Six Things to Do to Be a Better PhD Supervisor

We need better PhD supervisors.1

Yes – students need to take control of their own destiny. Yes – students need to be more aware of their role in the research, and supervisory process. Yes – students should be self-informing about options beyond their PhD.

But…

Their supervisor, and supervisory panels need to step up.

1.     Do the training

At the very least, all supervisors should go through the relevant supervisor training. For young or new supervisors, this is probably a given. But for older or established supervisors, I reckon a lot were given a leave pass. They were not required (or even encouraged) to undertake that training. So, if you’ve not investigated what your institution offers in the way of supervisor training, make that the first thing you do. And then, make the second thing you do, enrolment. I know you probably think there’s not a lot you can learn. And that could be true. But, like anything in life you won’t know unless you try. At the very least, these programs will guide you through the candidature process your students will go through. Thus, you’ll be better placed to tell them how to navigate the university system.

These programs, however, are not enough. As mentioned above, many focus on the nuts and bolts of the HDR program. Rules. Policies. Admission guidelines. And these are great to know. Essential, in fact. But not sufficient to be a better supervisor.

2.     Know your students

Each student will be doing a PhD for a different reason. As a supervisor, it is important you understand that variation. And ideally, you should know those reasons. It will be a useful tool to use when things get tough for your students. You can remind them why they are doing a PhD. This should not be used as a stick, but a carrot. So, don’t say “if you don’t do x you won’t achieve your goal of y”. Instead, say “Remember, you’re in this to achieve y, doing x will help you get there.”.

What if you don’t know the reasons? Then ask! It is that easy. I know it could be scary. You could get an answer you don’t want to hear. But the answer won’t change because you know it. And, knowing they are doing a PhD to cure cancer or have an impact in the world or get a job in a big four consulting firm will help you move them in the right direction.

If, like me, you are forgetful, it is okay to write these things down. Keeping a file on your students is a good thing. And if you then say, “But I have lots of staff, and students, that’d mean too many files.”, then reduce the numbers. Stop supervising so many staff, and students! Stop indirectly supervising so many staff, and students! Build a structure that allows your research group to be large. Put people in place to manage teams. Trust that they will do a good job. And if you don’t have those kinds of people – hire them!

3.     Model good behaviour

In a 2011 study2, it was found most students learn the technical skills of being a researcher. However, role modelling, and personal attributes of a researcher were less obvious. Thus, it is important you model good behaviour. I know good behaviour is different for different disciplines, and cultures.

However, there are four things worth mentioning.

The first is work life balance. Most academics work 10 hour days and 6 days per week. The same academics lament the system forcing that workload on them. I’m going to call BS on that. You set your own hours. There’s no need to consistently work 60 hours per week. There just isn’t. I know academics that are successful working 40 hours. I have also coached academics to work less hours. Their successes, and achievements did not reduce my 25%. Yours won’t either. Of course, there are times when more or alternate work hours are needed. But not all of the time. And not without time in lieu. So model good work hours.

The second is feedback. No, good feedback is not the ol’ feedback sandwich. You know Compliment-Criticism-Compliment. Good feedback is to the point and includes the action a person could take to correct the problem. Whether that be in research, writing, a seminar or something else. And, this has to come across in the way you treat your departmental, and other academic peers – not just your students.

Knowing why the PhD students you

supervise chose to do a PhD will help you

become a better supervisor. So ask them.

The third thing is good note taking and keeping. Students are given heaps of resources, and support regarding maintaining good research notes. And then their senior peers go, and stuff that all up by displaying poor behaviour. Things like not using digital notebooks. Or writing up once every six months. Or not using the cloud storage provided by the university. Or bad mouthing the digital notebook product used by the university. Beyond research notes, it is also important to take good notes as part of meetings. Too many supervisors forget the advice or instructions they have given students. That means I often tell students to take notes in their meetings, and then send them to their supervisors. But you should be taking notes too. You should be keeping a record too.

Finally, don’t poo-poo the plan. Just like note keeping, research students are given heaps of support and advice about the use and value of planning. And that is often denigrated by senior researchers. Phrases like “You’ll never look at that again.”; or “I hate project management.”; or “No one cares about those plans.” are self-fulfilling prophecies. Of course if people say that and have that attitude that’ll be the case. Yet, we know that planned research results in more timely outputs.3 And although serendipitous research may be more interesting, the PhD needs outputs (data, publications, thesis chapters) for successful completion.

4.     Respect their time

Academics have an interesting relationship with time. Of all the professions, and professionals I work with and around, few have the same relationship. Academics see time as an endless resource. Whereas, in most other sectors, and professions time is precious. And as an academic – one with a tenured position – maybe time is endless. The best result is better than any result. However, for a student who needs to submit papers or a thesis, a result is better when the cost is more time.

So, respect the time of the student. This means reviewing work as, and when you say you can or will. Saying no or later when you don’t have time or cannot put in the time. Sticking to the meeting schedule – not changing times, dates or durations at the last moment. Understand their thesis needs to be done – not perfect – in order to pass.

5.     Refer to others

You might be the expert in you field. But you’re not an expert on everything. So, please, refer to others. If your student asks about life outside academia, refer them to previous students who are now working in industry. Don’t know anyone like that? Refer them to me? Not comfortable doing that? Tell them to do a search of LinkedIn for alumni with PhDs outside universities. If your student wants to do their thesis by publication, refer them to their graduate school and other if a student asks how to do an experiment, don’t tell them a story from 20 years ago when you did your PhD. Refer them to the expert in your group or in the field. You’re their supervisor, but your students don’t expect you to know it all. You just need to be able to make the introductions.

6.     Progress matters

In a survey of PhD students who completed and those who did not, the biggest difference was their relative sense of progress.4 Those who completed had an ongoing sense of progress in the PhD work. And, although peer support was present, it was support from their supervisor (or lack of) that impacted their progress.

Outside research, we know that documenting or reliving small wins can be very positive influence on work life. And, unfortunately, the opposite is true. Small losses have a negative impact on work life. Sometimes disproportionally higher than their winning counterparts.5

Research is a highly negative environment. You’re constantly looking for stuff and things you cannot find. That’s why its called research. So search and then re-search. So, it is natural for progress to seem slow or absent. And even more natural for their to be an abundance of small losses.

Thus, as a supervisor, you need to make your students aware of these impacts. Let them know that research is tough. Let them know there are lots of setbacks. Let them know progress may be fleeting.

AND… Make sure you provide a sense of progress for them. Remind them of their small wins. Make sure students have regular opportunities to make progress. Point those opportunities out.


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He is passionate about PhD training and students getting the most out of an experience often designed with the supervisor in mind. Richard has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career, researchers, and established academics build their careers. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how make the most of a PhD.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1Yes – I’ve written about How to be a good PhD student

2Determinants of PhD student satisfaction: the roles of supervisor, department, and peer qualities, Dericks et al, 2019. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education

3Management of science, serendipity, and research performance: Evidence from a survey of scientists in Japan and the U.S.; Murayama et al, 2015. Research Policy.

4Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: a matter of sense, progress and distress, Devos et al, 2017. European Journal of Psychology in Education

5The Power of Small Wins, HBR, Published 2011, https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins , Accessed 3 Jun 2020.