How I broke up with my supervisor.

This post, written by a PhD student, who wishes to stay anonymous, was sent to me late last year. Due to my new job, it’s taken me a long time to edit it down and make sure it doesn’t identify the student or their supervisor. I think you will find it an interesting story that highlights the tensions we all experience around the ‘finish at all costs (and on time)’ mentality.

Insitutions are feeling financial pressure to complete candidates within 4 years and put this pressure onto supervisors, who then pressure students. But social media, by connecting students with each other, is giving some the courage to push back against this pressure. Supervisors might feel they are doing their best for a student by behaving as described in this post, but are they really? I’ll be interested to hear what you think in the comments.

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 3.13.39 PMI’m a compliant, goody-two-shoes, really. I tried hard to follow my supervisor’s guidance and instruction and respect her authority, but her approach led me to where I was unable to function or make progress. After seeing the student counsellor, and getting advice on how to speak in a clear and non-confrontational way, I organised a meeting. I knew I had to take the courage to address what was happening – or in the case of my progress, not happening.

My carefully worded email to my supervisors said I wanted to discuss our processes at the next supervision, and named that I’d been feeling disheartened and shut down, which I was sure was not their intention. Instead of the usually effusive response, the reply was ‘OK’. I cried a lot that week, and could feel myself slipping into the helpless depression that comes from feeling powerless and bullied.

As it happens I was not trying to do anything too radical with my approach to research and writing. I wanted to understand the big picture of my research field, try to learn some theory and apply it appropriately. I wanted to write about my insights on policy and current practice in relation to my topic area, based on published, scholarly literature. Basically I wanted to come out confident I had contributed something to knowledge via my topic, gained valuable skills and expertise, but still have lots more to learn. Personal growth and insight would come in parallel with the academic skills as part of the complex PhD journey.

This was not the paradigm presented to me in, what turned out to be, my final meeting with my now ex-supervisor.

Her vision of what ‘research training’ entails is to stay totally focused on your topic. My summary of her description is this: Don’t talk to anyone, don’t write anything non-academic. The topic is not what is important – all that matters is getting finished and being able then to move on to something interesting and collaborative. If I asked a question, expect to be told to find my own answer. If that answer is wrong, be sent away to come up with another one. Spend months alone with the data, going over and over until eventually a lightbulb moment happens. Don’t go to conferences, they distract you. Exclude everything else from life until it is done, because it is the piece of paper that matters, and opens doors to other opportunities.

This is the way of modern academia. It’s a game, and this is the way to play it successfully. This is how she had been supervised, with a powerful mentor who fast-tracked her to completion and a high position within a short time of arriving at the university.

This reminded me of when, aged 11, I prepared for religious confirmation, and said to my mother that I wasn’t sure if I believed in god or not. ‘Get confirmed first and think about it later’ was her reply. The process, and deep thinking or wide learning were deemed less important than the status at the end. As an 11 year old I saw the inappropriateness of my mother’s advice, but went along with it anyway. I am better now at standing up for what I believe in. (I’m still an atheist.)

In our last supervision session my request to discuss how we worked, my inability to make progress with her way of responding to my work in progress, the tears pouring down my face, were not mentioned. Instead I was given a description of how they all work when writing an article together: ‘this is shit, rewrite it’, no politeness or support, which apparently ends in an article being finished quickly.

The page from Stylish Academic Writing (Sword, 2012) describing what made a good article, which I had sent in the interests of sharing something I was reading, was mocked as being wrong and not in line with current practice. The page from Stylish Academic Writing  (Sword, 2012) describing what made a good article, which I had sent in the interests of sharing something I was reading, was mocked as being wrong and not in line with current practice. If I didn’t like this approach maybe I could go to a different faculty and find a ‘feminist supervisor’, who won’t mind if I take 10 years to complete. This response showed neither an understanding of feminism nor my own intention to complete in a timely manner

The upshot of this meeting was: “No hard feelings, find a supervisor better suited to your style. I’ll sign the paperwork.”

I don’t doubt that this fast track, focus-on-the-task-and-get-finished-approach is common. It suits the hard, vocation-oriented direction universities are taking. They are businesses first, institutes of learning second. It bothers me, though. What kind of scholars is this fast-track paradigm creating? What impact is it having on the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, and the development of creative thinking and opportunities for excellent teachers to pass on thoughtful approaches and considerate practice?

