As someone who has had experience of supervising and being supervised through the PhD process in the past decade I can understand the importance of ‘good’ PhD supervision from the perspective of the supervised and the supervisor. Having heard some horror stories about students’ experience of supervision and also from staff about the difficulties in supervising certain students it is important for staff and students alike to develop strategies to make the experience as positive as possible. In this article I am going to focus on the student experience of supervision and give you some tips on managing the PhD supervision process. While many of them may be rather obvious and you may already be doing them (if so, then great), others may not be so you may be able to think about them in relation to enhancing your own supervision experience.
Firstly, you need to recognise that developing an effective working relationship with your supervisory team (don’t forget your second supervisor!) is crucial in your success as a postgraduate researcher. In order to do this you need to understand what the supervisory team is, and isn’t, there to do. This will be helped by a good read (or reread if you have forgotten!) of the handbook about expectations placed on students and supervisors. If you have not done so already, and this depends on where you are in the PhD, establishing the ‘ground rules’ of the supervision process is essential. This should include a discussion about how you (realistically) work best and how this impacts on the timing and structure of supervision meetings.
It is worth noting that students often have very different expectations and needs in relation to the role of their supervisors and this means that communication is vital in clarifying these issues. You need to discuss typical expectations regarding contact arrangements and when you will complete work, making sure you are working to an agreed plan with specific targets such as the upgrade. The sessions should be sufficiently regular and appropriate notes should be taken about the event to ensure clarity. In addition leave your supervisor sufficient time to read your work in advance of meetings, something it is easy to forget. The more time you can give your supervisor the more likely they are to be able to make thorough comments. While it can be quite scary handing work to your supervisor when they are an expert in the field and it needs to be of ‘PhD standard’, you are not going to get anywhere if you don’t show them anything. At the end of the day they are there to help and advise you and it may be better than you expect!
At the same time, doctoral study requires a high level of independence, often feeling like a solitary pursuit, and your supervisor is not there to spoon-feed or micro-manage you. They should, however, be providing you with support and guidance and seeing you regularly. You should not keep putting off meeting with your supervisor if you have not done the required work, instead discuss reasons for this with them. While they are not your counsellor they do need to know about any issues affecting your well-being and ability to complete PhD work. See how they can help. For instance, can deadlines be restructured to more accurately reflect your ability to meet them? Remember that your supervisor should be your biggest ally in the completion of your PhD. They are interested in, and knowledgeable about, your subject and are there to help you, so give all of their suggestions careful consideration. While they are not always right and it is your PhD, they do have the benefit of experience. At times you will need to be assertive and proactive in this relationship if you want to get the most out of it. Don’t expect them to guess that you have issues about something or need additional advice or support. While it is important to foster a relationship of trust and responsibility, if you do not receive the kind of supervision that you expect and agreed upon, then you need to discuss these matters initially with your supervisor, and then, if necessary, with the named contact in your handbook.
Finally, while developing your effective supervision process, it is important to think about other students around you. Offer advice and mentoring to new students, remembering how you felt at the outset of your PhD. Creating a sense of community is an important part of your support network, a network which is likely to include advice and strategies on PhD supervision. Immersing yourself in the department, attending departmental seminars and events, and meeting staff as well as students is also likely to give you greater confidence in interacting with ‘academics’ and in your ability to communicate during the supervision process. There is also nothing wrong with talking about non-PhD topics with your supervisor and other staff, common interests for instance. It is positive to build up these kinds of relationships, but make sure it is not eating too much into your supervision time. Your supervisor should also be able to provide advice on conferences and potential publications and may be able to provide you with networking opportunities. However, you need to take the initiative with some of these issues. For instance, if you notice a conference at which it may prove suitable to present work from your PhD, then raise this with your supervisor for discussion. It is also always worth remembering that your supervisor has been through the process as a student too, so they are likely to understand the highs and lows of doing a PhD and will be happy to discuss these!
By Dr Liam Foster
You can find out more about Liam on our contributors page.