Writing a dissertation isn’t supposed to be a solitary journey. Ideally, a strong support network guides you to success, just like a ship relies on a navigation system to get through rough waters. A well-structured support system is the backbone of your academic passage toward doctoral completion.

One of the most critical aspects of dissertation completion is establishing a solid and constructive relationship with your dissertation supervisor. This important connection plays a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth research and writing process, and (ultimately) your graduation.

Understanding the Role of the Dissertation Supervisor

Before delving into effective communication strategies, it’s crucial to understand the role of your dissertation supervisor. Supervisors provide guidance, support and expertise throughout the research process, playing a key part in helping students develop and refine key components of the research project and written dissertation. They also support students as they navigate the inevitable challenges that arise.

Equally important, supervisors can foster a conducive environment for your academic growth and success. This kind of ongoing, knowledgeable support can bolster confidence, keep procrastination at bay and increase accountability. (For ideas on combatting procrastination, see this post.)

What happens, however, when the supervisory relationship is less than ideal? As a graduate student, what can you do when you feel as though you have been set adrift on the dissertation journey without a life raft or clear destination?

Try these ideas for building a better relationship with your dissertation supervisor:

1. Establish Clear Expectations

Setting crystal-clear expectations at the outset of the dissertation journey is vital for effective communication. Have an initial meeting with your supervisor to discuss project objectives, planned phases of the project and the frequency and mode of communication. Establishing a shared understanding of each other’s expectations ensures that both of you are on the same page and reduces the chances of miscommunication. Get some clear dates on the calendar with initial timelines for regular meetings and each phase of the dissertation journey.

2. Maintain Consistent Communication 

As mentioned previously in this blog, maintaining regular communication with your supervisor is critical for progress and success. Take the initiative – don’t wait for your supervisor to contact you. Schedule regular meetings or check-ins to provide updates on your progress, discuss any challenges and seek input. Strive to strike a balance between being independent and seeking guidance when needed. Remember: Supervisors, although likely busy with their own teaching and research, are there to support you through the dissertation process. Do not avoid your supervisor due to procrastination or a lack of progress. That’s likely when you need to reach out more deliberately to set up a meeting.

3. Be Prepared for Meetings 

Make the most of your meetings with your supervisor by coming prepared. Prior to your time together, organize your thoughts, questions and any specific issues you need to address. Consider what you want to get out of the meeting. Review your progress with your supervisor and provide updates on your work. Send any updates to your dissertation draft to your supervisor in a timely manner. Being well-prepared demonstrates your commitment to the project and your respect for your supervisor’s time, fostering a positive relationship.

4. Actively Seek Feedback

Feedback is an invaluable tool for improvement. Lean into feedback from your supervisor on your research, writing and overall progress. Be open to constructive criticism and use it as an opportunity for growth. Discuss your choices and be ready to negotiate with your supervisor regarding feedback you don’t agree with. Responding positively and actively to feedback shows your willingness to learn and adapt, which in turn strengthens the supervisor-student relationship.

5. Use Effective Email Communication 

This is often overlooked but email communication matters. (Check out this article to find out more!) In addition to face-to-face meetings, email communication is an integral part of the supervisor-student relationship.

When sending emails, ensure that your messages are concise, clear and professional. Use a professional tone and structure your emails with a greeting, body and closing. Keep in mind that your supervisor may have numerous responsibilities, so be mindful of their time and keep emails focused on the relevant topics. And definitely avoid sprawling emails with last-minute attachments!

6. Respect Deadlines and Timelines 

This goes without saying but adhering to agreed upon deadlines and timelines (as much as possible) is essential in maintaining a positive relationship with your supervisor. Be realistic about your research goals and communicate any potential delays or challenges in advance. Above all, try not to avoid your supervisor when the going gets tough! When life goes awry, do your best to check in and provide an update. The key is to stay engaged in a regular way with your supervisor rather than going AWOL during the tough times. Otherwise, you may find yourself in the academic abyss longer than planned.

7. Address Challenges as they Arise

In any collaborative relationship, conflicts and challenges typically happen at some point. It’s normal and somewhat expected given all of the variables involved in a complex research project. It’s important to address these issues promptly and professionally. If you encounter difficulties with your supervisor, approach the situation with an open mind and a willingness to find a solution together. Seek common ground, listen attentively and express your concerns respectfully. Resolving conflicts effectively can strengthen the supervisor-student bond.

If working with your supervisor becomes an ongoing struggle, it’s important to address the issue proactively.
First step: Assess the root cause of the problem.

Ask yourself whether the issue due to a difference in communication styles, conflicting expectations or a personality clash. Once you have identified the underlying issue, consider discussing your concerns with your supervisor.

Second step: Share your perspective, listen to your supervisor´s response and explore potential solutions together. If direct communication does not resolve the issue, you might need to seek guidance from the department’s graduate coordinator to mediate the situation.

In extreme cases where the conflict persists and significantly hampers your progress, it may be necessary to request a change of supervisor…but this should be a last resort. You don’t want to end up in the same scenario with someone else. Remember, you don’t have to “like” your dissertation supervisor but can you work with him or her? Can you find some benefit in working with someone who might have a completely different perspective? What are the “workarounds”?

The takeaway?

Establishing and maintaining a constructive, working relationship with your dissertation supervisor is crucial for the successful completion of your dissertation project. Effective communication, based on mutual respect and understanding, lays the foundation for a collaborative and DONE dissertation.

There’s more. Get in touch with us if you feel you could use additional support on your dissertation journey. At Dissertation Complete Coaching, we help dissertation writers get unstuck, move forward and, yes, graduate. We can help you!