The Student–Supervisor Relationship I: Meeting and Working
The parameters of the PhD student–supervisor relationship vary to such an enormous extent among students, supervisors, departments and universities that it is impossible to generalise about individual experiences. However, it is fairly safe to assume that ideas and practices, both shared and contested, and the work you and your supervisor do with those ideas and practices have brought you together. Your working relationship will therefore revolve around your research and professional interests, and while the completion of your doctoral degree may not be quite so central a concern for your supervisor as it is for you, he or she also has a vested interest in your success and is your greatest ally in the work ahead.
Occasionally, a PhD supervisor may also act as an advisor while you are completing any required course work for your degree, but in most cases your supervisor’s primary role will be to provide the guidance you need to conduct a major research project and produce a lengthy piece of scholarly writing (a dissertation or thesis) based upon that study. Your relationship with your supervisor may therefore not materialise or be a primary aspect of your work until you have finished your courses and are beginning your more in-depth research. Meeting formally with your supervisor for the first time can be a little daunting for many students, who may feel reassured to know that it can also be challenging for their supervisors. A first meeting establishes the ground between you, so it is important to start off on the right footing. It goes without saying that you should be polite and considerate towards your supervisor and receive his or her ideas with respect and serious reflection, but it is also essential to be sincere and voice your own opinions and plans for your research and dissertation, including explanations of your reasons for approaching your work as you hope to do. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to discuss everything about your research and dissertation in a first meeting, but you can certainly make a productive beginning that sets you firmly on the right path.
A number of practical matters can also be discussed at this first meeting, including a tentative schedule for your future meetings. Unless you will be conducting your research alongside your supervisor, perhaps as part of his or her larger research project, meetings will be your primary method of contact. You and your supervisor may decide that meeting on a regular basis – once every two weeks or every month, for instance – would be best, or you may want to base your meetings on stages of your research or writing: meeting, for example, once a certain trial has been conducted, topic has been researched or section of text has been written. Meetings should certainly take place after your supervisor has read and commented on your written work, especially if you feel the need to talk about your supervisor’s feedback before revising your writing or moving on to the next stage. It is also a good idea to discuss university regulations that may affect your work, such as necessary approval for your research plans, key deadlines that must be met, length requirements for the dissertation and its parts, guidelines for style and formatting, and any other similarly practical topics. Such details may seem almost redundant in comparison with the enormous intellectual project ahead, but clarifying them at once and initiating any procedures that will enable you to proceed efficiently will ensure a more successful overall process.
There may be times when your meetings with your supervisor will be particularly demanding or frustrating – when, for instance, you need to work through differences of opinions and devise new approaches with which you both feel comfortable – but these can also be the most productive meetings in terms of true progress. Always remember that you and your supervisor are on the same team, and when the going gets tough, it can be refreshing to strip away a little of the professional formality and meet in a different venue for lunch or tea, but even if that tea must take place in the corner of a busy laboratory or between stacks of books and papers in an overcrowded office, it never hurts to bring the biscuits along with your smile.
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