Monday, 10 September 2012

Rules for the perfect supervisor

Posted by Lynne Forrest

We’ve previously had two blog posts explaining what makes a perfect research student. It was hard to disagree with any of it really, but, it’s a two-way relationship and in the interests of fairness, we students now get to respond and say what we require in the perfect supervisor.

Disclaimer: these traits are desirable in a generic ideal supervisor and any resemblance to any actual Fuse/IHS supervisor should not be implied. The views and experiences reported here reflect a consensus of opinion derived from the student body and are not necessarily mine (I’d really like a reference and a job at the end of my PhD…)

So, assuming that we’ve now all become the perfect research student, what can be done to further improve the research experience? Although comments ranged from ‘my supervisors are brilliant’ to ‘my supervisors constantly have me in tears!’ some common themes did emerge.

These are the things we think you should do to become the perfect supervisor:

1. Set ground rules at the first supervision meeting so that everyone knows what is expected of them.

2. Don’t spread yourself too thinly. Although having a ‘big name’ supervisor can be useful to students in terms of being able to utilise your experience, knowledge and connections, if you are always too busy to deal with us then this is somewhat negated. Possibly appoint a more junior colleague as the main supervisor.

3. Prepare for meetings and actually read the documents that the student sends you. If we follow the rules and send a document well in advance but you still don’t read it then this is a hugely frustrating issue. There is a power imbalance in the PhD/supervisor relationship that needs to be acknowledged, but not exploited. If we keep to our side of the agreement, then please can you do the same?

4. Be supportive, approachable and understanding.

5. Be constructive and remind the student that your comments shouldn’t be taken personally.
Criticism is fine as long as it is directed at the work rather than the person. A supervisory meeting is not an episode of ‘The Sweeney’ and you need never adopt the ‘bad cop’ role…(unless, of course, this has been agreed in 1.)

6. Promote a healthy work/life balance. 

Promote a healthy work/life balance

7. Forward any opportunities that you think might be relevant to the student. Please don’t just assume that we’ll know what is possible. For example, it was suggested that students should offer to supervise an undergraduate dissertation but I don’t think anyone knew that was even an option for PhDs. It’s hard to be proactive with things you know nothing about. Similarly with teaching opportunities.

8. Deal with each student as an individual. As one student eloquently put it ‘we’re like unique little snowflakes’! A one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work here. A mature student may need different handling to a younger one. However, on saying that you also need to…

9. Ensure equality of opportunities. Make sure that ALL students know what is available.

10. If you are not the main supervisor you still need to turn up for meetings occasionally. It’s very embarrassing when a student says hello to you in passing and you have no idea who they are. If you really aren’t interested in doing it then please hand the role to someone else.

11. Give lots of clear feedback. And if possible always try to end a supervisory meeting on a positive note. If your student constantly exits in tears then something has gone very wrong somewhere…

12. Sort out any supervisory disagreements outside the meeting. And don’t talk about other stuff over your student’s head. We only get an hour a month so let’s talk about us and our lovely project…

And I could go on and on….there was lots more! Do you agree? Please feel free to comment.


  1. Excellent post Lynne. I would agree with all the points you have raised.

    Another small point I would add is for a supervisor to ensure that the student is on track to complete on time - don't just let them drift off track. Whilst it is right (and necessary) to allow the student to manage their own project, a check up every once in a while to see if they're more or less on track with their project timelines does help. Supervisors can often see the wider picture more easily than their students and consequently can identify when a student needs a bit of chivvying on.

    Better than the alternative of project slippage, late completion, no funding, and a resulting breakdown anyway!

  2. Thanks Lynne, and all Fuse students, for this brutally honest, thoughtful and challenging post. I am sure this will have made uncomfortable reading for all research supervisors, not just in Fuse, as I have no doubt that we can all see ourselves in your dirty dozen! I certainly cringed as I read it and recognised my own failings. I know personally why these occur, but knowing how to address them is a challenge. 'Being busy' (something I have blogged about previously) seems like a poor excuse for being late for meetings, with comments etc., but sometimes the pressures of managing Fuse, securing its funding and other 'high level' tasks do have to take priority. I know some other supervisors will have similar pressures. But some of the behaviours you have described are inexcusable from any supervisor and I hope such incidents are rare. For our part, we need to work together - students and supervisors - to improve the student experience and ensure the highest standards of achievement. In Fuse, I believe we have the infrastructure, resources and commitment to realise this ambition. I hope we can make this a priority over the next year. In the meantime (somewhat masochistically), can I encourage you to 'go on and on...'? Let's get this all out in the open!

  3. Thanks to everyone who has commented via Twitter and here on the blog. Although I knew when writing this post that there was potential for it to be seen as a bit controversial (I got a few e-mails saying that I was brave to take this on!), it does seem to have resonated with students everywhere. I got lots of twitter re-tweets and comments all saying much the same thing including: ‘good advice’; ‘I need to make sure my supervisors read points 2 and 3’; and ‘simple stuff and should be self-evident to a supervisor. Sadly I’ve seen too many falling at 1,2,& 3’.

    I think what I’ve described are pretty widespread issues, again as someone commented on Twitter: ‘these are universal issues and students should be able to raise them’. I feel lucky to be able to work somewhere, with supportive supervisors, that allows students to do this.

    The aim of the post was to prompt debate (it’s certainly done that!) and hopefully work in a constructive way, along with the previous blogs on ‘being the perfect student’, to help improve the PhD experience for both students and supervisors. I think that this is already happening. One Twitter suggestion was to have an outside mentor to discuss issues with. I think this is an excellent idea and will be suggesting this as something we might consider in Fuse. And my supervisors have offered to let me co-supervise an MSc project, which is a fabulous opportunity and a chance to view the supervisory experience from the other side. I’m sure it will be an eye-opener…