phd under supervision

Community Blog

Keep up-to-date on postgraduate related issues with our quick reads written by students, postdocs, professors and industry leaders.

What Makes A Good PhD Supervisor?

Dr Harry Hothi

  • By Dr Harry Hothi
  • August 12, 2020

Choosing a Good PhD Supervisor

A good PhD supervisor has a track record of supervising PhD students through to completion, has a strong publication record, is active in their research field, has sufficient time to provide adequate supervision, is genuinely interested in your project, can provide mentorship and has a supportive personality.


The indicators that you’ll have the best chance of succeeding in your PhD project are multi-factorial. You’ll need to secure funding, find a research project that you’re interested in and is within your academic area of expertise, maybe even write your own research proposal, and find a good supervisor that will help guide you through PhD life.

As you research more into life as a doctoral student, you’ll appreciate that choosing a good supervisor is one of the most important factors that can influence the success of your project, and even If you complete your PhD at all. You need to find a good supervisory relationship with someone who has a genuine research interest in your project.

This page outlines the top qualities to look for as indicators of an ideal PhD supervisor. But before we get to that, we should be clear on precisely what the supervisor is there to do, and what they are not.

The Role of a PhD Supervisor

A PhD supervisor is there to guide you as you work through PhD life and help you make informed decisions about how you shape your PhD project. The key elements of their supervisory role include:

  • To help ensure that you stay on schedule and maintain constant progress of your research so that you ultimately finish your PhD within your intended time frame, typically three to four years.
  • To advise and guide you based on their knowledge and expertise in your subject area.
  • To help you in the decision-making process as you design, prepare and execute your study design.
  • To work with you as you analyse your raw data and begin to draw conclusions about key findings that are coming out of your research.
  • To provide feedback and edits where necessary on your manuscripts and elements of your thesis writing.
  • To encourage and motivate you and provide ongoing support as a mentor.
  • To provide support at a human level, beyond just the academic challenges.

It’s important that you know from the outset what a supervisor isn’t there to do, so that your expectations of the PhDstudent-supervisor relationship are correct. A supervisor cannot and should not create your study design or tell you how you should run your experiments or help you write your thesis. Broadly speaking, you as a PhD student will create, develop and refine content for your thesis, and your supervisor will help you improve this content by providing you with continuous constructive feedback.

There’s a balance to be found here in what makes a good PhD supervisor, ranging from one extreme of providing very little support during a research project, to becoming too involved in the running of the project to the extent that it takes away from it being an independent body of work by the graduate student themselves. Ultimately, what makes a good supervisor is someone you can build a rapport with, who helps bring out the best in you to produce a well written, significant body of research that contributes novel findings to your subject area.

Read on to learn the key qualities you should consider when looking for a good PhD supervisor.

Qualities to Look For in A Good PhD Supervisor

1. a track record of successful phd student supervision.

Good PhD Supervisor taking students to Completion

A quick first check to gauge how good a prospective supervisor is is to find out how many students they’ve successfully supervised in the past; i.e. how many students have earned their PhD under their supervision. Ideally, you’d want to go one step further and find out:

  • How many students they’ve supervised in total previously and of those, what percentage have gone onto gain their PhDs; however, this level of detail may not always be easy to find online. Most often though, a conversation with a potential supervisor and even their current or previous students should help you get an idea of this.
  • What were the project titles and specifically the areas of research that they supervised on? Are these similar to your intended project or are they significantly different from the type of work performed in the academic’s lab in the past? Of the current students in the lab, are there any projects that could complement yours
  • Did any of the previous PhD students publish the work of their doctoral research in peer-reviewed journals and present at conferences? It’s a great sign if they have, and in particular, if they’re named first authors in some or all of these publications.

This isn’t to say that a potential supervisor without a track record of PhD supervision is necessarily a bad fit, especially if the supervisor is relatively new to the position and is still establishing their research group. It is, however, reassuring if you know they have supervision experience in supporting students to successful PhD completion.

2. Is an Expert in their Field of Research

How to find a good PhD supervisor

As a PhD candidate, you will want your supervisor to have a high level of research expertise within the field that your own research topic sits in. This expertise will be essential if they are to help guide you through your research and keep you on track to what is most novel and impactful to your research area.

Your supervisor doesn’t necessarily need to have all the answers to questions that arise in your specific PhD project, but should know enough to be able to have useful conversations about your research. It will be your responsibility to discover the answers to problems as they arise, and you should even expect to complete your PhD with a higher level of expertise about your project than your supervisor.

The best way to determine if your supervisor has the expertise to supervise you properly is to look at their publication track record. The things you need to look for are:

  • How often do they publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and are they still actively involved in new papers coming out in the research field?
  • What type of journals have they published in? For example, are most papers in comparatively low impact factor journals, or do they have at least some in the ‘big’ journals within your field?
  • How many citations do they have from their research? This can be a good indicator of the value that other researchgroups place on these publications; having 50 papers published that have been cited only 10 times may (but not always) suggest that this research is not directly relevant to the subject area or focus from other groups.
  • How many co-authors has your potential supervisor published with? Many authors from different institutions is a good indicator of a vast collaborative professional network that could be useful to you.

There’re no hard metrics here as to how many papers or citations an individual needs to be considered an expert, and these numbers can vary considerably between different disciplines. Instead, it’s better to get a sense of where your potential supervisor’s track record sits in comparison to other researchers in the same field; remember that it would be unfair to directly compare the output of a new university lecturer with a well-established professor who has naturally led more research projects.

Equally, this exercise is a good way for you to better understand how interested your supervisor will be in your research; if you find that much of their research output is directly related to your PhD study, then it’s logical that your supervisor has a real interest here. While the opposite is not necessarily true, it’s understandable from a human perspective that a supervisor may be less interested in a project that doesn’t help to further their own research work, especially if they’re already very busy.

Two excellent resources to look up publications are Google Scholar and ResearchGate .

3. Has Enough Time to Provide Good PhD Supervision

PhD Supervisor should have enought time to see you

This seems like an obvious point, but it’s worth emphasising: how smoothly your PhD goes and ultimately how successful it is, will largely be influenced by how much time your research supervisor has to provide guidance, constructive academic advice and mentorship. The fact that your supervisor is the world’s leading expert in your field becomes a moot point if they don’t have time to meet you.

A good PhD supervisor will take the time to meet with you regularly in person (ideally) or remotely and be reachable and responsive to questions as and when they arise (e.g. through email or video calling). As a student, you want to have a research environment where you know you can drop by your supervisors’ office for a quick chat, or that you’ll see them around the university regularly; chance encounters and corridor discussions are sometimes the most impactful when working through problems.

Unsurprisingly, however, most academics who are well-known experts in their field are also usually some of the busiest too. It’s common for established academic supervisors to have several commitments competing for their time. These can include teaching and supervising undergraduate students, masters students and post-docs, travelling to collaborator meetings or invited talks, managing the growth of their academic department or graduate school, sitting on advisory boards and writing grants for funding applications. Beware of the other obligations they may have and how this could impact your work relationship.

You’ll need to find a balance here to find a PhD supervisor who has the academic knowledge to support you, but also the time to do so; talking to their current and past students will help you get a sense of this. It’s also reassuring to know that your supervisor has a permanent position within your university and has no plans for a sabbatical during your time as a PhD researcher.

4. Is a Good Mentor with a Supportive Personality

PhD Supervisor Relationship

A PhD project is an exercise in independently producing a substantial body of research work; the primary role of your supervisor should be to provide mentoring to help you achieve this. You want to have a supervisor with the necessary academic knowledge, but it is just as important to have a supportive supervisor who is actively willing and able to provide you constructive criticism on your work in a consistent manner. You’ll likely get a sense of their personality during your first few meetings with them when discussing your research proposal; if you feel there’s a disconnect between you as a PhD student and your potential supervisor at this stage, it’s better to decide on other options with different supervisors.

A good supervisor will help direct you towards the best outcomes in your PhD research when you reach crossroads. They will work with you to develop a structure for your thesis and encourage you to set deadlines to work to and push you to achieve these. A good mentor should be able to recognise when you need more support in a specific area, be it a technical academic hurdle or simply some guidance in developing efficient work patterns and routines, and have the communication skills to help you recognise and overcome them.

A good supervisor should share the same mindset as you about finishing your PhD within a reasonable time frame; in the UK this would be within three to four years as a full-time university student. Their encouragement should reflect this and (gently) push you to set and reach mini-milestones throughout your project to ensure you stay on track with progress. This is a great example of when a supportive personality and positive attitude is essential for you both to maintain a good professional relationship throughout a PhD. The ideal supervisor will bring out the best in you without becoming prescriptive in their guidance, allowing you the freedom to develop your own working style.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

To sum up, the qualities you should look for in a good PhD supervisor are that they have a strong understanding of your research field, demonstrated by regular and impactful publications, have a proven track record of PhD supervision, have the time to support you, and will do so by providing mentorship rather than being a ‘boss’.

As a final point, if you’re considering a research career after you finish your PhD journey, get a sense of if there may any research opportunities to continue as a postdoc with the supervisor if you so wanted.

Reference Manager

Reference management software solutions offer a powerful way for you to track and manage your academic references. Read our blog post to learn more about what they are and how to use them.

Rationale for Research

The term rationale of research means the reason for performing the research study in question.

Unit of Analysis

The unit of analysis refers to the main parameter that you’re investigating in your research project or study.

Join thousands of other students and stay up to date with the latest PhD programmes, funding opportunities and advice.

phd under supervision

Browse PhDs Now

phd under supervision

Choosing a good PhD supervisor will be paramount to your success as a PhD student, but what qualities should you be looking for? Read our post to find out.

Preparing for your PhD Viva

If you’re about to sit your PhD viva, make sure you don’t miss out on these 5 great tips to help you prepare.

phd under supervision

Dr Williams gained her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 2020. She is now a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University, researching simplifying vaccine manufacturing in low-income countries.

phd under supervision

Dr Karki gained his PhD in the field of Nuclear and Particle Physics from Ohio University in March 2020. He is currently working as a postdoctoral associate in Prof. Haiyan Gao’s research group in Duke University.

Join Thousands of Students

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • PLoS Comput Biol
  • v.17(9); 2021 Sep

Logo of ploscomp

Ten simple rules for choosing a PhD supervisor

Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Catherine Bannon

J. scott p. mccain, introduction.

The PhD beckons. You thought long and hard about why you want to do it, you understand the sacrifices and commitments it entails, and you have decided that it is the right thing for you. Congratulations! Undertaking a doctoral degree can be an extremely rewarding experience, greatly enhancing your personal, intellectual, and professional development. If you are still on the fence about whether or not you want to pursue a PhD, see [ 1 , 2 ] and others to help you decide.

As a PhD student in the making, you will have many important decisions to consider. Several of them will depend on your chosen discipline and research topic, the institution you want to attend, and even the country where you will undertake your degree. However, one of the earliest and most critical decisions you will need to make transcends most other decisions: choosing your PhD thesis supervisor. Your PhD supervisor will strongly influence the success and quality of your degree as well as your general well-being throughout the program. It is therefore vital to choose the right supervisor for you. A wrong choice or poor fit can be disastrous on both a personal and professional levels—something you obviously want to avoid. Unfortunately, however, most PhD students go through the process of choosing a supervisor only once and thus do not get the opportunity to learn from previous experiences. Additionally, many prospective PhD students do not have access to resources and proper guidance to rely on when making important academic decisions such as those involved in choosing a PhD supervisor.

In this short guide, we—a group of PhD students with varied backgrounds, research disciplines, and academic journeys—share our collective experiences with choosing our own PhD supervisors. We provide tips and advice to help prospective students in various disciplines, including computational biology, in their quest to find a suitable PhD supervisor. Despite procedural differences across countries, institutions, and programs, the following rules and discussions should remain helpful for guiding one’s approach to selecting their future PhD supervisor. These guidelines mostly address how to evaluate a potential PhD supervisor and do not include details on how you might find a supervisor. In brief, you can find a supervisor anywhere: seminars, a class you were taught, internet search of interesting research topics, departmental pages, etc. After reading about a group’s research and convincing yourself it seems interesting, get in touch! Make sure to craft an e-mail carefully, demonstrating you have thought about their research and what you might do in their group. After finding one or several supervisors of interest, we hope that the rules bellow will help you choose the right supervisor for you.

Rule 1: Align research interests

You need to make sure that a prospective supervisor studies, or at the very least, has an interest in what you want to study. A good starting point would be to browse their personal and research group websites (though those are often outdated), their publication profile, and their students’ theses, if possible. Keep in mind that the publication process can be slow, so recent publications may not necessarily reflect current research in that group. Pay special attention to publications where the supervisor is senior author—in life sciences, their name would typically be last. This would help you construct a mental map of where the group interests are going, in addition to where they have been.

Be proactive about pursuing your research interests, but also flexible: Your dream research topic might not currently be conducted in a particular group, but perhaps the supervisor is open to exploring new ideas and research avenues with you. Check that the group or institution of interest has the facilities and resources appropriate for your research, and/or be prepared to establish collaborations to access those resources elsewhere. Make sure you like not only the research topic, but also the “grunt work” it requires, as a topic you find interesting may not be suitable for you in terms of day-to-day work. You can look at the “Methods” sections of published papers to get a sense for what this is like—for example, if you do not like resolving cryptic error messages, programming is probably not for you, and you might want to consider a wet lab–based project. Lastly, any research can be made interesting, and interests change. Perhaps your favorite topic today is difficult to work with now, and you might cut your teeth on a different project.

Rule 2: Seek trusted sources

Discussing your plans with experienced and trustworthy people is a great way to learn more about the reputation of potential supervisors, their research group dynamics, and exciting projects in your field of interest. Your current supervisor, if you have one, could be aware of position openings that are compatible with your interests and time frame and is likely to know talented supervisors with good reputations in their fields. Professors you admire, reliable student advisors, and colleagues might also know your prospective supervisor on various professional or personal levels and could have additional insight about working with them. Listen carefully to what these trusted sources have to say, as they can provide a wealth of insider information (e.g., personality, reputation, interpersonal relationships, and supervisory styles) that might not be readily accessible to you.

Rule 3: Expectations, expectations, expectations

A considerable portion of PhD students feel that their program does not meet original expectations [ 3 ]. To avoid being part of this group, we stress the importance of aligning your expectations with the supervisor’s expectations before joining a research group or PhD program. Also, remember that one person’s dream supervisor can be another’s worst nightmare and vice versa—it is about a good fit for you. Identifying what a “good fit” looks like requires a serious self-appraisal of your goals (see Rule 1 ), working style (see Rule 5 ), and what you expect in a mentor (see Rule 4 ). One way to conduct this self-appraisal is to work in a research lab to get experiences similar to a PhD student (if this is possible).

Money!—Many people have been conditioned to avoid the subject of finances at all costs, but setting financial expectations early is crucial for maintaining your well-being inside and outside the lab. Inside the lab, funding will provide chemicals and equipment required for you to do cool research. It is also important to know if there will be sufficient funding for your potential projects to be completed. Outside the lab, you deserve to get paid a reasonable, livable stipend. What is the minimum required take-home stipend, or does that even exist at the institution you are interested in? Are there hard cutoffs for funding once your time runs out, or does the institution have support for students who take longer than anticipated? If the supervisor supplies the funding, do they end up cutting off students when funds run low, or do they have contingency plans? ( Fig 1 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pcbi.1009330.g001.jpg

Professional development opportunities—A key aspect of graduate school training is professional development. In some research groups, it is normal for PhD students to mentor undergraduate students or take a semester to work in industry to get more diverse experiences. Other research groups have clear links with government entities, which is helpful for going into policy or government-based research. These opportunities (and others) are critical for your career and next steps. What are the career development opportunities and expectations of a potential supervisor? Is a potential supervisor happy to send students to workshops to learn new skills? Are they supportive of public outreach activities? If you are looking at joining a newer group, these sorts of questions will have to be part of the larger set of conversations about expectations. Ask: “What sort of professional development opportunities are there at the institution?”

Publications—Some PhD programs have minimum requirements for finishing a thesis (i.e., you must publish a certain number of papers prior to defending), while other programs leave it up to the student and supervisor to decide on this. A simple and important topic to discuss is: How many publications are expected from your PhD and when will you publish them? If you are keen to publish in high-impact journals, does your prospective supervisor share that aim? (Although question why you are so keen to do so, see the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment ( ) to learn about the pitfalls of journal impact factor.)

Rule 4: It takes two to tango

Sooner or later, you will get to meet and interview with a prospective PhD supervisor. This should go both ways: Interview them just as much as they are interviewing you. Prepare questions and pay close attention to how they respond. For example, ask them about their “lab culture,” research interests (especially for the future/long term), and what they are looking for in a graduate student. Do you feel like you need to “put on an act” to go along with the supervisor (beyond just the standard interview mode)? Represent yourself, and not the person you think they are looking for. All of us will have some interviews go badly. Remember that discovering a poor fit during the interview has way fewer consequences than the incompatibility that could arise once you have committed to a position.

To come up with good questions for the prospective supervisor, first ask yourself questions. What are you looking for in a mentor? People differ in their optimal levels of supervision, and there is nothing wrong with wanting more or less than your peers. How much career guidance do you expect and does the potential supervisor respect your interests, particularly if your long-term goals do not include academia? What kind of student might not thrive in this research group?

Treat the PhD position like a partnership: What do you seek to get out of it? Keep in mind that a large portion of research is conducted by PhD students [ 4 ], so you are also an asset. Your supervisor will provide guidance, but the PhD is your work. Make sure you and your mentor are on the same page before committing to what is fundamentally a professional contract akin to an apprenticeship (see “ Rule 3 ”).

Rule 5: Workstyle compatibility

Sharing interests with a supervisor does not necessarily guarantee you would work well together, and just because you enjoyed a course by a certain professor does not mean they are the right PhD supervisor for you. Make sure your expectations for work and work–life approaches are compatible. Do you thrive on structure, or do you need freedom to proceed at your own pace? Do they expect you to be in the lab from 6:00 AM to midnight on a regular basis (red flag!)? Are they comfortable with you working from home when you can? Are they around the lab enough for it to work for you? Are they supportive of alternative work hours if you have other obligations (e.g., childcare, other employment, extracurriculars)? How is the group itself organized? Is there a lab manager or are the logistics shared (fairly?) between the group members? Discuss this before you commit!

Two key attributes of a research group are the supervisor’s career stage and number of people in the group. A supervisor in a later career stage may have more established research connections and protocols. An earlier career stage supervisor comes with more opportunities to shape the research direction of the lab, but less access to academic political power and less certainty in what their supervision style will be (even to themselves). Joining new research groups provides a great opportunity to learn how to build a lab if you are considering that career path but may take away time and energy from your thesis project. Similarly, be aware of pros and cons of different lab sizes. While big labs provide more opportunity for collaborations and learning from fellow lab members, their supervisors generally have less time available for each trainee. Smaller labs tend to have better access to the supervisor but may be more isolating [ 5 , 6 ]. Also note that large research groups tend to be better for developing extant research topics further, while small groups can conduct more disruptive research [ 7 ].

Rule 6: Be sure to meet current students

Meeting with current students is one of the most important steps prior to joining a lab. Current students will give you the most direct and complete sense of what working with a certain supervisor is actually like. They can also give you a valuable sense of departmental culture and nonacademic life. You could also ask to meet with other students in the department to get a broader sense of the latter. However, if current students are not happy with their current supervisor, they are unlikely to tell you directly. Try to ask specific questions: “How often do you meet with your supervisor?”, “What are the typical turnaround times for a paper draft?”, “How would you describe the lab culture?”, “How does your supervisor react to mistakes or unexpected results?”, “How does your supervisor react to interruptions to research from, e.g., personal life?”, and yes, even “What would you say is the biggest weakness of your supervisor?”

Rule 7: But also try to meet past students

While not always possible, meeting with past students can be very informative. Past students give you information on career outcomes (i.e., what are they doing now?) and can provide insight into what the lab was like when they were in it. Previous students will provide a unique perspective because they have gone through the entire process, from start to finish—and, in some cases, no longer feel obligated to speak well of their now former supervisor. It can also be helpful to look at previous students’ experiences by reading the acknowledgement section in their theses.

Rule 8: Consider the entire experience

Your PhD supervisor is only one—albeit large—piece of your PhD puzzle. It is therefore essential to consider your PhD experience as whole when deciding on a supervisor. One important aspect to contemplate is your mental health. Graduate students have disproportionately higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to the general population [ 8 ], so your mental health will be tested greatly throughout your PhD experience. We suggest taking the time to reflect on what factors would enable you to do your best work while maintaining a healthy work–life balance. Does your happiness depend on surfing regularly? Check out coastal areas. Do you despise being cold? Consider being closer to the equator. Do you have a deep-rooted phobia of koalas? Maybe avoid Australia. Consider these potentially even more important questions like: Do you want to be close to your friends and family? Will there be adequate childcare support? Are you comfortable with studying abroad? How does the potential university treat international or underrepresented students? When thinking about your next steps, keep in mind that although obtaining your PhD will come with many challenges, you will be at your most productive when you are well rested, financially stable, nourished, and enjoying your experience.

Rule 9: Trust your gut

You have made it to our most “hand-wavy” rule! As academics, we understand the desire for quantifiable data and some sort of statistic to make logical decisions. If this is more your style, consider every interaction with a prospective supervisor, from the first e-mail onwards, as a piece of data.

However, there is considerable value in trusting gut instincts. One way to trust your gut is to listen to your internal dialogue while making your decision on a PhD supervisor. For example, if your internal dialogue includes such phrases as “it will be different for me,” “I’ll just put my head down and work hard,” or “maybe their students were exaggerating,” you might want to proceed with caution. If you are saying “Wow! How are they so kind and intelligent?” or “I cannot wait to start!”, then you might have found a winner ( Fig 2 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pcbi.1009330.g002.jpg

Rule 10: Wash, rinse, repeat

The last piece of advice we give you is to do this lengthy process all over again. Comparing your options is a key step during the search for a PhD supervisor. By screening multiple different groups, you ultimately learn more about what red flags to look for, compatible work styles, your personal expectations, and group atmospheres. Repeat this entire process with another supervisor, another university, or even another country. We suggest you reject the notion that you would be “wasting someone’s time.” You deserve to take your time and inform yourself to choose a PhD supervisor wisely. The time and energy invested in a “failed” supervisor search would still be far less than what is consumed by a bad PhD experience ( Fig 3 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is pcbi.1009330.g003.jpg

The more supervisors your interview and the more advice you get from peers, the more apparent these red flags will become.


Pursuing a PhD can be an extremely rewarding endeavor and a time of immense personal growth. The relationship you have with your PhD supervisor can make or break an entire experience, so make this choice carefully. Above, we have outlined some key points to think about while making this decision. Clarifying your own expectations is a particularly important step, as conflicts can arise when there are expectation mismatches. In outlining these topics, we hope to share pieces of advice that sometimes require “insider” knowledge and experience.

After thoroughly evaluating your options, go ahead and tackle the PhD! In our own experiences, carefully choosing a supervisor has led to relationships that morph from mentor to mentee into a collaborative partnership where we can pose new questions and construct novel approaches to answer them. Science is hard enough by itself. If you choose your supervisor well and end up developing a positive relationship with them and their group, you will be better suited for sound and enjoyable science.

Funding Statement

The authors received no specific funding for this work.


Teaching & Learning

  • Education Excellence
  • Professional development
  • Case studies
  • Teaching toolkits
  • MicroCPD-UCL
  • Assessment resources
  • Student partnership
  • Generative AI Hub
  • Community Engaged Learning
  • UCL Student Success


Research and project supervision (all levels): an introduction  

Supervising projects, dissertations and research at UCL from undergraduate to PhD.

The words Teaching toolkits ucl arena centre on a blue background

1 August 2019

Many academics say supervision is one of their favourite, most challenging and most fulfilling parts of their job.

Supervision can play a vital role in enabling students to fulfil their potential. Helping a student to become an independent researcher is a significant achievement – and can enhance your own teaching and research.

Supervision is also a critical element in achieving UCL’s strategic aim of integrating research and education. As a research-intensive university, we want all students, not just those working towards a PhD, to engage in research.

Successful research needs good supervision.

This guide provides guidance and recommendations on supervising students in their research. It offers general principles and tips for those new to supervision, at PhD, Master’s or undergraduate level and directs you to further support available at UCL.

What supervision means

Typically, a supervisor acts as a guide, mentor, source of information and facilitator to the student as they progress through a research project.

Every supervision will be unique. It will vary depending on the circumstances of the student, the research they plan to do, and the relationship between you and the student. You will have to deal with a range of situations using a sensitive and informed approach.

As a supervisor at UCL, you’ll help create an intellectually challenging and fulfilling learning experience for your students.

This could include helping students to:

  • formulate their research project and question
  • decide what methods of research to use
  • become familiar with the wider research community in their chosen field
  • evaluate the results of their research
  • ensure their work meets the necessary standards expected by UCL
  • keep to deadlines
  • use feedback to enhance their work
  • overcome any problems they might have
  • present their work to other students, academics or interested parties
  • prepare for the next steps in their career or further study.

At UCL, doctoral students always have at least two supervisors. Some faculties and departments operate a model of thesis committees, which can include people from industry, as well as UCL staff.

Rules and regulations

Phd supervision.

The supervision of doctoral students’ research is governed by regulation. This means that there are some things you must – and must not – do when supervising a PhD.  

  • All the essential information is found in the UCL Code of Practice for Research Degrees .
  • Full regulations in the UCL Academic Manual .  

All staff must complete the online course Introduction to Research Supervision at UCL  before beginning doctoral supervision.

Undergraduate and Masters supervision

There are also regulations around Master’s and undergraduate dissertations and projects. Check with the Programme Lead, your Department Graduate Tutor or Departmental Administrator for the latest regulations related to student supervision.

You should attend other training around research supervision. 

  • Supervision training available through UCL Arena .

Doctoral (PhD) supervision: introducing your student to the university

For most doctoral students, you will often be their main point of contact at UCL and as such you are responsible for inducting them into the department and wider community.

Check that your student:

  • knows their way around the department and about the facilities available to them locally (desk space, common room, support staff)
  • has attended the Doctoral School induction and has received all relevant documents (including the Handbook and code of practice for graduate research degrees )
  • has attended any departmental or faculty inductions and has a copy of the departmental handbook.

Make sure your student is aware of:

  • key central services such as: Student Support and Wellbeing , UCL Students' Union (UCLU) and Careers
  • opportunities to broaden their skills through UCL’s Doctoral Skills Development Programme
  • the wider disciplinary culture, including relevant networks, websites and mailing lists.

The UCL Good Supervision Guide  (for PhD supervisors)

Establishing an effective relationship

The first few meetings you have with your student are critical and can help to set the tone for the whole supervisory experience for you and your student.

An early discussion about both of your expectations is essential:

  • Find out your student’s motivations for undertaking the project, their aspirations, academic background and any personal matters they feel might be relevant.
  • Discuss any gaps in their preparation and consider their individual training needs.
  • Be clear about who will arrange meetings, how often you’ll meet, how quickly you’ll respond when the student contacts you, what kind of feedback they’ll get, and the norms and standards expected for academic writing.
  • Set agendas and coordinate any follow-up actions. Minute meetings, perhaps taking it in turns with your student.
  • For PhD students, hold a meeting with your student’s other supervisor(s) to clarify your expectations, roles, frequency of meetings and approaches.

Styles of supervision

Supervisory styles are often conceptualized on a spectrum from laissez-faire to more contractual or from managerial to supportive. Every supervisor will adopt different approaches to supervision depending on their own preferences, the individual relationship and the stage the student is at in the project.

Be aware of the positive and negative aspects of different approaches and styles.

Reflect on your personal style and what has prompted this – it may be that you are adopting the style of your own supervisor, or wanting to take a certain approach because it is the way that it would work for you.

No one style fits every situation: approaches change and adapt to accommodate the student and the stage of the project.

However, to ensure a smooth and effective supervision process, it is important to align your expectations from the very beginning. Discuss expectations in an early meeting and re-visit them periodically.

Checking the student’s progress

Make sure you help your student break down the work into manageable chunks, agreeing deadlines and asking them to show you work regularly.

Give your student helpful and constructive feedback on the work they submit (see the various assessment and feedback toolkits on the Teaching & Learning Portal ).

Check they are getting the relevant ethical clearance for research and/or risk assessments.

Ask your student for evidence that they are building a wider awareness of the research field.

Encourage your student to meet other research students and read each other’s work or present to each other.

Encourage your student to write early and often.

Checking your own performance

Regularly review progress with your student and any co-supervisors. Discuss any problems you might be having, and whether you need to revise the roles and expectations you agreed at the start.  

Make sure you know what students in your department are feeding back to the Student Consultative Committee or in surveys, such as the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) . 

Responsibility for the student’s research project does not rest solely on you. If you need help, talk to someone more experienced in your department. Whatever the problem is you’re having, the chances are that someone will have experienced it before and will be able to advise you.

Continuing students can often provide the most effective form of support to new students. Supervisors and departments can foster this, for example through organising mentoring, coffee mornings or writing groups.