Through social media I have learned that there are alternative ways to approach an idea, learn about a topic, publication and discussion. I know I’m not alone in my desire to learn deeply, to receive thoughtful input, to share ideas and to develop the courage to step out into the field.

Throughout Twitter has been an associate supervisor, guiding me, offering support and encouragement, the latest research about my topic. It’s provided instant community, with a hive mind to answer questions or suggest resources. It has been an important aspect of my candidature to date, and has contributed significantly to the resilience and confidence I feel as I seek a new supervisor to work with IRL to help me get finished in a timely manner, with deep learning along the way. Thanks, everyone!

Postscript 4 December 2012

I wrote the piece above just after the rift with my ex-supervisors happened, when I was full of grief, outrage, and frustration. Since then I have found new supervisors who are determined to keep me focused and finished, but are also open to a diversity of approaches and working in a way that suits me. I had been accepted to present at a conference in November, and nearly withdrew because I was feeling so disheartened, but decided to go, and shake off the previous negativity.

After my presentation I was approached by a respected academic in my field who said she liked my topic, approach, and way of thinking, and was I interested in doing a post-doc? Yes, please! While this was just a casual query, and no concrete offers have been made, as I do have to finish the PhD first, I have been buoyed by this interest and confidence, my work is progressing nicely, and I’m feeling good.

I’m glad to hear it all worked out Anonymous! How about you? Have you found yourself pressured to complete in a way that you think was detrimental to your own development as a researcher and scholar? Or do you think we need to respect the time limits that are set?

129 thoughts on “How I broke up with my supervisor.

  1. Interesting! I was under the impression that everyone likes to complete the Ph.D. as soon as practical, preferably in 2 to 3 years, if one can. Prolonging the research to 4 or 5 or 6 years can create unforeseen challenges, since the science and art advance rapidly, and the work done few years ago becomes antiquated very quickly, sometimes loses the novelty. So from practical standpoint, focusing on the topic and striving to complete the research by working hard and relentlessly (and at the same time maintaining highest standard), seems to be the way to go. Who knows, I may be in minority here…..but I would like to know what others feel.

    Great thought-provoking post! Cheers!

  2. You poor thing! I’m glad to hear that it has all worked out. I’ve had a change of supervisor as my first one left the university, but all that happened was that my co-supervisor picked up the Principal Supervisor role. She has a very different style to the previous supervisor but hopefully we’ll learn to work together. She knows that I’m concerned about the change of style so we’re both feeling our way. Sounds like you got a very extreme alpha-female type, and perhaps she doesn’t have enough experience to be comfortable with multiple paths to completion – just one path and it’s her preferred path. Seems you’re better off in the place you’ve found now.

  3. You have my empathies, I have also had to change supervisor and in part for personality mis-match reasons. It is painful, but also survivable.

  4. Very, very sorry to hear of your experience, Anonymous. The way you were treated was appalling. Sadly, this kind of thing is not uncommon. I’m currently doing a supervision and mentoring course as part of my tertiary teaching certificate and we each had to tell our own supervision stories. Some of the experiences were terrible. I feel very lucky that my own supervisors were exceptional.

  5. Interesting, here it is the inverse! Funding runs out after three years. But many supervisors count on the fact that students stay to finish at least one year more, being “paid” by unemployment aid. I don’t think it is fair that the government is paying for final year PhD students to be exploited as cheap slaves. Because for the supervisors it is benefitial if the PhD students are staying longer. they are then well trained and cheap….
    I feel that in our university in general the supervisors don’t care about the students’ careers and that is not a good thing either.
    I feel lucky that I have found supervisors who pushed me to finish after three years and search a postdoc quickly

  6. Sorry to hear your problem. In my country phd scholarship is given for maximum of 3 years only. We have to work hard to finish it within 3 years and publish in high impact factor journal is one of the requirement. Of course this is not what i prefer but nothing much i can do unless i self support my phd studies 😦

  7. I have a similar problem with my supervisor but for the opposite reason: he is lovely, sweet, and way too kind. I always leave his office feeling buoyed by the nice chat we’ve just had about life, the universe and everything, but then a day or two later it dawns on me i’ve had nothing concrete out of it. I’m never certain whether my work is on the right track or not, because the feedback i get is never specific. Either he doesn’t look at my writing at all, or he’s too polite to give me an honest critique. I think it’s time to have The Talk…

  8. Interesting.
    My problem was I could never get any consistent information from my supervisor. Each meeting would contradict the last. I am about to submit, but it took 6 years to complete; and I put this down to erratic supervision.

