Working with your supervisor

Quality supervision is crucial for the success and positive engagement of graduate researchers  (Croker et al, 2012, CAPA  – Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations report). The CAPA report showed how much HDR (Higher Degree by Research) candidates wanted to be mentored into ‘autonomous researchers valued by their supervisors and academic colleagues as professionals’.

Supervision is important, but not always straight forward. To make it work, it is important for you as a student to take control and manage your supervisor, even if sometimes the power differential (real or perceived) makes that difficult.



Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Understanding motivations of supervisors. Why do supervisors supervise?

Supervisors do not supervise just because it is part of their workload. They may want to supervise because:

  • they are interested in a project
  • out of a sense of duty
  • they were asked to
  • they have to supervise someone
  • they really like the topic
  • they want to support a good student

‘Good’ HDR supervision comes from:

  • good relationships
  • good contributions to knowledge
  • good pedagogy
  • good administration

But what is seen as ‘good’ may be culturally or personality based. Discussing expectations is therefore crucial.

Understanding motivations of graduate researchers. Why start a research degree?

Motives vary widely and depend on personal priorities, discipline, and culture. They include:

  • professional reasons
  • status, credibility attached to the title
  • development of knowledge, to learn
  • to acquire practical skills
  • to fulfill an old dream
  • to facilitate change
  • to satisfy expectations from others
  • interest in a particulate area
  • lack of job satisfaction

What are your reasons? It can be important to be aware of your reasons as this may sustain you when things become difficult.

Supervisors and students have:

  • Varying level of experience
  • Varying motivations/commitment
  • Varying ideas on how to supervise
  • A unique personality and learning styles

Clarifying expectations

Clarifying expectations is important as it enables to dispel misunderstandings often caused by assumptions about:

  • milestones
  • each other
  • research
  • writing and time to feedback
  • meetings
  • communication
  • support
  • ownership of ideas and publications


Watch the following video The first meeting

  • Does that look familiar?
  • How could the problem have been avoided?

toolboxResource for clarifying expectations: complete statements set out in Expectations in Supervision and ask your supervisor to do the same. Compare and discuss answers.



Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Supervisory styles

The way supervisors supervise depends on:

  • how they themselves were supervised
  • former students they had (yes as a student you can influence supervisory practice)
  • circumstances – workload, human factors
  • supervisory styles
  • learning styles

While supervisors and students have preferred styles, these will change during candidature, as the project progresses, relationships change and students develop knowledge, skills and confidence.

Each research student is expected to move from a situation of dependency to a supervisor to become ‘an intelligible academic identity . . . a licensed scholar, a ‘doctor’, who is . . . deemed safe to pursue research activities unsupervised, autonomously” (Johnson et al., 2000 cited in Cherry 2012).

Research on management styles led to identifying four main supervisory styles: 

  1. Laissez-faire style 
  2. Pastoral style 
  3. Directorial style 
  4. Contractual style

More directive styles (directorial and contractual styles) assume that graduate researchers need to be trained by an expert, the supervisor who is more knowledgeable.

Laissez faire and pastoral styles tend to assume that the graduate researcher already has certain knowledge and has to capacity to self develop and acquire skills needed to complete a research degree.

Learning styles

The existence of potentially very different learning styles can also affect the supervisory relation. To simplify dramatically, Kolb distinguished two major learning styles. People tend to have a preference for one or the other:

  • Thinkers: stand back to think about experiences and problems
  • Do-ers: tend to act first, will try out ideas and consider consequences afterwards

While there is no perfect combination, it is important to understand the dynamic of the relationship of people with similar or different learning styles. E.g. a student who is a do-er may be very frustrated by a supervisor who is a thinker and prevents him/her from going ahead.


If your supervisor is a thinker: never ask open ended questions, but close questions or multiple choice questions.

If your supervisor is a do-er: always ask open-ended questions. Try to get her/him to be more theoretically based.

[Learn more about Kolb’s learning styles]

Managing your supervisor

The relationship between you and your supervisor is important – you cannot just leave it up to your supervisor. You have to take responsibility for managing it. You need to see yourself as an independent learner who will ask help if needed.

