Sussex Researcher School

Communicating with your supervisor


A supervisory relationship is like any other relationship: communication is key. Also, it takes a while to get to know each other and discover the best way of working together. Most postgraduate researchers struggle during the first few months, but making the effort at the beginning will make your progress much smoother. Experiences will vary, of course, so everyone needs to find their own solution.

Cultural differences may also affect the type of relationship you have. Often, international postgraduate researchers expect it to be very formal. In the UK, however, it is completely normal to address your supervisor by their first name and to interact in a friendly (but professional) manner. By the end of your research degree, you’ll be considered a peer, rather than a student – this transition is one of the major challenges of postgraduate research. Although you might need a lot of support in the early months, you’re expected to become gradually more independent.

The Perils of Email

Inevitably, most communication is done through email these days. Although it can be an efficient tool, academics are notoriously bad at responding to messages. Here are a few tips on improving responsiveness:

  1. Ask your supervisor whether email is really the best method of communication. It’s rare, but some people might prefer to talk on the phone or have quick chats in person.
  2. Keep your emails brief. Nobody likes receiving a long rambling message with no obvious point. Using bullet points can help, and always conclude with a call to action, e.g. ‘can we meet next Tuesday at midday?’
  3. Use a descriptive email subject, and start a new conversation for each topic. Your supervisor might not realise you need feedback on a piece of writing if the subject line says ‘Our meeting’.
  4. Ask specific questions, e.g. ‘I’d like feedback on the structure of the attached draft,’ or, ‘I’ve incorporated your comments on p. 3 – does this now make more sense?’
  5. Send a friendly reminder if you’ve not received a response after a couple of days. This can feel like pestering, but it’s not unusual for academics to receive hundreds of emails each day, so yours can quickly disappear from their screen (and their mind).

Sussex Researcher School