Should My PhD Supervisor Be a Mentor, Colleague or Boss?

Starting a PhD is a big decision. And there are lots of choices to make. What university? What topic? What group? Not to mention your supervisor. Then of course there are the practicalities of life such as work, where you live, and who you live with.

Depending on your intended end-point, of all of the decisions your supervisor is the biggest one. In fact, unless your end-point is very specific (e.g. your topic or question can ONLY be addressed in your PhD, rather than in a research role after it), I’d say it is the most important decision. And it is not just me, the evidence suggests that the largest influence on the success and enjoyment of a PhD is your supervisor.

Thus, know what you want or need from a supervisor is an important part of the PhD decision process. And thus the question – do I want my supervisor to be a mentor, a colleague/peer or my boss?

When would you like your PhD

supervisor to act like a boss? What

about a mentor? Or a colleague?

In my view you’ll need all three. And you’ll need them in different amounts at different stages throughout your PhD.

In the beginning you’ll want your supervisor to be like a boss. Although you’ll need to develop independent thinking and research skills, having some give directions early on will help you make better decisions. One of the biggest reasons PhDs extend beyond their intended (three) years, is poor choices in the beginning. Where students and supervisors faff around with the topic and their approach to the question. Thus, lots of time is spent exploring options. In many cases these options are of limited consequence. If one of your priorities is to complete your PhD in a timely manner, then making a decision on topic and approach will help ensure you stick to your timeline. Thus, having a boss in the early stages of your PhD can help you stick to the topic and approach.

As your develop your skills and expertise, you’ll need your supervisor to evolve too. They’ll need to switch from being a boss to being a peer or a colleague. Someone who can give research input to your experiments but allows you to have the final say in what is or is not done. This will force you (if you have not already) to step outside the shadow of your supervisor. It will also give you the experience of making your own research decisions and facing their consequences.

Finally, as you begin the descent into submitting your written thesis, you’ll want your supervisor to act like a mentor. Guiding and advising on people to meet, next steps to take, and papers to read. They’ve been through the process before. So, their experience will be invaluable in helping you land safely (to continue the flight metaphor). Like all good mentors, they will advocate on your behalf in your absence (also called championing).


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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