Working with your supervisor

You will either be allocated a supervisor for your postgraduate research project or you will get to choose one based on your research interests. Your supervisor is an expert in research who has been appointed to guide and support your through the process of writing your dissertation or thesis. It is important to manage this relationship well and to clarify how you are going to work together, what expectations there are in terms of time and responsibility and how you would like to communicate with each other.

Managing expectations

It is important to talk to your supervisor when you first meet about what you both expect from each other. This should include how often you will meet (it is a good idea to schedule in some provisional dates to meet); how many drafts they can look at and how long they need to read your work before they can give you feedback. Be honest about what you are expecting but be prepared to be flexible. It is your research project and ultimately your responsibility but a good supervisory relationship  is worth cherishing as it can give you ideas to explore further in your research, useful feedback on your work so far and motivation and support throughout the process.

Before, during and after meetings

Before the meeting

  • Set a time and date for the meeting that is convenient for you both. Some departments set the number of hours you are entitled to meet with your supervisor so try and space these out across the project.  
  • Set an agenda of what you want to talk about and, if possible, email it to your supervisor in advance. It is likely your supervisor will have a number of students they are supervising so it is good to give them a brief summary of where you are in your research in advance of the meeting.  Having the agenda in advance also allows the supervisor to prepare responses to your questions.
  • Prepare some work. It is much easier to discuss your progress in a focused way if you have some evidence to refer to.  This also allows your supervisor to provide more specific feedback and guidance on your work and this will be invaluable in helping you refine and develop your ideas. This could be anything from the results of an experiment to a draft chapter.

During the meeting

  • Take the lead in the discussion – your supervisor should not be doing all the talking! Start by running through the agenda of what you want to talk about and then end by summarising what you have talked about and what you have agreed to do next. Ask questions if you do not understand what your supervisor is saying – it is better to put yourself out there, even if it feels embarrassing, than leave feeling confused.
  • Approach the meeting with a positive frame of mind. Even if you are in a period where you have lost some of your motivation, the meetings will be more productive if you are open and receptive.
  • Make notes of what you have discussed and what you have agreed to do.  You can either do this in the session or just after but it is easy to forget what you talked about if you leave it too long.

After the meeting

  • Agree another meeting date and an action plan of what you aim to have done before that meeting.  Even better, email it to your supervisor. That way, you have an extra motivation to get it done!
  • Take feedback forward. Spend some time reflecting on what you discussed in the supervision and which points you are going to work on immediately and which will take more time.  There will be some points of feedback that you can deal with easily e.g. ‘you should read X’ and others which do not have an easy answer e.g. ‘you need to think more conceptually about X’.  
Working with feedback

Supervisors will give you feedback on your work in different ways and at different times. It is important to work out what they mean by their response and how you can move forward. Here are a few common feedback types and what they might mean (adapted from Whisker, 2004):

What they say

What they mean

How to respond

 ‘Well done! I can see you have done  a lot of work here’

This is congratulating you and you should feel good. However this could be followed with a discussion of gaps where you may have missed or that you need to narrow your focus as you have too much information.

Think about what went well and what else you could do in this area. There is no such thing as perfect or complete work so keep pushing forward to be even better!

‘You need to have a colon before a list; your abstract should be 350 words; your abstract should be written in the third person’

This is giving you specific information about how to present you work. While this is an important part of the supervision process, you want to make sure your supervisions go beyond what you could have read in the handbook!

Re-read your handbook and consult study advice guides for issues of style and formatting so you can focus on more complex discussions of your ideas and the research process in your supervision.

‘Why do you think this is? What do you mean here?’

This kind of questioning aims to prompt you to further ideas and questions to raise your level of thinking.  This process moves you as a researcher beyond just gathering information to thinking critically about it!

Try to see this challenge as a positive thing rather than a negative critique of your work. This normally means you need to do more reading and as you read ask questions about the ideas presented and how they relate to your dissertation topic.

‘What does this contribute to wider questions about the topic? Is it more complex than you are describing?

This is trying to make you think more conceptually about your topic – at the level of ideas and meaning rather than just facts and description. Your supervisor is trying to move you from describing how others have used the ideas and concepts you are using to more critical writing which links to wider theories and offers interpretations and relationships.

Think back to the statements and conclusions you are making in your work and be critical about them – is it as straightforward as you are suggesting? Make links between your ideas and the ideas your have read in your literature review and consider how these link to wider theories about knowledge in your subject.

If things go wrong

Your relationship with your tutor is a human interaction and sometimes, we do not get on well with each other! This can be just a temporary misunderstanding or it could, in rare occasions, lead to a breakdown of communication.

Although it might seem difficult, the best thing to do is to talk to your supervisor about this. It could be that what you interpret as a lack of communication is their assumption that you are working happily on your own and this can be easily resolved by talking it through. If this really doesn’t work, approach another lecturer in the department such as your personal tutor or a course leader and ask their advice. Always be professional in how you discuss the problems you are having.

Remember also that your supervisor is not the only source of support for your research. Subject librarians can be useful in directing you to research sources, for example and forming a peer study group can be a useful way to share frustrations, excitements and discoveries with each other.

These tips have been informed by the following guides:

Wisker, G. (2008) The Postgraduate Research Handbook. London: Palgrave

Wisker, G. (2009) The Undergraduate Research Handbook. London: Palgrave