The Dos and Don’ts of PhD supervision

Myself and Sue Fletcher-Watson (you know, the fabulously clever one…) have been putting our minds to a series of blog posts, attempting to help the fledgling academic get to grips with some of their new professional duties.  This week it is a real classic – how to supervise a PhD student.


Being a good supervisor is not easy, and tricky relationships between students and supervisors are all too common (you may have direct experience yourself). Understanding and mutually agreeing upon the role of the student and the supervisor is a crucial starting point. Establishing these expectations is an important early step and will make navigating the PhD easier for all concerned. With a shared idea of where you are both starting from, and where you want to get to, together you can chart the path forward.  Hopefully these DOs and DON’Ts will help you get off on the right foot as a PhD supervisor.

  1. Managing your intellectual contribution

DO challenge their thinking…

A good PhD supervisor should question their student’s decision making – some part of your supervision meetings should be viva-like. Why are you doing this? How does this method answer this question? What do these data mean? Make sure your student understands what you’re doing and why – be explicit that you expect them to defend their interpretation of the literature / research plans NOT adhere to yours. It is important that they don’t feel that this is a test, with just one right answer.

When questioning your student, strike a balance between exploring alternatives, and making forward progress. Probing assumptions is important but don’t become a pedant; you need to recognise when is the time to question the fundamentals, and when is the time to move the debate on to the next decision.

DON’T make decisions for them…

Help students determine the next decision to be made (“now that we have selected our measures we need to consider what analysis framework we will use”) and also the parameters that constrain this decision… but remember that it is not your place to make the decisions for them. Flagging the consequences of the various choices is an excellent way to bring your experience to bear, without eclipsing the student. You may wish to highlight budget constraints, discuss the likely recruitment rate, or consider the consequences of a chosen data type in terms of analysis time and required skills. Help them see how each decision feeds back. Sue recently worked with a student to move from research question, to methods, to power calculation, to ideal sample size, and then – finding that the project budget was inadequate to support the sample target – back to RQ again. It’s tough for a student to have to re-visit earlier decisions but important to consider all the relevant factors before committing to data collection.

  1. Who’s in charge?

DO give them project management responsibility

Both Sue and Duncan run fortnightly lab group meetings with all their students and this is highly recommended as a way to check in and ensure no student gets left hanging. But don’t make the mistake of becoming your student’s project manager. Whether you prefer frequent informal check-ins or more formal supervisions that are spaced apart, your student should be in charge of monitoring actual progress against plans, and recording decisions. For formal meetings, they can provide an agenda, attachments and minutes, assigning action points to you and other supervisors, and chasing these if needed. They should monitor the budget, and develop excellent version control and data management skills.

This achieves a number of different goals simultaneously. First, it gives your student a chance to learn the generic project management skills which will be essential if they continue in an academic career, and useful if they leave academia too. Second, it helps to reinforce the sense that this is their project, since power and responsibility go hand in hand. Finally, it means that your role in the project is as an intellectual contributor, shaping and challenging the research, rather than wasting your skills and time on bureaucratic tasks.

DON’T make them a lackey to serve your professional goals

Graduate students are not cheap research assistants. They are highly talented early career researchers with independent funding (in the majority of cases) that has been awarded to them on merit. They have chosen to place their graduate research project in your lab. They are not there to conduct your research or write your papers. In any case, attempting this approach is self-defeating. Students soon realise that they are being taken advantage of, especially when they chat with friends in other labs. When students become unhappy and the trust in their supervisor breaks down, the whole process can become ineffective for everyone concerned. As the supervisor you are there to help and guide their project… not the other way around.

This can be really challenging when graduate projects are embedded within a larger funded project. How do you balance the commitment you’ve made to the funder alongside the need for students to have sufficient ownership? Firstly, think carefully about whether your project really lends itself to a graduate student. Highly specified and rigid projects need great research assistants rather than graduate students. Secondly, build in sufficient scope for individual projects and analyses, for example by collecting flexible data types (e.g. parent-child play samples) which invite novel analyses, and make sure that students are aware of any constraints before they start.


