ARTICLE 10: The Relationship Between the Ph. D. or Master’s Degree Student and the Study Leader

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Some universities will appoint a study leader for a prospective Ph.D. or master’s degree student only after the research proposal has been accepted.

The university will mostly appoint an academic who has specialised knowledge of the field in which you plan to do your research.

Appointing a professor who is an expert in the field of your study will not always be possible.

In practice, it often happens that a student approaches a professor for advice, which might include asking him or her to act as their study leader.

Regardless of how you and your study leader came together, the possibility of conflict always exists.

Some prospective students might not be aware of the challenges that they and their study leaders will face. We tend to be optimistic about new relationships and this is not limited to social relationships.

I need to emphasise, though, that the possibilities for conflict that I discuss in this post are exceptions.

Study leaders and their students are adults and most of them know how to interrelate and cooperate in a mature and objective manner.

It even happens that students and their study leaders become good friends.

Even so, you should be aware that things might go wrong, and the better you are prepared for the possibility, the better will you be able to deal with it, should it happen.

What can go wrong?

Here are some examples of what can go wrong between you and your study leader:

  1. A study leader might decide early in the relationship that the student will not succeed just because they do not like each other.
  2. A study leader might discriminate against the student based on race, gender, religion, gender orientation, appearance.
  3. Even if the study leader does not discriminate, the student might accuse the study leader of discrimination.
  4. It can happen that a study leader and student become emotionally or physically involved to the extent that it damages the quality of the research being done.
  5. A study leader might make unacceptable advances towards a student.
  6. A student can make advances at a study leader.

I don’t think “making advances” is necessarily a problem, but it is risky, especially if the attraction is not mutual or if the student uses it to obtain an undeserved good report.

  • Attempts at bribery and corruption are always possible.
  • Some of you might think of other possible obstacles.

Perhaps we should consider the duties and responsibilities of the parties to a study relationship first before we discuss ways in which to avoid or manage conflict.

The duties of a study leader

  1. The prospective study leader often arranges for you, the student, to deliver a research proposal.
  2. The study leader should act as an advisor on the structure and layout of the thesis or dissertation.
  3. The study leader should also be able to assist you with the academic content of your research.
  4. The study leader will also evaluate your work at intervals to which you will agree in advance.
  5. The study leader will tell you when your dissertation or thesis is ready to be submitted.
  6. Good study leaders make their expectations and rules for the project clear from the word go. Issues that you should agree on include:
  7. How regularly you will meet.
  8. The preferred method of communication. It will probably include emails, phone calls, meeting at the study leader’s office.
  9. Mastery of methods and timelines for completing your research.
  10. Some universities require doctoral students to do some lecturing. This needs to be cleared out with your study leader.
  11. The monitoring, evaluation and reporting of progress.

What you as the student are responsible for

  1. You need to focus on gaining new knowledge and skills and not just obtaining a Ph.D. or master’s degree certificate to add to your Curriculum Vitae and hang on your office wall.
  2. The factual content, logical development of arguments and conclusions arrived at are your responsibility.
  3. You will need to plan your research timetable. Your study leader might help you with this.
  4. You will need to submit sections of your thesis or dissertation for evaluation in accordance with the timetable.
  5. Changes suggested by you or your study leader might sometimes need to be submitted to the Postgraduate Committee for approval. (Some universities call it the Higher Degree Committee.) This will, for example, be the case if the changes imply changes to the purpose of your research or any other changes that might impact on the grounds upon which your study proposal was accepted.
  6. You must show acceptable progress.
  7. Your thesis or dissertation must be entirely your own work. You will be required to submit a statement to this effect when your work is completed.
  8. You should discuss your progress, work and ideas with your study leader.
  9. Nobody else may revise your work or do it for you.
  10. Family and friends may help with proofreading.
  11. It is always a good idea to have your thesis or dissertation language edited once it is completed.
  12. Always ask your study leader for consent before you use external assistance with your research.
  13. Keep in mind that you are probably not the study leader’s only postgraduate student and they have other work as well.
  14. Do not ignore the study leader’s recommendations without discussing it with him or her first.
  15. Permission must be obtained from the university before you may publish your thesis or dissertation or any part of it.

How to avoid, resolve or manage conflict

You and your study leader should have a set of shared expectations. That is why you need to get along well from the word go.

Both of you need to be aware of the constraints under which the other works and you should respect the fact that your study leader cannot spend too much time helping you.

The study leader should abide by the principles of adult learning. In brief, that means that:

  1. Both the student and the study leader should accept responsibility for achieving success. (My study leader assured me that he would feel personally responsible if I do not successfully complete my doctoral studies.)
  2. The study leader should create a desire in the student to achieve success. There are many ways to motivate a student. The study leader is also responsible for this.
  3. The study leader and the student should make the study process attractive and fun. (My study leader and I regularly met for breakfast.)
  4. Set the timeline against specific objectives to achieve before cut-off dates and manage it well.
  5. Arrange reading and discussion sessions – the study leader should become actively involved in the student’s work but must not do the work for him or her. The study leader must also know when to allow the student to fly solo. (Diligent students invariably reach a point where they know more about the research topic than the study leader.)
  6. The study leader should give guidance and support and must ensure that the student grows all the time.
  7. Communicate as often as is realistically possible.
  8. Students must accept responsibility for their own studies.
  9. Mutual respect and good leadership can contribute substantially to the success of your studies.
  10. The study leader should allow you to decide when you are ready to be evaluated. The timetable is an important management tool but not cast in concrete.


In summary:

  1. Ph.D. and master’s degree students are adults and should be treated as such. However, they should also behave like adults.
  2. The study leader may not do research or write any part of the thesis or dissertation for the student.
  3. The study leader and student need to cooperate and together accept responsibility for successfully completing the study project.
  4. If unavoidable it might become necessary for the student and study leader to sever their working relationship. The longer your take to take this radical step the more damage will it do to you and your study leader. Make sure that you know the policies and procedures of the university in this respect.
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