share your supervision stories

Please use the comments box to share your experiences of doctoral supervision.

Doctoral students, I’m interested in hearing about what your supervisor does that impacts on you, what makes all the difference, how are you supported, what does good supervision look like, how do you and your supervisor interact, how did you come to trust each other, is your relationship typical?

Supervisors, what’s your approach, where did you learn about supervision, how is it working for you, what does good supervision look like, what are the essentials for supervision, where does trust come from, how do you interact with your students?

Information on this study can be found here. Ethical approval was granted by the University of Sheffield Ethics Committee on 11 May 2016.

Please use the comments box to share your experiences of doctoral supervision.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.

103 thoughts on “share your supervision stories”

  1. Am slightly outside of the current group, contribution more on a reflection of my own doctoral experience which was (gulp) just over ten years ago. It was probably one of the most positive experiences of my academic career. My PhD is in chemistry and I had a great relationship with my supervisor, there were many in our department that were not. As i chose to stay at my own institution I already knew my supervisor reasonably well. Factors that made it work were i) boundaries: although he was interested in us as ppl, he never overstepped student / supervisor boundary, we knew we could got to him with issues or chat about our lives in general but he was never one for hitting the pub with the students every friday like quite a few others were. That might sound anti social but I felt that it meant he had a good grasp of boundaries about when to engage and when not too. I cite this firstly as the negative relationships, were usually ones where boundaries were breached; ii) respect: my supervisor had respect for our academic views, even though we were very early in our academic careers, he never ran roughshod over ideas, never made us feel like our input was naive or not valuable, that meant you grew in confidence and felt free to debate and grow as a researcher. You really were made to feel part of a team in an equal way, I do recall a conversation where he verbalised this once saying that once our PhD was gained, there was little difference intellectually between supervisor and student. The difference was really then just in experience terms not intellectually; iii) goal setting: we were lucky in that my supervisors office was in our lab, we knew we could knock on the door pretty much any time and it would be ok. But he set up regular meetings with each of us (fortnightly) to formally discuss progress – because of that, there was less need to just drop by, we knew when we would have his time and attention and anything else urgent in the interim, we knew he would make space for. All of these factors together built a really strong foundation and for that, myself and the other PGRs trusted him. How he conducted himself as a supervisor, whether that was by design or not, is pretty much my model for how these realtionships should be. Now am in research management at an HEI specialising in the arts and humanities, I see a very different side to supervisor – student relationships, not always in a good way either. I’m very interested to see what differences there are to this relationship across the discipline spectrum – this project is a great piece of research and I look forward to seeing the report.

  2. As I’m sure many people have noted, my own experience of supervision was very formative. I believe that the relationship between a doctoral student and supervisor can often be one which involves a power differential which can trap supervisory relationships in a ‘transmission’ or ‘training’ style. The notion of a ‘supervisor’, as opposed to an ‘advisor’, implies asymmetry in the relationship and constructs positions and identities for both parties.

    In my supervisory practice I try to build a more collaborative, collegial approach to developing our students. This begins by cultivating a ‘decentred’ approach to supervision relationships. I argue that the role of doctoral development is an enculturation process, through which students learn about the community they are joining, its history, its key debates, as well as its culture and discourses.

    For me the doctoral process can be metaphorised as a journey of induction into the academic community, through ‘critical inclusion’, based on collaborative relationships, and moving beyond a transactional ‘tips and techniques’ approach. The journey involves moving through a series of rites of passage, building up a repertoire of established professional norms, ways of being, and ways of doing research work. A student’s doctoral repertoire will be biographical, reflecting who they are, where they come from, and what they bring to their research. The liminal phase of this rite of passage – the stage where the student works closely with their supervisor (advisor?) – can by adopting a decentred collaborative orientation become a powerfully productive pedagogic space.

    Trust as in any collaborative relationship is central and this involves being open about the intentions of the pedagogic relationship, the potential difficulties and challenges likely to be faces and the negotiation of what the repertoire might involve for each supervisee (advisee?) acknowleding this might involve a complex nexus of instrumental, integrative, technical and emotional components. Trust is an outcome of a two way pedagogic relationship.

  3. I have had mixed experiences of supervision. I have found that the great supervisors are those that listen and stay in touch regularly (by replying to e-mails or by being present in the department). They make time for their students when they need help, and ask the students if they need help rather than assuming everything is going well. They know what their students are working on, although this doesn’t mean they have to be constantly giving instructions. They know which conferences their students have submitted abstracts for and care about whether they have a poster or oral presentation, as well as giving help and advice on the preparation of the poster/talk. They give feedback in a timely manner (not months or years later). They don’t have to be your best friend and you don’t have to agree on everything, but they remain professional and objective. They give you advice about careers and the long term aims of your research rather than just dealing with everything last minute in a rush because a deadline has come up. They’re honest with you and tell you (directly, not through others) when you have done something well or when you could/should have done something differently. They give you clear aims and objectives from the start. A good supervisor shows you why you should respect and trust them rather than demanding it.

    The poor supervisors are those that (along with not doing the above) are those that expect their students to work for free once their funding has run out and get angry when you tell them that it’s not fair (yes, there is a culture of this in academia, but that doesn’t make it OK). These supervisors let their relationships with colleagues and students impact their professionalism; co-supervising a project with your partner should absolutely be avoided as it is difficult to remain objective when emotions are involved – equally telling your students that you are angry with a colleague/another student is not professional. These supervisors tell their students that they are wrong when they disagree, despite constructive arguments using published papers and expert opinions being put forward. These supervisors demand abstracts/papers/last minute supervision for their other students that they don’t have time for, at very short notice. They will tell you that they are amazing and doing things for you that other supervisors don’t do for their students, although their claims don’t match what you and others observe. An inadequate supervisor will leave students feeling hopeless and angry, and make every encounter with them feel like a battle.

    The supervisor-student relationship is unique to those involved – there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’. I believe the best approach is to be honest and clear about what each can expect from the other from the beginning and never make assumptions.

  4. It may be a bit of a cheat, but a few years ago I did a talk “Information Literacy and the role of the supervisor: a supervisor’s perspective” (information literacy is my research area) . In that, I drew on research about approaches to supervision. The “approaches to research supervision” research identified 5 approaches: Functional (seeing supervision as project management); Enculturation into the disciplinary community; Critical thinking (challenging teh student); Emancipation (student growing, reflecting; supervisor mentoring; Developing a (reciprocal) quality relationship . The one which I think is dominant for me is “emancipatory”. There are 2 participant quotes from the paper which I highlighted: “Your job as a supervisor is to get them to the stage of knowing more than you” and “I want it to have changed how they see the world”. Obviously the other approaches are important too (helping students to plan the PhD effectively, enabling them to benefit from my research links etc.), so I aim to have a blend. It also varies depending on the students, as in my experience students also have different wants and expectations of the relationship and so I need to tailor my approach to that e.g. some may need more help in managing the process, some really need a lot of encouragement. However, I am not going to completely change my personality for each student. My happiest moments, apart from graduation, are when someone comes in excited about the new things they are discovering in their research data, or having confidence in presenting her/hiself as a researcher with new ideas. I have learnt a lot about research from my students, and from that point of view I hope I have become a more effective supervisor as I have gained more experience from PhD supervision and PhD examination.

  5. My supervisor always made plenty of time for meetings, whenever I needed them. That was crucial, particularly in the early stages. It showed that she cared about my work and our working relationship, which allowed for much better trust. Her strongest attribute was her ability to listen to my concerns and reply with insightful questions for me to consider. In the end, she was brilliant at using her own questions to guide me towards finding the best answers and the most effective next steps for my research. That was the best supervision I could have asked for – much better than simply being told what to do, and much better than being aggressively critiqued. I think the ability to listen well and to ask questions, for a supervisor, requires a great deal of confidence and skill, and is a rare characteristic. (It’s always easier to just tell a student what they’re doing wrong, and to tell them what to do instead.)

  6. I think trust is critical. I recruited two students (both of whom had industrial experience and were 32 years old) when I started my group. Understandably for mature students, both had preconceptions about what PhD really was all about that weren’t necessarily correct. It would have been easy not to trust me on my knowledge of how to supervise students through PhDs because my group was new. One trusted me with the things I was asking him to do and the other didn’t; in spite of me carefully explaining my reasoning. The one that trusted me presented excellent work at a prestigious conference and really appreciated how my supervision allowed him to do that at an early stage in his PhD. The other, whom I supervised in an identical fashion, just didn’t trust my judgement and ignored what I was steering him towards doing. After the six month review, I could see from what he had written that the gulf between us was too great to bridge and that he had to leave my group, which he did. I realise that the situation was partly my failing in my lack of persuasion skills, though ultimately, you have to trust your supervisor because the consequences for the student (PhD failure) are much worse than for the supervisor. On the other hand, if the supervisor isn’t trustworthy then there is also no future for you in his group. So, in a way, you have to give him your trust – at least until you find a better group.

  7. My internal assessor was probably the person who impacted on me the most, she has seen potential in my work and gave me more confidence to move forward at the end of my first year because I was pretty shattered after having so many negative interactions with my supervisor. The same in my second year. She could see value in my work, a lot of potential and gave me a lot of indications on how to improve my work. I felt pumped up by it. She is really give me the fire to move forward!
    My relationship with my first supervisor was negative in the first year but got better in the second year. She is very valuable in term of research process and methodology but do not have as much knowledge in my topic of interest but I work very well now with her.
    My second supervisor got pregnant twice over my supervision time. She left at the beginning of my first year and was replaced by someone who was new at supervising. I was personally not sure yet of exactly what I was doing and spent my time having difficult conversation with my two supervisors and sent in every directions. My relationships with my supervisors completely degraded during my supervisor’s maternity leave. When my second supervisor came back. We managed to get me focused on one topic and I was set off. She was valuable in many ways. She had the knowledge in my topic of interests and she was really good at reviewing document but unfortunately a bit flaky to give me the attention I wanted. After my first year review, my second supervisor decided to focus her attention on her career as opposed to supervision, she was quite overwhelmed with her new baby. I had only one supervisor then. I was moving forward well until we invited my second supervisor to one of my meeting as she refused to attend any other. She sent me on another track in term of research collection. It was probably for the best. Regardless, I just decided to keep strengthening my relationship with my first supervisor and it has been positive as so far. When my first supervisor was on holiday, I had to chase from time to time my second supervisor to have some comments but never mind, I had to. I learnt from people that she was pregnant again and she did not even told me. I decided to have her replaced because she is not transparent enough. She should have step away from supervision and get herself replaced, if she felt she could not handle it.

  8. My supervisor is a senior academic and I am incredibly grateful to them for their time and support. One of the things that has really ‘made a difference’ is the fact that they will actively seek out opportunities for me that I would otherwise not have access too (funding for trips, conferences, meetings, opportunities to work on projects, teaching, publish things). Although I am fully-funded and personally proactive in applying for things that are available, my department have basically said there is no funding available for anything and it feels that there is a pervasive negative attitude towards postgraduate students amongst some of the departmental staff. Without my supervisor constantly keeping an eye out for these opportunities, I basically would not be able to do a lot of the things that are essential for building an academic career. It’s a case of supervisory support 10/10, departmental support 1/10.

    My supervisor is incredibly busy and I would like to meet for supervisions more frequently, but I feel that you have to make a trade-off between calibre of supervisor and the time they can afford make available to you. That being said, the time we have is enough.

    I am someone who has experienced a number of tricky issues in the past that mean I find it very difficult to trust people in both personal and working contexts. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to be able to be more explicit about how my problems impact on my work, but I also feel that there should be a limit to the pastoral/emotional support an academic supervisor is expected to provide to their students. They are already incredibly over-burdened and over-worked within a system that I feel provides them with very little support, too. For much of the support I need in dealing with my own issues about work, it is important that I find support elsewhere.

    Whilst other people normally perceive me as incredibly confident and competent (almost too much so!) I am actually very under-confident and frequently insecure about my own abilities. It has been very important to my self-esteem that faith in my academic abilities has been demonstrated by my supervisor in small but multiple, practical ways – e.g. recommending me to people, sending me to present at events on their behalf. This is something that has made a big difference for me. It is difficult, though, I suppose everyone’s specific supervision needs are different.

  9. I have two supervisors. One of them is excellent – she always has time to meet me, she gives very useful critical feedback, and she’s really supportive. She is my role model and an inspiration.

    My other supervisor is not excellent. I am his first research student. We have fallen out several times in the past. I feel like he doesn’t support me and he isn’t interested in my work. For the first half of my PhD I was lacking in confidence and he often told me to stop being self-deprecating, and once sent me a nasty email telling me to stop my “self-disparaging bullshit”. Since my confidence in my research increased, he has changed. Now he has started to undermine me. He reversed a marking decision I made when we were teaching together (which I was well within my right to make), and he’s started to be a bit nasty in front of other people. He undermined my teaching in front of another TA, and then told me on another occasion that I needed to be more committed to teaching because I said I wouldn’t work for free. I’m having a paper published soon, but if I ever mention it then he manages to bring into conversation that his other, newer student is also having a paper published. He’s passive-aggressive and wants to have control over what I do. He’s started asking me to let him know what events on campus I’m attending when he has nothing to do with them, and was quite unpleasant when I didn’t attend a talk in the department which he had been involved with organising, which was madness – it was just a talk in the department, he’d not specifically said that it was important to him that I attend!

