Good supervisor-student relationship key to successful PhD projects

By Dr. Tanusree Chakravarty Mukherjee, Dr. Lew Tek Yew and Dr. Adamu Abbas Adamu 

Pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree is a big step taken by individuals who want to achieve the highest pinnacle of academia. It requires a lot of time, money and effort from the students. However, many embark on PhDs without fully understanding the process involved in the study journey.

Though different universities have their own policies and procedures for higher degree by research (HDR) study, there are key stages involved which are largely universal. In any regard, it is imperative that prospective PhD, as well as masters by research students, to familiarise themselves with the process, policies and procedures to avoid getting caught flat-footed.

Depending on the education system of the university or country, there are two or three stages of accessing HDR students. In this article, we will focus only on universities so that readers can get a clearer picture of the process.

The first stage of assessment of HDR students is called ‘milestone 1’ or ‘proposal defence’. This is the stage where students are assessed based on their preparedness to collect data for the studies to be embarked upon. Faculty members will scrutinise their research idea to ensure their originality and relevance to the research community. In the case of PhDs, the individuals are called ‘PhD students’, and if they pass this stage successfully, they will be called ‘PhD candidates’.

The second stage is the ‘milestone 2 presentations’ which normally take place after the students have collected their data. Students are expected to present their preliminary findings at this stage. Thereafter, they will be given a couple of opportunities to present their final research findings.

The presentation of the final research is called ‘Milestone 3’, ‘VIVA’ or ‘Defence’. In some universities, it is considered the final presentation of a thesis. In other cases, students only get feedback on how to improve on their theses before they are sent to external examiners for evaluation and recommendation.

The success of this journey boils down to sound relationships between students and supervisors. A PhD journey can be a challenging one for both supervisors and students, and it takes both parties to work closely together to ensure that the student graduates on time, produces high-quality publications, and both parties enjoy a meaningful supervisory experience.

There are many supervision models that can guide the supervisory process (Riva, Gracia & Limb, 2022). The ‘teaching/apprenticeship’ model assumes an asymmetrical relationship of power where the supervisor is the master of knowledge. This model is the most conventional model, which is suitable for students who are dependent on their supervisors for guidance, have very little knowledge of research and need the most guidance during the beginning of the PhD journey before the proposal defence.

The ‘partnership model’, meanwhile, assumes symmetrical power dynamics of the supervisor and student that encourages regular dialogues, which leads to the third model, which is ‘co-creation’, which emphasises the collaborative process between student engagement and partnership to ensure the wellbeing of the students are taken care of.

This model involves meeting both the supervisor’s and student’s expectations and perspectives, requires the right institutional context such as academic culture, resources and community support, and adopts the developmental approach of developing students as experts in their respective fields. In brief, the ‘co-creation’ supervisory model is the best as it contributes towards managing the expectations of both supervisors and students, ensuring communication, rebalancing of power dynamics, as well as meeting students’ interests and career goals.

In addition, the supervisors should ensure a good balance between the duty of care for the students’ wellbeing (which includes being concerned about their personal/family life) and the professional duties of being an academic supervisor. The supervisors have a duty to produce PhD graduates who are future scholars able to demonstrate generic attributes such as employability, good attitudes, high integrity as well as high virtue/moral values. Thus, the supervisory relationship has to be effective, healthy and guided by the values of trust, transparency, integrity, courage, impact, respect, professionalism and excellence.

A HDR project’s effectiveness depends on the bilateral relationship between the supervisor and HDR student. The supervisor-student relationship is also intricate and multidimensional, and each stakeholder has specific expectations of the other. Proper encouragement, counsel, support, constructive criticism, pastoral care and encouragement to foster autonomous thought and working methods are all essential components of good PhD supervision.

It can be challenging to strike the correct balance between the needs and expectations of students and supervisors because these needs and expectations frequently differ. Students need mentors they can trust to guide them, whom they regard as knowledgeable professionals, simultaneously encouraging and helpful.

It might be a good idea for potential HDR students to gather information about the supervisors’ supervision style by inquiring with the supervisors’ current or previous students about their experiences. While PhD students could have expectations for their supervisors regarding the supervision, likewise, supervisors will have expectations of their students.

Sinclair (2004) distinguishes between a ‘hands-on’ strategy, which is largely interventionist, and a ‘hands-off’ one, which provides candidates with some autonomy. Depending on the stages of their projects, HDR students might be required to choose between these two methods.

Regular supervisory meetings are one of the most crucial aspects of maintaining progress and a positive supervisory relationship. These meetings are occasions to talk about developments, pinpoint issues, and exchange ideas. It is crucial to understand that HDR research is distinguished by novelty and students’ theses must make innovative contributions to knowledge and be their own work. Thus, the students should not expect to be spoon-fed or expect their supervisors to continuously advise and encourage them.

Since the students will subsequently defend their thesis at the VIVA, therefore, it is essential for them to realise that they are expected and encouraged to work and think exclusively and carry the key decisions, such as choice of methodology, autonomously.

The HDR process should always involve discussion, disagreement, and constructive criticism rather than merely the supervisor ‘teaching’ the student. The students would be consequently regarded as ‘experts’ in that specific field of study; thus, they must communicate with rational and coherent counterarguments when they have a disagreement with their supervisor.

The major supervisory issues generally arise when the expectations are outlined indistinctively. Therefore, the supervisor and student should have a courteous discussion about the problems at hand as the first step towards the resolution of any supervisory issues. This interaction customarily benefits both the supervisor and students.

The HDR students should be ready to accept the instructions and guidance from the supervisor; however, an association that is overly focused on the students risks producing potentially less worthy research projects.

Dr. Tanusree Chakravarty Mukherjee is a lecturer in the Accounting, Finance and Economics Department at the Faculty of Business, Curtin University Malaysia. Her research interests lie in Applied Economics, Micro and Macroeconomics. She has received funding from the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education and Curtin University Malaysia for her research projects and has authored book chapters, journal articles and conference proceedings. She can be contacted by email at

Dr. Lew Tek-Yew is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management, Faculty of Business, Curtin University Malaysia. Dr. Lew’s research interests include human resource management, organisational behaviour, psychological capital and organisational commitment and higher education. He has published over 25 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Lew can be contacted by email at

Dr. Adamu Abbas Adamu is a lecturer in the Department of Management, Marketing and Digital Business at Curtin Malaysia’s Faculty of Business. His research interests include public relations, crisis communication, and digital storytelling. Dr. Adamu is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Digital Marketing and Communication (JDMC) and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK (FHEA). Dr. Adamu can be contacted by email at