Your PhD 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.