Doctoral Discussions Recap: Supervision

The third in our series of Doctoral Discussions seminars took place on 21st April, with fantastic contributions from our panellists, as well as representatives from Research Student Administration and the Student Life Centre. We titled our session ‘Managing Your Relationship with Your Supervisor’, as we wanted to focus on strategies for either maintaining a positive relationship, or improving one that is no longer working. While it was sometimes tempting to complain about particular things that had gone wrong, we emerged with a really productive discussion that was relevant to researchers from many different schools and departments!

First, we established how much variation there is between schools, as well as between individual researchers. The frequency of meetings reported ranged from once a week to twice a year! Dr. Camilla Briault from Research Student Administration reminded us that the recommended amount of recorded contact is once per month, and that in fact, this is a requirement for students on Tier 4 visas. This point raised a great audience question – What about researchers who may be away on fieldwork for an extended period of time? These – and all! – researchers can count emails, Skype conversations, or phone calls as contact hours. Additionally, we found that while most researchers submit some sort of written work in advance of their meetings, this can be at any stage of completion. Some supervisors prefer to work through completed sections of drafts, while others are happy to talk through more loosely formed ideas. What is important is to maintain regular contact, and to be clear about goals and expectations for each meeting.

In case of problems or conflicts, Jolyon Western was there to present the services provided by the Student Life Centre. Located on the ground floor of Bramber House, the SLC offers confidential advice in a space that is separate from your normal academic environment. With the option to walk in and be seen on the same day, researchers can go to the SLC for advice or an impartial second opinion, if a problem suddenly erupts. Alternatively, appointments can be booked through Sussex Direct, if the issue is less immediate.

We asked each of the panellists for their best piece of advice, and received the following responses:

  • Don’t let your supervisor push aside aspects of your PhD experience that he or she deem to be ‘peripheral’. While they may be most interested in your written output, you should advocate for your own training needs, and ensure that your supervisor allows time to discuss these with you.
  • Both parties should be clear about their expectations, in terms of contact hours and preparation. You should strive to develop a working relationship with your supervisor – one that is productive, but able to evolve over the course of your PhD.
  • Don’t fall out of touch. Even if your supervisor is fairly hands-off, and you are perfectly comfortable working independently, it will always be useful to have someone who can comment on your research and writing processes. If you have trouble reaching them, don’t give up – you can always discuss ways to improve your communication at your next meeting.

For past Doctoral Discussions, we have live-tweeted and recorded the sessions. Due to the potentially sensitive nature of this topic, we have chosen not to do so in this case. However, you can listen to previous sessions here, and check out our #DocDiscussions hashtag for more information. The final session of the year will be next month, tackling issues to do with the viva!

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