The majority of supervisor-supervisee relationships are healthy, productive and mutually beneficial. Chances are you’ll find in your PhD supervisor someone who is an expert in their field and a dedicated mentor to you.
However, as with any other situation in life, there is a possibility that you might not get on with your supervisor. We’ve covered some common PhD supervisor problems below and suggested how you can go about solving them.
A lack of communication
Often the root of disagreement and difficulties between a supervisor and a PhD researcher is a lack of communication.
Ideally, you should discuss and agree on expectations in this area with your supervisor at the beginning of your PhD. But it’s never to late to address the subject if you don’t think these expectations are being met or if you’re worried that you’re not contacting your supervisor enough.
Showing that you have doubts or concerns about the progress of your PhD or asking for help aren’t signs of weakness, but a signal on your part that you want to succeed. These are a few pointers to think about when getting in touch with your supervisor
- Identify where you need training or help
- Share your concerns about where your project is and where it is going
- Ask about techniques, resources and recommended reading
You’ll be surprised what effective communication can achieve. You may find that your supervisor had no idea you were struggling (or, rather, that you are not struggling at all but experiencing the same emotions as most doctoral students).
However, you should be realistic with your demands and expectations. After all, supervisors are busy academics and researchers themselves, often juggling teaching, research, pastoral or administrative roles along with their duties as a supervisor.
PhD supervisors who don’t get back to you
Having stated the importance of communication, how do you reach out to someone who just doesn’t get back to you or respond to emails?
Perhaps the first step is to try and find out, without being indiscrete, why your supervisor is not available. Do they have research commitments abroad? Are they involved in senior-level work with your institution, the government, public organisations or industry? Are they part-time?
Next, you should arrange a meeting where you can discuss a pattern of contact times that would suit you both.
If your supervisor isn’t available because of the number of students they have responsibility for, try and find out how the other students deal with it.
Remember that in most cases you will have a second supervisor and they are there to help you. If you don’t have one, speak to your graduate school (or equivalent) and try to identify one, but keep your main supervisor informed.
Overbearing supervisors who look over your shoulder constantly can be as much a problem as absent supervisors.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways to deal with this other than to have a chat with them and (diplomatically!) explain that you would welcome taking a more leading role in planning and conducting your research. Gently let them know that meeting too frequently is counterproductive and you feel you have the skills and the enthusiasm to take your project forward.
Supervisors who leave
Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often, Hopefully, if your supervisor is leaving, for whatever reason, you will get advance notice so that you can work together to make alternative supervisory arrangements.
- Retirement – It’s unlikely that someone will agree to be your supervisor if they know that they’ll be retiring soon. However, if you do find yourself in this situation, you should ask your supervisor what their retirement means for you. Will they still be able to supervise you? Are they discharging supervisory responsibility to other academics? If so, do you think it is okay? You could propose your own choice or ask your second supervisor if they can step up.
- Leaving for another university – You really have two choices here – go with them or stay and find another supervisor.
- Going on sabbatical – Ask whether they think they can offer an adequate level of supervision while on research leave (especially if they are abroad) or if you should look for an alternative supervisory structure.
Changing PhD supervisors
There are many reasons why you may be considering a change in supervisor, and not all of them have to do with a bad supervisor-supervisee relationship. For example, if your research has changed in scope considerably, it’s reasonable to think about having an additional supervisor or to switch completely. Your university will probably have a process in place for this.
Make sure you discuss your decision with your current supervisor – especially if the reasons are any of the issues discussed above – so that they know what went wrong.
You should also bear in mind that one of the main skills PhD students develop is self-reliance. Being able to work without constant supervision is a valuable attribute, so it might not be the end of the world if you have less frequent contact with your supervisor, or if you find that you need less and less advice.
Of course, depending on where you are in your PhD, a change of supervisor may be a disruption rather than a benefit. Don’t forget the old adage that the grass always looks greener on the other side...