PhD student professor relationships – your questions answered!

One of the most important relationships for a PhD student is with their supervising professor or professors.

In my case, I had three PhD supervisors in different fields which can be very difficult to manage. They hadn’t worked with each other before so there were lots of disagreements to manage.

Your supervising professor(s) is the person or people who guides them through your academic journey, helps them navigate the research process, and provides valuable mentorship.

But what should you expect from this relationship? Are there any boundaries you should be aware of? As a PhD student, how can you make the most of this relationship?

In this article, we’ll explore these questions and more.

Whether you’re just starting out on your PhD journey or are already well into it, this article will provide some valuable insights and advice that can help you build a strong, productive relationship with your professor.

What does it mean for a professor to take on someone as their PhD student?

When a professor takes on someone as their PhD student, it means that they are willing to supervise and guide them in their research endeavors.

Professors rely on PhD students to perform the grunt work of their research and in return they should offer guidance and mentoring to allow the person to fulfil their own career goals which may consist of becoming an independent researcher themselves, transitioning to industry, or other outcomes.

In an ideal world, the professor becomes a mentor to the student, helping them to develop their research skills, offering advice and feedback on their work, and ultimately helping them to successfully complete their PhD degree.

This is a significant responsibility for the professor, as they are committing their time and resources to the student’s academic growth and development.

However, some professors do not see this as a responsibility and rather a way of getting cheap labour to perform their research.

For the student, being taken on by a professor as their PhD student is a great opportunity to learn from an experienced and knowledgeable expert in their field, and to gain invaluable experience in conducting research and contributing to the academic community.

This relationship is very important and making sure that you are very communicative with your supervisor will ensure that everything goes smoothly.

The number one cause of a bad supervisor/student relationship is a breakdown of communication and unfulfilled expectations.

What benefits do faculty members get by supervising PhD and grad students?

Supervising PhD students offers numerous benefits to faculty members.

  1. Some faculties offer a grant per research student – so you are literally worth money to the research income of the professor.
  2. They get another member of their team to explore their research and create normal information that they can publish in academic and peer-reviewed journals.
  3. It provides an opportunity for them to contribute to the growth of the academic community by fostering new research and contributing to the advancement of knowledge.
  4. it offers the chance to shape future researchers in their field by mentoring and guiding them through the research process. This enhances the intellectual capacity of the department and builds stronger institutional networks.
  5. it also creates an opportunity for collaboration. In an ideal world faculty members and PhD students work together to conduct research and publish academic papers.
  6. Supervising PhD students can also help faculty members develop their professional profile, as they are able to publish jointly with their students, which will lead to greater visibility and opportunities to secure funding for future research projects.

It could be said that supervising PhD students is beneficial both for the faculty member, the department and the academic community as a whole.

Some of the more critical PhD students see the relationship as imbalanced and most of the academic kudos are passed on to the supervisor.

This is because they are in a permanent academic position while their students and postdocs are often in temporary positions.

Is it bad for professors / supervisors / advisors to have their PhD students drop out?

It is not ideal for professors or supervisors to have their PhD students drop out.

The table below highlights the effect of both the professor and the PhD student

Impact on Professor/SupervisorImpact on PhD Student
Losing momentumProfessor loses research progressStudents in the group face a setback
Loss of skill baseHard to regain by training othersLoss of specialized skills in the group
Funding opportunitiesPotential loss of grant funding
High dropout rateNegative reflection on mentorshipRed flag for prospective students
Realizing PhD program isn’t a fitSupporting student’s decisionPursuing a more suitable path

This can be a setback for both the student and the professor. The professor can lose a lot of momentum if a PhD student leaves their group.

One of the biggest issues is that PhD supervisors often loose a certain skill base that is hard to regain by training and other student.

The professor may also lose funding opportunities, as PhD students are often funded by grants.

A high dropout rate can reflect poorly on the professor’s ability to mentor and guide students through their PhD program. Often seen as a red flag by other PhD students.

However, sometimes a student may realize that a PhD program is not the right fit for them, and it may be best for them to drop out and pursue a different path.

It is important for professors to support their students in these decisions and provide guidance to help them succeed in their chosen career path.

How should I address a PhD student professor in an email?

It can be confusing to work out what to call a PhD student if they are also your professor

When addressing a PhD student professor in an email, it is important to use proper etiquette and show respect for their academic achievements.

Start the email with a polite salutation, such as “Dear Professor [Last Name],” or “Hello Dr. [Last Name].”

Only use the doctor title if they have achieved and completed a PhD.

This is a sign of professionalism that reflects your understanding of the academic hierarchy.

It is also important to keep in mind that PhD students have not yet achieved the same level of academic authority as a fully-tenured professor.

In my experience, most PhD students acting as a professor and teaching courses are happy for them to call them by their first name.

If you are in doubt you should ask the teacher of the course directly.

How do you refer to a PhD student in an email? Graduate student etiquite

When referring to a PhD student in an email, it’s important to be respectful and use appropriate language.

In the greeting of the email, you can use “Dear [Mr./Ms./Dr.] [Last Name]” or “Hello [First Name]”.

Once you have built up a relationship with the student you can start using their first name if they have initiated it.

In my experience, PhD students tend to prefer less formalities.

Being respectful and professional in your email communication with PhD students is essential for building positive relationships and fostering a productive academic community.

How do you write the title of a PhD candidate?

When writing the title of a PhD candidate, it is appropriate to use the title “PhD Candidate” or “Doctoral Candidate” followed by their name.

For example, one could write “PhD Candidate Sarah Smith” or “Doctoral Candidate John Doe”.

It is important to note that the title “Dr.” should not be used until the candidate has successfully defended their dissertation and obtained their PhD.

When in doubt, it is best to refer to the candidate by their full name without a title until they have obtained their degree.

Wrapping up

The relationship between a PhD student and their supervising professor is crucial for a successful academic journey.

Professors play an essential role in guiding students through the research process and providing valuable mentorship.

A high dropout rate can negatively impact both the professor and the PhD student.

In this blog post, we discussed the importance of communication and understanding expectations to ensure a productive supervisor-student relationship.

By understanding these factors, PhD students and professors can work together to create a strong, supportive relationship that benefits both parties and contributes to academic success.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.