Helping your supervisors help you

Supervisors of postgraduate ressearch students, including those on PhD and MRes programmes, often supervise more than one student and a time and always have various other competing priorities. Providing good support and supervision is extremely time consuming. It is rarely reflected well in any workload management system any university adopts. Various things students might do, because they don’t know any different, can make the process even more time consuming, resulting in long delays in getting the kind of support they need.

Don’t be one of those students.

This crib sheet is based mostly on my own experience, but it includes pieces of advice form other sources too, including various people I’ve supervised alongside int he past. (It is not necessarily the official position of my current or past employers.) Your supervisors might have different expectations. Your university might have different requirements. And if you’re not a psychologist, your disciplinary mores might differ. These are merely some ways of working that have generally worked well for me with my own doctoral and MRes students. Best outcomes might be achieved by using this crib sheet as a conversation starter with your own supervision team. By clear communication of expectations, on both sides, you’ll be able to develop a productive supervisory relationship that maximises your chances of a good outcome.

General principles

Competing demands mean that last-minute requests are much less likely to gain a positive response. If you don’t believe me, try to find a research-active academic who has never sent an email saying something like, “you haven’t given reasonable notice, so I can’t do it.”

You supervisors may have to negotiate with their own collaborators to make time for the work you’re asking them to do, so advance notice truly is necessary.

Obviously, this ties in with the importance of long-term project management for your research more generally. You will surely wish to have important deadlines flagged up on your Gantt charts or other project plans.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

The sections below outline procedures and timelines by type of activity, but more generally you need to remember:

  1. Incorporate plenty of time into your project plans for adequate and sequential feedback.
  2. Warn supervisors when you’ll need feedback on substantial documents. Always give an idea about how long it might take, e.g. by mentioning the probable word count and what kind of feedback you’ll be hoping for.
  3. It will usually be your principal supervisor who checks and provides feedback on early drafts of most documents; ordinarily, only more developed pieces of work (which should require less input) should be sent to other members of your supervisory team. The obvious exception is with the development of the design of each study. Working for a long time on study design only to find out that other supervisors can see a fundamental flaw in it is a waste of your time.
  4. Remember that all members of your supervisory team need to approve final copies of all important documents: this includes ethics applications, conference submissions/presentations and journal manuscripts. Any later changes to study protocols need the agreement of all members of the team too. To fail to get such sign-off is a significant breach of professional ethics. This is not a special part of the supervision relationship. This is how scientists always should behave with their collaborators. For instance, most journal and conference submission websites require you to tick to confirm that all authors have seen and are happy with the submitted version. This process takes more time than expected.


A draft agenda should be emailed to all those attending any given supervision meeting at least 1 week in advance of the meeting date. The agenda need not be formal. A brief note to list the topics of conversation is all that’s needed.

Any important discussion items that arise in the intervening period can be tabled, and any resolved items can be downgraded to a brief mention. Any documents that supervisors will need to have read / reviewed for supervision meetings should also be sent at least one week in advance to allow adequate preparation time, and to make best use of supervision.

Often when working with scientific collaborators, issues need substantial time and thought for clarification. Failing to provide documents, or flagging up what will be on the agenda, well in advance often means meeting time is wasted.

Planning a study

  • Prior to completing any paperwork, have a discussion (in supervision or by Teams/email etc) to ensure that all supervisors (and other collaborators as applicable) are in agreement about broad aims and design of the study. Check at this point that no supervisors (or collaborators) have leave or overseas visits booked which are going to get in the way.
  • Send first draft of the ethics application (and protocol if needed) to your principal supervisor in plenty of time. In our lab, we have a general rule of at least 4 weeks in advance of target ethics deadline (allow minimum 1 week turnaround time).
  • Revise the documentation and send to full supervisory team (and Red Team where applicable) at least 2 weeks in advance of target ethics deadline (allow minimum 1 week turnaround time).
  • Then finalise paperwork and email to principal supervisor for final check and sign-off at least 3 days before target ethics deadline.
  • In most universities, it is the student’s responsibility to submit to the ethics committee by the deadline.
  • After the ethics committee meeting, discuss feedback and potential amendments with principal supervisor. Plan of action to be outlined in an email to full supervisory/collaboration team.
  • All supervisors/collaborators should be sent a copy of the final approved form, with associated materials and amendment forms. These should be clearly marked as being the final, approved versions.

