Supervisory styles

Oxford information

While most supervisors have a preferred supervisory style, one’s style may vary depending on the needs and expectations of the student about the purpose of the degree. Here a student recounts what she said to her supervisor and more generally what she views as important as regards supervisory style.

I have said to my supervisor, you know, you need to be honest with me, but likewise, you know, treat me gently because if not I will go off and cry in the corner, and oh God, what the hell am I doing sort of thing …! It’s about your supervisor and you working out what makes you tick, and I think that’s really important, if a supervisor takes time to do that, or is intuitive enough to be able to do that, and I don’t think all supervisors can do that (Doctoral student, Social Sciences).

When a supervisor has an approach which suits the student it can help that student to remain motivated and engaged in the process:

So… he’s a very relaxed, laidback supervisor. He’s got what he calls an open-door policy where, as long as his office door is open, we can just knock and just have a chat whenever we like... so he makes himself very available to help us if we need it. Otherwise, I can just get on and work at my own pace... So it’s very, very relaxed and so, when it came to submitting my exam forms, he sent me an email saying that I need to start thinking about it, "Could we submit soon", and that was it. For me, it works brilliantly... if I’d had a supervisor who was trying to micro-manage me, I would probably have quit my PhD. As long as the work’s getting done, he’s happy and I’m happy... It just works very well between me and my supervisor I think... if you don’t get on with your supervisor, you’re going to have a very, very tough time (Doctoral student, STEM).

Supervisors also have views about the stance or style they take with students. This supervisor focuses on how his mode of supervision varies to meet the individual needs of students.

I don’t have “one shoe fits all” for the student …students require a different mode of supervision because they’re all individuals, in terms of getting them to where I want them to be. So in that respect … I tailor-make the experience for the individual, but the bar is where the bar is [still] the route to get over it might be slightly different (Experienced supervisor, Medical Sciences).

This supervisor focuses on the way in which his stance changes over time with each student.

I’m going to learn from [students], so over 3 years … if they’re doing a PhD, they’ve got to end up way up here about the specific topic that they’re working on; … so somewhere, usually in the second year… they know a hell of a lot more than I do, increasingly; so we have to become colleagues … So … [if] you over-emphasise … the role of … supervision, then you can’t make that switch … So you have to have this sense of a changing relationship … that’s what the whole of the purpose is, right? (Experienced supervisor, MPLS).

Ideas and tools

Your supervisory style is likely to evolve as you gain supervisory experience (see New supervisors, Experienced supervisors). And you will get to see different styles if you are involved in Co-supervision. As well, your style may change in response to the different expectations of students, as can be seen in the case study below.

Case study: Different students, different styles?

Here an Oxford supervisor describes the different expectations and needs of two DPhil students and how he has responded.

One student is … very hard working, absolutely engaged in the project, inclined to remain in academia …is conscious of the need to develop his own career consciously. You know, he is thinking about what happens next, what happens the stage after that …but …doesn’t seem to feel that you can only do that stuff that leads directly to [that]. My role has actually been just to be there with …a decade’s more experience, just discuss and occasionally reassure and bounce ideas, and …I think it’s quite a team-like relationship …

[The] other student finds it very difficult to relax about the future, and wants to know, you know, where am I going to get a job, where’s this qualification leading? The attitude to the PhD is much more akin to an apprenticeship rather than an opportunity to explore and grow… At least in the beginning, quite a lot of it …was worrying about whether or not she was going to fail her thesis … and you just think … it’s not helpful to fret in that way … You say … I’ve never met anybody who’s failed. … and [if] you work really hard – it might not work the way you want it to, but you’re not going to fail. … I think the combination of being told that it will be fine … has helped a bit, and some positive research results have helped a bit, but…I don’t think that this student is amenable to the idea of the DPhil as… an opportunity to grow into an independent research person.

Have you experienced this kind of difference? What have you done? To what extent do you maintain a consistent supervisory style across students, versus modifying your style for different students? To what extent do you vary your style at different stages of the doctorate?

The following may be useful for exploring your supervisory style:

Insights from research and literature

A number of studies have been done of supervisory style with general agreement that a relatively good match between student and supervisor in preferred style is supportive of a productive relationship. The studies also indicate that the notion of an appropriate style changes, depending on the context, the stage the student has reached and the individual research students involved. For instance, one study (Gatfield, 2005) developed a model of supervisory styles by reviewing the literature. Then in order to assess the value of the model, he examined the preferred styles of supervisors who had been designated as excellent by their Dean (high completion rates within the normally expected time frame, multiple supervisions, and excellent supervisory reports). They were interviewed and asked to place themselves within one of four quadrants, representing different styles: pastoral, contractual, laissez-faire, and directorial. While three-quarters chose the Contractual Style quadrant (high structure and support), more important was the finding that these excellent supervisors made a transition from one style to the other during candidature, in the main when the candidate a) was in crisis; and b) made a transition through various stages. In other words, they recognised that each supervisory relationship is unique, requiring different skills and approaches.

In another study, supervisors and students were interviewed about their supervisory beliefs (Murphy et al., 2007). Distinct orientations or styles to supervision emerged in which beliefs about teaching, learning, research and supervision intersected. The orientations differed in terms of two broad distinctions from a) directing and taking responsibility for the research to guiding the process and b) from the focus of supervision being on the research tasks to be completed to developing the student. It was found that, in the majority of cases, styles between supervisors and students were relatively congruent. This suggests the value of exploring with students their expectations of supervisory style, so that any differences in styles do not lead to miscommunication'. 

The above text was based on:

Boud, D., & Costley, C. (2007). From project supervision to advising: New conceptions of the practice. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(2), 119-130.

Cullen, D., Pearson, M., Saha, L.J. & Spear, R.H. (1994) Establishing effective PhD Supervision (p74). DEST, 94/23. No longer available online.

Denholm C. & Evans T. (Eds.) (2007) Supervising Doctorates Downunder: Keys to effective supervision in Australia and New Zealand (pp20-27). Melbourne: ACER

Gatfield, T. (2005). An investigation into PhD supervisory management styles: Development of a dynamic conceptual model and its managerial implications. Journal of Higher Education and Policy Management 27(3): 311-325.

Grant, B. (2000). "Pedagogical issues in research education" (pp31-34). In M. Kiley and G.P. Mullins. (Eds) Quality in Postgraduate Research: Making ends meet. Proceedings of the 2000 Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, Adelaide, 13-14 April. Adelaide, Australia: Advisory Centre for University Education, University of Adelaide.

Janssen, A. (2005) Postgraduate research supervision: Otago students' perspectives on: - quality supervision; - problems encountered in supervision. Dunedin: University of Otago. 

Johnson, L., Lee, A., & Green, B. (2000). The PhD and the autonomous self: gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 135-147.

Lee, A., Dennis, C., & Campbell, P. (2007). Nature's guide for mentors. Nature, 447, 791-797.

Mainhard, T., van der Rijst, R., van Tartwijk, J. & Wubbels, T. (2009) A model for the supervisor-doctoral student relationship. Higher Education, 58, 359-373.

Murphy, N., Bain, J., & Conrad, L. (2007). Orientations to research higher degree supervision. Higher Education, 53(2), 209-234.

Acknowledgements: original content adapted from Margaret Kiley, CEDAM ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine and Gill Turner, May 2014.