The MGA can help you to negotiate your way to better supervision. Contact an MGA advocate for some confidential, independent and free advice.

The student/supervisor relationship is absolutely critical to an optimal research experience. It can make or break a PhD. Good supervisors provide mentoring, inspiration and intellectual challenge. A student-supervisor relationship, which is poor and unproductive, is extremely stressful. The MGA casework statistics show that poor supervision is the number one complaint reported by graduate research students.

Choosing a supervisor

This is an extract from a talk given to fourth year students in the Arts Faculty, by Jenny Reeder, MGA Executive Officer

Undertaking a research degree can be a very exciting and extremely productive time. It requires a great deal of commitment, hard work and stamina but at the end of it all, I’ve often had graduate students comment that it was the most rewarding experience of their lives.

One aspect I would encourage you to think about now, if you are contemplating continuing on in research, is that of choosing a supervisor. I can’t emphasise enough how important the supervisor/student relationship is, in terms of ensuring that you get the most out of your PhD or Masters.

How did you go about choosing a supervisor for your honours project? How much did you know about that person when you started?

Think about how much time you will be spending working with your supervisor, and over how long a period, 3 or 4 or even 5 years. It is worth putting some effort into getting the relationship working well, and that starts now, by thinking about potential supervisors.

Shop around.

You may have been approached by someone offering to supervise you, or the department/school may have recommended someone in your area. And the reality is, if you are working in a highly specialised area, there may not be much choice when it comes to supervisors.

But be a little proactive and make sure you are as well-informed as possible about your options. Some ways in which you can do this, is to think about the following questions in relationship to your potential supervisor.

Who is working in your area? Who is working in related research areas:

  1. in your school?
  2. in your faculty?
  3. in other faculties?

Would a combination of two or three supervisors from different areas be appropriate? How good is his/her research record?

  1. How many publications and where?
  2. How recent are the publications?
  3. How many grants?

Have you spoken with current and past students?

  1. Ask about the supervisor’s style
  2. Ability to give constructive criticism
  3. Frequency of meetings
  4. Timely return of submitted work

I’m not suggesting you corner potential supervisors and interrogate them, but a lot of this information is in the public domain, and you can make a few discreet inquiries of graduate students in the school.

I would highly recommend reading at least the first few chapters of How to get a PhD by Phillips and Pugh, for some very sensible advice on starting a research degree.

Managing your supervisor

Setting up and maintaining a good routine

One of the best starts you can make is to ensure that you meet regularly with your supervisor. Some academics can be notoriously difficult to catch, so it may be up to you to set a constant schedule of meetings.  You should make every effort to keep these appointments, even if you feel that you haven’t made any progress since your last meeting. One recommendation is that before your meeting concludes, you and your supervisor set an agreed time and date for the next meeting.

Frequency of sessions

How often should you be seeing your supervisor? The recommended minimum frequency at Monash is once a fortnight, but you will find that there will be periods where you will need to meet every few days, and other times where you may go for several weeks without contact. If you feel unhappy with the level of contact with your supervisor, let him/her know that you would like to meet more often. Despite increasing workloads, academics still have an obligation to provide an appropriate level of supervision for all of their students.

Difficult to catch supervisors 

If you are having difficulty getting your supervisor to meet with you, try emailing him/her with a request to meet, and a few suggested dates or times. Your supervisor is much more likely to remember to respond if you send the request in writing rather than make a hurried verbal agreement. If you don’t get any response within a week, email again. If there is still no response, speak with your Graduate Coordinator, and take along copies of your two emails. I have had students complaining that they haven’t had a meeting with their supervisor for over a year!  This is totally unacceptable on either side – don’t ever let things go this long before acting to rectify the situation.

Quality of sessions

Make sure you get the most out of your time with your supervisor. For more formal sessions, that might mean getting work in to your supervisor a couple of weeks prior to your meeting so that your supervisor has a chance to read the work, and you can both have a productive and detailed discussion on the work when you next meet. There’s nothing like an organised and hard-working graduate student to put the pressure on a supervisor to respond in a likewise manner. Even if your meetings are more casual and frequent, make a list of all the things you want to discuss with your supervisor as they come up, and take the list with you to the meeting. Check that you have covered everything on the list before you leave.

Cultural differences

In some cultures, it is not acceptable for a student to contradict or criticise an academic, who is seen as a figure of authority. In Australia, the relationship tends to be more collegial and academic debate is encouraged. It is perfectly acceptable to make a counter suggestion to your supervisor’s suggestion, and then to discuss with your supervisor which of the two options is the best way to proceed forward with the research. Rather than interpreting this behaviour as showing a lack of respect, Australian academics tend to appreciate the fact that you have thought about the work and are showing some initiative. It is vital that you can get to a point in the relationship where you feel comfortable engaging in academic debate with your supervisor.

Changing supervisors

Under special circumstances it may be necessary to have a change of supervisor, for example, if your supervisor leaves the University or if you are experiencing serious, irreconcilable differences in your relationship with your supervisor. Once the necessity for change has been discussed with and recognised by the department, it is a good idea for you to be proactive in seeking a replacement supervisor. You can do this by working with the department to think of all the possible options, and you will find that most departments are keen to find an arrangement that not only fulfils their obligations, but keeps you happy in the process.

