What makes a good supervisor?


This post has been written by Kelsey Halbert at James Cook University. It was prompted by her presentation at the recent International Quality Post Graduate Research conference in Adelaide, Australia. What is inspirational in this post is that it is an encouragement for other research supervisors and advisors to investigate rigorously their own practices and to do this by talking to one of the most important stakeholders of the research degree process, the student.

This post is based on conversations with groups of current doctoral students about their supervisory experiences. These discussions took place as part of a wider qualitative study I conducted in which I prompted candidates to talk about their positive and negative experiences and make recommendations that would improve their candidacy. While we also talked about a range of institutional processes and supports, their supervision was undoubtedly the most significant factor in students’ feeling satisfied and making progress.

In terms of my researcher position, I am a relatively new supervisor, early in my career but conscious of the need to reflect on my own experiences as a student and how those have shaped my own notion of ‘the good supervisor’. Hearing about the different orientations to and traditions of research and research supervision has enriched my own practice and provided recommendations for improving institutional practice. It has also enabled current students to share experiences with each other. I hope that this post extends that sharing even further.

I asked doctoral candidates in focus groups across a range of disciplines: “What makes a good supervisor?”. The seventy students who participated affirmed the importance of a good relationship, expertise in both the field and the research process and an ethic of care and support. Regardless of the form, students want regular engagement with their supervisor or supervisory team. A good supervisor is:

Understanding, flexible, respectful and pushes approachable, switched on, actually cares about students Understanding, communicative. Contactable. Sense of humour. Positivity.
Knowledgeable in the area but doesn’t have to be a major interest to them.

Some supervisors might contend that their expertise is the most important resource they offer to students, but clearly some students’ value communicative practices and the process of support over expertise.

The key practices were accessibility and communication. For some students this means flexibility and for others it means predictability and regular meeting times. The comments below indicate the diverse approaches to communication – formal and informal, regular or needs based:

  • My supervisor is informal. If I want to talk, he says come back after lunch.
  • We never have minutes of regular discussions.
  • My experiences have been quite good. Generally speaking we have a weekly meeting. The meetings are not structured but the meeting schedule is of 1 hour face-to-face each week. I find that really helpful because during the week questions arise so I know I have that opportunity to ask my supervisor.
  • [I] think it’s about finding what suits the people involved. If there are weeks I feel I have nothing to say and am not ready to discuss it we just don’t have a meeting that week. I think it’s about creating that structure at the beginning.

This clear and regular communication is a factor in shaping what Halse and Malfroy (2010) refer to as a ‘learning alliance’ – a mutual commitment and engagement with the research project. Support and enthusiasm for the candidate fit into what Halse and Malfroy (2010) describe as “habits of mind”, which include a disposition and modes of behaviour, self-awareness, reflective practice, responsiveness to student needs, openness, application of ‘lived knowledge’. Several candidates referred to such habits as positive experiences:

  • Highlight and Anchor has been advisors that have faith in what I can do
  • [My supervisor’s are] Patient, into detail, inspire direction that I’m seeking, friends to me, open to thoughts, exchange knowledge.
  • Having a supervisor that encourages you. My supervisor is keen because he’s interested, we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. He sits in the back and says ‘Go, go, go.’ Can stay passionate and focused. I’ve been at crossroads where I simply don’t know what to do. My supervisor may not know either, but he says let’s sit down and figure out what to do.
  • [I have] two positive, helpful supervisors and relationship where they understanding where I’m coming from because of my background
  • Sometimes I walk into my supervisors where I say ‘I hate my subject and the whole thing. Tell me what I need to be doing and get me back on track!’ And she says, ‘Ok, go and do this and you’ve got this time.’
  • Managed to talk in supervisory meetings – more substance than other students – and he replies to emails.
  • There is a lot of trust both ways.

The comments above offer multiple perspectives on the responsiveness and ethic of care that a good supervisor demonstrates. This is facilitated by trust, patience and supports that go beyond intellectual or technical to acknowledge the affective dimension of supervision.

So what does this mean for current candidates and supervisors?

There is a variety of expectations of supervision: some that stem from previous experiences and perceptions of the ideal and some that stem from the specific demands of the research and the field we might be researching. However, there are fairly consistent ideas of the ‘good supervisor’ as being someone (or two or three people) who are committed, accessible, and supportive and usually in regular communication about the research project (see further research by Barnes, Wolfe, Chard, Stassen, & Williams, 2011; Kiley, 2011; Ward & Gardner, 2008).

As a candidate you can manage the supervisory relationship by being clear about roles and expectations and setting the agenda. The take home message for supervisors is that your contribution is the most significant factor in the research education process. These student voices call for regular and substantive communication, however there are diverse ways of relating. If these are clarified and responsive to the particular candidate then the supervisory relationship will more than likely be a good one.


Barnes, B. J., Wolfe, E. W., Chard, L. A., Stassen, M. L. A., & Williams, E. A. (2011). An evaluation of the psychometric properties of the graduate advising survey for doctoral students. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 6 (Journal Article), 1.

Halse, C., & Malfroy, J. (2010). Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professional work. Studies in Higher Education, 35(1), 79-92. doi: 10.1080/03075070902906798

Kiley, M. (2011). Government Policy and Research Higher Degree Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(6), 629-640.

Ward, K., & Gardner, S. K. (2008). Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D. (review) (Vol. 79, pp. 240-242). Columbus: Ohio State University Press.



About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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One Response to What makes a good supervisor?

  1. I quite like reading through an article that
    can make people think. Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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