Please stop telling me to ‘manage’ my supervisor!

Like many other academic developers, I have often run workshops called ‘manage your supervisor’ where I try, in an upbeat fashion, to empower students to feel they can take charge of their own learning and responsibility for the outcomes. I acknowledge in this workshop that supervisors are generally busy, time poor creatures who might need a bit of managing, especially when it comes to keeping appointments, doing important paper work and providing timely feedback on drafts.

There are books, papers, articles and phamplets on the theme of students managing supervisors, so I guess it is hardly surprising that the term crept into my teaching practice too. But now I am questioning it.

As many people have pointed out, supervision / student relationships are rarely, if ever, ‘equal’ and if you had to say one person had more power than the other, it’s almost certainly the supervisor. Why then do we burden students with the task of  ‘managing’ when they are, often, in a position where they are powerless to do so? If an academic can’t read a calendar or turn around a draft, no amount of nagging is going to make a difference. In fact, the nagging might make the whole situation worse, as this week’s post highlights.

This post is really an email, sent to me be a student who was responding to a Facebook conversation I started on the theme of ‘managing’ your supervisor. I was surprised at the number of comments and emails this conversation provoked and the student kindly let me reproduce the letter here in full, unedited. Things being what they are in my life, it’s taken a LONG time to get this into print, but it’s worth it because I think it’s food for thought for all of us in this letter and will be interested in any comments you might make.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 2.47.56 pmI’m pretty over being told to manage my supervisors. What I’d like to know, is what were they meant to be doing, and how do I plug the gaps?

Before I started my Phd, I’d read a lot of advice about it being my responsibility to manage my supervision, and in my first meeting, I tried to have the conversation I would have with any new member of my team about ways of working and so on.

Dismal fail.

The relationship only went down hill from there. I noticed it deteriorating and tried to rescue it. I even flagged in a supervision meeting that I wasn’t sure we’d paid enough attention to the relational work, and maybe we should do coffee or lunch. My distress was obvious. I was in tears. But one supervisor (I have two) responded that she was busy, and I was getting my time.

That made it a whole lot easier, when the ‘busy one’ decided she wanted to leave my supervision team, and made transparently pathetic administrative excuses to do so.She was replaced with someone, who the department picked, who doesn’t really share an interest in either my method or topic, although she is generally nice, so that was a step forward.

But 15 months in, I’m still not really sure what the point of supervision is. On good days, I think it doesn’t matter. I’m still fascinated by my topic, and awed by my research partners. On bad days, I’m alternatively sad or mad.

Sad days, I dwell on the lack of support and guidance I feel from my supervisors. For example, at my annual review a panel member asked if I had gone to a particular conference earlier in the year. The answer was no, but the question was a good one. It’s exactly the academic community my work sits within, but despite one of my supervisors participating in the conference, it apparently hadn’t occurred to them to mention it to me, or suggest I go.

Mad days, I have the energy to do something about it. I work on building my own networks to get the support and advice I feel I need. And, I take practical action to build a community on campus to support research students.

Poetically, this urge to action is what caused the original issues with the ‘busy one’, but it will in the end be what gets me and others through. A research student community sharing what we’ve learned about surviving and thriving through our Phds.

So what do you think? What is the point of supervision? What should happen here that clearly isn’t? Looking forward to hearing your views.

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26 thoughts on “Please stop telling me to ‘manage’ my supervisor!

  1. My supervisor and I have had a number of conversations about this lately. The reason? My original supervisor left the university and the new one has a completely different style. I didn’t know what was the role of a supervisor either. I just went along with whatever the original one did. He was congenial, wanted to meet with me weekly to check on progress, answered all my questions, made suggestions here and there and in return wanted co-authorship of everything I wrote. I never questioned any of this. He left the university half-way through my candidature and the new supervisor is totally different. She only wants to see me if I have a specific question or need advice on something (although thankfully she does make time when I ask). Sometimes she won’t answer the question or give advice because she is not a co-author on everything I write and therefore will not allow her ideas to infiltrate my work. If they do they I have to formally invite her to be a co-author and then we have a planning session to work out her level of contribution. I gather this is how things must work in “real” academia and she is insisting I follow protocol. She says that her job is to ensure that my thesis is of a passable standard, and nothing more.

