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How to get the most from your PhD supervisor

Choosing an appropriate postgraduate supervisor is probably the most important step for any new PhD student.

No matter how smart or skilled a student is, it is unlikely that they will be highly successful during their postgraduate studies if their supervisor doesn't do a good job.

To help YOU as a new or prospective postgraduate student succeed in your studies, here we've answered some of the questions that may help you understand how to get the most from your supervisor. 

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How and when should I first start communicating with my PhD supervisor?

Communication between you and your supervisor is the most important factor in your relationship. It is essential that the two of you can communicate well and be both friendly and critical towards each other, in order to build a good relationship and become a successful team. It’s advisable to contact any researchers in your field that you consider to be potential supervisors even before you have applied for a PhD as this will ensure that you have enough time to determine which one of them suits you best. If you and your supervisor know how to talk to each other you’ll be able to overcome hard times in your “relationship” without having to “break up”!

What does it mean to be a good fit with my PhD supervisor?

A supervisor who fits you well is the one whose working style and personality correspond best to your own character and your own working habits. You may hear about students in your department that are talking especially well about a particular supervisor, and based on these comments you may wish that you were working with that supervisor. But beware! Just because a supervisor is popular amongst other postgraduate students does not mean that they will suit you. To find a supervisor who fits you well, you need to rely on your own instinct and choose the one you feel most comfortable with. Just like you choose what kind of music to listen, what kind of clothes to wear, or what kind of people you want to be friends with, choosing a supervisor comes from the same gut feeling and is very much a personal choice.

What types of postgraduate supervisors exist?

Postgraduate supervisors can be classified into different types and sometimes the easiest way to choose a supervisor who fits you well is to try to determine what type of a supervisor he/she is. In the same ways as you may opt for a certain type of partner, it is also possible to lean towards a specific type of postgraduate supervisor in your academic pursuits.

We have compiled a list of 10 different supervisor types to further help you in selecting the one who fits you best:

Invisible: an INVISIBLE supervisor is the one who never has time to meet you and doesn’t give you much input regarding your thesis. If you like working alone and don’t need much guidance, this supervisor is perfect for you.

Indifferent: an INDIFFERENT supervisor is the one who doesn’t give you valuable critical input and always says that everything you do is good or great. This type of supervisor is perfect for students who are self-critical enough to keep their work on a high level. However, they’re a poor fit for other types of students and may give them an unrealistic impression of their own work.

Perfectionist: a PERFECTIONIST supervisor is overly critical and will criticise every aspect of your work to make you achieve the highest possible level. Perfectionist supervisors are perfect for students who are perfectionists themselves and like to test their own limits. However, other types of students may not be happy by being pushed too far.

Moderate: a MODERATE supervisor is the one who meets you regularly but never breathes down your neck; the one who can inspire you but doesn’t impose their opinion on you. In short, a moderate supervisor is the one who can find the right measure in everything and may be seen as the most desirable supervisor as such. However, many students do not like moderation, and they may not be happy working with a moderate supervisor.

Unreliable: an UNRELIABLE supervisor is the one who send you into different directions every week and may keep giving you ambiguous instructions about your research. Although many students will get very confused working with an unreliable supervisor, some students thrive on confusion, and unreliability is just what they need to keep their life interesting!

Underachiever: an UNDERACHIEVING supervisor is the one who will never push you to do much work, who won’t do much work themselves and who is usually not very interested in what they’re doing. Even if many students don’t really dream of working with underachieving supervisors, some people study just to get their title and they want to focus on professional jobs outside the university. Such people will prosper by having an underachieving supervisor because it will give them time for their professional interests.

Overachiever: an OVERACHIEVING supervisor is the one who will push you to do as much work as you can and to get the most out of your program. Such a supervisor is perfect for students who want to remain in academia because they will make the student competitive for academic positions.

Superficial: a SUPERFICIAL supervisor is the one who is just interested in publishing and producing research that ‘works’ but is not interested in the substance behind this research. This type of a supervisor will not be a good fit for students who like to think deeply and more comprehensively about what they are doing.

Conservative: a CONSERVATIVE supervisor is the one who will try to stop you from trying out any new things in your research, such supervisors are definitely not a good fit for any students who are of an explorative nature.

Imposing: an IMPOSING supervisor is the one who will constantly try to push you into their own direction and tell you to do what they do. Such a supervisor may not be good for students who don’t like to take their own initiative but will not be very adored by students who are more independent.

What are 10 good characteristics of a good PhD supervisor?

Although different personality types fit different students, and it is not possible to find a supervisor who will be perfect for everyone, there are a few characteristics considered to be the “foundation” of a good supervisor.

