Treat your supervisor right!

How does a thesis look from the other side? This guest post is written by Dr Kristin Natalier, a qualitative researcher and senior lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Work, University of Tasmania. If you catch her on a good day Kris will admit she actually quite likes working with research students on their projects. In this post Kristin sets out her manifesto for treating your supervisor right!

It’s not me, it’s you. Do you treat your supervisor right?

Supervisors can be difficult.  We can be eccentric. We can be tetchy. We can lose your drafts and forget to give you feedback. Sometimes we don’t treat you right. But it’s not all a one way street – sometimes you treat us bad, too. Here are some questions to ponder …

Do you roll your eyes when your supervisor offers advice?

Supervisors know stuff. We have spent years as high achieving undergraduates, postgraduates and then academics finding out about stuff. We were employed by our institution because we know about stuff. Some of that stuff will be relevant to your research.

Even if you are working with someone who’s not an expert in your specific topic, they will have something worthwhile to offer you.  Academics ‘get’ their discipline:  we have a working knowledge of its parameters, debates, what’s hot and what’s not. If you have been thinking ‘class’ and your supervisor says ‘what about gender’? , don’t presume they have no idea.  Follow it up: ask questions then or go away, do some reading and some thinking. You don’t have to agree but you do need to engage with the possibilities of the suggestion. Discount the advice out of hand simply because it doesn’t obviously fit with your vision. The mind of a trained academic can be fiendishly subtle…

Thinking about advice is also important when it comes to comments on your written work, especially thesis chapters. If a supervisor asks you to do something, do it or explain why you haven’t. Ignoring it won’t make it go away – it just leads your supervisor to wonder if you are recalcitrant, can’t read, or are just not very clever.

Do you presume your supervisor has poor comprehension skills?

We don’t. We’ve made a career reading and writing in ways that are appropriate to our – and your – discipline. So if we write ‘I don’t understand what you are trying to get at here’, presume it’s because you aren’t writing clearly.  It’s not because we don’t understand sophisticated ideas or specialised language. It’s because you don’t write clearly and effectively – and we’re doing you a big favour pointing that out before some pissed off reviewer does.

Do you act as if your supervisor has world enough and time?

We don’t. You’re likely one of many research students and definitely one of many obligations.  Being late for meetings – or worse, not turning up – are obviously egregious behaviours. Most dodgy practices are a little more subtle, based on the presumably unexamined presumption that when you’re not with us, we while away the hours on Facebook and ebay.  These practices include unrealistic expectations for turn around times on submitted work, expecting instant access when forms need to be signed, ‘just dropping in’, and replying to a request for a meeting one week later and one day before the suggested date (our dance card will then be full).

Do you follow the letter of the law but not its spirit?

When you agree to deliver a draft to your supervisor on Friday, do it right.  A draft is a complete and relatively coherent piece of work, written in sentences and proof read. It doesn’t include notes to yourself or questions to your supervisor (‘Should I discuss Said here?’), there are no missing sections (‘feminist critique of individualisation to go here’), the font is all the same size and style, you have referenced your work and provided a reference list.  Friday means close of business Friday and preferably earlier (hey, it’s Friday), not 11.58pm… or 8.58 am on Monday.

Do you act as though your supervisor is your support staff?

Supervisors have been employed for their disciplinary expertise.  We are not paid to: print out your 357 page thesis draft sent via email, photocopy it and pass the copies to the rest of the team; line edit your work; correct your systematic and yet never predictable misuse of semi-colons; find forms on the University website; remind you of important dates relating to your candidature; provide a reading list of foundational texts in your field. In short, we are not your secretary, editor or research assistant.

Do you hide things from your supervisor?

Please don’t. We don’t need or want to know most details about your life but we can’t work with you to develop your research if we are missing key information about your circumstances.  This information includes: any illness that is difficult to manage and may affect your thesis work; significant life events or commitments that may affect your thesis work; problems with the design and implementation of your project; skills you don’t have but need to have.  Knowing about this issue will shape what we can expect from you, how we will support you, and how we advocate for your interests to the institution.

Do you say thank you?

For many of us, supervision is the very definition of a thankless task. Being listed halfway through the thesis acknowledgements is a pretty small payoff for over three years of effort.  Saying ‘thank you’ at the end of a meeting or when your supervisor has commented on your work is a nice touch, even if it is only common politeness.  Even classier: delivering your supervisor their crutch of choice (chocolate, coffee, moonshine) when you plonk the first full draft of your thesis on their desk. Those suckers can be rough to read.

