Creating a great relationship with your supervisor (Keaton Crosse)

Photo by Jake Noren | 

To all the graduate research students out there: There’s no doubt about it. Graduate research study can be very tough.

So, how do you make sure you are getting the most help from your supervisor along the way?

I am a 3rd year PhD student in the School of Life Sciences undertaking a molecular microbiology research project.

Throughout my candidature, I've developed an appreciation for past students who take the time to share their experiences, so I feel it is only right for me to pass on my top 5 tips that have really worked for me to establish and maintain a prosperous relationship with my supervisor!

1) You are the driver of your project, and your supervisor is your guide

First of all, I think the most important thing to understand when you start your graduate research project (which many take a while to completely comprehend - I know I certainly did!) is that it's YOUR research project and YOU need to take charge of it.

Just last week at the Graduate Researcher Orientation, I heard the RED team’s James Burford aptly refer to the candidate (no one specifically, just generally) as the “driver” of the car (the car being their research project) and the supervisor as merely the guide (the kind you might liken to your friend that isn’t very vocal with directions on a long road trip), sitting in the passenger seat and only calling out the major directions like “don’t go that way, it leads you off a cliff!”. What this illustrates is that, as a candidate, you need to be making many of the decisions about the direction of your research, and you should use your supervisor to clarify those decisions.

2) Constantly communicate with your supervisor

Critical to establishing your supervisor as an effective guide of your research is the presence of an open and honest forum for conversation between the two of you (or with your supervisory panel). This ensures each decision you make can be appropriately addressed and helps to identify what your supervisory team expects from you (time commitments to your study, frequency of meetings, standard of draft documents etc.), while also making it clear what you want from your supervisory team.

Keep in mind that each candidate is different - you are unique! This means that what may work well for someone else may not work well for you, and you may even want to change the way you and your supervisor(s) meet/interact over the course of your candidature. This adaptation to individual candidates and situations is only possible if you talk about it.

3) Your supervisor is only human

Now, before you go demanding everything and anything from your supervisor(s), it is important to remember that they’re only human!  They have other commitments and a life outside of work. My supervisor, for instance, currently supervises four other PhD students and is a mum to two young children, among other things!

So, make sure you get the most out of the time you do have with them. This means being prepared and punctual for meetings, and ensuring you give enough time for them to make corrections to documents that have strict deadlines (candidature documents, abstracts and award submissions, etc.).  I am sure your supervisor will greatly appreciate this and be more willing (and able) to help you out. This requires you to be organised and accountable for your research, so use your highlighters and To-Do lists!

4) Get involved in social activities

On this note of being human, and having lives outside of work: it can be incredibly beneficial to engage in social activities with your research groups and supervisor(s). After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people, so it can’t hurt to get to know them a bit better. This might be as simple as finishing early on Fridays to enjoy an afternoon drink or maybe something more involved like a group outing to an escape room and going out for a meal. If these sorts of activities don’t exist in your group/area, you can initiate them!

5) Seek advice when you need it

With all this said, I have only touched on what I think are some key points to establishing and maintaining a prosperous relationship with your supervisor during your candidature, but there will be many more. I can only recommend that you reach out to your peers (school graduate research representatives) and departmental Graduate Research Coordinator (GRC; a list of which can be found here if you’re not sure who yours is) for advice when you need it.

Graduate research study can be tough, so making sure you get the most out of the person who can help you the most is essential to a rewarding candidature!


Keaton Crosse is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Helbig Laboratory (@HelbigLab) for Anti-viral Innate Immunology and Viral Genomics within the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology (PAM) at La Trobe University.

Keaton's research investigates the ability of our immune system to combat viral infections, with the hope of identifying possible therapeutic intervention avenues to and treat currently incurable viral infections.

Aside from his research, Keaton is passionate about enhancing the student experience and plays an active role in the PAM HDR student society which aims to develop academic and profession skills of PAM HDRs while also providing social events for these students.

Keaton tweets from @keaton_crosse.