Be aware that supervision is about helping students carry out independent research – not necessarily about preparing them for a career in academia. In fact, very few PhD students go on to be academics.

Make sure you support your student’s personal and professional development, whatever direction this might take.

Every research supervision can be different – and equally rewarding.

Where to find help and support

Research supervision web pages from the UCL Arena Centre, including details of the compulsory Research Supervision online course. 

Appropriate Forms of Supervision Guide from the UCL Academic Manual

the PhD diaries

Good Supervision videos  (Requires UCL login)

The UCL Doctoral School

Handbook and code of practice for graduate research degrees

Doctoral Skills Development programme

Student skills support (including academic writing)

Student Support and Wellbeing

UCL Students' Union (UCLU)  

UCL Careers

External resources

Vitae: supervising a docorate

UK Council for Graduate Education

Higher Education Academy – supervising international students (pdf)

Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher , Adrian Eley, Jerry Wellington, Stephanie Pitts and Catherine Biggs (Routledge, 2012) - book available on Amazon

This guide has been produced by the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education . You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the UCL Arena Centre. 

Further information

More teaching toolkits  - back to the toolkits menu

Research supervision at UCL

UCL Education Strategy 2016–21  

Connected Curriculum: a framework for research-based education

The Laidlaw research and leadership programme (for undergraduates)

[email protected] : contact the UCL Arena Centre 

Download a printable copy of this guide  

Case studies : browse related stories from UCL staff and students.

Sign up to the monthly UCL education e-newsletter  to get the latest teaching news, events & resources.  

Education events

Funnelback feed: Double click the feed URL above to edit

View the latest institution tables

View the latest country/territory tables

How to choose the right PhD supervisor

4 red flags to be wary of in the search for a good match.

Gemma Conroy

phd under supervision

Credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty

23 June 2020

phd under supervision

Thomas Barwick/Getty

A PhD supervisor can make or break a candidate’s progress. It’s estimated that roughly half of all PhD candidates in North America do not complete their doctoral studies due to a lack of support from their supervisor.

“It’s a decision that should be taken very seriously,” says Anna Sverdlik, an educational psychologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada.

“This is the person you could be working with for several years and it can shape who you are as an academic.”

Below are four tips that can help PhD candidates choose a suitable supervisor , and the red flags to watch out for:

1. Interview the supervisor

While most candidates focus on trying to impress a prospective supervisor, Emma Beckett took the opposite approach when she was choosing between institutions for her PhD.

“I approached each meeting as if I were interviewing the supervisor, and not the other way around,” says Beckett, a molecular nutrition scientist at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia.

“Forget the power dynamic and remember it’s about what’s best for your development.”

Asking the right questions can give students a better sense of whether a supervisor is the best match for them, says Sverdlik, who studies motivation and wellbeing in doctoral students.

“Talk to them and see what kind of person they are,” she says. “Students are often too grateful when someone shows an interest, and this puts them at a disadvantage.”

Red flag: If a potential supervisor is difficult to pin down for a meeting, they are unlikely to treat their students as a priority down the line, says Beckett.

2. Get an outside perspective

Reaching out to former students, collaborators, and lab members can be a good way of forming an accurate view of a supervisor’s reputation, says Gerard Dericks from Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, who studies PhD student satisfaction.

“You want to do a mini background check, as it’s difficult to tell how honest a researcher is during an interview.”

Speaking with former co-authors can also give candidates a better idea of how collaborative a supervisor is and how well their skills and research interests match, says Dericks.

Paying attention to how colleagues interact with the supervisor can also prevent candidates from entering a toxic situation.

Beckett says she experienced this first-hand at a lab meet-and-greet session when she was searching for a postdoc position. “Multiple students came knocking on the principal investigator’s door in tears,” she recalls. “That’s definitely a bad sign.”

Red flag: If a supervisor seems to prefer working alone or doesn’t include students as co-authors on their papers, it’s unlikely that they will help the candidate build their resumes, says Sverdlik.

3. Look beyond the PhD

Candidates should look for a supervisor who can help them develop the skills they need to progress in their career after completing their PhD, says Beckett.

“Too many students get caught up in the PhD topic or project, but it’s about building skills that can help you pivot into what you want to do next,” she says. “The outcome of a PhD is not about output, but who you are as a scientist.”

Sverdlik says that candidates should discuss professional development opportunities with potential supervisors, such as writing workshops , training in advanced statistics, and research integrity seminars.

Red flag: Too much emphasis on publishing papers can be a sign that the potential supervisor lacks integrity and isn’t focussed on helping their students’ skill development, says Beckett.

4. Consider the supervisor’s working style

Rather than choosing a supervisor for their prestige and research interests, Beckett says candidates should pay attention to the workplace culture and how things run day-to-day.

This can mean discussing expectations before committing to a potential supervisor, such as working hours, meeting frequency, and how the supervisor tracks their candidates’ progress, she says.

“Some students like to be micromanaged, while others prefer to do things in their own time,” says Beckett. “Finding out whether your day-to-day controls and procedures are compatible is a way of understanding their ‘big picture’ ethos without actually asking.”

Red flag: Prospective supervisors who expect candidates to work on weekends or be on-call outside of working hours are likely to be more interested in a student’s productivity than their growth and development, says Beckett.

Research management

Sponsored by

Elsevier logo

Ten platinum rules for PhD supervisors

Is it time to add PhD supervision to your skill set? Tara Brabazon explains the pitfalls, challenges and rewards of this key academic role for the rookie mentor

Tara Brabazon's avatar

Tara Brabazon

Additional links.

  • More on this topic

Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.

Discover elsevier.

Illustration of heads with lightbulb and leaves, mentorship

You may also like

Sometimes quitting your PhD and leaving academia can be the most rational move for students

Popular resources

.css-1txxx8u{overflow:hidden;max-height:81px;text-indent:0px;} Emotions and learning: what role do emotions play in how and why students learn?

A diy guide to starting your own journal, universities, ai and the common good, artificial intelligence and academic integrity: striking a balance, create an onboarding programme for neurodivergent students.

I receive strange emails. Some request money, sexual favours or a reference. Thousands, sent from students, have outlined the failures of PhD supervisors. From this dodgy digital pile, one message remains in my memory.

A young academic was outraged. He was so outraged that he used capital letters throughout the email. He was offended that I had written an article ,  aimed at prospective PhD students, that provided a guide to selecting a supervisor/adviser with care, ensuring that expectations, rights and responsibilities are assembled at the start of their enrolment. He was outraged – sorry, OUTRAGED – that I focused on students and their right to choose. I had supposedly displaced his capacity to supervise by suggesting that students check academic credentials and expertise.

  • Want to get on in research? You need to manage people effectively
  • Efficient communication that avoids overloading students or staff
  • How to turn a PhD project into a commercial venture

This strange email captures the dense and difficult negotiations of power within PhD supervision. Students have choices. So do supervisors and advisers. The alignment of purpose and priorities is crucial. Too often, this relationship is toxic. Therefore, let’s park the outrage and provide 10 maxims to consider as we start – or continue – as a supervisor/adviser, so that we are authentic, credible and useful.

1. Just because you have completed a PhD does not mean you can supervise one

Very few academics hold teaching qualifications, particularly outside the education disciplines. Higher degree supervision – too often – is based on homology. We supervise as we were supervised. Or – more worryingly – we supervise how we think we were supervised. This strategy has never been effective – as confirmed by PhD attrition rates . As the PhD student cohort diversifies to include more women, Indigenous and First Nation students, rainbow students, scholars of colour, students with disabilities, and a wide span of ages, homology is not only inappropriate but destructive. My first 18 completions were all students under the age of 25. My next 30 were all over 40. Our students are changing . They will not put up with platitudes, excuses or comments about the good old days.

Experience is not enough. Expertise is required. Enrol in professional development courses. Learn how to supervise. Learn about doctoral studies. It is a burgeoning field of research. Do not assume that we know what we are doing because we graduated with a PhD. Simply because we drink milk does not mean we can run a dairy farm. In no other area of our scholarly lives would we generalise from a data set of one.

2. Any academic can meet a PhD student – the skill is enabling the completion and submission of a quality thesis

It is very pleasant to supervise PhD students. They are bright people who work hard and think deeply. Yet these meetings in and of themselves do not ensure completion or that the research will reach the intellectual level required of a PhD examination.

Do you know the intellectual standard required to pass a PhD in your discipline? In other words, can you read a student’s close-to-completed thesis and know that it will pass? Can you locate the line between major and minor corrections; major corrections and a revise and resubmit; and revise and resubmit and failure? Which disciplines encourage split decisions when examiners disagree? Do you know how the policies, procedures and regulations of your institution shape and frame the PhD thesis that is sent to examiners? How does the digital submission of the thesis transform its preparation and examination?

This knowledge is derived from learning about the doctoral policies and procedures in your institution, reading a large number of doctoral theses and examination reports, and volunteering to be a viva chair or milestone assessor as often as possible. 

Talking to students over coffee or in a lab is important. Understanding the standard required for a doctoral thesis to pass with minor corrections is crucial.

3. Beginnings matter, so work hard in the first year

While the focus of the candidature – from the first day – must be on the examination, a short and successful enrolment is based on a powerhouse first year. Some of the most dreadful – and longest – candidatures I have seen have emerged from supervisors allowing students to wander about, thinking about their honours, master’s or capstone projects, drinking coffee and ambling through conferences, while complaining about their lack of progress.

The best candidatures begin as if the student is driving in a Grand Prix. Start your engines. Hammer to the first corner. It is important that students do not simply redo earlier projects. Find a subject area quickly, and then render it discrete, manageable and viable. If students can rapidly determine research questions, even if they are clumsy, then they have a focus. A strong first year of enrolment gives students confidence; they can publish early in the project and start to gain meaningful feedback.

4. Assess the student’s information literacy in the first month of their enrolment

Two pathways connect a student and a supervisor. The first involves teaching a student through their undergraduate years, and they continue through to a PhD with you as their supervisor. The second pathway involves students selecting you to supervise their project from outside your courses, university or country. Both modes of admission hold dangers, mainly involving assumptions about information literacy, academic literacy and disciplinary literacy.

Before my students start their supervision – whether I have known them for years or just begun a teaching and learning relationship – I ensure that they complete a PhD set-up document . This pamphlet, which I have used for every student I have supervised over 24 years, incorporates all modes of the doctorate – including the PhD by prior publication and the artefact-and-exegesis thesis – and fulfils a diagnostic role. It ensures that the student is thinking about a topic, they verify methodological, epistemological and ontological considerations, and also log their information literacy. For the supervisor, the completed set-up document and the subsequent meeting – which I usually schedule for two hours – provides the initiation into the doctoral programme.

From this diagnostic tool, a suite of professional development programmes can be inserted into the candidature, particularly involving the library, librarians and information literacy. From this foundation, literature reviews, systematic reviews and scoping reviews can emerge, which enable a rapid narrowing of the project and the development of research questions. 

5. Assumptions kill doctorates

Students maintain assumptions about a PhD. So do supervisors. If these assumptions are not communicated and managed, students and supervisors move through the candidature misunderstanding each other. The resultant “conversations” are hooked into confusion, resentment, bitterness and anger. Statements such as: “It’s your PhD” and “Tell me what you want me to do next” pepper the enrolment. The set up document and initial meeting replace assumptions with talking points about the rights, responsibilities and roles of supervisors and students. A clear, honest discussion about meeting frequency, feedback, modes of communication and the management of challenges at the start of a candidature not only saves time but reduces the likelihood of changing supervisors through the programme and cuts student attrition.

6. The selection of examiners is the single most important moment in a doctoral programme

Examination matters to a PhD. Our last stand for quality assurance and excellence in our universities resides in doctoral programmes. If we “dial a mate” and bring in friends to examine, it is time to close our universities.  Standards matter. When I was dean of graduate research, it was amazing how often I had very senior colleagues attacking me with aggression only seen in extreme cage fighting about the importance of their research partner, grant collaborator, co-author or former student acting as an examiner. The mantra would progress as follows (yes, this is a direct quotation): “There are only three experts in this field in the world. I am one of them and I am friends with the other two.” In this case, the area with only three international experts was – wait for it – body image.

Select an examiner who is intensely research-active, aligned to the field of the thesis without being so close that the student would be viewed as a threat, and resolutely independent of the supervisor.

To ensure a strong selection of external examiners, enact a full digital evaluation to ensure that they are research-active and a decent person, rather than in need of a Snickers at the first critique or differing view. Finally – and this is sad to write – select experienced researchers, supervisors and examiners. The toughest examiners are – obviously – the most inexperienced. They have a data set of one: their own thesis. They are a genius (obviously). Any thesis they read in the early years after their own submission and examination must be substandard (to their own).

To shift to the Star Wars universe, find a Yoda examiner rather than one with the impetuous confidence of a young Obi Wan or Luke Skywalker.

7. Make sure the SOCK is obvious, clear and present in the abstract (and the introduction and conclusion)

The PhD has one characteristic: a significant, original contribution to knowledge (SOCK) . Without a SOCK, a PhD will not pass. Each word is important. Research can be a contribution but not original. It can be original but not significant. Supervisor and student must work together to ensure that the SOCK is the strong frame for the candidature and thesis. The earlier a student can ascertain their SOCK, the smoother the progression to completion.

The SOCK is presented in the second sentence of the abstract: “My significant, original contribution to knowledge is…” As supervisors, we need to move the student into the space where they can complete this sentence as early as possible in their enrolment.

Examiners are paid very little to assess a thesis. It is hard work. Think about an examiner reading a thesis while drinking a glass of chianti. Therefore, in every chapter, a student must remind the chianti-fuelled examiner about the purpose of this chapter and how it aligns with the SOCK of the thesis. Ensure that the abstract, introduction, conclusion and every single chapter hook into the SOCK.

8. PhD students are not your slaves, sexual partners, un(der)paid research assistants or writers of your articles

One of the saddest memories of my academic career emerged in a meeting (obviously) when I had started as a dean of graduate research. Senior scholars – research heavyweights – were assembled in the room. Very early in the meeting one of these Mike Tysons described their PhD students as “slaves.” That was appalling. What was chilling was the laughter that erupted in response to this nasty noun. 

PhD students do not exist to serve or service the supervisor. They are not drawing breath so that they can complete a supervisor’s research project or write a supervisor’s articles. We all know – personally and professionally – shocking stories about supervisors “appropriating” the work of their students or adding their name to papers in which they had minimal intellectual input. Research codes of conduct around the world – most stemming from the Vancouver protocol – are creating changes, with institutions and journals demanding transparency and integrity from all authors through the submission process.

