Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The PhD-Doctor: What (Not) to Expect From Your Supervisor


This is the third part of a series for PhD students with hands-on advice on how to handle the hurdles and challenges of your PhD project, written by Herman Lelieveldt. The PhD-Doctor is based on excerpts from his book Promoveren--Een wegwijzer voor de beginnend wetenschapper.

Good research is the result of communication. Talking to others is therefore the natural complement to your often lonely struggle with the material. In addition to spending a good deal of time reading, writing, and conducting experiments, it is at least as important to talk with others about what your are doing, because this can provide quicker and better solutions to problems that you may encounter. Thus, make sure you spend considerable time doing this, and don't feel guilty if once in a while you spend a whole day 'chatting'. Although there are many sources for such feedback (fellow PhD students, professors, and even friends and family), your supervisor should undoubtedly be the most important figure in this respect, because your supervisor is not only closest to what you are doing, but also the one who will ultimately decide whether your dissertation is ready to be defended.

In this contribution I will therefore say something about the mutual expectations of supervisors and PhD students. I'm focussing on the person who acts as your daily supervisor. This may be the chair of your dissertation committee, but it may also be an assistant professor who knows more about the subject and has more time to supervise your research. What should you expect from them and what not, which traits characterize the splendid supervisor, and what should they expect from you?

We all know that supervisors are not perfect and it is safe to say that a lot of PhD gossip is spent complaining about the peculiarities of this or that professor. Table 1 lists a range of stereotypes that I have collected in a rather unscientific way, but that will nevertheless ring a bell with most of you. Most of these traits have an up- and a downside and identifying them makes it easier for you to see the strong and the weak spots of your supervisors. Still, despite all the variety there are some basic things you should expect from them.

What to expect from your supervisor

Your supervisor is primarily someone who helps you write a good dissertation: assists in formulating the research questions, planning your work, organizing fieldwork and experiments, and analyzing and interpreting your results. The emphasis here of course is on helping. First and foremost you will have to do the work yourself. Your supervisor is also the first one who will read work in progress. You should expect the supervisor to do this quickly and seriously, and the criticism to be fair and accurate. The above activities constitute a supervisor's core business. If your supervisor does not live up to these minimum requirements there is ample reason to discuss the supervisory relationship and if things don't improve to look for another one. Fortunately, most supervisors do the above things, and if you are lucky, even go an extra mile and become what I call a splendid supervisor.

In addition to their core activities, splendid supervisors help you to get in touch with the academic community by opening their networks for you. They will teach you the tricks of the trade: how to write good abstracts for a conference and submit funding proposals that are promising. These people also closely monitor your progress and protect you against too much distraction that may take the form of teaching obligations, research for other projects, or administrative duties. They know that time is limited and that dissertations that take too long don't necessarily become better. Splendid supervisors are around most of the time and very accessible: Their door is always open and they like to chat about the discipline with a cup of coffee. They also walk into your office from time to time to see what's going on. Finally, splendid supervisors are empathetic: They know that working on the dissertation can be a struggle from time to time, and they are also aware of the fact that there is life outside the dissertation, in which things can go very well, but very badly too.

What not to expect from them

There are a couple of things that you should not expect from your supervisor, even a splendid one. The first is a fascination for your research. If you don't believe in it, nobody else will, so don't expect your supervisor to excite you about your dissertation topic. On the contrary, your excitement should be so contagious that even the most skeptical supervisor will in the end value what you do. Secondly, you should not expect the supervisor to be a kind of headmaster who hands out orders and expects you to report back every week. You yourself are responsible for the planning and progress of the project. Finally, although a pat on the back from time to time would be nice, most of them don't hand out compliments too often. They are task-oriented and tend to focus on things that can be done better, not on the things that are OK. Strange as this may sound, you should be happy about all these don'ts because they ensure that ownership of the project remains with you, and such ownership is a crucial success factor for your project.

What your supervisor can expect from you

Finally, it is important to know that good supervision is not a one-way street but depends as much on your efforts to sustain a good relationship. The first and most important thing is that you take appointments seriously, show up on time, and make sure that there is something to talk about. Supervisors are far too overcommitted to be confronted with late cancellations or appointments that turn out to be meaningless because you did not do anything. Secondly, they expect you to take their advice seriously, especially when they have gone great lengths to give it to you. Use it, and more importantly, if you do not think it is useful, tell them why you are unable to do something with it and try to find a solution. Finally, be interested in the things they do. Read their work, comment upon it, and praise it (if it deserves to be praised of course!). A good dose of reciprocity is the best way to nurture the supervisory relationship.

Find your supervisor!




Is hardly around, and when around inaccessible because he is 'busy, busy, busy'.

Magnum opus writer

Does not worry about the few years that you have to finish your dissertation: 'look at me, I took 10 years myself to get the thing done'.


Tells you in painstaking detail what is wrong with your work, but does not have any clue how to make it right.


Copy edits your first draft (preferably with red ink) but is silent on content or structure.


Emphasizes structure, forgets about substance.


Does not have very strong opinions, likes everything.


Sends you in new directions every week and forgets about consistency and the clear direction a dissertation should possess.


Sticks to everything he learned in grad school and is scared of anything new, which he tends to dismiss as rubbish.


Usurps your precious appointment time to recapitulate what your dissertation was about, leaving no room to deal with the questions that are really pertinent.


Forces you in his direction, no deviations permitted.


Feels threatened by your wit and tries to slow you down.


Accessible, reads your work quickly, makes sensible comments, inspires you, and combines the roles of coach, mentor, and referee ingeniously.

Herman Lelieveldt ( is a postdoc working at the Department of Political Science, University of Twente, The Netherlands, and the executive director of the Netherlands Institute of Government. He is the author of Promoveren--Een wegwijzer voor de beginnend wetenschapper (Aksant, 2002, ISBN 90-5260-002-3), a highly acclaimed Dutch guide on how to get your PhD, from which this contribution has been adapted.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers