Truly Bonkers, I’m Starting to Think You’re Truly Bonkers .. Early Warning Signs Your Supervisor is a Loon

This is a post from our regular “Supervision Correspondent” Dr Sarah Louise Quinell. Sarah is now the managing editor of The Networked Researcher a blog supporting & promoting social media for research & researcher development.

Firstly, all academics are a little bit eccentric, even if they don’t like to admit it. You have to be really – for working in an incredibly pressurised environment where you get very little recognition, unless you make a mistake. Having to publish or perish, teach, supervise, get grants etc and continually have to find creative ways to save money… it is enough to drive anyone over the edge.

However, there is good crazy and bad crazy. When you undertake a PhD you spend a great deal of time with one, maybe two people as your supervisors. You learn all about your supervisors own particular brand of crazy and they, in turn, will get to know all about yours. There are times though, when their crazy can be a cause for concern. Here’s five ways to spot the kind of crazy that might endanger your studies (and your sanity!):

Is your supervisor a control freak?

Does your supervisor like to micro-manage? In the natural / hard sciences this is the norm, i.e. you are working on your supervisor’s project and you do what they want. In the social sciences (where I come from) there is a greater degree of freedom.  You are more likely to be working on something you came up with on your own.  But for all students some degree of autonomy and independence from the supervisor is important; after all you are meant to be making an  “original contribution to knowledge”. You can’t do this without being allowed to work and think on your own – at least some of the time.

There are some supervisors who don’t understand that this is your PhD, your work, and that it has to be yours to defend through the examination process. To do this successfully you need to feel you own it. While supervisors have a great deal of experience in how to write a thesis, what makes a good thesis etc, some seem to get confused over this issue of ownership.

I had this problem to a certain extent. My original supervisor micro-managed everything, down to the last paragraph; it was incredibly stressful and frustrating. If you experience this behaviour, and it appears not to be compatible with your way of working, maybe you should consider working with someone else.

Does your supervisor criticise you in public?

Have you presented at a conference and suddenly heard a snide remark from the back only to find it’s your supervisor? Believe me this happens! I’ve seen it and I’ve seen the poor students try to defend themselves and been totally lost. This is not best practice, have a word. Better still, show them the door.

Does your supervisor discuss their family planning issues in front of you?

I remember my friend’s face as if it were yesterday, after a rather awkward moment in a chemist when their supervisors announced condoms were useless! This sounds funny but, for both of you, it’s best to try and keep a vaguely professional relationship until after you finish.

It’s the responsibility of both parties to make the relationship professional, but since there is an uneven power relationship between you and your supervisor,  who is notionally your teacher, it can be hard  sometimes to assert yourself.

Some students are happy going to their supervisor’s house, baby sitting their kids, picking up the dry cleaning and so on – but others do it under sufferance because they are too scared to say no. If your supervisor doesn’t seem to be taking the hint you are uncomfortable with the level of intimacy they are offering , you will need to think carefully about whether you can work with them all the way to the end because…

Phoning at 2am is not normal… for either of you!

It really isn’t. It does happen though and it’s a sign that both of you have let the  professional boundaries slip a bit too much. Do think carefully before exchanging mobile phone numbers – this increases the likelihood that the relationship will escape the bounds of normal working hours.

The problem is, the further along in the process the more stressed you get, the more you are likely to text them at 9pm. I did – particularly to adopted supervisor in the final year. I was lucky, mine always phoned me back; others, particularly those who don’t have teenage children, may not be so accommodating.

Has your supervisor ever made you cry?

If the answer to this is “yes”, you probably need to remove yourself from that relationship forthwith. Original supervisor (must find a better way of differentiating the two) made me cry the first time I met them and then look how that ended up.

As I said at the start of this piece you will learn about your supervisor’s crazy, they will learn about yours, they will probably end up knowing you better than you do yourself and vice versa. Good humour is a pre-requisite for a good relationship, but when the crazy makes things difficult then it’s time to re-think your way forward. These observations about crazy supervisors could easily be turned around and used to describe crazy students – they are out there. If you are reading this post and recognising any of this behaviour in someone you are working with it’s time to have that difficult talk.

How about you – have you encountered ‘bad crazy’ in your travels through academia? How did you recognise it and what did you do?

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20 thoughts on “Truly Bonkers, I’m Starting to Think You’re Truly Bonkers .. Early Warning Signs Your Supervisor is a Loon

  1. ailsa says:

    I am truly blessed to have a supervisor who believes not a single clever mind should be wasted.
    When we talk at 1.00am it’s because we both happen to have ICQ open suggesting we are available…and there’s a time difference making it seem more reasonable in Aus than NZ. I get put up when i visit, airport pickups and drop offs included. And i was taught how to bake bread…I hold on to this as something immensely tangible in the intangible world of phd writing in progress.
    I suggest checking out supervisors philosophies on learning b4 u get too deep.
    I enjoy the irreverant humour that is often turned on academia also.
    It really isn’t a requirement that the relationship be difficult, it really can be a delight.
    I have amazing things said of me, to me, written about me (that Im not totally sure i am deserving of).
    I think there’s a lot to be learned about how to supervise, but being positive makes it more likely i will share my work, and that i will write more, that I will share my thinking even when its a bit raw and be prepared to stretch it beyond comfort levels.

