What minimal responsibilities can a student expect from their day-to-day supervisor?

In my institute, we usually have the head of the institute as the formal supervisor, followed by another day-to-day supervisor. In fact, the head of the institute does nothing, and the day-to-day supervisor is the one who is supposed to do the PhD supervision.

A few institutions do codify the responsibilities of advisors and supervisors. See, for example, the "Code of Practice for Supervisors, Advisors and Research Degree Candidates" from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and the "Policies and Guidelines on Graduate Student Advising and Supervision" from McGill University in Canada. Are these guidelines universal?

  • Are you asking about a supervisor or an advisor? It's unclear in your post and what's expected is going to be different between the two. In addition, in your last sentence you ask about the real world, which would seem to indicate that you're looking for descriptions of what makes a good boss/manager?
    – Zai
    Feb 24, 2013 at 19:03
  • I've deleted any reference to advisor, only left the ones from the links. The reference for the real world experience is just because usually people say that the real world is much worse, therefore the "ave a good idea what happens in the real world". Most of the PhD students go from the Master directly to a PhD. Feb 24, 2013 at 19:13
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    What is the difference between a "(principal) supervisor" and an "advisor"? I've never heard the former as an official title.
    – JeffE
    Feb 25, 2013 at 3:28
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    I heavily edited the question to remove irrelevant and/or personal details. (I seriously considered deleting the second paragraph as well.) Please verify that I haven't changed the intended meaning of your question.
    – JeffE
    Feb 25, 2013 at 3:42
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    I changed the question to avoid the double use of "Main/Principal". I used "formal" vs "day-to-day". Please revert if you do not like it, or if I've changed the meaning. Feb 25, 2013 at 7:40

3 Answers 3


I think it is reasonable to expect two things from a day-to-day PhD advisor. The first is a willingness to meet in a timely manner and discuss expectations and the second is a willingness to deliver on agreements in a timely manner. If there is something you need/want from your day-to-day PhD advisor, then ask him/her about it. If you are concerned that your request is unreasonable, then ask colleagues or here.

The problem with answering the question in general is summed up in the UTS link you provided:

At the outset it is important to acknowledge that the nature of the student-supervisor relationship cannot be mandated, largely because it needs to be flexible and take into account the particular circumstances of the research project, the student and the supervisor.

As far as the universality of formal guidelines about expected behavior in regards to advising students, all universities provide a faculty handbook that has some minimal guidelines, but generally it is not as long or formal as the links you provided.

  • I never received anything. "willingness to meet in a timely manner" is zero. "discuss expectations" results in a one-way conversation, I am only there to take notes, his decision is the good one, never listens to me, and changes in each meeting. The meetings happen once a year (maximum twice a year) and require toons of effort. before trying to move out, I just wanted to be sure I am not exaggerating on these communication "problems". Feb 25, 2013 at 11:16
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    @MaybeAnotherPhD Run, Don't Walk! Sounds like a bad advisor, but nothing so bad that you are going to find it violates any rules. It is time to find a new advisor.
    – StrongBad
    Feb 25, 2013 at 13:30
  • you are right @DanielE.Shub, I just need to plan very well how to do this Feb 25, 2013 at 14:00

Based on my experiences...

Based on those I know, the guidelines you link to are not general.

The day-to-day supervisor approach is typically implemented passively because the main supervisor (i.e., the guy in absentia most of the time) is too busy to actually manage the students. For this approach to be practical, the day-to-day supervisor must have expertise in your research and must be aware of the general research path of the group (i.e., can provide not only advice but direction).

For what it's worth, most labs with a day-to-day supervisor in addition to the main one will be more difficult to work in as a graduate student. The only case where this can be a benefit is where the formal advisor is some ridiculously well-known figure in the field, and your just being in their lab will lead to opportunities down the road. For the majority of labs with this setup, though, it's simply because the formal advisor is too busy to deal with (or otherwise disintereted) the graduate students, and has set up someone else to deal with them. This typically leads to communication issues, lack of guidance, long delays in your advisor reviewing your work & publications, and frustration. I would approach these setups cautiously.

Edit based on comments: The main reason these setups tend to fail is that the supervisor's unspoken job description is one that will never be filled; replicate the domain expertise and research experience of the advisor while essentially being a graduate student counselor. Anyone who can do that will be running their own lab, not helping you manage your students.

This means that those who do take the job either don't have the relevant domain expertise to adequately answer student questions, or relevant research experience to design, run, and analyze data from a complete research project. Any lacking expertise translates into "lets just wait until your next advisor meeting", which adds long delays to everything.

  • Do you mean that the responsibilities described in the linked guidelines are not expected in general, or only that they are not followed in general?
    – JeffE
    Feb 25, 2013 at 14:34
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    @JeffE I had intended it as not expected, but I would venture that they are not followed either. So, both, I guess.
    – eykanal
    Feb 25, 2013 at 14:34
  • Maybe my question was unclear. It's clear that the guidelines aren't followed in general. The question is whether this is because many supervisors don't do their damn jobs, or because the guidelines are unreasonable.
    – JeffE
    Feb 25, 2013 at 14:38
  • i think supervisors don't do their job, we have the pressure they trust on this pressure and desire to have the PhD. Something will be done good or bad, we will arrive to something, if is bad than we were bad students, if good we are heroes. Feb 25, 2013 at 14:45
  • @JeffE - Ha! Text updated to address your comment.
    – eykanal
    Feb 25, 2013 at 14:54

I'll add that Guidelines, Codes, and the like are almost meaningless in academia, simply because it is easier to herd cats that to get a bunch of independent, highly-intelligent group of people to follow some set protocol or rules. Try attending a faculty meeting and you'll see what it's like. An institution may have guidelines, but there is probably very little chance of enforcing them.

You'll find supervisors/advisors on both ends of the spectrum. Some will want to be in the day-to-day operations, micro-managing all the details. Some will meet with you, then say "Come back in a few weeks when you have progress". The most common method seems to have weekly meetings to discuss progress and provide insight/expectations on advancing the project.

This is the interesting part about academia. You aren't really taught how to supervise others, or people skills in general. Most academics seem to just go with their instinctive, personality inclinations, or they simply do what their previous supervisors/advisors did.

I'll add that if you're not getting along with your supervisor, either you need to discuss the problems, or plan a move.

  • it is really a nightmare, sometimes i go there, and there is so much tension and frustation in the air. samething they do to students they do to their colleagues, however only after being inside you can "see"the real person behind your supervisor. Thanks for your advise @che_kid Feb 25, 2013 at 17:23

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