Thesis writers feel mad, sad and bad in response to their supervisors’ behaviours. But supervisors have feelings too. More than feelings, we have professional expertise and authority. And we write references for our graduate students. If you don’t communicate well, find it difficult to work with others, fail to meet deadlines, present poor quality work and struggle to be flexible in your thinking … well, how’s that reference going to read?

Related posts

5 ways to make your supervisor happy

How to ask your supervisor for a divorce

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44 thoughts on “Treat your supervisor right!

  1. Eye opening! I do genuinely try and empathise with my supervisors but I have to admit that some of the things you mention I rarely consider. The letter of the law point is my biggest weakness. I have a tendency to work until the 11th hour on deadline day – especially more “flexible” deadline. I’ve probably caused my supervisors a fair bit of grief over the years… I should go and buy some chocolates!

    • Ben, I was thinking about the deadline issue. Speaking for myself as a supervisor, there are very few deadlines that actually matter in the broader scheme of things. It makes no meaningful difference to the trajectory of a student’s thesis if they hand me a draft of the literature review in the first week of September or the third week of September. But it can make a real difference to my work plans, particularly at those times of the year when my days jam packed with commitments. It does sound ridiculous but there are times when if a student hands work in at 8pm on Friday night rather than 3pm on Friday afternoon, the window of time in which I had to read that piece slams shut for a couple of weeks – this is particularly so with long and/or complex pieces of work.

      I would like it if students told me the writing won’t be coming when they said it would and then negotiate a new time. That way, the student gets the time they actually need and I can do the reading properly when I have the time.

  2. Just another quick point, I know some people who have had terrible times with their supervisors. I think the points you raise make good guides for supervisors to follow as well. Most bad supervisor problems I know about stem from abuse or disregard of the issues you raised.

  3. I think this is the first post ever in this blog that has made me twitch…..I can not yet articulate why, but I THINK its the tone. I have rumblings of irrational anger – but then I am scared as a grad student so am probably NOT the right person to read this.

    • I think I can articulate that ‘twitch’ as I felt it myself.

      It comes from the fact that most of these points are just about common courtesy and professionalism. Most of the grad students I know are very conscientious and polite people. And, moreover, they consider themselves professionals who take their research and their teaching seriously while acknowledging that they have a lot to learn. Many of them are also treated with considerable disrespect by their supervisors because the power in that relationship goes almost entirely in one direction.

      The ‘twitch’ comes from the implication that a poor relationship with a supervisor likely stems from the un-professionalism of the PhD candidate. This is not only very condescending but ignores just how complicated this relationship can be even when both sides DO treat each other with respect and courtesy.

      • Yes. I agree. This assumes that the supervisor is also acting in a professional manner (not spending 6 months reading a draft – yes that really happened). Not missing appointments, not replying to emails, not dumping last minute teaching on students. And then forgetting what the hell your dissertation is about!

  4. Inger, I appreciate your articles and share all of them with graduate students and faculty in Taiwan. I also appreciate that your writing style is clearly understood without any regional colloquialisms that may be difficult for international students. I have a question about one of the questions in your article: “Do you act as if your supervisor has world enough and time?” A couple students asked me what this meant and I wasn’t sure if it was a regional colloquialism or not, in what you meant by “world enough and time.” Thank you.

  5. I like it. I was reading along, all smug and self-congratulatory until… Who knew that supervisors want complete drafts, without questions, and with references included?

    • I think it can be a matter of style – I don’t mind having a bit of scrappy stuff in there. I guess I am usually a messy writer, so it feels hypocritical to ask for more than I give :-)

    • I think this is a bit tricky. I remember having trouble knwoing what my supervisor wanted early on as he never articulated it that well. He would say ‘it just has to be rough, you don’t need all your refs in there I just want an idea of what you are arguing’ or I would refuse to send as it was unfinished and he would insist I just sent what I had done and then sometimes he would then get frustrated when bits were unfinished! I found it confusing and frustrating. Looking back I think it is a tricky balancing act, I think I am a bit of a messy writer and my supervisor isn’t, so ‘unfinished’ meant very different things.

    • My supervisors don’t want drafts complete and polished — they want drafts. All the other items in this post I found reasonable, if somewhat condescendingly expressed, but this doesn’t make sense to me. If I’m in doubt about whether to go into detail on a particular area or not, then which is a better use of everyone’s time: to sketch out a paragraph with a note that this is incomplete and ask for feedback, or to write three pages and expect my supervisors to read it all and tell me which bits to cut out? I imagine many supervisors would rather see a chapter with a few rough patches at an early stage than wait for the polished version and risk having to send the student back to square one.

