A good supervisor will act as your mentor. They will not only help you progress through each stage of a PhD program but can also act as a source of information or someone to bounce ideas off. To get the most from your supervisor, it’s essential to first understand what their role and responsibilities are in relation to you and your PhD. This won’t only help you understand the different ways they can support you, but also enables you to define clear boundaries which will go a long way to ensuring an enjoyable and respected relationship between the two of you.
1. Expertise in Your Subject Area
You should expect your supervisor to be an expert in the subject you are focusing your PhD on. This is crucial as your supervisor will act as your primary means of support during your PhD. Therefore, the effectiveness of his or her support directly corresponds to their knowledge of your chosen subject, which could be the difference to your PhD succeeding or not.
In addition to this, a supervisor who is an expert in your chosen field could save you from unnecessarily adding a year or more to the duration of your PhD. This is because, as an expert, they will already possess an in-depth understanding of what can and cannot be achieved in the field and have an appreciation as to what would and what wouldn’t help your research stand out. This trait will help them keep you on track, which helps ensure your time is being used most effectively.
Ideally, your supervisor should have experience in supervising PhD students. Although you could theoretically tackle your PhD alone, there are many areas applicable to all PhDs, such as literature reviews, methodologies, experiments, thesis, and dissertations, that an experienced supervisor can guide you on.
2. Regular Supervisory Meetings
As good as your supervisor may be, their ability to support you only comes into fruition if you interact with them. You will be expected to arrange regular meetings with your supervisor, and if necessary, other members of your PhD panel. This will allow you to report back on your latest progress, discuss any issue you’re facing, and review any plans to identify potential improvements, etc. Some supervisors will suggest meeting at regular intervals, i.e. every other week, some will suggest meeting on completing a milestone, i.e. completion of your first draft of the literature review, and others will suggest meeting specifically as and when you need their support. While none are notably better than the other, the key is to pick what works best for you and to ensure you’re meeting them frequently, even if that means having to combine two or all of the approaches.
It’s important to appreciate your supervisor is going to be busy. They are not only going to be supervising you, but they’ll likely be providing supervision to several other students, teach undergraduate classes and have their own research projects going on. However, if you can’t meet your supervisor as often as you would like because of this, your communication doesn’t need to suffer. Instead, make use of email. Not only will your supervisor appreciate this as it gives him time to respond on his own schedule, but you’ll likely get a more detailed response.
3. Feedback on Work in Progress
Another vital aspect to expect from your supervisor is to receive continuous feedback on your work. With your supervisor being an expert in their field, he should be able to review your work and identify any issues or areas for improvement. Gaining feedback on your work is critical through all stages of your PhD. Initially, feedback will be imperative to ensure you’re staying on track. Besides this, it gives your supervisor the opportunity to help set up aspects of your PhD in ways they’ve witnessed first-hand to be most effective, for example, by suggesting an alternative way to structure your literature review or record your research findings. During the ending stages of your PhD, your supervisor will play an essential role in supporting you in the production of your thesis or dissertation. The more you liaise with them during this process, the smoother the process will be.
4. Advice and Support
The advice and support that your supervisor can offer you throughout your degree will be invaluable. As an old saying goes, you can never be distracted if you get the right advice from the right person, which in this case will be your supervisor. As well as providing technical support, many supervisors will also look to provide emotional support through words of encouragement when the moment warrants it. Having once undertaken the journey themselves, they fully appreciate how challenging and stressful the journey can be.
It’s important to note that although your supervisor is there to provide support, they are not there to help with the minor details or every problem you may encounter. The role of the supervisor is to mentor, not to teach, or do it for you. It will be your responsibility to plan, execute and monitor your own work and to identify gaps in your own knowledge and address them. Your supervisor may help by recommending literature to read or suggesting external training courses, however, you should expect nothing more intrusive than this.
5. Mediation and Representation
All universities and departments will have their own rules and regulations. As a professional academic student, you will have to adhere to these rules. These rules are unlikely to be limited to behaviour only with several rules influencing your work as a PhD student. These rules may relate to how you are expected to submit documentation or to the experiments that require special permission before being conducted within their labs. If you have any queries about any rule or regulation, your first point of contact should be your supervisor.
Before starting a PhD, it’s reasonable to have many expectations in mind. However, of all expectations, the one of your supervisors is likely to be the most important. Your supervisor will act as the backbone of your research project and should provide you with continuous support throughout each stage of your degree. A great supervisor may not only be the difference between a smooth and turbulent process, but sometimes may also be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful PhD.