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What to Expect from your PhD Supervisor

Your supervisor will play a vital role in your PhD, supporting you from starting out to submission (and beyond).

But what does ‘supervision’ actually mean in practice? What sort of support and assistance can you expect your supervisor to provide?

This guide introduces some of the obligations and expectations that underpin a healthy supervisory relationship, as well as explaining how that relationship develops along with your PhD.

What you can expect from your supervisor

Your supervisor will have some core responsibilities towards you and your project. These will normally include meeting to discuss your work, reading drafts and being available to respond emails and other forms of contact within a reasonable timeframe.

Some universities may formalise these commitments in a research degree handbook and you should consult this if so. Other universities may leave more of the details to the student and supervisor themselves.

In either case, the following are some of the basic expectations a PhD supervisor should fulfil:

Expertise in your subject area

Your supervisor will be an expert in your academic field. They will have recognised experience researching it, with a publication record to match. They may even have supervised other students working on related subjects.

What your supervisor won’t be is an expert in your topic. There’s a very simple reason for this: if they were, you couldn’t research it as an original PhD.

In practice this means that you can expect your supervisor to offer competent advice, particularly in the early stages of your research. If you’re suggesting a topic or approach that has been undertaken before, they should be able to alert you to that. If you’re looking for material to consult for your literature review they will be able to make suggestions and help you get started.

Eventually though, your expertise will outstrip your supervisor’s. It’s important to be aware of this and not to rely on your supervisor to understand your project for you.

Regular supervisory meetings

These are the nuts and bolts of a supervisory relationship. Whatever your project, you can expect your supervisor to set aside regular time for one-to-one meetings and discussion of your work.

How regular these meetings are will be up to you and your supervisor to decide (though your university may set some guidelines). You’ll also have the freedom to set up a schedule (and venue) that works for the two of you. This could be a corner of the lab, your supervisor’s office or even just a coffee shop on campus.

Once this schedule is agreed you can expect your supervisor to be available at appointed times and to have reviewed any drafts, data or other work sent to them (with sufficient notice).

Note that the ability to attend supervisory meetings is an expectation of full-time PhD students who are based ‘on campus’. If you are studying by distance learning your supervisor may arrange for a different format, such as discussing work over the phone or via video conferencing.

Your supervisor may also take responsibility for any formal record keeping associated with meetings (though that doesn’t mean you won’t have any paperwork of your own to fill out).

Feedback on work in progress

Unlike other degrees, a PhD doesn’t normally involve any ongoing formal assessment. There are some exceptions such as first-year upgrade exams and training modules, but, ultimately, your doctorate will be judged on the strength of a single piece of work: the thesis you submit for examination at the end.

So what happens to all the chapter drafts, data reports and other work you do along the way? Your supervisor looks at it and offers you feedback. This feedback is formative rather than summative (you won’t be given a grade) but it’s still incredibly important.

In the early stages of a PhD feedback will help ensure you’re on the right track (or get you onto it). Later on you’ll know more about your project than your supervisor, but they’ll still be able to tell you how effectively presented your results are and how persuasive your argument is.

Standards for feedback vary between disciplines, projects and universities. You may find that your supervisor regularly sees your data as part of the working arrangement in your laboratory. Or you may find that you only submit drafts of written work every few months.

Your university may set out its own feedback guidelines, but, as with so many aspects of the supervisory relationship, setting up an effective system will be down to the individuals involved. As a general rule, you can expect your supervisor to review each piece of work in progress at least once and to offer further feedback on the final dissertation draft.

Advice and support

Contact with your supervisor doesn’t need to be restricted to scheduled meetings. They should also be able to offer advice on a more ad hoc basis.

This won’t normally extend to immediate feedback on impromptu chapter drafts sent over at 3am on a Monday morning, but you can expect a response to questions or ideas emailed during office hours.

Remember that one of the key things a supervisor offers isn’t topic expertise (we covered that earlier) so much as research experience. You haven’t completed a PhD before. They have. That problem that seems insurmountable to you? It probably isn’t. And your supervisor will be able to help you see why.

