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How To Develop A Good Relationship With Your Research Supervisor

Student-supervisor relationship is one of the most important elements of graduate and doctoral studies. It can make or break the entire experience of students. According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Higher Education Academy on postgraduate experience, support from academic staff made the major difference to how students felt about their studies.

A research supervisor has to perform the role of a teacher, a mentor, and a patron.  Good supervisors understand the struggles that students go through during independent research and support, encourage and guide them throughout the process. They also challenge and push students to make sure that they perform to the best of their capabilities. Research is a long and stressful task and students often go through phases when they feel down or depressed. Overcoming that depression or anxiety can be very difficult if you do not have a supervisor who supports and facilitates the students through such emotional processes.

On the other hand, bad supervisors either remain uninvolved in the research or exercise too much control and treat students as slaves. This lack of support can have a huge impact on a student’s life and can even lead to stress, anxiety and depression. While supervisors are supposed to oversee the research process and guide students throughout, they should not micromanage or dominate the research. This may sound strange, but some supervisors even bully their students.

Good student-supervisor relationships are associated with higher and faster research completion rates.

What Is The Reason Behind a Poor Student-Supervisor Relationship?

There can be many reasons behind a poor student-supervisor relationship, such as different working styles, micromanaging, supervisor’s behavior (some supervisors are extremely overbearing), lack of seriousness by the student, and many more. However, according to the University of Manchester’s researcher development manager Ian Fairweather, the root cause of most of the problems is ‘poor communication’. He advises to “start a conversation early to set out expectations”. 

According to him, every student believes that only they are experiencing problems and everyone else has a very smooth relationship with their supervisors. But, in reality, most of the students have some sort of disagreement with their supervisors at some stage.

Student- supervisor relationship has to be based on honest communication, understanding, compromise, trust and shared goals. Darcey Gillie, who works at the careers service at the University of Sheffield, considers the student-supervisor relationship as a partnership, just like marriage.

How to Develop a Good Relationship with Your Supervisor?

A positive student-supervisor relationship leads to good and timely research, which is the success of both student and the supervisor. But, how does one ensure that positive relationship?

Many students believe that it is purely a matter of luck – well, sometimes it is, but not always. As a student, there are a lot of things that you can do to ensure that you have a positive experience with your supervisor. 

Take a look at the following tips that will help you to develop a good relationship with your graduate or doctoral research supervisor:

1. Get to know the supervisor beforehand   

Always meet your potential supervisor before you decide to work with them. While it seems pretty obvious, many students do not do this. They get overwhelmed or feel intimidated when they get the chance to work with a professor who is well-known in their fields and decides to work with them without making any attempt to know the supervisor. 

A professor may be considered an expert in his/her field, but this does not necessarily mean he/she will also be a good supervisor. Therefore, it is highly important that you arrange a meeting with the potential supervisor and discuss your research, your methodology and mutual expectations. Also, see if the supervisor is open to your ideas or is dismissive to your interests. 

It is also important to talk to other people in the department, especially to other students working with the supervisor, to learn about the professor’s attitude and reputation. Ask if the professor is cooperative and encouraging or rude and unnecessarily critical. 

All these factors are highly important to consider while making a decision about working with a supervisor. This will also give you an idea about what you should expect from the supervisor if you decide to work with him/her.

2. Know Your Responsibilities 

Remember, a supervisor’s job is to only assist and guide students through research. They are not supposed to think or work on their behalf. They do give advices to students, but they should not be expected to tell students what they should do, at every step. Graduate and doctoral students are mature and supervisors expect them to act that way – supervisors expect them to take the lead, manage time effectively, keep them updated about their progress and also to deal with small issues that may arise during the process.  

Remember, it is your research, not your supervisor’s. So, you are responsible for: 

  • Developing your research skills and any other skills that may facilitate the process
  • Planning your research
  • Data collection
  • Analyzing the findings and reaching a conclusion
  • To stick to deadlines and
  • To defend your thesis

3. Discuss expectations

As mentioned earlier, it is highly important to discuss mutual expectations before you formally start working with a supervisor. This is because student-supervisor relationship depends upon personalities and working styles of both the parties. For example, you may be a person who needs a lot of support and guidance at every stage, but your supervisor does not like this and prefers to review and critique your work after you submit a finished work (a chapter, let’s say). Similarly, you may like to work independently, but your supervisor may like to micromanage. 

These differences may create problems in your relationship with the supervisor. This is why it is recommended to discuss all these details with your supervisor – you may also develop a supervision plan.

4. Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate!

As discussed earlier, effective communication is the key to a good student-supervisor relationship. Make sure to communicate with your supervisor regularly, discuss your progress with him/her no matter how little it is, take his/her feedback on the work and use his/her instructions or guidelines for future into account constructively. Find a way to stay connected that works best for both of you. It can be face-to-face meetings, email correspondence or both, depending upon your schedules. No matter how, but make sure to contact your supervisor at least once a week.