Elephant in the Lab

Meta Gorup, Melissa Laufer

When Relationships Between Supervisors and Doctoral Researchers Go Wrong

3 November 2020 | doi:10.5281/zenodo.4213175 | 1 Comment

When Relationships Between Supervisors and Doctoral Researchers Go Wrong

Gorup & Laufer on how control is exercised and abused within relationships between doctoral supervisors and their students, what happens when PhD students challenge this control, and how we break free of this cycle of control.

hate my phd supervisor

Doctoral researchers represent a crucial group within the academic workforce. They importantly contribute to their departments’ and universities’ research efforts by, among other, carrying out data collection, running experiments, helping with or leading publication writing, presenting at conferences, and sometimes applying for research funding.

In 2018, doctoral programs across OECD countries enrolled over a million and a half doctoral students and granted a total of nearly 278,000 PhD or equivalent degrees (OECD n.d.).

However, this large, vital group of researchers faces numerous challenges connected to managing a several-years-long research project while learning a host of new skills and  coming to terms with the unwritten rules of academia. It is thus perhaps not unexpected – although rarely openly talked about – that around 50 percent of doctoral researchers discontinue their doctorates (Council of Graduate Schools 2008; Groenvynck et al. 2013; Vassil and Solvak 2012).

In this blog post, we explore what is behind this worrying statistic. Specifically, we examine the role the relationship between doctoral supervisors and their students plays in the latter’s decision to discontinue their doctorates.

hate my phd supervisor

Melissa Laufer

We first shed light on the existing research pointing to the crucial role of supervisors in and their control over students’ doctoral journeys . Furthermore, we demonstrate that supervision-related issues are a common concern among PhD students. We then show that doctoral researchers’ problems with supervisors are often exacerbated by an institutional environment which discourages PhD students from addressing these issues.

The remainder of the text presents our own study of international doctoral student dropout , revealing patterns of ‘control’ and abuse thereof by doctoral supervisors which in several cases played a decisive role in the PhD students’ decision to discontinue. Drawing upon the empirics of our study, we explore:

  • How is control exercised and abused within relationships between doctoral supervisors and their students?
  • What happens when PhD students challenge this control?
  • And how do we break free of this cycle of control?

Supervisors Play a Central Role

While the reasons for a doctoral researcher’s decision to discontinue their doctoral studies are multifaceted – from personal and family issues to departmental and disciplinary cultures (Gardner 2009; Golde 2005; Leijen et al. 2016) – issues with supervisors often contribute to a doctoral student’s decision to discontinue their PhD (Gardner 2009; Golde 2005; Jones 2013; Leijen et al. 2016).

This is hardly surprising since, to a doctoral student, their supervisor is commonly “the central and most powerful person” who controls many crucial aspects of the PhD trajectory: the doctoral researcher’s integration into the academic community and discipline, the topic and process of their dissertation research, their career path following the doctorate (Lovitts 2001: 131), and sometimes the PhD students’ funding (Golde 2005; Laufer & Gorup 2019).

Doctoral Supervision Needs Improvement

The essential role of doctoral supervisors in the PhD students’ experience and success makes the statistics that report on persistent supervisory issues all the more worrisome.

A global survey of over 6,300 PhD researchers initiated by Nature found that doctoral researchers based in Europe were very likely to list “impact of poor supervisor relationship” as one of their top five concerns (Lauchlan 2019). In the UK, a study of over 50,000 postgraduate research students – which included both PhD-level and research master’s students – found that 38 percent of respondents listed “learning and support” as an area in need of improvement, and out of those, 46 percent referred to various supervision-related is sues (Williams 2019).

What is more, the previously mentioned Nature survey found that 21 percent of respondents experienced being bullied. Among those, 48 percent listed their supervisors as the most frequent perpetrators of bu llying (Lauchlan 2019)

A Disempowering Institutional Environment

What further hinders those doctoral researchers who experience difficulties with their supervisors is an institutional environment which disempowers them to proactively address their situations. Because PhD students “are in a subordinate and dependent position socially, intellectually, and financially,” they are unlikely to challenge those superior to them (Lovitts 2001: 34–35).

Studies report that doctoral students “fear” raising an issue to or about a supervisor (Metcalfe et al. 2018) and are plagued by “fear of repercussions” because they cannot address their concerns anonymously (Lauchlan 2019). At the same time, universities are generally seen as reluctant to address supervision-related problems (Metcalfe et al. 2018) and academics tend to place the blame on PhD researchers for their issues rather than on the doctoral program or the university (Gardner 2009; Lovitts 2001).

To this point, a survey of almost 2,500 doctoral researchers at the Max Planck Society in Germany reports that only half of doctoral students who experienced conflicts with those senior to them reported the conflicts to an institutional body. Among those who did, over 50 percent indicated the reports were not dealt with in a satisfactory manner (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group 2020).

The International Doctoral Student Experience

One group of PhD researchers particularly vulnerable to the extreme challenges of the doctorate is international doctoral students (IDSs). They are required not only to adjust to a new academic system but also to a new society (Le & Gardner 2010; Campbell 2015; Cotterall 2015).

I DSs make up 22 percent of doctoral enro llments across OECD countries (OECD 2020), with their dropout rates comparable to local students, at circa 50 percent (Groenvynck et al. 2013). However, despite similarities in discontinuation rates, studies point out that IDSs are especially susceptible to disempowerment .

They are more inclined to experience issues with their su pervisors (Adams and Cargill 2003; Adrian-Taylor et al. 2007; Campbell 2015) and may encounter discrimin ation (Mayuzumi et al. 2007). The previously mentioned Max Planck Society survey (2020) for instance found that non-Germans were exposed to more bullying from supervisors than their German colleagues, with doctoral researchers coming from outside the European Union experiencing the most cases at 15 percent.

A Study of International Doctoral Student Dropout

Our 2019 study, The Invisible Others: Stories of International Doctoral Student Dropout , also highlights the vulnerability of IDSs. Specifically, it demonstrates how their statuses as cultural outsiders and academic novices contributed to their disempowerment and the eventual discontinuation of their studies.

We conducted in-depth life story interviews with 11 IDSs who had discontinued their doctorates at a Western European university. Across their narratives, we identified a pattern of ‘control’ that was exercised, and in some cases abused, by those in positions of power as well as institutionalized within the university structure.

Moreover, eight out of 11 participants described how issues with their supervisors to a greater or lesser degree prompted them to discontinue their doctorates .

Supervisors Controlling the Academic Conversation

Below we look at a selection of a broad spectrum of aspects in which supervisors exercised control over their IDSs’ doctoral journeys and show how the scale of power regularly tipped in the favor of supervisors.

Problematic Feedback and Mentorship Practices

Nearly all the IDSs reported some level of dissatisfaction with their supervisors’ feedback and support practices, with some explicitly pointing to supervisors’ control over their progress, learning and even future career.

Some IDSs explained, for example, that it was difficult to get any time at all with their supervisors, in some instances also sharing that this was not a challenge for local students. One PhD student described how they – as internationals – were “ all on our own completely, since the very beginning .”

One participant reported how the feedback he received largely focused on pointing out deficiencies and how he was not given opportunities to engage in dialogue about his work. This made him feel that the comments were delivered from the supervisors’ “ clearly defined position of power .” Similarly, another IDS explained how he felt he was “ not learning anything because I’m doing all that she’s [the supervisor] saying .”

For one research participant, the extent of his supervisor’s control explicitly extended to his future career. Initially, the supervisor agreed with the PhD student’s choice to discontinue and offered to write recommendation letters for his doctorate applications elsewhere. However, our interviewee later found out that his supervisor told a potential employer that he was not actually interested in pursuing a PhD.

Struggles Over the Ownership of the Research Project

A number of IDSs also felt their research projects were largely controlled by supervisors who did not give them the freedom to choose their research topic or decide how to approach it.

One doctoral researcher described how he felt that the “ research project doesn’t belong to me ,” together with feelings of “ working for someone else .” Another IDS shared that she was successful in winning an external grant which was supposed to give her the freedom to choose her research topic. However, in reality, she “ couldn’t make any decisions [about] my own work ”.

Some IDSs also reported the supervisors’ micro-management and lack of trust in them. One research participant explained how her supervisor

was completely behind my back, all the time. Like if I was coming in from an experiment, he would be like, what are the results? … He was all the time behind me and there was no trust in what I was doing, I was surveilled all the time.

This doctoral student was not alone in experiencing a constant pressure to perform and feeling surveilled. One IDS even shared he thought his supervisor “feels like she owns a person.”

Funding in Supervisors’ Hands

Another aspect where the supervisors’ power abuse was very apparent was finances, likely more so because at the case study university, supervisors were in large part directly in control of the PhD students’ funding.

Some IDSs reported how they were promised funding for a full PhD of four to five years, but were told after a year or two that their contract would not be extended. One research participant shared:

during the job interview on Skype and on site I have been told that there was funding for a PhD. That they would make a contract until the end of the first year, at the same time I would apply for an external grant … but not to worry because there was the funding for the entire project. … Which turned out not to be true.

In a couple of cases, doctoral researchers were offered only short-term contracts – of a few months – after their initial one or two-year contract expired. One research participant described what his supervisor did when she perceived at the end of his first two-year contract that he might not be able to finish his PhD:

she [supervisor] told me that she was only going to sign my contract for three months. … So that will give me like the added pressure and should be like a testing time, if I was going to be able to finish my PhD.

Following an evaluation after the first three months, the supervisor planned to continue extending this IDS’s contract every three months rather than offer him a longer-term contract.

Supervisors Using the PhD Students’ Status as Internationals

For IDSs coming from outside the European Union (EU), the supervisors’ control over their funding was also linked to the control over the PhD students’ immigration status. To stay in an EU country, non-EU students need to prove they have financial means to do so – and if their contract ends, that is put at risk.

One research participant shared how his supervisor explicitly referred to her control over his stay in the country:

she [supervisor] told me if I didn’t meet … all the deadlines that she had made for this project … she wouldn’t sign my contract and … that would put my residence here in [the country] and in Europe at risk, if I didn’t do exactly what she said. So that was openly like a threat. … so I think she used that. I mean … like a point of power, like … your stay here [in this country] relies on me.

Another narrative underlying some of our interviewees’ accounts was their perception that IDSs were more vulnerable to exploitation by their supervisors. One interviewee explained that he was “ an easy target for her [supervisor] ” because “ [s]he thought it doesn’t matter how bad she treats me or any other international students. ” He speculated that this group of PhD students was less likely to discontinue their doctorates because it was more difficult for them to find another opportunity in a country away from home. Thus, they were likely to put up with more mistreatment than their local counterparts.

Challenging Supervisors’ Control

As the previous examples illustrate, supervisors exercised and abused their control in various aspects of the PhD students’ lives. Although in most cases, doctoral students were aware of this control and openly spoke about it, it also seemed to be understood that there was little they could do to counter it. In the words of one IDS, “ nobody ever dared to talk to the professors .”

Those who brought up issues to their supervisors were often disappointed and disillusioned with the results. Some IDSs reported that challenging their supervisors resulted in the supervisors becoming furious, storming out of the room or threatening the PhD student with no contract renewal.

Another problem identified by our research participants was that there was simply not enough oversight of what was actually going on behind the scenes. An IDS shared,

apparently I was one of the many who had been quitting in this lab, which is strange because I thought, come on, there has to be some kind of follow-up on this … In the same lab, you have all these students quitting, don’t you think you have a problem? With this group?