    I think the primary difference between my two supervisors is that the first one saw himself as a mentor and the second one doesn’t. The first one continues to mentor me from afar (he has retained the role of adjunct supervisor) but there is an invisible line he can’t cross or he would be interfering with the job of the primary supervisor. I understand that so I use him sparingly.

    BTW – NEITHER of them ever mentioned any conferences to me. I heard about PhD student presenting at conferences and went searching for a suitable one and then asked how I could apply for funding. They were supportive, but it all had to come from me.

    I gather you are missing this mentoring role and you’d like to have an academic mentor. Is there a way you can invite someone to be part of your supervisory team but to specifically take on the role of mentor? It’s a shame it can’t be the same person as your supervisor, but I guess not all supervisors are cut out to be mentors.

  2. There is nothing I hate more than being told to manage my supervisor. I’m not managing up. It’s not part of the learning and teaching relationship. What I CAN do is manage my own role and responsibilities within the relationship. Including the rate of emails sent to supervisor, quality of work sent to the supervisor, requests for meetings, developing my own learning framework such as attending conferences and liaising with colleagues etc. In my work on the master/apprenticeship learning and teaching approach, I found this interesting quote by Polanyi (1962) who wrote “To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which were not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another” (p.55). I would argue that for the doctoral candidate / supervisor relationship this is what precisely characterises this learning and teaching dyad. We could argue that the supervisor/candidate relationship should be a mentor/mentee one, and don’t we all wish! But while a novice is a novice the locus of power and authority rests with the master. This is what then makes it so difficult when the 1. authority of the supervisor is (rightfully) questioned, 2. when the supervisor does not provide the appropriate relational support to the candidate when the candidate loses their way, 3. When the supervisor rarely engages with the candidate on any level. I’m not going to apportion blame to either party here but when the novice has to do the work of the master (or guess what the master wants) in the absence of the master, then this is diabolical for the candidate. Diabolical for the quality of their work, for their sense of self-efficacy, for their sense of belonging. So now I’ve ranted with my morning coffee, I’ll get off my Soapbox.

    • I appreciate the master-apprentice model but I think it doesn’t always work well in academia because a lot of work is done independently, often in isolation, at least in the social sciences and humanities. The PhD apprentice does not always have a chance to learn from his/her supervisor master through interaction or observation because this can be quite infrequent. You can’t imitate what you don’t see. At the very least, by not actually being physically with your supervisor regularly, building rapport can be difficult.

      • Hi Bob, in part I agree, the dyadic part of this model doesn’t always work well in academia. Nevertheless we don’t seem to be getting a reasonable alternative. From my research, at any rate, I take the cultural psychology Rogoff route where we see apprenticeship as going beyond expert-novice dyads to encompass the whole immersion in the culture. I certainly was privileged to experience this immersion at my place. However, when the primary relationship is problematic and lacks the important relational aspect that makes the dyad function, then perhaps we need to reconsider the role of the supervisor and indeed how we shape the candidate’s journey in academia! Perhaps, as has been suggested, the dyadic approach should be abandoned to allow for more positive and immersive learning and teaching experiences to take place. *I come from a music background where it’s acknowledged rapport is one of the most important aspects of the learning and teaching dyadic relationship. Anyhoo, you’ve made a salient point about the observational aspect to this approach.

  3. I also often talked about managing my supervisor as a way of making clear for myself that I was now in a phase of my education career that involved me being a fully proactive learner. Since then I’ve talked to people whose relationships with their supervisors are different, or they are unclear about the expectations that everyone has.

    I think the ‘manage your supervisor’ mantra can work in some relationships, but posts like this are good reminders that it doesn’t work in all contexts!

  4. ‘Managing up’ is a way of the world. I do this at work, and have in the past done this with my (ex)supervisors. One of the things I am tired of hearing is how busy they are, and how little time they are allocated to supervise students – as if we are a chore or tick box to be marked off!

    Also, I think it is important for students to think about how much supervision they need – not want – and see if that fits in with the view of their supervisors. I am currently at the data collection stage of my research so need little supervision. I communicate by e-mail monthly with my supervisors (I am off-campus) and if they need something from me they are very quick to drop me a note. Once I collect my data, through interviews, I am sure I will need greater interaction and word up my supervisors when I am ready. So, in effect, I am managing my relationships; and I think we all need to. Why is the relationship with your supervisor different to any other relationship we have in life. I manage my work and personal relationships, and my supervisors are just one of those.

