If problems arise between students and their advisors, then they are likely to be the result of:

  • mismatches in expectations that both parties are unaware of;
  • poor interpersonal communication skills (by the student and/or the advisor); and/or
  • disputes over authorship issues.

Mismatches in Expectations

Task or student focus

One way in which both students and advisors can differ from one another is in whether they are primarily task-focussed or primarily person-focussed (of course, it is also possible to have a balanced focus). That is, whether the focus of interactions is on getting tasks completed to a high standard or on developing the student as a researcher. So, if at some point you find yourself feeling like your advisor cares more about your thesis than about you, it might be a result of a mismatch in your personality styles.

Expectations about roles and responsibilities

Another area in which there can be mismatches in expectations is with regards to roles and responsibilities. To make yourself conscious of your own expectations about roles and responsibilities, you might like to download and complete the Role Perceptions Rating Scale (PDF) (just the first two pages).

Note that there is no set of “correct” answers to the items on this scale, but different students and different advisors fill in the scale differently, so it is important to identify if there are any items for which you and your principal advisor have significantly different views as these are potential sources of problems if not discussed and resolved. Consequently, after having filled in the scale yourself, it is a good idea to show it to your principal advisor and ask them if there are any items which need to be discussed.

Interpersonal communication skills

Many relationship problems result from miscommunication, poor communication and lack of communication. If you think that this is causing problems between you and your supervisor (even if you think the problem is with your supervisor rather than you, but you don’t know how to handle the situation), then a Personal Counsellor at Student Services might be able to help.

Also, sometimes communications problems arise because of cultural differences in communication practices. So if you’re an international student and you feel that you and your advisor are not communicating effectively with one another, then perhaps an International Student Adviser at Student Services might be able to help.

To explore these ideas further, see student-supervisor scenarios and the guide to effective feedback.

Questions about authorship – name order and requirements for co-author status

Questions over authorship on papers is another area where problems can arise. Questions may focus on issues such as when a supervisor’s name should appear as a co-author as opposed to just in the acknowledgements, and in what order the authors’ names on a manuscript should appear. The following guidelines might help with these questions.

The Joint NHMRC and AVCC Guidelines on Authorship are:

3.1 Minimum requirement for authorship

substantial participation, where all the following conditions are met: conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data;
and b) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; i.e. more than just providing some general feedback and c) final approval of the version to be published.

Participation solely in the acquisition of funding or the collection of data does not justify authorship. General supervision of the research group is not sufficient for authorship. … An author’s role in a research output must be sufficient for that person to take public responsibility for at least that part of the output in that person’s area of expertise.”

How is order of author names determined?

  • Generally, authors appear in the order of their relative contribution to the project from most to least. This is not always easy to determine though!
  • However, the relative number of hours put into the project is not the only consideration. Originating the idea and developing the research plan outweighs many more hours of routine data analysis.
  • If there are only two authors and they collaborate on more than one paper and their contributions are roughly equal, then they might take turns being first author, or maybe the person who originated the idea might go first.