‘Support’ can also extend beyond your PhD thesis and include additional academic opportunities. It’s not uncommon for supervisors to identify suitable conferences for their students to attend or present at. In some cases you may also have the chance to publish work alongside your supervisor or participate as a second author on one of their papers.

You should make the most of these opportunities if they arise, but it’s important not to treat them as a basic expectation. Unless otherwise established by your institution, your supervisor’s main commitment is to your PhD.

Mediation and representation

For most of your PhD, your supervisor will ‘represent’ the university to you. They’ll be your most frequent point of contact and will be responsible for ensuring you do the things your institution expects of you.

Those include the obvious (researching your PhD) but can also cover other areas such as professional development, progression monitoring and compliance with any ethical policies. You probably won’t find the associated paperwork to be the most thrilling part of your PhD, but can take heart from the fact that your supervisor will probably agree with you.

As well as representing the university to you, your supervisor will also represent you to the university. They’ll understand the peculiarities of your project, together with any specific needs or circumstances you have as a researcher (such as a disability or conditions associated with your funding).

Your supervisor will therefore be your first point of call if problems arise with your project. It’s part of their role to provide pastoral support and you shouldn’t be afraid to approach them with problems or concerns.

Second supervisors

Some universities assign two supervisors to each PhD students. If so, the 'second' supervisor may be more responsible for your pastoral support and for the administration of your project. This allows the 'primary' supervisor to focus on your academic work.

Targets, planning and meetings

Your supervisor (or supervisors) will be involved throughout your PhD, but their function will change slightly as your doctorate progresses.

In part this will reflect your changing needs as a student. You’ll go from mapping out a project to researching, writing and eventually submitting for examination. This is all part of the normal PhD journey.

Planning your project and setting targets

Most PhDs begin with an initial meeting between the student and their supervisor. This will be your first chance to sit down together and discuss your project.

You’ll review the aims set out in your research proposal and think about how to proceed with the first stages of your doctorate. This normally means gathering scholarly material for your literature review and / or identifying initial avenues for your own research.

Your supervisor’s input will be invaluable here. You’ll probably have some idea of existing studies that relate to your topic. You may also have some idea of the sources you’d like to examine or the data you’d like to collect first.

But your supervisor will have a much more complete sense of the current state of your academic field. They’ll also know many of the other scholars currently working in it.

If there are some avenues you haven’t considered, they’ll be able to make suggestions. And if there’s new work being published, they’ll be able to make you aware of it.

What happens at a supervision?

Supervisions can be as varied as the supervisors (and PhD students) involved.

You may meet formally in an office, or you might simply grab a corner table in the campus coffee shop. Most meetings last from one to two hours, but this will depend on how much there is to discuss and what stage of the PhD you’re at.

A typical supervision normally involves:

  • Checking your current progress – Your supervisor will want to know what you’ve done since the last meeting and how you’ve been finding things. If you’ve hit upon difficulties you can discuss these and benefit from your supervisor’s advice.
  • Reviewing work in progress – As you get further into your PhD you’ll begin to gather results or even produce chapter drafts. Your supervisor will normally be able to offer feedback on this and make sure you’re heading in the right direction. Their encouragement will be a big source of support, particularly as you begin to get properly stuck into your project.
  • Setting future targets – Reflecting on what you’ve done will be an important part of your supervisions, but so will agreeing new short and medium term goals. There are few formal deadlines in a PhD, but setting some ‘self-imposed’ deadlines with your supervisor can help keep you on track.
  • Taking care of any admin – Part of your supervisor’s job involves reporting your progress to the university. For structured PhDs this can also mean checking completion of any formal training and development activities.

Eventually, supervision meetings will also focus upon more specific PhD milestones.

Progression and professional development

As you enter the middle stretch of your PhD the relationship with your supervisor will shift slightly. You’ll still have regular meetings, but won’t be as dependent on them to help set targets, or reassure you that you’re heading in the right direction.

