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