PhD Life

Managing your PhD supervisor.

Learning how to manage your PhD supervisor is a difficult yet important part of your PhD. This post outlines some tips on how to manage them.

Completing a PhD has a very different feel to it that previous educational programmes or a full-time job. One of the main contributing factors for this atypical career path you find yourself in is partly due to the relationship and dynamic you have with your supervisor. Unlike in ‘traditional’ working jobs your manager is typically there to delegate responsibilities and guide your day to day duties. However, as a PhD student, your PhD supervisor doesn’t necessarily fall into this category as they aren’t necessarily there to delegate responsibilities – as you have to sort of figure things out on your own, but they are also there to help assist with your development and growth as a researcher.

Furthermore, your PhD supervisor is also responsible for a lot of other factors during your PhD. This includes access to other opportunities, like teaching, publishing papers, but also steering how you go about your own research. It’s a very convoluted process. This relationship can also become extremely sensitive as well. If the relationship breaks down or friction between yourself as the student and your PhD supervisor emerges – it can have a dramatic impact on the quality and success of your own research.

Managing your PhD supervisor, or particularly the relationship with your PhD supervisor is not only paramount for the successful completion of your PhD, but if done well, it can dramatically reduce the stress and burden that comes with doing a PhD. Often academia is shrouded in politics and it’s important to get to grips with this dynamic fast, especially as PhD’s are often lonely rides – you don’t want to fight an uphill battle for the entire time. Firstly, although your PhD supervisor is more senior to you, it’s good to understand that they are not responsible for anything. It sounds a bit morbid but essentially you as the student are not only expected to take accountability for your PhD, but you’re also expected to take the vast majority of initiative. For instance, try not to expect your PhD supervisor to remember everything and such it’s highly advised to take notes and record all action points/changes in direction accordingly.

To go one step further, don’t be afraid to send copies of these notes to your PhD supervisor after each meeting – it can feel pedantic but it’s an excellent way to manage expectations and stress the importance of your supervisions. It can also help you and your PhD supervisor to be aligned sooner rather than later as meeting with them can be confusing. Similarly, the same principle applies to meeting your supervisor – take the initiative, send invites and be proactive – especially if your PhD supervisor is elusive, busy, and hard to pin down. You can even schedule your next meeting at each meeting, rather than trying to get them to respond to your 100th email. The sooner you have a conversation about how long and often you should meet, when you will communicate with one another (i.e. out of hours, can they call your mobile?), what your deliverables/targets are the better.

Be the leader of your PhD.

Other tips on how to manage your PhD supervisor also include listening to what they have to say. This might sound obvious but listening to your PhD supervisor’s random ideas or thoughts on how best to proceed should be considered. Of course, a lot of these ideas will be dead ends and over time you’ll realise that a lot of the guidance is nonsense, but it can pay dividends to listen to what they have to say. Sometimes you might find a nugget of gold and other times it’s good to listen as it helps build rapport and the relationship you have with them. Listening can also come in other forms, such as feedback. Some supervisors have a habit of ripping your written work apart of providing a lot of negative comments.

Take this with a pinch of salt as although it can be hurtful and feel like an attack on your work – majority of the time it comes from a place of them wanting you to succeed. The more critical they are, the more belief they have in your ability to do great work. Also see it as practice for peer-review when getting published, or when it comes to writing your thesis, as that’s not often a pleasant experience. Your PhD supervisor is also likely to have managed other PhD students before. It’s not their first rodeo. They’re also comparing your standard of work to students who have come before you and so their feedback has reasonable validity. Again, they want you to grow and develop and so take the feedback on board, even if it’s difficult to hear. Constructive feedback is a thousand times better than no feedback.

The next point to bear in mind is the political landscape of academia. Some institutions pair you up with two supervisors, or you work quite closely with other academics (who aren’t PhD students) as part of your research. In these situations, do your best to not cause a diplomatic incident. Sometimes, especially if your field is niche, your PhD supervisors/academics you work with don’t actually get on or like one another. This can also lead to differences in opinions, or advice that you receive. Do your best to not get caught in the middle of their disagreements. Try to keep on both sides, and where you want to side with one over the other be mindful how you phrase this.

Be extra sensitive on how to not make it personal. Academics can have delicate ego’s so don’t rub them the wrong way as it could impact the quality and type of support you receive from your PhD supervisor over the long term. This can also be an issue when you get to publishing, authorship can create a lot of tension and issues between academics. Do your best to prompt a discussion about authorship where appropriate in the early stages – you do not want to find yourself having work complete and then two supervisors start arguing about who should be first or senior author (FYI you as the PhD student should always be first author if it’s your work). If you have this discussion sooner rather than later, it makes it a lot clearer on the amount of work each party contributes to the project – which is usually indicative of authorship.

PhD supervisors also come in different shapes and sizes. They aren’t all the same and so it would be unfair to paint them all with one brush. However, they normally align with one of these personas:

  • The perfect supervisor
  • The ‘brain the size of a planet’ supervisor
  • The missing supervisor
  • The unreliable supervisor
  • The compliant supervisor
  • The negative supervisor
  • The demanding supervisor
  • The bureaucratic supervisor
  • The ‘behind the times’ supervisor

Understanding how they operate and how they conduct themselves in an academic sphere can really aid you in managing them. However, there is a caveat to all this. What about you? What are you doing in this dynamic between you and your PhD supervisor that is not helpful? Maybe you’re ‘the perfect student’, ‘the missing student’, ‘the demanding student’, or maybe you think you’re ‘ahead of the times’. You have an equal part to play in all this so it’s important to pause for a second and reflect on your role and how you behave in this situation.

Sometimes it’s best to hold your hands up.

If things do go astray and there are significant problems between you and your PhD supervisor don’t rush into things. First and foremost, you need to remember that your PhD supervisor is only human – more importantly they likely haven’t had any formal training on how to manage people or work with students. They’re going to say and do things that are simply wrong. If this happens, the best port of call is to try and have a conversation with them about it directly. They need feedback just as much as you. Alternatively, think to yourself if this problem is actually a real problem or if it’s quite common or maybe it’s a small piece of your PhD that you can tolerate. Maybe this problem can’t be resolved, or maybe there’s a simple fix to the problem. If it’s a significant issue that’s impacting your well-being or ability to successfully complete your PhD – speak to your supervisor first. If they are unable to help, maybe your other supervisor, or supporting academics can help. Sometimes you might just need a space to vent, so lean on your friends and family or other PhD students who you know as they’ll likely be able to resonate with your current predicament.

The final words of advice come down to talking to the appropriate education support team at your institution. If things are getting out of hand. If you’ve exhausted all the other options and spoken to your PhD supervisor(s), other, more senior people might need to get involved. If you get to this stage work out what it is that you want. Your supervisor can change during a PhD however it can be extremely difficult if your research is tied to a particular pot of funding, or lab, or maybe only your supervisor is qualified to guide you on the topic at hand. Think this through. This should be a last resort, whereby if things don’t change, you’ll have to quit. At this point it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to stay on. If a solution cannot be resolved and the current set up is damaging your well-being, don’t be afraid to walk away. PhD’s aren’t entirely what they’re cut out to be – they have great value, but not necessarily in the way you envisage. Regardless of all that, it’s not worth becoming a Dr. at the expense of your own health.

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