How to tell your supervisor you want a divorce

This week’s guest post comes from Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell, who gained her PhD from the Geography Department at King’s College London in 2010. Sarah is also the managing editor of ‘PhD 2 Published’ – a blog all Research students should have on their list.  Here Sarah talks about the delicate matter of ‘supervisory divorce’

This post results from a twitter conversation I had with @thesiswhisperer about how someone could quit at the point of submission because they had a fundamental disagreement with their supervisor. This seemed unfathomable to many people; however, it made perfect sense to me as I had been in near enough the same situation in 2009.

The relationship had broken down spectacularly, there was no communication, and I sat in tears not knowing how I could get myself out of this. However, I managed to recover and submit my thesis, thankfully, and am now the proud owner of a doctorate, but I understand how isolating it is being in that position and feeling there is no way to turn. This can lead many people, more than you would initially think, to quit. However, there is much that can be done to resolve the situation should you wish for an academic divorce and allow you to finish and submit your thesis. Therefore I offer you some advice based on my own experience.

Your Dept / University will have a procedure for dealing with this …

You will not be the first or the last student to require a divorce from their supervisor and all Universities and departments will have a procedure for dealing with it.  Thus I would encourage all new PhDs to actively seek this information out when they start. This is not a doomsday prediction that everything will go wrong, as I am sure that for the majority of PhDs the relationships with their supervisors are perfectly workable. However, it is always worth being aware of what the policies are just in case. In many departments the impetus to request a divorce will have to come from you and so you will need to be prepared.

Be persistent and record everything …

I followed my department’s procedures and repeatedly documented my concerns on bi-annual progress reviews and in emails to the member of academic staff responsible for PhD students.  However, initially I did get told that it wasn’t anything too important. This is not because they didn’t believe I had an issue. I think it related more to the fact that a number of students whinge because doing a PhD is hard work and some just want to find a way out.

If you have a genuine problem (and they will be able to spot the difference) keep going back to them, make sure they know and record by email etc what you said to whom and when so there is a paper trail of concerns if everything explodes. Talk to your head of department, or go further if needed, especially if you are a funded student. The last thing they will want is for you to leave.

Talk to your second supervisor / another member of staff …

The nature of PhD supervision in my university meant that every student had a primary and secondary supervisor. The secondary supervisor was there to provide a third eye if you like, to cover when the first supervisor was away and of course to assist with problems like this. They can assist you in taking the right steps for you and I assure you from personal experience they will not let you quit!

My second supervisor knew there were issues but not quite the extent of the problem till we passed the point of no return. I had tried to deal with everything myself and that had caused me far more stress. Fortunately they were happy to take over and deal with the monumental task of getting me back in shape to finish and submit. It took 10 months to get the thesis ready for submission and 12 months in total from meltdown to viva. Quite frankly my second supervisor deserves a medal for what they had to deal with, the tears, the complete lack of confidence and the continual desire to give up but I did it and am very proud of the final volume.

Once it’s all signed sealed and delivered – COMPLAIN …

The impetus for a supervisory change generally has to come from the student. Even if you suspect your supervisor isn’t very happy with the situation either you will probably be the one who has to instigate the change and that can be difficult and make you feel that you are out on a limb and you may not want to draw further attention to yourself. However, once you have your doctorate then complain, it’s the only way you can make changes.

See your Head of Department, write to the head of the PhD Board of Studies, make sure they know what you went through, why it was not resolved earlier etc. If they don’t know they can’t change things and anything you do may ensure someone else doesn’t go through the same thing.

Don’t Quit …

It’s easy to say but don’t. You will regret it. Maybe not now or next month but in year or two from now you will. You’ve dedicated a huge part of your life to undertaking this research you owe it to yourself, to everyone you interviewed etc to finish it and submit.

Discussing the breakdown in the student / supervisor relationship seems to be one of the last taboos in academia and we have to do more to get students to talk about their experiences and enable them to feel they can request a change without being branded a ‘troublemaker’. You won’t get on with everyone you meet and yes, many students blame their supervisors for problems that are their own fault, but sometimes when two people don’t see eye to eye it is better for both to acknowledge the problem and agree to disagree and move on.

To successfully defend a PhD it has to represent you and your beliefs and ideas. At the department / university level there needs to be more support and procedures to spot the early warning signs so these relationships don’t reach crisis point and also enable another member of staff to step in and pull the student out if necessary.

For all those reading this currently going through the same problem you can get it sorted. I experienced some of the best supervision ever in the last ten months of my PhD and that will outlast any memories I have of the bad.

Related Posts

The ‘it’s time’ talk

5 ways to make your supervisor happy

How to fail your PhD

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47 thoughts on “How to tell your supervisor you want a divorce

  1. M-H says:

    This is such excellent advice. There is very little written abut this, and most institutions find it really difficult to talk about, let alone to deal with, as Sarah-Louise says. The key thing, I reckon, is to keep a paper trail about anything that doesn’t feel right. You never know when you will need it, and if you don’t need it there’s no harm done.

    • ingermewburn says:

      So true – students always look at me weirdly when I start going on about the importance of keeping a paper diary and recording every phone call and meeting. Maybe I expect the worst, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

      • Yungai says:

        We often get told in our kids’ homework that they shulod read for x amount of minutes every night. I admit, I have never looked at the clock and told them to stop. They just read until they felt it was enuough now I struggle to put their lights out at night because they are reading and lost in the book, not wanting the adventure to end.

  2. ehsan says:

    Nice post!

    and this is to Inger:
    what is this “automatically generated related posts”?
    ” -Welcome to the Single Ladies Adventure Club!
    -Seventh Divorce For Larry King”

  3. Anthea says:

    Excellent advice. I think that its important to talk about it since as you say it’s something that no-one wants to talk about despite the fact that its known to occur far more frequently than people want to admit.

  4. jane says:

    My university regulations state that once you have submitted your thesis any problems with supervision cannot be used in an appeal against the examiner’s decision. Therefore it is good advice to read the regulations – if you have problems with supervision, don’t leave it til after you have submitted the thesis to complain about it, do it while there is still time for changes in supervision to be made and to be of some use to you in completing successfully. (I am currently in dispute with the university – my appeal against the examiner’s decision has been turned down, and am going back to the lawyer tomorrow to plan the next step – it does happen!)

  5. Areli says:

    Thanks for this very useful post. I am (for a long time now) in situation like this. The problem that I have found constantly is that I have tried to talk about this with too many people at the University already but no one seems to be ready to help in a more “active” manner. The response is always: “It’s too late for changing supervision”. I have been having this problem for the last couple of years at least, which ironically has dragged my candidature to the 5th year… Exhausting! I feel like I’m on my own and many times have been so close to give up… But today I feel a bit more motivated thanks to this post!! 🙂

  6. Bishan says:

    This is such an excellent post, as other readers have commented – one that is very rarely talked about in official terms. Ironically this is one the biggest issues for a large number of PhD students – myself included.

    I feel my situation is so complicated because I know that my main supervisor is deep down a decent person, and has helped me a lot in the past. However, our styles of communication and collaboration (or lack thereof) have never been very compatible from the beginning. This was fine for the data collection stages where I was carrying out the work quite autonomously, however, later on when it has come to what I need most help with, scientific writing, I have really run into problems.

    I am quite proud of myself for weathering the storm thus far, but it hasn’t been pleasant or easy because most of the power lies in the hands of the supervisor and the university rather than the PhD candidate when it comes to conflict.

    My teaching and learning style is to discuss things with people in an open way and this is a value that hasn’t seem to have been shared. Also there have been some incidents that have occurred over the years where I have been deeply hurt by my supervisor, and to this day I do not think he is aware of them because it is virtually impossible for me to have dialogue with him about social and emotional issues – which I believe are so vital to any relationship – even academic relationship.

    As much as I have tried be objective and detached about these things, some of these bad feeling have really lead to slower progress. It is very difficult to prove these things, or even know oneself, but my only hunch is that I know how effective I work in an appreciated, empowered and supported environment – which are for me key elements of the education process.

    As a result of these conflicts and my own issues and obstacles I have been making very slow project and getting extension to write up my Thesis (now in my 5th year, part time for the last bit). It really looks like I’m slow and lazy on the surface which I feel very frustrated and angry at because I have really put my heart and soul into this project, and I also feel very isolated because out of respect for my supervisors I haven’t really spoken to anyone about this apart from the student counsellor.

    This article, and the one that lead me here ( have been the first articles that had given me a feeling of community in the problems I have been struggling with. Most people who I speak to who are doing PhDs empathise with the standard miserable aspects of doing a PhD (eg Mountainous task ahead, getting over procrastination, lack of confidence etc) but then they come out with a closing statement like “Oh, but I have such a wonderful supervisor.. If it wasn’t for them I would have quit a long time ago – they just come to me every day and say don’t worry, your doing fine” etc or something like that – and it like sends a dagger through my heart, and leaves me feeling even more isolated, for I cannot relate to this experience.

    As it stands my PhD is so unusual because I worked off-campus for 3-4 years in data collection and I have been estranged from my university so I haven’t followed the advice of the author of this article in doing everything by the book and recording it (ie record everything – well I have recorded all my meetings etc, but I never really complained much because my supervisors were all I had before I developed a relationship with my supervisors).

    Also PhD is a strange chestnut – you don’t really know what you’re rights are. For example the data that I have collected was only really possible because of my supervisors – so I am genuinely grateful for their input in that. However, my current difficulties and their current hands off approach with communication really are not working for me and I’m not sure what to do. I am thinking of changing the discipline that I want to write for which is why i really need to have some serious strategic discussions with my supervisors, and I am afraid to because of the tenuous relationship we have, and the knowledge that they probably won’t like the idea of the thesis changing. On the other hand I am afraid of talking to the course convener, because they go on what the supervisors say – and also I don’t real want to “rat” on my supervisors because there is much I am also grateful about – so I really feel caught between a rock and a hard place?

    Personally i’d rather resolve conflict than escalate it. All I want is to be able to have an open and fair discussion with my supervisors and created a joint vision of me finishing my thesis in the way that I feel that is best, doing it the way that I think is possible. The only way I can see that happening in my own experience of the situation is to have a skilled and impartial mediator present so that I can fully express my needs.

    I wonder if anyone in this forum has ever felt in a similar position or has anyone had any experience of mediation in to resolve conflict with your supervisor?

    Thank you again for the comforting article and opportunity to share things that have been troubling me for quite some time.

    Kind regards

    Ps I really hope my supervisors are not reading this. (I’m sure that there are many who read this post would like to talk about their issues but don’t want to because the topic is so sensitive to write about) – nevertheless I write in good faith, and I’ve come so far now, part of me hopes they actually would end up reading this – I actually don’t want a divorce – I want a good workable relationship – I just wonder if it is possible as it take two to tango if you know what I mean!?

    • ingermewburn says:

      Hi Bishan – thanks for sharing your story. It takes a lot of courage to write it.

      I wish I could say I have never heard it before… On the positive side, I can say that mediation can be quite a successful strategy, so I think you are on the right track. Often students are sent to the counseling service, when really the problem is more like a workplace dispute than a psychological one. The difficulty is finding a person with the right skills and position within the university – someone who isn’t compromised one way or the other. If you have a school of graduate research or similar that might be a good place to start making inquiries, as Sarah points out.

      The key issue is scholarly independence – the aim of the research degree is to foster this ability. Clear communication and an open hearted approach to supervision is the only way it can happen – but it’s incredibly difficult. Now I am on the other side of the fence I realise how hard – especially when I see a student going in what I think is the wrong direction. All I can encourage you to do is stay professional and be clear about what you want – but be prepared to negotiate. Remember the PhD is a gateway and you might have to bend a bit to get through it.

      I hope this helps – keep reading because the wisdom of others who participate in these comments threads is amazing.

  7. Alfred Neuman says:

    Hi Sarah, thankyou so much for writing this article. I have read it again and again over the past few weeks and it helped me make my final decision to switch. Most people I talked to on faculty tended to oppose the switch, for a variety of (valid) reasons. I got the feeling that they just didn’t want to deal with it. But after much deliberation, it was apparent to me that the reasons for switching actually outweighed the reasons for not. This statement is extremely true: “The impetus for a supervisory change generally has to come from the student.” At the end of the day, it’s YOUR PhD.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, sometimes the situation of changing supervisor will make your life like hell. I had the problem and I believe that there was something wrong with my supervisor but no one in the department even wanted to talk with me and I do not know how they knew about my problem and they did not give a tiny miny, very little chance to me that may be it is not my mistake (or mostly), and they make an excuse and telling me that they may face my supervisor latter and it is not good to steal students. And when my department graduate coordinator heard about it he put me on hold from registration without even talking with me and hearing my voice and they said that you should work with your supervisor or you should change your department or your university. Now I have no hope about my future and what may happen to me. they sabotage my works and my future and right now I am on probation because I just said that I cannot work with my supervisor.