    The whole process is unethical, in my opinion. There’s thousands of unwritten rules on doing a Ph.D, which you only find out usually by accident or error along the way.

  9. I too have had many conversations about the loss of “deep learning” lately. I think we lose a lot by shutting down people who may have a slower process, but who bring a different kind of insight to the table. Whether this is done by cutting funding (as some other comments mentioned), or by a more personal kind of bullying, it’s highly problematic if we are truly committed to the pursuit of knowledge, and not just metrics.

    • YES. the funding cutoff in my department is 5 years & if you something happens & you need time off (medical emergency, etc.), you lose ALL funding & support for whatever time you take off. it’s supposed to be an encouragement for people to get out quickly, but it ends up that many fall into a ditch at the end of year 5 when they don’t have any additional funding to finish their journey.

      as for personal bullying, i’m learning that this happens in a lot of places. some are more discreet about it than others, but it still happens.

  10. This is a common problem faced by more or less all PhD students!
    It’s very good of you to mention these after and NOT BEFORE you have completed your Degree.
    Supervisors can make life tough but please do remember that most of the PhD. candidates are now spending thousands of dollars to get a fast track qualification, that would enable them to enter into the job market. Hence as of today PhD qualification in most of the fields is no longer obtained for drawing room discussions. The first and foremost priority is to finish and find a good job.
    I agree with you that the quality of learning and academic exchange may suffer as a result of this business oriented mindset and norm now practiced by more or less all universities around the world.

  11. Dear Anonymous,
    Although I’m not doing a PhD but I can relate to your story. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience with managers who should be in a padded cell. I came across one recently who drove me to resign by email to which she gave a lengthy reply worthy of Tolstoy. Perhaps, I have the advantage of experience to know that the world is full of unpleasant people and I am now philosophical about human nature albeit poverty stricken. You will undoubtedly come across this personality type again and again. To quote Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    • This makes me wonder: what’s worse, the lengthy take-down or the passive-aggressive one or two-word email? I switched supervisor at the end of my first year, a year ago, after my original supervisor went elsewhere. I’ve had two meetings with my new supervisor since then and it’s been the most painful year. One thing that doesn’t help is that his replies to my carefully-worded emails are so crushingly short. I’m hoping to get back on track this year, but I don’t feel like I can depend on him – he just reappeared in the UK after six months away, which he mentioned to me just before leaving, and I’m not sure what his plans are for this year. I sort of wish he hadn’t taken me on if he was planning to be out of the country so much. /angst!

  12. Wow this is more common that I realized. I jumped too. But now I have 2 totally disorganized supervisors (one newbie and one without a PhD themselves) and I am just as stressed – just in a different kind of way. I’m not sure what to do now!!!! Thoughts anyone?

  13. I changed supervisors too! It’s such a tough experience. When I approached my new supervisor, I framed my research project as something I hoped would engage him (as well as being interesting to me). I read ‘how to’ books on writing a dissertation (including ‘How to Tame Your PhD’). I started the new thesis with new topic and finished in 1yr by dropping my ego and treating it like a procedural task. Ironically, by freeing myself of the anxiety of producing something earth-shattering, I ended up really enjoying writing and producing something far more creative, original and genuine than I had in the preceding years feeling bitter with my other supervisor. A fresh start, some maturity, a new perspective and a new relationship can do wonders.

  14. As a history PhD student I have colleagues who are well beyond the expected completion date and are still progressing through their projects. This story is a striking contrast to the stories I hear from them, as their supervisors patiently help them work through their theses. It is clear that the supervisors are keen for them to finish, but are also respectful as to the route taken to get to the finished product.

    I am lucky to have two supervisors who are open to me making my own course in my project, and who encourage me to broaden my scholarship, rather than just focus on the ‘piece of paper’ at the end. Thanks for this story, it is really enlightening!

