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Managing the Supervisory Relationship

We know that DPhil students who have positive relationships with their supervisors have fewer delays and complete sooner. At the beginning of your DPhil it may feel as though your supervisor’s role is to tell you what to do, and certainly their role is to guide and support you. So it might seem a little strange to say that you can and should play a role in making sure the relationship between you is positive and productive. However a DPhil is different to undergraduate and master’s degrees in that it consists of independent research, so you should be developing increasing independence, and thinking about how you contribute to the supervisory relationship will help this. The more you put into the relationship, the more successful it will be.

A key point to remember is that your DPhil is yours, not your supervisor’s or your department’s, or anyone else’s; it will be an individual and unique piece of work and it is your responsibility to drive it forward.

A good place to start is to think about what you are expecting from the relationship, and what they are expecting. Here are some questions on clarifying expectations to start you thinking about this.

Hints and Tips


Be pro-active in setting up meetings with your supervisor – they are very busy and it will be in your interest to make it as easy as possible for them to meet with you. Send them a note before the meeting with an agenda, and any results or work they have asked you to do.

After meetings, write a note of what you discussed and what you agreed, and send it to your supervisor. Ask them to let you know if there is anything they would add or change about your note of the meeting.


Communicate regularly and clearly, keeping them informed of your progress and anything else they need to know. Beware of making assumptions about what they know about your work - if in doubt, check!

Receiving advice and feedback

Listen to your supervisor’s advice and feedback and consider it carefully. If there is something about the relationship that you would like them to change, communicate that clearly and respectfully.


If you are running into problems, you should talk to your supervisor about it as early as possible so that they can help. If you have a problem with the relationship that you have been unable to solve, there are a number of other sources of help you can try:

  • Director of Graduate Studies
  • Graduate Secretary or Administrator
  • Head of department
  • Departmental Administrator
  • College – Senior Tutor, or your College Adviser
  • MPLS Graduate Studies office
  • Harassment – Departmental Harassment Officer


The MPLS Division provides a course on Managing the Supervisory Relationship that offers useful opportunities for discussion. If you are unable to take part in the course, you can read the

Vitae have some very useful questionnaires and information on the supervisory relationship:

LinkedIn Learning courses:

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