Managing Your Supervisor

Your supervisor is one of the most important resources provided to you by your university.

This is important to remember because PGR students can sometimes lose sight of the fact that this is the role of the supervisory relationship – to support you to complete your research successfully. While this seems like an obvious thing to say, the dynamics of the relationship and your experience of previous learning may prevent you from getting the most out of this resource.

For instance, when you begin your research, it can be very easy to be overwhelmed by the fact that your supervisor has far more research experience and subject knowledge than you. Academics with stellar reputations and a long publishing track record can appear intimidating (even if they don’t mean to and aren’t overbearing in person). This can lead to you adopting a passive role in your relationship – you assume that they must know better than you, will know more than you about your research and it is for you to wait for them to tell you what to do.

In fact, research clearly shows that your role in this relationship is just as important as your supervisor’s [1]. Remember, this is your research and you will need to take an active role in the supervisory relationship to get the most out of it. 

This includes some basic behaviours, such as consistently respecting timelines, preparing for meetings, exhibiting openness and respect for feedback. However, it doesn’t mean that your supervisor is ‘your boss’ and that you must do everything they say or that you must wait for them to define how the relationship should work. If you take equal responsibility for the interactions between you, it is more likely that supervision will be a positive resource. 

Communicate regularly with your supervisor and help them to understand what you need from them – be prepared for this to be a conversation and to take on board your supervisor’s views. Take time to have conversations about what is and isn’t working. If your supervisor doesn’t know, then they can’t alter what they are doing to be more helpful.

Most supervisors want to help you and your supervisor will want you to be successful. However, sometimes there is just a mismatch between supervisor and supervisee. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, it is just in the nature of us being human. In these circumstances, it is OK to ask for a change of supervisor. When you do so, be clear about your reasons and try not to use judgemental language. Your request is more likely to be taken seriously if you can clearly detail why the relationship does not and cannot work, rather than simply blaming your supervisor (or yourself) for things going wrong.

But in most cases, you will find that it is possible to make the relationship between you and your supervisor successful, if you take an active role in shaping it and regularly discussing it. 

As time goes on, do also bear in mind that this relationship will also alter. For instance, if you are a PGR student, it will not be long before you probably know more about your subject than your supervisor. Spending all of that time on your project will mean that you have an expertise that few people in the world have. 

This means that you must continue to discuss how things are going between you. Regularly reviewing your supervision and clearing the air will result in a more productive, successful and satisfying relationship for you both.

Video Resources

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Supervisors Discuss the PGR Student and Supervisor Roles and Relationships

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Supervisors Discuss Their Role as a PGR Supervisor

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Supervisors Discuss what they Would Expect from Their PGR Students

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Supervisors Discuss the Relationships and Different Factors that can Affect the Relationship



Sverdlik, A., Hall, N. C., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). Journeys of a PhD student and unaccompanied minors. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13, 361-388.