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How do you approach your supervisor?

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

We asked our Editors to write about setting boundaries and expectations with your supervisor.

This is one of their responses:

Graphic - text reads From the PhD Balance editors: setting boundaries and expectations with your supervisor. Submit your story, | There is a picture of a person putting their hand in between falling dominos to stop them and an icon of two silhouette heads with speech bubbles coming out of them.

It might sound cliché, but it all starts from within, at least for me. Knowing what boundaries and expectations you want is the first step, as the supervisor is as new to supervising “you” (individually) as you are to being supervised by them.

Broadly speaking, they could be either versatile or set in their ways on what they expect from a student. While the initial guidelines of a university might be a starting point, the expectations from each supervisor should be clarified in explicit terms.

Personally, I came into the PhD with certain expectations from a supervisor: periodic meetings, honest feedback suggested constructively, and the timely review of manuscripts. With the pandemic thrown into the mix and the omnipresence of online meetings, this makes even the most trivial talks with a supervisor, when you could normally just knock on a door, a mighty ordeal.

Navigating through the labyrinth of endless virtual meetings these endless months, one can now see a faint glimmer of hope as the “normal” research life begins again, with regular presence in the universities. (My university was/is really cautious in opening up to staff and students, which is not the case for several researchers).

A personal suggestion would be to bring up the expectations that you have from PhD supervision and the boundaries that you set (times when you can be contacted, workplace interactions, etc) in the periodic meetings (maybe quarterly or monthly) and evaluate the deviation(s) from your plan.

The problems that arise from improper supervision and/or issues like negative power dynamics in the lab, mental abuse, overworking, etc. - though heavily linked to this topic, would be better addressed by researchers who have undergone similar experiences.

To sum it up, formulate a supervision plan (writing it down could help) and keep updating it with time, just like a research plan. Each student tackles a different beast in the form of a PhD, and this note hopefully could help stimulate conversations and bring out experiences from fellow researchers that could really help one in need of advice.


Thank you so much to Arjun Anantharaman for his piece!

Arjun Anantharaman, from Chennai, India is currently working on his PhD concerning lidars and wind energy in Oldenburg, Germany. When not in the office, he loves playing endless sets of tennis, gaming and travelling to different cities to eat, learn their history and of course, sightseeing!


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