We have compiled a list of 10 such characteristics – in no particular order – to help you select your supervisor:

  1. A good supervisor is approachable and sees you as a research partner rather than as an immature student.
  2. A good supervisor has many connections within academia and can make it easier for you to get an academic position within your field after you are finished studying.
  3. A good supervisor constantly challenges your opinion and makes you learn how to defend your ideas and grow intellectually.
  4. A good supervisor will not take the credit for your work and present it under his/her name without mentioning you.
  5. A good supervisor knows how to get funding and is able to employ you as his/her research assistant in case you are unable to secure your own funding.
  6. A good supervisor can give you clear directions in your work and has realistic expectation.
  7. A good supervisor has personality and allows you to show your own personality instead of forcing you to work like a robot.
  8. A good supervisor knows how to inspire you and give you some encouragement when you need it.
  9. A good supervisor meets their students regularly and encourages them to work consistently.
  10. A good supervisor gives you enough space for exploration.

Is it better for your PhD supervisor to be young and inexperienced or old and experienced?

The basic difference between older and younger supervisors is that the latter are usually more confident in their own abilities because they are more experienced and will thus allow you greater freedom in your work, whereas the former are still relatively inexperienced and will closely follow what you are doing to make sure that they are guiding you well. Younger and inexperienced supervisors will also be more involved in your research project because they need to hunt for publications if they want to become a professor, and they will always see your research as prospective publication material. Therefore, whether to choose an experienced or inexperienced supervisor is a matter of your career expectations and working style. If you like to have a higher responsibility in your work, an experienced supervisor will probably suit you better. However, inexperienced supervisors may push you to do more work and be more critical about your research to make sure that you perform well. If that is what you prefer, then someone inexperienced may be the right choice for you.

Does my PhD supervisor possess unconditional knowledge about my research project?

As a masters student, your research project will not be very comprehensive and your supervisor will probably know a lot about your topic, therefore you should be able to ask them for advice regarding any aspect of your research. However, as a PhD student, your research project will take you into the unknown, and soon you will know more about your topic than your supervisor does. This means that your supervisor will not always have the necessary knowledge to give you appropriate advice – you will need to either contact other researchers from your field or look for information somewhere else if you encounter certain obstacles in your research. You shouldn’t expect your supervisor to be a “Genie in the Bottle” who can save you whenever your work gets stuck! And that’s why being a PhD student will make you tougher and teach you how to pull yourself out of sticky situations.

How often should I meet with my PhD supervisor?

Although there is no one right answer to this question – some students like to meet their supervisors more frequently whereas other students don’t need much guidance –  it is always advisable to meet your supervisor regularly, at least two times a month. Many supervisors arrange meetings with their students on a weekly basis, whereas some supervisors prefer to see their students once every 1-2 months. Therefore, if you are the type of student who likes to have regular meetings to ensure that you are on the right track, you should ask your potential supervisors their preferred meeting frequency so you can make the right choice.

What should my PhD supervisor do for me?

First and foremost your supervisor should help you produce high quality research. This means that they should guide you in structuring your research questions and planning your methodology, give you advice on various issues that arise when you are carrying out your research, and help you write your thesis by providing critical feedback. However, you shouldn’t expect your supervisor to do your work for you, and you shouldn’t ask him or her every minor question that you have about your research if you can answer it by checking the internet or giving it a thought of two.

Furthermore, your supervisor should help you learn how to write journal articles and grant proposals, and connect you with some researchers in your field who may be useful to you in your future career. However, your supervisor should not find a job for you after your studies or do your writing for you. As a rule, it is best to ask your supervisor for help or advice only when you encounter an issue that you cannot solve yourself in any other way.

What do I do if things go wrong?

During your postgraduate studies, there will probably be some moments of friction between you and your supervisor. After all, it is natural to have small disagreements with someone, especially when you are a part of the same team. But if your relationship is based on trust and you know how to communicate with each other, these disagreements will probably not grow into a more serious conflict. However, even if it seems that you and your supervisor don’t have any specific disagreements, it may be that you are not satisfied with some other aspects of your relationship. For example, you may feel that your supervisor doesn’t give you enough freedom or doesn’t meet you frequently enough. In that case, it is better to act immediately rather than remain unsatisfied until the end of your studies.

The first thing that you can do in such a situation is have an honest conversation with your supervisor and tell them your concerns. If that doesn’t help and your supervisor keeps making the same mistake, you can go to your department head or graduate tutor to either advise you on what to do or try to talk to your supervisor on your behalf. But what if even that doesn’t help? Well, in that case you can opt for the most radical alternative – changing your supervisor.

How many times can I change my PhD supervisor?

Even if many postgraduate students never change their supervisors, there are students who change a few supervisors during the course of their postgraduate studies. Many universities will not limit you in changing your supervisor, given that you show satisfying progress in your course. It is important that you as a postgraduate student find a supervisor who will be your best fit, however it is also important that you carefully examine which supervisor may be the best for you instead of jumping from one supervisor to another.

Now that you know some of the things that you should consider when choosing your postgraduate supervisor, we wish you the best of luck in your search!

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