What are doctoral supervisors for? A personal view

The posts I’ve done recently on supervision (10 ways to annoy your supervisors, and the guest response on how to be a crappy supervisor), have been popular. So I thought I’d follow up with a personal reflection on what I think my job is as a supervisor of doctoral students. This is not an official expression of any university policy. It is based on my experience as a student, and as a supervisor. I’m not saying I always achieve these things, but it is a reflection of the kind of supervisor I think I ought to be, and am trying to be, at the moment.

I will use 3 analogies: mentoring, personal training, and supervision as the long goodbye.


There are some aspects of mentoring as I have read about it in literature* that I think apply in doctoral supervision. Cohen (1995) writes about relationship, information, facilitation, confrontation, modelling and vision.  Bell-Ellison and Dedrick (2008) showed how these are relevant to what doctoral students look for in mentors. I think each provides a useful way to think about supervision.


I’m not here to be your friend. In fact you may well not like me at times. Providing that any dislike remains within the context of a trusting and above all productive relationship, fine by me. I would rather I annoyed you but that you made progress, than you felt I was your best friend, but that you were getting nowhere. I want you to trust me, to feel that I’m on your side, but friendship isn’t the right idea for me. This is an institutionally sanctioned relationship full of power and other imbalances. It is a professional relationship that is mixed up with (confused by?) student / teacher relationships too. The relationship changes over time, and can always be terminated if it’s not working for you.


There are lots of bits of information that I should be providing as a supervisor. How uni procedures work, when and where conferences are happening, who is good to read etc. However I’m not your only source of information, and I’m happiest if I know you’re consulting other sources first: uni websites, other students, administrators etc. I’m not here to provide information you can easily get elsewhere. That’s a waste of our precious time together.


This is about helping you explore your interests and abilities, and includes a strong element of support. I’m here to help bring out the best in you. But also as a safe, go-to person when things go wrong. I can suggest areas of reading, ideas, methods etc. As a rule, this is not ‘instruction’, nor is it giving you answers (no matter how much you may want them). Not always (or even often) giving you answers but facilitating you to reach your own conclusions is at the heart of supervision pedagogy as I see it.


This might also be thought of as challenge. From time to time to be a good supervisor I am going to have to say things you really don’t want to hear. I have a professional duty to do so in an appropriate and constructive way. But I don’t have a duty to dilute the content. If things aren’t working, or you are going down a route I strongly feel is not a productive one, it’s my job to say so. This includes raising issues to do with volumes and quality of output, reining you in from a Nobel Prize to just a doctorate. It’s no good for me to say ‘yes it’s all going fine, you’ll finish next year’ if in fact the past 6 months indicate the opposite.


I would hope to model relevant elements of academic and research professional life: ethical practices in research, attribution of authorship, timely feedback (matched by timely production of writing by you), openness, honesty, and empathy.


One of the best things I can offer is a means to help you build or change your vision of yourself (as a capable, independent researcher), and of your study (as do-able, worthwhile, meaningful etc). To help eliminate the self-doubt that can be crippling. But also to challenge (see above) misplaced god-complexes if you appear to think you know it all.

Supervision as personal training

I’ve had a few sessions with personal trainers in the gym. When I was sweating, heart pounding, body screaming, I wanted to curse them out loud. Were they doing me good? Yes, without a doubt. Did they help me train better when I was on my own? Again, yes.

All uni study is in a way like a gym membership. Joining doesn’t guarantee improved fitness, it just provides access to resources that you then have to make use of. Enrolling at uni doesn’t guarantee anything. It just gets you access to libraries, other students, workspaces, oversight (eg ethics), and supervisors. It’s up to you to put in the hard yards.

So as your supervisor, I stay wonderfully sweat and pain free, while encouraging you to try your hardest. A good PT doesn’t allow clients to coast through a session. As a supervisor I don’t want my students to coast through either. A doctorate worthy of the name should be challenging, exhilarating, difficult. Not to the point of breakdown or exhaustion, not at risk of injury, and not without support. But the outcome (the thesis) is done by you, not me.

Supervision as a long good-bye

Doctoral inductions often have a subtext of: Hi! Welcome to the uni! Now get on and finish please! In a way supervision is an odd relationship because from the word go is it predicated on, and oriented to, its inevitable ending. Friendships, marriages (and yes some PT relationships) aren’t like this. Over time I’m expecting our relationship to change, become in some ways more distant.

Let me be clear, this is not a linear process of withdrawing support as students become independent. In the final stages, I’ll often expect to meet just as regularly, and provide feedback perhaps more intensely than before. But we’ve already parted ways in terms of areas of my expertise: you now know more about your field than I do. And you’re making decisions, taking gambles of what might work in writing, justifying your approach more independently of me. You’re getting better at arguing your point of view, rebutting my challenges. You’re more focused in your requests for information and need for support.

