Do You Feel Supported by Your PhD Supervisor?

Whenever I ask a group of students to identify their number one challenge throughout the PhD, supervisor relationships often come out on top.   

Unfortunately, despite the centrality of this relationship to the PhD experience, there is no instruction manual detailing how we should interact with our supervisors, what can be expected from this relationship, or how to handle any prospective disputes that might arise. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will operate.  

Sometimes the relationship works very well and a student is fortunate to end up with a supervisor that is encouraging, attentive and easy to communicate with. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the horror stories involving supervisors that may be anything ranging from unresponsive and absent to outright belligerent.

While it may seem as though attaining a positive supervisor-supervisee relationship is simply a roll of the dice, not everything should be left to chance. There is always scope to improve this relationship irrespective of what stage you are at in the PhD. The key to improving your relationship with your supervisor is to begin with an honest inventory of where things are at. 

Step one is to reflect on what is working well. What things do you admire or respect about your supervisor? In what ways is your relationship with your supervisor functioning well? Step two is to consider aspects of the relationship that you’d like to shift. Where are you not receiving the support you require from your supervisor? What would you like to see improve? It could, for instance, be more frequent contact, clearer feedback or joint meetings with your secondary supervisor. Whatever it might be, try and identify specific things that you would like to see shift. 

Next comes the part that may be uncomfortable for many students and that is to ask your supervisor for the support that you need. It may seem like an obvious point, but many students don’t feel like they are in a position to ask their supervisors for support. There may be a reluctance to speak up given that your supervisor is more senior. The last thing we want is to create a conflict, further aggravate the relationship, or do anything to tarnish our reputations. It can feel as though there is just too much at stake to speak up and so the default position becomes to accept the situation as it is, irrespective of whether it’s working or not. On closer inspection, however, there are actually plenty more reasons to speak up and ask for support than not.

First, the perception that you may have of the situation with your supervisor may not be evident to them at all. They may see things in a different way or simply have no idea that they have been neglecting to fully support you. The fact is that our supervisors cannot read our minds, so it is up to us to communicate our needs to them. Each of us is responsible for ourselves, so if we aren’t getting the support we need and yet continue to stay quiet, we are equally liable for the shortfalls in the relationship as they are.

Second, although the resistance to speaking up may stem from a fear that it may lead to a conflict, there is no reason to expect that it will. After all, what you are asking for is reasonable. If you frame your request clearly and directly, in a calm manner, and without being accusatory or confrontational, it is simply you speaking up about what your needs are. There is nothing inherently aggressive or conflictual about that.

Finally, while the desire to avoid conflict may seem like a powerful rationale for accepting the status-quo, there is an immense cost to staying quiet, and that is the internal conflict that this will generate within you. To carry on and slog away with your work in the absence of feeling fully supported will undoubtedly taint your experience of the PhD. After all, pursuing a doctorate is not an easy undertaking. It requires dedication and diligence, not to mention a considerable investment of time and money. You owe it to yourself to do everything you can to ensure that you are fully supported throughout this process.   

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