At the same time, this PhD researcher seemed resigned to the situation. When asked if she had officially approached anyone about her issues, she responded,

I didn’t because who’s my reference? … I mean what is going to change, really, you know? I didn’t see it was going to help me out. Or who to go to, to begin with.

This notion that professors were somehow ‘untouchable’ was echoed in a number of doctoral researchers’ accounts. As a result, in relation to issues with their supervisors, only two of our interviewees used official university resources such as filing an official complaint with the faculty ombudsman or speaking to the internationalization office.

Moreover, these university resources did little to help the PhD students who approached them. One IDS who got in touch with the internationalization office and the office overseeing her scholarship was told they could not help her because “ this is quite a [personality] problem. So it’s not very academic. So they can’t really interfere .”

Another doctoral student shared how the faculty ombudsman dismissed and joked about his complaints when his supervisor offered him a series of short-term contracts in place of a longer one. Moreover, the intervention had no effect on the supervisor and his supervisor later explained to the PhD student that this practice was legal – and therefore acceptable.

Breaking the Cycle of Control

In the doctoral researchers’ accounts above, we see how supervisors, due to their seniority and institutionalized positions of power, may exercise and abuse their control over various aspects of the doctoral journey. For a number of our interviewees, this abuse was made worse due to their international status .

The fact that supervisors have the power to undertake the actions like those we illustrate above with limited to no consequences speaks to a much larger issue. We are no longer talking about a few bad apples in the barrel, but a systematic problem occurring across academia , as evident from the abovementioned surveys initiated by Nature (Lauchlan 2019) and the Max Planck Society (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group 2020).

But this cycle of power imbalance does not need to continue. The change begins by rethinking how we characterize the doctorate. In academia folklore, the doctorate is often fashioned as a trial, a time of enormous hardship, of which only the fittest survive – but not without battle scars. Instead of seeing the doctorate as a grueling rite of passage, we need to shift our focus to building confident, empowered scholars , who value collaboration over competition.

Such change can be sparked by focusing on practices embedded within the institutional environment. In our practitioner-geared publication, Pathways to Practice: Supporting International Doctoral Students , we discuss in detail the small and larger steps institutions, supervisors and (international) doctoral students can take to create an inclusive doctoral experience for both international and local PhD students.

In this blog post, we would like to highlight two steps university stakeholders can take to ensure a more empowering institutional environment:

  • We encourage institutions to set up training for supervisor s to reflect on their supervision styles and the assumptions embedded within them. Supervisors should also gain insight into giving constructive feedback and building professional partnerships with PhD students.
  • We propose a number of formal and informal support structures institutions may make available to doctoral students, ranging from setting up an independent ombudsperson to forming peer and collegial support communities, such as study groups, workshops and online forums.

However, the concerns we raise in this blog post about power imbalances in the relationship between doctoral supervisors and their students are symptomatic of a phenomenon occurring across all levels of academia: the privileged few have power over the subordinate majority. Consequently, the larger question at stake is: how do we change deeply ingrained behaviors in academia that perpetuate inequalities?

Some of these issues are complex and may require a system-level overhaul, but others are within our reach. The relatively simple change actions we propose above can be a good starting point for how we want to shape the next generation of scholars. Let us begin by bringing the discussion of power abuse in academia into the light and, step by step, empower doctoral students, supervisors and institutions to break free of the cycle of control .

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Campbell, T. A. (2015). A phenomenological study on international doctoral students’ acculturation experiences at a US university. Journal of International Students , 5 (3), 285–299.

Cotterall, S. (2015). The rich get richer: international doctoral candidates and scholarly identity. Innovations in Education and Teaching International , 52 (4), 360–370.

Council of Graduate Schools. (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: analysis of baseline demographic data from the Ph.D. Completion Project. Washington D.C.: Council of Graduate Schools.

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Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: lessons from four departments. The Journal of Higher Education , 76 (6), 669–700.

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There are so many issues with the quality and attitude of supervisers, in my view – at least in the UK system.

Some of the challenges that I experienced were:- 1) A supervisor who spent a lot of time telling me how certain people (and even a faculty member) – and he named names – had only got their PhDs because he had written their thesis for them, or built their experiemental equipment, run their clinical trials etc. He seemed to almost believe that the world did not turn without his assistance.

2) He regularly wanted to take-over and design or work-out sections for me. I kept telling him that I wanted it to be my work and that the only way I could learn was to do the work. I wanted to know that I had earned it, but he did not stop or respect that and it caused disagreement and bad feeling.

3) There was no help or understanding for the things I really needed his help with; a poor administration where my ID card/computer and library access kept beinng cancelled every three weeks for three years. A computer that could not cope with all I demanded of it and could not cope with the extensive calculations and graphics processing.

4) There was never any time or interest in discussing what I had learned or discovered during my work – I felt so cut-off and isolated. For me, the joy of a doctorate was learning something surprising and new. But this was lost, as I had no one to share it with.

5) His mood would either be over the top nice, where everything was wonderful – or utterly condemning and condescending, depending on the day. So during one meeting I might feel pleased with myself and during the next, for exactly the same points of discussion, suddenly my work was complete rubbish. So I could never trust or believe him either way and that left me feeling wary, on-edge and bewildered.

6) Many supervisors appear to have little understanding or concern for the university rules and purpose of supervising and just muddle along doing whatever they deem fit.

7) Many have long forgotten the struggles and loneliness of research at doctoral level and view students as cannon fodder.

8) When I tried to raise a complaint, they just closed ranks and ignored me. The only way to get them to address my supervisory issues was to go through the formal complaints process and ask for it to be looked at by another faculty. The result was them saying that they had added my supervisor to a “watch list” and they would have liked to get rid of him, but for legal reasons they could not. But they still let him supervise !

9) The university seemed to be split into a myriad of defensive islands that were at war with each other and no one really listened or helped. Whenever a problem arose, the standard practice seemed to be to refer the person to another group of department and then it turn, that group would deny responsibility and you would be passed somewhere else – and so it would go on. In my case, even writing an e-mail to the “President” (as Vice-chancellors like to call themselves now – how pretenious) and the VP Education got nowhere, as my complaint as bounced back to my faculty – who continued to ignore it. So what was the point of the falsely proclaimed “exceptional student experience” ?

10) Faculty like to think that they work really hard and I am sure some do – but my research group/faculty would disappear for two hour lunches and, on Fridays, never come back until Monday. My supervisor would often not turn-up for supervisory meetings and I would find him having coffee and hiding behind a broad-sheet newspaper in the nearby Costa Coffee.

11) The best part was when my supervisor recommended a comference for me – which I paid the fees, booked the flights etc for – only to discover that it did not exist and was a phoney/scam conference. When I complained, he claimed that I had not paid attention – fortunately, I kept a copy of his e-mail with the link he sent me to that supposed conference.

12) When I finally started with a new supervisor, he was upset because the reearch topic I had been given by the previous Professor was actually an area he had “taken” from my new Professor. So I was dragged into a long-standing, ‘silent’ war of mistrust between them.

13) There was an unspoken but firm ritual where other academics names might be added to a paper’s author list, even though they had no involvement – just to boost a colleague’s research profile.

The fundamental issue seems to me to be the lack of supervision of supervisors. It all seems to work on the principles of a gentlemen’s club, where – when something goes wrong – no one mentions or acknowledges it. The academic equivalent of a black hole could open-up and they would just walk around it and comment on how clear the sky was around there. SO bizarre..,…

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Author info

Meta Gorup is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent at Ghent University in Belgium. Her research explores topics in research management and doctoral education through the lens of university members’ identities and university cultures.

Melissa Laufer is a senior researcher in the research programme “Knowledge &; Society” at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. She is interested in investigating change processes at universities.

MIM Learnovate

How to Cope with a Problematic PhD Supervisor

hate my phd supervisor

Completing a Ph.D. is a significant academic achievement that requires dedication, hard work, and the guidance of a supportive supervisor.

Are you facing challenges with your PhD supervisor?

Do you often feel ignored or belittled by them?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it’s clear that your PhD journey isn’t going as smoothly as you hoped.

However, there are strategies you can employ to cope with a problematic PhD supervisor and improve your relationship with them.

In this article, we will discuss different types of Problematic supervisors and provide strategies for dealing with each type, allowing you to navigate your PhD journey more effortlessly.

It may seem unfair, but difficult supervisors often get away with their behavior due to their past achievements and reputation as academic researchers.

Making a formal complaint against your supervisor may only complicate matters further. Instead, focus on developing strategies that can help reduce your PhD woes and bring you and your supervisor on the same page.

Table of Contents

Types of Problematic PhD Supervisors

To begin, it’s important to identify the type of supervisor you’re dealing with. According to the book “Coping with Difficult People,” there are seven categories into which difficult people can be divided.

  • Hostile aggressive
  • Silent & unresponsive
  • Super-agreeable
  • Know-it-all expert

Additionally, two more types have been identified in the book “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets From 100 Graduates.”

  • Micro-manager

hate my phd supervisor

Let’s explore each type and discuss strategies to handle them effectively.

1. Complainer

Any supervisor of this type will constantly have something to complain. It would not be incorrect to suggest that this type of supervisor is born with the ability to see faults in a student’s work.

To cope with a supervisor that constantly complains, you can do the following:

  • Listen – You should actively listen to the complaints voiced by the supervisor in order to deal with them appropriately later on.
  • Acknowledge – You must then acknowledge your supervisor’s comments in a suitable manner. To acknowledge, you could use phrases like “I understand what you’re driving at,” “I understand where you’re coming from,” or “I see why you’re concerned with xyz section of my research paper.”
  • Intervene – If you think that your supervisor’s complaint is illogical, step in and explain why you disagree with that particular point. It could be beneficial to use phrases like “With your permission, I would like to contradict your point here” or “With all due respect, I beg to differ on this point.”
  • Avoid accusation – Your supervisor should not perceive your words as an accusation when you express your thoughts to them. Instead, you should provide facts to support your claims on any topic that has been troubling your supervisor. Keep the conversation from turning into an accusation-reaccusation sequence. The sentence above could be expanded in the way that follows: “With all due respect, I beg to differ on this point and the following are the reasons: X, Y, & Z.”
  • Get to problem-solving – In addition to providing your supervisor with facts and figures, you need to give solutions to the problems that he or she has brought up during the meeting. ”I understand why you’re concerned about the xyz section of my research paper,” for example. Respectfully, I beg to differ on this point, and X, Y, & Z are my reasons. Do you still think it to be an issue? If so, what changes do you suggest I make to this section to ensure that this particular chapter meets your expectations? It should be noted that complaining supervisors don’t always complain about a specific research issue in an effort to find a solution. They would rather do this to gain admiration and appreciation for their ability for finding faults. So, appreciate them in order to satisfy their unspoken desire for recognition.

2. Hostile-Aggressive

This particular group of supervisors or advisers tends to be confrontational, unfriendly, impolite, rude, and aggressive by nature. Such a supervisor will simply reject all of your ideas and drafts, leaving you disappointed in nearly every meeting.

To cope with this type of supervisor, employ the following strategies:

  • Bide your time : Wait for the person to get calm before speaking to them so that your voice may be heard and understood.
  • Be assertive – Once the supervisor’s drilling speech has lost momentum in the meeting, you should respond to the supervisor’s concerns about your PhD with assertiveness, supporting your claims with logic and reliable sources of information.
  • Maintain eye contact: Look the supervisor in the eyes while you speak. This will demonstrate your confidence and optimism, which will enable you to take control of the situation and direct the conversation towards finding a solution.

