Doing a PhD is an exciting thing. If you’re straight out of education, it’s the probably the first time you’re completely on your own, doing YOUR own research. Well, you’re not completely alone, you ought to have a supervisor supporting you through this minefield!
As helpful as a supervisor can be, navigating your relation to your supervisor can be a minefield on its own. Essentially, it’s a difficult relationship where it often isn’t clear what the exact guidelines are. You know how to relate to a teacher, you know as a teacher how to relate to a student. But PhDs are very different. You’re not really a student, but also not a colleague. And that can get confusing for some. So let’s see.
Before the PhD Now most people tend to do a lot of research before the PhD already. You don’t tend to just end up with someone random from the research group or department you’ve applied to (at least, I wouldn’t recommend this).
Now when doing the research, don’t just look at their work ethics, their topics of publication, previous working positions and academic trajectory. It’s important you try figuring out more about them as a person. The best way to do this is of course to meet them, if that’s physically impossible, try to arrange a skype meeting with them. Face-to-face contact can give you a pretty decent sense of what someone is like.
Another way of finding out more about what they are like as a PhD supervisor is to reach out to their current PhD students. It may sound really awkward, but if you just nicely ask what they think of their supervisors as you will be supervised by them soon and have no clue what you’re in for, they are very likely give you an honest reply to that question. I know I would, because I have.
If it then turns out they have a supervision style that really doesn’t fit you, you might want to reconsider your position and look for someone else, or a second supervisor to balance you out.
If you want some more tips on how to pick the supervisor that might be the right fit for you, please read this article on “How to pick your PhD Supervisor.”
Individual Differences Let’s say all the previous information didn’t apply to you. You knew your PhD supervisor beforehand, or their PhD students have all given you a thumbs up. Yet, when you are meeting them face-to-face when it comes to actually working on research, things don’t seem to go so smoothly. What’s going on?
It is possible that your supervisor has been supervising PhDs for years, if not decades by now, and has their own style of doing it that works best for them. Especially if they are supervising quite a few students at the same time, this is likely. But it’s not working for you. You can always indicate this to them. You can sit down with them at the beginning (or end, whatever you prefer) of a meeting and indicate what you need. Some people need their supervisor to stop looking over their shoulder for every little thing they do. Some PhDs need their supervisor to be more involved, other just need them to sign off on things. Every PhD is different, every PhD student is different and every PhD student-supervisor relationship is different. So, just indicate what you need or would like from them, and see where that takes you.
The best policy is honesty. If you don’t tell them things aren’t working, how are they supposed to know? They are researchers, not mind-readers.
It is also possible that your attitudes to work just don’t match. They are very relaxed about it all (having done it before), and you are ripping your hair out to relieve your own anxiety. That’s obviously not ideal, but given that this is a very personal trait, ingrained in the person as they are, there might not be too much you can change there. If you are naturally anxious it is probably a good idea to learn how to relax more and see things in a different perspective. But, you can hardly ask your supervisor to be more stressed for you. If their “relaxedness” really does bother you, you can indicate this to them. You might perceive it as a disregard for your own worries, or a lack of care for your research or you as a person. Again, be honest. But don’t expect them to change an attitude which is very much part of their personality. They are only people after all.
Cultural Differences It is also possible that you and your supervisor are from very different cultures. The most notable cultural differences in PhD supervision are those relating to hierarchy. Some cultures enforce a very steep hierarchy, others do not.
I myself am Dutch (very flat hierarchy) and my supervisors are Italian (flat to medium) and British (flat to semi-flat). This in itself does not pose any issues. But I do know PhD students who come from very hierarchical cultures, who take their supervisors word as gospel, do everything they say and beat themselves up if this doesn’t work or doesn’t lead to good results. This is not what a PhD is supposed to be. The PhD research is yours and your supervisor(s) support you through it. They should not take over, nor sideline you, nor should you expect them to or want this from them. The other way round is true as well: your supervisor shouldn’t expect you to blindly follow all of their suggestions and do the research as they say it should be done. Hierarchical or not, this is your project!
