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Negotiating supervisor relationships

How do I establish a productive supervisor relationship?

The main role of the supervisor is to guide the research student through the process of developing, researching and writing up the research project, so that they successfully achieve the three key milestones in the Higher Degree by Research (HDR) journey. Supervisor input to your development as a scholar is likely to be invaluable.

Supervisors are, however, people just like you. They too have busy lives that impact on them in positive and negative ways. In fact, you are not a daily priority in their lives; your HDR project is your priority.

Here’s some useful advice:

  1. Before you attend each supervisor meeting, think of specific issues or questions you would like to discuss. This will ensure you move forward in your research by encouraging you to focus on what you’ve done and what needs to be done.
  2. Take notes in your meetings (or ask the supervisor’s permission to record the discussion). To make sure you have a shared understanding of outcomes, follow up with an email to your supervisor recounting outcomes and actions expected.

  3. This is your project, not your supervisor’s. You are responsible for it.
  4. A supervisor should not be a ‘yes’ friend but a ‘critical’ adviser.
  5. Every supervisor is different. Become familiar with yours.
  6. A good relationship is about sharing. Read top tips from Petre and Rugg (2010)*. (You will need to log in as an RMIT student; if you are not an RMIT student, this is available through ProQuest in your institution.)

Your relationship with your supervisors can be complex and challenging. It is helpful to be aware of possible pitfalls beforehand in order to navigate difficulties and negotiate positive outcomes. This article from The Conversation outlines some of the more dysfunctional pairings as well as the ideal.

How to read a supervisor’s door:

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham; www.phdcomics.com


What upsets supervisors?

In Vlog 9 of her series for HDR candidates, Tara Brabazon from Flinders University identifies TEN behaviours that distress HDR supervisors. Watch her YouTube presentation here, or read the summary below.

Vlog 9 How to upset your supervisor

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<h3>Vlog 9 How to upset your supervisor</h3>
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Watch: Vlog 9 How to upset your supervisor

Watch: Vlog 9 How to upset your supervisor

Brabazon, T. ( 2016, May 26). Vlog 9: How to upset your supervisor [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfdWREVFsP

Supervisors get distressed when their HDR student:

  1. does little or no reading
  2. does no writing
  3. does not reference their writing
  4. does not embed corrections from a previous draft before they present the next draft to the supervisor
  5. does not address issues about commentary or approach despite repeated requests from the supervisor
  6. misses pre-arranged meetings
  7. has stopped writing, is procrastinating, has developed other interests
  8. complains about everything
  9. is emotionally volatile and unpredictable in behaviour
  10. is silent or moody.

Finally, Tara asks you to reflect: “Have you ever done any of these behaviours?” If you have, this might be why you’ve seen your supervisor emotionally withdraw from the process. She reminds us that the university is the supervisor’s workplace and that it is important to value “integrity, respect and kindness”. It is also important to “act in your own best interests: to read and write and create and become the best scholar you can be”; “keep lines of communication open so that together we can come up with a solution.” Her final piece of advice is one of the most important: “Listen to what your supervisor is saying; listening is the bedrock of scholarship”.

For a more detailed summary, download Ten Behaviours that Distress Supervisors (PDF).

For students in the creative arts and design, here’s an interesting article from the perspectives of two RMIT University creative writing supervisors, Marsha Berry and Craig Batty.

Should we clarify expectations at the start?

Clarifying expectations is important to your relationship with your supervisors. Check out this Role Perception Scale as a way of identifying areas where you and your supervisors may disagree. You may want to discuss this document with your supervisor or just use it to help you identify your own expectations.

However, Hardy suggests that discussions about supervisor and student expectations at the start of candidature do not mean that conflict will be avoided. She also suggests that conflict can have positive outcomes if handled with understanding.


What advice does RMIT University give?

The RMIT School of Graduate Research outlines the structure of the supervisory team and provides the expectations and Codes of Pratice that govern these relationships. You can read the details here: Advice from the School of Graduate Research.


What happens when things go wrong?

Despite the good intentions of supervisors and students, sometimes things go wrong. If you are experiencing difficulties with supervisor relationships, try these:

  1. Discuss with your supervisors the specific issue you need to resolve. Be explicit, objective and courteous. Don’t imagine your supervisors know what you don’t tell them. 
  2. If the issue cannot be resolved, discuss it with your School’s HDR Coordinator/ Manager/Director/Assoc. Dean. Be explicit, objective and courteous.
  3. Read the information on the RUSU student rights website, then make an appointment with the student rights officer for research students. This person will be your advocate and will give you advice to help resolve the issues. This is an anonymous service.
  4. If the issues are still not resolved, check out your rights and responsibilities and follow the University complaints process.



* Petre, M. & Rugg, G. (2010). The unwritten rules of PhD research, 2nd Ed. Retrieved from    https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rmit/detail.action?docID=557105#









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