3. Silent & Unresponsive

Though rare in academia, some supervisors may fail to return calls or emails and might skip addressing your questions during meetings.

To cope with such supervisors:

  • Open-ended questions : Asking open-ended questions is the best way to get as much information as you can. For instance, Professor, what do you think of the solutions I have suggested for problems brought up during the previous meeting?
  • Pausing helps : When you believe your question or doubt has not been well addressed, try pausing for a few moments to allow the professor to break the ice and address the question or doubt with a suitable explanation.
  • Sum-up the conversation : Reiterate the points covered before the meeting finishes and ask the meeting’s supervisor to confirm your understanding. This would ensure that the supervisor properly identified and filled in any gaps in your understanding and that you had a clear set of goals to meet before the next meeting began.
  • Follow up regularly: If your supervisor has asked you to work on one specific aspect of your PhD thesis, you must agree to a deadline and set a meeting time to discuss the progress of the work. The secret to success when dealing with this kind of supervisor is constant follow-up.
  • Use your own judgement: If the supervisor doesn’t address any concerns you have with the PhD thesis, you may need to use your own judgement and email the supervisor to let them know the plan of action you intend to take.

4. Indecisive

Have you ever had a PhD supervisor advise you to start working on a certain research topic and then later propose that you change to a different one because the initial topic is no longer looking particularly promising? If so, you would describe that kind of supervisor as being indecisive.

Indecisive supervisors feel uncomfortable making solid decisions because they are worried that their decisions would be improper and ineffective.

You could employ the following strategies when dealing with a indecisive supervisor:

  • Assertiveness is what works best with this type of supervisor. You can explain why a certain research project is worthwhile after your supervisor has rejected the study plan by being assertive. This would assist in restoring your supervisor’s trust in both you and the research you are conducting.
  • Before meeting with an unclear supervisor for assistance, you must take responsibility of the PhD Thesis and conduct extensive study on your own. You won’t be able to convince your supervisor of your choices regarding your PhD Thesis until you are knowledgeable about the field of research.

5. Super-Agreeable

A supervisor in this category would always appreciate your work and would rarely bring up any facts that would anger or displease you as a student. If such a supervisor makes a promise, it should not be trusted blindly because the majority of the time, empty promises are made by this kind of PhD supervisors.

In short, you cannot rely on this type of supervisor for much assistance with your PhD thesis. You might employ the following strategies when dealing with this kind of supervisor:

  • Speak out : Don’t wait for your supervisor to point out flaws in your work. Instead, discuss all of the problems you faced while drafting various sections of your PhD thesis with the supervisor and ask for solutions. Ask the supervisor if they are completely satisfied with the PhD thesis work that has been completed so far to prevent making significant changes in the later stages of the research work.
  • Look out for unrealistic commitments — A super-agreeable supervisor is skilled at creating false promises, as was already indicated. You must therefore look out for these false commitments and figure out how to get around them. For instance, if your supervisor has promised to give you a letter of recommendation in response to your request for one, you cannot rely on that promise because it is possible that the supervisor may cause unnecessary delay in the delivery. In this situation, you must create an outline for the requested letter and give it to the supervisor, asking that they issue the recommendation letter as soon as possible. By taking this step, the letter will be delivered more quickly and reach you.
  • Actively listen for humour- This kind of friendly supervisor will often use humour to draw attention to the research paper’s flaws. Therefore, it is your responsibility to always your ears open and pay attention to such humorous remarks in order to enhance the content of your PhD thesis.

6. Negativist

A negative PhD supervisor will continually highlight the negative aspects of your completed work in order to lower your morale. Your academic efforts will never be appreciated by this kind of supervisor.

To deal with a negative supervisor, you can employ the following strategies:

Avoid being influenced by the supervisor’s negative behavior. Instead, you can try to use the negative attitude of the supervisor as motivation to work harder and produce better results. Instead of focusing on the supervisor’s demoralizing behavior, try to focus on the issues you are trying to solve. Do not engage in arguments that, you know, will greatly increase the level of tension between you and the supervisor. If your negative supervisor is not willing to support you in any way, ask peers and other professors for assistance.

7. Know-it-All Expert

This type of supervisor, as the name suggests, is very knowledgeable in the field and would not be satisfied with any work that was not well-researched.

Supervisors in this category have extensive knowledge in their research area and expect well-researched work.

The following strategies can help you deal with a supervisor who is an know-it-all expert supervisor.

  • No matter how talented you are as a researcher, you should always be polite when speaking with this type of supervisor. It’s possible that you won’t get the best support if you try to wow people with your knowledge of a certain field of research.
  • Before meeting with this type of supervisor, you should equip yourself with the necessary knowledge. You could evaluate the issues you are facing and ask the supervisor for help solving them with a little preparation before the meeting.
  • At the end of every in-person meeting, always thank your supervisor for offering valuable comments and guiding you in the right direction.

8. Micro-manager

A micro-managing supervisor is one that closely examines every aspect of your PhD work and keeps track of each deadline set up to review the current project and determine the best course of action. You can even receive a call from this kind of supervisor at odd hours to talk about the ongoing research project.

If your supervisor micromanages, you can do the following:

  • You should take notes during each meeting with your PhD supervisor and agree on a due date for the revised  draft. This ensures that you are not interrupted before the agreed-upon deadline ends and that you complete the agreed-upon revision on time.
  • The supervisor should be politely informed of your working hours so that they know when to contact you for an update (if necessary).

9. Super-Busy

A supervisor like this would have very little time to devote to your PhD research. Students who have been allocated a super-busy PhD Supervisor must remain self-motivated in order to effectively complete their PhD Thesis.

