Elephants never forget, sadly most PhDs are not supervised by elephants! How to deal with forgetful supervisors

We’ve all been there; walked into our supervisor’s office and they look at you perplexed, or enter into some kind of weird conversation and then look blank when you sit down because they have completely forgotten your meeting.

I’ve heard of more extreme cases which include the supervisor having to be reminded of the thesis topic at every meeting, even after submission! At the same time I remember seeing supervisor number two in the college coffee bar and sending her into a blind panic thinking she had forgotten a meeting (she hadn’t). We are all human, we all forget from time to time so here is my strategy for helping you help them to remember and stop yourself from having a nervous breakdown at the same time.

Keep emails succinct and to the point

Supervisor number two used to show me the hundreds she got on a daily basis. With that number it is no surprise most are skim read and sadly, that can lead to no end of problems. Try to be as succinct as possible when you email your supervisor. Use bullet points, or alternatively, number each point so they can reply to each in turn.

There are two schools of thought on ‘quantity’ of emails. Either send them one long one with everything you want to say in it or send them by topic. I’ve experienced people who prefer both so there is no hard and fast rule, my inbox today proves it. I have 8 emails from my supervisor all on different topics all sent within minutes of each other! You’ll soon be able to see what your supervisor responds best to or what annoys them and work with that.

When you have a meeting set an agenda … Always set an agenda prior to turning up to a meeting. This helps both you and your supervisor cover the topics / issues you need to discuss, go through them one by one and tick them off as you do so. This means if you do go off topic, and you probably will you can bring it back to the issue at hand easily. This makes supervision sessions more productive in my experience and also stops the ‘oh I wish I’d asked about xyz’ feeling ten minutes after you leave.

After the meeting send them an email

This is particularly important if you have agreed a certain course of action and if the supervisor needs to do something by a certain date. Make sure you outline what you agreed, who is going to do what by when etc. A PhD is a partnership; you need to do your bit as well. This should help both of you clarify what you are doing to move forward.

Set realistic deadlines

This is as important for them as it is for you. As I keep saying it is a partnership and so you both need to meet the goals you set yourselves but be realistic, sometimes life will get in the way, for both of you so the key is to keep each other informed and to change meeting dates or whatever if you need more time.

It is better to take more time and have a productive discussion over a piece of writing that is sub-standard. At the same time they need to be honest with you when they can realistically do things. If you know your supervisor is forgetful or swamped, take their proposed deadline and suggest one that is a week or so on from that. Make sure you can work within that framework but allows them slippage.

Remind them, politely if they don’t do something

You won’t be the only student that your supervisor is dealing with so, as my supervisor suggested in my previous post, it is perfectly acceptable to remind them, politely. It took me ages to actually get into the habit of doing this; I thought I was being rude however; waiting for work to be returned for 6 months is not acceptable. Make sure you give them plenty of time to do whatever it is you need especially if the request is for references. It is your PhD, you need to drive the process.

Make sure you know when they are away … This proved particularly important for me. So make sure you know when they are away, that everything you need has been done before hand and also agree what you should do if something crops up during their period of absence. Seems pretty obvious but it’s amazing the number of PhDs I’ve seen wandering around looking for supervisors who weren’t even in the country, let alone the department.

If you are coming in for a meeting make sure you have something else to do

I lived about an hour by train from my campus and remember how I felt when I had arranged a meeting with supervisor number one and came in specially only to be told he no longer had time. It is fair to say the air went blue. From this point on I always made sure I had several things to do when I came in and sent email or text message reminders of meeting dates to make sure they were ok.

Be visible

Make sure you are ‘seen’ around your department, it is surprising how chatting to another member of staff in the coffee line can lead to them saying to your supervisor I saw so and so and reminding them you are around! Visual stimuli come in all shapes and sizes

If it is causing you stress talk to them

If it is making your working life difficult then talk to them about it. A good supervisor will understand your concerns and should adjust accordingly, especially if you meet every one of their targets, requests etc. You can do it politely by saying what you need / want to achieve in a certain time and that it requires then to do X by Y or just be direct and say your forgetfulness is not helpful to me what can we do to change things. They may be aware of their shortcomings and be able to suggest things you or they can do to remedy it.

The key is communication, don’t let this get out of hand as forgetfulness can easily grow from a mild irritant, to you suddenly requiring my divorce article!

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8 thoughts on “Elephants never forget, sadly most PhDs are not supervised by elephants! How to deal with forgetful supervisors

  1. Jonny McCormick says:

    Brilliant post. I’m just getting to grips with most of this stuff. Definitely a bit a of learning curve to go through to try and work out the dynamics of the supervisory relationship.

  2. Aaron Houssian says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the email advice, keep it short. Long emails will not be read. For almost a whole year I didn’t send post-meeting emails or if I did they were late (a week later) and therefore of low quality.
    I can’t say how much my research and my relationship with my advisors has improved since I started doing this.
    I send a summary of the meeting, what was agreed, and highlight action points for people at the start, usually in bullet points. I try to set due dates for specific actions if there are any.

    Absolutely always remember the quote under reminders “It is your PhD, you need to drive the process.” During my first year I didn’t really fully get this. I looked very often to my advisors to help drive, and it just didn’t work.

    One thing that was missing was this: Set the time for your next meeting (or two!) before you leave the meeting. If your advisor(s) are anything like mine then their schedules are PACKED, get them in there when you see them, scheduling with their secretary can be problematic (especially if you have more than one advisor).

    • Sarah-Louise Quinnell says:

      My only concern about setting times for the next meeting or two in advance is that in my experience they never happen on those days as things get moved due to schedules and deadlines etc so it all becomes a bit pointless

  3. Karenmca says:

    Also, be warned – my supervisor was brilliant throughout the whole research stage, but when it came to writing up, I think I underestimated just how busy they were and how long it might take to read a chapter/part of a chapter. I’m not sure what advice to offer, except to factor in extra time and be prepared to send gentle reminders as necessary.

    Someone advised me that they used to contact their supervisor’s SPOUSE (yes!) if they were really tardy, but I simply couldn’t have brought myself to do that.

    Anyway, I submitted on time, so we did – somehow – bring it all together okay.

  4. Fred Theobald says:

    Thanks for this Tamara … I’m being given the run-around by a supervisor at work who keeps “forgetting” meetings he sets for me. Now I’ve got some tools to deal with him! LOL!

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