    The issue of unpaid work in academia has come up numerous times between us. He said that one of the reasons I wasn’t committed enough as a teacher was because I didn’t put the hours in. When I said I don’t put the hours in because I’m not paid to work them, he got quite angry with me. He’s told me on numerous occasions that I need to be prepared to work for free if I want to get ahead. Another paid teaching opportunity came up recently, but he said I should be willing to do it for the experience, not the money. I understand that some unpaid opportunities might be very worthwhile in terms of career development, but we should all find it unfair not to be paid for our expertise. I think that he should think it’s outrageous that I’m obliged to undertake this kind of work, not take an attitude of “well, I had to work for free so you should too”. I just don’t think he thinks about the difficulties that having to take time to do other work puts on me – I’m losing time, and I’m not making back money that will allow me to gain more time later on. He doesn’t think about me as a real person with rent and bills to pay – just a thesis. A thesis that won’t be finished on time because of the other stuff I have to do, and then won’t have the money to support myself once my funding has run out because I was never paid for the other work I did during my PhD!

    Worst of all is that he copies my other supervisor into emails. When he emailed to tell me off for not attending a talk, he copied her in. The talk had nothing to do with the good supervisor, and I felt like even if he was annoyed that I’d not gone to then tell the other supervisor that he was angry with me was unreasonable. Even if my behaviour was out of line, there was no need to tell someone else that I’d displeased him. I feel like me and my good supervisor get on really well, and I was upset that he effectively told her that I wasn’t doing my job properly.

    Ultimately, I just don’t trust him. I’ve found his feedback to be vague and limited to the surface of my work. I once turned up to a supervision and he was only halfway through reading my work, so the comments I received were poor. He then kicked me out mid-session because an undergraduate turned up to talk to him. In terms of his capabilities as a professional mentor, I don’t trust him in that respect either. I was struggling when I first started teaching, and I asked him for advice with dealing with a difficult seminar group. He took it as a criticism of his course and was quite nasty in his response. I couldn’t make him believe that it was my ability that I doubted, not his.

    I don’t trust him to give me the feedback I need to develop as a researcher, and I wouldn’t trust him with any professional difficulties, or difficulties in my personal life. He’s made my PhD harder, but every day I’m grateful for my other supervisor – she’s amazing.

  10. I don’t feel I get the same level of support as a full time student. I am self financed and have to work in order to pay the fees. I also have three children. Although the choice to complete a PhD is mine,I feel given the environment we reside in I have no other choice but to continue education in order to secure a job I am trained in. I feel I get treated like my PhD is a hobby compared to students that have a scholarship. The scholarship system is too black and white-high achievers get the finance,surely dedication when juggling working almost full time and having children and still obtaining a merit at postgrad level should be recognised? PhDs that are funded deal with the research in a 9-5 basis,I do my research at every opportunity regardless of time or day. It’s about time part time students received the same support,guidance and ultimately respect,afterall us p/t students are always welcome for freebies or ridiculously underpaid teaching positions (because we need the money),but f/t never apply! Supervisors are only interested in students that have funding and it needs to change. Every student if funded would be a high achiever,surely the individuals that demonstrate multi tasking,time management and juggling numerous responsibilities are the ones more appropriate for the positions rather than an individual that turns up 9-5 mon-fri?

  11. My supervisor is highly supportive, always displays deep interest in my work and meticulously goes through any of my submissions with constructive feedbacks. We meet regularly fortnightly. During these meetings, we discuss the progress of my research project and other areas of interest to look at. Apart from keeping me on my toes, these regular meetings also keep my project in steady progress.

    My secondly supervisor is also equally readily available to offer useful and timely suggestions as at when required. He responds promptly to any submission to him with constructive feedbacks.

    Both of them are great motivating factors for me.

  12. I feel that I have a very unusual relationship with my supervisor. I am definitely lucky that we get on very well. He has evolved into my mentor and friend as well as an academic counsel for my doctoral work, which goes beyond his supervisorial responsibilities. We have fallen out several times, mainly over holidays and my part-time work schedule but this has always been resolved quickly – normally over Facebook and then over a cup of tea. Our areas of research are very close so we have uncommon interaction that might not be the case if we were not working with the same institutions, travelling to all the same conferences, writing for the same journals, etc.

    I would say that we have a very clear line of communication because we are straightforward with each other. Initially, I found it difficult to have equal frankness with him but it has been valuable to my academic and pastoral work in the long run. When dealing with my work, he can be brutal but it is always with constructive follow-up or support that means I value when I’m praised and know when something needs serious attention. Generally, we communicate very informally by email but mainly by Facebook. This is not a method of working I would advocate lightly although it has worked for me. I have unusually free access to him. If I have a practical and short PhD question, I might use Facebook to ask it. Occasionally, we will have an informal chat about something when the thought occurs to the other person. My unspoken system is that while we have pastoral catch-up (are you alright? is your sleeping better? will you need another meeting before your deadline?) on Facebook, I send all work-related questions, comments etc. via email. This is so that we can each elect as and when to deal with them. I would say that I have adjusted how I share how I feel about work/PhD to prevent him from seeing what I might think/say/express in the heat of the moment. The opposite side of this is that he and I both have a barometer of how the other person is doing without relying on rolling communication in a more conventional way. He became aware that I was unwell and holding off on actually seeking medical attention because of this access. There is a pastoral value to our system but it could be a serious strain on both parties if it were not managed carefully and with respect.

    I am very conscious that there are lots of opportunities that the university offers to PGRs that I have never accessed because I wasn’t aware of them in my early PhD and neither was he. He was not able or interested in encouraging me in this way. We also have a very erratic schedule, meeting as and when, which has allowed us both to be flexible to busy diaries. The downside of this system is that I have to initiate contact when I feel least able to ask. I definitely lost my working structure during my second year when I could have had a weekly routine because I was not accountable in the way that you can be with regular meetings.

    My supervisor sensitively helped me to get tested for SPLD, which I would never have thought of doing without his guidance. I discovered that I have a severe problem with short-term working memory. He has taken extra time to adjust our tutorials to make sure I now record information I previously failed to take in. Otherwise, he has left me to ask or discuss this as and when I feel the need. He has left me to take forward all subsequent action in relation to this as he has with my Doctoral Development Plan. Those are my things.

    He gives me very focused support in building my profile in our research area and in developing my critical skills, so I have never looked for any additional support than I have received. If I do not do my work and rise to his expectations, he will tell me, and I am aware that other research students have been less well supported because they do not fit in with the system of working I have outlined. He makes opportunities for you and gives great attention to your work in return for your active participation in all his related activities. He does not suffer laziness, disinclination or disorganisation. I have always suspected that there is a window in which you need to prove yourself or he retreats. That has not been my experience but I have definitely felt the pressure to keep up with his pace at the cost of my health and personal life.

  13. My supervisor is supportive on both a professional and personal level. She is encouraging and gives constructive feedback. Not once has she ever made me feel that she is too busy to deal with any queries I may have. We have weekly meetings and discuss where my project is going, during this time I suggest experiments and directions for the project (as does she) and together we agree on what the next steps are; I feel this gives me ownership of my project, yet I have guidance there to make sure what I am proposing is relevant and necessary.
    My second supervisor is equally as supportive; although we only meet once a month, she gives constructive feedback on my work and also makes sure that myself and my primary supervisor have not gone off on a tangent.

  14. I am really grateful to my supervisor. Since I was a distant student I could mainly contact my supervisor by mails or on Skype. When I had the chance to visit the university my supervisor always had time for me.
    I am especially grateful for suggestions concerning the literature that would be useful for my research and advice I could always ask for.

  15. I am very pleased to share my experiences with my supervisors as a doctoral student and I reckon I am extremely fortunate to have them. My doctoral journey in the first place wouldn’t have started had it not been my primary supervisor who believed in me and encouraged me to apply for the PhD position. I owe him my doctoral degree. Both my supervisors and advisor are fantastic people and their professional achievements, diligence and self-discipline are awe-inspiring. I consider myself very fortunate as I meet with my supervisors every week for an hour (they are so kind and welcoming that they are willing to put in extra hours of support should I need them)! Unbelievable it may seem to many, but I think that’s incredibly important to be moving steadily and timely in the right direction. I am an international student and both my supervisors are British and as you would imagine, they are very humble and polite people. They have helped me imbibe the culture of ‘team-play’ and in getting out of the shell of hierarchy – there’s a significant gap in the student-professor relationship in the country from where I come from. My supervisors have made my doctoral journey a very enjoyable learning experience and I will be grateful to them all my life.

  16. I feel that my supervisors have been very supportive and have helped to guide my thinking in a constructive way. I appreciate their gentle probing that helps me to think critically about my research and the theoretical frameworks that I am using. They both appreciate the difficulties that a part time student can have trying to balance different roles and I feel that I have a good relationship with both of them. Throughout the process, I have taken some control over the supervisory sessions, setting out the parameters for what I want to discuss and get feedback on and this has worked well.

  17. Relationship, I hardly have one with my supervisor. If I attend for an appointment (which is rare) you can bet your bottom dollar the conversation will revert to how busy they are, what they are up to professionally and what’s on the horizon e.g. with REF . It seems the relationship is focused on them and how they can build their cudos. My challenge is they have the subject knowledge and so I need to find a way to progress with/without them. I don’t think my supervisor actually reads my work! I found an error in a framework I compiled 2.5 years after I did it and yet they had been sent this work on various occasions for review. This meant I had to revisit over 60 000 words and re-work many examples I had so carefully crafted to explain myself in my thesis. I am told not to ask questions because apparently that avoids what I am being told to do. I have tried to explain I ask questions to help me learn and to understand what they want me to understand, to know or to do but it seems this does not work either. On the most recent occasion they got emotional pointing a finger at me and told me off – apparently my problem is that I don’t listen. I have asked for feedback on my work and have been told there is no such thing as feedback, it is about criticism. I have never once since Jan 2012 received feedback on my work. At about this 60 000 word stage I had sent them 7.5 hours work in advance of a meeting thinking I was doing what I had been told to do. I arrived, my work was on their pc screen and they simply deleted the lot in front of me! Now you know why I say there is no point in building a trusting fruitful supervision relationship. Early on in my studies they asked me to write with them. My intuition led me to gracefully decline. My research subject inspires me, not my supervisor. If I can try and offer a balanced view, making me read specific literature has been extremely useful and I would not know what I now know.

  18. My own supervision was inspirational. I admired my main supervisor and her work greatly and thought she was amazing. But as we became friends, drinking buddies (she’s now one of my best mates) she also lost that hold over me that I have subsequently found so important with my own students. I needed someone stern and who I was a bit afraid of really, to make me finish. It was only when I realised my slack attitude to my thesis and my stalling was causing her harm (people were asking her “when IS she going to finish?”) that I pulled my finger out and wrote the damn thing. But she knew nothing much about my subject area and I did most of that work myself – my other supervisor gave me some reading but by and large I found my own way. My second supervisor I saw infrequently and he asked antagonistic questions that infuriated me but always spurred a new train of thought as I tried to defend against them. Its an approach I use with my own students now and tell them they should feel annoyed with me when they come out of supervision sometimes!

    The biggest thing I have learned as a supervisor is not to take on a student you don’t have that ‘gut feel’ about – UK university culture is such that you’ll be expected to get them to a pass regardless of their ability, and often this means basically doing the work yourself. Its tempting to take on an OK (fee paying) student with the right entry criteria and who’s topic you’re not that interested in but who you think *might* be OK with a year or so’s support… but I have NEVER had this work out and won’t be doing it again!

    Ultimately I have learned that supervision is an emotional game – the Germans liken the role to a parent and thats exactly how it can be. Its hard to tell someone their work isn’t good enough, especially when you’ve been encouraging and positive up to that point because you think it will come together. They fall apart. You feel like a complete shit. They resent you. They complain about you. But then they usually thank you afterwards 😉

  19. I am happy with the relationship I have with my supervisor. Clearly, my supervisor has had a huge impact on the research questions that I have been investigating, but at no point have I felt that I have been forced into a particular research direction. I will work on something for a few weeks, and if I am failing to make progress, my supervisor will suggest a few ideas or papers to read, but allow me to decide what direction I want to follow. This gives me some control over my project, while keeping it close to the interests of my supervisor.

    My supervisor is quite busy, but I know that my supervisor considers her students a priority, so we can count on at least one hour of supervision in a fortnight. During the supervision, I know that I have my supervisor’s full attention. We will discuss my project for the majority of the time, but I know I can also use that time to ask for other relevant advice, such as what conferences I should plan on going to, the non-thesis related requirements I need to fulfil in order to complete my degree, and what I might do once I have finished my doctorate.

  20. I had hoped to have different relationships with my advisors, I’d wanted to feel inspired and enthused in our discussions, and a sense of joint decision making about my research (rather than feeling told what to do at times without room for debate). Unfortunately I have always felt a bit awkward and inadequate around them. That’s not really their fault but just a reflection of the relationships. This has meant they aren’t aware of my heightened anxiety about my research, my choices and the aspects of my thesis that have caused me great emotional drain and a little regretful about the whole project.
    One of my supervisors makes assumptions about my reactions and views, misinterprets my body language etc. but I don’t feel I have the space to challenge that.
    I wish I had been full time. If i’d seen them more on an everyday basis rather than every few months, I think it might have helped me get over my awkwardness and relate to them better.
    On a better note, my supervisors are thorough, always read my submitted work, and usually make quite detailed written comments that are the most useful thing that they do. Occasional compliments make all the difference, they have no idea how much I hold on to these to stay motivated!

  21. I would by no means say i have had the easiest of rides as a PhD student. Being a part timer are first, being a carer and my second supervisor being ill, then in my second year changing my mode of study, having my partner be severely ill , and having to replace one of my supervisors who left. However throughout i can only say i have had amazing support, in particular because i was treated as a human, not just a student, or researcher, but someone who had a live and other demands. While it is undeniable that face to face meetings can be beneficial and help build a relationship this has not always been possible for me. Skype however has become a modern saviour meaning supervision never stops, and constant communication means i have never felt abandoned despite the circumstances.

