Supervision and key relationships

This section looks at how to develop an effective supervisory relationship:

General information

An effective working relationship with your supervisory team is key to your success as a postgraduate researcher. You need to understand the supervisory team role and be proactive in this relationship if you want to get the most out of it.

Doctoral study requires a high level of independence and your supervisory team is not there to spoon-feed or micro-manage you, but they should provide you with support and guidance and meet with you regularly.

Importantly, your main supervisor is only one of the key relationships in your doctorate. In the UK the QAA Quality Code that regulates research degrees says that each doctoral researcher 'will have a minimum of one main supervisor' who ‘will normally be part of a supervisory team'. There will also be other people to guide and support you, such as librarians and archivists, research staff and technicians.

The main supervisor’s role

The exact role of your supervisor will differ depending on your university, discipline, the main supervisor's style and workload, as well as the role that the rest of your supervisory team play. However, typically supervisors should:

  • ensure that you understand what is expected
  • have regular supervisory meetings with you
  • help you formulate a research plan 
  • ensure that you are aware of how your research fits into any research groups or projects of which you are part 
  • help you to co-ordinate the supervisory team responsible for your project 
  • give guidance about literature, training, ethics, research techniques and academic conventions 
  • help you develop your critical thinking 
  • provide constructive feedback on written work 
  • give feedback on your overall progress 
  • advise on courses, both specialist and concerning professional development
  • access to advice on career development and the range of career opportunities 
  • help you set realistic deadlines and to submit your thesis on time 
  • advise you on where to present your work, conferences and opportunities for publication
  • read and comment upon the whole of the final thesis.

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The doctoral researcher’s role

While your supervisory team is a key resource in the conduct of a doctorate, ultimately the responsibility for the project rests with you.Your exact role is likely to be detailed in your university's regulations. Typically the doctoral researcher is expected to:

  • take responsibility for finding out what is expected
  • take the initiative in raising problems or difficulties 
  • help the supervisory team to ensure consistency 
  • discuss with the supervisory team how to make guidance more effective, including disability related concerns
  • agree, organise and attend mutually convenient meetings, contribute to their agenda and circulate work in advance
  • undertake research training as agreed and where need is identified
  • undertake recommended reading 
  • produce written work as agreed 
  • comply with reporting procedures and inform supervisors of the progress of your research 
  • tell supervisors about difficulties you encounter in your work 
  • arrange for informal sharing of information and practice 
  • generate your own ideas 
  • set realistic deadlines 
  • ask when you don't understand 
  • decide when to submit the thesis and ensure that it is submitted on time.
  • ensure that the thesis complies with institutional regulations

While regulations will differ between countries and universities all doctoral researchers are expected to be proactive, independent and assertive. So if you need guidance you need to ask.
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The supervisory team

In the UK, and increasingly in other countries, universities appoint more than one person to supervise doctoral research projects . The supervisory team will normally consist of two or three individuals with interest in your project and progress, including a main supervisor as the identified point of contact.

This team will normally be made up of academic staff within your department, but you may have members of your supervisory team from other departments, institutions or other organisations.

Usually, not all of the team will be experts in your subject, but they all should be experienced researchers who will be able to support and mentor you. One of your supervisors may be there as ‘personal mentor and tutor' to support your progress in developing as a researcher.

In interdisciplinary projects, supervision may take the form of a joint supervisory relationship where both supervisors have equal weight. In these projects it is particularly important to agree upfront the roles and responsibilities of each person in the supervisory team and who makes final decisions.

Spend time exploring how each member of the team sees their role and how they will support you during your doctorate. Being up front and clear about expectations, roles and responsibilities increases the opportunity for this to be a constructive relationship.
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Managing the supervision process

In order to get the most out of your supervision you should take control of the process using some of the following suggestions.

  • Discuss and agree key issues, eg authorship of papers, research ethics and intellectual property, at the start of the project
  • Be proactive and arrange formal supervisory meetings 
  • Prepare an agenda and send it to your supervisor in advance 
  • Prepare some work before each meeting to provide some focus to the meeting. Early on in your project you might just produce a list of what you have read or done, but as the project develops you are likely to be able to give data, analysis, papers, presentations and early drafts of chapters. 
  • Expect to receive feedback and criticism and use this to improve your work 
  • Deal with problems as they arise. Often these will be related to technical or resource issues but also be prepared to discuss issues around the style and frequency of supervision. Supervisors generally want to do a good job so if you make suggestions for improvements they will usually be willing to try them 
  • Summarise meetings and keep a copy for your own record and send one to your supervisor. This will help to ensure follow-up on any actions and will highlight any misunderstandings

Feel free to discuss things beyond your project, particularly your development as a researcher and career aspirations.
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Other key relationships

It is also worth thinking about how you relate to each of the following groups.

  • Research staff who work in your laboratory or department will generally have more experience than you and be more practically involved than your supervisor. They are likely to vividly remember what it was like to do a doctorate and can be a great source of inspiration as well as information
  • Technicians will be invaluable in helping you to learn techniques and gain a greater understanding of how the research environment works in practical terms
  • Librarians are experts in information management and can help you identify and locate journals and other sources of information
  • Trainers, advisors and career staff may be provided by your institution and some of them may have a particular focus on postgraduate researchers. It is worth finding out what other staff exist in your institution and what kinds of issue they will be able to give you advice and support on
  • Other postgraduate researchers are an important source of peer support. Building up strong networks of peers in your immediate environment and beyond will be invaluable to you as you undertake your doctorate

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