People being people, there is inevitably a wide range of supervisory “styles”. Some advisers are quite “laid back” in their approach, while others are quite directive. Some are more “product-focussed” in their approach, while others are more “person-focussed” (Murphy et al., 2007). There is not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” or “best” style, though different styles do have different advantages and disadvantages, and different students may prefer and perform better under one style as opposed to another.

Consider the list of supervisor-student relationship styles in the table below.

  • Which do you think you would prefer?
  • Which do you think your supervisor is (perhaps tacitly) operating under?
  • Can you think why your supervisor might think that approach is a good one to take?

If your preferred style differs considerably from that of your supervisor, perhaps thinking about styles in terms of the list below might help you “understand where your supervisor is coming from”. It may also help you to figure out why you’re feeling frustrated and how you might more clearly articulate what sort of support you are after. But remember to take into account that it may not be reasonable to expect any one person to be all things to all people. Also note that the relationship between a student and his/her supervisor can vary with context and stage of the degree.

Relationships between a student and their supervisor (Brown & Atkins, 1990, p. 121).
  • Director : Follower
  • Master : Servant
  • Guru : Disciple
  • Teacher : Pupil
  • Expert : Novice
  • Guide : Explorer
  • Project manager : Team worker
  • Auditor : Client
  • Editor : Author
  • Counsellor : Client
  • Doctor : Patient
  • Senior partner : Junior professional
  • Colleague : Colleague
  • Friend : Friend


Brown, G. and Atkins, M. (1988), Effective teaching in higher education. London: Routledge.
Murphy, N., Bain, J. D. and Conrad, L. (2007), “Orientation to research higher degree supervision,” Higher Education 53, pp. 209-234.