    My thoughts, now back to work.

  5. I do still see ‘managing up’ as a powerful part of the supervision process–BUT like having a bad boss, or being in the wrong job, having a bad supervisor or the wrong supervisor means no amount of managing up will fix the problems.
    Managing up is also not at all the same as managing down. As a manager, I have lots of power to set the agenda, the time, and I usually have more institutional knowledge and influence too. As someone who ‘manages up’, on the other hand, I have a limited amount of influence over certain aspects of the agenda, the way we work, etc.
    In a good working relationship, managing up to your supervisor enables you to steer the relationship towards getting the support that is right for your project. In a borderline relationship, it might help you get more of what your project needs. In a dysfunctional supervisory relationship, managing up is pretty useless (as it is in the work place).
    So, it’s a great tool–but it’s not a solution to problems. Instead, I recommend building alternative networks of mentors, peer readers, committee members, and Academic Skills advisors, to help you get through.

  6. To put a finer point on “management,” I think what we’re really looking at is the management of expectations. It’s a given that, like people, supervisors are wide ranging in personality and attitude towards supervision. The same can be said of PhD students. It’s therefore important that both parties are on the same page from the get go – there must be a meeting where expectations and processes are set. Such a meeting doesn’t have to be complicated. The key–perhaps only–objective is for both parties to be able to see where the other’s coming from. One doesn’t even have to meet in the middle (though that is preferable), just know how the relationship’s marked out, can be adapted to and any gaps filled in through other sources of support/advice.

    I find “going with the flow” in sorting expectations out is risky, especially if your supervisor’s kindly and generally nice. If he or she is an ass, you generally kick into crisis mode pretty quickly and seek a solution to the predicament. If your supervisor’s nice , there’s a chance you may not realise you may not have gotten what’s needed till it’s too late. Meetings might be superficial and once you get that rhythm going, there’s little incentive to seek greater clarity and process in the meetings because everyone’s so used to the pleasantness of it all. Who wants to rock the boat?

    That’s been my experience with my supervisor. He’s a kindly older gentleman, but I feel I haven’t really got much proper supervision from him because we never got round to setting expectations. Everything’s been ad hoc. He’s always been hands off, which in later years of my candidacy might be good, but in the first year of cluelessness, is actually counter-productive even though it feels good (who wants to be hounded). As such, he’s been reactive. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation (email or otherwise) with him that I didn’t initiate. I can’t help but feel distant from him, both personally and professionally.

    But Brian does make a good point – students have to figure out how much supervision they need, then ask for it. However, in the early stages you quite frankly may not have a clue. Perhaps that’s really the nub of poor student-supervisor relationships – the student being clueless at the start, allowing the problem to fester, and for it to blow up mid-way through candidacy.

    Which is why having a conversation about expectations right at the start is important, because it is through that discussion the student will think about his or her own needs, many of which may not be apparent, and some of whom the supervisor may not be able to meet. Seeking alternate sources of support/advice is always preferable sooner rather than later in one’s candidacy.

  7. I am an extremely independent person, so ‘managing up’ is my natural style. I don’t expect my supervisor to tell me what I need to do: either in my research or in other aspects of my career. In fact, I actively loathe being told what to do! I happily solve my own problems, identify my own opportunities and write what I want. My supervisor provides excellent feedback on my writing, and is there with interesting and fruitful observations when I need it. When I jump in with something massive, like a huge grant application, I always get awesome feedback on my submission. I find that when I act like a colleague, rather than a student, I get treated like a colleague.

    • Absolutely – my supervisor and I have a similar collegial (but professional – we’ve never gone out for lunch) relationship. Sometimes she suggests conferences to me and sometimes I point out things to her. But perhaps this is because I’m a slightly older PhD student? I pursued a career for nearly 10 years which led me to the PhD. And I’ve always had to ‘manage up’ in the work place too. One danger that I worry about though, is that I come across as too independent and my supervisor doesn’t realise that I need more detailed feedback sometimes. Occasionally I’ve found it hard to identify what’s going well, and I wonder if this is because she assumes that I only need feedback on what’s not working? I’ve been trying to be more proactive in asking questions in supervisions, so hopefully this will help.

  8. This is a really important post, and I think one that outlines the majority of student/supervisor relationships.

    I recently attended a session where we looked at what supervisors want from their students (as well as what students want from their supervisors), and apparently the number one characteristic is independence.