    I cannot say that trust is an instant thing in a supervision relationship. I admit at first i felt overwhelmed, that i was somehow beneath these people, but through open discussion it was clear that they actually wanted to listen to what i had to say. In particular that i was not going to be alone in this, that people did have my back, indeed openness has been needed at times, especially when we have differed on perspectives of research, but also that there is a relationship between life and research and somethings will interact with each other. So any issues could be discussed.

    When my primary supervisor left it was discussed how things would progress, with a period of settling with the new supervisor, continued communication afterwards, i now feel i have the best of both worlds, despite what has been a very bumpy road, i look back and see that i have always had support there, something that has been built up rather than thrown together.

  22. Both my supervisors are very supportive when I need it. It’s not a forced ‘support’ which is helpful. They also push, or rather hint at, me to do things beyond the PhD to help my further career, then help me in doing those. We agree and disagree on certain things regarding my PhD, but they make sure that I know it’s still my project and they give guidance according to that. They also very much care about my emotional wellbeing, which comes in very handy at times.

    We meet sometimes weekly sometimes less often depending on everyone’s schedules (including mine).

  23. I am incredibly supported by my two supervisors. My poor primary supervisor takes the brunt of most it. I feel that, on a personal level, I get on well with my supervisors and this helps everything along nicely. I also had a few years experience in academia prior to starting my PhD, in more ‘harsh’ academic settings (reputations to uphold/ a certain type of snobbery) and so I became quite well accustomed to academic criticism or nit-picking. I’m quite hard to offend, especially in terms of my work because if I cannot adequately support my own research decisions then I believe them to be in need of reconsideration. So in that way, if my supervisors challenge or question any of my decisions or beliefs – I view it as a moment for positive change rather than a criticism against myself or my own abilities (something that some other people may struggle with). This is also aided by the fact that my supervisors are both straightforward talkers but very personable people in general. Critiques are presented in kind and clear ways and there is always space for open discussion of ideas!

    I also had a few years working in mainstream jobs before doing my PhD and I learnt that managers can only handle what they know to be happening. I vowed to take this approach into my PhD, so I strive to be as transparent with my supervisors about how I’m feeling (if I’ve been feeling unmotivated or unsure, or if I’ve had a good, productive month etc.) and I think that helps the process. I am in contact with my primary supervisor probably around 3+ times a week, by email mainly. My secondary supervisor I am in contact with less, but we always have our monthly supervision together and his comments are always very much appreciated. I think it also helps that my secondary supervisor doesn’t see so much of the ‘backstage’ process and maybe will help me in the long run to have one supervisor who is very close to the research process and one who is able to be more objective/reflexive towards the work produced.

    I wholly trust my supervisors, because they have demonstrated that they are willing for me to form and pursue my own research without forcing me into particular methodologies or methods that they prefer. In fact, it was only when I had explored all the methodologies and finally decided on the one I want to take that I found out it was the same methodology that they both use in their research! They have provided me with the safe boundaries within which I can develop to my own potential. They are both critical of my work but also very positive in terms of my abilities and my potential – and this all helps to boost my academic self-esteem and make me much more likely to approach them with any issues or problems I may have.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the relationship I have with my supervisors is typical (at least not from the stories of my other PhD friends) and I think that’s a shame. PhDs are hard, they’re isolating and when you’re going through this process, trusted and supportive supervisors are one of the most important things to have! I think I’m very lucky to have the supervisors I have.

  24. I think there is this view they can have of themselves, they see themselves as gatekeepers. My supervisors talk about how they are quality assurers, acting as gatekeepers for the academy – the grand club, and in order to be let in you need to play their game. Are you in or are you out, are you good enough. Some of that can make you feel like you’re very definitely not good enough.

    I can see that we need standards, but I came here for the teaching too, not just for the exam.

  25. I think there’s a style of ‘non teaching’ that I’ve experienced in the sciences, where they pretend it’s a supervision strategy – that there’s some merit attached to leaving people to struggle their way through things as if it’s going to make them better at the thing they can do in the end than if someone told them quite quickly and easily what the thing was. They think if you arrive at it through finding it yourself that you’ll be better in the long run, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Yes there are dangers involved with being too prescriptive as with anything, if you give students too much information are they just going to churn out a copy of whatever you provide them with. But is there somewhere in between, a halfway house between no guidance and being told exactly how to do it? For the right student, a hands off approach is great, for the wrong student it’s a disaster.

    Some supervisors are hands off not because it’s the right supervision strategy but because they’d rather have their time to themselves.

  26. On this project, I have faced some difficulties with what I found to be poor orientation and unclear focus from the project leadership, which lead to stalled progress for about half a year. Given this background, momentum and enthusiasm for finishing the project waned significantly after my original supervisor changed institutions and left Sheffield, and it took a while to rediscover on my own the interest that lead me to undertake the project in the first place. At present, I have been following a thesis writing plan that I developed for myself. The challenge I have found so far has been in avoiding being pulled back away from the writing process to get back in the lab just to dot or cross another technical ‘i’ or ‘t’, respectively. This has usually involved pressure to get involve in some more experiments (not for my own thesis I might add – for some funding proposal), which take away from writing.

  27. I think that making good progress in PhD work is partly to do with confidence and having the belief that I can do it, but I also recognize that I work best when I have milestones and deadlines which I report to people. Meetings with my supervisor have become very sporadic, once every 3/4 months and now I have been given a provisional deadline for a draft of my thesis I seriously need help with my motivation and keeping on track. More frequent meetings with my supervisor would help me, but she is busy and we seem to just fall back into the pattern of infrequent meetings due to her other commitments.

    In addition to this the relationship I have with my supervisor isn’t necessarily one where I feel that I can openly discuss my progress, for example admitting to having gone down the wrong path for a while or being honest to having not done much work for a few weeks, I think someone I can speak honestly to about my progress would really help.

    I feel that in theory the work is doable, but that my lack of structure and support alongside the usual doubts over ability means that at present I have created barriers to my progress which I am struggling to overcome.

  28. There are several barriers that I face on making progress with my PhD. Having relocated here I have found it hard to settle in to the city and the University. When I arrived it seemed that people who had done their MAs here and already knew their supervisors and the department had a distinct advantage and I still feel like an outsider in certain respects. I think its a confidence thing not really knowing the standards and expectations of the school and University when I am also embarking on a completely new sort of learning/research project. I wish there was more structured help for PhDs who are totally new to the University. I did not have a desk in the department for the first 6 months and this did not help as I felt increasingly isolated. There is a sort of implicit expectation with supervisors and students that PhD students all arrive with a generic set of skills (as if they have all been taught here), but I am aware that some of my skills and knowledge is weaker since I never took a module on this for my undergraduate degree as they do here. I have some concerns about writing my thesis these are; structuring my workload; having a clear insight into the expectations on me and my thesis; knowing what a successful and solid PhD looks like; getting writers’ block and being too perfectionist about writing; focusing overly on the detail and worrying about the unknowns of my overall thesis rather than breaking down my work; dealing with uncertainty; not expecting unrealistic outcomes for my research; setting barriers and boundaries to my own reading and writing. I have a generally good and positive relationship with my supervisor, but I do not feel I can bring these things up with her, or do not know how to bring things up with her like this, I guess I do not want her to see these things as a weakness or a sign that I am struggling and of course there is also a limitation to what we can discuss in terms of time so I often don’t bring up more generic worries or skill-related issues in supervisions.

  29. My relationship with my supervisor started positively but has declined over time, and is now very strained and defensive. All the joy and creativity of the process seems to have gone, in the focus on completion and presentation. First supervisor doesn’t have time/ability due to other commitments to fulfil their role (for example reading drafts submitted in a timely way, providing appropriate feedback, following stuff through) and second supervisor doesn’t have time either, though tries. I have no input from 3rd supervisor at all. Project/supervision poorly organised and centralised checks/balances/support seem non-existent, which is compunded by part-time status and my lack of knowledge and confidence in the process.

  30. My relationship with my supervisor has had a negative impact on progress and writing up. If I had had sufficient support from my supervisor then I would have progressed much faster and without as much stress, doubt and worry.

  31. My supervisor has helped me to concentrate on completing large sections of my PhD without distraction as I am trusted to decide when other work needs to be done. However, the hands-off nature might have led to me taking longer to finish some of it than if I had been given constant deadlines.

  32. My supervisor is extremely supportive of my emotional and mental wellbeing and considers this hugely important for my work. He is not an expert in my field, but he is an expert in managing people. Doing a PhD is very stressful, emotionally damaging, and confidence destroying at times. However, this is because of the international research atmosphere and culture, and the ‘need’ to achieve fast which is constantly poured on as an external pressure. My supervisor is very aware of all of this, and bears it in mind when we work together, he shields me.

  33. As a student, I thought my supervisor was great. He gave me free reigns in pursuing my research and always made time available when I asked for help. Now, looking back after ten years, I would have wished to get more specific advice and training in certain skills that researchers need. So the perspective on what good supervision is changes over time and as a student, one is not necessarily able to judge what the best supervision would be for oneself.

    I am now group leader in a research institute and supervise master’s and doctoral projects. I find the supervisor role very challenging and I think a lot about how to deal with various aspects of it. Every student comes with a different set of skills and a different personality and it takes a different style of supervision to optimally support them, and that style needs to be adapted as the project progresses.

    I believe once one has decided to take on a student on a project, one has the responsibility to do the best to lead them through and to make sure they have the skills they need to survive in research. A student project is not primarily there for generating results. Of course, good results and a number of published papers is a necessary stepping stone for starting a scientific career. But as a supervisor, we also have to make sure that the student can independently come up with viable research questions and design a project, that she/he can write to the required quality and communicate effectively and various other things.

    Trust comes from an established functional relationship – a relationship that is concerned with the development of the student as a scientist and takes them seriously. This does not need to be a friendship, but can stay on an entirely professional level. To reach such a relationship, from my experience, open and clear communication is key. I try to communicate early on what I expect of them and what they can expect of me. I also try to tell them when I perceive problems in their work or personal situation and I try to be open about my supervising strategy and discuss with them whether it meets their needs and works for them. So far, this approach has worked quite well.

  34. My supervisor is great. He reads things when he says he will read them by. We meet weekly and it always happens…not always on the day or at the time it’s scheduled, but mostly. He prioritises my thesis over my papers and doesn’t give me more work to do when I’m supposed to be writing up as I know happens to others

  35. An American friend of mine reckons that we have a tendency to supervise our students in reaction to the way we were supervised as students. My supervisor didn’t interact with his students a great deal, which was great for some of us, but really difficult for most students, who didn’t feel they had enough support.

    When I was a new lecturer, I tried to see all my students at least once a day. I tried hard to make sure they didn’t feel they’d been forgotten. I visited NPL one day and remember telling this to a senior scientist there who I greatly respected. He looked at me quizzically and said: “if you do that, how are they ever going to make any mistakes?” I realised he was quite right – making mistakes is a vital part of learning to do research. In trying to ensure that my students didn’t feel unsupervised, I was suffocating them.

    Nowadays I have too much to do and there is no chance I’ll see everybody every day. I understand why my supervisor was so hands-off. But in reality, there is a happy medium somewhere between the two extremes. We need to give help, training and advice where it is needed, but also make sure we cut the apron-strings and allow our students to mature and become truly independent. Which means allowing them to make mistakes!

  36. In case this is relevant for processing the results, I’m now just post-submission (submitted July 2016, defense will take place October 2016), so most of what I describe here is past experience. My PhD is in English Literature.

    I moved from elsewhere in the EU to the UK to work with my supervisor, for two reasons: one very basic – the university offered funding for a research spot with her, which I secured – and one more reputation-related – she is co-author of a key text (academic book), perhaps the key text, in my field (this was the main reason for applying for that particular funding). In a way, starting my PhD with someone I hardly knew was a gamble – we’d had email contact but I’d only met her once, briefly, at a conference. I wasn’t too worried, though, as I’m used to working independently.

    Mostly, I’ve been really happy with the way our supervisory relation has developed. We managed to strike a balance between a personal and professional relation – I’ve been over to her house for one reason or another once or twice, I can tell her what I did on my holiday, she’s met my partner at a dinner party, but we’re not ‘close friends’ – I don’t discuss my life’s dreams and ambitions, my personal desires, etc. with her, except for where it relates to academic/work ambitions.

    I’ve never been afraid to tell my supervisor if I had problems or difficulties with something. I’m always pretty straight to the point, and she’s been okay with this – she knows that if I don’t say anything, it’s fine, and if it isn’t fine, I’ll say something about it.

    We would typically meet once every 4-6 weeks, a bit more often at the beginning of my PhD. This worked for me – it was enough time, for example, to get a decent chunk of writing done and send it to her, but not so long I felt adrift, or would get in trouble if something didn’t work out as planned. She wasn’t regularly available at university (when she was in for teaching, she’d also be busy meeting with undergraduate students and the like, and when she didn’t teach she worked from home a lot). I didn’t mind – if anything came up in-between supervisions, it could generally be handled by email.