Here are some suggestions to help you deal with a supervisor who is super busy:

  • Please conduct independent research to find solutions to the problems you are having with your PhD thesis if you can’t schedule a meeting with your supervisor.
  • After that, send the supervisor an email outlining the steps you’ll take to address any research-related issues.
  • If the supervisor detects any fault with the course of action you have chosen, you might receive some constructive feedback that will help you continue in the right direction.
  • Seek alternative support: If your supervisor is consistently unavailable, consider seeking support from other faculty members or researchers in your field. They can provide guidance, feedback, and support for your research when your supervisor is too busy.
  • Be organized: Plan and prepare for your meetings in advance. Make a list of specific questions or concerns you want to discuss and prioritize them to ensure you make the most of the limited time you have with your supervisor.
  • Be concise: When communicating with a busy supervisor, keep your messages or conversations concise and to the point. Clearly articulate your main ideas or questions without excessive detail or unnecessary information.
  • Respect their time: Be mindful of your supervisor’s schedule and commitments. If they have limited availability, try to schedule meetings well in advance and be punctual. Be respectful of their time during meetings by staying focused and not going off on tangents.
  • Proactively seek feedback: Instead of waiting for your supervisor to provide feedback, take the initiative to seek feedback from other knowledgeable individuals in your research area. This will help you progress in your work and minimize the impact of your supervisor’s busy schedule.
  • Be self-reliant: Take ownership of your research project and become more self-reliant. Conduct thorough literature reviews, engage in independent problem-solving, and seek resources and information outside of your supervisor’s immediate guidance.
  • Establish clear expectations : Have open and honest conversations with your supervisor to establish clear expectations regarding communication, deadlines, and milestones. Clarify what support you need from them and discuss how you can work together effectively despite their busy schedule.
  • Network with peers: Build connections with other PhD students or researchers in your field. Sharing experiences, challenges, and resources with peers can provide valuable support and guidance throughout your PhD journey.

Remember, every Ph.D. journey comes with its unique challenges.

By adopting a proactive approach, seeking support, and staying focused on your goals, you can overcome obstacles and successfully complete your doctoral studies.

Your research and contribution to your field are valuable, and you have the resilience to thrive, even in the face of a problematic supervisor.

hate my phd supervisor

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Managing your Mental Health during your PhD pp 135–154 Cite as

Perhaps It’s Not You It’s Them: PhD Student-Supervisor Relationships

  • Zoë J. Ayres 2  
  • First Online: 15 September 2022

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This chapter explores the PhD Student-Supervisor relationship, outlining the role of a PhD Supervisor, discussing relationship management, and how to recognise signs of bullying and harassment if they occur.

(Trigger Warnings: bullying, harassment, sexual harassment)

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Depending on your country of study a PhD Supervisor may be called the Principal Investigator (PI) or you PhD Supervisor, or PhD Advisor. For the purpose of this chapter I will use “Supervisor”, to mean the academic in charge of your PhD research.

I count myself lucky every single day that I fell into the 76% category.

If you did not get this memo before starting your PhD, please do not worry. It is common for first-generation students to not get this information ahead of time.

Survivor bias is defined as the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.

The sunk cost fallacy reasoning states that further investments or commitments are justified because the resources already invested will be lost otherwise . In the case of PhD study it can be that if we just “stick it out” and try to manage the abuse we are being subject to we will get our PhD. In reality, leaving and starting a PhD elsewhere may be beneficial.

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How to deal with inadequate PhD supervision

Vishal vora won compensation from soas over a claim for poor support in his doctoral studies. he explains the steps others can take if they have a similar complaint.

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Complaints department

Since Times Higher Education reported earlier this month that I received compensation from Soas, University of London over PhD supervision failures, I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of students who have reached out to me with stories that are alarmingly familiar.

What has been most interesting is that it’s not just research students who have been in touch: a fair number are completing taught master’s and undergraduate degrees at other London institutions.

The question I am asked most is how to start a complaint. It seems that students are, at a very basic level, unaware of how to deal with conflicts with their university.

The very first thing that students facing such difficulties must do is to be honest with themselves and ask whether or not they have a valid complaint. University students today are treated as customers, which is how many see themselves. With that comes a sense of entitlement that they have paid for a service and therefore expect to receive a specific desired outcome, regardless of their conduct.

I believe that the student-institute contractual relationship places obligations on both parties – students must produce work, of a reasonable standard and to deadline, in order for it to be marked in a timely fashion. They must attend all lectures and commit to the course. If the student can show that they have held up their end of the bargain, and that the institution has failed to follow through on its part of the agreement, then there is a process to follow.

Students need to be efficient in their communications about any complaints; they must identify the issues and propose a resolution – all the while remaining calm and clear in all correspondence.

I’d advise a student in any sort of grievance with a university to be meticulous about record-keeping, ideally logging all their interactions in a notebook. Approach the complaints process as you would research: be methodical, account for all the variables and, above all, be comprehensive. Deal with matters head-on.

Make use of the Data Protection Act 2018, in particular the powerful “subject access request” (SAR). You are entitled to see any data relating to you that the university may hold. For example, you could request a copy of your supervision records. This would require the university to contact all supervisors and ask them to submit any records they have on you. But this also means that you need to be timely in making such requests because staff may leave, and emails, documents and written records may be deleted.

Use the free template letter available from the Information Commissioner’s Office website to make such a request. And always ask for electronic copies of any data because word searching and cataloguing are easier in that format.

Legal measures and the courts should, at all costs, be a last-resort option. If you have failed to resolve the issue directly, your next move should be to use the institution’s internal complaints procedure. All these details will be easily accessible on the university’s website, and a Google search can help to locate the relevant documents.

Search our database of more than 7,000 global university jobs

Usually the procedure, regardless of the university, will involve completing a short student complaint form, stating the type of complaint you wish to bring, the issues, your grounds and your resolution.

Complete this form and provide any and all relevant documentation and evidence. This will make dealing with your complaint much easier for the investigator in charge. Usually this person is an academic from another department.