Start by making appointments to speak with any academics within the department who might be potential supervisors. Are they working in your area or a related area? Are they interested in your work? Would they want you to change the direction of your project? Are they able to take on another student? This is a chance for both you and your supervisor to interview each other. Talk to your supervisor’s current students to get some ‘informal references’. If you can’t find anyone within the department, is there anyone in the Faculty? Is there anyone within the University, or perhaps someone at another University or in private industry? While the latter options are not promoted by departments, they are possible in extreme circumstances. If you feel that your department is not offering you a reasonable level of flexibility, talk to your Head of Department or Graduate Coordinator.

MGA self-help guide to problem resolution

By Jenny Reeder, MGA Executive Officer

Many students come to MGA with problems concerning their courses, departments or supervisors. MGA staff most often work behind the scenes, assisting students with strategies to enable them to solve their own problems. Here are some suggestions MGA staff have found useful in assisting graduate students to work through problems they may encounter.

1. Identify the problem

This may sound obvious but sometimes it’s the most difficult part. Graduate students can arrive at the office with a long list of woes. Can one primary problem be identified? Additional problems may be secondary and will disappear when the primary problem is sorted out. If there are a number of separate problems, start to work on the one that is causing you the most grief.

2. Establish the norm

Is the complaint reasonable? Talk to other graduate students about their experiences. You might find out that what you thought was a problem, is generally accepted around the university (eg you’ve had a room to yourself for a year and now the department has moved in two other students!). On the other hand, you might find out that what you’ve been accepting as normal, is totally outrageous. If you need to get a university-wide perspective on things, ask the MGA staff.

3. Know you’re not alone

Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you must be the only graduate student with such a difficult and complicated problem. Everyone else you know seems to be breezing along, right? Wrong. Students with difficulties are often reluctant to discuss their problems with anyone else because they fear there may be repercussions. Many graduate students arriving at the MGA office feel a sense of relief to learn that MGA deals with these situations all the time. No, it’s not just you!

4. Decide on a satisfactory outcome

What would you like to achieve? Think about possible and realistic solutions. It’s always more productive to be able to offer a solution along with the complaint. Write down the main points so that it is clear in your mind what the issues are. Depending on the nature of the problem, you may have to decide whether the consequences of raising it within your department will be worse than just putting up with it for the remainder of your candidature. Sad, but true. Sometimes just talking about your problem can be therapeutic – choose a sympathetic ear. Think seriously before you proceed if the problem occurred some time ago and now no longer exists – seeking revenge or apologies can cause you stress and waste your precious time and energy.

5. Go to the source

In most instances, it is best to go directly to the source of the problem before trying anything else. If you have a problem with the quality of your course, speak directly to the course coordinator in the first instance. Most departments will want to know if there is a level of dissatisfaction among their postgraduates – sometimes the solution is simple and the problem easily addressed.

If you have a problem with your supervisor, go and talk to him/her about it. This can be really difficult and stressful, because the last thing you want to do is to get your supervisor offside. Don’t raise the issue with your supervisor as he/she is hurrying past in the corridor: make an appointment to see your supervisor so that you have an allocated time to talk privately. Try to stay cool and calm and raise the issue in a professional manner. You will get a lot further by being firm rather than aggressive. Assume that he/she will respond in a professional and sensitive manner. Give your supervisor the opportunity to work with you to find a solution. You may be surprised to discover that what seems to be an enormous and obvious problem for you is something of which your supervisor is not even aware. The solution may be as simple as telling your supervisor what’s bothering you.

6. Work your way up the chain of command

There’s no point launching into full-scale formal grievance procedures if you haven’t given your department ample opportunity to respond. Apart from being the right thing to do, problems are much more likely to be resolved while they’re being dealt with informally. If you don’t get any satisfaction from your first point of contact, try speaking with the next person in line. That could be a Graduate Coordinator, Head of Department, Associate Dean, Dean and all the way to the top. Remember that the University, along with you, want you to complete your degree successfully; although the reasons for wanting that success may differ, the goal is the same.

7. MGA advice and advocacy

Don’t forget to take advantage of the fact that staff at MGA are experienced in dealing with graduate student issues and are familiar with the way the University system works. MGA staff can provide you with an objective opinion, useful advice and strategies, and guaranteed confidentiality. At your request a staff member can attend meetings either as an impartial observer or to speak on your behalf. Advice can be given by phone to graduate students who do not wish to identify themselves.

Code of Practice for Supervision
Code of Practice for Supervision of doctoral and research master’s candidates

Supervisor accreditation policy and maximum supervision load
5.1 Appointment of supervisors

Supervising by distance
Guidelines for remote supervision

Book an appointment with an MGA advocate

To get in contact with one of our advocates, please book an appointment via email. Alternatively, you can call the Clayton (9905 3197) or Caulfield (9903 1880) office to speak to one of our advocates.

Advocate for Clayton, AMREP, MMC and Gippsland:

Sunshine Kamaloni

James Breheny

Advocate for Caulfield, Peninsula, Parkville and Law Chambers:

Sarah Murphy

Ying Xu