    One of the difficulties we had, or rather, that I had, was the planning/work schedule she made for herself. I’m pretty sure she works seven days a week, long days, not always on enough sleep. I’d regularly get emails sent in the middle of the night. Often, she’d respond to emailed questions within minutes. I think the longest we’ve had between my submitting a section/chapter and us having a supervision about it is three or four days. Even when I submitted the final draft of the entire (80,000 word) thesis to her a couple of months ago, we had a supervision about it less than a week later. On the one hand, that’s wonderful: you never have to wait, to remind your supervisor that you need feedback to continue, etc. It played a significant part in my having been able to submit the PhD within the three years of the scholarship. On the other hand, though, you never have a break unless you forcibly plan one in yourself – you never have that “phew, that’s gone, now I can go do something else for a bit”, because the day after next, you’ll be discussing it and you can continue working on it again.

    In fact, my supervisor was unable to leave something for a bit – when at one point I wasn’t sure if I was okay for a potential supervision-date and said that the week after might be more practical, she was all stressed and “no, that doesn’t work for me”, up to the point that I said I could hold on to the (finished) section a bit longer and only send it to her shortly before the new meeting date. It turned out to be unnecessary, as I could make the planned date after all, but her inability to leave something be for a bit is not something I want to copy. Same for answering emails: yes, it’s very nice to get a response within a reasonable time, but in my view, unless you’ve agreed differently, a reasonable time can be up to a day or two. In her case, if she doesn’t hear from someone within 6-8 hours, it’s not unlikely she’d send a reminder “oh sorry, just to check the email arrived safely as I hadn’t heard from you yet”.

    I’ve been okay working with her quirks over the past three years and over all, she’s been a lovely, kind, supportive and helpful supervisor – no regrets whatsoever I’ve done my PhD with her. Nevertheless, it’s taken some will power to tell her that, no, I don’t want to have meetings on the weekend/in the evenings, as that’s my time for rest and friends. I don’t know if she tries with me because she knows I’ll draw a line, or if she’d be the same with students who are more insecure as well, and who’ll follow her schedule even if they don’t want to. I’ve also probably gotten in a habit of checking my email a lot more often than I did at the start of my three-year period.

    If it comes down on a yes or no, do you trust her (and does she trust me) question, my answer would be an easy yes, and I’m pretty sure hers would be the same. But even a generally good – or really good – supervisory relation has its issues, and the ones listed above are some of mine/ours. I don’t think we had a typical supervisory relation, but then again, does such a thing exist? Compared to what I’ve heard from other students, I’ve certainly had a better-than-average experience. I look forward to finishing, but I’ve really enjoyed the process, and my supervisor’s played a significant role in that.

  37. I first met my now supervisor as a first year undergraduate days after I had turned nineteen. As an impressionable young woman, I was intrigued by this charismatic, experienced, highly talented academic and teacher who was (and still is) very popular with his undergraduates. I don’t doubt for a moment that meeting, and being taught by my supervisor years before actually starting my PhD heavily influenced my PhD topic but also played a large part in establishing trust in our relationship. Sometimes, especially when I am struggling to feel confident about my work, I worry that I regress back to my younger self and fall into a pattern of behaviour that mirrors the relationship between an inexperienced undergraduate and a respected academic. There is far less parity in this relationship than in a successful PhD student/supervisor relationship. Nevertheless, I feel we have a really good relationship, which is professional and respectful but not cold – my supervisor is on my side and cares about my work, my wellbeing and my future, as made clear in the many conversations we have had together. There have been moments where the relationship has felt to me to be vaguely paternal. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, necessarily, and I think the relationships between PhD students and their supervisors are different depending upon the genders involved. They differ in so many ways – the PhD is an intense process, not just for the student but, if the supervisor is properly engaged in the project, then for the supervisor too. The intensity of it can bring out the best in the two people but can also allow insecurities and inadequacies to manifest themselves. There have been times where I have felt very frustrated with my supervisor (though I have not expressed this) and ultimately this has not been due to anything he has done, but because my work is not progressing in the ‘perfect’ way I want it to progress.
    My supervisor is incredibly patient and honest with me, and never fails to provide helpful feedback and constructive criticism of the work I write for him. He has given me honest advice about conducting research, writing regularly and well, and about the academic job market. I know he listens to me and I feel able to make mistakes and to ask for help. I feel very lucky to have him as my supervisor.

  38. My supervisor are very supportive, and I feel extremely knowledgeable about the research project I am undertaking as part of PhD studies. Supervision sessions are on a regular basis, with feedback on progress been given in these sessions. My 3 supervisors all have different personalities which I think is a strength. My lead supervisor is very approachable and responds quickly to any enquiries that I have. I am very satisfied to date with my supervisory team.

  39. I have two stories to tell: as a student and as a supervisor. As a student I had one supervisor and one advisor i never used. My supervisor and I had known each other since the Master’s dissertation and we got on well. He was hands-off most of the time, kind and supportive but intellectually i never felt truly challenged. This was not a real problem because the university where i did my PhD had plenty of other opportunities to become involved and i did. It drove me mad that every time i wrote something, it seemed to be good and i challenged this. In many ways i supervised myself in terms of quality assurance. However, the faculty did not have a system of supporting PhD students beyond the traditional supervision. Some of my friends and I thought this was a serious gap and we started self-support groups and convince the faculty to support us in many other ways. Some of the things i and my friends set up are still going on now, more than 10 years later. Current students don’t know the story behind them, but they enjoy them. So the issue of trust and support for me does not rely only on examining the relationship between supervisor and supervisee. It misses the point because both supervisor and student are within a social community of practice and what they can or cannot do depends on the context in which both operate. I also believe that students need to be more entrepreneurial in their attitude and while trusting of their supervisor, they should also build their own circle of trust with other staff members and students within the faculty and within the university.

    I have been supervising students since i started working in university. My first student was doing a research in an area which was not my area of expertise but his supervisor had left and one was needed. It was 2009 and i graduated in 2007. I did not receive much support besides some kind and paternal advice, and of course the usual supervisor course. I was left alone to deal with a PhD at the stage of writing up. It was not easy but we pulled it through. I did the same for another student few years later. Clearly, something was not working well at the level of the supervisors and there did not seem to be a system of monitoring and managing supervisors. So one of the issues i see as a supervisors is that universities are focused mainly on undergraduates and if the university is not a research intensive one, PhD students and their supervisors are off the radar. Of course this can be a good thing, when everything goes well, but a real nightmare when not everything is well.
    I have now supervised to completion 5 PhD students, i am currently supervising another 8 PhD students and i am the Director of Studies for a further 7. This is a huge workload especially when there is little understanding of what it means to supervise so many students. I am also the admission tutor, the person responsible for all our 40 PhD students and the Chair of one of the Research Degree Boards. I therefore see the whole process from different points of view: as a supervisor, as a DoS and as a middle manager.

    As a supervisor i believe that effective professional collaboration is the key. Having spent my PhD on the topic of collaboration my recipe is that effective collaboration requires: trust, respect, approachability, but also a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, and careful planning. Because the PhD is a journey in which students develop their technical and subject-focused expertise, i might be more hands-on at the beginning and gradually withdraw as the student becomes more of an expert. I tend to be very pedantic when it comes to providing comments on drafts. The comments focus on developing the structure of the argument and providing the evidence needed to support it. Many times this requires the time to read the same authors some of my student use. It is time which is not part of my workload because there is little understanding of what it means to provide good feedback to my students. Maybe students don’t know and appreciate this aspect, but many times supervisors work beyond their call of duties. I am also strict when it comes to deadlines and the quality of the work submitted. This is not because i am trying to undermine the student but because i know how difficult and competitive the workplace is. My intent is to teach my students sound employability skills and a professional attitude is part of it. Teaching such things requires much time and the appropriate touch. PhD students are all different and while there are rules that apply to all, each student requires different ways to work.
    As a Director of Studies (DoS) i am responsible for quality assurance and pastoral care. The first requires making sure that the student submits all the require documentation, does an annual review and progresses well. The second is there to ensure that the students is doing well and if needed, i am the one to help with problems. Students overall do not tend to make good use of DoS’s pastoral role. Being a DoS means to be a facilitator and a mediator between students and supervisors. If all goes well, it is an easy job, but if there are issues, it is a very hard job indeed.
    As the Chair of one of the research boards i am responsible for quality assurance but also for the overall quality of the academic and pastoral support our students receive. Once again, university wide regulations need to be applied systematically but also by taking into account the diversity within our supervisors’ cohort and other university’s priorities, some of which might not make PhD supervision the most important issue. It is my responsibility to ensure that the discussion about our students’ work is fair but critical and that the feedback students receive is fair, academically sound but supportive. Students are not usually a problem but their supervisors can be since many times a critical feedback is seen as a person affront. So there is much politics one has to deal with. As a chair I need to build trust with my colleagues on the board, with my colleagues back in the faculty, with senior management and, of course, with the students. I don’t think students know about this or appreciate it. Maybe we should be better at explaining the job that we do behind the scenes.
    As a supervisor, Chair and DoS my main issue with the students is their lack of overall engagement with anything which is not their own research. It seems strange to say so because students tend to complain about feeling isolated and the PhD as a lonely journey is now a respected discursive practice. While i do agree that the PhD is a lonely venture (and it is ultimately the work of one individual), i also think that students should be more open to do other things and become more engaged and curious. So, lately, much of my efforts have been in designing activities to make students engage in a number of other activities. This is taking much of my time since it requires to work with both the students and their supervisors, but also to convince faculty and university senior management. Finally, i also feel that PhD students are the ones who challenge the system the least. They do not tend to complain and bottle things up until they reach breaking point despite the support which is available. As a Chair and PhD manager, my main challenge is to thread carefully in the sacred world of student-supervisor closeted relationship. My greatest frustration is when i know that something is not right, but the student does not want anything to be done about it.
    In conclusion, i think that if we keep focusing only on the student-supervisor relationship we reproduce the very problem we are trying to solve. Supervision is a social practice, many times highly politically so, and we need to start thinking about it differently. Thank you for starting this conversation: it is much needed.

    1. I absolutely love this post. It’s thoughtful, and multi-dimensional. It doesn’t put the blame (or the praise) in any one place, and it contextualises the supervisor/supervisee relationship in a network of other relationships. And, towards the end, it hints at something I wish I had mentioned in my post: the developing maturity of PhD students. If we reframed being a PhD student to more like having a job, rather than more like being an undergraduate, so many misunderstandings could be avoided.

  40. My supervisor was quite new to running a research group when I started, he had quickly amassed a few students, and a couple of postdocs and of all of us (and most people after) no-one achieved much during their time with him.

    He was a great blagger, he had big ideas that got funding, and he promised a lot at interview, promising multiple publications through the PhD. This is why I chose the project. But in reality he was immature as a person and did not have much of a clue how to manage a lab, maintain motivation, behave in a professional way. He could either be your friend, or your enemy…and neither was appropriate. Everyone ended up as an enemy, because when he was out of his depth he masked it with bullying. As long as he could stay more powerful and important than us…maybe the fact he had no friends left in his research field wouldn’t matter. Not that we had joined the group competent and experienced in research management either, we wanted to learn how to be scientists, but we were stooges for blame and fallout.

    Well, incompetence breeds incompetence, and bullying breeds contempt. Terrible management = slow progress, contaminated/unknown bacterial stocks, sloppy work, arguments in the group, selfishness, people making up their data to finish and get away, long term sick leaves. And accordingly there were about 3 publications from 12 of us. At each step, blame and ridicule, and then he’d lose interest in your project when it was clear it was ruined, and take a new student and make them the favourite until that project was ruined too. Tears were common on a daily basis for most of us.

    Trust cannot grow when you have no idea what you are supposed to do, how the system works, or if you’re even doing it right. It was a survival game, never designed to help you learn, grow, achieve independence. We got PhDs because we were too bloody minded to walk away and too canny to be divided, we stuck together (even when we were told by our supervisor that the others were saying things behind our back – designed to split us up). We put up with sarcastic comments written in lab books “WTF is this?”, locker searches, phonecalls at midnight “I’m in the lab where are you?” and webcams tracking our working hours — surveillance, it was like being in a prison — no trust at all, just behaviour management and conditioning to be selfish to survive. The most selfish got out the quickest for sure.

    And once you’re in you are trapped because the option for you is to leave with nothing or put up with this behaviour and try not to crack.

    I reached out once and asked my head of school for help. He laughed, and showed me stats on the numbers of PhDs who start but don’t finish. He asked me if I wanted to leave or stay. My thesis committee were cronies of my supervisor, how could I talk to them, I just said ‘yes’ when they asked me if it was going well. It wasn’t going well, I had no data. More than this I was exhausted and ill with anxiety and panic attacks.

    Well I did finish and since then have resumed doing really well academically, as I did up to the point of working with him. He told me it was me who was stupid and lazy, I don’t believe it any more.

  41. My supervisor gives me a lot of freedom within my research, allowing me to design, undertake and analyse the results of my experiments. My supervisor’s door is always open so that I can drop in with issues that I am having with my research, aids me with the interpretation of my results, and future work which is required to further explore my results. I really appreciate the freedom and independence that my supervisor gives me within my laboratory work, and I feel that I can develop and form experiments by knowing that I can see my supervisor when I require assistance. My supervisor has a strong research base, experience, and is well known within my field of research, which together with his trust in my abilities in planning and undertaking my experiments without micromanaging is how we have developed a good working relationship. In my opinion this style of supervision is ideal where students have the freedom to develop their experiments with knowing that your supervisor is there to help. I bad example would be for me a micromanagement-style of supervision.

  42. I have two supervisors for my project. In my eyes, one is the archetypal good supervisor and the other is the archetypal bad one. The good one is incredibly supportive and helpful. I really admire his knowledge, but he also has mutual respect for me and values my point of view and input. He is encouraging and seems to take a genuine interest in my project and any opportunities for development. The bad one, on the other hand, is extremely demoralising. No matter how good a piece of work is, she never has anything nice to say. She is incredibly critical and nitpicky and puts me down constantly. The relationship between us is very formal with no pastoral care whatsoever. I suffer with anxiety issues and after giving my first ever conference presentation, her only comment was, ‘You looked incredibly pale up there. I just can’t understand why you get yourself so worked up about these things.’ Thanks, just what I needed to hear… I am just thankful that I have my other supervisor to complement her negative attitude.

