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Working with your PhD Supervisor

A PhD may be an individual research project, but you won’t complete it entirely alone. Throughout you’ll have the guidance of at least one academic supervisor.

They’ll be an expert in your subject (if not in your actual PhD topic). But, perhaps more importantly, they’ll know what it takes to complete an extended postgraduate research project. After all, you may not have done a PhD before – but they have.

But the relationship with your supervisor will also reflect your development as a scholar.

When you begin your PhD, your supervisor will know more than you do about your topic – or at least your general field. By the time you’re ready to submit your thesis they won’t know anything like as much as you do. And neither will anyone else.

That's why this guide doesn't just introduce the typical supervisory relationship. It also explains how that relationship will develop along with your PhD.

Targets, planning and meetings: the basics of PhD supervision

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.

How many supervisors? It’s quite common for a modern PhD to involve multiple supervisors, with slightly different roles. You’ll still have one ‘principle’ supervisor, with the most ‘hands on’ involvement in your project. This is the kind of supervisor discussed on this page. The advice here applies just as well to multiple project supervisors.

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.

At this point you’ll also begin to set a schedule for future meetings.

Arranging supervisory meetings

Your main mode of contact with your supervisor will take the form of regular supervisory meetings, or ‘supervisions.’

You may have other regular contact with your supervisor (particularly if you work together in a laboratory or workshop) but supervisions will be part of the ‘roadmap’ for your PhD.

Universities often set a general framework for supervisory meetings. This can state how often supervisions should take place, how often work should be presented for feedback and what kind of records should be kept. Your supervisor may also have their preferred approach, particularly if they’ve supervised lots of PhDs before.

It’s worth learning what these expectations are and seeing them as a source of support. After all, your supervisor will know what works for PhD students and your university will be keen to keep you on the right track.

But don’t be afraid to discuss your own needs and expectations A healthy supervisory relationship is vital to the progress of your PhD and it’s important that you get as much as possible out 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: guiding you through the PhD

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.

Supporting your PhD confirmation or MPhil upgrade

The first year of a full-time PhD is often set up as an orientation period. You’ll have time to explore current scholarship and clarify the aims and objectives for your own research.

At the end of this period your project should be clearly defined as a potential PhD, with an original contribution to make to your field. It’s common for your university to review your project at this point.

What is an MPhil upgrade? In the UK it's common for PhD students to first register for an MPhil. This is a shorter research degree with a more limited scope. The upgrade exam confirms that your project has the potential to earn a full PhD. You can read more about this process in our guide to the stages of a PhD

In some cases your supervisor will be part of the panel that ‘examines’ your work. If so, they will usually be accompanied by at least one person unrelated to your project.

After a successful review your supervisor will confirm that you are now a bona fide PhD candidate – and get on with guiding you towards completion and submission.

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 Science and Engineering 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 look at conference presentation, or even consider scholarly publication. You may also be ready to take on teaching work, at your own university or elsewhere.

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.

However, you should make sure you have sensible expectations of your supervisor. Their primary goal is support you to successfully complete your PhD, after all.

What to expect from your supervisor? A big part of a successful supervisory relationship involves understanding your commitments to each other. Read more about what you can (and can't) expect from your PhD supervisor.

Submission and examination: helping you cross the finish line

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.

Vivas in other countries Supervisors may not normally participate in the viva for a UK PhD, but this isn't true around the world. Some countries require supervisors to attend exams or even participate as panel members. You can find out more in our individual guides to PhD study abroad.

Celebrating with you

OK, this isn’t a formal part of the supervisory relationship, but you can certainly expect that your supervisor will be one of the first people to congratulate you on a successful viva.

After all, they’ll have spent at least three years invested in your project - and they'll probably be with you when you receive your result.

It’s common for students to go for a drink with their supervisor after a successful viva, or even to have a meal together with their examiners. This can involve a little conversation about post-PhD opportunities and plans, but really, it’s a chance to relax and celebrate. So relax and celebrate.

You may also want to consider buying your supervisor a small gift to thank them for their support, input, advice and, well, everything else on this page.

Last updated - 17/08/2016

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