Working With Your Advisor

Competing a doctoral program involves more than taking courses and writing a dissertation. Many doctoral students also teach, conduct research and begin learning what it means to be a faculty member. Supervision by a faculty advisor or mentor is a key component to successfully fulfilling these roles.

Lee (2008) identified five approaches to supervision that a faculty member might take: functional, enculturation, critical, emancipation and developmental relationship. Each type of supervision takes a different approach to helping doctoral students become independent as researchers, writers and professionals. Understanding these approaches to supervision can help you better understand what to expect from supervisors.

Functional supervisors focus on developing skills and often take on the role of director or project manager. From the first day of graduate school, students are expected to achieve and maintain independence through a timetable of goals. Students of functional supervisors know what they are expected to accomplish right up to graduation.

Supervisors who take the enculturation approach see themselves as gatekeepers to knowledge and resources. Students are given access to their supervisor’s knowledge and resources when they are ready; the road to independence happens one step at a time. Rather than mapping out the entire path to graduation, supervisors provide the necessary resources as needed and not before.

The critical thinking approach “addresses such questions as what is the underlying conceptual framework, what are the arguments for and against, what has been considered and what has been left out” (Lee, 2008, p 273). Supervisors who use the critical thinking approach help their students gain independence through questioning their own ideas. Independence is often achieved when the student knows which ideas are worth pursuing.

Supervisors who take an emancipation approach challenge and support students by providing mentoring and sponsorship in academic pursuit. They foster growth in each student through challenges appropriate to each student’s developmental level. The emphasis on mentoring helps students achieve independence through self-experience and self-discovery.

When working with a supervisor who takes a developmental relationship approach, a positive relationship and clear outline of expectations is essential. While this type of supervision provides support in the form of encouragement and recognition of achievement, students need to be careful that their supervisor is an appropriate emotional match. A mismatch usually means the student and supervisor are not clear on expectations, possibly causing delays in program completion. Independence is achieved when students begin taking initiative to complete their own projects.

Supervision, especially communication between you and your supervisor is essential to successful degree completion. If you understand the different types of supervision approaches and know which one your supervisor prefers, you can more easily pinpoint the sources of problems or miscommunications if they occur. Whichever approach your supervisor takes, you share responsibility for the quality of mentoring you receive.

Also, your supervision needs are likely to change as you develop advanced skills throughout your academic career. Stay in touch with your advisor.
Keep her informed of your goals and expectations. That’s the best formula for working effectively with your supervisor.

Lee, A. (2008). How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision. Society for Research into Higher Education, 33, 267-281.