Should My PhD Supervisor Be a Mentor, Colleague or Boss

PhDs are large undertakings for both the student, and their supervisors. Yet, not much time is spent considering the type of supervisor a student might need or want. Furthermore, little thought is devoted to how this might change throughout the process. In this blog I look at three approaches – boss, colleague, mentor – and how each might be beneficial at different stages of the PhD.


Good day there, bakers, writers, and rock stars. Welcome to another episode of the Dr. Richard Huysman’s podcast. Hopefully you’re getting some value out of this. If you are getting value, I’d love if you shared the information on social media by either writing a review or making a comment or letting your friends know, and of course please, please, please, subscribe. It helps me help you.

So, on to the topic of today’s podcast which is all about whether your supervisor should be a mentor a colleague or a boss. Firstly, choosing the right supervisor is probably the most important decision of your PhD. Probably more important than the selection of your topic itself. Certainly, evidence suggests that success of your PhD, so completion or not and enjoyment of your PhD is all linked to the relationship between you and your supervisor. This is born out in research looking at supervisor student relationships, and PhD completions, etc. So, choosing a supervisor is really important and having them act in the right way, I think is really important. So, if you’re listening or watching as a student, bear these things in mind. If you’re listening or watching as a supervisor of students, also be mindful that how you supervise each student will need to differ depending on the stage that they’re at in your PhD. So, you might ask do I want someone who acts like a boss. Someone who acts like a colleague or someone who acts like a mentor. I think you need each of these different personality types if you like at different stages in your PhD. So, in the beginning, I think a lot of time is wasted on PhDs with choices that ultimately don’t matter. So, having someone who’s a boss. Someone who can help you make decisions and make them quickly. In fact, someone who might make decisions for you and make them for you quickly is really important. You can save a lot of time by quickly choosing a topic, by quickly choosing an approach, and then getting on and started collecting the data or building your approach or building your tools or getting access to your tools. So, early on you really want to choose a supervisor who’s going to be like a boss to you.

Then as you progress into the middle years of your PhD, you need that person to shift, you need that person to shift from being a boss or if you’re a supervisor. You need to shift from bossing your students into what to do, and now being more like a colleague to them. You want to evolve as a supervisor, and you want your students to evolve. You want them to start making the decisions more for themselves. You want to as a student you want to be able to choose the experiments you run, but you’ll need to have a good justification for why you’re running those experiments. These middle years are about making those good choices. It’s about in some cases making the choice and failing, so you learn. In other cases, obviously it’s about making the choice and succeeding. So, in the middle years you want a colleague. Someone who is your intellectual equal.

And then finally in your last years as you kind of descend into submitting to. Submitting your thesis. Doing the writing aspects. You want someone who can act as a mentor. Someone who can guide you on people to meet or books to read or articles to read or other thesis to have a look at. You want someone who can advise you on the next steps to take. You know when you think about what you want to do next in your career. How to set that up at the same time as writing your thesis, Obviously, you want them to provide you want to be able to provide advice on the thesis draft themselves, but you want to give the advice or you want their advice to be given in a way that you can reject some of it. Because in theory the student, the PhD student is now an independent thinker. So, you want to have the give them the power to do that. So, acting like a boss a colleague or a mentor at the wrong time can be really detrimental. You can imagine that if in the first year of your PhD your supervisor acts like a mentor. All they’re doing is providing random advice that’s never followed through. You’re going to have lots of leads to follow up and no action gets taken. If you’re acting like a colleague early on to your PhD students, early on in their years that might be useful, but your student probably doesn’t have enough informed ideas about how to conduct research or how to collect data or how to analyze evidence. So, being a colleague could potentially leave your student floundering. Acting like a boss in the middle or end years all it does is sets up a really perhaps patriarchal relationship. A subservient relationship where the student is just a tool that you use to get your work done. That’s not what you want. You want an independent thinker. You want someone who’s going to go out and think about the research and have a good reason for conducting the experiment or a good reason for not conducting the experiment, and then the ability to analyze the different outcomes that might result.

So, there you have it. Some ideas on how you might act as a supervisor or what you might look for in a supervisor as a PhD student. Take care and see you next time.