PhD students need a supervisor to protect, guide, mentor and enable. It is an unequal relationship. Shocking cases have been revealed around the world of the sexual exploitation of students, from sexual harassment through to sexual assault. These cases demean all scholars. The standards we walk past are the standards we accept. A PhD candidate is a student, and therefore worthy of respect, care, guidance and clarity in the standards of a professional relationship.

9. Create a strong supervisory team

Most university systems around the world insist on a supervisory team. That change is welcome; we cannot guarantee that the scholars who start the supervision will remain in place until the examination. A team adds safety, and a safety net for the student.

Supervisory teams, composed of two or more colleagues, are important. Sometimes, the relationships are fraught or non-existent. Many co-supervisors are simply on paper for administrative purposes and not involved in the project. The best relationships involve one of the supervisors using their specific expertise – often in methodology – to enable the creation of a chapter. When that part of the project is completed, they step back from the supervision. 

Supervisors should meet before any student is involved in the process to discuss their expectations, hopes and concerns about the project and the student. How often are meetings held? Who is involved in those meetings? How is feedback to be organised? How are disagreements – scholarly or otherwise – to be resolved? These questions must be answered and agreed on before the student is involved in the process.

10. Do not confuse the production of refereed articles with the construction of a thesis

Every PhD should have a dissemination strategy. Research must be available to ensure citizens and fellow scholars can use it – and transform it. Examiners also recognise the value of peer-reviewed publications as part of the PhD. Experienced supervisors remember that  the best examiners differentiate between the processes of  peer reviewing and examination. 

I have published more than 250 refereed articles. I have graduated from only one PhD. The confusion between publishing articles and examination dumbs down our doctorates. Indeed, it is becoming customary to assume that three refereed articles are sufficient in scope, scale and quality to create a successful PhD examination.

Three articles in three years would not reach the level required to be “research-active” as a scholar. Many of us produce between five and 10 articles every year. Indeed, the PhD by prior publication , an unusual but burgeoning mode of doctorate, submits a long (20,000-40,000 words) contextual statement confirming the significant, original contribution to knowledge, followed by a large number of publications, often spanning from 12 to 25 articles. 

In terms of quality assurance, how could three articles be equivalent to an integrated research project of 100,000 words? Indeed, how could three articles be equivalent to the 12 or more publications submitted through a PhD by prior publication?

Fine PhDs have been passed without any publications emerging from them. Theses with refereed articles have been subjected to revision and re-examination. Publishing research during a PhD is valuable. It must not be assumed that peer review and examination are equivalent or converge.

A final note: supervising PhD students is a privilege. It is not a right. Doctoral studies and the scholarship of supervision (SoS)  literature are revealing how supervisory quality is built through experience, expertise, professional development and research-led andragogy. Our responsibilities as supervisors are not only to our students but also to our disciplines, to research ethics and the maintenance of standards. Great PhD students are our future. Great PhD supervisors remain at their service.

Tara Brabazon is professor of cultural studies at Flinders University. Her most recent books are 12 rules for (Academic) Life: A Stroppy Feminist Guide to Teaching, Learning, Politics and Jordan Peterson (Springer, 2022) and Comma: How to Restart, Reclaim and Reboot your PhD (Author’s Republic, 2022).

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week,  sign up for the THE Campus newsletter .

For more insights from Tara Brabazon:

How to get students through their PhD thesis

10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you

How not to write a PhD thesis

14 essential PhD questions answered

Emotions and learning: what role do emotions play in how and why students learn?

Global perspectives: navigating challenges in higher education across borders, how to help young women see themselves as coders, contextual learning: linking learning to the real world, authentic assessment in higher education and the role of digital creative technologies, how hard can it be testing ai detection tools.

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site

phd under supervision

Research Voyage

Research Tips and Infromation

A Guide to Changing Your PhD Supervisor

Changing your PhD Supervisor

Embarking on the challenging yet rewarding journey of a PhD is a commitment that extends beyond the confines of research papers and scholarly pursuits. Central to this academic odyssey is the relationship forged with a guiding force—the PhD supervisor. A symbiotic connection that shapes the trajectory of research, personal growth, and the overall PhD experience.

However, as the academic landscape evolves, students may find themselves at a crossroads, contemplating a decision that could reshape the course of their doctoral pursuit—changing their PhD supervisor. In this exploration, we delve into the intricate fabric of this decision-making process, dissecting the reasons behind such contemplation and weighing the nuanced pros and cons associated with altering the academic compass.

Join us on this reflective journey as we navigate the delicate terrain of academic mentorship, dissecting the potential for alignment or misalignment of research interests, the dynamics of mentorship and support, and the profound impact of diverse perspectives. Yet, with change comes disruption—weighing the cost of potential setbacks in research progress, administrative hurdles, and the intricate dance of managing relationships within the academic ecosystem.

In this discourse, we aim to unravel the layers of complexity surrounding the decision to change a PhD supervisor. Through anecdotes, insights, and careful analysis, we seek to equip Ph.D. candidates with the tools needed to make informed decisions, fostering an environment where academic and personal growth can thrive.

Embark with us on this intellectual exploration, where the nuances of change intersect with the pursuit of knowledge, and the delicate dance of transition unfolds in the pursuit of academic excellence.


Pros of changing your phd supervisor, cons of changing your phd supervisor, how to convey my supervisor regarding change of supervisor decision, download the template here.

The foundation of any successful PhD journey lies in the dynamic between the student and their supervisor. This relationship extends beyond the academic realm, shaping not only the trajectory of research but also influencing personal and professional development. A supportive and symbiotic connection with a supervisor fosters an environment where ideas flourish, guidance is paramount, and the doctoral candidate gains invaluable insights from a seasoned mentor. This relationship becomes a cornerstone, influencing the overall satisfaction and success of the Ph.D. experience.

Despite the significance of the supervisor-student relationship, there are instances when students find themselves contemplating a change. This may arise from a variety of factors such as misaligned research interests, challenges in communication, evolving career aspirations, or even shifts in personal circumstances. A brief exploration of these reasons sets the stage for understanding the complexities that prompt candidates to reassess and, potentially, redefine this pivotal connection.

At the heart of this blog post is the examination of a decision that carries both weight and consequence—the choice to change one’s PhD supervisor. The thesis of our exploration is to provide a comprehensive analysis of the pros and cons associated with such a decision.

We also delve into the delicate process of communicating this decision, recognizing the sensitivity and significance of such conversations. Just as a change in academic direction requires thoughtful consideration, conveying this decision to a supervisor demands a careful blend of professionalism, gratitude, and clarity. As we navigate through the nuances of this academic crossroads, we aim to provide insights, tips, and a sample script to assist students in approaching this conversation with respect, transparency, and a focus on the academic journey ahead.

A. Alignment of Research Interests

  • Examples and Anecdotes: Picture yourself passionate about unravelling the mysteries of renewable energy sources, only to find your initial supervisor specializes in historical architecture. By making the courageous decision to change supervisors, you align yourself with an expert in sustainable energy. This shift not only reignites your enthusiasm but also establishes a connection between your passion and your research, turning your academic journey into a fulfilling exploration.
  • Impact on Research Productivity and Satisfaction: The impact of this alignment on research productivity and satisfaction cannot be overstated. Your newfound synergy with a supervisor who shares your research interests streamlines the process. Meetings become more fruitful, discussions more engaging, and the satisfaction derived from your work transforms from a mere academic obligation to a genuine intellectual pursuit.

B. Better Mentorship and Support

  • Illustrative Cases: Consider the case of Sarah, who initially struggled with a lack of communication and mentorship in her first year. Changing supervisors led her to Dr. Rodriguez, known for her hands-on mentoring approach. This shift not only transformed Sarah’s academic journey but also instilled a sense of confidence and direction, illustrating the profound impact of effective mentorship.
  • Personal and Academic Development: The metamorphosis brought about by improved mentorship extends beyond academic realms. Dr. Rodriguez’s investment in Sarah’s personal and academic growth not only refined her research skills but also nurtured her self-confidence. Sarah emerged from this mentorship with a more profound understanding of her strengths and a fortified sense of academic purpose.

C. Diverse Perspectives

  • Experiences of Gaining Different Perspectives: Enter the world of Alex, who transitioned from a supervisor entrenched in qualitative research to one with a robust quantitative background. This shift opened avenues for Alex to integrate diverse methodologies, leading to a more comprehensive and nuanced research approach. The amalgamation of these perspectives not only enriched the research process but also broadened Alex’s intellectual horizons.
  • Enrichment of Research and Academic Growth: The exposure to diverse perspectives became the catalyst for academic growth. Engaging with varied viewpoints became a cornerstone of Alex’s intellectual development. This enrichment not only strengthened the quality of the research but also equipped Alex with a versatile set of skills crucial for navigating the intricate landscape of academia.

D. Career Opportunities

  • Stories of Enhanced Opportunities: Meet James, who, through a change in supervisor, found himself immersed in collaborative projects and international conferences. This shift not only enhanced his academic portfolio but also created avenues for industry collaborations. The diverse experiences gained under the new supervision became stepping stones for James’s future career opportunities.
  • Broadening Professional Networks: Changing supervisors often means entering new academic circles. In Lily’s case, this shift broadened her professional networks, exposing her to different conferences, workshops, and collaborative opportunities. The ripple effect of these connections extended beyond the academic realm, positioning Lily for a more expansive and interconnected professional journey.

E. Personal Growth

  • Adapting to New Challenges: Imagine the story of Mark, who faced unforeseen challenges upon changing supervisors. The adjustment period, though daunting, became a testament to Mark’s adaptability. This ability to navigate uncharted waters not only demonstrated resilience but also contributed to Mark’s personal growth, reinforcing his capacity to thrive amidst academic uncertainties.
  • Building Resilience and Adaptability: Mark’s journey highlights that personal growth extends beyond the realm of academia. The challenges faced during the transition nurtured not only resilience but also adaptability. These qualities, now ingrained in Mark’s academic persona, serve as invaluable assets not just for his PhD journey but for his future professional endeavours.

A. Disruption in Progress

  • Impact on Research Timeline: Consider the case of Emily, who, midway through her PhD, changed supervisors due to a shift in research focus. This transition resulted in a temporary disruption in her research timeline as she needed to recalibrate her methodologies and refine her research questions. The adjustments, while necessary for alignment, extended the overall duration of her Ph.D. project.
  • Strategies for Minimizing Disruptions: To minimize disruptions, Emily proactively engaged in regular communication with both her previous and new supervisors. This strategic approach allowed for a smoother transition, as she could carry forward valuable insights from her initial work while incorporating the guidance of her new supervisor. Open and transparent communication became the cornerstone for mitigating the impact on her research timeline.

B. Administrative Hassles

  • Navigating University Procedures: John’s decision to change his supervisor involved navigating complex university procedures. From obtaining approvals to filling out paperwork, the administrative process proved to be a bureaucratic challenge. The intricacies of university protocols can be time-consuming and stressful, adding an administrative layer to an already nuanced decision.
  • Addressing Logistical Challenges: John tackled administrative hassles by seeking guidance from academic advisors and administrative staff. Proactive planning and careful adherence to university guidelines helped streamline the administrative process. By addressing logistical challenges promptly, John mitigated the bureaucratic hurdles associated with changing supervisors.

C. Limited Options

  • Challenges in Finding a Suitable Alternative: Amy faced the challenge of limited options when searching for an alternative supervisor. The specialized nature of her research narrowed the pool of available academics with expertise in her field. This limitation created a dilemma, as finding a suitable alternative proved to be a meticulous process requiring careful consideration of academic compatibility.
  • Exploring Available Options within the Institution: Amy expanded her search by exploring potential supervisors within her institution who had overlapping interests. Collaborating with academic advisors and department heads, she identified alternative mentors who could provide the necessary guidance. While challenging, this exploration within the institution allowed Amy to make a well-informed choice, considering both expertise and compatibility.

D. Potential for Miscommunication

  • Addressing Communication Challenges During the Transition: Michael encountered communication challenges when transitioning to a new supervisor, leading to misunderstandings regarding research expectations. The potential for miscommunication became apparent during the initial stages of the transition, affecting the clarity of project goals and timelines.
  • Strategies for Clear Communication: Recognizing the importance of clear communication, Michael initiated regular meetings with the new supervisor. Setting clear expectations, discussing project milestones, and seeking feedback became integral components of their communication strategy. By addressing potential miscommunication head-on, Michael established a foundation for a more effective working relationship.

E. Impact on Relationships

  • Navigating Interpersonal Dynamics with the Previous Supervisor and Colleagues: When Emma changed supervisors, she faced the delicate task of navigating interpersonal dynamics with her previous supervisor and colleagues. This transition required tact and diplomacy, as maintaining positive relationships with the academic community was crucial for a harmonious academic environment.
  • Maintaining a Positive Academic Environment: Emma proactively engaged in open and honest conversations with her previous supervisor, expressing gratitude for the mentorship received. She also communicated transparently with colleagues about her decision, emphasizing that the change was driven by research alignment. By approaching the transition with professionalism and respect, Emma succeeded in maintaining a positive academic environment, fostering goodwill among her peers.

1. Choose the Right Time and Setting:

  • Schedule a meeting with your current supervisor in a private and comfortable setting.
  • Ensure that you have enough time for a thorough discussion without interruptions.

2. Be Prepared:

  • Reflect on your decision and be clear about your reasons for wanting to change supervisors.
  • Consider preparing a brief outline or notes to help you articulate your thoughts during the conversation.

3. Start Positively:

  • Begin the conversation on a positive note by expressing your appreciation for the guidance and support you have received so far.
  • Acknowledge the contributions of your current supervisor to your academic journey.

4. Be Honest and Direct:

  • Clearly state your decision to change supervisors. Use straightforward language to avoid any ambiguity.
  • If applicable, briefly explain the reasons behind your decision. Focus on academic or research-related factors rather than personal issues.

5. Highlight Your Goals:

  • Emphasize that your decision is driven by your academic and research goals. Highlight the importance of aligning your research interests with your supervisor to ensure a more productive collaboration.

6. Express Gratitude:

  • Express gratitude for the time and effort your current supervisor has invested in your academic development.
  • Reinforce that your decision is about finding the best possible fit for your research objectives.

7. Offer Solutions:

  • If applicable, suggest potential solutions or ways to ease the transition. This could include a plan for completing any ongoing projects or assisting in the search for a replacement.

8. Be Open to Discussion:

  • Encourage an open dialogue. Allow your supervisor to express their thoughts and ask questions.
  • Be receptive to feedback and be willing to discuss any concerns your supervisor may have.

9. Follow Up in Writing:

  • After the meeting, send a follow-up email reiterating your decision and expressing gratitude.
  • Include any agreed-upon next steps or arrangements for a smooth transition.

