By Susan Carter

The other day I attended a doctoral morning tea with a panel of two doctoral candidates and one supervisor giving advice on how to manage your supervisor. The chair probed with questions about different stages of doctoral writing. Some foundational advice came from the supervisor, who noted that human beings were all different (that is not too profound, yet advice on good practice often does not take account of individual difference). Her main point was that because of difference, clear communication was important. She had found that what worked well with one student did not work well with another, and that only open communication enables a good relationship. The doctoral candidates had some anecdotes of their own experience, and, by recounting them, showed that both they and their supervisors were indeed different in terms of work-protocol preference. One said that he hadn’t thought about managing his supervisor nor considered whether the relationship was okay until he heard his doctoral colleagues telling their tales and realised that he had a superb supervisor.

This post gives me a chance to give the advice to new doctoral students on managing their supervisors that I would have given had I been invited onto the panel. I’m keen to do this because having worked extensively with both doctoral students and supervisors, and researched doctoral writing exchanges, I know how important a good relationship is: it affects personal wellbeing over four years or so. And doctoral students have a part to play in figuring out the protocols for working together happily.

Of course it is ideal if supervisors begin discussion about how they normally manage writing feedback. But here’s some advice that could be given to doctoral students before they begin supervision, or for when supervisors are not forthcoming with explanation about managing doctoral writing.

Expect to be in awe of your supervisors, because they will have a great deal more experience and thus expertise than you, and then do useful things with that awe. Don’t let it act as a barrier to good communication. In western institutions, it is not the habit to offer gifts to express respect, but do always show your respect by saying thanks for supervisory time and input, and by replying to their emails promptly. Even if you don’t have an answer, do acknowledge receipt. That basic etiquette goes some distance towards encouraging busy academics to want to be involved in your project. Second, ask them, because they are experts and you are the novice, how the relationship will work around writing.

Data from an open-access research project report on supervisory support of writing suggests some specific questions that are best tackled early on in the doctorate:

  • Could you tell me how much writing is expected in the first year, and suggest where I should begin?
  • Is there support with academic writing at this university besides from you?
  • How much revision do you expect before I submit the writing to you? Are you willing to skim through a rough draft just to see my ideas and direction?
  • How long should I expect to wait for your feedback?
  • What do I do if I do not understand your feedback? Can I let you know if that happens?

All through undergraduate level, it is typical to hide weakness because you want good grades and you want lecturers to think that you know perhaps more than you do really know. Disconcertingly, this changes at doctoral level. The arrangement usually is that you and your supervisor are a team, and that if you are worried about a weakness, it helps if you say so early on in order to look for support as soon as possible. Saying ‘I’m worried about doing complicated statistical analysis’ or ‘showing critical analysis in English language academic writing’ or ‘writing about theory that I have trouble understanding’ or anything else that might bother you means that as a team, you and your supervisor can find the best way to helping you. That will depend on what support your university provides, and there may also be reading, or peer support, or courses you could take or audit. Do not hide your weaknesses.

I’m of the belief that the best way you help people to do things well is to always mention what you think works well. If you say ‘I found that so helpful when you connect with my thought and bring me back on track’ (or whatever works for you), you are implicitly teaching your supervisor who you are and what you value.

Trying not to moan about small shortfalls is sensible. Supervisors are only human. On the other hand, be aware of institutional guidelines if you think that something really is a problem and if the relationship runs dry, consider ways to keep yourself afloat. There will be policy, yet it is ideal if you can find ways to sort out problems between the two of you: that is the best solution. If supervisory neglect is the problem, try to get peer support or support from generic student learning advisors.

There are many ways that relationships around writing and feedback come under pressure: one premise with academic writing is that it improves with being hammered by critique, and this can be uncomfortable – for supervisors as well as doctoral authors. So much more could be said here, and many of our other posts consider the emotion and identity transition that make doctoral writing challenging. The sooner someone explains to doctoral students that rigorous feedback, and occasional time lapses that seem endless but are actually reasonable, are part of the world they are entering, the more likely they are to manage their supervisory relationship over the process.