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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? And, perhaps just as importantly, what will they be expecting from you?

This guide introduces some of the mutual obligations and expectations that underpin a healthy supervisory relationship.

Some are quite obvious, but all are worth thinking about (and perhaps even discussing) as you begin your PhD. Establishing mutual (and mutually understood) expectations will lead to a more effective supervisory process and make a big difference to your project.

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

This may seem obvious, but it’s actually important to clarify.

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.

You’ll normally discuss feedback at supervisions, with the chance to go through your supervisor’s comments in person. Distance learning PhDs may substitute telephone calls and video conferencing – or simply offer more detailed written feedback.

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.

Supervision in other countries In the UK, a PhD examined and awarded based on a candidate's thesis and this is the supervisor's main focus. Other countries may require students to publish a certain number of articles, or take part in conferences. If so, the PhD supervisor will usually help support this activity. You can find out more in our guides to PhD study abroad.

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.

This can even be the case if you have problems with your supervisor themselves. As with any human relationship, simply talking the issue through can be surprisingly effective.

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.

What you can’t expect from your supervisor

A PhD supervisor and student are often compared to a master and an apprentice. There’s some logic in this. You can expect to benefit from your supervisor’s ‘mastery’ of your subject and of research techniques, viewing them as an example as well as an advisor.

But the master-apprentice metaphor also reveals some of the limits of what you can expect from a supervisor. After all, an apprentice is a worker as much as a student – with responsibility for the work they produce. By the same token, your PhD is your work, not your supervisor’s and the ultimate responsibility for it remains with you.

This means there are some limits to the input you should expect from your supervisor. Some are obvious, but others stem from a more specific misunderstanding of the student-supervisor relationship. It’s helpful to bear them in mind before you start.

Being taught

You can learn a lot from your supervisor during a PhD. And you will.

How to set out on a literature review. How to keep a project on track. How to deal with disappointing results. How to communicate your findings to other researchers. Which journals to keep an eye on. Where to find the best coffee on campus (maybe).

But your supervisor isn’t a teacher. And a PhD isn’t a taught degree.

At no point will your supervisor present basic subject knowledge to you and check your understanding of it. At no point will they lead you through a series of lessons providing a systematic overview of core concepts in your field. And, with the exception of feedback on drafts, at no point will they ‘mark’ your work.

You aren’t there to ‘learn’ your thesis from your supervisor: you’re there to research it yourself. You’ll do so with their support, but not with their immediate direction.

Taking responsibility for your thesis

Your supervisor will guide you throughout your PhD. They’ll do their best to ensure your research is successful and your thesis is of the required standard. They’ll also read chapter drafts and provide vital feedback on the final dissertation.

What they won’t be able to do is help you come up with that thesis, or write that dissertation. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind.

One of the most vital criteria for a PhD is that the work is entirely your own. This is one of the reasons a PhD usually ends with an oral exam (it’s rather hard to answer detailed questions about a thesis you didn’t research or write).

This means that your supervisor will be very careful to ensure that you develop ideas independently. They’ll offer feedback on your ideas and may share their thoughts about your topic, but the research you eventually present must be your own.

And, if your thesis isn’t up to the standard of a PhD, your supervisor won’t be able to improve it for you. They may advise you not to submit or to extend your project, but they won’t be able to ‘fix’ your work.

Special treatment

Again, clarification is important here. Your supervisor will want you to succeed during your PhD – and beyond. Your success and the quality of your work will reflect on them and they’ll be investing a lot of time in mentoring and supporting you.

But supervision is still a professional relationship – and one of several your supervisor will be involved in. You shouldn’t expect to be given preferential treatment over other students at the university (particularly other students with the same supervisor).

Nor should you necessarily expect your supervisor to provide extra professional development such as presentation and publication opportunities. Many will, but this is dependent on relevant opportunities being available (and a student’s work being of the required standard).

Ultimately, your supervisor will seek to be professional as well as supportive. This is a good thing: you can be certain that their opinion is genuine and that, if they put you forward for an opportunity, it’s based on merit rather than nepotism.

Being your editor

Reading your work and offering feedback will be a key part of your supervisor’s role. You’ll benefit from their perspective and insight and will rely on this as you evaluate and develop your ideas (especially in the early part of your PhD).

However, your supervisor isn’t your editor. They won’t suggest specific changes or rewrite drafts with you. And, speaking of writing, it’s not their job to improve yours. You’ll probably find that your supervisor offers some stylistic tips and helps you develop an appropriately ‘academic’ voice. But grammatical errors and spelling mistakes will generally be your responsibility (even if they involve starting sentences with ‘but’).