10. Maintain Professionalism:

  • Throughout the conversation, maintain a professional and respectful tone.
  • Avoid placing blame or speaking negatively about your current supervisor.

Sample Script:

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I want to express my sincere appreciation for your guidance and support during our collaboration. After careful consideration, I have made the decision to change supervisors. This decision is driven by a desire to align my research interests more closely with my academic goals. I believe this change will contribute positively to my academic journey. I am committed to ensuring a smooth transition and am open to discussing any concerns or suggestions you may have. I value the time we’ve spent working together and appreciate your understanding.”

Remember that communication is key in these situations, and approaching the conversation with professionalism and clarity will contribute to a more constructive dialogue.

Email Template to Convey Your Decision to Change Supervisor

Subject: Request for a Meeting to Discuss Research Direction

Dear [Supervisor’s Name],

I trust this message finds you well. I appreciate the support and guidance you have provided throughout our collaboration. Your insights have been invaluable to my academic journey.

After careful consideration and reflection, I have come to the decision to explore a change in my supervisory arrangement. This decision is rooted in my commitment to align my research interests more closely with my academic goals, and I believe that a different supervisory dynamic may better support the direction I intend to take with my research.

I would like to request a meeting to discuss this matter further. I believe that an open and honest conversation will allow us to explore the best path forward. I am committed to ensuring a smooth transition and would like to discuss any concerns or suggestions you may have. Your feedback is important to me, and I want to ensure that this decision is made with the utmost professionalism and consideration.

I propose we schedule a meeting at your earliest convenience. Please let me know a time that works for you, and I will make the necessary arrangements.

Thank you once again for your support, and I look forward to discussing this matter with you.

Best regards,

[Your Full Name]

[Your Program/Department]

[Your Contact Information]

Read my article on ” Can you do a PhD without a supervisor” . This article will guide you on how one can do PhD without a research supervisor.

In the intricate tapestry of a Ph.D. journey, the decision to change supervisor stands as a pivotal crossroads, demanding careful contemplation and strategic navigation. As we explored the myriad facets of this complex choice, it became evident that the pros and cons are as diverse as the academic landscapes each student traverses.

Upcoming Events

  • Visit the Upcoming International Conferences at Exotic Travel Destinations with Travel Plan
  • Visit for  Research Internships Worldwide

Dr. Vijay Rajpurohit

Recent Posts

  • How to Request for Journal Publishing Charge (APC) Discount or Waiver?
  • Do Review Papers Count for the Award of a PhD Degree?
  • Vinay Kabadi, University of Melbourne, Interview on Award-Winning Research
  • Do You Need Publications for a PhD Application? The Essential Guide for Applicants
  • Research Internships @ Finland
  • All Blog Posts
  • Research Career
  • Research Conference
  • Research Internship
  • Research Journal
  • Research Tools
  • Uncategorized
  • Research Conferences
  • Research Journals
  • Research Grants
  • Internships
  • Research Internships
  • Email Templates
  • Conferences
  • Blog Partners
  • Privacy Policy

Copyright © 2024 Research Voyage

Design by


Issue Cover

  • Previous Article
  • Next Article

Cover Image

issue cover

The cover image is a ceramic tile stained with bovine blood used to train operators in proper forensic cleaning techniques. For further information see the article ‘“Out, Damned Spot”: The art and science of forensic restoration’. Image courtesy of Jennifer DeBruyn.

Your supervision filter

Opportunities for ‘associate’ supervision, supervision as practice, a model for supervisory leadership, communicating your supervision principles, final thoughts, further reading, author information, a beginner’s guide to supervising a phd researcher.

  • Split-Screen
  • Article contents
  • Figures & tables
  • Supplementary Data
  • Peer Review
  • Open the PDF for in another window
  • Cite Icon Cite
  • Get Permissions

Kay Guccione , Rhoda Stefanatos; A beginner’s guide to supervising a PhD researcher. Biochem (Lond) 31 October 2023; 45 (5): 11–15. doi:

Download citation file:

  • Ris (Zotero)
  • Reference Manager

This beginner’s guide to supervision has been created for anyone who supports postgraduate researchers (PGRs) with any aspect of their research or the completion of their degree. The supervision of PGRs is a complex and time-consuming job, with a high degree of responsibility. Good supervision is a key component of PGR success and is vital to the health of our research as a nation as well as the health of our individual researchers. In the recent research literature, supervision has been shown to impact on PhD completion time, retention of students, their success, their perceptions of the value of the PhD, their mental health and well-being and their career choice. In acknowledgement, the UKRI statement of Expectations for Postgraduate Training states that “Research Organisations are expected to provide excellent standards of supervision, management and mentoring … ” and the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency states that therefore “Supervisors should be provided with sufficient time, support and opportunities to develop and maintain their supervisory practice”. Noting that “supervisors represent the most important external influence in the learning and development that occurs in students’ training” the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Committee on Education details interpersonal responsibilities of the supervisor that cover the need to work as partners, see the student as a whole person, be aware of power imbalance and develop strategies for the resolution of relationship difficulties, as well as giving academic and career support.

Despite the life-shaping level of impact a supervisor has, learning to supervise well is not always a top priority for researchers in the often-intense early stages of building their career, and a great many supervisors find themselves having to learn to supervise in a hurry, as they take on their first formal responsibilities. With this in mind, please resist the temptation to save this article for ‘when problems arise’ – a proactive approach will help to avoid issues down the line. Those of you who are moving towards a future supervisor role may be tempted to bookmark this article for ‘when you are officially supervising’ – and so the point we would like to start by making is that if you are interacting with PGRs in the course of your work, you are already engaging with elements of supervisory practice. Supervision is not something you will switch on once you take a formal supervisor role, but a part of your practice that can and will develop. There is a great deal you can be learning, and indeed contributing to the PGR experience, long before your first ‘official’ (or first ‘challenging’) PhD student comes along. While we draw your attention here to several important areas of practice, this is not a guide that aims to simply hand you all the information you need to get started. Rather, it is intended to offer you some ideas to ignite your thinking about yourself and the experiences that have shaped you, about how you understand the role you play in ensuring successful doctoral completion and about your power and position, all of which influence how you react to and respond to others. An ill-considered approach may, after all, have lasting negative impact on your student.

The interpersonal nature of the job means that there is no single right way to supervise, and so creating your own personal blend of approaches is going to be important. What you choose to include in that blend will depend greatly on your own context, and your prior educational and workplace experiences. Consider your own educational journey to date, your family background and social context, your status and position, your personal values, what has challenged you, who has supported you and the privileges and power that you hold ( see here for a handy graphic to help you analyse these ). The cumulative effects of these factors and experiences have given you a filter through which you interpret your role and your purpose, as a supervisor.

Indulge us in a quick experiment. From your current perspective, how would you finish this sentence: The most important thing a supervisor can do is…. Now consider how you might have finished that sentence at the start of your PhD and the many thousands of ways it could have changed through the journey. Every PGR you encounter could finish this sentence differently, and it is good to be aware of that. Your own experience of being supervised will also tint and tone your supervision filter. There is a strong instinct to emulate what we have experienced as being ‘good supervision’, and to strongly reject what we perceive to be ‘bad supervision’. It’s easy to see how this approach can have limited effectiveness, for example if you and your supervisee’s perceptions of what constitutes ‘good supervision’ are very different. A clash in expectations can cause issues that persist through the PhD and influence your entire relationship

Thinking critically and systematically about how your personal experience influences your approach is important. Supplementing that, by engaging with a wide range of opportunities, resources and conversations is important in giving you the flexibility to be able to supervise across a wide range of people, situations and expectations.

So where to begin? As an ‘unofficial’ or, as we prefer to refer to it, an ‘associate’ supervisor, building up your experience and skills can be challenging. What activities to engage with, and what opportunities to support PGRs might be available to you? The answer will of course depend on your university, your department and the support and opportunities you have from specialist supervisor developers. We know not all universities (yet) offer the opportunity for research staff to be formally added to supervisory teams and so here we make suggestions that you can seek out or even create in your workplace, without formal supervisor status.

Day-to-day PGR support . The simplest form of associate supervision is found in the support, guidance, advice and training you offer to the PGRs that you share a workspace with. Welcoming new students, helping them adjust to the environment, rhythms and demands of the PhD and supporting them with research problem solving are all hugely valuable supervision work.

Creating collaborative spaces . Leading journal clubs, practice presentation sessions or writing groups, retreats or other peer-led support groups will give you opportunities to build specific knowledge of how PGRs learn to read critically, synthesize their reading and discuss their findings in line with the academic style and conventions of your discipline. As this is often a steep learning curve in the PhD, knowing how to support students in this will stand you in great stead.

Mentoring . Engaging with formal or informal opportunities to be a mentor will help you to sharpen your skills in how to deliver a powerful and meaningful conversation. Good-quality mentoring discussions can give PGRs an opportunity to make sense of their experiences, reset their expectations and remotivate themselves to get to the PhD finish-line. All incredibly useful elements of supervision.

Leading workshops . There may be opportunities to lead workshops as part of PGR induction week, research methods courses, research ethics or integrity workshops, skills development programmes or careers sessions. All will allow you to consider what PGRs need to know to succeed, and how you can best help them to do that learning.

Consider which of the aforementioned opportunities you are already doing, those that are available to you and those that are right for you – it’s not an ‘all or nothing’ approach so consider what is timely and sustainable for you. Decide what you might need to know, read, discuss or understand in order to perform those roles to the best of your ability. Below, we make some starter suggestions for ways to complement the experiential learning listed earlier, through engaging with a range of supervisor development activities and materials. Don’t forget that the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers states that you are entitled to 10 days every year, to engage with professional learning and development, and this could be a perfect way to spend some of that time:

Read your institutional ‘PGR Code of Practice’, which sets out what PGRs can expect, what support they will receive and what they must agree to contribute and abide by. Perhaps your university also has a ‘statement of expectations for supervision’ type document too?

Understand the breadth of learning that supervisors should ensure takes place within a PhD by glancing at the UK’s national framework for PhD skills development, the Researcher Development Framework .

Read about the 10 areas of practice described by the UK Council for Graduate Education’s Good Supervisory Practice Framework and the accompanying Research Supervisor’s Bibliography.

Attend workshops and courses on supervision and join supervisor communities and conversations at your institution.

Read and subscribe to the Supervising PhDs Blog which publishes short, evidence-based articles, as quick 5-minute reads.

Observe experienced supervisors in practice. This can be done formally (by agreement, as a guest sitting in on a supervision meeting) or informally by observing interactions in your group, at conferences and in other shared spaces. Listen closely to what impact supervisors have on their PGRs and consider both supervisor and PGR perspectives.

Shadow formal processes. Associate supervisors can most commonly struggle with the opportunities to see the procedural checkpoints associated with PhD supervision. Arranging to support, deputize or shadow the supervisory team at PGR interviews, annual progress reviews and viva proceedings (where possible) can give you real insight into how to manage these tricky processes.

But before getting too immersed or overwhelmed in what is a vast wealth of supportive and enlightening material on PGR supervision, we would like to invite you to reflect on what opportunities to develop as a supervisor you are already engaged in and to offer you a framework for developing your supervisory practice.

Supervision is a practice . It is something you do, not merely something you are, and it is something you can learn and develop over time, not something that is innate. It’s helpful to recognize that you are continually learning from the experiences you have attained, and the further experiences, documents, advisory articles and training courses you will encounter. Supervision is commonly thought of as a research practice, in which we as the more experienced researcher advise the PGR, sharing the benefits of our knowledge of the subject area, of the research process and of the conventions and norms of our discipline. This process of socialization into the local and global research communities is important in creating a strong scientific identity.

Supervision should also be thought of as an educational practice because the PGR is learning from us, and in order to support them to gain their doctoral qualification, we deploy different ways of helping them learn. The learning in a PhD extends beyond the project or subject scope and includes knowledge of how to accrue skills and experiences that prepare them for a range of different future career options. A supervisor doesn’t have to be a careers advisor, but their support and open-mindedness to career exploration are greatly valued by those they supervise – especially since the vast majority of PhD graduates will find their long-term career success in roles beyond academic research and teaching.

Further, we would like to focus on the idea that good supervision must also be thought of as a leadership practice, as it is one through which we leverage our status and knowledge of the culture in which we work to show our PGRs how to operate successfully within the research environment and how to secure resources and opportunities. A good leader also holds the ability to relate to those they lead and to motivate and sustain them as they take on new responsibilities and challenges – highly relevant within a research degree context.

As you might already be imagining, these different ways of thinking about supervision and the different tasks they involve can overlap and intersect with each other.

Now you have had a chance to think about who you are and what you value as a supervisor, we present a leadership framework for thinking about what you do in practice as a supervisor. It is outdated to think of supervision as purely an academic pursuit, focused entirely on the task – the research project – yet many of the policy documents we encounter will naturally focus their attention on the formal processes and checkpoints of the doctorate. Emerging in the last decade, we have seen a welcome escalation of research literature and guidance related to the holistic and interpersonal aspects of supervision, working with the preferences, contexts, motivators, career aspirations and support needs of the individual supervisee.

What we want to emphasize ( Figure 1 ), with the aid of John Adair’s model of Action Centred Leadership (1973) is the often-neglected team aspect of supervision. We have selected Adair’s model to help to illustrate supervision in practice as, first, it highlights actions that we can take to lead effectively, rather than taking a more theoretical ‘leadership-style’ approach. Second, this model asks us to reflect on the balance we create between the different areas of practice, the task, the individual and the team, which can be a helpful framework for how to partition your time as a developing supervisor. It can also be a clue as to where you might seek training and development, for instance, if you spot areas on the model that you feel less confident with or less inclined towards.

Action Centred Supervisory Leadership.

Action Centred Supervisory Leadership.

Here are some ways in which you might consider your role in cultivating the team aspect of supervision, as a way of reducing uncertainty and stress for everyone involved and creating a cohesive and supportive culture for PGRs, and for yourself. Think about your ‘team’ in the broadest sense, not just those you supervise or manage, but across the entire research ecosystem around you:

The supervisory team . Most doctorates are now supervised by more than one supervisor. How can your team work together as a cohesive support crew for PGRs, rather than operating as a group of people with competing priorities and interests? How do you work in tandem with those with oversight of PGR matters, such as PGR Convenors and Deans.

Role clarity . This applies to defining the supervisory team roles, to student–supervisor roles and to student–student roles, where there are shared activities. Who takes responsibility for making progress in the PhD? Who takes action? Who makes decisions? What responsibilities are shared?

Values and behaviour . Does your team know what you value, and what you won’t stand for? What are the team rules on sustainable working hours, taking holidays and self-care. How do you expect your team to solve problems, admit mistakes and recognize their blind spots and learning needs? What kinds of interpersonal behaviour are and are not acceptable? What strategies do you have for resolving disagreements?

