Being a Good PhD Supervisor: A Fine Art or Plain & Simple?

16415731_lI’ve been thinking for a while about writing a post on my relatively quick transition from PhD student to PhD supervisor, mainly to reflect on what is important to me regarding my new responsibilities and based on my own and my peers’ experiences, but also to think more generally about what the common problems in supervisory relationships are, and what makes for a good supervisor. That’s not what this post is, however. Rather, it’s something of a precursor, prompted by a slideshow I found this morning that presents the findings of a study on what Phd students really think about their supervisors and the supervision processes.


The research, carried out in 2012 and based on data gathered from a postgraduate forum, is a really important reminder that the basics of being a good supervisor are really not all that complex. Some might say, they encompass all those things which generally make a decent human being and good colleague. Here’s what Carol Haigh and Lee Yarwood-Ross, who conducted the study, observe about what supervisees want from their supervisors:

Answer emails;

Read work and provide feedback;

Arrange meetings (and turn up);

Protect and be trustworthy;

Not steal their work;

Never leave.

Pretty simple, right? Apart from the desire to never have your PhD supervisor move to another institution, I think it’s fair to say these requests ask us simply to be reliable, communicative, and willing to help them through a long and inevitably difficult process. What I feel is the more difficult aspect that comes after you’ve ticked off those basics is – within reason – to be adaptable to what your supervisees need and to help them find out how they work best. Problems arise when supervisors don’t meet the basic requirements listed by Haigh and Yarwood-Ross above. But they also arise, I have found, when supervisors insist directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, insist that PhD students conform to their very particular way of working, be it in the form of hours and volume, or in the form of processes and structures.

So, on the one hand, it’s not difficult to be a good supervisor (providing your students, too, adhere to some of the points above). On the other hand, however, being a good supervisor can be a little more complex, and requires us to be in tune to other people’s needs as well as to our own. And of course no matter how much you adhere to the basic rules, sometimes things don’t go right, for various reasons that can lie with the supervisor, the supervisee, or both, and it’s not always easy, for either side, if there is an obvious clash in personalities or working habits. Disregarding some exceptional cases, I think, however, that it’s our job as supervisors to learn how to best manage those situations.