  • Set up good habits early on
  • Avoid wasting first months

Ultimately you are responsible for the research and thesis work you are undertaking. Your supervisors can assist, but you have to take ownership. Don’t expect your supervisor to hold your hand all the way through.


SupervisorwaitingPiled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

What to expect from your supervisors?

Supervisors (sometimes only the primary supervisor) are allocated a certain number of working hours the supervise you. However, supervisors do not supervise just because it is part of their workload. In reality supervisors may need to spend more time with you than to hours allocated.  If they are interested in your project, if you can make it interesting for them, you are more likely to get that extra support. Try to understand your supervisor. Why is s/he supervising you?

Problems with supervisors often result from misunderstandings. Misunderstanding around expectations are common. Graduate researchers have different expectations depending on their personality, background and/or experience. Supervisors themselves have expectations and personal ways to conceive of their role. Clarifying expectations is important.

There are also a few things you should be able to expect. You can expect the primary supervisor to take on responsibility for supervision and progression. This includes:

  • overseeing necessary administration and signing documents when required (supervisor section in Annual Progress Report, thesis submission)
  • organising and being present at research seminars
  • selecting seminar assessors and thesis examiners
  • acting as main point of contact (unless otherwise agreed)
  • supporting you intellectually
  • meeting you at regular intervals, as determined
  • helping with milestones (proposal, advice on ethics approvals, seminars… )
  • offering academic support (including timely feedback), guidance and evaluate your progress
  • explaining what is required with regard to content and presentation of your thesis
  • maybe also offering support with finding funds, publishing, networking

What are you responsible for?

While your supervisor plays an important part in your research, you do have to take most responsibility for your research. Use your supervisor’s knowledge to get acquainted with who is who and where to go in your research field, but remember your thesis is your project. Keep in mind that the main purpose of a research degree is to learn to operate as an independent researcher. Therefore you have to take responsibility for your progress including:

  • Take note of requirements and milestones. Don’t wait till your supervisor points them out
  • Be part of the selection of other supervisors
  • Discuss how you’d like your supervisor to help you
  • Actively seek feedback
  • Discuss and keep to a schedule of meetings
  • Maintain contact. If something happens, if progress is not as expected, discuss it, don’t just disappear.

Supervisors are often very busy (teaching, research, administration) and you are probably not on top of your supervisors’ to-do list. So you cannot expect them to be ahead of your needs, you need to contact them if you need them.

watch video iconRole of The Supervisor

You need to discuss and agree on the way you will work together from the very beginning. This includes:

  • discussing issues regarding supervision
  • setting meeting dates
  • clarifying expectations
  • communicating preferences

Manage meetings

Regular meetings predict timely completion. The following tips can help ensure regular meetings, as well as clear and agreed on follow ups:

  • meet regularly, even when you feel you did nothing
  • agree on who initiates contact for meetings
  • have an agenda and send it in before each meeting
  • send a reminder to your supervisor before a meeting
  • arrive on time and be prepared
  • take notes
  • email after the meeting with a summary of what was discussed and include notes on what you understood you should be doing next
  • listen to advice from supervisors – do not take critical feedback as a personal assault

toolboxUseful meeting minute templates and planners are available from


If you and your supervisor are from a different background or culture protocols may differ. In some cultures naming someone by the first name is not done. Some supervisors may respond to your emails with just a couple of words and this does not mean they are angry with you (which may be the case in a different context). Some people do not respond to emails if they do not belief that a response was needed.

  • When useful discuss your working relationship
  • Discuss deadlines
  • Discuss what doing a PhD means to you and the adequacy of provision for research students.

Show and tell

Tell your supervisor what you are up to. Educate her/him on your topic. If you feel stuck talk about it. Keep track of and share your research plan.

Understand and educate your supervisor into administrative requirements

Supervisors are not all aware of policy and practices in place. Make sure you know them.

Find additional sources of support – understand what is available

Make sure you know resources available at the University and within your Faculty. Think beyond your thesis about your own professional development – and get support where you need.