  6. the tone is very passive aggressive, that’s why it’s an unsettling read for zelda and probably others. the constant need to assert your knowledge, superiority etc just seems insecure. so many academics are so very, very insecure. the ones who aren’t are a rare treasure.

  7. I have a great supervisor and know I’m lucky to do so. We have a mutually respectful relationship and communicate openly. I believe it’s up to both the supervisor and their student to act in a mature and professional manner and address any issues that arise. It’s a working relationship and should be treated as such.

    • I think the point Mel made about professionalism is spot on – what this post sets out is Kristin’s expectations of professional behaviour. I have different expectations – I am more lenient on things like messy writing for instance, but really it’s a question of working style.

      I remember there was a similar discussion when I published my own little (admittedly petty and selfish) list of supervisor peeves about a year ago in the post “5 ways to make your supervisor happy”. In retrospect I should have called it “5 ways to make Inger-the-supervisor happy”. I think it’s ok for Kristin and myself to have our own standards – so long as we communicate them and act like compassionate and reasonable human beings when they aren’t met. This is all a matter of understanding the pressure students are under and not privileging our own needs all of the time.

      I suppose what we can take away from this discussion is that working style of supervisors will differ, as will their students. When we don’t take the time to understand each others’ style, then tempers can get frayed pretty quickly and misunderstandings multiply…

  8. As someone about to join the ranks of “did not finish” or “failed to finish” because of several of these points, this post has me spitting with rage. Despite treating my supervisor well I have nothing to show for it.

    As the first Anonymous poster suggested it is the passive aggressive tone in this post that triggers feelings of anger and dare I say a strong dislike. I also feel it is disrespectful of research students.

    • I’m sorry to hear this :-(

      I hesitate to ask – but are you sure you have explored all the options available to you? There should be checks and balances to prevent this kind of thing happening. I would hope that, at least in my institution, students who treated their supervisors well and made academic progress wouldn’t find themselves having to leave. If you are at RMIT please contact me.

  9. No need for people to take suggestions as personal criticisms, in fact it’s integral to how we develop, and reflect on not just what others say, but what we have said.
    It’s also ok for a light prod every once in a while to remind us there’s at least two of us in this academic relationship.
    Happy week-end all.

  10. I have to say, this comes across as pretty condescending, almost working from the assumption that all postgrad students are utterly lacking in common courtesy and professionalism. As the child of two academics and a PhD student myself, I’ve seen and heard about plenty of conflict over the years between student and supervisor, and it’s definitely not always the student who is to blame.

    Also, I fully agree with the commenter who pointed out that the multiple mentions of how much authority a supervisor has are totally unnecessary: it absolutely comes across as very insecure. Nobody knows everything – not students, not supervisors – and this post seems to be implying otherwise. (For example, I’m a student at a research center which is very interdisciplinary, but both my supervisors have backgrounds in social psychology, while mine is in anthropology. They’ve admitted that we all have a lot to learn from each other, and it’s working out well so far. Just because a student knows less than a supervisor doesn’t mean the student knows nothing and the supervisor knows everything.)

  11. As a part-time PhD student who is also a professional, and whose partner has a lot of PhD students, I see both sides. Like many of us, I have witnessed some incredibly arrogant things from supervisors (not my own) but also from other students. A student told me this week that her supervisor was hopeless because she didn’t organise lots of research seminars for her to go to (and she was not in her first year). There are many seminar opportunities in a university like ours, but she wanted a list handed to her. I have heard students say in quite a cavalier fashion that they gave drafts to their supervisor days late, but they still expect them to be returned in a timely fashion. I know many students who don’t always bother to turn up for meetings, and don’t let their sups know in time, and don’t see a problem with that.

    I work with academics every day. They are extremely busy people (I don’t think most students can imagine just how many ways staff members get pulled). My partner works six full days a week, and sometimes evenings as well. (And she’s very well-organised, with many research projects and HDR students on the go as well as teaching.) If she’s expecting a major piece of work from a research student she will clear the decks for a few days to work on it. If it doesn’t come in on time she sometimes gets really quite angry and feels very frustrated.

