Managing Graduate Student-Supervisor Relationship

I presented this topic recently in a Postgraduate Colloquium organised by the School of Management, Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang, Malaysia). The participants were largely new graduate students but there were also some senior students. Briefly I covered the common issues, elements, roles, and stages of development associated with supervision along with practical strategies for nurturing rewarding relationships with graduate students.

Supervision of graduate students is a challenging journey that the supervisor (advisor) and the student embark on together. It includes not only academic guidance, but also prolonged nurturing of the student's personal, scholarly, and professional development. From my perspective as a supervisor, the experience of supervising graduate students is doubtless very challenging but also very rewarding. Watching a fresh graduate become an independent scholar, plan the project, execute the plan with care and thoughtfulness, write up the results and present their first published paper at a conference is a wonderful and satisfying experience.

Using the online poll which I described in my previous post, I asked a few questions to the audience to gauge their view on certain issues. One of the questions was how they view the relationship with their supervisor should be (see below). Majority of students obviously regard the relationship as a mentor-apprentice type. Personally I prefer to view the relationship between graduate student and supervisor as a collaboration or partnership – so as in other kind of partnership, to make it sustainable and successful, it requires that every part be concerned, not only with its own benefits, but also with the benefits of the other part. In addition, it also demands genuine effort from each part to understand the motivations of the other and contribute consistently to their fulfillment.

There is perhaps no single magic formula for a successful student-supervisor relationship – nevertheless, there are certain general practices that can be used as guidelines. Rugg and Petre in their book, “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” emphasized the importance of compatability in order for the relationship to be fruitful. “The relationship between student and supervisor is about as close as many marriages, and lasts as long as many marriages. It’s a fairly good analogy in several ways. One important issue is compatibility”.  It is indeed very important element because compatibility would result in synergies that constitute the very essence of productive research collaboration. The authors also opined that the relationship should take the form of mentor-apprentice – “It’s not your supervisor’s job to put up with every unpleasant idiosyncrasy of every idiot who wants to do a PhD with them. As a student, you are an apprentice, not a customer who is always right”.

James and Baldwin (Eleven Practices of Effective Postgraduate Supervisors, the University of Melbourne) listed eleven practices of effective PhD supervisors which presumably would result in successful supervision of graduate students. I reproduced (verbatim) the eleven practices here: Foundation phase: (1) ensure the partnership is right for the project; (2) get to know students and carefully assess their needs; (3) establish reasonable, agreed expectations; (4) work with students to establish a strong conceptual structure and research plan; Momentum phase: (5) encourage students to write early and often; (6) initiate regular contact and provide high quality feedback; (6) get students involved in the life of the department; (7) inspire and motivate; (8) help if academic and personal crises crop up; Final stages: (9) take an active interest in students’ future careers; (10) carefully monitor the final production and presentation of the research.

In my presentation (see links below), I discussed about possible approaches and strategies and flags potential problems that can undermine or can even be fatal to the relationship. The points presented are based on my own observation and consistent pattern that have emerged over the years and also distilled from books and other references.

I would like to hear some feedback from graduate students and also supervisors on how best to manage the relationship in order to achieve a successful and fruitful outcome.