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The basics
Study abroad : Once you arrive

How to work with an academic supervisor

Universities provide all students with a great deal of support, even postgraduate students. An academic supervisor is an example of such support. Here we look at what their role is and what they can do for you.

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If you’re a postgraduate student, you will be assigned an academic supervisor to work with, but what is a supervisor? We answer this question and look at what they do for you and what you can do to make this academic relationship work for you. 


What does an academic supervisor do?

Your postgraduate supervisor is your mentor throughout your studies. They help guide you and provide you with information and advice related to your research project. This can be at both master’s degree and PhD study level. They offer support, general academic advice, and sometimes even personal advice. 


Find out if postgraduate study is right for you.


Characteristics of a good academic supervisor

You may not find someone who has all these characteristics, but the more they tick, the better the supervisor you’ll get.

  • Treats you as an academic equal, not just a student.
  • Someone approachable and easy to talk to.
  • Meets with your regularly.
  • Provides clear direction.
  • Has realistic expectations of their supervisee.
  • Challenges your opinion.
  • Teaches you to defend your opinion and ideas. 
  • Someone inspiring and motivational. 


How do they help you?

Academic supervisors are there to help you throughout your course. More specifically, they will help guide you throughout your research project, from helping you to establish your research project and question to discussing which research methods to use. 


They will also be able to guide with which resources to use and where to find more information and advice. They can also help with academic skills such as time management and critical thinking


You may feel comfortable enough to talk to your supervisor about non-academic problems. They can be there for that type of support also. 

Throughout your time together, your supervisor is also there to help you plan for your post-study career. They will probably also be someone you will ask to write you a reference when applying for jobs after graduation


What should students do?

Any relationship is a two-way process. This includes your relationship with your academic supervisor. Attend each scheduled session – they are there for your benefit, not their own and make sure that you are fully prepared for each session. Prepare questions in advance or have an idea of what you would like to achieve from your session. 


Ask for feedback and listen with an open mind. Feedback is a valuable resource to learn from so try not to take it personally. It’s an opportunity for you to be honest with yourself and a chance to learn from self-reflection. If you’re having academic issues, be open about them, your supervisor is there to help you in this situation. 


However, it’s not just academic problems that supervisors are there for. You can tell them about what you’re involved in outside of your studies. Tell them about your career aspirations and future plans. The more information your supervisor has about you, both inside and outside of the university, the better they will be to write you that reference which may be your first step on your career ladder. 


Your supervisor isn’t your friend, but they should be someone you can trust and rely on to help you during your studies. 


The University of York has a piece of very useful information about working with your academic supervisor.


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