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How To Handle A British Supervisor: A Foreigner’s Guide

How To Handle A British Supervisor: A Foreigner’s Guide

The United Kingdom, formerly known as Great Britain, has a long scientific tradition. British academic institutions are among the best in Europe and possibly the world (there is a potential conflict of interest here: while the author is not British by birth, she has spent many years studying and working in the UK). It is likely that at some stage of your career you will either work in a British university or have a British colleagues, or better, a British supervisor.  It is my hope that this article will help you in understanding how to effectively communicate with them.

First of all, it’s worth remembering that “British” does not equal “English”: if your colleague is Scottish or Welsh, he may get irritated at being called “English”. It’s also helpful to remember that politeness, reserve, and sarcasm are significant elements of British character. Below are a few examples of how this can affect your relationship with a British supervisor.

Casual conversations

The “How are you” part of the greeting is a ritual phrase, which doesn’t have more meaning than “hi”.  It’s inadvisable, in reply, to start detailing your medical history or your complicated relationship with the upstairs neighbour, who flooded your flat yesterday and you didn’t have a night’s sleep because you were busy mopping it up. The correct answer is “fine, thank you and how are you?”.

Irrespective of the Briton gender, safe small talk topics are weather and sport. If you are from Europe, football (NB for Americans: soccer – but don’t ever call it that), rugby and tennis are safer than cricket, the rules of which are impossible to understand for somebody who didn’t play it as a child.

English as a foreign language

It’s better not to start sentences with plain “Do you have…” “Can you do…” “Tell me, when is…” It may not be perceived as straightforward – but rather forceful and rude. “Would you mind telling me, when…” is a safer option.

If your lab seminar slides titles and captions are not corrected during or after the seminar, it’s highly unlikely that this is due to your perfect English, but rather because the native speakers are too polite to tell you about even   glaring mistakes. It’s better to ask somebody to proofread your presentation – British are happy to help, but wouldn’t offer to do something, which may offend by implication.


The British are very polite people: they never show their irritation and discuss other people’s mistakes, preferring to suffer in silence. This is good in some ways, but causes all sorts of misunderstandings. For example, you may suddenly and unexpectedly discover that your PhD thesis is in trouble, or that your contract will not be renewed, at the last moment –  although you thought everything was going fine.

It’s better to have a “designated friend” – if problems come up, the British don’t like telling you their grievances and prefer  to mention them to your “friend’, who will pass them on to you.

Career advice

Career advice (if any) from a British supervisor is very subtle, and you have to judge it by what was omitted, rather than said. For example, “I think you would be a good Teaching Fellow” means that, in your supervisor’s opinion, you would be a lousy postdoc.  Similarly, “I  think you may consider alternative career options”  means  “you are the worst PhD student I’ve ever worked with or heard of”.

A can mean Z

On the other hand, if you did 10 experiments last week and apologise that 2 of them didn’t work, a reply along the lines of “10 is too few, I think you should do 20” is almost certainly the other side of British psyche  – sarcasm, when the meaning of the phrase is completely opposite.

A short phrase guide:

Your graph/first year report is not completely straightforward = incomprehensible

I am not insisting on this, but if I were you = do it like I say

If you are not too busy, when you have time = do it NOW

I am not unhappy with your results = great stuff

I’d be happy to hear your additions to the phrase guide.

Further reading:

Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People

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  1. AmandaB on March 27, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Yup, addendum to Cthulhu’s remark: There are several nationalities within the “United Kindom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”; as advised in the article, you may not only have a Scottish or Welsh colleague, but also a N. Irish one.
    Oh, and, (in the opinion of this Scottish girl!), cricket is an arcane and closed religion known only to the English in the UK, (but worshipped in other parts of the world, eg Pakistan, Australia, West Indies et alia)
    ps “I am not unhappy with…” is ever so slightly anachronistic – very 1950s Oxbridge don-esque! But the first two phrases are spot on!!

  2. niki on September 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Wonderful article. Helped me a lot. Exactly what I needed to understand my supervisor and colleagues. Thank you very much 🙂

  3. Cthulhu on September 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Great Britain is still Great Britain, and The UK is still the UK. If you have a look at the front of British passport you’ll see it is for the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

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