  9. Shawna Rae says:

    When you live with the growing feeling that you want to divorce your supervisor and balancing your academic independence is a tricky job! The main thing to do, so that you don;t go through the 3 years of HELL I just had, is to ask yourself this question first thing in the morning, “Can I work another 365 day year with this person?”-write it down the night before so it is the first thing you see in the morning. If when you are thinking of the answer you start having a panic attack, it is time for a split.

  10. Andrew says:

    Thank you for raising this topic and providing advice for people unfortunate enough to find themselves in this unenviable situation. I will share my own story in the hope it will bring solace to others and spur them on to take action.

    Till recently I was quite miserable at the prospect of having to endure “supervision” by an academic who stifled my creativity, was constantly patronising, arrogant and dismissive of ideas that they didn’t understand. My self-esteem plummeted and I almost began to doubt my intelligence and worth as a student

    I approached the senior academic in my faculty and expressed my concerns and they were met with indifference. The professor admitted that they could easily take over as my supervisor but doing so would mean hurting the feelings of the lecturer in question!

    Imagine, the priority concern was not over my welfare as a student or the success of my degree but the potential wounded pride of a colleague. Instead, they advised me to essentially “man up” and make the best of the situation. Very helpful.

    A climate of zero communication developed between myself and the supervisor. What’s the point of seeking guidance from someone who you have no confidence in and who has it made clear that they have contempt for your ideas and methods?

    Eventually I managed to find a sympathetic ear within the faculty and a surprisingly painless “divorce” was granted. I now feel so much happier and optimistic about my dissertation. The Moral from this episode is to fight your corner and be persistent. If you have doubts in the ability of your supervisor to provide the guidance required for a good grade and a dissertation that you’ll look back at with pride, don’t be afraid to speak up and demand a replacement.

  11. Yu says:

    Hello to everyone!
    I would like to share my story. I won a very good scholarship and I enrolled almost one year ago. At the beginning my supervisor was so supportive (in supporting my candidature). Once I was in, the first three months he gave me time to read and I thought ok we do not meet up that often since I do not have anything to say.. then it started happening that my second supervisor gave me better directions. If I am progressing so far it is thanks to her. My supervisor is a nice person, genuine and I do not have anything against him. However I do feel he is not good at managing my PhD! I mean If we have to be independent researcher what’s the point of having a supervisor?
    Doing a PhD is also a process in which we learn and we need to be guided.
    I have an independent nature so I do not even like to be told all the time what to do but at the same time I do feel that it is important to be put on the right path and not in a labyrinth.
    Since I did not feel supported by him I started networking. I found a lot of external ppl ( out of the uni) who gave me motivation and they were interested in my research!
    My supervisor looks as if he does not really care about my efforts. he thinks it is not worth!
    Although I was offered good things from other people!
    I was so upset.. but then I went to a seminar where there was a professor who said that he used to change university every 5 years. He does not work within the same team for more than 5 – 6 years.
    This professor was the head of a department.
    He said that it is not worth to work with ppl who do not show the same passion. he underlined the importance of networking outside of the university (so it is not a waste of time or time consuming like my supervisor told me). Since if u find ppl who share ur same passion u feel stronger and more motivated!
    I thought: ‘ this person is so right!’
    therefore I decided to write to the head of department! I still have to speak with this person and I do not know what it is going to happen. What I know it is that I do not want to await again..
    since I was thinking : “ ok maybe it is going to be better,,, ok it is going to be better.. ‘ but it did not work!
    so although I feel scared and that maybe I am wrong …I feel that my passion for my project will lead me to ‘ get rid’ of ppl who are not interested in my project. It is not important that the supervisor knows about ur topic, but she/he has to be interested in being a guide, a mentor, an inspiration.
    I am an international student and I feel that if we come so far away it is our right to request this otherwise why should we have an international experience if this turns to be a nightmare?!
    Thanks from a european student!
    I have been awaited for so long I feel that it is time to take action!

    • Anon says:

      Thanks Yu- this is my situation – my supervisor is nice & genuine but not helping manage my PhD.
      Maybe I should just network more outside my Faculty and get the support I need. I’m too scared to divorce my supervisor because I don’t want to offend anyone.

