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How to Build a Good Relationship With Your PhD Supervisor

Some might say that your relationship with your primary PhD supervisor is more important than the PhD research topic. So let’s investigate!

Graduate School interior

Depending on the set up of your PhD, you might have contact with your primary supervisor daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. I am in my 2nd year of my PhD within the Centre for Public Health, and I am in almost constant conversation with my supervisor, whether that’s in person, via email, Microsoft Teams or sometimes, via WhatsApp.

I can directly relate my progress to my great relationship with my supervisor. They keep me accountable for my work goals, act as a reviewer of my planning, writing and results and are always available when I need support or even to ask a few stupid questions when I am feeling unsure about the PhD process! 

A good relationship not only improves the likelihood of success academically, but will also make your PhD experience enjoyable, exciting and worthwhile for your future career. So, how do we create a bond with our supervisors? Let’s find out! 

Find out more about the PhD application process

Before You Apply

At Queen’s University Belfast, before you embark on the application process for a PhD, you are required to make contact with the supervisor of the project. It is best to send them an email to their work email address, introducing yourself, including any previous degrees you have acquired, any research you have already undertaken and why you are interested in the current research project.

You might want to suggest meeting in person (if geographically possible) or via video call to discuss the project proposal, ensure you are suitable for the project and to ask/answer any burning questions. You could also offer the supervisor your CV, so they can gain a further understanding of your background.

At this stage of the process, always use formal language and don’t worry if they don’t respond quickly – academics are busy people!

Ensure you have constant and effective communication with your supervisor

At The Start

Discuss these 4 things early in your PhD for effective communication:

  1. What areas do you need most or more guidance in?
  2. What is both your working week structure?
  3. How will your supervisor give feedback?
  4. What form is the best way of communicating? – Email, WhatsApp, MS Teams

Get to know your supervisor at the start by asking lots of questions. The above questions will help you gain an understanding of what your supervisor expects of you.

To start, it might be best to create a detailed timeline together for your aims and goals. This could include any mandatory training needed, discuss if a literature review is needed and talk about your short and long term goals.

If you are hesitant about pursuing PhD study, watch this video!

Throughout Your Research

I advise that you have monthly supervisor meetings with your primary supervisor and any other assisting or secondary supervisors. This will hold all parties accountable as you must submit meeting meetings to QSIS – Queen’s Student Information System.

At these formal meetings, update your PhD timeline by examining your progress and communicating the problems/issues you may be running into with your research.

Schedule meetings regularly and send through any current work frequently, even if feedback is not required. This will ensure that your supervisor is aware of what you are doing each day and can stay informed on a regular basis.

International students in the Graduate School, spring 2022

Schedule regular meetings to provide your supervisor with updates on your progress


You might not be the only student or staff member that your supervisor is responsible for. A good supervisor will make you aware of any opportunities you might be eligible for, such as conferences, grants, and group events. But be aware, a PhD is an independent research project and as a student, you are expected to be accountable for your own progress.

Be patient but do not suffer in silence if you feel you are being neglected. Queen’s University Belfast is research-intensive and focuses on making a meaningful impact on the world. They will be there to support in any way, including through the Student Wellbeing Service.

Find out more

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Postgraduate study at Queen's

Erin McGrattan  

PhD in Cancer Epidemiology | Postgraduate Student | Northern Ireland

Hi, I'm Erin McGrattan. I'm from County Down in Northern Ireland and I studied for my undergraduate degree in Queen's in BSc Food Quality, Safety and Nutrition. I am now undertaking a PhD in Cancer Epidemiology, focusing on oesophageal cancer and I'm situated in the Centre for Public Health.

I love Belfast and have lived in the city for a few years, so I am open to answering any questions regarding its history, nightlife, best food spots and student accommodation. I am an avid camogie player so I'm interested in any GAA or sports clubs in my area.

Erin McGrattan