A new supervisor at Oxford talks very candidly about the experience of developing student-supervisor relationships, underlining the advisability of discussions, early on, about how this might work out over the coming months:
And, in a sense, obviously, every student is different, so you have to respond to what they’re like as well. …when I first got doctoral students…I had a very …particular understanding of what the job of a supervisor was, and 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…. I think 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 I’ve realised …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.
One experienced supervisor described his approach in this way:
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.
The Education Committee's Policy and Guidance on Research Degrees emphasises the importance of establishing "a satisfactory pattern of working relations between supervisor and student" (p12) in the first term of study.
In the Memorandum of Guidance, the different responsibilities of student, supervisor and department or faculty are set out clearly. This Memorandum features in the both the Regulations and the Policy and Guidance mentioned above.
Ideas and tools
Disciplinary practices can influence the ways in which the student-supervisor relationship is developed and maintained. For instance, in the sciences, there will be multiple informal interactions in the lab or in team meeting. While these will influence how the student perceives the supervisor, focused meetings to establish and develop the student-supervisor relationship are still needed. On the other hand, in the social sciences and humanities, these more regular interactions are unlikely and communication will largely take place within formal meetings; in such cases, students will have less personal experience of the supervisor’s expectations about the relationship. Some of the following ideas and resources may be helpful in building a professional academic relationship with your student.
|Case Study: Nina and Poppy|
Expectations of the supervisory relationship: two different student views
Questions to consider about the case study
What kind of relationship do you value (or imagine)? What particular differences in expectation might be critical to a supervisory relationship? How might you clarify and deal with differences in expectations?
Early meetings provide the basis for developing student-supervisory relationships and expectations; such meetings demonstrate your respect for the individual and his/her values. The following excerpt suggests that such a relationship has been established between this student, beginning his second year, and his supervisor:
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.
The description above contrasts dramatically with this one by another student beginning his second year in which there appear to be growing and unaddressed problems:
My supervisor never listens to me about what should be done and how to run the project … I feel like a working machine.
Early meetings should aim to:
- set out a number of parameters - see Getting started;
- clarify expectations - see Clarifying expectations;
and relatively quickly move on to:
- establishing a clear project proposal - see Defining the research topic;
- identifying the student's skills and skills gaps - see Identifying training needs.
The following resources might help in the development of relationships and clarification of expectations early in the DPhil process:
- Clarifying expectations tool (39kb)
- Use a "memorandum of understanding" (see MOU template (Otago) (18kb) for one example) to establish procedures and processes of working together
- Negotiating potential tensions in relationships with students (261kb)
- How the student-supervisor relationship changes over time (227kb)
Overall, achieving a productive relationship will vary depending on the student, the stage he or she has reached and the supervisor's preferred style of supervision (see Supervisory styles). 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? See Different support roles (11kb).
The relationship may also be influenced by differences in cultural background between the student and supervisor. The expectations of supervisory and other face-to-face meetings may need additional attention with some International students because of different cultural understandings. E.g.
- Turn-taking. Students probably will come to their doctoral studies with a particular model of the student role in mind which they see as appropriate for them to adopt. This may turn out to conflict not only with the culture of the host country but also with the expectations of their supervisors. This may be evident in, for instance, the place of turn taking. Some students who come from non-Western cultures may be reluctant to take up turns at talking with their supervisors unless given very clear signals that they are expected to do so. Additionally, these students may be hesitant to actively seek to address issues of miscommunication or lack of understanding. This sort of apparent reticence is associated with deference in many societies, where the student expects the supervisor to frame and drive the meetings, introduce topics for discussion and, maybe, draw the conclusions as well. 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. Students from cultures who stand and converse at a closer distance than their supervisors are comfortable with may feel puzzled, possibly rejected, by their supervisor’s embarrassment and attempts to avoid the violation of their own sense of personal space.
- 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 (see Student motivation to study).
Insights from research and literature
One thing that is particularly interesting about studies that have been done on the 'ideal' supervisor is that the findings all suggest that 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. 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 it was not as rare as 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 breakdown in relations. Students frequently report their fear at initiating change not understanding it as a not uncommon process and one for which procedures exist (if not always easy to find). Further, they wish not to be left in limbo for too long while new relationships are arranged.
The above text was based on:
Deuchar, R. (2008) Facilitator, director or critical friend?: contradiction and congruence in doctoral supervision styles. Teaching 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.
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.
Mainhard, T., van der Rijst, R. & van Tartwijk, J. (2009). A model for the supervisor-doctoral student relationship. Higher Education, 58(3), pp359-373.
Acknowledgements: original content prepared by Margaret Kiley and Gerlese Akerlind, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2012.