Submitting to a conference

  • Send completed proforma to principal supervisor at least 4 weeks before submission deadline (allow minimum 1 week turnaround time).
  • Revise proforma and send to full supervisory/collaborator team for final comments at least 2 weeks before submission deadline (allow a minimum 1 week turnaround time): depending on feedback, supervisors/collaborators may ask to see another revision before approving submission.
  • Send final submitted copy to all supervisors/collaborators once submitted. You should never submit anything to a conference without all authors having approved the final version of the submission. This is standard practice across scientific disciplines and to do otherwise can result in co-authors requesting withdrawal of abstracts. That is not a good look, so please do avoid the contingency arising.
  • When you have been informed of submission outcome, email the full authorship team the notification of outcome, and if accepted, a full APA formatted reference for CVs. Let the team know at this point if there’s anything you’re going to need from them to be able to put together the presentation or poster.

Conference posters (whether you or your supervisor are presenting)

  • If you’re the lead investigator on a project, as you are when it’s your research degree, it will often fall to you to write poster content. But as with any other academic work, your supervisors will also be named as authors, and it’s essential that you are all in agreement as to the content and presentation.
  • Graphical formatting is time consuming, so I’ve found it’s usually better to start in a simple word processing file (no formatting). Send this to your principal supervisor 6 weeks before you are due to leave for the conference (allow a minimum 1 week turnaround time).
  • At this point it is also advisable to discuss with your principal supervisor the draft layout that you are planning for the poster.
  • Once content has been revised, you should start to format the poster using any templates your lab or university might require. Send fully formatted draft back to full supervisory/collaborator team at least 3 weeks before you leave for the conference (allow a minimum 1 week turnaround time).
  • You should aim to have finished your poster at least 1 week before you leave for the conference to allow time for printing. Remember that university and commercial print units are sometimes very busy and turnaround times can vary.

Oral conference presentations

  • Delivering an oral conference presentation can be stressful. It’s much less stressful if you’ve had the thing written plenty of time in advance, know exactly what you’re going to say, and have had time to practice plenty of times.
  • Discuss the content and a general plan/outline with your principal supervisor 6-8 weeks before the conference; remember that if someone else is presenting for you, they may still want your input in writing content. If you are the lead investigator on a project, it may be easiest for you to write the content. But as with any other academic work, your supervisors will also be named as authors, and it’s essential that you are all in agreement as to the content and presentation.
  • Write and fully format slides, in sufficient time to practice delivery of the presentation. You might want to start by doing this yourself, to a webcam or in the mirror. Your lab or student group might also be able to offer you time in a meeting to practice in front others and gain some feedback and advice. This in itself can be scary but it’s a very good idea to do it.
  • Plan for a short meeting with your principal supervisor at least 2 weeks before conference to talk through changes made since your practice presentation.