  15. interesting timing, this. i’m at a private american university & my department is full of folks entering years 7-9. we had a few folks in years 10+, but changes were made so most of those folks were (somewhat quietly) separated. ‘time-to-degree’ is definitely a major factor in decision making around here – five years is the magic number these days. while that’s certainly an attainable goal for many students, getting support around realizing this goal varies depending on who the student is, what the faculty think of that student (on a personal AND academic/professional level), and the general disposition of the specific faculty member. our department has a high imbalance of mentorship because of this – some faculty don’t ever mentor, a few have a kind of distant mentoring style, while the rest are carrying an almost impossible number of students. this latter group is known for being very supportive while also putting on just the right amount of pressure for students to finish quickly. unfortunately, i think they’re too overwhelmed to see any ‘success’ (i.e. 5 yr completions) from that pressure. they’ve definitely stopped taking on new students, meaning those of us who came in/are coming in with the potential to finish within the expected deadline are essentially set up to ‘fail’ that goal.

    i think the concern about all this is driving some additional, equally quiet changes. for example, i was just told early this summer that i need to abandon my research plans or i’ll be asked to leave the department. as it turns out, there are epistemological differences between my interests & what the faculty believes is scholarly (nevermind all the existing literature in multiple fields). they think there is no way i’ll finish in a reasonable amount of time because of the nature of the work i want to do (apparently all truly scholarly work is able to be conducted in a short number of years?) i found all this out just after my (as yet unofficial) chair left for another university. other students in my cohort have expressed concern that they haven’t identified prospective chairs & feel like they are wandering without much direction on their own projects, but at least they haven’t shared any interest in ‘questionable’ approaches. still, what will they do for advising at this crucial juncture in their academic training?

    i have not decided what to do at this point, since i’m not sure whether it’s more feasible it is to redirect my career after getting the phd vs. leave here with the master’s, work a little while, & start anew in another program.

    • I’m very curious to learn what you decided and how you feel about the outcome, as I find myself in a very identical situation to yours. Please let us know, if possible

  16. I know a senior lecturer that had almost completed his PhD in 1999. These days he is ‘half way through his PhD’. Seems if you are part of the inner circle and score a tenured position, then you can take 10, 15 or more years to complete.

    • In Australia the government funds the Uni for 3.5 years full-time equivalent for you. If you take longer, the Uni doesn’t get any more money than if you finished in 3.5 years. And The Uni doesn’t get anything at all until you have finished.

    • In the UK, the Research Councils monitor Universities’ ‘submission rates’ – failing to meet the targets of a certain percentage of funded students submitting ‘on time’ can lead to the institution having funding cut by the Councils. Even non-funded students are counted in the statistics for future funding bids, so it can make a difference to the institution receiving money in the future. There are an increasing number of 3.5 and 4 year-funded PhDs starting to appear here though.

      I do think that Universities/ supervisors need to take responsibility for making sure that PhD projects are manageable within the set time period, and also for providing more encouragement and support for people to do their research part-time over a longer period.

  17. I’m so sorry to hear you had this experience. Here in own department I’ve heard stories about supervisors who won’t ‘allow’ their PhD students to attend conferences, or get involved in undergrad teaching, or participate in departmental research groups. What a miserable blinkered experience that must be. I began my PhD in September 2001 and completed in May 2005 (having taken a couple of months out in the middle when my dad was ill). During those less than four years I paid my way by teaching undergrad tutorials, I presented my work at national and international
    conferences, I contributed a chapter to a book, I ran a seminar series. Oh..and I joined the university musical society and indulged in a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan. Not only did these experiences enrich my time at that institution, but they all helped to shape my dissertation. The questions my undergrads asked forced to me shape my thoughts, presenting at conferences helped me to be succinct in my writing. But most importantly, three conference papers I presented were transformed into three chapters of my dissertation, and were stronger for the feedback I received from the people I met at those conferences.

    A PhD is about so much more than getting a piece of paper at the end.

