Negotiating supervisor relationships

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

To support you throughout your candidature, you will have at least two supervisors who are experts in your field to guide you through the process of developing, researching and writing the research project.

As Berry and Batty write in their article, The stories of supervision: creative writing in a critical space, the PhD journey often follows the narrative arc of the Hero’s journey, with obstacles and rough patches that are integral to the trajectory of a research degree. Within this storyline, the PhD candidate is the protagonist while the supervisor acts as a mentor.

The hero’s journey and the mentor’s role

While your supervisors are important to your research, this is your project. As you progress through your research degree, remember that while your supervisors walk beside you, this project is your path to forge and follow. You have the freedom, responsibility and capability to see it to fruition.

As a student, you have your expectations of your supervisors, and they have their expectations of you. This could involve a variety of aspects, from the frequency of meetings to the level of autonomy in your research. Clarifying these expectations as early as possible in the relationship can help prevent misunderstanding and disappointment and ensure a smoother journey.


I expect my supervisor to give specific guidance and actionable feedback on my work. This is reasonable because it aligns with the supervisor’s role in guiding my research journey.

My supervisor expects me to be prepared to discuss my progress, ask questions and complete any task requested of me at the previous meeting. This is reasonable because it ensures I successfully achieve the three key milestones and make a timely and satisfactory submission.

In order to maintain a healthy working relationship and meet the expectations above, I need to manage my time effectively and maintain open communication with my supervisor.

If I were a supervisor, I would value commitment and initiative from my research candidate.

If I were a supervisor, I would find it challenging if my research candidate lacked motivation or the ability to work independently.

PhD students are strongly advised to initiate discussions with their supervisors early on about potential areas of differing perceptions and expectations. These may include communication methods and responsiveness to emails and messages, the expected quality and frequency of draft submissions, the most effective way to respond to feedback, timelines and milestones, and publication expectations during their candidature.

Supervisor-student relationship

Your supervisory relationship is a key element of your research journey. Like any other relationship, it can present challenges and demands commitment from both sides. Navigating this important relationship requires adhering to the following principles to foster positive outcomes.

Open communication – Regularly discussing progress and challenges fosters mutual understanding, trust and effective collaboration towards shared academic goals.

Mutual respect – Recognising and respecting each other’s expertise, roles and time cultivates an environment where both the student and supervisor feel valued and motivated.

Responsibility – The student should take ownership of their research while supervisors should remain accessible and ready to provide guidance and support when needed.

Professionalism – Professionalism involves responsibility and integrity in all interactions within the supervisor-student relationship. This entails adhering to agreed-upon deadlines, communicating courteously and addressing disagreements or challenges with an unbiased and solution-oriented approach.

Dos and Don’ts

What happens when things go wrong?

Despite the good intentions of supervisors and students, sometimes things go wrong. If you are experiencing difficulties with supervisor relationships, there are some things you can do:

  1. Discuss the specific issue you need to resolve with your supervisors. Be explicit, objective and courteous.
  2. If the issue cannot be resolved, discuss it with your school’s HDR Coordinator/ Manager/Director/Associate Dean. Be explicit, objective and courteous.
  3. Read the informationon the RUSU student rights website, then make an appointment with the student rights officer for research students. This person will be your advocate and will give you advice to help resolve the issues. RUSU’s Student Rights assistance is an anonymous service.
  4. If the issues are still not resolved, check out your rights and responsibilities and follow the University complaints process.

For further information, the RMIT School of Graduate Research outlines the structure of the supervisory team and provides advice on working with your supervisor.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Research and Writing Skills for Academic and Graduate Researchers Copyright © 2022 by RMIT University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book