I have observed a few cases where PhD candidates either not completing or failing at viva stage. A common theme was a major breakdown in the relationship between the candidate and their supervisor(s). In this article, I share four ideas, from my experiences as a former PhD candidate who’s now learning the ropes of PhD supervision that I hope can help prospective and current PhD candidates manage this very important relationship.
Choose wisely – In the PhD survival guide, I shared why it is important to spend quality time while making this decision. You will have a smoother journey if you have a good working relationship with your supervisor. I decided to join my PhD supervisor’s group after I had spent a year working on my undergraduate project with him. Some people call this luck but I call it choice. I decided to work with him and he decided to work with me.
If your PhD is funded, your PI is usually your de-facto Director of Studies and you may not have much choice in the matter. However just like when you attend an interview, the choice to work with an organisation is still yours. Two or three member supervisory teams are now more common so it is worth asking if there will be some leeway in choosing your other supervisor(s). For self-funded PhD candidates, you have a choice in where you spend your tuition fees, so do not be scared to ask for who you need. A PhD is an apprenticeship not indentured slavery (at least it should be). Invest time in getting information about your supervisor, research group etc. Speak to postdocs. You can find them at conferences and early career researcher networking events. Ask questions;
How many PhD candidates have you supervised?
Who else will be on the supervisory team?
How many successful completions?
How many didn’t complete and why?
Do your students publish during their PhD?
Do not be so ‘hungry’ for a PhD position that you dismiss the information your research pulls up. I know a PhD candidate who left after six months because she could not get on with her supervisor. Successful completion is Win/Win for all parties involved so choose wisely.
Be proactive – After a skill training session I recently conducted, a 2nd year PhD candidate walked up to me and spent about 15 minutes sharing all the issues he was having with his supervisor. Poor communication, poor supervision, dismissive attitude…the works. I let him speak because I could tell he was very distressed and then I told him ‘Be proactive.’ I could tell he was puzzled by my response but I told him that the only part of the equation required for his successful completion that could be modified was his courage, attitude and how he responded to the issues he was having with his supervisor.
My response may seem too strong, after all apparently it was the supervisor who was at fault but focus on the fact that the most important stakeholder in the project that is your PhD is you the candidate. You are the one spending the next few years studying working, you are the one conducting the research, you are the one who will be awarded the degree title. Your supervisor has been there and done that. Your supervisor may have poor supervisory and leadership abilities but that is their weakness, not yours. Remember they are human and just like you are not perfect.
Do not empower your PhD supervisor’s weakness by allowing their behaviour derail you from your goal. What can you do to succeed in spite of the challenges your supervisor’s weaknesses pose?
Proactive PhD candidates acknowledge that there are problems but think through to develop solutions. Shift gears from reacting to what your supervisor does or is doing to focusing on what you can do. Your supervisor may never change and become Nanny McPhee – tough on the outside and lovely on the inside – so what are you going to do? Anticipate the response of your supervisor in different scenarios, some people prefer face to face communication and will ignore emails so schedule a meeting and use your time with them effectively. Be resilient. Believe in yourself and abilities. Be bold and courageous – proactivity does not equate accepting abuse. Escalate
Read more – Developing your resilience gap
Read more – The PhD Survival Guide
Develop your emotional intelligence – When conducting training sessions for PhD candidates, I usually compare the candidate-supervisor relationship to that between a couple. Successful relationships for the most part require the same things – mutual knowledge and respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities, understanding, tolerance for differences, clear boundaries and great communication. Communication is key and goes beyond writing great papers and presenting at conferences. A great communicator is someone who listens. A good listener is someone who not only clearly hears and interprets what is being said but also picks up on what is not being said.
Sometimes your PhD supervisor’s silence after your email is that you have not utilised the feedback provided on the first draft s/he sent! Stephen Covey says it well as ‘seeking first to understand before seeking to be understood.’ Think about any run-ins you have had with your supervisor, have you always followed this rule? Have you given due consideration to your supervisor’s point of view? Are you self-aware? Are you aware of weaknesses that limit your effectiveness where your PhD is concerned? Are you listening to your supervisor?
I would go as far to say that your relationship with your supervisor is ‘intimate.’ During my PhD, I would spend several hours a day with at least one of my supervisors – home was somewhere to sleep and cook! Communicating effectively ensured that everyone was clear on what needed to be done, when it needed to be done by and who needed to do what! Be considerate, be respectful but just as important communicate clearly. Expect your PhD supervisor to do the same. Completing your PhD successfully is more likely to happen when there is co-operation and not conflict between you and your supervisor. Maintain a healthy relationship.
Be clear on what you need – Your PhD supervisor may be more senior to you in the profession/academic area you are conducting your research in but this does not make them a superhero. They are human, just like you. Sometimes the foundation of our frustration is a retinue of unrealistic expectations. Be clear on what it is you need from your supervisor. Is s/he meeting them? All supervisors are not created equal and truthfully, their main focus is ensuring that you complete successfully. They may not be able or willing to mentor you. I personally believe that good PhD supervisors support the professional development of their students but not all will, so be proactive! Join a professional society, attend conferences and network. Look for a mentor, develop good relationships with the postdocs in your research group. If you are considering a non-academic career after your PhD, your supervisor may not be the best person to help if they have only worked in academia. When you clearly define what it is that you want and need, remember that your supervisor does not need to meet every single thing on your list. They don’t have to be your friend, but they should be supportive. Supervisors are like coaches/personal trainers – you may not always love the style but the focus is on results. Good coaches do not abuse their players – it is about balance.
This is an exhaustive topic and I have only scratched the surface so will be revisiting it soon. More importantly, I would love for you to share your experiences – anonymously if you wish. What was your PhD supervisor like? How did you manage challenges in your relationship? I’m all ears.
About our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology and Food Science, Amara is developing her career in academia – providing teaching and learning solutions in UK FE and HE Institutions as well as conducting research in Food Microbiology. Amara believes in the combined power of education and productive relationships as essential tools for building successful careers. ‘Ignorance can hurt more than sticks and stones.’
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Thanks Amara for sharing this insight. It appeared you have had s very smooth transition and experience so far (would be nice to read about your negative experiences, if any lol..).
I totally agree with your points apart from choosing wisely. The importance of being proactive can not be over estimates, its your PhD and you need to take charge and also communicating with your supervisors. When ever I am going for a meeting, I sent an invite on outlook and out an agenda so they accept it and we know what we will be discussing. After the meeting, I provide a summary and action plan for next meeting. This has been very helpful and productive for me.
No choosing wisely…I don’t think this choice is always yours, many prospective students might not have had the luxury of previously working with their supervisor, may be those applying for studentship, they KNOW on paper who they are going to work with but not knowing well of how they supervise.
While I was planning for mine, I look around for supervisors with interest in bank advertisements, even though I found some, my proposal was not accepted until I had to go back to Bedfordshire, unfortunately my supervisor at Bedfordshire who is experiences in bank advertisement left the University but I was fortunate to have a second supervisor who was experienced as well who later became my Director of studies. Not everyone had it that easy when their preferred choice leave the University.
Thanks Emmanuel for your comments. I love your suggestions on being proactive and will add them to my list…lol! I still believe candidates should choose wisely. Life happens and things never go as planned. Sadly, my original DoS died six months into my PhD. Nothing prepares you for that, however we still need courage and resilience to press on.
Asking questions of a supervisor is not illegal, you need to know you are a good fit for them so as to avoid unnecessary stress.
Thanks for your comment as I really would like to hear from our network as per experiences. We can learn from each other.