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this extreme. Most cultural differences are ones you can easily get used to, and can do some research on to better understand them. Again, if it’s causing a rift between you and your supervisor the best thing to do is to talk about it, and go from there.
It is of course also possible that there are other cultural differences going on. Another notable cultural difference is how men relate to women, and vice versa. If you ever feel like your supervisor is disadvantaging you because of your gender (whichever gender that may be), you do need to talk about that. They might be doing it unconsciously. If you have raised this problem and nothing seems to change, or things seem to have worsened, you might want to take advice from subsections 3 and 4, as seen below.
Lightyears Apart It is possible that after trying your best with each other for some time (a year or so) it has become apparent that you are not a good fit. Either the individual or the cultural differences are adding up to the extent that it has just become too much, and too unproductive. Don’t be embarrassed or frustrated, it really does happen more often than you think. The reason why it happens a lot more than you think, is because you can choose two options from the moment you realize this, and most people choose the former:
You can suffer in silence. It’s not working, clearly. But you don’t know what to do, don’t want to speak up, or have already spoken up and nothing has changed. Not taking action now but just going with it is less hassle now, but is likely to effect your mental state and your ability to deal with work throughout the rest of the PhD. I do understand why people make this decision, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Especially not if it’s still relatively early in the PhD.
You can take action. It’s not working and you’ve had enough. If you’ve had all the conversations you could possibly have had with your supervisor to be a better fit for each other, than that’s that. Your final conversation will be admitting that to each other, and having them help you pick and transfer to a different supervisor. If you have had conversations about your “inability to work together” already, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone, and it won’t be nearly as awkward as you think. Your initial supervisor won’t be offended, because it’s really not that personal! It will be a hassle initially and you will have to get re-acquainted with a new supervisor and their style of supervision. But then again, the risk is worth it. The unknown is often better than the known which is awful.
You wouldn’t stay friends with someone you didn’t actually get along with either, would you?
Clear Exceptions There are always exceptions to the rule. In this case those exceptions focus on any type of very inappropriate behaviour. Things that should immediately spring to mind are racism, sexism and abuse of power.
The best thing to do if these scenarios are occurring or have occurred is to immediately talk to someone, preferably someone in charge.
If you’re not too sure about what’s going on and whether it qualifies as any of the above, talk to your friends and fellow PhD students. If they too don’t think what’s going is appropriate, talk to someone in charge.
Even if you’re not too sure, but feel incredibly uncomfortable, I would still recommend you step to HR, the head of your research group or the head of your department, whoever you feel most comfortable with. They will be able to advise you on which course of action will be best to take. That decision is ultimately up to you.
There is no excuse for this type of behaviour. It is not condoned and should not be. There is also no coming back from this. After this has occurred and you still want to continue your research project, under no circumstances should you go back, or made to go back to your original supervisor. Immediate transfer advised.
After the PhD I haven’t managed to reach this stage yet, but others around me have. It is possible that after the PhD, you and your supervisor might become colleagues. Which is a funny thing to think of. You might collaborate and continue to be collaborators for a long time. Who knows?
It’s also not that odd to be friends, or on friendly terms with your supervisors after the PhD either. You did commit several years to each other. But, this is often quite heavily dependent on age, personality type, but also gender (just keep it in mind). The more similar you are to your supervisor, the more likely this is to happen, unless of course, you come from a hierarchical background.
It is also possible that after the PhD you never see nor speak to your supervisors again. They were a useful guide to you then, but you’re done with that phase of your life and wish to move on. Maybe the distance wasn’t instigated by you, but by them. They feel they have done their job and that’s it.
In all fairness, you can effectively guess after having been with your supervisor for several years which outcome is most likely. You ought to somewhat know them by then, and they ought to know you a bit as well!
All in all, supervisors are people. PhD students are people. And when people get together and have to work together, sometimes friction (not the inappropriate kind) arises. It happens.
The most important part is that you are honest with each other, that you communicate clearly and have the right expectations of each other. And if you feel that you don’t have the right expectations from each other, talk and adjust. It’s a relationship like any other.