  43. In the early days I was inspired in my supervision by my PhD supervisor, someone I literally adored, with few tweaks of my own where I thought there was space for improvement. He was great, challenging, tough with an enormous enthusiasm for science but not perfect after all. He left me a lot of freedom, too much in fact, which meant I made many silly mistakes from which I learnt a lot. However, I ended my PhD with no publications. This was something severely affected my career and it has been uphill after that. Many times I thought there must be a better way for students to learn without jeopardising their future. Well I have not found it yet. Supervision is still for me try and error, and the errors are many. The balance between giving autonomy and support and ensuring the students have enough data to finish their PhD in time is such a difficult one to achieve. It depends on the relationship between the two individuals, the expectation, ability and personality of the student. Trust is built with a lot of hard work. Consistency and honesty for me are the key. Consistency between what is said and what is done by both parties in every situation. It takes time to build trust but it can break in one quick moment.

  44. Some brief thoughts:
    1 what’s your approach? At the first supervision, we talk in a great deal of detail about expectations – mine and the student’s and those of the rest of the supervisory team. We revisit this conversation regularly.

    I say to my students upfront that I have certain non-negotiable ways of working, and if they are not ok with them, they need to find a new supervisor – I’ve learned that this is best as there are some ‘lines in the sand’ that I’m not prepared to cross with students. For instance, I need to know when my students are working (and when on holiday), what (broadly) they are doing (they determine this – it’s their project, but I need to know) and when I will next receive something from them to read, as well as when we will next meet. I need them to keep written records of our meetings. I need them to keep an up-to-date ‘rolling synopsis’ (a brief 4pp ish description of their project as a whole as they currently understand it), so that I can read that before each supervision. I need them to manage my diary so that I give them the time they need, to read their drafts, and to meet. I need them to keep to their own self-set/agreed deadlines, and to tell me in plenty of time if they are going to miss them, so they can be rearranged.

    I am often the ‘time management/process management’ supervisor in a team with earlier career supervisors who have more substantive experience in the topic than me. It’s my job to keep the PhD on track, so I don’t do much discussion of the substance, but ask students to report regularly on process and plan out their time with measurable milestones and deliverables as if the PhD were a research project. I find that students often dislike this and prefer the other supervisors – but that’s just me doing my job so I cope with not being the ‘loved one’ in the team. Also I know that they will thank me in the long run even though I’m constructed as the ‘bad cop’ now.

    where did you learn about supervision?
    Basically there are two approaches to supervision – do what happened to you; or do the exact opposite. I was utterly neglected as a PhD student. I try to do the exact opposite.

    I’ve been to several really good staff development events/activities about PhD supervision both in Sheffield and in other places I have worked. These have taught me about the ethics of supervisory relationships and above all about how important it is to communicate expectations and to keep communicating.

    how is it working for you?
    When the student is able to communicate effectively in written form, it works really well. What works less well is when the student wants me to help them without being able to or wishing to show me any written work.

    what does good supervision look like?
    Essentially good supervision looks like at the beginning the relationship is student/supervisor, but by the end it is just two colleagues. I think of doing a PhD as like having a job. There are clear expectations, and you deliver against them. The supervisor is like your manager.

    what are the essentials for supervision?
    Good communication (written and verbal), good time management.

    where does trust come from?
    I trust my students when they deliver what they promise, at the time they promise it. Trust breaks down when they don’t do so, and don’t communicate with me about why.

    My students can trust me to meet them when planned, and only to rearrange if absolutely necessary, to read their work (if they submit it when planned and put reading time into my diary for that task) and offer my views on it, and to help them submit on time by planning the project as a whole and sticking to that plan. They can also trust me to help with future careers.

    how do you interact with your students?
    I am their supervisor. I do not get involved with them personally or their personal lives unless these are impacting on their ability to do their research. It is a professional relationship. I have limited tolerance for PhD students who need or want more than such a relationship – it’s hard work being an academic and if you can’t be a PhD student then you are going to find being an academic even harder.

    I’m aware that this post makes me sound really unsympathetic and maybe I am. What’s on offer if you want to do a PhD with me is ‘tough love’.

  45. [comment removed to preserve anonymity]

    Unwanted touching and sexual comments emails or texts also constitutes sexual harassment. Harassment of this nature is not acceptable in any circumstance and you do not have to put up with it – report it as soon as you can. Harassment is against the law and includes any unwanted behaviour which is degrading, intimidating or humiliating. The national Union of Students has a Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment on university campuses. If you are experiencing this I urge you to get in touch with someone you trust in your dept or in the university. Immediate things you can be doing include taking steps to make sure you are not alone with the harasser, and directly asking them to stop. Some phrases you can use are:
    “Hey, hands-off, please” “Don’t do that” or a simple “Stop”.

  46. I’m doing a literature PhD for which I have two supervisors, thesis and pastoral. My relationship with my thesis supervisor is very hands-off, and the trust is largely on her part. I hand in 10,000 word thesis chunks every few months, and she marks them up and hands them back to me. There’s no sense she’s looming over me. I could be doing anything in those months between thesis chunks, but so long as the work arrives, it’s fine.

    I like her. We’ve known each other since I was an undergraduate, and I feel we have a warm connection. However, she’s very busy, so when I’ve had a confidence wobble and request a meeting, it could be a week or two before she can oblige. By which time I’ve usually sorted things out myself.

    I was fortunate that I also know my pastoral well–she’s written most of my references for me–and that she trusts me, because I had a crisis early in my PhD [text removed to preserve anonymity]. So I had a confidential meeting with her to find out whether I was still OK to be teaching undergraduates and so forth. I was still very upset at this point, so her trust in me was much needed, as was her confidentiality, and I was glad the issue didn’t have to pollute my working relationship with my thesis supervisor. Fortunately [text removed to preserve anonymity], and I was able to get on with the rest of my thesis without too much disruption.

  47. I think trust was key to my doctoral success. But, it wasn’t just about me trusting my supervisor, it was about knowing that they trusted me. This evened the otherwise uneven distribution of power and authority within the relationship, and ensured that we really were in it together – we both trusted each other to do the right thing, and that mutual obligation led to mutual accountability. The shared commitment provided a strong basis to ensure that any troubles were ironed out well and without any of the interpersonal gumf that could otherwise have arisen.

  48. My supervision is incredibly relaxed – so hands off, that I had to source my own desk space, computing facilities and academic network. We tend to meet once every 6/8 weeks, and typically I meet 1-on-1 with both supervisors in that period. They have very different opinions on my progression and the focus they would like for me to take. This, probably, would be a hellish situation for many types of student. For myself, I’ve found that I am resilient and determined enough for this not to impact my work. In fact, I believe this approach has made me a lot more confident in my own opinions and knowledge in my field, abd helped to refine an ability to meander through social/academic politics.
    I benefit from pressure, which I don’t receive from a hands off approach. When I have asked for closer supervision, with more demands/deadlines to push me further, they each said they would rather I provided my own deadlines and aimed towards my own objectives, and they would encourage my development by adding additional students for me to supervise.
    As for trust, I’m not sure we’re there yet. They trust me enough for my studies, and trust me to pick up when they’ve missed something they were aiming to do for me. I have not yet fully developed trust in them. I am understanding as to their commitments and I value their experience, however I am their first PhD student and feel at times they were not prepared for the time commitment supervising a PhD student takes. I would like a closer working relationship with my supervisors and to have a more typical supervision, though I believe my project is too far removed from their direct line of focus and if that relationship was to come, it would not be very beneficial.

  49. I work with my primary supervisor both on my MD and also in a clinical setting so trust has had to be earned in both settings and it has come from discussing cases and problems early so we have both learnt how we work and the trust has come from there.
    I’m not sure our relationship is typical given we work in two settings.
    I have a slightly different relationship with my secondary supervisor as we only work together in the academic setting and the trust has come from me completing small tasks which allow me to develop the skills I need to perform my research.
    Both my supervisors are fantastic, easy to approach and always happy to answer my (sometimes in retrospect very straight forward) questions.
    I see my supervisors most days when I am university (part time MD) and can always send an email.

  50. I have two supervisors and both are fantastic. My main supervisor is always around to listen to any problems I’m having, offer advise, or just run things by. She’s so approachable and helpful. My other supervisor isn’t always around as much, but has so much knowledge she is willing to share when she is.

  51. Trust comes from the timely meeting of commitments at both ends. I have had about a half a dozen PhD students. Half have been delightful, reliably meeting their commitments and taking on board suggestions. The other half have been more problematic. Two were knocked off course by something completely outside their control. It’s hard to know how much slack to cut someone who is going through a major life crisis, since it’s hard to know if they are doing their best. In the final case, the student seemed to have quite deep psychological problems that he was not dealing with and was hiding from us that he was doing things in secret, like working outside the department. All of them got through, but I was glad to see the back of the last one. You can’t trust someone if they lie to you constantly. It has put me off supervising dissertations.

  52. I have an excellent team of supervisors. Due to the nature of my project I have three supervisors and it is far from the organisational nightmare that I expected. I meet my supervisors monthly and all at the same time which I think has been very helpful in ensuring a good working relationship and dynamic. My supervisors are very engaged in my work and provide comprehensive comments on all aspects of my research: from content to commas. Whenever I have had a personal or work related problem my supervisors have been supportive. I do not think my experience is typical: many of my peers have had more negative experiences with supervisors who are overly critical or that aren’t committed to all aspects of the supervision process.

  53. My relationship with my supervisors has been very difficult from the start. Doing a PhD is a very difficult thing – if it wasn’t, everyone would have one, but I found that every difficulty I experienced was treated not as natural or to be expected, but rather yet another example of my personal inadequacy. It was never communicated explicitly, but there was a pervasive sense of my not working hard enough, not listening to their advice enough, not being committed enough, it was always my fault. Every attempt of mine to talk about the emotional or psychological aspects of doing a PhD were literally bulldozed over in favour of more technical and academic discussions which often left me feeling very deflated and despairing. It was as if touching on the more human elements of the process was akin to talking about ‘womanish stuff’ (both I and my supervisors are men). In the future I would like to see a new system with one academic supervisor, and one person who is a professional supervisor with training and experience in a range of interpersonal issues. A person’s life and efforts over 3 – 4 years are too important to be entrusted to two traditional academics, many of whom not only have very little emotional intelligence (whether men or women) but who regard this terribly dangerous absence as a virtue.

  54. I’m a law student, in my final (writing up) year, about to submit (I hope!). I’ve had a wonderful experience of PhD supervision. I have had one main supervisor, and then three second supervisors – 1 left for a job elsewhere mid-way through my first year, a second retired at the end of my third year after I finished my fieldwork. My final second supervisor went on unexpected maternity leave in the January of my fourth year, but then came back a year later (i’m on a 4 year combined masters and PhD programme, with a fifth year to write up). That could have been a difficult experience, but it wasn’t. Firstly, because my main supervisor is excellent. He does not have an academic ego (at least, not one that transfers to his students) – he’s happy to learn, think about new things, and provides supportive and encouraging advice. I’ve never felt demeaned or condescended to, and he’s been nothing but supportive or encouraging of my work. Our relationship is relatively casual, and supervisions are usually conversations, discussing my work seriously. I’m not always the best at submitted written work on time, but his view is that it’s better to meet, than wait until I’ve finished writing something. I had a horrible time in my second year, trying to get my study through ethics, and he was nothing but supportive, and willing to back me up.

    Secondly, the rotation of second supervisors wasn’t disruptive, because the timing worked well, and they all gave different things. My first one was very helpful when I was beginning to negotiate the NHS ethics process, which I had done before, but for an ethnography, which I had not. My second one was invaluable; as a sociologist, he was able to help with the conduct of my fieldwork, and the early stages of analysis. My final second supervisor has been amazing. She gives detailed feedback, she is sharp as a tack at seeing what i mean when I struggle to explain myself, and more than anything she understands me as a student. She knows when I’m feeling insecure, she knows how to be supportive. the combination of her, and my main supervisor, this past year has been brilliant. I honestly can’t thank either of them enough.

    I know people who have had nightmarish experiences with supervisors, who consider anything written from a different perspective to them as ‘wrong’, or who do not allow their students time to grow, make mistakes, and learn from that. Mine have always trusted me to work, and they have given me both advice, and support. If i’ve had a hard month, and not produced much work, they don’t give me a hard time, but we use the supervision to talk through what i’ve found difficult. We met every month, without fail, on the view that it was always better to talk it through, than leave me to it on my own. I’m honest with them, they are honest with me, and I think that’s key to a successful supervision relationship.

    I’m not sure whether my experience could be called ‘typical’. My supervisors never set very strict deadlines in what to submit each supervision – they were very much of the view that this was my PhD, and it was up to me to dictate how it happened (within reason, I presume…possibly if i had been very lazy, they would have felt differently). I never got nervous, or feared supervision – and the few times I did, it was always unfounded. I didn’t worry about sending things that weren’t ‘perfect’, or were half-finished. I trusted my supervisors, whichever configuration, to read it in the state it was in, and to provide feedback on how to improve it, not eviscerate it and demean me as an academic. I personally will always use them as a model for my own supervision in the future – supervisors shouldn’t be feared, or dictatorial, and I don’t really understand academics who behave this way.