Cultivate collaboration . Expect people to work together and actively reduce comparison and competitiveness. Think beyond a ‘research collaboration’ and find regular spaces for peer-learning, team-working and group discussion. Think lab meetings, journal clubs, practice presentations and writing groups. Add online chat channels for rapid response peer support. How can these physical and online spaces take on a confidence-building supportive tone, rather than spotlighting one person?

Fairness, openness and equity between PGRs . Within your team how are you ensuring that opportunities come to everyone equally? What does an inclusive working practice look like to you? When decisions must be made, how are you communicating them?

Make introductions . Commonly, supervisors are the broker between PGRs and key people in your discipline and global research community. But think local too. Introduce your PGRs to the full support network including administrators, developers, funding specialists, librarians and finance teams. Help PGRs to navigate the organization and proactively find support.

Like your wider practice, how you bring these ideas together will be developed and informed by your own experience so far. The key success factor in all of the earlier points is that you are able to role model good practices yourself, not just require them of others. Your PGRs will be strongly influenced, not by what you say, but by what they see you do in reality.

Having now thought about your own supervision filter and how this interacts with your approach to the Action Centred Leadership model, you may be beginning to crystallize certain expectations, of yourself as a supervisor (now and in the future) and of the PGRs you will supervise. The idea of actively and explicitly ‘setting expectations’ with PGRs has in recent years become a mainstay of many supervisor development programmes and advice books. There are several common expectation-setting activity worksheets such as the one created by Anne Lee and the one created by Hugh Cairns (it would be interesting here to note whether you perceive that these linked resources are based more on the task, individual or team). These tools are designed to be used in the first weeks of the PhD to get off to a good start. However, we suggest that expectation setting can usefully begin before the PGR arrives, indeed before they are accepted on to the PhD programme. It is common for academics to list topics or projects they will supervise on their institutional web pages, so why not add how you will supervise and communicate the principles that govern your approach. When you interview potential PhD candidates, why not look beyond their academic achievements, and talk to them about what they are looking for in a supervisor?

We would like to thank you for reading this post and for committing your valuable time and energy to considering our points and to taking an intentional approach to supervision, an important academic responsibility and a vital underpinning of a good research culture. Don’t forget that while the PGRs you support as a supervisor at any stage will be very appreciative, not everyone will be aware of the level of effort and expertise you are contributing to your groups and departments. Documenting your contribution and your commitment to upholding good supervisory practice can be done on your CV, in job and promotion applications, in your annual performance and development reviews and even through formal professional recognition channels like the UKCGE Recognised (Associate) Supervisor Award. Having knowledge and awareness of the contribution you are making to upholding the standards set out by research funders and regulatory bodies will benefit you in funding applications and can also help you feed in to university conversations about the development opportunities staff need and the formal recognition and opportunities for supervision that we would like to see afforded to all levels of supervisors, who, after all, make a life-changing contribution to the career success and well-being of those they supervise.■

Adair, J. (1973) Action-centred leadership . McGraw-Hill, London.

Denicolo, P., Duke, D., and Reeves, J. (2019) Supervising to inspire doctoral researchers . Sage, London

Guerin, C. and Green, I. (2013). ‘“They’re the bosses”: feedback in team supervision’. J. Furt. High. Educ . 39 , 320–335. doi: 10.1080/0309877x.2013.831039

Robertson, M.J. (2017). Trust: The power that binds in team supervision of doctoral students. High. Educ. Res. Devel . 36 , 1463–1475. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2017.1325853

Wisker, G. (2012) The good supervisor: supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations . 2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Web Resources

Supervising PhDs

UKCGE Good Supervisory Practice Framework .


Kay Guccione is Head of Research Culture & Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, UK. She is a National Teaching Fellow, with research and practice specialisms in doctoral supervision, mentoring and community building for researchers. She is editor of the Supervising PhDs blog . Email: [email protected] .


Rhoda Stefanatos is a Researcher Development Specialist at the University of Glasgow, UK. She leads the development of a wide range of opportunities, experiences and resources for research staff. She uses her rich experience as a researcher to inform her approach to empowering researchers to communicate, create and collaborate.

Get Email Alerts

  • Online ISSN 1740-1194
  • Print ISSN 0954-982X
  • Submit Your Work
  • Language-editing services
  • Recommend to Your Librarian
  • Request a free trial
  • Accessibility
  • Sign up for alerts
  • Sign up to our mailing list
  • The Biochemist Blog
  • Biochemical Society Membership
  • Publishing Life Cycle
  • Biochemical Society Events
  • About Portland Press
  • Portland Press Tel
  • +44 (0)20 3880 2795
  • Portland Press Company no. 02453983
  • Biochemical Society Tel
  • +44 (0)20 3880 2793
  • Email: [email protected]
  • Biochemical Society Company no. 00892796
  • Registered Charity no. 253894
  • VAT no. GB 523 2392 69
  • Privacy and cookies
  • © Copyright 2024 Portland Press

This Feature Is Available To Subscribers Only

Sign In or Create an Account

Perhaps It’s Not You It’s Them: PhD Student-Supervisor Relationships

  • First Online: 15 September 2022

Cite this chapter

Book cover

  • Zoë J. Ayres 2  

8399 Accesses

This chapter explores the PhD Student-Supervisor relationship, outlining the role of a PhD Supervisor, discussing relationship management, and how to recognise signs of bullying and harassment if they occur.

(Trigger Warnings: bullying, harassment, sexual harassment)

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Depending on your country of study a PhD Supervisor may be called the Principal Investigator (PI) or you PhD Supervisor, or PhD Advisor. For the purpose of this chapter I will use “Supervisor”, to mean the academic in charge of your PhD research.

I count myself lucky every single day that I fell into the 76% category.

If you did not get this memo before starting your PhD, please do not worry. It is common for first-generation students to not get this information ahead of time.

Survivor bias is defined as the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.

The sunk cost fallacy reasoning states that further investments or commitments are justified because the resources already invested will be lost otherwise . In the case of PhD study it can be that if we just “stick it out” and try to manage the abuse we are being subject to we will get our PhD. In reality, leaving and starting a PhD elsewhere may be beneficial.

van Rooij E, Fokkens-Bruinsma M, Jansen E (2021) Factors that influence PhD candidates’ success: the importance of PhD project characteristics. Stud Contin Educ 43(1):48–67

Article   Google Scholar  

Woolston C (2019) PhDs: the tortuous truth. Nature 575(7782):403–407

Pyke KD (2018) Institutional betrayal: inequity, discrimination, bullying, and retaliation in academia. Sociol Perspect 61(1):5–13

Vilkinas T (1998) Management of the PhD process: the challenging role of the supervisor. In: Quality in postgraduate research. University of Adelaide, Adelaide

Google Scholar  

Rose GL (2003) Enhancement of mentor selection using the ideal mentor scale. Res High Educ 44(4):473–494

Vilkinas T, Cartan G (2006) The integrated competing values framework: its spatial configuration. J Manage Dev 25(6):505–521

Guccione K, Hutchinson S (2021) Coaching and mentoring for academic development. Emerald Group, Bingley

Book   Google Scholar  

Hund AK, Churchill AC, Faist AM, Havrilla CA, Stowell SML, McCreery HF, Ng J, Pinzone CA, Scordato ESC (2018) Transforming mentorship in STEM by training scientists to be better leaders. Ecol Evol 8(20):9962–9974

Amundsen C, McAlpine L (2009) ‘Learning supervision’: trial by fire. Innov Educ Teach Int 46(3):331–342

Schimanski LA, Alperin JP (2018) The evaluation of scholarship in academic promotion and tenure processes: past, present, and future. F1000Research 71605

Bagilhole B (1993) How to keep a good woman down: an investigation of the role of institutional factors in the process of discrimination against women academics. Br J Sociol Educ 14(3):261–274

Aiston SJ, Jung J (2015) Women academics and research productivity: an international comparison. Gend Educ 27(3):205–220

Giacalone RA, Knouse SB, Montagliani A (1997) Motivation for and prevention of honest responding in exit interviews and surveys. J Psychol 131(4):438–448

Hall W, Liva S (2022) Falling through the cracks: graduate students’ experiences of mentoring absence. Can J Scholarsh Teach Learn 13(1):1–15

UK Research Councils Statement of Expectations for Postgraduate Training. . Accessed 21 Jun 2022

Chamberlain S (2016) Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships - which is yours? . Accessed 21 Jun 2022

Clay M (2012) Sink or swim: drowning the next generation of research leaders? Aust Q 83(4):26–31

Bégin C, Géarard L (2013) The role of supervisors in light of the experience of doctoral students. Policy Futures Educ 11(3):267–276

Hemprich-Bennett D, Rabaiotti D, Kennedy E (2021) Beware survivorship bias in advice on science careers. Nature 598(7880):373–374

Parker-Jenkins M (2018) Mind the gap: developing the roles, expectations and boundaries in the doctoral supervisor–supervisee relationship. Stud High Educ 43(1):57–71

Moran H, Karlin L, Lauchlan E, Rappaport SJ, Bleasdale B, Wild L, Dorr J (2020) Understanding research culture: what researchers think about the culture they work in. Wellcome Trust, London, UK

Lee D (1998) Sexual harassment in PhD supervision. Gend Educ 10(3):299–312

Misawa M (2015) Cuts and bruises caused by arrows, sticks, and stones in academia: theorizing three types of racist and homophobic bullying in adult and higher education. Adult Learn 26(1):6–13

Cohen A, Baruch Y (2021) Abuse and exploitation of doctoral students: a conceptual model for traversing a long and winding road to academia. J Bus Ethics:1–18

Moss SE, Mahmoudi M (2021) STEM the bullying: an empirical investigation of abusive supervision in academic science. EClinicalMedicine 40101121

Gewin V (2021) How to blow the whistle on an academic bully. Nature 593(7858):299–301

Saló-Salgado L, Acocella A, Arzuaga García I, El Mousadik S, and Zvinavashe A (2021) Managing up: how to communicate effectively with your PhD adviser. . Accessed 15 Feb 2022

The Wellbeing Thesis (2022) Managing your supervisor. . Accessed 20 Feb 2022

Eley A, Jennings R (2005) Effective postgraduate supervision: improving the student/supervisor relationship. McGraw-Hill Education (UK), London, UK

Hockey J (1996) A contractual solution to problems in the supervision of PhD degrees in the UK. Stud High Educ 21(3):359–371

Download references

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

Zoë J. Ayres

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2022 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Ayres, Z.J. (2022). Perhaps It’s Not You It’s Them: PhD Student-Supervisor Relationships. In: Managing your Mental Health during your PhD. Springer, Cham.

Download citation


Published : 15 September 2022

Publisher Name : Springer, Cham

Print ISBN : 978-3-031-14193-5

Online ISBN : 978-3-031-14194-2

eBook Packages : Biomedical and Life Sciences Biomedical and Life Sciences (R0)

Share this chapter

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Publish with us

Policies and ethics

  • Find a journal
  • Track your research
  • Find a course
  • Undergraduate study
  • Postgraduate study
  • MPhil/PhD research
  • Short courses
  • Entry requirements
  • Financial support
  • How to apply
  • Come and meet us
  • Evening study explained
  • International Students
  • Student Services
  • Business Services
  • Student life at Birkbeck
  • The Birkbeck Experience
  • Boost your career
  • About Birkbeck
  • Contact Birkbeck
  • Faculties and Schools

The MPhil/PhD supervisory relationship

Over 90% of Birkbeck's academics are active researchers and they are keen to supervise your MPhil/PhD research. You'll develop your research project under the guidance of a principal supervisor, but your school may appoint a second supervisor and, in some cases, you may be able to arrange co-supervisions.   

Birkbeck takes its responsibilities towards its students very seriously and has formal guidelines, procedures and policies that you'll find useful to refer to.

How the relationship works

Finding a supervisor .

  • Read more about how to find the best supervisor for your MPhil/PhD research . 

What to expect from the supervisory relationship

  • the nature of research and research techniques 
  • the standards expected of your research 
  • the planning and scope of your research project 
  • primary sources and secondary literature 
  • completion dates for successive stages of the work, so that the thesis will be submitted on time 
  • requirements for attendance at relevant seminars and taught classes 
  • questions of originality and plagiarism 
  • attending and presenting your work at conferences, and publishing your work  
  • ensuring your thesis is suitable for submission 
  • preparing your thesis for submission 
  • preparing for the final oral examination (viva voce), including conducting a mock viva 
  • research and conference funding 
  • organising and running a conference. 
  • Your supervisor will request written work at agreed intervals and provide constructive criticism. 
  • You supervisor will make you aware if your progress is inadequate or if your work falls below required standards. 
  • If you are an award-holder, your supervisor will advise you on submitting periodic reports on your progress and meeting other regulations stipulated by the funding body. 
  • Your supervisor will refer you to other professional support services for personal or other problems not directly related to your research. You should speak to your supervisor if you are struggling or feeling isolated. 

The second supervisor 

  • The main responsibility for supervising your research rests with your principal supervisor, but your school may appoint a second supervisor, who acts in an advisory capacity. 
  • Your second supervisor will be available for informal meetings and discussions, particularly when your principal supervisor is unavailable. 
  • You may wish to meet both supervisors at the same time, especially if your project is interdisciplinary and your supervisors have expertise in different subject areas. 


  • At the discretion of your school, two members of staff may jointly share the responsibilities of first and second supervisors. 

How often should I have supervisions? 

  • Full-time MPhil/PhD researchers should formally meet with their supervisor at least three times a term or at least twice a term if they are part-time. 
  • However, the number of supervisions may be varied, if necessary, by mutual agreement. 
  • You can also maintain contact with your supervisor via email and through seminar meetings. 
  • Your supervisor should be accessible at other appropriate times if you need advice. 

Your supervisor's role in your examinations

  • Read more about MPhil/PhD examinations . 
  • Read more about the process of submitting your thesis . 

Changes to the supervisory relationship

  • Read more about what to do if your relationship with your supervisor changes due to staff absence or other difficulties .

Annual Graduate Monitoring

  • Each year you will be required to complete an Annual Graduate Monitoring report on your own progress, which will include your projected timetable for completion. Keeping a log of your research can help when you have to report your progress. 
  • The Annual Graduate Monitoring process is an opportunity for you to give feedback and discuss your research progress, your supervisions and other aspects of your experience. 
  • Each faculty convenes an Annual Graduate Monitoring Panel, which monitors the progress of all research students and approves transfers from MPhil to PhD status.

