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Thursday, June 04, 2015

PhD students: what to do if you don't work well with your supervisor by Professor Gina Wisker

Photo: Gina Wisker
Supervisors can be enabling and supportive - but they can also be bullies. Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature and head of the centre for learning and teaching at the University of Brighton offers advice on how to manage this sometimes tricky relationship.

PhD students who are stuck should ask supervisors for guidance about next steps. 

Some PhD students have positive tales of supervisors who are good managers and become lifelong friends. Others, however, have horror stories. These are the supervisors who do not see students regularly, show little interest in their work, make unrealistic demands on their progress, don’t put them in touch with other students or networks, and provide harsh, confusing or no feedback.

Some PhD students say they never see their supervisor at all, so they just get on with the work themselves.

So, what’s the best way of managing this sometimes tricky relationship? There are three aspects to this: personal, learning and institutional.

Personal: set some ground rules
The supervisor/student relationship is both personal and professional. It can resemble negotiating with a variously supportive, controlling or critical parent (while they might have your best interests at heart, they can be hurtful in their comments or focused somewhere else. But it can also resemble managing a busy, intelligent, sometimes absent and sometimes demanding manager. They too want to get the research project completed but sometimes neither of you quite understand how to work together to do this effectively. 

Sometimes students and supervisors simply don’t get on as people. Establishing ground rules about working together, regular supervision meetings, agendas and responsibilities right at the start helps ward off everyday breakdowns.

But some of the breakdowns are more serious, to do with working practices and making progress. Some supervisors give less attention to students who are apparently making good intellectual progress, while others are stressed and pass that on when a student doesn’t make progress. 


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