It's important to forge a strong partnership with your PhD supervisor from the start. These tips will help you manage the student-supervisor relationship.

How To Work Well With Your PhD Supervisor

As a prospective PhD candidate, you are valuable. Institutions want you, and gain funding, prestige and profile through your presence.

But you are also, in a sense, dispensable, as there are many thousands of candidates who would happily take your coveted PhD place.

So do yourself and your university a favour by forging a strong relationship with your PhD supervisor from the start. Here’s how to manage the student-supervisor relationship:

Watch out for co-supervisors

Most universities insist on at having two supervisors for each PhD candidate. Having this system isn’t necessarily for academic reasons, but rather to allay bureaucratic fears; for instance, if the supervisor leaves the institution or if the supervisor and student have a disagreement, then the candidate will be left stranded.

Sometimes an inexperienced co-supervisor is added to a team to gain “experience”. That is, perhaps, understandable. But damage can be inflicted to students through bad advice. Sometimes – and truthfully, it’s often – less is more. A strong relationship with a competent, experienced and committed advisor will ensure that the student will produce a strong thesis with minimum delay, and be well prepared for their PhD viva.

A supervisor who works on your specialty can turbocharge your work

Is it better to select a more well-known “name” or a lesser-known “name in your niche”?  The appropriateness of a supervisor’s field of research is very crucial to your success because it can save you considerable time. Supervisors who are reading, thinking and writing in the field can locate gaps in your scholarly literature and – at speed – provide you with a few names to boost that section.

A generalist will not be able to give you this kind of attention or knowledge. As the length of your candidacy – or, more precisely, the financial backing – shrinks and three years becomes the goal, your PhD supervisor can save you time through sharing not only their experience but also their expertise.

Stick to weekly meetings

The principle attribute of students who complete their dissertation on time is that they are passionately connected to their thesis, and remain engaged with their research and their supervisor. And the best way to maintain this connection is through weekly meetings.

There are several reasons for this. If students know that written work is expected each week, and they have to have a face-to-face in an office with a supervisor who is evaluating their work, that stress creates productive writing and research. However, if meetings are held only twice monthly, this stress-based productivity is halved. It is better to provide a tight accountability structure for students, and weekly meetings accomplish this task.

Watch out for “byline bandits”

Does your PhD supervisor write with doctoral students? That’s great. But do they write almost exclusively with their students? That’s not so great. Supervising is a collaboration, so if your supervisor is always attaching his or her name to your work without any independent publication, be wary. It’s not a given that supervisors get to put their name on all of your work, either, so make sure you always discuss authorship before getting started.

Here at Your PhD Supervisor, we carefully match students with an academic advisor to mentor you on such tricky situations. But we’re not just mentors, we’re also collaborators. In fact, several co-supervising partnerships have been so successful that we’ve co-authored research papers with students in the past!

Photo: NEC Corporation of America

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