Key Strategies for Working with your Dissertation Supervisor 

When it comes to successfully reaching the highly anticipated Ph.D. Finish Line, so much depends on the working relationship you have with one key academic person: your dissertation supervisor. 

It’s true that completing the degree largely depends on your own dedication, focus and ability, but it’s also a direct result of how effectively you engage with the faculty member directly supervising your dissertation project.  

While completing your dissertation may seem like a largely solo endeavor, it is actually a deeply collaborative process between you and your chair. It’s critical you are able to move the project forward together efficiently and effectively.  

Tips for Finding the Best Dissertation Supervisor

Find a comfortable fit. 

Many doctoral students feel somewhat intimidated by their supervisor and think this is a good thing–a sign of respect or deference. But comfortability matters infinitely more. You will be having ongoing interaction over the long term with this person and receiving constructive, but often critical, feedback.

When finding the right dissertation advisor, you want to find a complementary fit, building a relationship based on mutual respect, clear communication and trust.

Most doctoral programs allow students to be part of the process of supervisor selection. At the very least, ask for the opportunity to speak with your proposed supervisor before either of you commit–to find out if you are on the same page regarding the process. 

Know thy supervisor. 

Take some time to seriously get to know your dissertation chair. Read their work and ask about it. Review their professional history. Try to understand how their research focus can uniquely contribute to your own dissertation project.

Remember: this person is not your teacher. A dissertation supervisor provides an entirely different relationship based on the assumption that you are becoming a more independent researcher–albeit with support.    

Create a consistent schedule and stick to it. 

Putting together a strategic schedule for key dissertation milestones not only shows your supervisor that you’re serious about your project but it serves as a deadline to keep things on track.

Your dissertation schedule serves as your roadmap. Once you and your supervisor create that “map” together, you have one simple goal: follow it as closely as possible. Changes to any timeline will be needed, of course.

The key is to keep your supervisor updated and part of the process. If you get off track, the worst thing to do is disengage with your supervisor and disappear into the dreaded procrastination ethers. Get back in touch asap!

Learn to accept constructive feedback.

It’s not easy to accept criticism. When it comes to projects we’re so deeply invested in, it’s easy to become thin-skinned and overly sensitive. But listening to valid feedback is an essential component of the dissertation process.

One suggestion: emotionally prepare ahead of time. Imagine the critiques that could come forward. Then envision yourself taking the best of each point and leaving the hard bits behind. When listening to the feedback, try to avoid becoming defensive and check to make sure you clearly understand the points being made. Take notes and reflect before responding too quickly. For more tips, check out this article on accepting criticism.

Go old school. Meet your chair in person when you can. 

Avoid the possible impediments to communication that can develop with constant emails. This is especially critical at the beginning, when you and your supervisor are building out the big picture of your schedule and setting concrete goals. Meeting in-person or at least via video conferencing helps build human bonds. Two people who are genuinely connected can support each other more effectively. 

Supervision is a relationship like any other. It requires trust, knowledge of the ins and outs of academic culture and a clear, concise plan to get you to the finish line. Do the “homework” needed ahead of time to make the right choice. Your degree might depend on it!

Unsure of how to proceed with your chair or stuck in a dissertation quagmire? Contact Dr. Cara, an experienced dissertation coach who can help you successfully navigate through the process and complete your dissertation.