The Student-Supervisor Relationship

PhDs are hard.

You may constantly be thinking about your research, or worrying you won’t finish everything on time…

You may stress about writing up or panic over failed experiments…

Sometimes you struggle to manage your finances on a postgrad stipend and agonize about future career choices…

Impostor syndrome is a constant and you’re never sure if you’re doing well enough…

You can’t sleep, you don’t eat well, you don’t exercise enough…

Whatever your experience is/was, it’s never easy.

In 2016, the Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme was relationships.

“Good relationships help us live longer and happier lives with fewer mental health problems. These are the supportive connections we share with friends, family and our community. Investing in these relationships is as critical to our health and wellbeing as other lifestyle factors such as eating well, exercising more and stopping smoking.” via

Some would say that the most important relationship during your PhD is the relationship with your supervisors. And while it may sound a bit excessive, the truth is that being able to successfully manage the student-supervisor relationship will make it for a much smoother ride. In fact, many of the problems that arise during a PhD are related to this relationship an research indicates that effective supervision can significantly affect the success of a student.

I’ve gathered some useful articles from around the web that will help you navigate student-supervisor relationships (and further down I’ve also added some of my own thoughts based on personal experiences):

My own thoughts:

  • Meet with your supervisory team often and remember supervisory meetings are a two-way street. These are not in place just for the supervisors’ benefit. Sure, they will want to make sure you are on the right track and that your progress is satisfactory but you can also hugely benefit from these meetings. Make sure you prepare in advance with any questions or issues you want advice on, set out clear goals and send an agenda in advance. Also, don’t let your supervisors dominate the meeting between themselves. After all it is YOUR PhD and you need to understand what is going on and be an active part of the decision making process.
  • Find a mentor: Sometimes your supervisor will also be your mentor. However, this is not always the case so it can be helpful to find another academic to fulfil this role. If you admire someone’s career path that may be a good place to start. More on mentorship: “One of the major differences between supervision/advising and mentoring is that the former is often task-oriented (e.g., completion of a thesis or dissertation) whereas the latter is more about caring for an individual’s long-term development (Acker, 2011).”
  • Always be honest. If you are having any health issues, personal problems or having difficulties that may affect your PhD you need to be upfront about them and tell your supervisor you are struggling. After all, we all struglle. It’s okay to say so.

An earlier version of this article was published May 2016 (