  18. I experienced something very similar but was unable to change my main supervisor due to funding restrictions. Even worse, my supervisor had a clear dislike to me. At first I was imagining this, but talking to the other research staff and students, found that this really was the case – I was refused department funding for conferences, attending training sessions was a no-go, I wasn’t allowed to take up teaching duties (request forms were rejected) and publications were never signed off for submission to journals (faculty requirement). My male PhD colleagues had the times of their life with quite the reverse situation compared to myself.

    I was even asked to shut down my PhD blog because my supervisor thought it was ‘ruining the reputation of the department’ through my exploration of ideas online (hence still remaining anonymous, even now I’ve left that institution). When I complained to the head of schooI, he told me that they knew of the problem but couldn’t do anything about it because she was on a permanant contract.

    In the end, I got through my 3 years purely by stubborness to prove a point – that I could do a interdisciplinary PhD. I also sought help from other academics in other faculties for comments on my research. Like Anonymous, I was also in Health Sciences and had a female supervisor. I wonder if it’s a Health and Medical Science supervisor thing? Any thoughts?

    • It is always the weak who engages in bullying! I found female supervisors sometimes worse, they try to compete with the males so much that there is no moral left in them and they turn into a bully who knows the tricks very well!
      Glad you got through, you must feel a lot stronger and confident now 😉

      • I had the pleasure of meeting “the weak turned into a bully” many a times in my 15 years of academic career. It usually takes courage and self confidence on the part of the weak and bullied to not turn into a bully themselves.

      • I’m cautious about making judgements such as this about women supervisors – is it more that attributes like assertiveness and directness are seen as more negative in women than in men? Because this is what’s generally concluded by studies on perceptions of women bosses and it seems like similar assumptions could be operating here.

      • But on the more general point about the ‘weak turned bully’ phenomenon, I’ve certainly experienced this in other academic encounters and it was helpful to recognise it as such.

      • @ascientistinred, I certainly do feel stronger and more confident now, though I know it’ll take time to fully get my confidence back.

        @hannkb, I understand (as a female) that being assertive and direct can have more negative connotations with women compared to men. As an ambitious female postdoc, I certainly show all these traits, but I also recognize and understand that regardless of gender, there is a difference between bullying and being assertive. Your PhD supervisor should be supportive of your career, give constructive feedback and encourage your academic endeavors (conference attendance, publications, etc.) regardless of gender.

    • I am in health sciences and have a female supervisor. She took over from the male head of faculty who basically had no time for me. She has been consistent in meeting and giving feedback but I do find that she has a very hard nosed approach and attitude is purely academic and only wants to see results and see me finished and out of her hair in the required time. I started as a part time student and then the faculty moved the goalposts and there are no more part time degrees anymore. I still have the same amount of time left, but I think they had too many people like me taking the maximum time to complete and that affects their limited resources(number of available supervisors and therefore funding. I have never been given any department scholarships or conference funding, but I did get my research costs reimbursed and encouraged to present at conferences and get published.

      • I don’t see this as a sex issue. Bullying and the hard-nosed approach taken by some supervisors comes down to an individual teaching style that may well have been influenced by how they themselves were supervised. I am in the health sciences and have two incrediably supportive and helpful female supervisors. While they want me to finish on time they encourage me to take part in academic culture-such as conferences and teaching-as well as really taking the time to think through my topic.

      • I agree it’s cultural more than anything – in my experience both genders are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to being bullies. Perhaps the expectation is that women will nurture more, thus they are judged more harshly for it.

    • It’s definitely a health and medical thing…ego central, stubbornness to prove a point is also one of the main driving forces for me too!

      • I, too, am quite familiar with the phenomenon of bullying in academe. It is quite damaging to one’s sense of self. However, I’ve also found a lot of comfort in hearing about the experiences of others, and David Yamada’s work on bullying, in particular, might be of use to others here looking to heal and recover from this experience. He has a blog called “Minding the Workplace” and you can find it here:

  19. First, you have approached it very well and you must be proud of yourself. I found myself is a similar situation, not as drastic as your though. My supervisor has been using my experience and skills to generate loads of data, plots and graphs for him on several projects without any help or even leaving me time to understand the bigger picture! I know how it feels like when your supervisor abuses his position to slave an student for his own good! IMHO the supervisors who engage in this kind of stuff are narrow-minded and have no ethics or morals as a scientist rather have an endless greed to feed their ego. They are selling their opportunity to be a good mentor to be an author and stand higher by stepping over their students’ shoulders! I was blessed with an amazing mentor on my last graduate degree, so I know what I am missing and I have strategies to compensate without changing supervisor.