    1. This approach is fine, so long as the student does actually produce written work of the requisite quality in the end, to submit on time. If not, then the department, and the supervisor, and the student all suffer, because timely submission is the thing that counts (for the department if there are insufficiently timely submissions, then grant funding could be withheld and it’ll be harder to get future funded PhD places); for the supervisor, their cv needs to show timely submissions; for the student, getting a job is easier if you have submitted your PhD within the three years (or four at the most). So supervisors are – rightly – twitchy if written work doesn’t appear regularly enough to reassure them that submission will actually happen within the three years.

  55. I find that there is no one way to work with doctoral students. In order to get the best out of them you need to get to know them and their working styles and then try to supervise accordingly. I have often said working with doctoral students is the nearest I get to being a psychologist. This is particularly the case for me as I have many international students so understanding and appreciating where people come from and their understandings of academic engagement is very important, particularly in the early months when one is establishing a relationship.

    I think one important thing in building trust is responding quickly to student emails or requests for meetings. Even if one cannot always meet immediately that knowledge that they will never be abandoned and that you are informing them about feedback or meetings promptly prevents a lot of anxiety.

    I have had very few negative experiences of supervision and many of my ex-doctoral students have become friends, colleagues and co-researchers. The most annoying thing is when students just drop out of communication for a while, or very occasionally when you find you have been lied to about work they have said they are doing – I would emphasise this has been very rare in my pretty long experience.

    Being human is crucial, mixed with being tough when necessary. Overall I love working with PhD students and learn loads.

    1. I could not agree more with everything that Jane says. From a PhD student perspective/personal experience that’s exactly how it worked. Trust is sth that is built in time, as with all relationships, and it takes a lot of effort from both sides. The supervisor-superviewee relationship is a very strange one, as it sits somewhere between the personal and the professional. Your supervisor is not your boss, not your colleague, but mostly your mentor so keeping this fine balance takes a lot of work from both sides. And as Jane said, it is important to try and get to know each other’s life stories and get to understand that different people work in different ways, but I guess this is sth that anyone who teaches knows 🙂 all in all I guess being open-minded and alert to potential difficulties is important. and after all it’s a human relationship and sometimes it does not work perfectly, do we all get perfectly along with our colleagues, bosses etc, but if both parties try to act in a professional way it’s more than enough.

      1. This is a really insightful comment. PhD supervisor/student is much more like a professional relationship than it is like a teacher/pupil relationship.

  56. I have recently completed my PhD and I had a good relationship with my supervisors. I always had two supervisors and I usually met them both together. They were both really experienced supervisors and I think that might have been a factor in why everything went so smoothly. But we met regularly (around once a month), they gave me useful feedback and were quick to respond with help on general academia stuff, like abstracts for conferences or publication things. My PhD was interdisciplinary, and so there were some areas that were outside of their specialities, but I found I relied on them more for advice on structure, or arguments than on subject specific information, particularly as the project progressed. I trusted their advice completely and we didn’t have any disagreements throughout. It was more of a working relationship than a friendship, though they were lovely.

  57. I was a mature student in a STEM subject and arrived to do my PhD, full-time, after quite a long career in business management. I was very used to (and good at) managing staff and priorities, used to change, the dynamics of the real world and experienced in independent working.
    I should have been much better prepared than most for the PhD.
    My supervisor was a nightmare.
    I made allowances for his/her being under tremendous pressure and so I prepared well for our meetings (work experience, again should have helped). The meetings were a nonsense as he/she was not prepared, too stressed to take in what I was saying and blamed me every time we met for not doing things in the way he/she wanted – with no clear indication of what that should be!
    So I gritted my teeth and worked mostly on my own.
    My second supervisor came good after a year of very embarrassing, parent-child encounters, (my supervisor was having child-like tantrums) clearly he/she had had enough too. Some of my PhD colleagues didn’t fare so well and a number took time out with stress. A terrible situation.
    My message is that academic supervisors go into the profession because they want to do research.
    They are not experienced in managing staff – and very poor at it.

  58. I see my supervisor as more a partnership in a law firm, my supervisor and I were part of a mutual choosing as a independently funding PhD this created a different dynamic to most partnerships, we were excited to work together both knowing we’d selected each other.

    We have a similar outlook, and get on because of a set of implicit rules we’ve never spoken but both agree. We have similar values and energies and approach to work, and I would say we are genuine with each other and trust each other.

    You can’t make someone like you or trust you, and I think that’s a challenge that most people expect from their supervisors, but trust has to be earnt. There are boundaries, but we do care, a professional relationship but a close one. We can talk about the personal and we look out for each other beyond the project.

    An example is when I separated from my long term partner, I met my supervisor convinced I’d need to drop out due to time/stress. Instead we had a long conversation with me and helped me figure out if it was a good thing for me to drop out (ie to my benefit) or whether carrying on would be most beneficial to me. Doing my PhD is a really important part of my identity and losing it would have been a big personal loss, while I underwent other losses, carrying on actually gave me a bed rock/sense of stability, and we made a plan of action to support this (easy things first, factoring in rest and recuperation) building back up.

    My supervisor doesn’t just sit back and tell me what I need to hear, saying ‘you’re good’ or ‘you’re doing well’ but demonstrates that they think I’m good because they recognize my work and gives me credit for it (e.g.paper authorship) and champions me to other people, in ways that I know wouldn’t come my way if I couldn’t handle them/wasn’t capable.

    I am treated like a junior partner, not a ‘student’ and they talks in ‘we’ language which looks as if it might be in opposition to the ‘building research independence’ goal for PhD students, but its not, it’s including me and treating me like one of them, giving me the confidence that I will gain my doctorate and will join the community I study in one day as a peer. To show this we also have the relationship where I can challenge my supervisor back too. Like once they pushed me towards a methodology I think they wanted to supervise and I felt able to say no to that.

    Also because we have built the relationship, and know they have my best interests at heart, I can take feedback and criticism. I understand what is intended, in relation to how I am being supported and feel the feedback can be more effective as if it came from someone else I’d probably not trust them and be offended.

    This relationship is sometimes in opposition to some of the guidance form student services about clinically distant and bounded as they recommend. But the PhD is abit of an exercise of endurance and resilience, you start it knowing it will be painful. I approached it knowing that. I could see in my supervisor that they were in command of their own self and career, and would look after mine/be a good coach and mentor. I know I could trust them with my career.

  59. I am a third year PhD student, and have three main supervisors. My supervisory panel consist of a Professor (theme lead), a dentist/researcher and a medical doctor/researcher (both doctors). All of my supervisors have had a number of students previously, and I would say that the way that they supervise is the ‘typical’ way.
    When I first started, my project was fairly well laid out, and the support form the supervisors was amazing. They led the project and directed me toward the things I should be doing/looking at/areas I should be reading, and gave my tasks to complete/goals to meet.
    In my second year, it was more of a discussion and my input was asked for on more occasions of direction and goals to meet. Now in my third year, I have been left to lead the project, and direction, and am left to become an independent scientist. I have weekly/bi-weekly meetings to update them and they are always around either in person or by email to answer any questions/queries or just to listen to me rant! The support is perfect for me.
    They are very quick to reply to emails and return written work with comments, which are always critical but positive. The same applies to presentations; posters and oral presentations. While they may not agree with things that I do all of the time, they understand that things have to be done in a personal way, and everyone was their own way to do things, so they try to accommodate this. The feedback is always detailed (unless I need just a brief confirmation of direction, in which case they will just jeep things brief).
    My experience has been very goo indeed, and I feel so lucky to have the supervisors that I do!

  60. I am a supervisor, and I learned about what I think is good supervision from my own PhD supervisor. The question of trust is a really good one, and is complex in terms of how many elements it relates to, e.g. you can trust a student to get on with a certain amount of work, to complete work to a high standard, to undertake proper reading, to make a real effort to find literature, to deliver on time, to understand the seriousness of their studies etc, each of these are different elements that you trust a student to get on with and try to support them on. I do find myself being disappointed by my students, usually it is laziness that upsets me the most, not lack of ability. Here I feel trust has broken down because students’ are not taking their role seriously enough, or making the most of their precious time. Trust also relates to emotional / well-being issues and trusting students to keep in constant communication about their state of mind – as this fundamentally shapes their ability to complete their PhDs effectively. Often students are not as upfront about this as they should be, sometimes because they don’t realise what they are going through, or are ashamed or depressed, but it makes it very hard to have a productive relationship if students disappear and don’t communicate how they are feeling and how this impacts on their productivity. This is frustrating for me because I think I am very open and approachable, but even this approach doesn’t work for all students. I’ve tried playing bad cop – that doesn’t necessarily work either and just ends with tears! This sounds quite negative, in general my experiences are positive, but it is a complex social and emotional process as well as intellectually engaging.

    1. I have indeed the same issues with some of my students. Openness is actually quite important and in some cases students do not even say when they are maybe working to make ends meet and they do not realise how much this impacts on their studies. I have played both bad and good cop and i think supervisors need to have a whole array of tactics in hand. No PhD student is the same.

  61. When I started my PhD I had had experience of supervision as both a youth worker and a social worker. I think this gave me an advantage in some ways as I was used to supervision, happy to bare my soul, and trusted in the process, although work based tends to be more directive that academic, but that’s because work has clearer aims than a PhD, which is always evolving and changing.
    As our work is evolving, so are we and so are our supervisors. Therefore, there is no certainty.
    I trust what my supervisor says to me, because the uncertainty and not knowing are part of the process of writing a PhD and growing as a person. I know that what she has said to me is what she considers right for me at that time, even if the reasons might not be clear to me straight away, when I reflect on supervision I can come to see how I have developed and my project has developed through her guidance. I also know how stressed and overworked she is and how much of her time she invests in me. I understand that trusting in her, doing my own reading and research, and enjoying the mess that this generates will help me produce a good thesis and help me to develop into an independent researcher.

  62. I am PhD student in the middle of final year. I am happy with relationship with my supervisors. They are supportive and own expertise in the area of research. Both supervisors are agree to manage their roles separately in different area of research project so I have never been in difficult situation related to dispute between two supervisors. In terms of supervision, I am quite convince that it is because my supervisor have extensive experience on PhD student supervisory, he seems understand the specific needs, motivation schemes and guidance techniques to handling his students. In my case, my supervisor support me to explore the area of study by myself with perfect suggestions about reading list and meetings for discussion. We generally contact each other by email and having meeting monthly. I think that working with the right supervisor is very impact to the success of PhD study.

  63. I learnt about supervision most effectively from observation of supervisors, both my own and other students. Seeing what worked for different people; i.e different students with different needs and supervisors with different skill sets. One of my supervisors emphasised the benefits of paying attention to these processes early on in my own time as a research student, and so I was pretty open to that.

    Now that I am a supervisor myself, I have been to several “supervisor training” seminars and found most of that to be pretty useless. Being observant of a fellow research student having poor supervision, and them not progressing through their PhD, was far better training of how not to supervise, combined with seeing good supervision other times, were both 10x more useful than anything I learnt in a training seminar.

    Essentials? Well, that is highly dependant on the student and their skill set. I find that students need to be supervised in different ways. Some do need you to chase them, and some don’t. Obviously the former is not ideal, and it is a case of training them to realise that it isn’t our job to chase them for work. But I think they main key, is making sure you do the extremely simple thing, of having regular meetings, even weekly ones early on, to learn what the student is like, to establish a strong relationship, and then drop back to bi-weekly or even monthly meetings depending on the student. Everything else I have heard or tried or seen, are less effective or useful than putting in a bunch of time early on to setup the expectations.

  64. Personality aspects aside, I found that this supervisory tactic worked to great effect. It started as an ad hoc arrangement that kept the peace, and it turned into an explicit agreement as our relationship evolved.

    Each week, my student would do one task that I explicitly requested, and they could match that with one task/experiment of their choosing. Sometimes I was right and sometimes the student was right. In addition to being highly productive, this arrangement created a great sense of fairness and partnership, and it led to a strong sense of engagement and empowerment which I think helped the student develop as a researcher.

    1. I think this is an excellent idea because it provides a strategy for the students to think for themselves, especially those that don’t voluntarily.

      1. Wow – I wonder if this would work for a non-science based PhD too. I must try it out.

  65. It has not been that long since I finished my own PhD, but since then I have had the opportunity to co-supervise with several other academics. I still consider myself to be learning, and already have had several very positive experiences where I trust* the PhD student but also some negative ones where I know the student is not telling me the whole truth. From my own experience you cannot know what a PhD really is until you have done one, so a large part of the trust is that the student takes your advice on board, makes changes to their work as you request and follows up on reading you point them towards. However, I like a student who has opinions and can tell me what they want to do, especially when it’s grounded in the literature and careful thought is put into it. It should be a conversation, and a good student is enthusiastic and takes initiative in their work.
    Some students however feel very vulnerable and will continue down a direction they are very unhappy with but not want to speak out about it until it’s too late to change or they want to leave the programme. I have also seen a range of other supervision styles, none of which are perfect but very much reflect the personality of the supervisor. If you can get an idea of who the supervisor is before committing to the study (through your masters for example), this is always a good idea for assessing the fit.
    From my own experience of supervision, I had a very positive relationship with my supervisor. The supervisor read my work and gave detailed comments, but also was good at giving a lot of space for me to get on with my studies. My only disappointment was that the supervisor did not want to continue the collaboration after the PhD was completed. It made me feel like I was more of a tick on the CV, rather than the long term relationship some people talk about having with their supervisor. I felt left in the wilderness when I started my first academic post and it took me a few years to begin to build an academic network on my own.

