Frequently Asked Questions

What can I expect from my supervisor and what does my supervisor expect from me?

Working on an understanding of mutual expectations with your supervisor is an essential part of developing a good working relationship. Do this at the beginning. Some students have no idea what is reasonable to expect while others have what can only be called a wish list. What actually is the truth varies between supervisors and departments. However, expectations can be discussed under several broad headings.
  • Practicalities: This includes such things as: provision of desk or room, equipment, computer facilities, conference funding, photocopying, secretarial or laboratory assistance. While important, these are easy to sort out. Most departments provide some support in this area and information is usually listed in departmental handbooks, publications for postgraduate students, or available from administrative officers or your supervisor.

  • Intellectual support: You could reasonably expect what can be termed 'quality assurance'. By that we mean that your supervisor would probably have experience at both supervising and examining PhD students. This means she or he knows what standard your thesis should meet and can assess the feasibility of your plans. Your supervisor can also play the role of sounding board for your ideas. In initial stages this involves helping you find your way through the literature, guidance in topic formulation, help with research design, and robust comment on appropriate writing style. In later stages this support can change to become more of a discussion of your ideas, results, and theoretical framework. The relationship is often presented as one changing from that of master-apprentice to one of colleagues. In reality, the way it starts is often the way it finishes. A more satisfying relationship is one where both parties acknowledge from the start that they are potential colleagues.

  • Emotional support: It is reasonable to expect that, while taking a needed critical approach to your work, your supervisor would nevertheless encourage you in your endeavours. A good supervisor would be expected to create an atmosphere where you are not frightened of asking questions, where you don't feel you have to be brilliant all the time, and in which you can even occasionally expose your ignorance. You need to feel safe. It is useful to remember that, at this stage of your academic life, your supervisor is not your assessor but someone who is in your corner. Your success is his or her success.

The framework in which this support happens varies but what you would expect is to have frequent, dedicated meetings with your supervisor. These are reasonable expectations but they do have to be negotiated and formally set up right from the beginning and then reviewed as needs change.

The other side of the coin is that your supervisor has reasonable expectations of you. These would include:
  • that you are academically competent, can handle the theories and major concepts in your area, but will acknowledge and work on any weaknesses or acquire any necessary technical or research skills;

  • that you are able to express yourself both orally and in writing. Remember, although part of your supervisor's role is to guide you in the use of appropriate discipline-specific language conventions, writing is still your responsibility.

  • that you keep your supervisor informed about the progress of your work and whether you're facing any problems. Too often supervisors say "If only I'd known that (the experiments failed, you've run out of money, broken your leg)".

  • that you can organise yourself, meet deadlines, and in general not need to be told what to do and be 'supervised' all the time. But … that you will ask for help if you need it.
In other words, you should be able to expect a professional supervisor, and your supervisor should be able to expect you to be professional also. This relationship is so important that it warrants time, thought and energy to keep it working.

* Establishing a relationship with your supervisor.
* Seeking, receiving and handling feedback.
* Strategies for getting the best feedback possible.
* Overcoming reluctance to seek feedback.
* How do I handle disagreements with my supervisor?
* How is the best way to organise myself to get the whole thing done?
* What style of writing is expected?
* The use of personal pronouns.
* Active vs passive voice.
* The use of tenses.

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