    That has fuelled me to be more proactive in managing my own candidature, rather than whingeing about what I don’t get from my supervisor. Fortunately I have great peers, and there are a wealth of other resources available at my uni.

    As the original poster points out, it’s this determination that is going to get us, and people like us, over the line.

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  10. Well, I had non-mentoring and absent supervisors for my PhD (although they were nice people). I had the same issues as those above… I managed my supervisors throughout (sometimes successfully, others less). I, however, realised a few years later that I had had a real lack of support to build my career because of that non-mentoring approach of my supervisors. This is really sad.
    Now that I am supervising students, I make sure I do it properly (at least the best I am able to), mentor them, tell them or give them opportunities and make sure that I am more than just a name to put on a paper. It does become difficult with time constraint, that is true, but if I take on someone under my supervision, I make sure I make the time to do it. We need to straighten things up as they have deviated from the original aim of being a supervisor, that is being a MENTOR and wanting to see those we supervise succeed, be happy and one day surpass us in your field to do even greater things! So everyone out here, may be it is too late for us but make sure when you get to supervise someone later that you do it the way you would have liked to be treated and mentor… Papers are much less satisfying than a happy student that leave your group to go on a great journey (in academia or elsewhere) because you gave them the opportunity, mentored and helped them. If everyone does that, then things will change eventually and there will be more emphasis on the human being than on the paper-writing machines that students have now become! Better be optimistic!

  11. Thank you so much for writing this, and thanks to everyone who gave such thoughtful replies.

    While in graduate school, my faculty supervisor took little interest in me. It was part his personality, and part a lack of cohesion. As my interests developed, they actually became less in line with his field of study. I literally broke into tears when I was told by a program head that I just needed to “keep on him.” He never told me about conferences, encouraged publication, or even showed an interest in my work (despite being my chair, he never read my thesis all the way through).

    My only advice is to seek out other mentors. I did continue to seek council from my supervisor, but found one faculty member to rely on for mentoring/conferences, one to help with my footnotes, one who was more from my field who assisted me with research, and one to help me navigate the processes of the university and being a graduate student. One faculty member in particular was very dear to me – my topic was not even remotely related to her field, but I sat in her office weekly just to share how my own personal development was going.

    At this point, graduate school is what you make of it. If something isn’t working, you can usually find a way!

  12. As a supervisor, I’m happy to negotiate expectations with a student. Rarely does a student expect too much, and one or two (who I respect) have asked polite questions such as “When should I expect this back?”, which I think is reasonable and can be helpful. When waiting for feedback on work, one or two have also made sure to like I’ve put on Facebook/Twitter etc… which is a very polite nudge, which I quite appreciate.

  13. Not to be too gloom and doom, but in my experience, a bad supervisor is rarely able to be managed. My advice to students and scientists is to do your best to vet the opportunity better before choosing a lab (I am in life sciences so know the most about that). The quality of your mentor (and a supervisor in grad school or postdoc should also be a mentor) will be a huge factor in your future success. Here is one of my posts on this topic:

    http://blog.addgene.org/choosing-a-good-mentor-for-scientists

    Story: I gave a talk on mentoring to 40 postdocs at a high powered research institute. Someone asked “How do I know if my PI is a mentor or not?” I said “If she is happy you are here expanding your skill set on a topic which she is not an expert–she is a mentor. If he is upset because you are here and not at the bench or if you had to sneak out, he is just a PI”. When I asked how many had mentors, only 2 hands went up. Sigh

  14. I manage my expectation towards my supervisor(s) – in fact, I gave up on them!! I’m nine months into my PhD and realised that I need to do everything independently, of course. But I also realised that most of my supervision sessions are waste of time, where I get only confused and my questions are usually not answered. Also, they have an idea of only couple of supervision per term, if possible, only following the draft of essay or report. For me it doesn’t make sense because in order to write a draft, I need to discuss the content and plan with them – I don’t need someone telling me that I should ‘do the content table more creatively’.
    However, I have realised that I should expect my supervisors to comment on my draft and in that way help me to submit a good material. Asking for anything else (conference, funding sources, relational dinner/lunch, ….) would be too much and I need to live with it!

  15. Pingback: Managing upwards works! Until it doesn’t | Scientific B-sides

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