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How to manage your supervisor

“creating and maintaining a successful and lasting


Dr. Yoseph Araya

Department of Geography, Environment and

Development Studies
For thought … John O’Keefe

Your supervisor will be an important partner in your research career

What is supervision

Why Supervision?

Who: Supervisor’s role

Whom: Researchers role

How: Managing supervision

When things don’t work …

Further Resources
What is supervision
Supervisor (definition): A person who directs and oversees the work
of a junior (e.g. postgraduate research student).
Supervisors can be supported by experts in other aspects of learning
e.g. librarians, IT personnel, mentors, sponsors, career advisors …

It is a requirement of UK QAA Quality Code

to have at least one main supervisor.

Research supervision excellence study:
Why supervision?
An effective working relationship with your supervisory team is key to
your success as postgraduate research student.
• Doctoral study requires high level of interdependence
• Appropriate guidance ensures smooth & successful completion
• A mentor will help your passage into academic life and career

Why should you manage your supervisor:

• Supervisors are probably busier than you think they are

• Supervisors may not always be as aware of your concerns and
progress to the extent you are
• Your enthusiasm and organisation will encourage them
• It is your project!
Who is the ‘ideal’ supervisor
Understanding your supervisor’s human skills & inadequacies is important.

The dream supervisor has the following attributes: the wisdom

of Solomon; a positively delphic prescience in their
pronouncements of what will matter; the communicative skills
of Martin Luther King; the analytical clarity of Ada Lovelace;
the patience of a saint; a pastoral touch that would make
Florence Nightingale weep with envy; a breadth and depth of
knowledge that could only come from omniscience; creative
gifts that combine the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac
Newton, Michelangelo and Mozart with the inspiring
iconoclasm of Pablo Picasso, Einstein and the Beatles; and to
cap it all, an empathic sense that must have been stolen from
Mahatma Gandhi.

Your supervisor:
Caricatures of supervisors

… it may not be far from the truth!

Role of supervisor: General
At the start
• Identifying a good question
• Knowing what has already been done
• Anticipating when a problem will be too hard or too easy

In the middle
• Watching over the “bigger” picture
• Nudging your in good directions
• Identifying common pitfalls
• Keeping an eye on the clock

At the end
• Telling you when to stop
• Knowing what a thesis looks like
• Anticipating problem areas for your viva
Supervisory styles
Role of supervisor: the details
(1) to agree a schedule of regular meetings with the student, in accordance with
School policy and in the light of discussion of arrangements with the student;
(2) being accessible to the student at other appropriate times when he or she
may need advice;
(3) giving guidance about the nature of research and the standard expected, the
planning of the research programme, literature and sources, attendance
(4) being familiar with the standard expected of research degree examiners,
consistent with the guidance laid down by relevant Research Councils;
(5) requesting written work as appropriate, and returning such work with
constructive criticism and in reasonable time;
(6) arranging as appropriate for the student to talk about his or her work to
faculty or graduate seminars, and to be well briefed on oral examinations;
(7) ensuring that the student is aware of the University’s Codes of Practice for
Research and Intellectual Property and that he or she adhere to the requirements
and observe the principles contained therein;
(8) providing training in the ethical, legal and other conventions used in the
conduct of research, and supporting the student in the consideration
(9) ensuring that the student is aware of institutional level sources of advice,
including careers guidance, health and safety legislation and equal opportunities
Role of researcher: the details
(1) maintaining regular contact with the main supervisor; and discussing with the
supervisor/s the type of guidance and comment;
(2) taking the initiative in raising problems or difficulties, however elementary
they may seem;
(3) for the safety of themselves and others, and take the initiative to ensure that
they are competent in any relevant research techniques to be used;
(4) planning a research project which is achievable within a schedule consistent
with the normal expectations of the relevant Research Council
(5) maintaining the progress of work in accordance with the stages agreed with
the main supervisor, including in particular the presentation of written material as
required in sufficient time to allow for comments and discussion before
proceeding to the next stage;
(6) deciding when he or she wishes to submit the thesis, taking due account of the
supervisor/s opinion, which is however advisory only, and of the need to take
account of University requirements
(7) taking responsibility for their own personal and professional development by)
agreeing their development needs with the main supervisor;
(8) being familiar with institutional regulations and policies that affect them,
including the regulations for their qualification;
Managing supervision
To get the most out of supervision you should take control of the process
• Discuss and agree key issues, e.g. authorship of papers, research
ethics and intellectual property, at the start of the project
• Be proactive and arrange formal supervisory meetings
• Prepare an agenda and send it to your supervisor in advance
• Prepare some work before each meeting to provide some focus to
the meeting (e.g. reading list, data, drafts)
• Expect to receive feedback and criticism and use this to improve
your work
• Deal with problems as they arise be it technical, resource,
supervision …
•Summarise meetings and keep a copy for your own record and
send one to your supervisor (for follow-up and highlight any
Mutual respect; an understanding of the expectations; shared
commitment to the goal of research will ensure smooth partnership.
Preventing conflicts
Causes of conflict Overcoming strategies
Lack of communication Discuss expectations at the beginning
Give sufficient notice for requests
Draw up an agenda for your meetings
Record the outcome of meetings and share
Alert supervisor(s) to problems as they arise
Mismatched Keep expectations realistic
Be organised and professional
Be open, flexible and honest with concerns
Personality clash Understand discipline/cultural differences
Find mutual ground and make effort to compromise
Choose your battles and not war on everything
Competing pressures Be honest: don’t overpromise
Give sufficient notice for requests and meetings
Remember you are both human beings
When things don’t work
If your work is not progressing well, you are having personal difficulties
to work together don’t forget there is always a solution.

When problems arise:

• Speak with your supervisor.
If problems persist
• Speak to your second/other supervisor
If issue is still not resolved approach
• Department’s doctoral programme director/convenor.
• Head of Department
If all else fails, remember you can agree and change supervisor
To be an ideal mentor: Characteristics
Appreciating individual
Enthusiasm, sensitivity

Mentor for life

Self-direction, questioning
Inspiration, criticism
Skills development

Celebration, promotion
Building a scientific/social
Community; Networking
Further Resources
Supervision advice video (Oxford University)

Supervisor-student relationships (Oxford University)

The lesson of grace in teaching: Testimony from a Teacher

Supervision relationships (Vitae)

An excellent book on PhD Research

Gordon Rugg & Marian Petre (2010)