    Thanks for sharing, now I know I am not alone!

  20. Thank you for sharing! You can’t believe how many students have experiences like this especially in science. I have been trying for many years to get grad students to think much harder about choosing their grad and post-doc labs!!! For some reasons grad students and post-docs don’t seem to see a lab choice as a major career decision. Nothing could be farther from the truth! You will spend 4-7 years working for one person in a small group making slave wages—don’t you think this is worth a little pre-work to make sure it will be a good fit and get you close to where you want to go in the future? I speak about this widely…here are a blog and webinar on the topic with all the tips I couldn’t fit here.

    Nature blog How to Choose a Lab
    Bitesize Bio How to Choose a Lab Webinar

  21. Having recently taken the intimidating step of changing one of my two supervisors I found the post quite difficult to read – probably still too close to the bone. Despite the months of stress leading up to the change and the quite terrifying experience of actually making that decision, I would say now, it was all worthwhile. The problem, I believe was not only incompatibility between the supervisor and myself in terms of research approach and learning/teaching style, but also a deep incompatibility between my two supervisors – a dynamic I realised I had been attempting to manage since the first supervision tutorial. This incompatibility was barely acknowledged, fudged even – it seemed easier for the supervisor and the institution to apportion blame to me for not being able to ‘deal’ with someone who seemed happy to acknowledge they were abrasive and went for the jugular. Training and supervision of supervisors is much neded, as is a much more transparent system of supervision and monitoring.

  22. I”m so sorry you had to go thru such a tough time with your supervisor – but glad you found the courage and strength to write about it (for others’ benefit, and hopefully your own), and to also move on and continue with your PhD. I wish you all the best!

    I second your point about the importance of Twitter for support

  23. I feel as if Im some space in between – I know when my completion date is…1 year and 27 days but Ive really been given scope to sit within my research, to write about it on sites like The Conversation, to ask about things that dont sit well with me and to focus on what is happening along the process for me as a person. The supervisory relationship is really similar to workplace ones so I guess for me Im lucky to have two supervisors who get me but also trust me that Ill put my hand up if its all falling apart. Wishing you all the best

  24. I am so sorry that you had to go through this. I am fortunate to have the same supervisors for my PhD that I had for my honours years so I know I get along with both of them. One is the theory and ideas man and the other is the organised one with a lot of knowledge about method and statistics. We meet every fortnight and they provide direction as to what I should aim to write next (ie the literature review, the theory etc) but leave it to me to determine what I should write. Plus the two of them have worked together on research for several years so they aren’t competing with each other either.

  25. I had a similar experience to that of Anon, but it revolved around the inclusion of issues in my thesis that related directly to my values, which one of my supervisors did not see as belonging in the thesis. I have now finished my Masters, having incorporated those values into the finished product. I just hope the examiners chosen (based around the ideals and ideology espoused in the finished work) are open to being challenged.
    I went through a stage of not wanting to submit a piece of work because of this, and luckily I had as a second supervisor someone who saw things on a similar basis to that way I did. I met up with that supervisor and we had a good talk. I knew that I had this supervisors support.
    As regards pressure to finish – this I got from the uni, after I had completed my Exit Seminar. This lack of pressure may have had a bit to do with the fact that I was self-funded, and not lucky enough to get a scholarship. Actually Inga, it would be interesting to do some research around this aspect of postgrad research – is more pressure to finish put onto scholarship recipients as opposed to self-funded research students? Are there differences in perceptions of pressure between the two different groups of students?

    • There’s no research that I am aware of – so thanks for the suggestion. We do know that many scholarship holders do not complete on time and drop back to part time – one of the reasons the stats on part timers look so poor.

    • Although you didn’t have a scholarship, if you were enrolled in a research masters and you weren’t paying fees, the Uni was getting funding for you from the federal government – but not until you had completed. Thus the reason pressure might come near the end.