Submit your best effort

Submit your best effort and at the same time explain what it is you have tried to achieve in your submission.


Watch the video Communicating expectations and answer the following questions:

  • What are the main issues raised in this video?
  • What factors contributed to the failure of communication between the candidate and supervisor?
  • How could this have been avoided?
  • What could the candidate and supervisor have done to find out that there was a misunderstanding much earlier? To figure out what to do next?
  • What strategies could be put into place to avoid misunderstandings in future?
  • How could this supervisory relationship be repaired?


Feedback is important – it should help closing the gap from where your work is at to where it needs to be. It is important to play an active role in the feedback process

Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate… it’s all about co-constructing meaning in conversation and interaction

Establish a peer-to-peer relationship; feedback works well in such a relationship.

  • Be proactive
  • Have a conversation about feedback
  • Discuss the use of feedback media
  • Request specific feedback when needed. E.g. say ‘I am particularly worried about this …” or ask them not to comment on the grammar at this stage, but on the flow.
  • Ask what works and why, so you are not just being told what does not work
  • Help your supervisor to give you better feedback on your work. Always ask supplementary questions to ensure that you understand fully what is being required of you.
  • If your supervisor is not sending your draft back, send a gentle reminder. Say you are worried and maybe include a tentative date for a meeting. If they don’t reply phone – tell them you are worried.

Button-important-iconBe open to criticism and discussions, don’t try to justify yourself too much, don’t get aggressive. Accept feedback on your work. It is not about you. Separate yourself from your work. Listen as if it was about something external to you. Do not justify yourself, even when you do not like what you hear. Take note and think about it. Ensure that every time you leave a tutorial you have agreed.

Supervisory panels

You will need to be supervised by at least two supervisors. Possibly more can be involved. These supervisors are referred to as your supervisory panel. Having a panel can be useful as it enables:

  • Complementary expertise and skills
  • Backup for Chair of the supervisory panel
  • Mentoring of new supervisors
  • Involvement of external experts

Good supervisory panels have members with complementary skills, who are open minded and freely communicate with each other (Cooksey & McDonald 2011)

In practice in many areas the one-to-one supervisor- student relationship still dominates (Hammond et al, 2010). Supervision often seen as an essentially private act (Lee 2007).

Working with panels

  • Discuss roles of supervisor
  • Keep all members minimally involved, just so they can step in if needed
  • Don’t play the messenger telling members what each said, get them together so they can talk to each other directly. This is particularly important if conflicting information is provided. Let your primary supervisor to take the lead on what has to be done next.

watch video iconHaving two supervisors

What is the problem? How could it be avoided? How can it be solved?

When problems arise

Problems happen. If you are uncomfortable with a situation, talk about it, do something.

Problems tend to arise when:

  • Expectations are not met
  • Supervisors change or leave
  • Learning styles or academic culture differ
  • Academic writing styles differ
  • Misunderstandings develop about:
    • Direction of the research project
    • Methods of research
    • The amount and the deadlines of the work calendar
    • The field work
    • The quality of the work (theoretical or field work)

It is important to reflect on who has the problem – is it up to you to change or to the supervisor or both? Misunderstanding on who has the problem can come from:

  • Different academic cultures.  Some cultures expect supervisors to give explicit guidelines and clear directions. Others not at all. This can lead to mismatched expectations.
  • Graduate researchers are sometimes accused of not being critical thinkers. Does that apply to you and if so why?
  • Styles of academic writing can differ. English academic writing is explicit and direct. This is not always the case in other languages.
  • English language proficiency can be a problem that some supervisors do not want to deal with.

When relationships break down – you can change supervisor – do not let it fester.

  • Don’t wait for a problem to just disappear. Don’t decide you can do things by yourself, get help, talk about it, develop strategies to solve the problem.
  • Communicate – and yes this may be easier with a supervisor who has a collaborative style, harder if s/he has directive style.

Button-important-iconIf it does not work – think seriously about reviewing the panel – find out what the policy says, what forms you need to take action. As last resort have a look, you may want to talk to someone confidentially about your grievance or receive further information about procedures.