relating to your supervisor – what can you do?

This is a gust post from Saima Eman, a PhD Commonwealth Scholar in the Psychology Department and UREC student representative at University of Sheffield. She is also a Lecturer in Psychology at the Lahore College for Women University in Pakistan.


No relationship is perfect, and a student and supervisor are very lucky if they can build a trusting and respectful supervisory relationship. In this post, I share some precautions and practical tips to get the best match for you, and maintain good student-supervisor relations throughout the PhD, drawn from my own 17 years of experience in research.

Finding out about the academic and ethical reputation, working styles, and idiosyncrasies, of the potential supervisor will be significant to your whole future career. Do not rush into making commitments, take your time. Delve deeper into institutional and group rules and procedures before formally agreeing to work on the project. Try out a pilot study at the beginning if you can, take summer projects, research assistant posts, be choosy.

Get to know about the working patterns and preferences of the potential supervisor. For example, whether they an email person, or they prefer face-to-face meetings; formal or informal in style; whether they work on particular days of the week, or other flexible arrangement; if they likely to be absent for scheduled or unscheduled periods; the speed of their response, the degree of their helpfulness and enthusiasm…etc. Some supervisors will need more direct management than others. Some supervisors might have a very flexible approach and move according to the student’s aptitude; others might be very rigid about their paradigms regarding ‘what the student should know’, and the degree of team-working, the student can expect.

In order to gain more information about the working patterns of the supervisor, you might want to contact the already existing supervisees of a certain supervisor and get their general feedback about the supervisor. You might find that some supervisors are very famous for their friendliness, some are known for being very busy, while others are notorious for their extremely high standards or unhelpfulness. Therefore, the inside word from several students might be a very valuable source of information.

During the interview or in early face-to-face meetings make your expectations clear and ask the supervisor to do the same so you can seek a good fit and align your interests. A gap in expectations could lead to a hard time of things. Ask the potential supervisor direct questions such as, “How will this research advance your interests?”, “How can I achieve this particular goal in view of [X] obstructions?”, “Has a student of yours ever failed or not completed?”, “What was the reason?” , “Have you ever worked with a student from an [X] background?”, “How was your experience in working with a person from a different culture or background?”, “Which of your strengths could I benefit from; and what skills and knowledge do you expect me to add to your team as a researcher?”

After entering into a supervisor-supervisee relationship, if you find you are not able to express yourself as openly as you might like to, it’s up to you to find a way to make the expectations clear for yourself. Don’t wait to be told, you might wait forever. It will be hard to maintain your energy for long if you aren’t sure of the rules, or the things you “can do” and things “you cannot do”. Remember that pretending to be somebody, you think you are expected to be, will not help you in the long term. Sometimes we need to take a bold step to tackle and solve a problem. Pulling away or hiding from the supervisors will make it harder for you as you progress. Try to understand and respect the point of view of your supervisor, and also stick to your principles.

A person must have determination, persistence, and patience to smoothly get through all the stages of PhD research. Always be ready with backup plans B, C, and D; you can expect some parts of the work to fail or get stuck, this is normal. Alternative plans could involve changing your methods, analysis, research question, supervisor, department, or even university, but never give up!

And finally, make every effort not to link your self-esteem to the unsuccessful parts of your PhD. This is definitely a time of trials and tribulations. Finding a good supervisor match will give you strong support to ride through the storms.

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