Elephant in the Lab

Meta Gorup, Melissa Laufer

When Relationships Between Supervisors and Doctoral Researchers Go Wrong

3 November 2020 | doi:10.5281/zenodo.4213175 | 1 Comment

When Relationships Between Supervisors and Doctoral Researchers Go Wrong

Gorup & Laufer on how control is exercised and abused within relationships between doctoral supervisors and their students, what happens when PhD students challenge this control, and how we break free of this cycle of control.

phd under supervision

Doctoral researchers represent a crucial group within the academic workforce. They importantly contribute to their departments’ and universities’ research efforts by, among other, carrying out data collection, running experiments, helping with or leading publication writing, presenting at conferences, and sometimes applying for research funding.

In 2018, doctoral programs across OECD countries enrolled over a million and a half doctoral students and granted a total of nearly 278,000 PhD or equivalent degrees (OECD n.d.).

However, this large, vital group of researchers faces numerous challenges connected to managing a several-years-long research project while learning a host of new skills and  coming to terms with the unwritten rules of academia. It is thus perhaps not unexpected – although rarely openly talked about – that around 50 percent of doctoral researchers discontinue their doctorates (Council of Graduate Schools 2008; Groenvynck et al. 2013; Vassil and Solvak 2012).

In this blog post, we explore what is behind this worrying statistic. Specifically, we examine the role the relationship between doctoral supervisors and their students plays in the latter’s decision to discontinue their doctorates.

phd under supervision

Melissa Laufer

We first shed light on the existing research pointing to the crucial role of supervisors in and their control over students’ doctoral journeys . Furthermore, we demonstrate that supervision-related issues are a common concern among PhD students. We then show that doctoral researchers’ problems with supervisors are often exacerbated by an institutional environment which discourages PhD students from addressing these issues.

The remainder of the text presents our own study of international doctoral student dropout , revealing patterns of ‘control’ and abuse thereof by doctoral supervisors which in several cases played a decisive role in the PhD students’ decision to discontinue. Drawing upon the empirics of our study, we explore:

  • How is control exercised and abused within relationships between doctoral supervisors and their students?
  • What happens when PhD students challenge this control?
  • And how do we break free of this cycle of control?

Supervisors Play a Central Role

While the reasons for a doctoral researcher’s decision to discontinue their doctoral studies are multifaceted – from personal and family issues to departmental and disciplinary cultures (Gardner 2009; Golde 2005; Leijen et al. 2016) – issues with supervisors often contribute to a doctoral student’s decision to discontinue their PhD (Gardner 2009; Golde 2005; Jones 2013; Leijen et al. 2016).

This is hardly surprising since, to a doctoral student, their supervisor is commonly “the central and most powerful person” who controls many crucial aspects of the PhD trajectory: the doctoral researcher’s integration into the academic community and discipline, the topic and process of their dissertation research, their career path following the doctorate (Lovitts 2001: 131), and sometimes the PhD students’ funding (Golde 2005; Laufer & Gorup 2019).

Doctoral Supervision Needs Improvement

The essential role of doctoral supervisors in the PhD students’ experience and success makes the statistics that report on persistent supervisory issues all the more worrisome.

A global survey of over 6,300 PhD researchers initiated by Nature found that doctoral researchers based in Europe were very likely to list “impact of poor supervisor relationship” as one of their top five concerns (Lauchlan 2019). In the UK, a study of over 50,000 postgraduate research students – which included both PhD-level and research master’s students – found that 38 percent of respondents listed “learning and support” as an area in need of improvement, and out of those, 46 percent referred to various supervision-related is sues (Williams 2019).

What is more, the previously mentioned Nature survey found that 21 percent of respondents experienced being bullied. Among those, 48 percent listed their supervisors as the most frequent perpetrators of bu llying (Lauchlan 2019)

A Disempowering Institutional Environment

What further hinders those doctoral researchers who experience difficulties with their supervisors is an institutional environment which disempowers them to proactively address their situations. Because PhD students “are in a subordinate and dependent position socially, intellectually, and financially,” they are unlikely to challenge those superior to them (Lovitts 2001: 34–35).

Studies report that doctoral students “fear” raising an issue to or about a supervisor (Metcalfe et al. 2018) and are plagued by “fear of repercussions” because they cannot address their concerns anonymously (Lauchlan 2019). At the same time, universities are generally seen as reluctant to address supervision-related problems (Metcalfe et al. 2018) and academics tend to place the blame on PhD researchers for their issues rather than on the doctoral program or the university (Gardner 2009; Lovitts 2001).

To this point, a survey of almost 2,500 doctoral researchers at the Max Planck Society in Germany reports that only half of doctoral students who experienced conflicts with those senior to them reported the conflicts to an institutional body. Among those who did, over 50 percent indicated the reports were not dealt with in a satisfactory manner (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group 2020).

The International Doctoral Student Experience

One group of PhD researchers particularly vulnerable to the extreme challenges of the doctorate is international doctoral students (IDSs). They are required not only to adjust to a new academic system but also to a new society (Le & Gardner 2010; Campbell 2015; Cotterall 2015).

I DSs make up 22 percent of doctoral enro llments across OECD countries (OECD 2020), with their dropout rates comparable to local students, at circa 50 percent (Groenvynck et al. 2013). However, despite similarities in discontinuation rates, studies point out that IDSs are especially susceptible to disempowerment .

They are more inclined to experience issues with their su pervisors (Adams and Cargill 2003; Adrian-Taylor et al. 2007; Campbell 2015) and may encounter discrimin ation (Mayuzumi et al. 2007). The previously mentioned Max Planck Society survey (2020) for instance found that non-Germans were exposed to more bullying from supervisors than their German colleagues, with doctoral researchers coming from outside the European Union experiencing the most cases at 15 percent.

A Study of International Doctoral Student Dropout

Our 2019 study, The Invisible Others: Stories of International Doctoral Student Dropout , also highlights the vulnerability of IDSs. Specifically, it demonstrates how their statuses as cultural outsiders and academic novices contributed to their disempowerment and the eventual discontinuation of their studies.

We conducted in-depth life story interviews with 11 IDSs who had discontinued their doctorates at a Western European university. Across their narratives, we identified a pattern of ‘control’ that was exercised, and in some cases abused, by those in positions of power as well as institutionalized within the university structure.

Moreover, eight out of 11 participants described how issues with their supervisors to a greater or lesser degree prompted them to discontinue their doctorates .

Supervisors Controlling the Academic Conversation

Below we look at a selection of a broad spectrum of aspects in which supervisors exercised control over their IDSs’ doctoral journeys and show how the scale of power regularly tipped in the favor of supervisors.

Problematic Feedback and Mentorship Practices

Nearly all the IDSs reported some level of dissatisfaction with their supervisors’ feedback and support practices, with some explicitly pointing to supervisors’ control over their progress, learning and even future career.

Some IDSs explained, for example, that it was difficult to get any time at all with their supervisors, in some instances also sharing that this was not a challenge for local students. One PhD student described how they – as internationals – were “ all on our own completely, since the very beginning .”

One participant reported how the feedback he received largely focused on pointing out deficiencies and how he was not given opportunities to engage in dialogue about his work. This made him feel that the comments were delivered from the supervisors’ “ clearly defined position of power .” Similarly, another IDS explained how he felt he was “ not learning anything because I’m doing all that she’s [the supervisor] saying .”

For one research participant, the extent of his supervisor’s control explicitly extended to his future career. Initially, the supervisor agreed with the PhD student’s choice to discontinue and offered to write recommendation letters for his doctorate applications elsewhere. However, our interviewee later found out that his supervisor told a potential employer that he was not actually interested in pursuing a PhD.

Struggles Over the Ownership of the Research Project

A number of IDSs also felt their research projects were largely controlled by supervisors who did not give them the freedom to choose their research topic or decide how to approach it.

One doctoral researcher described how he felt that the “ research project doesn’t belong to me ,” together with feelings of “ working for someone else .” Another IDS shared that she was successful in winning an external grant which was supposed to give her the freedom to choose her research topic. However, in reality, she “ couldn’t make any decisions [about] my own work ”.

Some IDSs also reported the supervisors’ micro-management and lack of trust in them. One research participant explained how her supervisor

was completely behind my back, all the time. Like if I was coming in from an experiment, he would be like, what are the results? … He was all the time behind me and there was no trust in what I was doing, I was surveilled all the time.

This doctoral student was not alone in experiencing a constant pressure to perform and feeling surveilled. One IDS even shared he thought his supervisor “feels like she owns a person.”

Funding in Supervisors’ Hands

Another aspect where the supervisors’ power abuse was very apparent was finances, likely more so because at the case study university, supervisors were in large part directly in control of the PhD students’ funding.

Some IDSs reported how they were promised funding for a full PhD of four to five years, but were told after a year or two that their contract would not be extended. One research participant shared:

during the job interview on Skype and on site I have been told that there was funding for a PhD. That they would make a contract until the end of the first year, at the same time I would apply for an external grant … but not to worry because there was the funding for the entire project. … Which turned out not to be true.

In a couple of cases, doctoral researchers were offered only short-term contracts – of a few months – after their initial one or two-year contract expired. One research participant described what his supervisor did when she perceived at the end of his first two-year contract that he might not be able to finish his PhD:

she [supervisor] told me that she was only going to sign my contract for three months. … So that will give me like the added pressure and should be like a testing time, if I was going to be able to finish my PhD.

Following an evaluation after the first three months, the supervisor planned to continue extending this IDS’s contract every three months rather than offer him a longer-term contract.

Supervisors Using the PhD Students’ Status as Internationals

For IDSs coming from outside the European Union (EU), the supervisors’ control over their funding was also linked to the control over the PhD students’ immigration status. To stay in an EU country, non-EU students need to prove they have financial means to do so – and if their contract ends, that is put at risk.

One research participant shared how his supervisor explicitly referred to her control over his stay in the country:

she [supervisor] told me if I didn’t meet … all the deadlines that she had made for this project … she wouldn’t sign my contract and … that would put my residence here in [the country] and in Europe at risk, if I didn’t do exactly what she said. So that was openly like a threat. … so I think she used that. I mean … like a point of power, like … your stay here [in this country] relies on me.

Another narrative underlying some of our interviewees’ accounts was their perception that IDSs were more vulnerable to exploitation by their supervisors. One interviewee explained that he was “ an easy target for her [supervisor] ” because “ [s]he thought it doesn’t matter how bad she treats me or any other international students. ” He speculated that this group of PhD students was less likely to discontinue their doctorates because it was more difficult for them to find another opportunity in a country away from home. Thus, they were likely to put up with more mistreatment than their local counterparts.

Challenging Supervisors’ Control

As the previous examples illustrate, supervisors exercised and abused their control in various aspects of the PhD students’ lives. Although in most cases, doctoral students were aware of this control and openly spoke about it, it also seemed to be understood that there was little they could do to counter it. In the words of one IDS, “ nobody ever dared to talk to the professors .”

Those who brought up issues to their supervisors were often disappointed and disillusioned with the results. Some IDSs reported that challenging their supervisors resulted in the supervisors becoming furious, storming out of the room or threatening the PhD student with no contract renewal.

Another problem identified by our research participants was that there was simply not enough oversight of what was actually going on behind the scenes. An IDS shared,

apparently I was one of the many who had been quitting in this lab, which is strange because I thought, come on, there has to be some kind of follow-up on this … In the same lab, you have all these students quitting, don’t you think you have a problem? With this group?

At the same time, this PhD researcher seemed resigned to the situation. When asked if she had officially approached anyone about her issues, she responded,

I didn’t because who’s my reference? … I mean what is going to change, really, you know? I didn’t see it was going to help me out. Or who to go to, to begin with.

This notion that professors were somehow ‘untouchable’ was echoed in a number of doctoral researchers’ accounts. As a result, in relation to issues with their supervisors, only two of our interviewees used official university resources such as filing an official complaint with the faculty ombudsman or speaking to the internationalization office.

Moreover, these university resources did little to help the PhD students who approached them. One IDS who got in touch with the internationalization office and the office overseeing her scholarship was told they could not help her because “ this is quite a [personality] problem. So it’s not very academic. So they can’t really interfere .”

Another doctoral student shared how the faculty ombudsman dismissed and joked about his complaints when his supervisor offered him a series of short-term contracts in place of a longer one. Moreover, the intervention had no effect on the supervisor and his supervisor later explained to the PhD student that this practice was legal – and therefore acceptable.

Breaking the Cycle of Control

In the doctoral researchers’ accounts above, we see how supervisors, due to their seniority and institutionalized positions of power, may exercise and abuse their control over various aspects of the doctoral journey. For a number of our interviewees, this abuse was made worse due to their international status .

The fact that supervisors have the power to undertake the actions like those we illustrate above with limited to no consequences speaks to a much larger issue. We are no longer talking about a few bad apples in the barrel, but a systematic problem occurring across academia , as evident from the abovementioned surveys initiated by Nature (Lauchlan 2019) and the Max Planck Society (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group 2020).

But this cycle of power imbalance does not need to continue. The change begins by rethinking how we characterize the doctorate. In academia folklore, the doctorate is often fashioned as a trial, a time of enormous hardship, of which only the fittest survive – but not without battle scars. Instead of seeing the doctorate as a grueling rite of passage, we need to shift our focus to building confident, empowered scholars , who value collaboration over competition.

Such change can be sparked by focusing on practices embedded within the institutional environment. In our practitioner-geared publication, Pathways to Practice: Supporting International Doctoral Students , we discuss in detail the small and larger steps institutions, supervisors and (international) doctoral students can take to create an inclusive doctoral experience for both international and local PhD students.

In this blog post, we would like to highlight two steps university stakeholders can take to ensure a more empowering institutional environment:

  • We encourage institutions to set up training for supervisor s to reflect on their supervision styles and the assumptions embedded within them. Supervisors should also gain insight into giving constructive feedback and building professional partnerships with PhD students.
  • We propose a number of formal and informal support structures institutions may make available to doctoral students, ranging from setting up an independent ombudsperson to forming peer and collegial support communities, such as study groups, workshops and online forums.

However, the concerns we raise in this blog post about power imbalances in the relationship between doctoral supervisors and their students are symptomatic of a phenomenon occurring across all levels of academia: the privileged few have power over the subordinate majority. Consequently, the larger question at stake is: how do we change deeply ingrained behaviors in academia that perpetuate inequalities?

Some of these issues are complex and may require a system-level overhaul, but others are within our reach. The relatively simple change actions we propose above can be a good starting point for how we want to shape the next generation of scholars. Let us begin by bringing the discussion of power abuse in academia into the light and, step by step, empower doctoral students, supervisors and institutions to break free of the cycle of control .

Adams, K., & Cargill, M. (2003). Knowing that the other knows: using experience and reflection to enhance communication in cross-cultural postgraduate supervisory relationships. Christchurch: paper presented at Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Conference.