    But I have to agree with the comments about drafts. I don’t think they’re meant to be perfect, otherwise they wouldn’t be called ‘drafts’. I think it’s fine to put them in with questions, comments, and reminders for further work – this is how writing works for most people, as a series of increasingly neat and well-thought-out documents. The ‘rough bits’ are good teaching points for the supervisor. I think this is a point of negotiation, and not a rule, but I think that a supervisor who insists on perfect drafts will find it very hard to get anything at all out of her students.

  12. I didn’t read any of that into this blog post which makes me wonder if it is simply a matter of tone? The paragraph headings seemed overblown and certainly outside my experience so I assumed they were intended to be an amusing exaggeration and I therefore read them as such? A thought anyway…

  13. With the exception of saying thank you, I have been guilty of pretty much everything that’s been listed on occassion. Thank heavens I have a supervisor whom I genuinely adore, and who seems to really enjoy working with me also!

    The only real thing I take away from this post is that I don’t think I could work well with Dr Natalier. In fact, I’d be pretty upset if I was one of her current grad students… there seems to be quite a lot of contempt written into the post.

  14. Although I get what everyone is saying, I personally had never really considered my supervisor’s perspective on some of these matters. I certainly stopped to think about it, normally being so concerned with my own tight schedule due to work and family commitments.

    But then realised my supervisor has been encouraging me to do different things depending on where I am in my thesis: early on, she wanted scrappy drafts, and she responded to the ideas rather than the form (with lots of encouragement — you always feel a bit naked giving scrappy drafts). Now, coming up to my last chapter, she wants to see all my first four chapters in a fairly presentable form. So I have missed two deadlines trying to do this, as I know there is no point giving her a scrappy drafty piece that hasn’t addressed all her comments from the first read. I also want it to look professional so she can get a sense of what the finished thesis will be like for an examiner. SHe keeps saying ‘i’m in no hurry to read it, i want it ready’. So I feel that we have negotiated our style fairly well.

    My supervisor has always treated me as a professional, a colleague-in-training if you like, so I have never had any power issues like the other commentators. I will certainly make sure I think it through each time though, and ask her what she would prefer for any particular submission!

  15. My question is, why do supervisors supervise? Is it a requirement of career advancement? Or is it a matter of pure choice whether they wish to supervise at all?

    If supervising is a requirement, I submit that this is the beginning of the difficulties (that often end up being ‘personal’) in the supervisor-student relationship. It seems there might be an inherent conflict of interest. And not even an ideal student will be able to overcome deficits in a supervisor’s motivation. But, I honestly don’t know what the politics are surrounding the issue of supervision. Perhaps someone can shed some light on this?

  16. This is a very patronizing piece of writing. I would refer you to a blog on how to treat your data collecting slaves right, but we are mostly too busy working to write one…

  17. OMG! I just stumbled upon this post…
    I am sitting here eternally grateful that I have wonderful supervisors and not this woman as my supervisor. She would have given me a nervous breakdown by now- the patronizing tone, the smug comments…why does she still supervise if nothing pleases her and she actually feels the need to post this kind of commentary? I’m hoping her students (if she still has any left) haven’t seen this because I would be running for the hills if I were them- or perhaps they are afraid if they do ‘they won’t get a good reference’. Thanks to my supervisors who have never lost a draft of mine and actually don’t mind me asking questions of them.

  18. I can’t help but feel sympathy for Dr Natalier’s PhD students. ‘If you catch her on a good day …’ I’d hate to catch her on a bad day! In response to Anonymous, yes academic staff are required to supervise post-graduate students. It’s in our performance expectations. Those students supervised by Dr Natalier are helping to advance her career. A fact conveniently overlooked in this article.
    I have sucessfully supervised 4 PhD students and have never had a student roll their eyes at my suggestions. I don’t presume to know everything in my field of research and I don’t have a dismissive attitude towards my students. If anything, Dr Natalier’s attitude needs an overhaul, especially in light of the recent disappearance/presumed suicide of a stressed PhD student enrolled at the same institution which employs Dr Natalier, UTAS.

    • Dr nice,
      Do you yourself work at utas?
      I’m interested if kristin n’s attitude is part of the utas culture of postgraduate supervision?!
      Steve G

  19. Yes, I work for UTAS. I wouldn’t say that Dr Natalier’s attitude is common throughout the institution but I have never been a UTAS student, so I don’t know what the student experience is like. I completed my undergraduate studies interstate and postgraduate studies overseas. I am aware that there are plenty of supportive, encouraging supervisors, like myself, within UTAS. I hope prospective students aren’t dissuaded from applying after reading this article.

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