Toggle navigationOpen menu
Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Planning and having difficult conversations

The previous video touched on a couple of ideas of how to approach a difficult conversation. The way I approach a difficult conversation is to have really clearly in my own mind what exactly it is I want to say. What is it that I want to get out of this conversation? Talking things through with someone impartial who you trust may also help, because it can highlight where there may have been misunderstanding or miscommunication. Making notes really helps with this and they are something tangible which I can take into the meeting just in case all my points flee from my brain in a moment of fear! Remember, it is important to be honest and open and to avoid accusatory language. Here there are some resources about difficult conversations to help you prepare.

There are also some conversation planners you can use:


You are Frankie, a first-year postgraduate researcher approaching the end of your ninth month of research. In a fortnight you are going to have a formal meeting with your supervisor, co-supervisor and representatives from your school to review your progress over the first year of your studies.

Your supervisor, Professor Jones, is very busy and although you see him and your cosupervisor regularly around the building, you don’t feel they take as much interest in you or your research as you imagined they would. After the first few months, they stopped initiating regular research meetings. You did set up a few after this but during the few you have had, Prof Jones didn’t make many suggestions about what you have been doing nor volunteer many ideas to help you move forward in your project. You have no idea whether they are happy with your progress and you are now starting to worry about the meeting at which your future in the school will be decided. How can your supervisors make a fair judgement about your work and progress when they don’t seem to know what is going on? How can you argue that you deserve to be kept on for a PhD when you aren’t sure of the standard expected and haven’t had much direction to give your project the momentum you need to be successful?

Last time you met, Prof Jones was busy writing a paper so you didn’t really talk at all. You are just about to have another meeting, which was arranged, as usual, through the school secretary. She has told you that Prof Jones has an important meeting of the Faculty Examination Sub-committee in half an hour. But this time you are really determined to find out what is likely to happen in two weeks and how to make the best of the relationship you have with your supervisor.

Prior to this meeting, you should have clear in your mind the key issues you want Prof Jones to clarify to ensure that by the time you have the formal meeting, you will be in the best position to convince them that you can achieve a PhD, provided they, and especially Prof Jones, give you the supervision and direction you feel you are entitled to.

Your meeting starts in 15 minutes. Make your list now.


You’re Professor Jones, a well-established researcher considered to be amongst the most ‘research-active’ in your school. You’ve achieved this because you worked hard to develop your independence as a researcher early in your career after doing a PhD in the UK and then a post-doc with one of the US ‘superstars’ in your field.

Early on in your PhD you realised that to be successful you needed to take ownership of the project and ultimately make a unique contribution to your field. You took the lead in setting up meetings with your supervisor and within six months of starting, you had learnt the skills needed to successfully apply your chosen methodology. Over the next 12 months you gradually had more and more input into the direction of the project and by the half-way point you were controlling your research. When reporting to your supervisor, you tended to describe what you had done, how this work was contributing to the theme of the research and what steps you planned to take next.

This type of active approach to research for the postgraduate researcher is now built into the university code of practice, so you feel that students have this kind of information readily to hand. Although you are considered to be a supportive supervisor, you feel that a PhD can only be awarded for independent work so you are careful to give students space to explore their own ideas, to develop their own interpretations about the work they have done and to identify the niche their work will have in their wider research area.

You are about to meet with Frankie, a first-year student who seems to be getting along OK at the moment. You don’t sense Frankie is taking control of the project or has yet worked out how the work is going to make a useful contribution to the field. However, it is relatively early days and you hope that the upcoming formal meeting (due in two weeks, towards the end of Frankie’s first year of study) will be a good wake-up call as this should make it clear where Frankie should be by now and point out any short-comings in the approach. You feel Frankie has the intellect to complete a good PhD, but hasn’t yet made the transition from being a taught student who likes (needs?) to be told what to do.

You wonder what Frankie will have to say, and you are considering which issues you should raise to help to encourage Frankie along the path to the PhD.

Your meeting starts in 15 minutes. Make a list of these issues now.


Consider the different experiences and perspectives of Frankie Scott and Professor Jones. How has a lack of communication impeded their supervisory relationship, and Frankie’s progress? How and when might they have communicated earlier to resolve this before it became a more serious issue?

There are a number of rules and regulations surrounding research degree supervision. In the Teaching and Quality Assurance Manual you can access the general overview provided by the University of Exeter on the expectations placed on supervisors and how the university understands a supervisory relationship will work:

The University’s Dignity and Respect Policy Statement can be found at the following address. This explains what you can expect from your university working environment as well as your responsibilities to ensure everyone is treated appropriately. In case of serious issues arising in your supervision you will find helpful steps in the Formal complaints process. Support with serious issues can be accessed through two different channels:

Concerns about supervisory arrangements

On the Doctoral College website there is detailed information about dealing with concerns relation to supervisory arragements including:

  • General sources of support
  • Requesting a change of supervisor
  • How to raise general concerns relating to supervisory arrangements (informal complaint)
  • Outcome of an informal complaint
  • If the complaint remains unresolved
  • Wellbeing Support

IconWe value your feedback, and would appreciate it if you could take 2 minutes to give us some feedback on this resource