Their job will be to investigate the issues, speak to the relevant people concerned (including you) and then write a report. Having been through this process three times, I assure you, it’s easy to complete and the investigator will want to ensure that fairness is achieved.

Should you not be happy with the outcome of this process, you are entitled to appeal on strict grounds. Again, look for guidelines on the university’s website. Such appeals are usually narrow in construction.

You will be issued with a completion letter when you have exhausted the internal process. This will allow you to have your case reviewed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). I took my case to this body but found its involvement to be unhelpful. This process works only if your university complies and provides documentation. In my case, this didn’t happen properly. In general terms, however, the OIA did assign a caseworker quickly, who seemed to understand my issues.

Although I didn’t get the answer I wanted from the OIA, this didn’t stop me from negotiating with the university. My advice here is simple: do not settle; take charge and ownership of your case.

As negotiations broke down in my case, I had no choice but to issue a legal claim. I did this by following the pre-action protocol, which is a series of steps that one must take to bring a claim to court. I used Money Claim Online to issue the claim, and wrote detailed particulars of the claim. Here, the previous investigators’ reports were very helpful because they included summaries of the issues previously dealt with.

In addition to taking these steps, students must also be aware of the personal investment that they will have to make in this process. There is a huge power imbalance between student and institution, so you will need to be highly motivated, organised and energised. I’ve been asked a lot about whether I ever felt threatened during my ordeal with Soas, and the fact is, I did. But I felt I had little choice. I was stuck, and no one was willing or able to help me; I didn’t have the funds to instruct a solicitor to act on my behalf, and I found the students’ union’s attitude to be unhelpful.

In making a complaint, you must also be prepared to fight a long battle – most likely alone, and most likely to an unsatisfactory ending.

In the end, Soas settled the claim and paid up, in full, with interest. Bringing this action has corrected several major wrongs that the university made during my six years there. However, it cost me an incredible amount of time and took a great emotional toll. And while I am left with a sense of satisfaction, I’m disappointed that the university director still refuses to issue a formal apology, as was recommended by one of Soas’ own investigators.

I hope that if you’re unhappy with the support your institution is giving to you, this advice will make you feel empowered to take matters into your own hands and make your complaint. Keep your chin up and keep going.

Vishal Vora is a legal academic at the Max Planck Institute and a research associate in the School of Law at Soas, University of London.

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Outside Soas

Soas to pay former student £20K over ‘no supervision’ PhD

Law graduate urges research students to ‘take institutions to task’ on inadequate supervision

hate my phd supervisor

PhD supervision: give and you shall receive

Terrible tales attest that some see this activity as a nuisance or worse, rather than as something that can benefit supervisor as much as student, says John Gill

On smarter supervision and smarter PhDs

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hate my phd supervisor

How I broke up with my supervisor.

This post, written by a PhD student, who wishes to stay anonymous, was sent to me late last year. Due to my new job, it’s taken me a long time to edit it down and make sure it doesn’t identify the student or their supervisor. I think you will find it an interesting story that highlights the tensions we all experience around the ‘finish at all costs (and on time)’ mentality.

Insitutions are feeling financial pressure to complete candidates within 4 years and put this pressure onto supervisors, who then pressure students. But s ocial media, by connecting students with each other, is giving some the courage to push back against this pressure. Supervisors might feel they are doing their best for a student by behaving as described in this post, but are they really? I’ll be interested to hear what you think in the comments.

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 3.13.39 PM

My carefully worded email to my supervisors said I wanted to discuss our processes at the next supervision, and named that I’d been feeling disheartened and shut down , which I was sure was not their intention. Instead of the usually effusive response, the reply was ‘OK’. I cried a lot that week, and could feel myself slipping into the helpless depression that comes from feeling powerless and bullied.

As it happens I was not trying to do anything too radical with my approach to research and writing. I wanted to understand the big picture of my research field, try to learn some theory and apply it appropriately. I wanted to write about my insights on policy and current practice in relation to my topic area, based on published, scholarly literature. Basically I wanted to come out confident I had contributed something to knowledge via my topic , gained valuable skills and expertise, but still have lots more to learn. Personal growth and insight would come in parallel with the academic skills as part of the complex PhD journey.

This was not the paradigm presented to me in, what turned out to be, my final meeting with my now ex-supervisor.

Her vision of what ‘research training’ entails is to stay totally focused on your topic. My summary of her description is this: Don’t talk to anyone, don’t write anything non-academic. The topic is not what is important – all that matters is getting finished and being able then to move on to something interesting and collaborative. If I asked a question, expect to be told to find my own answer. If that answer is wrong, be sent away to come up with another one. Spend months alone with the data, going over and over until eventually a lightbulb moment happens. Don’t go to conferences, they distract you. Exclude everything else from life until it is done, because it is the piece of paper that matters, and opens doors to other opportunities.

This is the way of modern academia. It’s a game, and this is the way to play it successfully . This is how she had been supervised, with a powerful mentor who fast-tracked her to completion and a high position within a short time of arriving at the university.

This reminded me of when, aged 11, I prepared for religious confirmation, and said to my mother that I wasn’t sure if I believed in god or not. ‘Get confirmed first and think about it later’ was her reply. The process, and deep thinking or wide learning were deemed less important than the status at the end. As an 11 year old I saw the inappropriateness of my mother’s advice, but went along with it anyway. I am better now at standing up for what I believe in. (I’m still an atheist.)

In our last supervision session my request to discuss how we worked, my inability to make progress with her way of responding to my work in progress, the tears pouring down my face, were not mentioned. Instead I was given a description of how they all work when writing an article together: ‘this is shit, rewrite it’, no politeness or support, which apparently ends in an article being finished quickly.