  66. I have felt supported, encouraged and appreciated by my supervisors throughout my PhD. They have provided advice (for matters concerning both work and home) and have encouraged me particularly when I’ve been filled with self-doubt. They praise me if I’ve done something well which is refreshing – a PhD often feels like a thankless task!

    One thing they have done which I particularly appreciate is that they have introduced me to many of their collaborators and I’ve had the opportunity to work with several of them. This has allowed me to build my own network and forge some strong relationships with researchers that I may like to work with in the future (also also showed they could trust me!)

    I feel that I’m not just a paper-making machine to my supervisors but that they really care about my well-being, my development and my future. They often arrange opportunities to socialise outside of work, and so I feel I know them as friends as well as supervisors.

  67. I have a primary supervisor who oversees the general direction of the project (and the money) and a secondary supervisor who deals with me on a daily basis as he uses the same methodologies as I do. My secondary supervisor is lovely, he is very supportive both in methodology and general support – he really cares not only about the project’s progress but also my own. Sometimes however he is a bit scatter-brained and loses sight of what I do – but he knows it and I’ve simply adapted by bombarding him with reminder emails – we’ve found a system that works for both of us…
    My primary supervisor, on the other hand, wants me to do research without paying for it, nothing is ever good or fast enough and I have lost basically all motivation after working for him in only about 6 months. At that point he gives all of his students “the talk” – pointing out that the project isn’t going anywhere and there’s no chance you’ll finish in time. Additionally he is very removed from actual research and demands impossible things. When I then tell him that it just can’t be done this way he won’t believe me, unless my secondary supervisor is sitting in the room with us and nodding vigorously while I speak.
    This unfortunately means, while I’m still dependent on him, I dare not give too many details or even my own name…
    So, I guess I’m seeing both extremes, the best and the worst of supervision.

  68. My supervisor is great, mainly because of her support when my research was threatened: when my trial nearly hit the fan through opposition she communicated with ethics and various others to ensure right process; she came to my defence when my upgrade was inexplicably failed, ensuring new examiners who knew more about my trial design.
    She is fallible, and part of my learning process has been to question her at times, and stick to my guns when I disagree with her.
    Sometimes she’s too busy to read my work, but when she does, has really useful and constructive comments to make.

  69. I had a mixed experience. My primary supervisor/director of studies was brilliant. She was encouraging when necessary and critical when necessary. Always good at replying to emails and there when I needed her. Slightly relaxed… which was good on the whole. I think I would have liked a bit more structure at first though.
    My second supervisor was quite mixed. She was clearly very hard working and ambitious yet she was overly critical of other people behind their backs; very unprofessional. While on the whole she gave me good advice, it was often the case of “this is my advice, now take it”. Any time I queried the advice, or was critical of it in anyway I just got the same response “I’ve been published doing this, so you do it” despite the fact the there were clear flaws which I tried to explain on several occasions. I was hoping for an academic discussion yet what I got was orders.

  70. I am currently at the end of my second year and I could not be happier with another supervisor. I always receive extensive feedback on any work submitted, encouragement when feeling low and firm but gentle reminders to do work when required. Sadly, I feel that I have been incredibly lucky and my supervisor provides me with more time and advice that the institutional framework would normally allow, and not many PhD students get so much support. What I value most is the fact that I feel it really is work in partnership, with my providing critical comments on aspects of my supervisor’s work and politely asking how the work for the approaching deadlines is going along. That’s why I don’t even like talking about supervision meetings, because it is more about research meetings. On a couple of occasions, I have been able just to knock on my supervisor’s door for a quick chat and it’s very comforting knowing that it’s something that I can do if needed. Normally though we hold regular supervisions, with me sending an “agenda” in advance and then making sure that we set the next meeting’s date before we finish. I simply feel that my supervisor gets me.

  71. As a final year PhD student, I would answer the raised questions as follow:
    The supervisory team, in particular my first supervisor, have had their impact on the ways in which I need to present what I found. This is due to one main reason which is my background and the previous approach that I did in previous reseach. To be clearer, the academic language of writing a social science qualitative thesis is far different from the language which I used to use in interpreting data in my previous degrees because now I am doing PhD in a subject which is relevant to social science while my previous levels were relevant to engineering. Although sound supports were provided by my supervisory team, in my first year that was quite challenging. However, I do need to confess that I was feeling disappointed partially because of the very indirect advice (support) that they provide me in which I was always sceptical in differentiating them whether the piece of advice was directed to support me or whether these bits of advice were attempts to use approaches that close to their own!
    In terms of interaction and trust, I, fortunately, trust my supervisor/s to a very wide range. We have very good interaction and I consult him (them) in some personal circumstances and sometimes find a very good guide or advice to deal with such circumstances. In addition to that in terms of asking for holidays, he has never refused this which I respect this attitude. However, this trust has never been reflected in the supervisory meetings, in which I think if this would have reflected in the research process, it would make my life through the PhD journey much easier.

  72. Over all, my experience with my supervisors was quiet negative, but luckily I managed to take full responsibility over my PhD including the funding part at an early stage and carried out most of my research on my own, which turned out to be quiet successful.
    From my own PhD experience, there are two types of academics in general, those who are not supposed to supervise PhD students at all no matter what is the situation. Their inability to mentor students comes from the lack of leadership and poor communication skills/knowledge, no confidence, hesitating or too busy with other things in their academic career which make them very distant from their students. Those academics might better be fit to be lecturers teaching under and post graduate students at most. The other type of academics are those who have genuine interest in research and have the ability to supervise students from first day in the office to VIVA day. I don’t think it will be a happy time all the way through your three or four years of research with them but if they could at least keep you in the right path towards getting your PhD then you should be grateful for that. Always make sure you have mutual respect and understanding of your tasks and responsibilities. Some suggestions I learned during my PhD studies is the following:
    1) Always keep on touch with your supervisor/s, email them, update them with your progress, have regular meetings (at least once a month). You would most probably won’t be the only PhD student in their group so you need to remind them that you are there and that you need their constant support/guidance.
    2) Don’t be afraid to say what is on your mind, if you are not happy with something tell them, they are not psychics, don’t be afraid they will make your life a nightmare, this is the last thing they want to do to you.
    3) A personal advice from my experience, if your are planning to do a PhD make sure your future supervisor does not have many students under his supervision, this is really bad !!! some supervisor will be overloaded with many PhD students up to the point it will be out of control and they will probably lose control over the progress of their students and be out of touch.

  73. I started my PhD in another university (one of the so-called leading universities,higher in rankings). My initial supervisors got a job and decided to move abroad so after 6 months I was left alone. University promised to find a new supervisor for me but it took them another 2-3 months to finally assign me someone without even asking my opinion. These new set of supervisors were a couple with whom I only met once in 6 months. They were never available to see me, or answer my emails. If one of them was sick, automaticall the other one was out. The worst thing was, their area of research was entirely different from what I wanted to do, so they kept changing my proposal several times and never satisfied with it. I would email them and wait for at least a month in the best case to receive an answer which was only one line, and this would be the best case scenario for me. After 6 months I decided to send an email to the head of school to explain my situation as I already lost a year from my funding without doing anything. Head of school said that he would look in to the issue and get back to me which he did after a couple of days only to say that all of my claims were wrong as my supervisors do not have any obligations to meet me in person, emails also count as supervison, and they don’t really have to email me more than once in a month. He also added that I had no right to complain as I haven’t done any substantial work in the last year. His final words were “this is how we work, either take it or leave it”. And I decided to leave. But my sponsor have strict regulations when it comes to transferring schools and they do not accept any delays, so the new supervisor must agree to accept me with my current work and progress withour causing any more delays. It took me another couple of months to email potential supervisors and negotiate my situation to which nobody agreed. Finally I found my current supervisor through a friend, though her research interest didn’t exactly fit with mine, she was very kind from the first meeting, agreed to help me through and encouraged me not to give up. I was already in 18 months with my Phd when I finally started in my current university, but with the help of my supervisor, I completed all necessary steps in time, I am now about the finish my PhD and can’t thank her enough for being such a good friend. She never turns me away when I need to see her or discourages me when I want to travel or do some extrawork outside my PhD. I think I am a really lucky person among many other miserable PhDs.

  74. I am in my second year of my PhD and my relationship with my main supervisor has changed a lot over this time. I chose to do the PhD with her as I have known her a long time from a previous job, and through this job we worked together and shared research interests.

    We’ve gone from having a supportive relationship to one that is cordial at best- we keep it civil but it’s not really a good relationship any more. It’s a result of of one event, but against a background of other things.

    Since I started she’s always discouraged me from doing other things (e.g. my PT research associate post, activism, reading groups, internships) including things I needed to do because I needed the money. She hasn’t been understanding about my financial situation.
    I was worried about this initially, but came to recognise that I needed to ignore that and get on with what I know is necessary to be in with a chance of pursuing an academic career.
    As I’ve become more independent I’ve come to recognise that her advice in this regard is actively unhelpful. I’ve started to feel that after my PhD she will no longer care about what happens to me, but just that she has got my successful completion on her record.
    I’m interested in doing lots of things, that’s part of being me, it’s how I’ve always done things and it’s important to me.

    I also felt that she abandoned me over the first summer after I’d started my PhD, saying she was too busy to meet me when I hit a rocky patch with my research. She just sent an email saying ‘I’m spending the summer writing’ and I felt like I was completely unsupported and not important to her at all.

    So that’s the background but the main event that caused the relationship breakdown was over a book. I ran a successful conference, which was my idea, but which she supported. I wanted to write a book based on the conference contributions and when we talked about it we agreed to co-edit it. Down the line she then told m that this wasn’t the right time for me, I needed to concentrate on my PhD for the time being. However she told me that she wanted to continue with it now as the sole editor which really shocked me, as it was a collaborative effort which she appeared now to want to take all the credit for!
    It made me really angry and sad that she would try and take it for herself. I really had to say no to her, and that was really hard because of the power relations between us. I didn’t articulate my point well but made it clear that I wasn’t happy for her to do that. I was proud that I was able to do that, but if I hadn’t been strong enough to do this she would have gone ahead with the book anyway. I felt this whole thing really betrayed the shared values that brought us together for the project. Afterwards she did email and say that she wouldn’t take on the project without me, but I wonder if I’d not called her out if she’d still have acted with the same integrity. I feel she really used the power in the relationship to press me to try and get her own way. I’m proud of myself that I’ve managed to rise above all this and keep the relationship civil. I think the fact is that everything has changed now and I don’t really trust her. I can’t see us working together again after my PhD is over.

    My second supervisor is much better, she’s energetic, pragmatic. She doesn’t just tell me what I want to hear, but it’s a relationship based on mutual respect and with her I don’t feel as if I’m her last priority. I am confident that I could approach her to talk at any time and ask questions, and she’s made it clear on several occasions that I shouldn’t ‘suffer in silence’. My third supervisor is also great- she’s positive and very personable, extremely encouraging and supportive.

    I feel lucky with my supervision over all- it’s not perfect but it’s a whole lot better than some of the nightmare stories that I’ve heard.

  75. I finished my PhD on October 2015. My experience with my supervisor was unexpected. I thought that supervisor has good knowledge in the proposal that I’d submitted before starting my academic course. But the surprise was my supervisor has minimum knowledge about the subject. Accordingly, his help and support was very weak. I suffered in my study and he wasn’t helpful even in writing up phase.

  76. I have two PhD supervisors whom interact with each other and myself in a very complex way that I have not been able to suss out yet. I therefore do not trust either of them at all, particularly because the one I thought I could trust advised me that anything I told him would be in confidence, yet he then relaid everything to my second supervisor making all my problems a lot worse! The lack of trust with my supervisors has been exemplified recently in my progression report from them which contains some lies and embellishments of the truth, and voices oppinions of my work etc that they have not expressed to me in person. In my oppinion they are not fulfilling their role as ‘supervisors’. This has had many effects 1) depression, 2) lonliness and uncertainty due to a major lack of support and trust, 3) an occasional motivation to do all that I can to prove them wrong. Speaking to my collegues it seems that they all have great, supportive supervisors which is great, but also makes me feel even worse because I don’t understand why my supervisors are so bad! (This might be a gender and age difference thing?)

  77. My relationship with my current supervisor is quite positive. I trust her to have a plan for the course of my PhD. I trust her knowledge and ethics. I also trust that when she doesn’t know something, she will say it and it will be my task to try to figure it out for us both. I set my own deadlines, which works well for us both. She always respects my time, as I respect hers. If I have meetings or any engagements, she works around them. In the most basic sense, she treats me with respect. This, in turn, instills a sense of respect and trust in the relationship.

    In the first year of my PhD, I had a different supervisor. The relationship started off ok, quickly went downhill, and turned so sour I actively sought a new supervisor (who is now my current supervisor). The differences in supervision style could not be more apparent. When I asked my first supervisor what the general timeline was for my PhD, she would be incredibly vague and simply say that researchers had no way of knowing what they would do next. It was obvious she had no idea how to judge a timeline for a PhD student. I quickly learned that she respected no one but herself. Her students’ time was her time and only hers. If we had meetings, doctor’s appointments, or anything else at a time she wished to meet (at any time of day), we always had to cancel. The importance of said doctor’s appointment didn’t matter.

    Basically, I would say the difference between my supervisors is respect, which then leads to trust. My first supervisor only wanted pawns to control and dominate. My current supervisor acknowledges that she is here to guide me and that my work is mainly mine and my responsibility. My current supervisor respects me and everyone else in the lab as colleagues and human beings. This respect allows a strong sense of trust to develop on my side because I know she wants me to succeed. I know she will provide support and I know she wants me to take any opportunity that will benefit me. I could never say that for my first supervisor.