Instead your supervisor will be much more focussed on the work you’re producing – particularly as the embryonic version of your final thesis begins to take shape.

Part of this could involve supporting you as you formally ‘upgrade’ to full PhD candidacy (many universities initially register research students for an MPhil).

Once this is done you’ll be confirmed as a junior scholar, with an original contribution to make to your field. This may therefore be the time to think about taking on additional development opportunities and earning more exposure for your work – another area in which your supervisor’s support will be important.

Reviewing drafts and checking results

By this point in your PhD the outline of your final project will probably be fairly well established. You’ll have done a lot of the research that will form the basis of your thesis. Eventually you’ll begin gathering in your findings and laying the foundations of your dissertation.

Your supervisor will help identify the point at which you’re ready to do this. From then on a big part of their role will be to help review your findings as you move towards the final stretch of your doctorate.

If you’re in the Arts and Humanities this process may involve drafting actual chapters of your dissertation and receiving feedback on them. The writing usually comes later for STEM students, but you’ll still discuss the results of experiments and / or confirm that your data is up to the required standard.

Assisting your professional development

As your project progresses so will your expertise. The primary outlet for that expertise will be your thesis.

But the second and third years of your PhD are also an important period for your professional development – particularly if you’re considering an academic career.

Now is the time to think about:

  • Conference presentations
  • Scholarly publications
  • Teaching work

Most supervisors will be happy to support their students at this point – and will take pride in seeing them step up to the academic stage (or at least the front of the conference hall). Some universities may also make professional development a formal part of their PhD programmes – particularly when it comes to undergraduate teaching.

Submission and examination

Eventually, it will be time to gather up your results, write up your thesis and submit it as a dissertation. The way you do this can vary between projects.

If you’re in the Arts or Humanities you’ll probably have been producing chapter drafts alongside your research and your supervisor will already have provided feedback on them.

If you’re in Science or Engineering you’ll probably have been focussed on conducting experiments and gathering results, with a dedicated ‘writing up period’ at the end of your degree.

Whatever your approach, your supervisor will help you put together a final version of your thesis. They will then read through that draft and provide any feedback or advice. Once your supervisor decides that your dissertation is up to the required standard they will advise you to submit it for examination.

Most universities will allow you to submit against the advice of your supervisors, but this is almost always a bad idea. If your supervisor does not believe a thesis is ready for examination it probably isn’t. Vice versa, your supervisor won’t recommend you submit unless the thesis is likely to pass a viva.

Selecting external examiners

Having guided you up to the submission point your supervisor has one final task to perform: helping you select the external examiner (or examiners) for your viva voce.

This may seem quite minor, but it can actually be one of the most important contributions a supervisor will make to your PhD.

Some universities allow supervisors to invite and appoint external examiners themselves, but this is relatively uncommon in the UK. Instead you will normally have the chance to suggest examiners and will have the final say over who is invited to examine you.

By this point you may have a good idea of who might be a good external examiner – particularly if you’ve been active at conferences and networked within your field. But you should make sure you take advice from your supervisor at this crucial point.

Not only will they know who in your field is best placed to examine your work, they will also know who is most likely to appreciate it. All PhD examinations are objective, but academia can be home to diverse methodologies and approaches. Selecting an examiner with very different principles to your own can make the viva much more challenging for both parties and put extra pressure on your thesis defence.

The viva

In most cases a supervisor isn’t directly involved in the actual viva voce exam that concludes your PhD.

They will have reviewed your thesis and helped you select your examiners (see above). They will also meet with you on the day of the viva and provide support as you get ready for the exam. This could simply involve finding the venue and waiting with you as your examiners arrive. Or it could mean calming a few last minute nerves and helping you relax before the event.

Once the viva is over your supervisor may be invited to discuss the result with the panel before you yourself receive feedback. This may allow them to provide some perspective on any areas of concern, but such contributions are usually off the record. Your examiners will be making a decision based on your thesis defence, not your supervisor’s.

Last updated - 16/12/2020

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