Managing your supervisor

By Jenny Reeder, MPA Executive Officer

Setting up and maintaining a good routine

One of the best starts you can make is to ensure that you meet regularly with your supervisor. Some academics can be notoriously difficult to catch, so it may be up to you to set a constant schedule of meetings.  You should make every effort to keep these appointments, even if you feel that you haven't made any progress since your last meeting. One recommendation is that before your meeting concludes, you and your supervisor set an agreed time and date for the next meeting.

Frequency of sessions

How often should you be seeing your supervisor? The recommended minimum frequency at Monash is once a fortnight, but you will find that there will be periods where you will need to meet every few days, and other times where you may go for several weeks without contact. If you feel unhappy with the level of contact with your supervisor, let him/her know that you would like to meet more often. Despite increasing workloads, academics still have an obligation to provide an appropriate level of supervision for all of their students.

Difficult to catch supervisors 

If you are having difficulty getting your supervisor to meet with you, try emailing him/her with a request to meet, and a few suggested dates or times. Your supervisor is much more likely to remember to respond if you send the request in writing rather than make a hurried verbal agreement. If you don't get any response within a week, email again. If there is still no response, speak with your Graduate Coordinator, and take along copies of your two emails. I have had students complaining that they haven't had a meeting with their supervisor for over a year!  This is totally unacceptable on either side - don't ever let things go this long before acting to rectify the situation.

Quality of sessions

Make sure you get the most out of your time with your supervisor. For more formal sessions, that might mean getting work in to your supervisor a couple of weeks prior to your meeting so that your supervisor has a chance to read the work, and you can both have a productive and detailed discussion on the work when you next meet. There's nothing like an organised and hard-working postgraduate to put the pressure on a supervisor to respond in a likewise manner. Even if your meetings are more casual and frequent, make a list of all the things you want to discuss with your supervisor as they come up, and take the list with you to the meeting. Check that you have covered everything on the list before you leave.

Cultural differences

In some cultures, it is not acceptable for a student to contradict or criticise an academic, who is seen as a figure of authority. In Australia, the relationship tends to be more collegial and academic debate is encouraged. It is perfectly acceptable to make a counter suggestion to your supervisor's suggestion, and then to discuss with your supervisor which of the two options is the best way to proceed forward with the research. Rather than interpreting this behaviour as showing a lack of respect, Australian academics tend to appreciate the fact that you have thought about the work and are showing some initiative. It is vital that you can get to a point in the relationship where you feel comfortable engaging in academic debate with your supervisor.

Changing supervisors

Under special circumstances it may be necessary to have a change of supervisor, for example, if your supervisor leaves the University or if you are experiencing serious, irreconcilable differences in your relationship with your supervisor. Once the necessity for change has been discussed with and recognised by the department, it is a good idea for you to be proactive in seeking a replacement supervisor. You can do this by working with the department to think of all the possible options, and you will find that most departments are keen to find an arrangement that not only fulfils their obligations, but keeps you happy in the process.

Start by making appointments to speak with any academics within the department who might be potential supervisors. Are they working in your area or a related area? Are they interested in your work? Would they want you to change the direction of your project? Are they able to take on another student? This is a chance for both you and your supervisor to interview each other. Talk to your supervisor's current students to get some 'informal references'. If you can't find anyone within the department, is there anyone in the Faculty? Is there anyone within the University, or perhaps someone at another University or in private industry? While the latter options are not promoted by departments, they are possible in extreme circumstances. If you feel that your department is not offering you a reasonable level of flexibility, talk to your Head of Department or Graduate Coordinator.

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Supervisors still need to make time to see you...