Completing a PhD thesis is, in many respects, a solo endeavour; nevertheless, the PhD is a guided academic journey and your guide—the thesis supervisor or supervisors—plays a vital role in that voyage. Whether you are in the process of approaching potential academic supervisors, have recently started your project with a new supervisor or have a thesis in progress and are wondering if your working relationship with your supervisor could be improved, there are a number of things to consider.
Establish your roles and expectations
When you initially sit down with your supervisor, you will plan how you are going to proceed with your reading, practical research and writing; however, it is essential that you also discuss how your working relationship is going to function. If your supervisor has previously supervised successful students, it may be useful to ask how the collaboration worked in those cases and discuss whether this approach will work again for your own project. You and your supervisor may prefer to plan each step of your research together prior to carrying out the work or, alternatively, you may prefer to work more autonomously and meet with your supervisor to receive feedback on what you have completed. Discuss your projected deadlines for each stage of your thesis and listen to your supervisor if he or she thinks you are being unrealistic. Every supervisor, student and project is different and there are countless ways to approach this unique academic relationship, but discussing your expectations at the outset can prevent frustration and disappointment in the long run.
Find a way of meeting that works for you both
One important thing to remember is that, while you are completely focused on your own research, your project is, in most cases, one of many commitments for your supervisor. This is not to say that you are not a priority for them, but that you should always try to make the most out of the time you have with your supervisor.
There are no rules about how often you should meet, but if you’re finding it difficult to pin down your supervisor to get specific advice or feedback, it’s a good idea to set up a regular meeting time—every fortnight or every month, for example—to ensure that your busy supervisor always makes time for you and your project. If you’re working away from your academic institution and mostly communicate with your supervisor by e-mail, it can be useful to arrange a skype meeting every now and then—the ability to see each other’s facial expressions can save the need to read between the lines in e-mails! Ironically, students who see their supervisor every day in the hallway of their department sometimes find it harder to set up more formal productive supervision meetings than those who work remotely.
Document your meetings
Make the most of your meetings by planning the agenda, including any questions you have and what you want to discuss with your supervisor, and send this to them a few days beforehand so they have time to prepare. The agenda doesn’t have to be very formal, but it ensures that you don’t forget anything important if your discussion goes off in another direction. After the meeting, write a short summary of what was discussed, detailing what both you and your supervisor have agreed to do before the next meeting, and send a copy to your supervisor to ensure that you’re both on the same page with regard to the next steps and that you have a record of your meeting should there be any questions in the future. A template like that available via the link above is a useful tool to prepare the agenda for supervision meetings and to document the discussion for your records.
Allow time for considered feedback
Once you are in the write-up stage of your PhD, if you have a longer piece of written work that you would like your supervisor to read before your meeting, send it a few weeks earlier to ensure they get a chance to read it carefully and give you the considered feedback you need. If you think you are going to miss a deadline that you’ve previously agreed on, let your supervisor know as soon as possible so you can reschedule—you would expect them to do the same for you. The written work you send to your supervisor does not have to be in a completely finalised and polished state, however, it is important to show professional respect and avoid sending very messy and incomplete work that your supervisor will struggle to decipher.
Every doctoral student knows that the PhD journey has many ups and downs and your relationship with your supervisor can, at times, be a source of frustration or tension. Nevertheless, most serious issues can be avoided by taking the small steps required to keep your academic relationship with your supervisor and your joint productivity on track and remembering that mutual respect is at the heart of a successful student-supervisor relationship.