  1. What are they here to learn?


DO provide opportunities to learn skills which extend beyond the project goals

A successful graduate project is not just measured in terms of thesis or papers, but in the professional skills acquired and whether these help them launch a career in whichever direction they choose. This will mean allowing your students to learn skills necessary for their research, but also giving them broader opportunities: formal training courses, giving and hearing talks, visiting other labs or attending conferences. This is all to be encouraged, though be careful that it happens alongside research progress, rather than as a displacement activity. Towards the end of the PhD, as the student prepares to fly the nest, these activities can be an important way of building the connections that are necessary to be part of a scientific community and make the next step in their career.


DON’T expect them to achieve technical marvels without support

All too often supervisors see exciting new analyses in papers or in talks and want to bring those skills to their lab. But remember, if you cannot teach the students to do something, then who will? Duncan still tries to get his hands dirty with the code (and is humoured in this effort by his lab members), but often manages to underestimate how difficult some technical steps can be. Meanwhile, Sue is coming to terms with the fact that she will never fully understand R.

If you recommend new technical analyses, or development of innovative stimuli, then make sure you fully understand what you are asking of your student – allow sufficient time for this and provide appropriate support. When thinking of co-supervisors, don’t always go for the bigwig you are trying to cosy up to… often a more junior member of staff whose technical skills are up-to-date would be far more useful to your student. Also try and create a lab culture with good peer support. Just as ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, so “it takes a lab to supervise a PhD student”. Proper peer support mechanisms, shared problem solving and an open lab culture are important ingredients for giving students the proper support they need.

  1. Being reasonable

DO set clear expectations            

Step one of any PhD should be to create a project timeline.  Sue normally recommends a detailed 6-month plan alongside a sketched 3-year plan, both of which should be updated about quarterly. For a study which is broken down into a series of short experiments, a different model might be better. Whatever planning system you adopt, you should work with your student to set realistic deadlines for specific tasks, assuming a full time 9-5 working day and no more, and adhere to these. Model best practice by providing timely feedback at an appropriate level of detail – remember, you can give too much as well as too little feedback.

Think carefully about what sort of outputs to ask for – make them reasonable and appropriate to the task. You might want propose a lengthy piece of writing in the first six months, to demonstrate that your student has grasped the literature and can pull it together coherently to make a case for their chosen research.  But, depending on the project, it might also be a good idea to get them to contrast some differing theoretical models in a mini-presentation to your lab, create a table summarising key methodological details and findings from previous work, or publish a web page to prioritise community engagement with the project topic.

DON’T forget their mental health and work-life balance

PhD students might have recently moved from another country or city – they may be tackling cultural differences at work and socially. Simultaneous life changes often happen at the same time as a PhD – meeting a life partner, marriage, children. Your students might be living in rented and shared accommodation, with all the stresses that can bring.

Make sure your students go home at a reasonable hour.  If you must work outside office hours be clear you don’t expect the same from them. Remind them to take a holiday – especially if they have had a period of working hard (e.g. meeting a deadline, collecting data at weekends). Ensure that information about the University support services are available prominently in the lab.

Remember to take into account their personal lives when you are discussing project progress. Being honest about your own personal situation (without over-sharing) creates an environment where it is OK to talk about stuff happening outside the office. Looking after your students’ mental health doesn’t mean being soft, or turning a blind eye to missed deadlines or poor quality work – it means being proactive and taking action when you can see things aren’t going well.

What about the research??

We are planning another blog in the future about MSc and undergrad supervision which might address some other questions more closely tied to the research itself – how to design an encapsulated, realistic but also worthwhile piece of research, and how to structure this over time. But the success (or otherwise) of a PhD hangs on a lot more than just having a great idea and delivering it on time. We hope this post will help readers to reflect on their personal management style and think about how that impacts their students.

So, be humble. Be supportive. Be a good supervisor.


One thought on “The Dos and Don’ts of PhD supervision”

  1. Really helpful to read as a PhD student, or tips to myself (especially the reminder about life balance). Thank you for this.


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