Thesis chapters

  • It’s usually a good idea to discuss an outline plan for each chapter should be discussed with your principal supervisor before you start any substantial writing.
  • The amount of time your supervisors will need for checking drafts will vary dramatically depending on the kind of feedback you need at each stage. For instance, if you’re working on an early draft and you just want to know if the narrative structure is roughly right, your supervisor might be able to skim read your chapter in half an hour and so they might easily be able to fit such a task into their calendar in the next few days.
  • Your principal supervisor will probably want to indicate when the draft is ready to be commented on by your other supervisors (again, allow a minimum 2 weeks for feedback). But this will depend a bit on the make-up and expertise of your particular supervision team.
  • Your supervisors will indicate whether additional draft readings are required. It’s not at all uncommon for PhD thesis chapters to go through multiple re-drafts, so please don’t get disheartened if you’re still being given feedback after what feels like a thousand versions. Once you’re supervisors feel the chapter is ready for inclusion, you should make all recommended changes and update again before supervisors check in the full thesis read-through.
  • On a related point, you need to factor in a period towards the end of your writing when you’ll send a fully complete (and ideally, formatted) thesis to your supervisors for a final full draft read though. Reading and commenting on a whole PhD thesis is a very large task (several days of work). Most supervisors and mock examiners will need to be given about 2 months to do this. Most universities will offer you a mock viva during this period. Most students need at least 2 months after the mock viva to make changes, and then another month for one of your supervisors (usually the Principal Supervisor) to check those changes. Once content in finalized, most students need 2-4 weeks for final formatting, proof reading and printing. Adding those times up, we can see that you need to have a final draft ready for supervisors and mock viva six months before your intended date of submission. Vivas will normally take place within three months of thesis submission, but this is reliant on all necessary paperwork (e.g. Intent to Submit form) having been submitted within the timelines imposed by your university’s Registry or Graduate School: if you miss those deadlines, you may have a longer wait to viva.

Journal manuscripts

  • Many scholars agree you should have written thesis chapters prior to starting work on a journal manuscript. The main reason for this is that the boundaries are clearer. It’s essential that you present for examination, in your thesis, work that is truly yours.
  • Thesis chapters are typically a little longer, making fewer assumptions of the reader’s prior knowledge, explaining your own epistemological and scientific assumptions, and so on. Though there are cases where it will be desirable to write for publication first, this presents numerous challenges for your supervisors, who may then need to restrict somewhat their degree of input into the process of drafting a paper.
  • Once you’re ready to write up work for publication, start a conversation with your supervisors about strategy. There are many things to consider. For instance, at various points in history, academics have been encouraged to publish more papers, or fewer ‘big’ papers. You might need to get your message out to practitioners, or might seek to spark a debate amongst other scholars. There are many things to consider, and your supervisors should know the field well enough to be able to talk you through these considerations.
  • Establish a clear publication plan, including two or three journals you might send the manuscript (if you get a rejection from the first one). Remember not to get hung up on this plan. The feedback you get from peer reviewers and editors might change your mind about what’s the best strategy.
  • Early drafts of the manuscript (formatted to specific journal) should usually be checked by your principal supervisor (allowing a minimum 3 weeks for feedback). Include an explicit indication of the intended journal and the authorship order. Right from the beginning, use an appropriate manuscript format for your intended journal.
  • Your principal supervisor will indicate when the manuscript is ready to go to other supervisors/co-authors (allowing a minimum 3 weeks for feedback).
  • Repeat as necessary until supervisors/co-authors indicate that it is ready for submission.
  • You’ll need to send the final version to all supervisors/co-authors for final check and submission approval (allowing a minimum 2 weeks for confirmation).
  • You should never submit anything to a journal without all authors having approved the submission. Most journals and professional bodies consider this to be a form of scientific malpractice. It’s far better to have that process documented in writing just in case there should every be any misunderstanding or miscommunication.
  • It may take several months to receive peer review and an outcome from the journal. When you do receive the notification, make sure the rest of your authorship team received it too, and forward it to them if not. Outright acceptance, without even minor changes, are very rare. So next you’ll probably want to outline a revision or resubmission plan by email.
  • A table format is often best for drafting your response to the reviewers and editor. In the first column, paste their comments, each comment getting a new row in the table. In the second column, write your draft comment explaining what you’ve changed in the manuscript, or why you feel it is better not to make changes, and so on.
  • Again, to save you time in the long run it’s often better to get your co-authors to agree these changes in table format at this stage before you spend time making changes to the manuscript.
  • When you have been informed of acceptance by the journal, email the full authorship team with outcome, and if accepted, a full APA formatted reference for CVs.