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IS IT JUST ME, OR IS MY DISSERTATION SUPERVISOR USELESS?

Woman looking frustrated while staring at her computer screen.

“Meetings with my supervisor leave me more confused than before. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” – Anonymous Clinical Psychology Graduate Student Do any of these complaints sound familiar?
  • I haven’t heard from my supervisor in weeks.
  • My supervisor only gives me feedback on grammar and expression – I have no idea if my research itself is good enough.
  • I don’t understand my supervisor’s expectations.
  • My supervisor won’t let me get feedback from anyone else in my department.
  • My supervisor keeps changing their mind about what they want from me.
In the past year, I have spoken to and worked with dozens of graduate students, and the one issue that has come up more than any other is supervisor issues. If the complaints above do sound familiar, you are not alone. In fact, every single one of my coaching students has brought up at least one of them – and a quick search on Twitter will show you that hundreds more students are experiencing the same. If you think that is bad, here’s worse:
  • My supervisor deleted half of my chapter without telling me why.
  • My supervisor rewrote most of my literature review because he felt my target population was not important enough.
  • My supervisor has ignored my emails for 3 months and I now have to pay for an extra semester because he has not reviewed my work.
  • My supervisor told me I had to choose an easier topic and get done faster because he wants to retire.
  • My supervisor changed the format of my dissertation after I had already completed my proposal and gave me a deadline of 2 weeks to completely rewrite it.
  • My supervisor publicly told me in front of my whole cohort that my research and writing are poor because English is not my first language.
I wish I could say these stories are made up, but they are all true stories shared with me by my students over the past months. Of course, not all supervisors behave like this. Many students have phenomenal supervisors – my own PhD supervisor was a rock star and has remained an inspiration my whole career. Yet sadly, stories like the above are not just more numerous than the happy-ending supervisor stories – they actually seem to be the norm. So, what is going on?

Why Are Supervisor Standards So Variable?

There are many reasons why so many students experience poor supervisor standards while others have a great experience. Here are a few things to remember.

Many academics lack formal pedagogical training.

Offering constructive feedback, explaining things clearly, making sure instructions and standards are consistent – these are all specific pedagogical skills that have to be learned and practiced. K-12 teachers go through years of training in these areas before being permitted to teach in classrooms, but the route through academia to a graduate supervisor position rarely involves this type of training. So, when your supervisor returns your draft with only three cryptic comments about expectations you can’t find anywhere in the rubric, they may not have any idea that their feedback is not helpful.

Many academics are underpaid and overworked.

Especially in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, more and more academics are suffering from burnout. Research conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2020 found that 70% of academics were suffering from stress, fatigue, and increased workload. According to Nature, the rise in burnout is a result of high workloads, lowered pay, and less job security, themselves resulting from pressure from HE administrations trying to cope with repeated closures, falling enrollment, and retention issues. So, when your supervisor takes three weeks to get back to you with feedback, it might be because they’re lazy and don’t consider you to be a high priority. But it might also be because they’ve spent three weeks working until 2am every day to prepare a justification for why they should still have a job next semester. You, unfortunately, have no way of knowing.

Academia is Toxic

As opinion pieces across HE media have emphasized, academic culture can be – and often is – toxic, with an emphasis on competition and privilege. For example, a 2019 article in the Times Higher Education points to the devaluation of colleagues’ and students’ work to preserve positions of power, privilege, and seniority as a norm. Because the infrastructure and culture of academia makes it easy for individuals to get away with low standards, harassment, poor teaching methods, and intimidation, there are individuals in supervisor positions who neither value the work of future scholars nor know how to effectively support it.

Myth #1: Poor Supervision is Normal

Let’s start by confirming that poor standards should be neither the expectation nor the norm. If you are experiencing the sorts of issues described above, it’s important to understand that this is neither right nor acceptable. Unfortunately, many students do not know what a supervisor’s role should be, nor what is normal behavior for a supervisor. This makes it difficult to know whether the supervision you are receiving is “normal.” Your role as a student is to become an expert in your field of research, to learn how research process work and become proficient in them, and to transition from guided to independent work. Your supervisor’s role is to facilitate you in your role, by providing you with clear instructions, offering advice, teaching you research processes and techniques, and providing constructive feedback on your work. Here are some basic expectations EVERY graduate student supervisor should be meeting:

Communication should be regular, frequent, and respectful.

You are neither a subordinate nor a nuisance – you are a student. You are not “wasting” your supervisor’s time by asking to meet often and check in. Your supervisor agreed to supervise you (and many receive a stipend for doing so), and that means they agreed to commit time and energy to you. You have a right to that time and energy.

