Supervising your Supervisors: How to make it work

The student-supervisor relationship is the most important of your PhD. Hear from blogger Ellie King about how best to manage this relationship and ensure that everyone gets the best from it.

I have four supervisors. From two different institutions. And I have an awful lot of people to work with to make my research happen. When I started this PhD, I thought it would be just me and my data hanging out, regular supervisor meetings, yes, but not much beyond that. I was so wrong. Unexpected skill gained from doctoral research: people management. Here’s some of the things I’ve learned.

Managing Expectations

The supervisor relationship is the most important relationship of your PhD. Everyone at Warwick has (or at least should have) two supervisors, so things can get a little tricky. I’ve ended up with an abundance: two supervisors from Warwick, and two from the museum I conduct my research at. These four wonderful people have been a massive help to my research and my development, but one thing I learned quickly is that not all of them gave the same type of help at the same time.

This is my first bit of advice. Work out who does what, what each supervisor wants from you, and most importantly, what you want from them. You may work with one of your supervisors on a closer, more daily basis, with more practical elements of your research. Another supervisor may be really helpful for all the admin stuff you need to do at Warwick, like liaising with the Doctoral College and organising your upgrade and viva meetings. Another may be more strategic and help you with larger research direction. Working out who is best for what is really useful, as it ensures you are going to the right person for the right things. Similarly, work out what you may want from each of your supervisors. One may be good for when you’re having a difficult day of research and you need some reassurance. Another may be good for career advice. Someone else may be good for nitty gritty research problems, like I usually have with my statistics work.

Therefore, at the start of your PhD, and at least within the first six months, spend the time working out and plotting where each of your supervisor sits in relation to you and your research. Who has the most influence on the direction of your research? Who has the most detailed interest, and whose interest is from more of a distance. Completing a Stakeholder Management Plan and a Power-Interest Grid helps you work out where each of your supervisors, and other people involved in your project, sits.

Be in Control

Secondly, remember that you’re the person in charge of your own project. You manage your supervisors, whilst they supervise you. I quickly learnt that my supervisors expected me to chair meetings and lead the direction of the work. This should come naturally if you’re really enthusiastic about your research and bursting with ideas of where to take it. In my experience, being proactive in providing direction, suggesting research ideas, and leading meetings, helps drive the project and helps your supervisors stay interested and engage with your research. It’s easier for them to streamline your enthusiasm and ideas and keep you on track than to drive the work themselves. They are busy people after all.

Working with different colleagues

Then there’s a whole load of other people who you may need to speak to to get your research to happen. My research involves a museum, so it has to be conducted on their timelines and fit in with their schedules. If this is similar to your work, I’d suggest making sure you know these schedules early on so you can plan around them. If you need to go through ethics approval, work to the meeting deadlines, not your own deadlines. With colleagues you may need support from, make sure you contact them with plenty of time to spare.

These little tips have not only helped me work with people more effectively, but have helped me keep my research on track and driving forward. They may be one of the biggest factors in your research success.

Do you have any top tips for working with your supervisors? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Ellie

Ellie King is a Second Year PhD student in Warwick Manufacturing Group. She has been at Warwick since 2014 in the History department, and has recently moved faculties to research applying user experience to the museum sector. Ellie is partnered with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here, or follow her on Twitter @ellietheking

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