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Career Advice

How to manage your supervisor

Four strategies to help graduate students get their needs to the top of a professor’s to-do list.


When I was a PhD student, I volunteered for a few days to drive conference speakers between the airport and campus. I took a well-known professor out to the airport on Saturday morning and asked why he wasn’t staying for a highly anticipated speaker that evening. He replied that he had to be home to attend his daughter’s soccer game on Sunday morning. It had never occurred to me that professors had responsibilities that might be more important than academic work. In fact, I had no real knowledge of the complexity of a professor’s life.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I was a dean of graduate studies trying to improve the student-supervisor relationship, so as to reduce the number of problems that ended up in my office. Given the power imbalance between student and supervisor, I focused on moulding professorial behaviour. I read about best practices, consulted other universities, set up a taskforce, revised regulations, put advice on the website and ran faculty workshops. After a while I realized that I had two problems.

The first problem was that the only professors paying attention were those who were already good supervisors.

Read more: The difficulty of defining the student:supervisor relationship in grad school

The second problem was that my emphasis on the power imbalance had led me to follow other deans and student leaders in suggesting that the solution to supervision problems was to regulate faculty behaviour. But this approach reinforces the idea that faculty members are in charge of the relationship, when it is the students who have the most to gain from a great experience in graduate school. I decided to empower students by helping them to understand their supervisors’ lives and by encouraging them to take control of the relationship.

Recalling my naivety as a graduate student, I would open the workshop by asking students to list the responsibilities of a professor. Not unexpectedly teaching and marking, graduate supervision, research and publishing tended to come first. Science students would bring up laboratory management and grant writing, and humanities students would suggest attending conferences in romantic European cities or giving public lectures. Then we’d get into university administrative duties. Eventually someone would suggest that professors might need time for recreation and family.

Once the whiteboard was covered in lists of professorial responsibilities, I asked “why is graduate student supervision different from most of the other responsibilities on this lengthy list?” The first response was usually “because the prof doesn’t get into trouble if they do a bad job.” That’s not a bad answer, but I would suggest an alternative: graduate supervision is one of the few professorial responsibilities where there is no penalty for missing a deadline.

Most professors get things done because we must meet a deadline: preparing for a lecture, submitting grades, writing a conference paper, sending revisions to a journal editor, applying for a grant. In each case there is a deadline outside of the professor’s control. But graduate supervision does not come with tight deadlines. To be sure, universities set time limits for students to complete their graduate degrees, but it is the student who suffers if they time out. Not surprisingly, when faculty members have a choice between meeting an imminent deadline and reading the second draft of chapter three of a thesis, they prioritize the more urgent task. And most of us have a long list of urgent tasks and hard deadlines.

The second part of the workshop discussed ways in which graduate students could take charge of the student-supervisor relationship and bring their needs to the top of the professor’s list of priorities. Essentially, I advised students to subvert (rather than challenge) the power imbalance by using clear communication and by creating tasks with associated deadlines. The most effective strategies are as follows.

1. Schedule regular meetings. The schedule may vary at different stages of your program. But make sure you are in your supervisor’s calendar as a regular meeting that cannot be missed. Always send an agenda to your supervisor a few days before the meeting. Don’t cancel a meeting – if you feel you have nothing to discuss, you can always include “update on research progress” or an issue on which you need advice. After the meeting, send your supervisor a summary of what was covered and list any associated action items (for both of you) with a deadline – “we agreed that I will hand in Chapter 3 on March 15 and you will send comments to me by March 25.”

2. Make life easier for your supervisor by providing them with the information they need to meet your needs. Don’t just ask for a letter of reference – provide a list of your accomplishments that are relevant to the scholarship program to which you are applying. Don’t ask “how should I structure this chapter?” – give your supervisor three options and ask which they recommend.

3. Get clarity around intellectual property ownership, the source of so many disputes between student and supervisor. Make sure this is in place and in writing before you begin a piece of research. What rights do you have to the data that you produce? What does your supervisor expect about co-authorship if you use their ideas, data, methods or facilities?

4. Ensure that you know when your supervisor is going to be extra busy and/or away from campus. I’ve lost track of the number of thesis drafts that have been handed to me the day before I left for a vacation. Discuss with your supervisor when they are most likely to have time to read chapters or to help you set up an experiment. Do this weeks or months in advance, and then ask them to schedule a date and time for the work you need them to do. Send them a reminder one or two weeks before.

If you want to succeed as a graduate student, take control of the relationship with your supervisor. The power imbalance will always be there, but your supervisor will appreciate you taking on the responsibility for making the relationship work.

Jonathan Driver is a part-time professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University. Previously, he was dean of graduate studies as well as provost at SFU.

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