  12. Business school academic says:

    I can see both sides of this story. I had a supervisory experience which was not helpful, but I was mature age and had the confidence to approach others, explain the problem, without accusations or blame, found new supervisors and moved on to complete.
    On the other side, as a supervisor I have co-supervised students where I didn’t feel comfortable with the other supervisor’s advice and dealt with that by discussing the issue with the other supervisor privately before discussing with the student. I have also been in situations where I question the student’s capacity to complete for a whole range of reasons. In some cases I have removed myself from the arrangement, after finding someone else to supervise whose interests and strengths are better aligned with what the student needs. In some cases I have set deadlines to produce something and flagged my concerns in annual reviews as a prompt for the ‘difficult’ discussion. In other cases the student has bailed out themselves and that’s fine with me. I just hope they don’t wait 3 years before they do it 🙂 because that is an abject waste of my time and investment. Supervision is a long and often painful journey on both sides. It’s a balancing act between allowing students to make mistakes and go down pathways that won’t work to develop their skills and to learn, and stepping in and providing direction, which can be interpreted as controlling. There is no one best way. We are all different and both sides need to engage in open and honest discussion for the process to work.

    • Mutiara says:

      Your list looks great! I really want to read The Night Circus and The Pledge. I hope you are able to bancale it all and enjoy your books! Have a great week

  13. Anon says:

    Great article! I’ve found my own experience to be rather traumatic too. I’m really fortunate the university supports me in getting out of a bullying situation. I have kept a solid paper trail that highlights my primary supervisor refused to adhere to meeting schedules (we had a total of 3 meetings in over 18 months, and the first meeting took place 7 months after our agreed plan). I also recorded two of the three meetings with my primary supervisor. The last meeting she said that she will never tolerate any of her students putting self-care before their phd- despite having a medical certificate indicating I have a health issue. Of course, she has tried to deny this, but the recording says otherwise. It’s totally undermined my confidence, and I’ve lost 7 months of Phd time due to my supervisors being unapproachable, and unavailable. On top of that my supervisors have not heard anything I have said, and send totally out of line emails in response to phd procedures. It’s been a seriously crap year and I miss my two supervisors who sadly resigned!

  14. Fernanda says:

    Oh my goodness read The Night Circus if you do noihntg else! It is literally my favourite book and the best one I’ve read in years and years and I keep pushing it on everybody I know! :-p Good luck with your reading and thanks for stopping by my blog and signing up for ReaditSwapit (it’s awesome!)

  15. Sandra Louise Weller says:

    What do I do if the problem is my associate supervisor? Mine is very nice, but over the past 12 months has become less and less effective when it comes to reviewing my writing. I send stuff to them, and they seem to take forever to respond, usually with some excuse of teaching load, having to do marking or whatever. However, I have recently become aware that they are under great pressure to take a redundancy. I am worried that they are using their position as my associate to argue against this, while simultaneously dragging the chain when it comes to giving me feedback. What to do???

  16. sara says:

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  17. Shifu says:

    Hi, I am first year PhD student. I am already in the 9the month of my PhD but I am not satisfied with this work. Although the topic is very interesting for me, I realize that people in my research group including my supervisor have not much experience about it. They have theoretical knowledge only and that too is not very good to guide me. When I give some suggestion they say ok and then later deny everything. After reading literature about how to conduct the experiment, if I point out that the experiment is not correct they say ok but we dont have the other chemicals. They ask me to find new experimental procedures and ideas and then say may be we do all this later. I have spent 9 months with just one experiment, which is still incomplete. I finished my samples in April and till now they have not given me analysis results (the lab technician uses the most advanced machines and we are not allowed to use it right now). The PhD topic is also not very well structured, when I try to give some ideas they say yes and then say we might do it later and it is not very interesting for us. However, my supervisor is a nice person.
    The main issue now is that I also got admission in another University in Netherlands in collaboration with the food and agriculture authority of IRELAND. That topic is very interesting and is very popular right now but I don’t have much experience with it. The positive point is that this PhD work is very well defined with goals and timelines. It is well structured.
    I would like to ask you, please advice me if I should leave the work here to join the other PhD or it would be a bad idea.

    Please help.

  18. KS says:

    Great to read your blog. I am currently a PhD student and really need every moment to change supervisor. Unfortunately, he does not satisfy even I got evidence that he cheated my bench fee. He said that I will ruin his record of being a good supervisor. Instead, he put something on the manuscript for publication and it was not relevant to the result and that made the reviewers gave comment as ‘major correction’. I am really upset and distress at this moment. Anyone can provide any suggestion?

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