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.

Ideas and tools

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 tools may be useful for exploring your supervisory style:

  • How can you achieve a balanced style? See A framework for looking at how you relate with your students (36kb).
  • A self-assessment tool (75kb) has been developed from two studies on the 'ideal' supervisor. One was undertaken by Anna Janssen (2005) of the University of Otago where she undertook in-depth interviews with 40 candidates across a range of disciplines. The second by Adrian Lee, Carina Dennis, and Philip Campbell (2007), was based on the analysis of 350 applications from science mentors and mentees for the journal Nature's Mentors' Award.
  • Refer to Clarifying expectations for other tools that would enable you and your student to compare expectations regarding guidance.

For students: You might like to watch this video (filmed at Oxford) about Managing your supervisor and the basics of the student-supervisor relationship.

Insights from research and literature

A number of studies have been done of supervisory style and there seems to be general agreement that a match between student and supervisor in preferred style is supportive of a productive relationship. The studies also indicate that the notion of an 'ideal' supervisor changes, depending on the context, the stage the student has reached and the individual research students involved. Two slightly different models are presented below – one from research in business and one in engineering.

Gatfield (2005) proposed a model describing four main supervisory styles. The styles are based on utilising 'support' and 'structure' as two main factors as in the following matrix. The vertical axis represents 'support' and the horizontal axis represents 'structure'.

Twelve supervisors who had been designated as excellent by the Dean of a Business Faculty were interviewed and asked to place themselves within one of the above quadrants. The criteria that the Dean used to identify excellent supervisors were:

  • achieving high completion rates
  • having students submit within the normally expected time frame
  • engaging in multiple supervisions
  • receiving excellent supervisory reports

Nine placed themselves in the Contractual Style quadrant, and one in each of the other three quadrants. Perhaps more important was the suggestion from the data that these excellent supervisors made a transition from one style to the other during candidature, in the main:

  1. when the candidate was in crisis;
  2. when the candidate made a transition through various stages.

The ideal supervisor thus becomes one who recognises that each supervisory relationship is unique, requiring different skills and approaches.

Related research looked at the supervisory beliefs of 17 students and 17 supervisors in Engineering (Murphy et al, 2007, p209). Four distinct orientations to supervision emerged in which beliefs about teaching, learning, research and supervision intersected; the authors argue that beliefs about teaching are central to each orientation.

Although each orientation comprised many beliefs, the orientations clearly differed in terms of two broad distinctions: whether the supervisor should direct and take responsibility for the research (controlling beliefs) or should guide the process (guiding beliefs), and whether the focus of supervision should be more upon the research tasks to be completed (task-focussed beliefs) or upon the development of the candidates (person-focussed beliefs)

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 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.

Denholm C. & Evans T. (Eds.), 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.

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

Murphy, N., Bain, J., & Conrad, L. (2007). The pedagogy of 'good' PhD supervision: A national cross-disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision. Canberra: Department of Education Science and Training.

Acknowledgements: original content adapted from Margaret Kiley, CEDAM ANU.