This also extends to any additional work you do during your PhD. A helpful supervisor may be happy to look over your conference papers or read a draft of material for publication. If so they’ll offer thoughts and feedback (though this may be more limited than it would be for part of your PhD thesis).

What they probably won’t have time to do is help you edit material down to fit a presentation slot or a word limit. The same goes for making any substantive changes to your argument or the material you’ve selected for it.

As with so many parts of a healthy supervisory relationship, the golden rule is simple. The advice is theirs; the work is yours.

What your supervisor will expect from you

Hopefully this page has helped clarify what you (and can’t) expect from your PhD supervisor. But what about your supervisor themselves? Will they have expectations of you? Of course.

It’s helpful (and only fair) to cover some of those.

Staying in touch

You may see your supervisor in the lab’ or workshop every day, or you may only see them once or twice a term at a supervision. If you’re studying part-time or by distance learning contact may be even less frequent.

In all cases, it’s your job to stay in touch with your supervisor and keep them updated with your progress. This is especially important if your supervisions aren’t particularly regular or if you’re not often on campus.

Your supervisor may send an email if they don’t hear from you for a while, but it’s not their job to hunt you down. Equally, it’s not for them to guess when you might have encountered a problem with your research or hit a wall with your writing. They’ll be able to help you with those problems (and will be quite familiar with the sorts of obstacles a researcher can run into) but they won’t be psychic.

Remember too that your supervisor is probably a very busy person. They’ll have limited time to stay on top of PhD students who regularly fall out of contact – and your project might suffer in the meantime.

Appropriate communication

Of course, the flip-side to losing touch with your supervisor is communicating too often, or doing so in a way that isn’t appropriate.

This doesn’t just mean turning up unannounced at their house to discuss a new research methodology on a Sunday afternoon. You almost certainly shouldn’t do that. But there are other less innocuous communication mistakes that can be harder to avoid.

The most obvious concerns emails. You can email your supervisor and you should expect a reply. What you shouldn’t expect is for a supervisor to rapidly process a several-thousand-word stream of consciousness that arrives in their inbox at 1AM on Friday morning.

The temptation to explain things in detail can be strong, but you should remember that your supervisor has limited time. It’s a lot easier for them to see that you have something to discuss and to schedule a meeting than it is to effectively respond to large amounts of text.

When it comes to addressing your supervisor, you’ll probably find that most prefer to keep things informal. In the UK it’s very rare for a supervisor to expect students to use their academic title. Things can be different in some other countries so make sure you do your research when preparing for a PhD abroad.

Of course, informal communication also has its limits. Most supervisors will probably prefer not to be referred to as ‘dude’ or ‘mate’. You may also want to stay on the safe side and restrict symbols to mathematical figures, rather than emojis.

Sticking to deadlines

Another obvious example, but perhaps not for the most obvious reason. Sure, your supervisor wants you to progress with your PhD, produce a good thesis and finish on time. Meeting deadlines is crucial to that.

But deadlines aren’t just for you. Your supervisor is a busy academic with lots of other commitments, including their own research and teaching responsibilities.

Setting a deadline to receive a draft from you means that they can plan time to read that draft, give it the attention it deserves and put together some useful feedback. Your missing that deadline also means that they have to re-arrange their schedule. This can be hard to do when time needs to be found to read a 15,000 chapter draft.

Frequently missing deadlines can also put strain on your supervisory relationship more generally. Your supervisor may find it frustrating to work with someone whose project management is unreliable. Eventually you’ll put them in an awkward position when it comes to reporting your progress back to the university.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t miss a single target or ever fall behind with your thesis. Research can be unpredictable and timescales can change. If anything, your supervisor understands that better than you do. But you should aim to be professional (and honest). If you aren’t going to meet a deadline, let your supervisor know as far in advance as possible. If you think a target isn’t realistic for you, ask to discuss it.

If nothing else, be professional

There are all kinds of supervisors and students out there and all kinds of supervisory relationships formed between them.

You may end up forming a genuine friendship with your supervisor: carrying on meetings over a coffee or beer, travelling to conferences together and staying in touch long after you graduate.

Or (as is perhaps more common) you may find yourself getting along fine and having plenty to discuss about your subject, but rarely doing so outside supervisions.

Whatever your situation, you can't go wrong by treating the relationship as a professional one, first and foremost. After all, your supervisor is a professional academic researcher. And, with their help, you could become one too.

Looking for more advice? This guide has focussed on the expectations and obligations that structure a healthy supervisory relationship. You can also read our tips for choosing a PhD supervisor and our introduction to the ways you will work with your supervisor across your PhD.

Last updated - 17/08/2016

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