Keith Gori is a doctoral researcher in the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University. His doctoral research engages with Consumer Culture Theory, identity and consumer narratives in the context of the British Home Front during World War Two. More widely his research interests lie in consumer and marketing history, the historical development of thinking surrounding the social responsibilities of business, and experiential marketing. He has presented both historical and contemporary research outputs at international marketing conferences and has published work in the Journal of Marketing Management. He teaches on global management and marketing courses in the Department of Business Management.

An essential part of the PhD process is the relationship between student and supervisors, and the role supervisors play in the development of a PhD project. As with any working relationships the manner in which these work is hugely varied, but there are steps that can be taken to maximise the value you as a student get out of your supervisory team. There are a few things you should consider either when choosing supervisors should you have this luxury, or when working with them should they be assigned to you.

How do your supervisors approach the process? Speak to your supervisors and gauge their expectations of how the relationship will work, and speak to their other students to get their experiences. Supervisors vary in the approach they take. Some are very ‘hands-on’ and will be in regular contact with students, setting deadlines and directing the project to a large extent. Others will allow student more autonomy in how the PhD develops, relying on the student to be not only self-directed but to direct them in the feedback and assistance they require.

How much time do supervisors have? If you have a supervisory team made up of very senior staff (those with sparkling research profiles and commitments, or those with large and demanding management roles) then you need to accept that scheduling meetings and getting face-time with them will not be as easy as might be the case with supervisors at an earlier stage of their career. You need to tailor your approach in order to mitigate this. Planning a series of meetings (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly) with supervisors well in advance before their diaries get filled is sensible, and letting them know when to expect work in advance (so they can plan to actually read it…) is also a good idea.

READ  How to conduct an interview for qualitative research

First and second supervisor relationships also need some consideration. Supervisory teams can be made up in a number of ways: a senior academic helping a junior academic get started supervising; someone with theoretical expertise relating to the project combined with someone who has contextual or methodological skills relevant to it; two staff members with an existing working relationship or two who don’t know (or even like!) each other very much. Will one be taking the lead and the other offering only additional guidance much less often? Will both be involved almost equally? Will you meet them only together, or separately, or meet one separately to meetings with the pair on other occasions? Considering these things, and how to approach them, can help you.

However your supervisory team is put together the key thing to developing a working relationship that helps you, and your research, to develop as much as possible is communication. Establishing early how the process will work, and the expectations they can have of you and you of them, will prevent awkward problems down the line and ensure that you receive the most productive input possible.

Summary box:

  • Student-supervisor relationships are essential to success.
  • Find out what your supervisors expect from you – from them and from their other students.
  • The key to a positive, constructive supervisory relationship is communication.


Picture by Kenny Louie under CC license.