CAKE Network: Managing Supervisory Relationships

The Community Advice and Knowledge Exchange (CAKE) Network is an opportunity for students to share concerns and advice on common research student experiences. We meet monthly on MS Teams and after each meeting, we’ll share tips, tricks and ideas that were collated at the meeting for the wider research community to benefit from. For more info on the CAKE Network, check out this blog post.

Help – my supervisor is driving me crazy!

This month, we focused on managing supervisor relationships – and, surprisingly, the students who attending this month’s meeting were largely sharing positive experiences with their supervisors. There were some issues we discussed and potential avenues for support and changing relationships for the better, too. Here’s an anonymised summary of talking points from today’s meeting!

The importance of supervisors

An early observation from the group discussion was understanding the importance of supervisor relationships for surviving the research degree experience. Cultivating a healthy respect (which goes both ways!) can make or break the degree for a lot of students. Supervisors are there to support you, yes, but that goes beyond their technical knowledge and expertise. Supervisors are a main touchpoint with the university infrastructure – we rely on them for making connections for us in the early days as we settle into the institution. They are also an important primary contact for when best laid plans go awry – having a good relationship based in honest communication can make difficult conversations much smoother.

Before I started a PhD I had no idea how important it is to have a good starting relationship with my supervisors – I can honestly say that if I didn’t have that good relationship there’s no way I’d finish this degree

That said, some supervisors prefer to be less involved in students’ affairs beyond the boundary lines of the research project. If you’re happy with this, that’s great. It’s important to know, though, that you can navigate the relationship with your supervisors that remains professional, but familiar.

It’s also important for students to remember that you have an Independent Panel Chair who can support you with the pastoral side of supervisory care. You can turn to your IPC when you’re having communication issues or a relationship breakdown with your supervisors – their role exists to facilitate mediation if necessary, and to provide students with an alternative staff contact to help resolve fundamental issues with how you and your supervisors are (or are not) working together.

Negotiating supervision relationships

At the start of your degree, you will have created an agreement with your supervision team about reasonable expectations for your working relationship together over the course of your degree. This might include frequency of meetings, length of time given to supervisors for feedback, length of time given to students for processing feedback, committing to unpacking feedback together in meetings every time it’s given.

One student highlighted that this agreement is not a cemented, steadfast rulebook once you’ve signed the dotted line – you are well within your rights to renegotiate how you work with your supervisors! This can range from the frequency (and format) of your supervision meetings/check-ins e.g. if you want to move to email updates while you’re knee-deep in analysis, or you’d prefer a 15 minute coffee catch up to an hour-long critique this time around, you can make those requests.

You have agency as a student – you can ask that supervision meetings be focused on more than reflecting on your outputs. If developing ideas or exploring opportunities for training is helpful to bounce off your supervisors, you can ask for that.

It’s nice to have that human point of contact, because you’re allowed to take space as the person they’re supervising

One student reminded us all that you’re never a burden for requesting moral support from your supervisors. They’ve been through the research degree process – and possibly through similar projects to your own thesis. They know the emotional, psychological, physical and social tolls these degrees can take. Some students are actively honest with their supervisors about their health and wellbeing in meetings to keep expectations realistic.

Remembering that your supervisors are human too was a common theme among students in the discussion.

I now look to my supervisors as colleagues, rather than teachers. This has fundamentally altered my approach to working with them. I see their comments as suggestions instead of personally-barbed criticisms or reasons why they’ll tell me I’m not good enough to finish my degree. I’m also comfortable connecting with them over coffee or our mutual appreciation of crafting – it reminds me they’re human.

Another student shared that honesty has been important for developing a healthy, respectful relationship with their supervisors:

They are very understanding and they listen (I’m lucky!). Being honest with them helped a lot to advocate for myself. Telling them when I’m tired at meetings so my supervisors are aware and can adjust their expectations for my outputs and general progress. Trying to relate my supervisors as human beings helps – empathising on that side; I have listened to them a lot too; I relate their messages back to them, telling them to look after themselves as much as they remind me!

Close relationships with supervisors can have their downsides too, though, if not managed closely. Students told us:

Our familiar way of engaging meant they took a lax approach to supervision, so they didn’t read my work closely and it was hard to ask them to do more.