Expectations should be clear and presented in writing.

It is your supervisor’s job to understand the program requirements, the field standards, and their own expectations. They should present these clearly in writing to you, answer any questions you have about them, and work with you on any elements you don’t understand.

Feedback should be specific, constructive, and high-level.

Feedback that does not tell you where your work needs improvement to meet expected standards is neither helpful nor constructive. Your supervisor’s feedback should focus on research design, gaps or flaws in your argument, adherence to program requirements, and other high-level issues. The feedback should not only point out the problem but also guide you on how to fix it.

Timelines should be appropriate and fair.

Your time is as valuable as your supervisor’s – especially if you are paying per semester. You should not be expected to rush your research to accommodate the convenience of the supervisor or program. Nor should you be forced to prolong your studies to accommodate supervisor delays. Timeline expectations should be reciprocal – you should be given a reasonable amount of time in which to complete work to a high standard, and your supervisor should be given a reasonable amount of time in which to review work and offer constructive feedback. No more and no less.

Guidance and tuition should be provided.

You are a student, so it is important to remember that you do not – and should not be expected to – know everything. High-level research skills are not taught in school or at the undergraduate level, so it is not reasonable for your supervisor to expect you to already know how to code data or present analytics. When you ask for help, it should be given, in the form of individual instruction, guidance about resources, and tutorials.

Myth #2: The Problem is You

I am going to repeat that last point because it is really REALLY important. You are a student, so it is important to remember that you do not – and should not be expected to – know everything. If you don’t know how to do something, don’t know how to fix a problem with your work, or don’t know what to do next – THE PROBLEM IS NOT YOU. You are there to learn, so when you get stuck, your supervisor’s job is not to cast blame but to give you the tools you need to move forward.

Myth #3: There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

Why do students put up with poor standards? I have heard a number of reasons from students, all of them valid.
  • It is too hard to make myself heard – no one is listening.
  • I just need to get done – I don’t have time for a fight.
  • This person can decide if I graduate or not – complaining is too risky.
  • I don’t have the authority to complain – who am I to be criticizing what they’re doing? They’re the expert!
Unfortunately, these reasons are all too true and valid – it is very difficult for a student to successfully “reform” a poor-performing supervisor. However, there are things you can do to make your life easier now and perhaps make things easier for the students who follow in your footsteps.
  1. Complain: This route is hard, but if you have the nerve, it is worth doing. Letting your institution know about poor supervision is the only way to combat the problem long-term. It may not change anything for you here and now, but if no one says anything ever, change can never happen. Make sure you thoroughly investigate your institution’s safeguards, your legal rights, and the complaint process before you begin. Also make sure you keep documented evidence to support your claims.
  2. Be assertive: Even if you are not willing to formally complain, you can sometimes improve the level of supervision you receive by making it clear you understand your rights and have expectations that need to be met. By acting like an equal, you have more chance of being treated like an equal.
  3. Be Proactive: Where supervisor issues stem from lack of training and pedagogical skill, you can often do things to help your supervisor help you.

Some Tips for Working with An Ineffective Supervisor

Let’s finish up by working on that last point: tips for helping your supervisor help you. Here are a few things you can do to make life a bit easier and the supervisor relationship a bit smoother.
  1. Ask for written instructions/expectations about the finished product and refer to them often. Make reference to them a normal part of your supervisory relationship, so they become a norm for you and your supervisor.
  2. Propose a schedule for regular check ins and present it to your supervisor. Ask them to either agree to it in writing or amend it in writing. Refer back to the agreement if issues with communication arise.
  3. Tell your supervisor what you would like feedback on. If you want to know if your research questions are clear enough or your methodology makes sense, then say so. A supervisor is more likely to provide helpful feedback if they know what you need.
  4. Only submit complete work. A supervisor is less likely to provide meaningful feedback if they think they are looking at an unfinished piece of work – it’s too easy to assume that you’ll deal with that issue yourself when you are finishing the draft.
  5. Have confidence in your work and your ideas. If you have a good reason for disagreeing with your supervisor, make sure you can logically and clearly support your point of view and then do so. If you are not prepared to defend your ideas, you can’t expect your supervisor to accept them.
These tips will help a little bit, but at the end of the day, there will be times and circumstances where they are not enough, and you have to make some hard choices about your supervisory relationship. As a final word, remember that there are resources and people who can help – from coaches like me to non-profit legal advice and support organizations. Do what is right for you – but above all, remember to have faith in yourself and your work. Do you have a supervisor story (good or bad) to share, or tips for working through problems? Share in the comments below!