Should I Stay or Should I Go Now … ? a.k.a Do I Divorce my Supervisor or Learn to Live With It?

In previous posts I have discussed how to ask your supervisor for a divorce and how to maintain a good supervisory relationship. But what happens if your relationship with your supervisor bounces up on down on the sea-saw: sometimes fine, and other times not? What should you do?

I have been reflecting on this issue and want to offer some advice for anyone contemplating this dilemma:

Talk to your supervisor

As I have said previously, it may well be that your supervisor is experiencing the same issues as you and are just as uncomfortable / unhappy with the nature of the situation and talking will help you to resolve it.

You may think your supervisor will react badly to a straight forward approach and that honesty will only make the problem worse. Are you willing to take the risk? Only you will know the answer to this question. I didn’t talk as much as i probably should have and maybe i got that bit wrong.

Consider whether you can do anything to change the situation to make it workable

Supervision is a two way street and you both need to contribute equally to the relationship. Ask yourself: are you being too demanding / unreasonable? No, this is an attempt to blame you, the student, but it is important to consider whether what you are requiring is unreasonable. In that case:

Get some perspective discuss your concerns with someone in your department

Many times the “should I or stay or should I go?” question arises due to a personality clash. It is worth getting some perspective from someone who is not directly involved. There should be someone you can go to in confidence to discuss how you feel, be it a second supervisor, PhD tutor, or someone else in your department.

I did this, on a number of occasions, and was told that the problems I was experiencing with my supervisor was just their way. This was true, but ‘their way’ was somewhat – in fact completely - incompatible with ‘my way’. That does not make them a bad supervisor, period, just not the right person for me.

How do other people work with your supervisor? (or not)

It may be worth having a chat with other people who share your supervisor, have worked with or have been supervised by them in the past. Other colleagues may have encountered similar problems and have some useful suggestions.

Draw up a list of pros and cons

It may seem old school in the digital age, but get out a pen and a piece of paper and list the pros and cons for working with your present supervisor. Do the pros outweigh the cons? Can you work with / manage the negatives in view of the positives?

If you have considered all these points and you are still not sure what to do, ask yourself these questions:

If I continue with this partnership can I tolerate the present situation continuing?

Think long and hard about this. What may seem easy conceptually, may not be in practice. It does not matter how much prestige is associated with being supervised by a particular person if the relationship is having a detrimental impact on you, or your work.

Doing a PhD is stressful enough. You do not need anything else to make it worse. It took me 5 years to work up the courage to finally address this situation, which added another year on to the amount of time it took to complete my thesis. This is not good for you. A thesis is the start of your career; you need to do it, get it examined and move on. It is not healthy for you to carry on in a dysfunctional relationship.

If you can continue the relationship then you need to realise that things may get more difficult and you have to find ways to deal with them. If you have a second supervisor use them more, but also be guided by them. If they tell you to change you probably should listen.

Does this relationship ever make you feel you want to quit?

If it does then you need to consider your exit plan, not from the thesis but from the supervisor. Divorcing your supervisor will inevitably lead to a changed situation for you. You will have to be prepared for some people to take a disliking to you for your actions.

In the end only you know whether you can continue or not. Just because you decide to stay put doesn’t mean you can’t come back and review it later on. Each situation is different and time can heal, or make things worse, if not treated. Don’t let your relationship go septic.

Related Posts

Supervisors are not elephants

How to deal with two supervisors who disagree all the time

6 thoughts on “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now … ? a.k.a Do I Divorce my Supervisor or Learn to Live With It?

  1. Well-considered suggestions, Inger. I would just add that, if someone really feels that they’ve reached an impasse, then a brief, carefully written email might at least open up the way to a discussion. (I’m not talking about a “Dear John, you’ve been ditched” kind of message – more like, “Dear John, we need to talk!”)

    But in that case – find something NICE to say first – the supervisor can’t be all bad! – then briefly say what the problem is. And finish with something positive. Save as a draft, and don’t send until the next day!

    • Agreed – it’s a good idea to send an important email without a sleep in between. Sarah has way more experience of this than me – I had pretty much trouble free supervision!

    • Sometimes it does sometimes it doesn’t. I definitely agree you should have time to reflect before sending. I think i could have handled mine better but at the time i felt stuck.

  2. It’s really funny actually because in the figure skating world and wanting to change coaches, all the above problems pretty much also apply.

  3. My first supervisor and I had a lot of issues. Lack of clear communication was the biggest problem. I felt she just wasn’t listening to what I was saying. I tried first to talk to her about it, but I couldn’t seem to get my point across. I then went to the head of postgrad studies in our department and had a chat with her about it. She presented some options, and suggested the best course to take as long as I was sure I wanted to switch (I was). So I invited my supervisor out for coffee (public place so there’d be witnesses!!) and told her, in a very honest but polite way, that I didn’t feel we were communicating well together and that while I respected her as a researcher and academic, I would like to switch. SHe didn’t take it well AT ALL and said some nasty things, both to my face and over the next few weeks to others in our department. But in the end it has made a huge difference to me, and I feel that I would not be in a position to submit now had I not switched. And after everything, I still make an effort to smile and say hi whenever I see my old supervisor. It has helped put water under the bridge, so to speak, and has made me feel less guilty about the whole thing, and less anxious about running into her. It was terrifying at the time, but worth it in the end!

  4. Excellent post, Sarah! I am struggling with many of these issues at the moment. In my case, I can’t divorse my supervisor (he is the only person in the school) and have been trying very hard to work on the relationship. As you say, it is a two way street! Sometimes I feel I am putting so much effort into working on the relationship (getting advice, reading books on effective communication for relationships, reflecting on my own means of communicating etc) without really having them try to work on the relationship with me. In this sense, I am not sure the relationship can actually improve if two people don’t work on it together. Now, I am using my third supervisor a lot more, as well as other sources of guidance (peers, reviewers, other academics I have met and are helpful) to make progress on my thesis.

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