Of course the end isn’t ‘good-bye’ as people, but it is a termination of the supervisor-student relationship and all the expectations, sanctions and formality it brings. We continue as professional colleagues.

Conclusion: comments please!

What do you think? Am I describing a supervisor that you would like to have? Have I missed out some elements? I’m sure I have, so please add your comments below!


* Bell-Ellison, B.A. and Dedrick, R.F. (2008), “What do doctoral students value in their ideal mentor?”, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 49, No. pp. 555-567.

* Cohen, N.H. (1995), “The principles of adult mentoring scale”, Galbraith, M.W. and Norman, H.C. (Eds.), Mentoring: new strategies and challenges, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, pp. 15-32.

* Rose, G.L. (2003), “Enhancement of mentor selection using the Ideal Mentor Scale”, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 44, No. pp. 473-494.


14 thoughts on “What are doctoral supervisors for? A personal view

  1. Melanie King

    I like your apt comparison of supervisor to personal trainer but I would add that supervisors might also provide support, emotional & intellectual. Regarding information – it’s not as easy to find as you think so I suggest supervisors should provide detailed information (eg Doctoral assessments); other assessments regularly as well as what’s actually expected of a PhD student, apart from a thesis.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks Melanie for your comment. I guess my point was that supervision is not best utilised when supervisors are providing information that is readily available elsewhere. Where it isn’t but should be, that again is perhaps an issue for an institution rather than supervision in the long term.
      I’m not saying supervisors withhold information. But it’s in both parties’ interests to help the student find info rather than depend on supervisors for facts.
      There are always other students in one’s year or years ahead who are great sources of not only information, but wisdom too

  2. rashidamurphy

    Thank you for this timely post, Nick. I’m one of the fortunate ones who has a supervisor like the one you describe. Of course I didn’t see it as an advantage always, but I’m more than 2 years into my PhD and can see how it’s evolved, both the relationship and the research. I was certain that I didn’t want a ‘friend’ and I was fortunate that she thought the same. So our relationship is courteous, honest, productive, and I sweat buckets over rewrites…she’s tough, but she’s usually right. When I want my fur to be stroked I go to a sympathetic friend who assures me I’m the best writer in the world, then I go back to the rewrites and actually try and become the best writer I can be.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Wonderful! I love your point about getting your fur stroked by someone else: fur stroking does not improve writing (or at least you need more than just fur stroking if you’re going to write a thesis. Or anything for that matter!)

      Thanks for your comment

  3. Ife Bamidele

    “From time to time to be a good supervisor I am going to have to say things you really don’t want to here”, Things you really don’t want to “hear” I guess. that’s on a lighter note. Very nice piece presenting different perspectives to the role of a PhD Supervisor

  4. Eljee Javier

    Thanks for this post! I can relate to the gym/PT comparison having trained with a PT these past few months. I think it’s worth pointing out that students from different countries that are new to British academia come with different expectations of the supervisor/student relationship. You post articulates what needs to be said (and repeated) out loud. From my own observations it’s hard enough to make friends that you can rely on for support, let alone move across the world and do a PhD in another language while trying to decode and navigate the academic ‘culture’ in your department. In these situations supervisors are relied on more heavily which can lead to frustration in both sides if neither are aware of the underlying expectations.

  5. Malba Barahona

    Thanks Nick For this. I would have definitely like to have a supervisor like the one you describe. I didn’t. Supervision-PhD student is also a complex power relationship. I hope to become a good supervisor.

  6. Malba Barahona

    Reblogged this on My research journey. and commented:
    Insightful view of Nick Hopwood about doctoral supervision. He analyses doctoral supervision using three analogies: mentoring, personal training, and supervision as the long goodbye. I can relate to some aspects of these categories. I also think that supervision is a complex power relationship. I will elaborate on this in a future post.

  7. rusty (@mativity)

    This raises the bar considerably for what I expect a student/supervisor relationship to be like. It sounds like you are far more interested and engaged with your students than any supervisors I know. Except for one I observed at a conference recently: she introduced her student to suitable mentors, guided people to his poster and got conversation going, put him in a major panel as the facilitator. I barely saw mine. He was always off in small meetings or deep in conversation in the middle of a huddle of keynote speakers. I think he was working on his image.

  8. yagmur

    I usually dont like my supervisor’s comments but because I think she does discourage me without useful info and guidance. On the other hand, your post is very helpful because I now better understand what I should do as a phd candidate and more empathetic for my supervisor. Thanks again.


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