  78. My adviser has done so much and flipped all over to defend my interests. Even though a medium-risk research project rarely goes to plan, they have tried to do the impossible and make time when it was truly needed. Initially we used to disagree on the “how”, but after a few years, we have mutual trust in each other and would like to think of him as a personal friend, as well. Carrying each others’ (actual) boxes of stuff in an ungodly Saturday morning following the previous night de rigueur group booze-up tends to change perspectives.
    It’s not like having a boss at work, even though professors can sometimes rule their group with an iron fist. You set your own deadlines. In this respect, my relationship falls somewhere in the middle. I am not just a worker bee or a resource in his research strategy, but I’m made to feel a live part of it. Now I’m slowly applying for my own grants. Pity the University XXX had to lose such a man from their faculty ranks.
    He does push hard. Occasionally, unforgivably so. But then you think, you signed up for a PhD, pretty much sacrificing a few years of your life, presumably to be able to do even greater things with your training later. If I only wanted the piece of paper, I would have picked social sciences or some ‘easy’ subject.
    But then, he’s always human, and I think this is what separates the all-too-common stereotypical slave-driving boss from a leader.
    He likes to be taught. As a trained physicist, he does get visibly annoyed when his engineering students lack the minimum pre-requisites to do so, but it is blatant flippancy that makes him lose his temper. Unfortunately, politics tend to get in the way for a “best fit” candidate. And I suspect a big chunk of young prospective students have no idea what work in a long-term really entails (hint: if you don’t like the idea of polishing a turd till it shines, and all you get is little nods for making the shiniest turd in the block, don’t go into grad school).
    It’s tough and I love it. But I needn’t rely on him exclusively. I can get an equal slap on the wrist from his PDRAs.

  79. In the medical school, I feel I am an exception in terms of my supervisor relationship. I often hear tales of awful supervisors and students close to tears after encounters with them. My experience differs in that my supervisory team seem to view me as a work-in-progress, a developing researcher, and trusted. I am often given the freedom to work at my own pace even when things aren’t going quickly enough to make sure I really learn from my experiences and grow as a researcher.

    In my first year I had a really hard time with the PhD process and got really way behind in my work. I didn’t communicate my needs with my supervisors because i was scared about letting them down and it got to the point where I didn’t really have a proper project plan. They sat me down and said they wanted to give me another chance and that meant the world to me.
    I still get really nervous before our meetings just because I don’t want to let them down but they really are very supportive. The work is going much better thanks to their guidance. They do guide me instead of dictate to me which has really helped. I’ve been allowed to explore other parts of the university and get involved in other projects, public engagement, union activities, and societies which has really helped me develop as a person and as a researcher. Without this freedom my work would have severely suffered.
    My main supervisor is the number one go-to for academic advice and that’s exactly what I need from them. My second supervisor does help with the work but they are best for my personal wellbeing and they’ve been so invaluable in that. It’s a great balance so far.
    My only qualm is that I don’t get chosen to go to conferences or events despite being one of the only students in the department. The others don’t get to go either, but I feel left out when other academics go. This is irrational for me since I am not quite at the stage where I could present a full paper but I feel I need the experience.
    Otherwise I am very happy and have grown to appreciate their supervisory decisions the further along I go in my studies.

  80. My relationship with my supervisors is not great. I wouldn’t say it was ever negative in an intentionally destructive way, but the only way I can really describe it is weird. In fact, I’d say it started off weird and never really resolved.

    When I started both of my supervisors were on research leave and I didn’t see them much. Because I’d been an MA student in the department (and I’d maybe always given the impression that I was a fairly ‘independent’ worker?), from the get-go I was sort of left to get on with it – and I felt that was fine at the time, I assumed that was what the first year of the PhD was supposed to be like. But in hindsight, I think I went along with it because I didn’t know what I wanted at the beginning. I didn’t know how a PhD should go, or what I needed from my supervisors in terms of support, etc.

    Being left on my own to work so early on was actually unhelpful for me, but I didn’t know at the beginning that it would be. I didn’t speak up and say anything to my supervisors at the time, and as more time passed I felt like I’d left it too late to change things. With both of my supervisors being on research leave, I didn’t want to bother them too much, and there never seemed like a right time to bring it up. By the time I realised how I felt I’d left it too long to say anything and I didn’t feel confident to go back and ask for something different.

    Looking back I should have said something at the beginning – at the very least talked through with my supervisors how I worked and what would be best for me to start. I think it would have helped my development in terms of working strategies and progress in general, and I’d be in a much better place now. I didn’t feel ready or confident to do what was being asked of me, i.e. to just get on with it, to go away and just put together 5000 words on this or that. Even if/when my supervisors ask me to do this now, two years in, I still don’t feel confident enough, or that I have the right skill set.

    Whenever my supervisors sent me away to write and put together a piece of work, I felt like they would always give me plenty of time (they were basically leaving me alone to work without ‘distractions’ of being contacted for weeks/months), and so I felt like in that time I should be producing something really good for them – but I didn’t know how. I was asked to provide types of documents I’ve never been given examples of before – for example, things as simple as a detailed plan, I didn’t know how ‘detailed’ it had to be, because I hadn’t had any guidance. A friend (who is doing a PhD in a different department) helped me understand what was required of me for certain things.

    When I started I did know vaguely what a PhD was, and what was involved in it, but I suppose I didn’t really understand exactly. It’s not been what I expected, and not necessarily in a good way. I felt as though I needed more at the beginning to figure out a plan and to have a more structured idea of it all. I know a PhD is meant to be different to a Masters, since it’s your own piece of work, but from day one it’s always been too free flowing and not structured enough.
    I know I’m supposed to be independent but I don’t know how, and I feel like I never received that baseline of support at the start to be independent now.

    The impact of all of this is that, two years in, I’ve had to take a couple leaves of absence for various reasons. I feel like I’m still behind in terms of progress, but I don’t know how far through I am, or what progress I’ve made, because my leaves of absence have made my work really disjointed. Nothing I’ve written is really in a state of being near finished, I still have things that are way off target in terms of quality and word count – but I don’t know what the target is, because I’ve never seen an example of what ‘good’ looks like.

    I have a lot of self doubt in terms of my work, which bleeds into everything else to do with my relationships with my supervisors, etc. I don’t know how to know if I’m doing a good job as my supervisors don’t really say outright if anything I’ve produced is good/good enough quality – I don’t know what quality or standard I’m aiming for. I’m not very good with ambiguity and vague support/feedback – I’d much rather hear that something is ‘good’ or ‘not good’, and if it’s not good, how exactly it can be fixed.

    I feel stressed and upset about it all, but I don’t know if my supervisors understand why I am. I’ve broken down and cried several times in my department, and after that I never felt particularly comfortable working there (even though I have a desk there). My relationships with my school feel strained because of this stress, which makes me reluctant to go in the dept and means I don’t see my supervisors much.

    When I went on leave of absence I felt as if there was an expectation that I should take the time to be able to fully recover from whatever problems I had which necessitated the leave, then come back and carry on as normal, without properly resolving the issue of what caused it. So my problems just picked up where they left off, without ever being resolved.

  81. It is annoying when supervisors don’t acknowledge emails, particularly pieces of work sent to them to meet deadlines.

    I get the feeling generally that my supervisors don’t think my project or my work are much good. Their interactions with me are more formal than I had expected, which I find off-putting.

    Both these things affect levels of trust.

  82. I received Supervisor training as part of my induction as a new junior lecturer – run by an external organisation, it was fantastically valuable, especially the focus on leading and shaping dialogue and conversations with PGRs. Every PhD student I have supervised in the past 10 years has been different – and different challenges arise at different stages of each student’s research. I have learnt to listen out for key alarm bells, particularly (a) waning confidence, (b) taking on too much ‘extra’ stuff because of financial and/or perceived career pressures. I think it’s the supervisor’s role to be attuned to these issues – because PhD research progress will stall if we are unable to support properly. I advocate doctoral researchers getting involved in external engagement work, in teaching, in outreach work, and more besides – but at the right point of their research. I also do not assume that all PhDs will go on to academic careers – and try to be attentive to how I can help them gain awareness of the skillset that they are developing alongside and as part and parcel of their PhD research. I hope that way we establish trust – it’s a given that we trust each other’s research aptitude, usually – but it’s not always a given that we trust each other’s judgement or advice. The more we talk – in person, via email, in both formal (supervision) and informal (department socials) contexts – the better and more productive the supervisory relationship is, and to the benefit of everyone. Problems do arise – and sometimes there is nothing a supervisor can do about it. That can be disappointing and disheartening for supervisors too – we always want the best for our students, and to see them flourish as researchers. Building networks which enable that is therefore invaluable.

  83. Given that none of the previous answers have mentioned Trust, (the study is called Trust Me! after all…). I thought I would take a bulletpoint approach to answering the question. Despite sitting on both sides of the fence I will answer from the Student perspective.

    ‘what your supervisor does that impacts on you’
    Leads by example by working the hours they demand of me.

    ‘what makes all the difference’
    Positive attitude and occasional praise, refraining from undue criticism.

    ‘how are you supported’
    With a University stipend… and training support from the endangered species that is the Post-Doc. In most cases, the Supervisor is the last port of call when encountering difficulty.

    ‘what does good supervision look like’
    We know what good supervision looks like from management theory. Student and Supervisor should sit down and agree a process that works for both. This will in most cases be a Lean Agile process, which allows flexibility but offers regular brainstorming sessions. It’s odd that this facet of business life hasn’t infiltrated practical teaching. If Academia is to run like a business then they should follow the greatest practitioner of all – Toyota. All too often Students and Supervisors are on a fixed wavelength, unwilling to bend.

    ‘how do you and your supervisor interact’
    This is an interesting question as I have experienced everything from strictly professional to ‘my life story including the divorced partner and kids’… Personal preference is that it remains professional.

    ‘how did you come to trust each other’
    When I was first told about my project I trusted wholeheartedly in my Supervisor and the preliminary data. We all know how hard it is to replicate someone else’s data in this modern day ‘publish or perish’ environment (i.e. there is a lot of made up data and fudged analysis out there!). By the end of my PhD my trust had eroded, not just in my Supervisor but the entire academic process.

    In the real-world, trust is earned over time through demonstrations of good character. In the academic world trust is a given based on title alone. Of course you will believe what that Professor told you, they’re a Professor right? The reality is, it’s a slippery slope and trust is on a downward trajectory from almost the first encounter. Suffice to say, it has no bearing on success – although having trust in your Supervisor will undoubtedly make the whole experience a lot more enjoyable.

    ‘is your relationship typical?’
    Unfortunately… yes. I have witnessed better and worse relationships. In all cases the Student has graduated, the only difference being the quality of life experienced. Perhaps your next study could deploy the QoL survey or EQLS among post-graduate students compared to Supervisor relationships.

    1. While you make some good and interesting points, i am sad you have encountered supervisors you think do not work the hours demanded of you. Maybe you should find out how much supervisors work. I wish my students would work the hours i do!

  84. Support is vital. The supervisor needs to be available, interested, approachable while helping the student develop their independence. While independence is a core skill to develop, when needed to it’s up to the supervisor to come up with the solution when a student gets properly stuck. Its a balance between not spoon-feeding the student so they develop as independent scientists, and not leaving them too unsupported. If they’ve tried to create a solution and they’re still stuck, that supervisor needs to be available and able to use their help provide a solution.

  85. Students occasionally misjudge their role in a project and have an over-inflated view of their contribution and no sense of the wider context of the work. That’s not unusual and it can create difficulties around authorship on papers because they may think that they have ownership of a piece of work, when they have actually only been responsible for a fraction of a much larger study. Sometimes, these misunderstandings lead to delays in publication because the students think their contribution to the work was more important than it was, when it was actually relatively minor – they didn’t develop the project, or raise the funding for the work, or co-ordinate the study, but this may not be clear to them

  86. Some supervisors can put enormous pressure on students to generate data and results for publications etc. They can actively discourage or prevent students from participating in training or development opportunities because they can’t see beyond the data. They’ve got to realise that it’s not all about them, the students are entitled to develop as well. Lots of students complain to me about that – supervisor pressure not to do additional things. I can see both sides. There is a fine balance between the amount of time that is spent on the PhD project, and the amount of time engaged in development and training opportunities, and students need to be careful that they don’t get so caught up in the training that it becomes detrimental to overall progress. Likewise, supervisors need to encourage students to engage in activities outside the immediate remit of the project and help them to find that balance.

  87. Motivations on both sides are very individual really, but I don’t think we recruit students to this alignment of values and projects and group cultures, we recruit in a fairly standard way – we aren’t as good as we’d like to think at recruiting. We end up with being offered an opportunity to take a student on, yes or no, and make decisions based on whether we think we can make a go of it or not. Not many of us have the luxury of picking and choosing to develop a culture.

  88. Every one of my supervision relationships has been different and required me to think about the student’s needs in different ways. I’ve had good students that I’ve not fully engaged with for various reasons – personality type reasons – and I’ve had weaker students who to be honest I’ve enjoyed supervising. They may not be the most academically able but they’re willing to put the work in to do the best that they can.

  89. “I think when there are issues between students and supervisors, it’s a communication breakdown every time, that’s the number one thing. If the communication’s off it builds up into issues. If students and supervisors are having problems it can most of the time be resolved by taking, they just need to sit down together and talk it through. Most things are resolvable and they’re just down to misunderstandings but between then they’ve not realised they’re mis-communicating. They’ve made assumptions about the other person’s understanding or position and being honest helps get it sorted. We all want the same thing, it’s just finding a way to work together to go forward by being explicit about what’s going on for you, not assuming you know what the other person is thinking.”

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