Adrian-Taylor, S. R., Noels, K. A., & Tischler, K. (2007). Conflict between international graduate students and faculty supervisors: toward effective conflict prevention and management strategies. Journal of Studies in International Education , 11 (1), 90–117.

Campbell, T. A. (2015). A phenomenological study on international doctoral students’ acculturation experiences at a US university. Journal of International Students , 5 (3), 285–299.

Cotterall, S. (2015). The rich get richer: international doctoral candidates and scholarly identity. Innovations in Education and Teaching International , 52 (4), 360–370.

Council of Graduate Schools. (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: analysis of baseline demographic data from the Ph.D. Completion Project. Washington D.C.: Council of Graduate Schools.

Gardner, S. K. (2009). Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programs in the United States. Higher Education , 58 (1), 97–112.

Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: lessons from four departments. The Journal of Higher Education , 76 (6), 669–700.

Groenvynck, H., Vandevelde, K., & Van Rossem, R. (2013). The PhD track: who succeeds, who drops out? Research Evaluation , 22 (4), 199–209.

Jones, M. (2013). Issues in doctoral studies – forty years of journal discussion: where have we been and where are we going? International Journal of Doctoral Studies , 8 (6), 83–104.

Lauchlan, E. (2019). Nature PhD survey 2019. London: Shift Learning. Available on: Last accessed on 22 October 2020.

Laufer, M., & Gorup, M. (2020). Pathways to practice: supporting international doctoral students. Amsterdam: EAIE. Available on: Last accessed on 22 October 2020.

Laufer, M., & Gorup, M. (2019). The invisible Others: stories of international doctoral student dropout. Higher Education , 78 (1), 165–181.

Le, T., & Gardner, S. K. (2010). Understanding the doctoral experience of Asian international students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields: an exploration of one institutional context. Journal of College Student Development , 51 (3), 252–264.

Leijen, Ä., Lepp, L., & Remmik, M. (2016). Why did I drop out? Former students’ recollections about their study process and factors related to leaving the doctoral studies. Studies in Continuing Education , 38 (2), 129–144.

Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: the causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group. (2020). Survey report 2019. Available on: Last accessed on 22 October 2020.

Mayuzumi, K., Motobayashi, K., Nagayama, C., & Takeuchi, M. (2007). Transforming diversity in Canadian higher education: a dialogue of Japanese women graduate students. Teaching in Higher Education , 12 (5–6), 581–592.

Metcalfe, J., Wilson, S., & Levecque, K. (2018). Exploring wellbeing and mental health and associated support services for postgraduate researchers. Cambridge: Vitae. Available on: Last accessed on 22 October 2020.

OECD. (n.d.). OECD.Stat: graduates by field. Available on: Last accessed on 22 October 2020.

OECD. (2020). Education at a glance 2020: OECD indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Vassil, K., & Solvak, M. (2012). When failing is the only option: explaining failure to finish PhDs in Estonia. Higher Education , 64 (4), 503–516.

Williams, S. (2019). Postgraduate research experience survey 2019. York: Advance HE. Available on: Last accessed 22 October 2020.


There are so many issues with the quality and attitude of supervisers, in my view – at least in the UK system.

Some of the challenges that I experienced were:- 1) A supervisor who spent a lot of time telling me how certain people (and even a faculty member) – and he named names – had only got their PhDs because he had written their thesis for them, or built their experiemental equipment, run their clinical trials etc. He seemed to almost believe that the world did not turn without his assistance.

2) He regularly wanted to take-over and design or work-out sections for me. I kept telling him that I wanted it to be my work and that the only way I could learn was to do the work. I wanted to know that I had earned it, but he did not stop or respect that and it caused disagreement and bad feeling.

3) There was no help or understanding for the things I really needed his help with; a poor administration where my ID card/computer and library access kept beinng cancelled every three weeks for three years. A computer that could not cope with all I demanded of it and could not cope with the extensive calculations and graphics processing.

4) There was never any time or interest in discussing what I had learned or discovered during my work – I felt so cut-off and isolated. For me, the joy of a doctorate was learning something surprising and new. But this was lost, as I had no one to share it with.

5) His mood would either be over the top nice, where everything was wonderful – or utterly condemning and condescending, depending on the day. So during one meeting I might feel pleased with myself and during the next, for exactly the same points of discussion, suddenly my work was complete rubbish. So I could never trust or believe him either way and that left me feeling wary, on-edge and bewildered.

6) Many supervisors appear to have little understanding or concern for the university rules and purpose of supervising and just muddle along doing whatever they deem fit.

7) Many have long forgotten the struggles and loneliness of research at doctoral level and view students as cannon fodder.

8) When I tried to raise a complaint, they just closed ranks and ignored me. The only way to get them to address my supervisory issues was to go through the formal complaints process and ask for it to be looked at by another faculty. The result was them saying that they had added my supervisor to a “watch list” and they would have liked to get rid of him, but for legal reasons they could not. But they still let him supervise !

9) The university seemed to be split into a myriad of defensive islands that were at war with each other and no one really listened or helped. Whenever a problem arose, the standard practice seemed to be to refer the person to another group of department and then it turn, that group would deny responsibility and you would be passed somewhere else – and so it would go on. In my case, even writing an e-mail to the “President” (as Vice-chancellors like to call themselves now – how pretenious) and the VP Education got nowhere, as my complaint as bounced back to my faculty – who continued to ignore it. So what was the point of the falsely proclaimed “exceptional student experience” ?

10) Faculty like to think that they work really hard and I am sure some do – but my research group/faculty would disappear for two hour lunches and, on Fridays, never come back until Monday. My supervisor would often not turn-up for supervisory meetings and I would find him having coffee and hiding behind a broad-sheet newspaper in the nearby Costa Coffee.

11) The best part was when my supervisor recommended a comference for me – which I paid the fees, booked the flights etc for – only to discover that it did not exist and was a phoney/scam conference. When I complained, he claimed that I had not paid attention – fortunately, I kept a copy of his e-mail with the link he sent me to that supposed conference.

12) When I finally started with a new supervisor, he was upset because the reearch topic I had been given by the previous Professor was actually an area he had “taken” from my new Professor. So I was dragged into a long-standing, ‘silent’ war of mistrust between them.

13) There was an unspoken but firm ritual where other academics names might be added to a paper’s author list, even though they had no involvement – just to boost a colleague’s research profile.

The fundamental issue seems to me to be the lack of supervision of supervisors. It all seems to work on the principles of a gentlemen’s club, where – when something goes wrong – no one mentions or acknowledges it. The academic equivalent of a black hole could open-up and they would just walk around it and comment on how clear the sky was around there. SO bizarre..,…

Submit a Comment Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

First we need to confirm, that you're human. − 8 = one

Author info

Meta Gorup is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent at Ghent University in Belgium. Her research explores topics in research management and doctoral education through the lens of university members’ identities and university cultures.

Melissa Laufer is a senior researcher in the research programme “Knowledge &; Society” at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. She is interested in investigating change processes at universities.


  1. Key characteristics of effective supervision

    phd under supervision

  2. #10: Good PhD-supervision: What you can expect

    phd under supervision

  3. (PDF) Successful PhD Supervision: A Two-Way Process

    phd under supervision

  4. The benefits and outcomes of effective supervision

    phd under supervision

  5. Welcome to PhD supervision: advice, tools, and practices

    phd under supervision

  6. PhD supervision meetings

    phd under supervision


  1. Open PhD position for CSIR NET and Gate qualified students

  2. PHD

  3. How to Find a Supervisor for Master and PhD using Google Scholar

  4. Close research supervision in the HEC Paris PhD in Management

  5. Fellowships for women II WISE Fellowship for Ph.D. (WISE-PhD) I Department of Science & Technology

  6. CsCRU Session 4. Augustus Bacigalupi. Beyond a Cybernetics of Cybernetics


  1. What Makes A Good PhD Supervisor?

    A good PhD supervisor should have a track-record of students completing their doctorates under them. A quick first check to gauge how good a prospective supervisor is is to find out how many students they've successfully supervised in the past; i.e. how many students have earned their PhD under their supervision.

  2. How to Write an Email to a PhD Supervisor and What to Ask Them

    Your first email to a potential PhD supervisor should be a formal email, in many ways like an application cover letter. 1. Include a clear subject line. Make sure your initial email doesn't have a vague subject line that could lead to it being ignored (or heading straight for the spam folder). Some examples could be:

  3. Ten simple rules for choosing a PhD supervisor

    After finding one or several supervisors of interest, we hope that the rules bellow will help you choose the right supervisor for you. Go to: Rule 1: Align research interests. You need to make sure that a prospective supervisor studies, or at the very least, has an interest in what you want to study.

  4. Choosing a PhD Supervisor

    The ideal PhD supervisor will be an expert in their academic field, with a wealth of publications, articles, chapters and books. They'll also have a background in organising and presenting at conference events. It's also important that their expertise is up-to-date. You should look for evidence that they're currently active in your ...

  5. What to Expect from your PhD Supervisor

    What you can expect from your PhD supervisor. Your PhD supervisor will have some core responsibilities towards you and your project. These will normally include meeting to discuss your work, reading drafts and being available to respond emails and other forms of contact within a reasonable timeframe.

  6. Research and project supervision (all levels): an introduction

    PhD supervision. The supervision of doctoral students' research is governed by regulation. This means that there are some things you must - and must not - do when supervising a PhD. All the essential information is found in the UCL Code of Practice for Research Degrees. Full regulations in the UCL Academic Manual.

  7. How to Email a Professor for PhD and MS Supervision

    For example, "Request for research super vision Fall 2019", "Request for PhD supervision", "Request for MS supervision" or "Prospective PhD Student". 2. Formal starting. Your email ...

  8. A brief primer on the PhD supervision relationship

    Ideally, a PhD supervisor can discuss the options of both academic and non-academic positions as potential career paths and provide some guidance on further resources for understanding how these options compare (e.g., see Caterine, 2020; Kelsky, 2015; Linder et al., 2020; Madan, 2021). These resources provide perspectives and advice ranging ...

  9. How to choose the right PhD supervisor

    Below are four tips that can help PhD candidates choose a suitable supervisor, and the red flags to watch out for: 1. Interview the supervisor. While most candidates focus on trying to impress a ...

  10. How to be a great PhD supervisor

    As the PhD student cohort diversifies to include more women, Indigenous and First Nation students, rainbow students, scholars of colour, students with disabilities, and a wide span of ages, homology is not only inappropriate but destructive. My first 18 completions were all students under the age of 25. My next 30 were all over 40.

  11. A Guide to Changing Your PhD Supervisor in 2024

    Focus on academic or research-related factors rather than personal issues. 5. Highlight Your Goals: Emphasize that your decision is driven by your academic and research goals. Highlight the importance of aligning your research interests with your supervisor to ensure a more productive collaboration. 6.

  12. The PhD-Doctor: What (Not) to Expect From Your Supervisor

    THE PHD-DOCTOR INDEX. This is the third part of a series for PhD students with hands-on advice on how to handle the hurdles and challenges of your PhD project, written by Herman Lelieveldt. The PhD-Doctor is based on excerpts from his book Promoveren--Een wegwijzer voor de beginnend wetenschapper. G ood research is the result of communication.

  13. A beginner's guide to supervising a PhD researcher

    Biochem (Lond) (2023) 45 (5): 11-15. This beginner's guide to supervision has been created for anyone who supports postgraduate researchers (PGRs) with any aspect of their research or the completion of their degree. The supervision of PGRs is a complex and time-consuming job, with a high degree of responsibility.

  14. Full article: Relationship between doctoral supervisors' competencies

    Doctoral supervisory competence and supervisory development. There is an extensive body of evidence that supervision is one of the main determinants of a positive doctoral experience and degree completion (Ives & Rowley, Citation 2005; McCallin & Nayar, Citation 2012).A supervisor's competence comprises knowledge, skills, and attitudes to act in the supervisory relationships (Korthagen ...

  15. word usage

    When a professor advises and supervises a PhD or MS student to complete their research, is it advisable say? The student is conducting his study under Prof. X. Or . The student is conducting his study under supervision of Prof. X. I have heard similar usages of under as in "Under Obama, this country ...", etc. word-usage; Share.

  16. Perhaps It's Not You It's Them: PhD Student-Supervisor ...

    A good supervisor can lift you up when you are low, push you to be a better researcher, and continue to advocate for your success way beyond your PhD. Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum, a poor PhD Supervisor can bully you, gaslight you, and lead to a truly miserable few years of PhD study. In fact, in Nature's 2019 PhD student survey 24 ...

  17. Sample mail for PhD or MS supervision (1)

    Sample mail for PhD or MS supervision (1) December 2021. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.20005.63208. Authors: Hamidul Islam Shohel. University of Dhaka. Preprints and early-stage research may not have been ...

  18. The MPhil/PhD supervisory relationship

    The MPhil/PhD supervisory relationship. Over 90% of Birkbeck's academics are active researchers and they are keen to supervise your MPhil/PhD research. You'll develop your research project under the guidance of a principal supervisor, but your school may appoint a second supervisor and, in some cases, you may be able to arrange co-supervisions.

  19. When Relationships Between Supervisors and Doctoral Researchers Go

    A global survey of over 6,300 PhD researchers initiated by Nature found that doctoral researchers based in Europe were very likely to list "impact of poor supervisor relationship" as one of their top five concerns (Lauchlan 2019). In the UK, a study of over 50,000 postgraduate research students - which included both PhD-level and research ...

  20. supervision

    Certainly in biology, it is PhD student who, under the supervision of a faculty member, conduct research. Faculty have little time for experimental research themselves. Faculty have classes to prepare and teach, committees to attend, admin roles to fulfil, grants to write, paper to review and more.

  21. under the supervision of professor

    He obtained his doctorate in theoretical nuclear physics under the supervision of Professor Hermann Jahn and, in 1951, joined the theoretical physics division at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, Oxfordshire, where he worked on the theory of neutron transport in nuclear reactors before returning to nuclear structure work when Dr Brian (later Lord Flowerss was appointed director.

  22. Full article: The more the merrier? PhD supervisors' perspectives in

    Co-supervision. We use term co-supervision to refer to supervisory arrangements in which two or more supervisors collaborate in guiding and supporting a PhD student in their doctoral research (see Kálmán et al., Citation 2022).Characteristic for co-supervision is that each of the supervisory team members offers a substantial and distinct contribution to the supervisee's work by sharing the ...

  23. Counseling PhD

    The Ph.D. program in Counselor Education and Supervision is designed to prepare Counselor Educators, researchers, and supervisors. If you want to be a Counselor Educator, our Counselor Education and Supervision Ph.D. program puts you on the fast track for a faculty position.