The page from Stylish Academic Writing (Sword, 2012) describing what made a good article, which I had sent in the interests of sharing something I was reading, was mocked as being wrong and not in line with current practice. The page from Stylish Academic Writing  (Sword, 2012) describing what made a good article, which I had sent in the interests of sharing something I was reading, was mocked as being wrong and not in line with current practice. If I didn’t like this approach maybe I could go to a different faculty and find a ‘feminist supervisor’, who won’t mind if I take 10 years to complete. This response showed neither an understanding of feminism nor my own intention to complete in a timely manner

The upshot of this meeting was: “No hard feelings, find a supervisor better suited to your style. I’ll sign the paperwork.”

I don’t doubt that this fast track, focus-on-the-task-and-get-finished-approach is common. It suits the hard, vocation-oriented direction universities are taking. They are businesses first, institutes of learning second. It bothers me, though. What kind of scholars is this fast-track paradigm creating? What impact is it having on the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, and the development of creative thinking and opportunities for excellent teachers to pass on thoughtful approaches and considerate practice?

Through social media I have learned that there are alternative ways to approach an idea , learn about a topic, publication and discussion. I know I’m not alone in my desire to learn deeply, to receive thoughtful input, to share ideas and to develop the courage to step out into the field.

Throughout Twitter has been an associate supervisor , guiding me, offering support and encouragement, the latest research about my topic. It’s provided instant community, with a hive mind to answer questions or suggest resources. It has been an important aspect of my candidature to date, and has contributed significantly to the resilience and confidence I feel as I seek a new supervisor to work with IRL to help me get finished in a timely manner, with deep learning along the way. Thanks, everyone!

Postscript 4 December 2012

I wrote the piece above just after the rift with my ex-supervisors happened, when I was full of grief, outrage, and frustration. Since then I have found new supervisors who are determined to keep me focused and finished , but are also open to a diversity of approaches and working in a way that suits me. I had been accepted to present at a conference in November, and nearly withdrew because I was feeling so disheartened, but decided to go, and shake off the previous negativity.

After my presentation I was approached by a respected academic in my field who said she liked my topic, approach, and way of thinking, and was I interested in doing a post-doc? Yes, please! While this was just a casual query, and no concrete offers have been made, as I do have to finish the PhD first, I have been buoyed by this interest and confidence, my work is progressing nicely, and I’m feeling good.

I’m glad to hear it all worked out Anonymous! How about you? Have you found yourself pressured to complete in a way that you think was detrimental to your own development as a researcher and scholar? Or do you think we need to respect the time limits that are set?

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The Thesis Whisperer is written by Professor Inger Mewburn, director of researcher development at The Australian National University . New posts on the first Wednesday of the month. Subscribe by email below. Visit the About page to find out more about me, my podcasts and books. I'm on most social media platforms as @thesiswhisperer. The best places to talk to me are LinkedIn , Mastodon and Threads.

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‘He sabotaged one PhD student’s field research and another’s involvement in international policy.’

My toxic supervisor ruined my health – but my university did nothing

My supervisor was a known bully but when I reported his behaviour to my university, he received a promotion

I arrived in the UK with a highly skilled work visa and a prestigious European grant. I thought I had hit the jackpot: my contract guaranteed enough money to pay the bills and fund high-quality research, my supervisor was a big name in the field, and my project would allow me to pursue big ideas and make a difference.

But that’s not how things turned out. The superstar supervisor turned out to represent everything wrong with academia . During one of our first meetings, he made clear that although my contract allocated a certain number of annual leave days each year, I shouldn’t use them.

During one six-month stretch I didn’t have a single day off, not even weekends or Christmas. Ninety-hour weeks were the norm, and Friday and Saturday nights were primetime. Once, the superstar called me on a Friday night demanding that I retrieve a document he had forgotten and deliver it to him at home. When I asked permission for a Thursday and a Friday off to visit family, he refused. I left on Friday anyway – and got hell for it.

The superstar was publicly magnanimous but privately wretched to everyone who crossed his path. When he showed signs of this early on, disparaging colleagues and tearing his PhD students to pieces, I chalked it up to his arrogant personality. I ignored his cruel actions, shuddering – but doing nothing – as he sabotaged one PhD student’s field research and another’s involvement in international policy. When he launched a devious scheme to upturn his own denied promotion, I learned how one could circumvent merit with shrewd politics. He delivered all his hostility untraceably – as he said, never put into writing anything they can use against you.

I said nothing and did nothing: what effect would it have wrought on me? But sooner or later, it was my turn. Every day, he made certain that his abuse arrived to me, in person, by phone or by thickly coded email. He chopped my research visits into impossibly short stints. One host asked why, and when I told him, he replied: “You can tell he does his research from 5,000 kilometres away.”

It came to a head when he manipulated my research and authorship privilege one too many times. I wrote several book chapters and journal articles in his name that he withdrew either after falling out with the publications’ coordinators, or because he wanted to teach me a lesson.

My health suffered terribly from the stress. Finally, I approached the head of the department and asked to work under someone else. If that were impossible, I said I would leave. The superstar threw a fit: if he could not own me, he would do everything in his power to see me disgraced. So I finished my contract remotely, plagued by serious health problems.

Meanwhile, the superstar supervisor got promoted.

When I learned of Britain’s growing interest in putting a halt to bullying in academia and promoting “dignity at work”, I compiled a detailed complaint and submitted it to the university’s HR department. It could have no impact on me, but I hoped that it might serve as on-hand support for the next casualty. Instead, it ran into a brick wall: the policies of the corporate university merely pay lip service to employment rights, and have little to do with the way things actually work.

I have yet to settle on what bothers me more: my supervisor’s perverted behaviour and ethics, or the university’s tacit support of them. Both problems extend far beyond me , my supervisor, and my university, and illustrate how toxic research culture can be. Policies are nice for sticking in the legal files, but researchers work under a different university policy: the real one.

Some details have been changed

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