Updated February 2022
The importance of actively managing stakeholder relationships
An essential piece of the qualitative research study puzzle that I feel is sometimes overlooked is how to manage stakeholder relationships effectively.
You are likely to have a few stakeholders in your research study, primarily your supervisor(s), closely followed by your programme and institution.
However, we could arguably also include the wider research community in this group, and even your participants, who are generally contributing their time and data for free.
Research is not conducted in a vacuum, so managing supervisory relationships and reporting regularly to stakeholders is essential to demonstrate the feasibility and progress of your study.
General considerations for the supervisory relationship
What can you expect from your supervisors?
It is important to establish early on what your supervisory team are willing to provide and therefore what you can expect. This is likely to vary from programme to programme, institution to institution and supervisor to supervisor!
It is helpful to set up a meeting early on while having some idea of what you want within the confines of your programme and institutional supervisory framework/ground rules.
Find out how your supervisor likes to operate in these matters and be prepared to negotiate, making sure to establish:
- the level of contact that is expected
- how this will work (e.g., regular meetings or email contact?)
- expected milestones (e.g., timeframes for major phases of the work and submission of draft)
- and turnaround times for review of material
You could negotiate and establish a “contract” with your supervisor that specifies the roles and expectations of both parties if that works for you both. In fact, you may need to do this as part of your programme/institutional requirements.
Your part in the supervisory process
It is in your own interest to develop, nurture and manage your relationship with your supervisor(s). Part of the process of doing a masters or doctorate (and therefore of gaining the award) is to manage your professional relationship with your supervisors.
Your supervisors are unlikely to have all the answers, and this may be anxiety-provoking at the beginning, but this is entirely normal!
Your supervisor’s principal professional responsibility is to help develop their research students so that they can think and behave as academic researchers in the field of study concerned.
They are not there to do the work for you – your project’s execution is largely down to independent study, and your supervisors are there to guide you through this. For example, do not submit draft that is overlong and expect them to tell you what to cut out if you cannot decide – this is not an appropriate use of their expertise!
Take the initiative
The most worrying students are those that disappear from view. Do your best to be proactive and take the initiative, for example:
- Set up and attend regular supervision meetings, taking the lead on setting the agenda, and giving advance notice of topics/areas for discussion
- Develop a viable timetable/programme for your research and agree it with your supervisory team
- Keep a well-documented record of all meetings: this will ensure that you are clear on decisions made and who has agreed to do what. Records therefore function as a reference and as a safeguard against the unlikely possibility of having to use documentation to support a formal appeal or complaint. You may have a predetermined institutional format for supervision records, and they may need to be submitted to your supervisor for approval and agreement as accurate.
- Take note of verbal guidance and feedback from supervisors
- Alert your supervisor(s) immediately/as early as possible of any problems
- Inform your supervisor of other people with whom you are discussing your work – this is common courtesy and the professional thing to do
- Submit written work regularly and as agreed in the project timetable – do your best to keep on track
- Produce material in an acceptable format, e.g., adequately proof-read and within the agreed word count for that section
Report or check in regularly
Bearing in mind that all research is fraught with uncertainty, including that of a foreseeable and an unforeseen nature (including a global pandemic in 2020and 2021 which I certainly had not anticipated!), regular reporting to keep your stakeholders abreast of how you are getting on is recommended.
This will primarily be your supervisor or supervisory team, but you may have additional institutional requirements for reporting on your progress, depending on your level of study. As always, you are encouraged to be proactive in establishing any additional obligations!
It is entirely possible that you may need to make some major adjustments to your research study as you execute it. For example, it is not unheard of for your qualitative research question to change before the end of your project in response to what you find.
It is important to keep your supervisor informed of new project directions and outcomes so that you can remain accountable and to consult with them to check that you are not going off on a wild goose chase.
The responsibility lies with you to raise matters with your supervisor and, if you neglect to communicate new ideas and changes, you may find you have been pursuing something that is a dead end.
You will likely want to report on what has happened, how you tried to manage or mitigate any issues, and how you plan to move forward in response to them.
This is all part of developing your critical eye and evidencing solid research skills.
Now, you may have an active and involved supervisor (all well and good), or not, as the case may be.
If your supervisor does not require a great deal of contact, then I suggest delivering a monthly status report regardless.
You could send an email with a summary of what has happened over the previous four weeks. In this way, you have a record of keeping them informed, regardless of whether they respond or comment or not. This will help justify your decision-making processes should the going get tough.
I cannot emphasise enough how investing in your supervisory relationship can pay dividends in the research process.
I also encourage you to be strategic in your approach: take the initiative and be proactive in establishing the parameters of the relationship and maintaining regular contact, regardless of whatever hiccoughs you may be experiencing in your research itself.
Until next time!
To your research success, Elena
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