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Aligning expectations

Your supervisor(s) plays a key role in your PhD education. They will help you learn, develop and progress in your research by offering insight, advice and discussion as you go along. Therefore, the GSTS strongly recommends that you and your supervisor(s) have a frank and honest discussion about your mutual expectations for the PhD programme both when initiating your PhD project, e.g. when you first fill in MyPhD together and continuously during your PhD programme. We suggest having the following topics on the agenda:

Define your project and clarify independence

Your project may have predefined targets and/or be part of a larger research project. This is normal as research rarely occurs in isolation. Clarify these targets with your supervisor(s) from the beginning. Identify elements that you can (or are expected to) develop independently. In our experience, students and supervisors can have different expectations regarding the independence of the project and a discussion of this early on may prevent later conflict.  

Plan your supervision

Some supervisors like to be heavily involved in day-to-day planning. Others prefer that students lead the planning of daily research activities, teaching, course and conference participation etc. Make sure you understand your supervisor(s) preferred way of working, but feel free to suggest alternative ways that fit your needs better. Having a clear agreement about your supervisory meetings is essential. Formalize you meetings by agreeing on:

  • their frequency
  • who does what regarding scheduling, agenda and distribution of summaries
  • communication frequency and form if one of you is abroad

Some supervisors have an 'open door' policy and are available for ad hoc supervision. Even when this is the case, the GSTS strongly recommends that you also have formal, regular, pre-scheduled meetings to ensure that you discuss not only your research project, but also all other aspects of your PhD education. This could also be an opportunity to address potential problems early on or if possible even before they arise.

A PhD student will always have one main supervisor and sometimes one or more co-supervisors. Other students, post docs and technicians may also have (informal) roles as advisors or collaborators in your project. We recommend that you ask your main supervisor for a clear description of the role of any additional supervisors/advisors in the PhD, and clarity on when and how you can approach them.

Plan your integration into the research group

As part of a larger research group or section, you will need to participate in group activities, including lab meetings, journal clubs etc. Prioritising scientific as well as social activities is important – feeling lonely is not going to be good for your well-being, progress and productivity. Ask your supervisor(s) how best to participate in the life of your research group.

Agree on working hours and daily presence

Prepare to be flexible regarding working hours and presence in the lab/office. Many scientists work long days during peak periods of lab or fieldwork, or before a deadline, but then have the benefit of flexibility and shorter days in other periods. Let your supervisor(s) explain how this usually works in their research group and let them know if you are challenged by this, for example because of family commitments.

Plan your writing

It may be hard to think about writing and publications at the very beginning of your PhD project. However, learning to write scientifically will take some time and work. Therefore, it is useful to know your supervisors’ preferred way of working on papers etc., including their procedure for feedback. Also, ask for a general introduction into how co-authorships are agreed.  

Note that the GSTS offers courses in Scientific Writing and Communication. For more info, see our page with transferable skills courses.

Prioritise your time

As a student, you are involved in many different activities including research, teaching, writing, outreach, participating in conferences and networks, research visits, taking courses etc. This is what makes research so exciting and rewarding – but it also calls for careful planning. Create an overview and a timetable for your PhD project. Your supervisor(s) can help you with this. Discuss how in your initial meetings.

Note that the GSTS offers courses in how to plan and manage a PhD project. For more info, see our page with transferable skills courses.

Need further help?

Various tools are available to take any awkwardness out of the conversation when aligning expectations and to help ensure you cover all the important topics. Your supervisor is likely to know of these and can take the lead if you choose to use any of them. Click her to find the description for supervisors on these tools.

You are always welcome to contact the GSTS with issues that your supervisor(s) is unable or unsuitable, to help with. This includes any personal, practical, scientific or collaboration challenges you may face. See our website for contact info on your PhD partner.

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