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.
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
- 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.”
Let’s explore each type and discuss strategies to handle them effectively.
How to Cope with a Problematic PhD Supervisor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.