Managing Your Relationship with Your PhD Supervisor

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The relationship we have with our academic supervisors can make or break the experience of a PhD. So it is no surprise that supervisor relationships are often the number one issue students highlight to me when I ask them to identify their top frustrations with the PhD. There seems to be something in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that can feel inherently disempowering.

In the years that I’ve worked with PhD students, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories ranging from unresponsive supervisors to those who micromanage their students or give insulting feedback. But I’ve also heard more promising stories about supervisors who are available, encouraging and completely supportive of their students.

While it may seem as though it’s just the luck of the draw, I wouldn’t leave everything up to chance. There are things you can do to foster a better relationship with your academic supervisor. Below I will share some top tips for enhancing the supervisor-supervisee relationship.

  1. OWN YOUR PROJECT

Many students approach the relationship with their supervisors through the lens of an employer/employee dynamic. In reality, your supervisor should be working for you! Even though your supervisor is more senior than you, this is your project and it is highly likely that you are more of an expert on your specific topic than they are. Supervisors are there to guide you through the process, but at the end of the day, this is your project and it’s up to you to shape it the way that you want.

  1. COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS

Whether it’s more frequent contact, clearer feedback, or joint meetings if you have multiple supervisors, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. While it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about their supervisors, the truth is that your supervisor can’t read your mind and if something isn’t working well, it’s up to us to communicate what your needs are. This will first involve identifying your needs and then making a clear and direct request to your supervisor.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook on how supervisors and supervisees should interact. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will function. As with any relationship, we have an opportunity to establish what the expectations are and set out how those expectations are going to be fulfilled. For instance, when it comes to constructing a timetable for completion, you might wish to jointly work on this with your supervisor. In setting out the timetable, you commit to specific dates for submitting individual chapters to your supervisor, while your supervisor commits to specific dates for returning their feedback to you. In this way, you set a mutually workable timetable that establishes what work needs to be done by each person and by what date.

  1. ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

If there is something you don’t understand, don’t shy away from admitting to your supervisor that you are confused or unsure about it. Pursuing research at the doctoral level will necessarily involve probing into unfamiliar territory or even a particular methodology that is brand new for you. You don’t need to have all the answers, so let go of the expectation that you should be an expert on everything that is related to your research area.

  1. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Coping With Academic Criticism’ receiving a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor can feel extremely demoralising. Remember that it’s your supervisor’s job to spot potential holes in your research so try not to take it personally. Of course, it can be challenging not to take negative feedback to heart. What I encourage students to do is to sift through the feedback and ask yourself: ‘will this feedback ultimately strengthen the project?’ If the answer is yes, it may help you to view it more constructively.

  1. ASK FOR CLARITY

It could be that your supervisors’ feedback or comments to you are unclear or contradictory to something else they said to you previously. Not only does this often lead students to feel stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for more clarity. It could be that they have overlooked their previous advice to you or that they need to explain their feedback to you more fully. However awkward it may feel to ask for clarity on something, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the end by having this conversation.

  1. BROADEN YOUR NETWORK

It is not uncommon to see students becoming overly reliant on their supervisors throughout the PhD – depending on them not only for advice about their thesis, but advice more generally relating to job applications, publishing, teaching, funding opportunities and much more. While it’s great to draw on the experience and wisdom of your supervisor, it’s also important to broaden your circle of support throughout the PhD, beyond the tiny bubble of you and your supervisor. For this reason, I encourage students to make their own contacts and connections throughout the PhD, and to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with others. Expanding your connections in the field will not only enrich your research by exposing you to other viewpoints, it will also put less pressure on the relationship with your supervisor.

  1. REMEMBER THEIR EXPERIENCE IS NOT YOUR EXPERIENCE

Another reason to seek other avenues of support beyond your supervisor is because their experience is not your experience. The world may have changed a lot since they did their PhD and as a consequence, the advice they may be able to offer you about – for instance – job applications, may be quite limited. So graciously accept their advice when it is offered, but don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Talk to others and, above all, follow your own instincts.

 

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Coping With Academic Criticism

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Compliments can be hard to come by in the academic arena. This is particularly the case for PhD students. Criticism can come from a variety of differently places – your supervisor, colleagues, or other faculty members in your department.

Endless criticism can feel exhausting and become a major de-motivator. It can also be difficult not to take the criticism personally, particularly if you are used to excelling academically, as many doctoral students are. In this post I want to address how to cope with academic criticism throughout your PhD.

The first thing is to simply realize that the criticism of your project is normal and even to be expected. While you may have grown accustomed to receiving compliments on your work, it’s important to appreciate that the PhD is an entirely different ballgame and by its very nature, subject to a higher level of scrutiny. So as strange as it may sound, it is actually an indication of the more demanding level you are working at.

Since a higher amount of criticism is to be expected during the PhD, it’s also important to understand that it’s meant to help you. It may feel awful in the moment, but whenever I ask a student I’m coaching to reflect on the criticism they receive, they almost always acknowledge that it will make their project better in the long-term. The key question to ask yourself is – is this criticism constructive? If the answer is yes, try viewing the criticism as an opportunity to enhance or improve your project.

When the criticism isn’t particularly constructive or delivered in a respectful manner, it usually says more about the person delivering the criticism than you. Part of navigating the criticism surrounding your work is to decide which criticisms you want to take on board and which ones to disregard. It’s all part of taking ownership of your project.

If you are feeling weighed down by the volume of criticism you have received and are starting to seriously question the value of your project, don’t hesitate to request more balanced feedback. This may be something along the lines of: ‘thanks for your helpful feedback. I now have a sense of what the gaps are and what can be improved. To make sure I’m on the right track, it would be great to hear what aspects of the project you think are promising.’ People don’t always realize how their feedback is coming across, so there’s nothing to lose by asking for what you need.

