Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Advisor, not “supervisor”

I want this blog entry to be a reminder to those who are already doing a PhD, and a point of consideration for those who are planning on starting a PhD. I want to clarify a misuse of terminology that I think every PhD student has probably made at one point or another, or, like me, far more often. PhD students don’t have “supervisors”, we have “advisors” -- the distinction between these two words is very important.

When I first started my PhD, I soon realised I could run pretty much any experiment I wanted (like this one) with minimal involvement from my advisors. In fact, a lot of students find it quite (frustratingly?) simple to go weeks at a time without even speaking to their advisors.

Sometimes going long periods without seeing the people you work with isn’t a good thing, but, advisors aren’t “supervisors” who stand over your shoulder checking your every step. PhD students need moderated independence from their advisors so we can learn how to stand on our own feet, work through some problems on our own, and learn from our own mistakes.

For me, the flip side to having independence from my advisors is knowing when to go to them for help, to clarify my thoughts, to ask “dumb” questions, or just to tell them I’ve got the shits with an experiment. Remember, PhD advisors are experts in their fields, and they’re probably familiar with a lot of the problems students encounter on their PhD Journey.

I encourage everyone to remember that the role of a PhD advisor is to give advice, not to supervise. If you’re already a PhD student, ask your advisors questions about things you’re not sure of and how best to plan for the road ahead. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD, find an advisor who you will feel comfortable going to for advice.

Personally, I like to try new things and test what I’m capable of doing on my own, but if there’s something I need advice on, I ask my advisors.



  1. Good point you make about the meaning of supervisor versus advisor. I hadn't given this distinction too much thought yet. I agree that during your PhD studies you should see the academic(s) you work with as advisors rather than supervisors who stand over your shoulder checking your every step.

    However, I would like to add one thing. One of the meanings the dictionary gives for supervisor is "someone who observes and directs the work of someone else". In my opinion this does not necessarily have to be taken to mean "stand over your shoulder checking your every step". Instead this definition may also include a less authoritative form of guidance. If you take this less authoritative form of guidance into account, the beginning of your PhD studies may certainly include some supervisory elements in addition to the main advisory elements.

    - Joyce

  2. That's a great point, Joyce, and thanks for the clarification. I agree with everything you said, but in my post I was trying to encourage people to be proactive and to seek out advice, not just "wait to be supervised".

  3. I agree that the point you make is an important one. Perhaps even one of the most important points to keep in mind while doing your PhD (assuming you want to finish successfully of course ;) ...

  4. There's a lot of literature on PhD supervision styles, but I highly recommend current PhD students to read (okay... skim through) a government study on this:


  5. It seems every other discipline *except psychology* is represented in the report! Maybe we are supposed to be in the "Biological Sciences" discipline.

  6. I also found this link to be helpful during my studies: