Living Happily Ever After (aka Maintaining a Good Student / Supervisor Relationship)

In my last post I wrote about what to do if you need an academic divorce during your PhD. This time I am considering the flip side of the argument: maintaining a successful student / supervisor relationship.

After my ‘divorce’ was finalised my secondary supervisor took over and we began the process of rebuilding and working toward submission. I think it’s fair to say we get on very well, so this post gives you advice from me with input from my supervisor.

Do your research (on your topic) … If there is the possibility of choice in topic (as with many social science and humanities PhDs, less so with the hard sciences), work out a topic with your prospective supervisor which really reflects what you want to do for the next three years or so.

There is always some flexibility and change in setting up a research project, particularly if it includes fieldwork overseas, but the core issues under investigation and the approach/framework of inquiry need to be ones with which the student (who will do the work and whose name will be on the PhD) feels comfortable.

The topic needs to be yours, and you both need to be on the same page when it comes to what you are doing and how you will do it. Getting this balance wrong is one of the main causes of requiring a divorce.

Do your research (on your potential supervisor) … Try to meet your prospective supervisor before you apply to the college.  This may not be possible if you are an overseas student.  However, it helps to see if you think you will probably get along.  If you do not feel this, then perhaps you should apply elsewhere.  Of course, if this is the only university where you will get funded for that topic, this is a dilemma.

That sounds simple, but believe me many students choose their supervisors based on the most arbitrary of reasons, including me. I’ve heard all sorts of stories illustrating how little attention people pay to how they choose their supervisor, even down to ‘they had a nice dog’. Just because they may be a leading light in your field, or have a nice dog, you may not actually get on with them. You have to work with this person really closely for a number of years and so it does help if you like the person and have some chemistry.

Be efficient … There are usually various hoops to jump through to prove you are worthy of completing a PhD – upgradings, presentations, methods training etc.  Ensure you jump through the hoops in a timely fashion.

Don’t give your supervisor a reason to be annoyed with you! These procedures, however time consuming have to be completed (although shhhh! I never did my final year presentation). If you don’t do them, you won’t get an email about it, your supervisor will!

Do your part … Try also to meet the deadlines for pieces of writing and research asked for by your supervisor and respond to their suggested edits and corrections in a timely fashion. Put your name, the title or topic of the work, and the date on each piece of writing etc you pass on to your supervisor or they (and you) can lose track of the various versions of chapters etc.  (remember you are not their only student so a file called Chapter One is inadequately identified!)

It took me a long time to get the hang of identifying my work correctly. However, if your laptop dies and you need to look for old stuff on supervisors computer it becomes really important. This tip also highlights the important issue of suggested edits. As you go through the process you take more responsibility for the shape of your thesis. You have to be aware they are making suggestions about your work not you (it took me a long time to get that).

You don’t have to make the edits but be prepared to justify your decision not to and also remember they have supervised many students so if they suggest a change probably a good idea. I have frequently been told I hide my light under a bushel, so most suggestions related to pulling the interesting bits out and also grammar!

Time is precious … Supervisors are usually too busy.  If there are bureaucratic forms and reports and references to be filled in, it helps if you fill in as much as possible, or send a CV and a general idea of what sort of reference is needed, and alert them some time before the deadline that a meeting, or whatever, is needed.   If they do not respond immediately, try again (politely).

You have to give your supervisor time to respond to your requests. You are one of many PhD’s, Masters and Undergraduates requiring attention. Supervisors have other things going on their lives not just your thesis, as you do, or don’t depending on whether it’s taken over your life yet? However, at the same time six months to return a piece of work isn’t acceptable or useful to you so you have to keep the process going. In the end it is your PhD so it is not unreasonable to expect the onus to be on you to get the best out of the relationship.

These tips provide the basis for maintaining a reasonably functional set up, providing there are no underlying issues, this is because every relationship is different and a lot of it boils down to chemistry between the supervisor and the student. If you can keep these ideas in mind you should have a very functional relationship with your supervisor leading to the satisfactory completion of your thesis.

Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained her PhD from the Geography Department of King’s College London in 2010 and is currently the Managing Editor of . She also contributes to a number of blogs on issues relating to Higher Education and Research and is currently developing training courses for the King’s College London Researcher Development Programme

Related Posts

How to ask your supervisor for a divorce

5 ways to make your supervisor happy

The “it’s time” talk

7 thoughts on “Living Happily Ever After (aka Maintaining a Good Student / Supervisor Relationship)

  1. loosey says:

    I’m surprised I can’t find something here, but it’s probably because I’m in shock and unable to look properly. After a stormy couple of years, during which I’ve wanted to find another supervisor, and he’s wanted to find me one too, my supervisor has just written to say that he is seriously ill. So seriously that he may be unable to return to teaching. During our fractures, we’ve both looked for someone else to take on his role vis a vis yours truly. There was no one to do it. So, now what? I imagine I’ll have to approach the university and read the handbook a little more carefully, but someone else’s life experience would be very helpful at this point.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Oh dear – sorry to hear that. Have a look at Sarah’s post on how to divorce your supervisor. Her main point is that unis have processes for handling such issues. Try contacting your head of department and / or your graduate school. Let us know how you get on.

  2. Lucy says:

    I’m tentative about writing this because it’s all a bit raw and recent but my supervisor has been taken seriously ill and I would like to see if others have had experience of this. I’ve read the university’s guidelines but it’s far too early to ask anyone what might happen next and the attention ought to be on the survival issues around my supervisor rather than on the relative triviality of who might be available to supervise the student(s). I’m simply asking, therefore, if anyone has had previous experience of these circumstances. I don’t need to hear my rights (and there are practical limitations to their implementation in any event, given the nature of my research and the level of expertise in that field available in the university) but I would be heartened to hear of at least one person who has been through this – and where they are now (I’m nominally a third year student, though in practice I’m in my second year of research, having registered in April of the previous academic year in order to draw down funding).
    With kind thoughts for the season and the year to come,

  3. Edward Failbus says:

    I was a PhD student from India at the University of Sydney until 2013 when I formally passed the thesis examination and was awarded the degree. During my tenure as PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts, everything looked good to the academic community. I had bagged a prestigious University scholarship that funded my study for 3.5 years. That apart, there was very little support for an international student like me. My supervisor would use me as an unpaid RA and would not tell me how to do a critical literature review, or offer me suggestions on how to write better. I once authored an article in an English journal and submitted it to a journal of which he happens to be the editor-in-chief. My article no doubt passed the peer review with ‘major revisions’ but my supervisor was not satisfied. He complained to the copy-editor of the journal that I was a tough nut to crack and that my English was not good. He accidentally copied the message to me which exposed my supervisor’s true colours.

    Apart from the humiliation I encountered in e-mails, he would tell me to downgrade to a MA without adopting proper procedures for issuing . Once, I was in tears when my mother in India was hospitalised. He asked me the source of my income. How could my family afford to hospitalise her? In 2012 during the annual progress review, he backdated my progress to show as if I was making no progress and rated my progress as marginal. I had to put up a tough fight. Once he even opened a parcel addressed to me, containing a book, without my permission.

    After completing my thesis, when I approached my supervisor for placement as a casual tutor in the department, he told me to go back to India and not try and stick on in Australia. In India, after I passed my thesis, and requested him and my Associate Supervisor for a letter of recommendation, both refused one. My supervisor then wrote me a negative letter of recommendation in which he stated that I do not communicate the message properly to the audience and that I showed relative improvement with respect to my writing, etc. Anyway, the letter of recommendation was riddled with typos and factual errors. When I requested him to revise the recommendation letter, he told me that my mental state was unsound, a racist comment. He has no business to comment about personal attributes.

    I feel my job applications are cruelled despite stellar letters of recommendations. It is high time that Thesis Whisperer takes note of academic racism and ill-treatment of international students which spreads a bad name about Australian academia and Australia in general, in Asia.

Leave a Reply