Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle … of two supervisors who don’t agree

Having two supervisors is becoming increasingly common. If, like me, you did your PhD within a college of the University Of London, UK you will automatically get two supervisors. This is done for a range of reasons including; supervisor commitments, breadth of knowledge / experience, pastoral reasons (so you don’t end up needing my much publicised divorce post) etc.

Most universities that go down the two supervisor’s route do so because they believe it to be beneficial for the student however, it can also lead to an interesting set of issues, especially if they don’t agree.

Disagreements between supervisors can occur over a range of issues however, most commonly they relate to differences of opinion over the content of your thesis and that nature of supervision. This can lead to the student feeling they are being pulled in two opposite directions not knowing what to do or who to agree with. In this post I give you my top tips for managing dual supervisor disagreements.

Don’t take disagreements personally … You may have two supervisors because of it’s your institutions ‘way’ of doing things, or because you are undertaken interdisciplinary work which requires a breadth of expertise or maybe your supervisors are both part time.

They will both bring a great deal both conceptually and methodologically to your PhD experience however, they will probably both have very different ways of doing a PhD and approaching your topic which are rooted in their own experiences of working with students and maybe even, of working with each other.

It is very unlikely that you personally will be the cause of any disagreements; they are more than likely going to relate to something outside of your supervisory arrangement. I have viewed cases where two academics who didn’t like each other were brought together to supervise a PhD, the majority of their disagreements resulted from personal and professional differences / rivalries nothing to do with the student. This is not an ideal scenario but it can happen they key is not letting it get to you.

Remember, it’s YOUR PhD … so what you write about i.e. the content should be driven by you. This is easier said in the social sciences, arts and humanities etc where the subject of your PhD is generally one you have come to yourself, but even in the hard sciences the very nature of or purpose of the PhD is for you to become an independent researcher.

Thus while your supervisors can guide you, stopping you from making horrendous mistakes, it is your work and it will be you who will have to defend it in the viva (if your institution has them). As such I recommend you draw from both supervisors, if they have differences of opinion on how you approach an issue, consider both and then either go with what you prefer or if possible take from both opinions to form your own framework. As long as you can defend the position you took the majority of supervisors would be happy.

Be inclusive & treat them equally … It’s very tempting at times to play one off against the other; I know I’ve been there! One supports an idea, the other doesn’t, don’t use their disagreements or differences as a means for gaining something, as believe me the only thing you will gain is a headache.

Try, where possible, to reach a compromise that you can all work with. Do not sideline one supervisor if they don’t agree with you, again it will come back to bite you, you never know you may need them to help you out, especially for references. Try and conduct as many meetings as possible with both supervisors together, that way everyone is included, everyone’s point of view is heard and you can work out how to move forward so you are all working in harmony – in theory. It also helps to cc both supervisors into emails in order to keep everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.

Disagreements aren’t always negative … in some cases positive developments can occur out of disagreements between supervisors. Both of mine disagreed about the nature of the ‘field’ and ‘international fieldwork’ one supported the traditional go overseas for 9 months strategy the other didn’t this went back and forth for a number of months so in the end I made short traditional visits and developed my web 2.0 skills to create a field site in cyberspace where I also conducted my research.

Had I not become engaged in social media for that very reason I wouldn’t be writing this post for you today. Maybe your supervisor’s disagreements can get your creative juices flowing and lead you to develop a useful compromise that will benefit your own personal / professional development in the long run.

If their disagreements are hampering your work … then you may need outside help. It maybe that you can bring the two supervisors together and say please sort this out but, as illustrated earlier, if it boils down to personal and or professional rivalries you may need to discuss it with your PhD tutor or Head of Department.

The key is to be sensitive in how and who you approach. You should know your department set up well enough to be able to make the decisions, if not Head of Department is a default ‘go to’ person. It’s really not your job to sort this kind of thing out, you have enough today and hopefully, if you have followed my advice from the post on maintaining a happy supervisory relationship then you should get on with them both, their disagreements should be between them. I would expect most supervisors to be professional and to be working to support you as a student so hopefully you won’t need to step in.

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One thought on “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle … of two supervisors who don’t agree

  1. I have (this week) finished writing my doctoral thesis and I found having two supervisors was both useful and stimulating. My supervisors tended to defer to each other’s views or had adroit ways of stating their differences. All good fun! I’m immensely grateful to both of them.

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