Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Manage your PhD supervisor

The relationship between PhD students and their supervisor is one of the fundamental determinants of success in the PhD. This post emphasises that you have a role in taking the initiative to manage the academic relationship with your supervisor, and suggests some practical actions.

A student of mine particularly impressed me this week. (All of my students impress me on various occasions!) We had been talking about the costs and transport associated with the testing of soil samples. I agreed that this was necessary, and our project would pay for it. A few days later, I got an email from him. The message was more or less as follows:

“I have attached the quote for the soil testing and the quote for the transport, and I have arranged for DHL to collect the samples later today.”
I immediately had to submit requisitions, generate purchase orders and get approval through our financial administration (this is a big consideration in all modern institutions). In reality, this took ten minutes of my time, but I wouldn’t have done it for another few days without the prompt!

To me, this is a great example of a student taking control of his PhD, eliminating time wastage (by me!), and proactively managing his research and his supervisor. Here is a PhD researcher who realises that it’s HIS thesis. Consequently, he also knows that he needs to manage his PhD supervisor (me). 

You also need to manage YOUR supervisor.


Although your doctoral project dominates your time and efforts, your project is just one of many of your supervisor’s commitments. The above figure illustrates how important your thesis is to you, and is a high priority. What may not come as a surprise is that your thesis is not your supervisor’s priority. Sure, they think it’s important, but on their to-do list, other things are at the top: their next lecture, next research proposal, next meeting, next research paper…

Understanding the relatively small proportion of your supervisor’s time that they can realistically (and with no disrespect on their part to you (hopefully!)) devote to you should encourage you to maximise your benefit from this time. In particular, make the best use of the face-to-face meetings with your supervisor.

So, how do you make the most of your communication with your supervisor? The following points outline some practical suggestions about how to develop and maintain effective communication with your supervisor.
1. Discuss your expectations of your supervisor, and your supervisor’s expectations of you.

2. Make regular appointments thereafter to see your supervisor.

3. Two days before the meeting, email a written list of the issues to be discussed.

4. Bring this list with you to the meeting.

5. At the end of the meeting, agree on goals and indicate a date for the next meeting.

6. Send an email to your supervisor with a record of what was agreed at the meeting, no matter how brief.

7. Submit written work in good time, if you want to get useful feedback.

8. Indicate the kind of feedback that you want.
 (I discuss these in more detail in my book.)

All supervisors are very busy, but some supervisors are also extremely elusive. Just remember that it is part of your supervisor’s job to supervise you –  they have committed to this by agreeing to take on the role of supervisor. This means that you are entitled to some of their time. Just because your supervisor is busy with other things should never be a reason for you to postpone a meeting with them. One of the things they agreed to be busy with is you.

PhD Skill: Develop and implement practical actions that help you manage your supervisor.

Further reading
Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner. 2011. The care and maintenance of your adviser. Nature, 469: 570.

Finn, J.A. 2005. Getting a PhD: An Action Plan to Help Manage Your Research, Your Supervisor and Your Project (Routledge Study Guides)

Managing your Supervisor. Toby Walsh.

Managing your Advisor. Nick Feamster

Are you on the same page as your supervisor? Cassily Charles

Many thanks to Alan Kelly for suggesting the figure included in this post.


  1. Hello, I'm writing a blog about my PhD journey and this sums up some great key points about how to manage your supervisors. Would you approve of my linking to this post as further reading?

  2. Sciencesonneteer: yes, please do. (apologies for slow reply).