What to expect from your PhD supervisor

A PhD supervisor plays a very important role in the completion of your PhD. Your supervisor is the intermediary between your research subject and the university. But how does this relationship works in practice? Here are some details on what to expect from your PhD supervisor.

Stages of your PhD

Universities recognise that progress towards a PhD requires a significant commitment. This applies to you as well as the university. Many universities offer a structured portfolio of taught masters courses as well as PhDs within a graduate school.

These programmes include the PhD route through a series of self-funded qualifications, for example the completion of an MRes or MPhil.

Undertaking your PhD in this way ensures that you are able to complete and attain a qualification. Then you can continue on to convert that achievement into a full PhD with the conclusion of your research thesis.

Universities recruit students into these core programmes across a number of fields, for example business, economics, and science subjects. It is very common to consider a 1 year full time/2 year part time MRes or MPhil in the chosen subject, and then progress to complete a PhD with an additional 2 years.

The fees required depend on the status of the individual student. However, you will benefit by being part of a formal structure that supports your learning and development.

Selecting a PhD supervisor

The process of selection is based on locating academic researchers who are experts in their field. UK universities help prospective PhD students connect to the relevant staff.

Some research areas attract many potential PhD candidates. Others are very specialised, so the volume of interest can vary a great deal. The same principal applies to the relationship with the PhD supervisor when the candidate has been successful.

Obviously, some PhD supervisors are in great demand. Simply having a PhD does not guarantee you will be a successful supervisor.

Some supervisors support many students and others are responsible for just a few. Studying your PhD that is part of a well organised structure is very important. You want to be clear about the roles and responsibilities that will be expected of you.

What does a supervisor do?

The basic ‘job description’ for PhD supervision is standard across most study areas. It comprises of the following components.

  • Regular supervisory meetings
  • Feedback on work in progress
  • Advice and support
  • Mediation and representation

However, the detail in terms of engagement and support depends on a number of factors.

Meetings and planning

Meeting one to one is the cornerstone of the student/supervisor relationship. Pre Covid this would have been done in person, but since the Pandemic meeting via Teams/Skype/Zoom is often the norm. This can be more efficient and certainly cost effective.

In many ways the support you can expect from your PhD supervisor is the same as a line manager in any well-run organisation. Your supervisor will check how well you are doing and if you are achieving the tasks in your planning schedule.

They will also look at how far you have progressed since the last meeting. Typically reviewing any research undertaken, or drafts of your results. Your supervisor is there to guide and support you and make constructive comments.

Feedback on progress

You will agree a set of targets for the next supervision meeting. Setting these goals early in the project will pay dividends in the long run because they ensure that you stick to the plan and achieve the tasks that have been set.

The administration side is also very important. This is more than filling in compliance forms. In the latter stages of your PhD there will be opportunities for training and development. These are very valuable aspects of your PhD and they should not be overlooked.

Advice and support

You can expect your PhD supervisor to act as an enabler. Think of them as an editor if you are a first-time novelist. You are the person telling the story but your editor is there to get the story into print. They may not have written a bestselling book themselves, but they know how to steer you through to conclusion and avoid getting distracted.


You will be your most productive at the start of your PhD. This is why it is important to work with the right team. If you have any challenges with your literacy, then your supervisor should direct you to the support you may need.

Regular feedback and open discussion is very important. Just assuming that the partnership between you is going OK is unwise. Similarly, if your supervisor is pushing you to respond for any reason this is not to be misinterpreted as interference.

If your motivation starts to wane then your supervisor will offer sensible advice to get you back on track.

Mediation, preparation and representation

Your supervisor will be well placed to help you navigate through any complex processes or submission requirements. Having support from them and other members of the Research Centre or Doctoral College administration team is very valuable.

If disputes arise or your project runs into difficulties beyond your control then you supervisor will play a crucial mediation role. You will need to show resilience as you work through the steps of your PhD because life outside university carries on.

At the same time as you are pouring all your resources into completion of your PhD, your supervisor’s support is on standby. This makes a lot of difference to how you will weather any storms that crop up.

Your supervisor may have an important role to play in the selection of research active examiners for your thesis. It will depend on the specific structures that are in place in your university, but do not underestimate the importance of this step.

If your programme requires the preparation of a viva, then your supervisor is there to share the responsibility.

Final thoughts

The purpose of undertaking any research is the discovery of new knowledge. The potential significance of this task to the individual, the university and wider society is a sobering thought.

If you show positivity and passion for your PhD, then can expect enthusiasm from your PhD supervisor. The partnership between a PhD supervisor and their PhD student is a mutual one, with great opportunities for the future.