The next point is to remember that the PhD is what you are doing and not who you are. With that in mind, try your best not to overidentify with your research or with the criticisms you receive of it. This can be challenging, as our projects are often deeply personal to us, but at the end of the day, the criticism of your work isn’t an attack on you or a reflection of your worth.

Finally, rather than seeking approval externally, remember that the main person who really needs to buy into your project is not your supervisor, your colleagues or anyone else – it’s you! What you think matters more than anything else. So instead of waiting to hear that you are doing ok, start to give yourself the validation you are seeking by keeping track of what aspects of the project you find valuable. Begin writing them down and come back to this list whenever you need a boost.

In my next post I’ll address a related topic of how to manage your relationship with your supervisor.

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Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a PhD Student

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The process of completing a PhD is quite unlike any other experience. It’s a huge commitment that undoubtedly requires some sacrifice on both a personal and perhaps a financial level as well. With most doctoral theses ranging between 80 000- 100 000 words, it is an understatement to say that the process demands a high degree of self-discipline. For many students, it can feel like an exceptionally long and treacherous road, with ups and downs as well as twists and turns, and even some roadblocks along the journey.

These features of PhD life are of course balanced out by the many benefits of completing a doctorate. Apart from the potential to set you off on a different career path and open up new doors, having a doctorate in hand can also feel deeply satisfying. Whether it’s the start of a larger body of research or an end in itself, the doctorate represents your own unique contribution to a particular field. Within the world of academia, there are few things that feel as rewarding as completing a PhD.

When I look back at my own experience as a PhD student I certainly have no regrets. There are, however, a few things I wish I knew while I was in the middle of it and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. The PhD is what you do, not who you are

Something I observed while I was completing my PhD was the way in which many of my classmates (myself included) started to over identify with our work. We would often refer to our PhD projects as though they were an extension of ourselves. Given how many years it takes to complete a PhD and the fact that it is an incredibly personal piece of work, it’s only natural to see it become a part of our lives. However, when we start to see it as a reflection of our self-worth, the stakes suddenly become much higher. By over identifying with the work we produce, we tie our fortunes to it and allow ourselves to be stifled when we have off days, and may even take criticism of the project personally. It’s important to stay grounded and remember that the PhD is something you do and not who you are.

  1. Nobody writes 100 000 words

When I used to think about completing my PhD, the task seemed incredibly daunting. I kept thinking to myself ‘how am I going to write 100 000 words?’ But the fact is that nobody has ever done this – it would be impossible! What people do is write small, manageable chunks over a longer period of time. This feels much less daunting to think about. So stop thinking of your PhD as 100 000 words and think of it for what it is and how it will be completed– one chapter at a time – one section at a time. Espousing this subtle shift in perception can make a world of difference.

  1. Take a break (and don’t bring your work with you!)

Like so many of my colleagues, I found it difficult to take long breaks away from my work. Whenever holidays came around, I would do a balance sheet of how much I had accomplished and how much time I could take off as a result. Needless to say, the vacation time that I allotted to myself was negotiable and always dependent on my progress. Given the perpetual feeling that I was always behind, the time I allowed myself to take off, if any, was short. I would always sneak a book or two into my suitcase when I was going on holiday. I can now see how unhealthy my approach to vacations were. And not being gentle with myself actually made me less productive, and generally less happy. Even if you think you can’t afford to take a break from work, the truth is that you can’t afford not to!

  1. Even when you feel like you aren’t making progress, you actually are

One of the most frustrating aspects of completing a PhD relates to the feeling that we aren’t making any progress. I found this to be particularly the case after spending endless amounts of time sifting through journal articles and books in order to determine which ones were relevant for my research. During these periods, I often felt like I had nothing to show for days and even weeks of work. The lesson I learned from all of this was the importance of viewing the PhD as a process, rather than an outcome. It was primarily because of my emphasis on the outcome that I wasn’t able to appreciate or adequately assess my progress at certain points throughout. For further advice on how I overcame this, see my post on process versus outcome where I discuss some strategies for taking a process-oriented approach to thesis writing.

  1. Stop thinking about it when you’re not doing it

I often found that no matter what I was doing, I was always thinking about my PhD. Typically, it wasn’t in an exciting, light bulb moment way where creative ideas would come to me, it was mostly worry. Worry that I wouldn’t get it done on time, that it wouldn’t be good enough and that I hadn’t done enough. During my PhD years, I didn’t know how important it was to be in the present moment and to properly switch off. If you find yourself constantly thinking about your PhD even when you aren’t working on it, it’s an indication that you need to get away from it for a while. Immerse yourself in something different – if not to give your mind a break, then for the sake of your sanity. The last thing you want is to be that person who can only think and talk about their research. See a film, do volunteer work, or go to the gym, anything to create some healthy distance and disengagement from your work.

  1. Life doesn’t automatically become less stressful when you finish

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the stress you experience while completing a PhD will not automatically come to an end on the day that you submit. When I was in the middle of writing up, I recall how much I looked ahead to my submission date as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, I soon found a host of other stresses that took the place of my PhD. Things like applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, publishing my thesis, writing conference papers and research grant applications, to name just a few. In my own experience, some of these pressures actually felt worse than the PhD – perhaps because of my anticipation that life would automatically be less stressful after submitting. So rather than holding your breath and waiting until you’re done, I would recommend making your happiness and wellbeing a priority now. That means finding healthy ways to manage your stress levels and not simply waiting for your submission date.

For further information please visit my coaching page or get in touch with me at info@academease.org