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.
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.
There are darker stories of selfishness, power and meanness, where supervisors use their students to produce the supervisor’s work, take all the accolades for publications and results, and belittle student’s different approaches.
People in power can be enabling, supportive and developmental, and they can also be bullies. Some research, including my own, has looked at the emotional intelligence and the emotional boundary work involved, as well as how to pick up the pieces if the relationship goes wrong. Supervisors and students report being stressed, surprised, hurt and abandoned when this happens. The emotional breakdown can make both of you ill and prevents the research or writing continuing.
So getting good working practices established from the start, managing expectations and knowing the support structures of the university and its regulations are all important. Make sure there are agreed milestones to take stock of work and the working relationship so far, and make changes if needed.
Learning: ask the right question
Some breakdowns are blocks caused by lack of progress, or by too little or confusing feedback. Students should let the supervisor know they are stuck and ask for advice and guidance about next steps. This could be new experiments, further reading, discussing theoretical perspectives, unpicking confusing feedback for clarity, or finding or building groups with whom to share work.
Breakthrough learning or learning leaps can take place at different stages in the PhD journey, such as finding exactly the right question, seeing where your work is situated in the literature and how you make a contribution to the conversation of learning in your discipline. Asking your supervisor questions, and sharing ideas with other students can nudge this breakthrough in thinking, research and writing.
Institutional: don’t sit and suffer
Establishing ground rules and managed processes of working together and using the regulations and systems for structured, regular progress meetings will help.
You do not need to endure problems with a supervisor, suffer in your work and worry endlessly about what to do next. There is often a director of research or postgraduate student leader you can talk to about issues, and they may offer structured ways forward to deal with problems, including a form of arbitration between supervisor and student, or the further use of other supervisory team members. Do use these – don’t sit and suffer.
If you switch supervisor too often, it will seem to be a problem. Other supervisors may not want to take you on. We all see relationship difficulties from different angles, you need to be clear about the problems, work to fix them offering suggestions about what would work for you in the future.
Develop mutual sensitivity
The supervisor/PhD student relationship can be one of lifelong intellectual friendship, or one of problems that you learn to manage – but mutual sensitivity about working patterns and the emotions tied up with intellectual work is the best basis for good supervisor-student relationships.