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How to work effectively with research supervisors, advisors and tutors

What to expect from a research supervisor*

New students tend to expect supervisors to tell them what to do. Indeed, this may be justified for very short research projects or where the work is tied into a group project and bounded by the efficient use of expensive and heavily utilised equipment. Where this is not so, students may wait for their supervisors to tell them what to do because they think that demonstrating dependence in this way also demonstrates respect.

Fortunately, good supervisors realise that they have to wean many students gradually into independence; so they may provide a well-defined task, as something on which supervisor and student can both build perhaps a pilot project of some sort. If this is what your supervisor does, it may give you a sense of security, but things are unlikely to carry on that way. Many people would argue that they ought not to carry on that way.

At the other extreme, some supervisors toss out a multitude of ideas at the first meeting, which can be overwhelming. If this happens to you, just realise that the ideas are merely possibilities for you to consider, not tasks that you necessarily have to do. Your best course of action is probably to make a note of them and then take them away to think about, to decide which ones comprise essential groundwork and which ones are merely alternative possibilities. There is no single best way to research a topic, although there are numerous bad and non-viable ways. It is you and you alone who have to be intimately involved with what you are doing over a considerable period. So, for all but the shortest of projects, it is essential that you design your work so that it appeals to you as well as being acceptable to your supervisor(s).

General information

As your work progresses, supervisions should become two-way dialogues. Your supervisor(s) will expect you to develop your own ideas which may have to be bounded for various reasons but will want to discuss them with you, to give advice and to warn in good time against possible dangers. It is not a sound interpretation of 'independent work' for students to continue along their own way, on the mistaken assumption that they do not need supervisions.

Since research means going beyond published work and developing something new and original, your relationship with your supervisor(s) must accommodate the natural and inevitable fact that you will eventually come to know more about your work than they do. You will need to become comfortable with this and with engaging them in academic debate as between equals.

Formality and frequency of meetings with a supervisor

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on interacting effectively with supervisors

The importance of student-supervisor relationships

The composition of supervisory teams

Points to watch for with team supervision

Roles and responsibilities of supervisors and students

The developing nature of supervision

Arranging meetings with a supervisor

Making the most of meetings with supervisors

Keeping records of meetings with supervisors

Asking a supervisor for feedback and advice

Responding to feedback and criticism from a supervisor

Handling dissatisfaction with supervision

It is important to distinguish between formal supervisions and informal meetings. There will be specific policies about the timing and duration of the former, probably around a minimum of eight meetings per year for a PhD, and several supervisors may be present. The dates may be roughly laid out for an entire programme of research and require specific documents to be completed and signed at each meeting.

Informal meetings can also form part of the supervisory process, more so in some subject areas than in others. Supervisors may be torn in two directions as far as scheduling these is concerned, and it is helpful to understand why. On the one hand supervisors want to do what they can to be supportive, but on the other they do not want to interfere on the grounds that independent students ought to take the initiative when they need to discuss work which should, after all, be their own. This latter view is reinforced by the formal dictate of most institutions that it is the responsibility of the student to take the initiative in raising problems or difficulties, however elementary they may seem, and to agree a schedule of meetings with the supervisor.

The practical way forward is for you to take steps early on to find out how scheduling supervisions is likely to work best for the unique partnership between you and your supervisor(s). It is polite to wait a while, to give supervisors time to raise the matter, which they probably will.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.