I don’t want to ruffle feathers so I don’t push back

We disagree on the quality or the content of the work I’ve produced so I keep a separate document with my version and one with their edits

Figuring out the style of supervision you and your supervisors will best work with may take some time. It’s important to remember that your research project and work is your own, and that you are entitled to the support you’ve asked for per your supervision agreement.

You won’t always agree with your supervisors’ suggested course of action. Well-evidenced arguments for particular choices during your degree might take place – you’re allowed to question why your supervisors advise certain paths over others, and you can present your own reasoning for wanting to take a different approach.

Equally, it’s important to remember that your supervisors know the academic landscape well and will likely have a perspective that looks beyond the current project or chapter or milestone to consider the practices and impacts in your trajectory more generally (regardless of whether you are thinking of staying in academia). Supervisors are in place to advise and guide students because they’ve been through it.

Pick your battles – sometimes your supervisors are right and it takes hindsight to see it!

It’s also important to note that not every research student has a positive, engaged relationship with their supervisors.

My supervisors have not given me the psychological safety given for me to be honest. We have different ideas of what is ‘normal’ and how to relate to one another.

In these cases, it’s more important than ever to use the research degree framework and university infrastructure to your advantage. Ensure your supervision agreement is upheld, advocate explicitly for the supervision tactics or outcomes you need to feel supported, and remember that there are more avenues for support than just your supervisors.

If your relationship with your supervisor completely breaks down, there are ways to address this. It’s important you speak with your IPC as soon as you feel able – or have a conversation with your School Research Degree Leader. These staff members can offer advice to make the best decision regarding your supervision team and degree experience.

Supervision meetings

We’re all busy people, and a common experience for students is finding it difficult to organise full team meetings to catch up and process feedback together. One student has supervisors at multiple institutions, which can make scheduling full team meetings a nightmare. They have 1-to-1 meetings more regularly with individual supervisors, particularly depending on which part of the research project they’re focusing on at that time.

Some advice from students on managing supervision meetings included:

Get everyone’s diaries out and book meetings in for the next 12 months while you’re all together in the full team meeting so they have to opt out of it instead of fitting it in

Doodle Polls are a great way to organise meetings that suit everyone’s schedules

We mutually agree on deadlines for them accepting work and me getting feedback from them, taking into account their schedules and allowing ample time for delivery of good quality work

We talk about when we’re all on holidays for their impact on submissions/supervision meetings

A great way to prepare your supervisors for meetings is to circulate an agenda ahead of your meetings so everyone is held accountable to the discussion points, but also to ensure you all have time to think about the topics you want to discuss.

Taking minutes in your supervision meetings doesn’t just help hold yourself accountable to work goals – it’s also helpful to keep your supervisors aware of any action points they’ve agreed to support you with. You can use meeting minutes to prompt supervisors down the line if they’ve forgotten they agreed to things. Some students shared experiences of supervisors changing their minds or contradicting themselves repeatedly. Meeting minutes can help to keep everyone on track and in agreement.

How to ask for feedback

One student shared that figuring out what they need from their supervisors in terms of feedback takes an ongoing practice of reflexivity:

I think on my reactions and ask myself probing questions, e.g. am I frustrated with my supervisor because of the delivery, the message itself, or because I feel something is missing? Understanding my own thought processes and behaviours has been a huge help for asking for feedback in particular ways, and allowing myself time to fully digest critical feedback in its intended way, instead of as a personal attack. I factor in two days before reading comments again, and then I’m ready to productively engage with their comments and suggestions, recognising that they just want to help me do well.

It’s reasonable to request feedback in the ways that work best for you. This might be to request thematic/content-based feedback separately from grammar or writing style edit suggestions. You may prefer to go through feedback immediately, or have a few days to consider it before discussing feedback with your supervisors.

You can also ask for positive feedback! Students in the discussion reflected on the sector isn’t built for support, only to tear work apart. We see that in journal article reviewer feedback and throughout academia. Advocate for yourself and make sure you’re creating the environment that best supports to you maintain momentum and enthusiasm wherever possible.

If you’d like to share your own ideas and experiences, you can leave a comment below!

Next time, we’re inviting students to share experiences and solutions for Tackling Imposter Syndrome in Academia. Join us on Friday 1st April at 12.30pm-1.30pm on Microsoft Teams (check the Researcher Development Events Programme for the joining link!)

Read the advice we collated from January’s discussion on Planning the Year Ahead here.

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