The step-by-step guide to building a healthy relationship with your supervisor

Eleonora Lugarà 21st May 2019

This article is part of our PhD Survival series. Here, we devise a roadmap to navigate the rocky terrain of the doctoral degree path.

The first months of a PhD are obviously very exciting, but extremely stressful too. Perhaps you’ve moved country or even continent to start this new adventure. You will need to adapt to not not only a new social and cultural environment, but you will also need to integrate with your lab colleagues and PhD supervisor(s). In the UK, a PhD student usually has two supervisors: a primary (often a senior professor) and a secondary supervisor (another professor or a young fellow/senior postdoc). At least one of the two should always support you, so that you will be able to grow as an independent researcher by the end of your PhD years, hopefully without too much despair and terror. In reality, a lot of students are alone in their PhD journey, too often ignored by supervisors. The consequences can be catastrophic: from deciding to quit, to falling into mental health issues. To avoid getting off on the wrong foot, here are some tips on how to deal with your supervisor.

Be concise. Your supervisor is most likely overloaded with other things to do. So be short and precise in all your communication with him/her. Always be prepared for a spontaneous meeting: prepare a detailed list of questions, so that in case she or he pops into the office, you know what information to ask them for. Do not be wary to ask some questions that might be obvious. It just highlights your attitude for clarity, and let’s be honest, no one is born knowing it all. In all your written communications, try to be as brief as possible and clearly state a maximum of 5 questions per email.

"In reality, a lot of students are alone in their PhD journey, too often ignored by supervisors."

Be professional. Many people (and spoiler alert, society too) often see the continuation of the doctoral studies as a “Peter Pan syndrome”. In reality, PhD students are training to be specialists in their field, dedicating a significant proportion of their life to uncover critical research questions. Being an expert in your field means your supervisor expects a fitting attitude to this. So firstly, never stop reading and learning. You can achieve this by reading the literature, joining a journal club in your institute or following extra courses that the university makes available. Teaching younger students laboratory demonstrations will increase your knowledge and awareness too. Secondly, be proactive. When it comes to extra courses, an often forgotten and underestimated discipline in research is statistics. Being able to calculate the correct number of samples required for your experiments (with power calculations) and applying the correct test to your data, can sometimes be the difference between a successful PhD and a major corrections sentence. Hence, I would strongly advise to take the time to follow a course on how to understand and apply the correct statistics and, if possible, learn how to code (Python and R are usually the academics’ favourite open source tools). Being prepared in front of your supervisor and your colleagues will show confidence, professionalism and maturity.

"Even if your mentor is too busy to teach you a technique, instead of ruminating on how unfair your life is, try to ask politely if you can search for help somewhere else."

Follow a step-by-step routine. The achievement of a PhD is not a sprint, but a marathon. Seeing your boss just once in a while often creates a feeling of great expectations from your experiments. To avoid this overwhelming feeling, the best you can do is dividing the whole strategy in smaller goals, made of achievable and well defined milestones with realistic timelines (and do not wait for your supervisor to decide them for you!). Meeting with a supervisor does not have to show that you reach a breakthrough every week, but that you can think critically about construction of an experiment, with the appropriate controls and proper replicates. It does not matter if you do not find any significant results at the end of your doctorate, as long as you are showing that everything else is done with the appropriate scientific methods. Negative results are often ignored and too frequently lead scientists to the falsification of their results in order to publish.

Be diplomatic. Happy and smiling is not always the first feeling you get when you think about your supervisor. Being able to control your attitude and to behave in a diplomatic and professional way is an important asset in your set of soft skills. Never be disrespectful or insolent towards them, you might need their benevolence for a recommendation letter or the permission to go to a certain conference one day. Even if your mentor is always too busy to teach you a technique, instead of ruminating on how unfair your life is, try to ask politely if you can search for help somewhere else. It can be a senior PhD or a postdoc in the department, or even a specialist in another university. Just 5 spare minutes of someone else’s time can be the way forward.

Final thoughts. To avoid early disappointments as much as possible, the last piece of advice is to spend a certain period of time in your lab of interest as Master’s student or Research Assistant, before applying to a PhD. The PhD is absolute dedication to a research question that – let’s face a cruel reality – you are going to hate halfway through it. Supervisors are expected to guide their students through the darkest of the moments and elevate them through the brightest ones, but the reality is that pupils are too often left alone. If you feel like you have been let down by your supervisor, but before your situation spins out of control, try talking to someone in your university (personal tutors, transition mentors or psychological help). Surprisingly, Twitter also comes to help with many pages about #PhDadvice and #PhDchat for the postgraduate community. The choice of the lab and the supervisor is critical for your future career. They will immensely influence you and shape your work and life. Try to learn as much as you can from them, good and bad, and transform it into something new.

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