Building a Healthy Relationship with Supervisors is a Long-Term Investment

Postgraduate study does not only build a dissertation/a thesis; the journey builds up the people – both the supervisors and the student. In fact, the supervisors and the student are the ones who build up the postgraduate study. The relationship between you and your supervisors is a key element for the success of your postgraduate study journey.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

However, as you can see in this comic, the relationship building may not be as straightforward as any other relationship. Some common challenges are:

  1. A lack of shared understanding/expectation between you and your supervisors (i.e., we tend to assume what the expectations are, but the better way is to discuss/negotiate them);
  2. Limited explicit communication between you and your supervisors (i.e., we tend to think others can read our mind, but that is not the reality);
  3. A perceived power imbalance between you and your supervisors (i.e., we tend to see supervisors in a superior role, but the truth is the relationship works the best when it is collegial).

While there has been a lot of research done on this topic, here are some practical tips and tricks for you to build a healthy relationship with your supervisors:

  1. Manage Upwards (e.g., Make sure you book in for the next meeting with your supervisors before the current meeting ends);
  2. Make yourself Visible (e.g., Supervisors are busy academics so please do not expect you are the centre of their attention when really you are only one small segment of their entire workload);
  3. Modify your Thinking (e.g., Be open with your supervisors’ comments, ideas, suggestions, and feedback even though it is your project, feel free to disagree with them respectfully if needed);
  4. Manoeuvre the Communication Opportunities (e.g., Try to be proactive in meeting with your supervisors, either in person or virtually, for various related reasons instead of hiding behind emails);
  5. Maintain your Cool (e.g., Seek support as soon as required before a tiny issue is escalated; after all, the impacts are mostly on you not your supervisors unfortunately).

In short, communication to a relationship is like oxygen to life; your relationship with your supervisors cannot grow without the proper amount of communication. Effective and efficient communication, plus a good understanding of the nature of academia, will set a strong foundation for a healthy relationship with your supervisors. Of course, it is easier said than done, but remember: this too is part of the learning in a postgraduate study journey. If you’d like to learn more, here is a relevant blog which I wrote in 2014 on my own experiences of how I established a fruitful relationship with my three doctoral supervisors – our relationship continues to flourish.

About Kwong Nui Sim

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