Writing with your supervisor after completion: What's it like and what should you consider? (Meagan Tyler)

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Who, and what, are your supervisors to you once your project is complete? The shift in relational dynamics after you finish a graduate research degree is significant and can have practical implications for your future research and writing intentions.

You might need to think about writing or research associated with your thesis that is still in process (e.g. co-authored journal articles or book chapters in review). You might need to return to discussions around expectations and authorship. You might also want to think ahead to potential new collaborations, together.

To help navigate these (sometimes tricky) waters, I’ve called on three (very generous) colleagues – each in different fields, and at different points in their careers – to reflect on their own, ongoing collaboration with former supervisors and to offer some guidance.

There are three key points that echo through each account:  

  1. If you want to work with a supervisor after completion, this can be both beneficial and a positive experience;
  2. But continuing collaboration works best if you get along and share mutual respect;
  3. It’s important to have discussions about collaboration opportunities before and after you complete.

You can read their thoughts, in full, below. Hopefully, these vignettes help prompt your own reflections about what kind of post-completion collaboration you and your supervisors might want and help to get conversations started about writing after graduation.


NATALIE (Senior Research Fellow): 

After I finished my PhD, I wanted to stay in touch with my supervisors and collaborate with them but didn’t know how to get the conversation started. I remember going against all of my instincts and actively asking them for opportunities… My co-supervisor was really welcoming and gave me the opportunity to work as her research assistant.

This experience was one of the best I have had in my career, and taught me foundational skills to have in academia, both in terms of research and leadership. My former supervisor and I collaborated like equal colleagues, and I was asked for my input throughout the data analysis process all the way to publication. 

Some people talk about needing to transition from student to colleague, but I felt that this happened quite naturally in my experience. Because of this early opportunity, I was able to establish my research career. I have continued to write and do research with my former supervisor because she respects me as a colleague, values my perspectives (even when they conflict with her own), and not only cares about the output we produce, but also the effect this output will have on people’s lives. 

Overall, I would argue that the relationship you have with your supervisor determines how well you will work with them once the supervisory relationship ends.

ANONYMOUS (recently completed PhD): 

Writing/working with your supervisor after you've completed your PhD and have moved from being "their student" to more of a colleague (albeit still unequal in the academic hierarchy) there may be some establishing of a new professional working relationship that needs to happen…This may involve having discussion/s with the former supervisor early on to clarify roles and expectations around particular tasks, the specific journal article etc., or project. 

By the end of a PhD, hopefully most students will feel fairly confident in their own work and research capabilities - communicating this to your former supervisor may be necessary. The supervisor/student relationship can be hard to define as it can cross the boundary between professional and personal relationship, it's important to remember that in a professional work context your supervisor is first and foremost your boss, not your friend.    

Often, it is easier to work with people you have established relationships with, and your supervisor will often have access to networks and will be established in certain areas that are beneficial to you. However, it is important to try to strike a balance between your own work and interests and that of your supervisors. Try to carve out your own trajectory, within the confines of your role.


MIKE (Associate Professor): 

I was very fortunate in that for two decades after my PhD I did most of my research and publishing with my former supervisor. It was an incredible privilege and I am still very engaged with research issues with him. The process of beginning writing felt pretty organic because we had done a few shorter prices of writing [together] (articles and journalism)… I think part of that is the sort of academic your supervisor is – [are they] generous, inclusive and engaged? But also the question of how your thesis topic links to or builds from the research of your supervisor is really important. 

I guess the key here is that over your thesis you will develop a long-term relationship with your thesis adviser and the depth and length of that relationship will be determined by personal and research-related matters.

On reflection I can only stress that the three lessons I came away with are: 1) supervisor selection is crucial - you want someone who is a smart and generous person, 2) topic selection is also crucial - it should be at the frontiers of research in the field and close enough to the supervisors own interests to make collaboration possible and mutually beneficial, and 3) don't wait until the end of the thesis - start with some small collaborations and see how they work out. 

If you are lucky enough to have the sort of post-thesis research collaboration with your supervisor that I have had, you will have an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding research career.


Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer in research education and development with the RED (Research Education and Development) team at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.  

Her interdisciplinary research work has focused mostly on analysing gender inequality and violence against women across a range of social, organisational and policy contexts. 

She’s passionate about public engagement and building better universities.