Student-supervisor relationships

Section 4.3.3 of the Education Committee's Policy on Research Degrees focuses on the initial term of the student's career. It recommends a range of considerations concerned with establishing a satisfactory pattern of working relations between supervisor and student right from the outset.

Here two supervisors describe their perceptions of what is important in establishing a good working relationship.

First, an experienced supervisor talks very candidly about the experience of developing student-supervisor relationships, particularly developing respect and a shared commitment to the project:

There is one thing which I tell the students a lot, which is probably not normal – I insist on seeing my students very, very often. …Why? Because, at some point in the 3 years, you’re going to hit a brick wall. …If we haven’t built that whole person relationship, we aren’t going to get through the hard bit … [at the same time] you need to get close but not too close …if you get too close to students, you can never discipline them. (Experienced supervisor, MPLS)

Second, a new supervisor at Oxford notes the advisability of discussions, early on, about how the relationship might work out over the coming months, and his need to be adaptable:

Obviously, every student is different, so you have to respond to what they’re like as well... When I first got doctoral students … I think I thought the job of a supervisor was what my supervisor had done. What I’ve discovered, of course, is that other people don’t work like that…. So that was quite a sharp learning curve for me… it’s just a question of learning what patterns of work …people are happiest with …and once you’ve worked that out, you’re alright, and – what …works for me anyway – is you have to say up-front, “What do you think you’re going to be happiest with?” Rather than allowing it to develop and ending up with somebody feeling neglected or overburdened by attention. You have to say, “How do you work?” and, “What’s going to work for you?” and then just work round that. (New supervisor, Humanities)

The different responsibilities of student, supervisor and department or faculty are set out clearly in the Policy on Research Degrees. See especially Section 4: Supervision and Section 5: Responsibilities of the student.

Case Study: Expectations of supervisory relationships: two supervisors' views

As this supervisor notes, student-supervisor relationships vary between students:

With the guy from the [X] group …my role has actually been just to be there with whatever…a decade’s more experience, just discuss and occasionally reassure and bounce ideas… I think it’s quite a team-like relationship, and I just have collected t-shirts along the way that he hasn’t had a chance to, and he seems to find that helpful… The other student, in the beginning was worrying about whether or not she was going to fail her thesis, you know, a month into her D.Phil… I found it very difficult dealing with somebody who’s on a knife edge about whether they’re going to fail their PhD… Most of what I had to do in the end… was about reassurance… and that it would be alright… I think the student has relaxed to the point where [she’s] able to do some work and work on a slightly longer-term basis. (New supervisor, MPLS)

Relationships can also be influenced by the supervisor's own doctoral experience:

[When I was a doctoral student] I was basically left to my own devices, and that was nice because I had great independence, and he [my supervisor] would support anything I wanted to do, so… I do the same thing with my students… I give them complete freedom, but at the same time say what I think about it, but whatever they want to do, I give 100% support, because I found that really wonderful with him. He was extremely decent, so that’s what I do with my students as well, and I think that’s how it should be. (New supervisor, Social Sciences)

 Questions to consider about the case study

How would you compare your view to this supervisor’s in respect of the freedom that you want to give a student? To what extent do you see this stance being influenced by variation in individual students (as the earlier supervisor described)?

In addition to personal preferences, disciplinary practices can influence the ways in which the student-supervisor relationship is developed and maintained. For instance, in the sciences, there are likely to be multiple informal interactions in the lab or in team meetings. These provide occasions to to develop trust and respect; nevertheless, focused meetings to establish and develop the relationship are still needed. On the other hand, in the social sciences and humanities, the more regular informal interactions are less likely to occur, with communication largely taking place within formal meetings; in such cases it is important to consider how to develop a sustained relationship of respect and open communication. 

Case Study: Expectations of supervisory relationships: two student views

Nina: My relationship with my supervisors…I didn’t feel it started off the best …my other friends that had already been in PhDs, … they seemed to have a lot more of a friendly relationship, whereas mine was much more just professional, like we only ever talk once a month in my supervision. … At the beginning, it was a bit weird, but I think now…we probably talk a lot more. They’re very good from the professional point of view, giving me an academic point of view, and if I ever need anything, like supporting letters for a visa application and stuff, they do that. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)
Tom: As I perceive it, he functions not only as my supervisor but also as my mentor. He knows best what the projects are about, what I’m doing and what I need to do, what I can improve and how to motivate me. I can tell him my thoughts and point of view; he will tell me his opinion and give me advice. I don’t have the feeling that I simply get instructions but that he rather appreciates my thoughts and values fruitful discussions. He is a very inspiring character. (Doctoral student, MPLS)

 Questions to consider about the case study

Nina and Tom describe very different types of relationships with their supervisors - though both are still satisfactory. To what extent do you think they each feel a sense of trust and respect from their supervisor to their project? In thinking about your own supervisory practice, what do you do to create this kind of relationship with your students?

Some of the following ideas and resources may be helpful in building a professional and respectful relationship, a key ingredient of which is open communication.

Early meetings provide the basis for developing relationships and expectations between student and supervisor; such meetings demonstrate your respect for each other and each other's values.