  2. Jen says:

    sounds familiar… not my current supervisor, but someone whom I initially wanted to be my supervisor… but then I noticed the signs because I did some work for said supervisor. When I told the supervisor I didn’t want to be supervised by said person, it didn’t end pleasantly. Burnt bridges, nasty business really…;;^^

      • Jen says:

        So true… but sometimes it is a bit difficult when we are still in one organization. 😛 Although in my case, I managed to notice the signs before I started. It is probably worse of to have started and then burn the bridge… Great article BTW, I pressed enter too early in my first comment. I think sometimes people need to see that it is not them being overly sensitive…just that their supervisor is indeed a bit loony. 🙂

  3. Jess Drake says:

    Awesome post as usual, Sarah. There is some good crazyness there. I thought I was the only person in the universe that had their supervisor talk to them about Family Planning issues… I feel somewhat more normal now.

    • sarahlouq says:

      I’m starting to become concerned at the number of supervisors who think discussing their ‘reproductive activity’ shall we call it with students is normal.

      Thank you

  4. Natalie says:

    I have a “good crazy” supervisor, but I have learnt to deal with him now. A friend from the department made a comment the other day that I think describes my supervisor perfectly. She said that he was like Centrelink, ‘long queues to get a meeting and every time you call you get a different answer’. I thought this was hilarious, and so true. It was really hard to get use to it in the beginning, but I (think) I’m ok now.

  5. LB says:

    Four years in and about to submit, and part of me wishes I’d seen this article or something like it back when I was just starting out. I have two mad supervisors – one’s good-crazy, the other one is more a bad-crazy, has-made-me-cry-before micro-managing supervisor. It’s a tricky situation because I was part of the bad-crazy supervisor’s project, so dropping her would’ve meant starting a totally new project, trying to find participants, get funding, etc. Starting out my PhD and not knowing any different, I assumed that being treated like a worthless minion was just part of the process. It was only when I was well into things, and had talked to a few people about the situation, that I realised that this type of supervision relationship was not the norm.

    In the end I stuck it out. In a way I think it was worth it because it’s the things I’ve learned that aren’t in my thesis write-up – i.e. how to work with someone who lacks basic communication, organisational, and management skills, and still keep my sanity intact – that I will have with me for the rest of my life. I got through the situation with the support of fellow students and colleagues (some survived her, some didn’t), and my good-crazy supervisor. It also helped remembering it was only temporary, and weighing up the pros of working with this person (a leader in their area, access to resources and data and contacts in the field).

  6. M-H says:

    About 15 years ago I enrolled for an MPhil (in another country) and had the supervisor from hell. She was the head and only academic in a fledgling department at the time, and the whole Uni was in turmoil over a reorganisation. I wasn’t even sure who I should talk to, and the obvious person, the head of school, was an acting appointment and wasn’t someone I trusted anyway.

    She tried to change the way I was thinking about my project by bullying and demeaning me. She micromanaged. She never read or commented on anything I sent her, and just wanted to talk vaguely at meetings. She forced me to submit before I was ready by telling me that the regulations said I had to – this was untrue and I was culpable here for not checking or getting advice from admin, but frankly I just wanted to get out of the situation. Even the submission was fraught – I had already submitted an MA thesis and knew the procedure; she didn’t (she was new to the Uni) and she argued with me about how it was to be done. At that point I literally walked away, with her screaming down the corridor at me.

    After I’d received my results (disappointing, of course), two things happened: I accidentally met someone (through an internet forum) who had heard her speak at an international conference, where she demeaned my work in public behind my back. And, about ten years later, she died at the age of 56 of a neurological syndrome usually only seen in elderly alcoholics.

    This is an extreme example, and looking back there were so many warning signals, and so many things I *should* have done. There were bad boundaries (on both sides), and, now I know, she was probably completely unsuited to either supervision or academic management. I’ve owned my own lack of courage, and chalk it up to experience.

  7. Elaine says:

    I sometimes think that if I had had a different supervisor, I might have achieved my PhD, instead of dropping out of university when my funding ended because I was nowhere near even gaining an MLitt. My supervisor only took people on because it meant funding points and improved her standing in the department – we usually met only twice a term, because that was the required minimum contact. When I told her I was having problems with my work and felt I wasn’t up to it, she recommended I talk to a fellow student, rather than to her. When I asked if we could meet more regularly (and therefore if I could submit work more often), she made a face and said she didn’t think I’d like that. . . I ended up being transferred to another supervisor in my third year, and it certainly made a difference in terms of my work, but it was too little too late. I know that in the end it was my own fault that I didn’t get a doctorate, but my supervisor was certainly no help to me at any stage of the two years she was supposed to be supervising me.

    I work in an academic department now, in an administrative post, and I envy our postgraduates so much! Their supervisors are genuinely and actively interested in their work, and in encouraging them at all stages.

      • mercuriahibernica says:

        Well, it’s fifteen years since I gave up my studies, so things have probably moved on a bit since then! And real life got in the way over the years. If I were in a better position financially I might consider it, just for the love of study, but it’s unlikely at this stage. . .:-)

        I threw out most of my research around eight years ago, but held onto some seminar papers I’d written (occasionally I read them and think, “Wow, I knew all this stuff?!”) as well as my textbooks, so at least my bookshelves look rather erudite!

  8. Ros says:

    Not only has my supervisor never made me cry, he’s been amazingly kind and supportive when (as has frequently happened), I’ve ended up crying in supervisions. It mostly happens at the point when we stop discussing my work and he (bravely) asks how I am. Life has been hard during the PhD process but my supervisor has never shied away from that and always made it clear that I am more important than the thesis, at the end of the day.

    I would have given up so many times if it weren’t for his support.

  9. says:

    I so wish I’d know the “if he makes you cry, run” earlier..I did cry. a lot. not in front of him (not a lot, I tried to be “professional”) and for a long time I thought it’s me. I did finish with him but I refuse to recommend the Department or my supervisor.

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