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Establish expectations and responsibilities

As the manager of your project, it is important to identify your needs within your higher degree process in general and within your supervision in particular, taking into account your abilities, learning style and your personal goals for the degree.

At the start, talk to your supervisor and make every effort to set up a good working relationship.

Explain to your supervisor your academic and professional goals, your expectations regarding your project, and what you feel you need from a supervisor.

It is probable that you will have more than one supervisor, and that requires a more complex series of negotiations as to what it entails - clarifying your relationship, roles and mutual expectations with each supervisor as well as the relationship between the supervisors, divisions of labour and responsibility, and so forth. Typically, one supervisor will become your primary supervisor, and generally that is the individual who has the maximum appreciation of the substantive content of your research. Often the second or third supervisors will have significant contributions to make in relation to the academic quality of the work or methodological issues. In order to establish clear lines of communication, it is important to define which supervisor is to have regular contact with you; are you going to:

  • meet with one at a time,
  • meet with both together, or
  • meet mainly with one and only communicate with your second or third supervisors at particular times?

To whom will you provide drafts of your work; will it be to your primary supervisor or to both supervisors simultaneously?

If you are going to get instruction from more than one supervisor you can anticipate getting conflicting advice on occasions. Each academic will have a particular perspective, a particular working style and particular expectations, and these may well differ. It is probably worthwhile to arrange some meetings where you are all present so that any points of difference can be discussed and some common approach can be found.

Remember, your supervisor probably has a number of students and many responsibilities, and you will have to negotiate an arrangement under which you feel that you are given adequate guidance, direction and support. And it will have to be an arrangement that your supervisor feels is reasonable. You may wish to establish this contractual arrangement at the outset, identifying with your supervisor mutually acceptable roles and responsibilities, rights and expectations. Then you may also like to determine some processes of renegotiating the arrangements as you move through candidature.

Discuss what expectations your supervisor has of you, of your project and of the supervisory situation. It is helpful to clarify in advance what arrangements will be implemented with regard to frequency of meetings, written drafts, and the return of written drafts. Additionally, you may clarify what your supervisor considers acceptable modes and times for gaining supervisory assistance when problems arise - his or her availability for telephone or email contact, for example.

Supervisors have their own careers to pursue and lives to lead. This can mean absence on conference or sabbatical leave, or even disappearing for good in the middle of your candidature because of a change of job, a medical emergency or the like. Any of these can mean a temporary or even permanent change of supervisor in mid-stream, which can be quite unsettling. While many of these eventualities are unpredictable, it makes sense to raise these questions early on even if your supervisor doesn't, in order to be confident that suitable arrangements can be in place to cover all eventualities.

Be proactive, communicate clearly with your supervisors and create a comfortable and positive working relationship where you are clear about your rights and responsibilities.

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