The early meetings should aim to establish open communication by:

  • setting out a number of parameters - our "Starting out as a postgraduate researcher" page lists many items to be considered
  • clarifying expectations - you could use the Clarifying expectations tool (this lists questions for students to ask themselves) or the "Memorandum of Understanding", see MOU template(Otago) for one example which students and supervisors use together to establish procedures and processes of joint working.

Having done this, meetings can relatively quickly move on to:

  • establishing a clear project proposal; and
  • identifying the student's skills and skills gaps.

It should be noted that the increasing internationalization of academia means that students and supervisors frequently come with different cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds which may influence approaches to face-to-face meetings and other interactions and make it more difficult to establish trust. E.g.

  • Turn-taking. Students and supervisors will each have particular models of the student and supervisor role in mind which they see as appropriate for them to adopt. This may turn out to conflict with the expectations of the other person/people in the supervisory relationship. This may be evident in, for instance, different expectations of turn taking, e.g., deference to those more senior, so that the more senior individual is expected to frame and drive the meetings, introduce topics for discussion and, maybe, draw the conclusions as well. In a supervisory relationship, this could manifest itself with some students being reluctant to speak up unless given very clear signals that they are expected to do so. Additionally, some students may be hesitant to actively address issues of lack of understanding or miscommunication. In other words, admitting to a lack of understanding may be seen as threatening to the supervisor’s face in the sense of implying criticism of the explanation rather than an opportunity for clarification and moving forward.
  • Interpersonal Space. The physical space that individuals in social situations find comfortable to maintain between them often varies from culture to culture and, sometimes, for different sexes within the same culture. Individuals from cultures who stand and converse at a closer distance may feel puzzled, and possibly rejected, by the embarrassment and attempts to avoid the violation of their own sense of personal space by other individual’s for whom the comfortabledistance for interaction is greater.
  • Gestures. Body language is a significant aspect of all cultures but the meanings associated with various gestures vary from culture to culture. For international students and supervisors alike misunderstandings can occur as issues such as variations in speech, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues (e.g. eye contact, nodding or shaking of heads, touch) are misinterpreted.

The student/supervisor relationship can be further complicated when student and supervisor have different ideas as to the motivation behind doing the degree. An interesting resource for students is this video (filmed at Oxford) on Effective communication with your supervisor.

Overall, achieving a respectful and productive relationship will vary depending on the student, the stage he or she has reached, the supervisor's preferred style of supervision, and the views and expectations of both as regards appropriate communication. The relationship can also be supported by students developing and maintaining other academic relationships.

To what extent do you encourage students to seek out other mentors and advisors?

One thing that is particularly interesting about studies that have been done on the 'ideal' supervisor is that the findings suggest it is the affective dimensions that candidates value the most highly in their supervisors (e.g. support, availability, interest and enthusiasm). Issues of technical 'know-how' are usually rated somewhat lower down the list of desirable characteristics.

Research also suggests that a productive relationship arises from a process of implicit and explicit negotiation based on agreed goals and values such as:

  • mutual respect
  • an understanding of the expectations of the other 
  • shared commitment to the goal of the completion of a successful research candidature 
  • open communication

Regarding the last item, possibly the most commonly reported difficulty for candidates relates to communication difficulties with supervisors. Establishing sound and productive communication early, and regularly reviewing communication strategies, can help avoid some of the more distressing situations in which students and supervisors find themselves. Still, while many such situations can be resolved, it is sometimes appropriate to consider supervisory change. While it is difficult to get local figures, a student survey (Heath, 2002) demonstrated that supervisory change was not as rare as is frequently thought: 18% of students had a change in principal supervisor and 11% a change in the co-supervisor. Further, the change was not always the result of student concern: 52% of changes were due to supervisor departure and 10% to a change in topic; only 13% were linked to a breakdown in relations. Students frequently report their fear at initiating change, unaware that it is not an uncommon process and one for which procedures exist (if not always easy to find).

It is especially important, in the event of any supervisory change, that students should be kept well-informed and not left in limbo for too long while new relationships are arranged.

The above text was based on:

Barnes, B., Williams, E., & Archer, S. (2010). Characteristics that matter most: Doctoral students' perceptions of positive and negative advisor attributes. NACADA Journal, 30(1), 34-46. Members-only access to journal.

Deuchar, R. (2008) Facilitator, director or critical friend?: contradiction and congruence in doctoral supervision stylesTeaching in Higher Education, 13(4), pp489-500.

Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students' views of supervision. Higher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 41-53.

Mainhard, T., van der Rijst, R. & van Tartwijk, J. (2009). A model for the supervisor-doctoral student relationshipHigher Education, 58(3), pp359-373.

Platow, M. (2012). PhD experience and subsequent outcomes: A look at self-perceptions of acquired graduate attributes and supervisor supportStudies in Higher Education, 37(1), 103-118.

Taylor, S., & Beasley, N. (2005). A handbook for doctoral supervisors. London: Routledge.

Wisker, G. (2005). The good supervisor: supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.