The working relationship that a PhD student has with their supervisor can be the most important factor for determining the success and enjoyment of their doctoral journey. Unfortunately, however, this is an aspect of PhD life that students are seldom alerted to before beginning their research.
When searching and applying for PhDs, people often look for supervisors who are well known in their field or who have conducted renowned, key research in the subject area. However, although this can lend prestige to your own PhD, it is very important to realise that if their working style strongly conflicts with yours or if they do not offer adequate support to their PhD students, then their academic accolades will do little to help you in your own research.
This article outlines some important things to consider, both when you’re selecting your supervisor and PhD programme, and when you’re doing your doctoral research.
How do I find the right PhD supervisor?
If you’re just starting to apply for PhDs and thinking about where you would like to undertake your research, pay attention to who will be working with you as your supervisor and/or principal investigator. Spend some time clarifying how you work best, what you hope to get out of your PhD, and how someone can best support you to do this. Bear these criteria in mind as you set out to select a supervisor – how and whether they can support your research will ultimately be more important to your research than impressive credentials.
This will be the person whom you should have the most contact with throughout your PhD. They will be the one to help you develop your thesis, and give you guidance and feedback to progress successfully in your research. As such, it is crucial that you select someone you will be able to work with well.
When you have an idea of someone you would like to work with, email them personally before you begin your application. Introduce yourself, tell them about your academic goals and enquire if they are currently taking on any supervisees. Try to start a conversation with them and begin some preliminary discussions about the research you intend to do.
If they are open to discussing further details of doing a PhD with them and in their department/institution, ask them how they usually work with their students, outline any concerns you have and enquire about the support that you can expect to receive as a doctoral candidate there.
By this stage, you should have some idea of how responsive and supportive they are, and whether or not they would be interested in supervising you (and whether you would like to work with them). Some may even agree to talk to you via phone or video chat, or connect you to some of their current students so you can find out more about working with the department.
Selecting the right supervisor and establishing some contact before you begin your application can be a lengthy progress so make sure you plan well ahead. It may feel time consuming at first, but remember that a PhD can take three to seven years to complete (depending on where you’re studying and whether you are studying full- or part-time). This is a long time to be working closely with someone so investing time early on to find the right fit for you will pay off in the long run.
How do I make the most of my PhD supervisor relationship?
When you start your PhD, you still need to figure out the best ways of communicating and working with your supervisor. This working relationship will be unlike any other you’ve had: a supervisor is not like a teacher who will give you assignments or mark your work; neither are they like a work boss to whom you are accountable. They are there to guide and support the development of your thesis, not someone you report to as you would in a school or workplace.
For many doctoral students, the PhD is an independent project (unless you are working as a part of a wider PhD research team under the management of a PI; your work life and responsibilities may then more closely resemble a job). As such, you need to determine what kind of guidance you need, what working structure would help you progress effectively, and what type of feedback would be most helpful for you. Discuss these issues early on in your PhD with your supervisor so that expectations are clear on both sides.
Students who are at the beginning of their PhD and need more guidance may meet their supervisors more regularly (e.g. once a month) and prepare some kind of work in advance to be discussed during the meeting (e.g. an essay or literature review). As you progress, some students may like more frequent communication, for instance on a weekly basis; while others may prefer working independently and check in only as necessary.
Whatever the frequency and mode of contact you decide on, be sure that this is clear to both yourself and your supervisor. Remember too, that academics often juggle multiple responsibilities and may be supervising several researchers at the same time. The supervisor is not there to ‘look after’ you and you need to be responsible for following up on meetings or sending reminders to them if needed.
Finally, know that a good supervisor will often also offer you pastoral support for your wellbeing. The PhD has its own unique challenges and you may find yourself having to deal with more than just the academic demands of the research. Try to find out from your supervisor early on in your PhD what kind of support is available to you; either from them, the department or the university.
Be upfront and honest with them about aspects of your personal life that may affect your work, such as any family or mental health issues. A good supervisor should support you, find the most effective ways for you to work alongside these issues and direct you to further support if required.
It may take a while to settle into a comfortable working arrangement with your supervisor, but rest assured that once expectations are clearly set and managed, this relationship can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your PhD. You’ll be challenged, have the opportunity to share insights with an experienced academic and be led to make your own excellent research discoveries.