  26. I unfortunately have had similar problems.. but I have 4 supervisors! I started with 2 main supervisors. A & B.
    A is an expert in his field, but a bit slack in terms of feedback and direction, very laissez faire. A seems to be the type of supervisor who just lets you go and work it out yourself…. B was appointed a supervisor because it was thought she would be more direct and detailed about feedback etc.. so they would be complimentary to each other… however, B just never did anything.. still doesn’t. Never reads drafts, doesn’t answer emails, would turn up late to meetings, and leave early and would come to the meeting saying that she had forgotten to read the draft and then run back to her office to print it out to read during supervision. She has had 3 chapters since June and I only just received one of those about 2 weeks ago.. still waiting on the others!

    So A decided that perhaps we needed to add C to the mix, (she was new.. had recently finished her Phd and had just started on staff, but was somewhat familiar with the topic and was very close to A). C is lovely… she is very sweet and possibly a little bit overeager to please… tends to apologise a lot. Gives reasonably detailed feedback and in a timely manner, however, she never stands up for what she thinks… if A has a different opinion, she’ll always say go with his.

    Then there is D who is purely my stats guy and he is great, takes ages to get things back to me, but when he does he’s pretty thorough. But he will only do the stats stuff.

    Unfortunately, I have sent drafts to my supervisors of various chapters and often, in fact most times, I get no detailed feedback or comments, often just a vague … “It looks ok…” even though I have asked for detailed content or structure feedback… When they give me any feedback I make sure I am on task and work quickly to hand it back to them, but then they take weeks or more, to actually answer simple questions about direction or structure. And when my office is not on campus, its makes it even more difficult to just grab them quickly.

    I appreciate that this is my PhD and therefore my journey and work etc.. but I often feel completely alone and isolated, and if it weren’t for the other PhD students that I talk to regularly I would not be able to complete. I was hoping to finish by Christmas, but simply due to lack of supervision and no feedback it will be more like March/April.

    • What a nightmare! I am having the same difficulties. I have three supervisors and they are exactly the same as your fat three. I have no concrete feedback to any of my work and I only get chance to meet them once in three month. Every time we meet, they event forget what exactly what my topic is about!!!

      • Wrong typing words in previous reply. A correction version here.

        What a nightmare! I am having the same difficulties. I have three supervisors and they are exactly the same as your first three. I have no concrete feedback from them to any of my work and I only get chance to meet them once in three month. Every time we meet, they sometimes even forgot what exactly my topic is about!!!

    • I feel your pain! I only have one supervisor (our group within the department is a small one, and we are assigned one of two possible supervisors, which there being zero precedent of having a second supervisor)
      My supervisor is more or less supportive, but often arrives late and leaves early from meetings, and reads work I have sent during the supervision. He’s well known in my field and often out of the country. Any email replies are prompt, but usually no more than a line. He is generally encouraging, but offers little detailed feedback or discussion on issues – his catch all comment is ‘It’s good you’re asking that question’. A year into my PhD I still don’t feel like we have established any kind of ongoing working relationship.
      Thing is, I’m aware the PhD is supposed to be independent research, and that supervisor relationships vary massively between universities, fields and even individuals, so I’m constantly second guessing myself and wondering if what feels like to me like supervisory failings are actually my aimlessness?! Anyone able to shed any light?

    • Unfortunately, I am a Masters student registered with an institution from 31 May 2013 up to date, and I have had a very similar problems. In the last meeting which was one of more than 30 meetings plus non replied emails? He gave me two options either to stop my research, or to continue and try to boost the standard of my proposal up to chapter three. My first question was why should I stop my research? And how my work was found not to be on standard in 2015 from all the way in 2013? And how can I be asked to go ahead up to x chapter while my proposal is not yet on the standard? Some advises from my colleagues were to expose this issue to some other academic staffs; I did not want to follow such way.
      However I am currently negotiating with other two different institutions if I can find other supervisors to assist me or to register with them. While I am still waiting for their feedback, I will appreciate any advice. Thank you

  27. I began my PhD in February 2013 and have already weathered upheaval in my committee. My supervisor and co-supervisor both left the University (they are staying on as adjuncts to my supervision). Because of the small size of the research center where I am located, my supervision has been handed to someone who lacks both enthusiasm and capacity to supervise me. She is a part-time academic and just doesn’t have a lot of time. When I see her at the center, she avoids eye contact and our face-to-face meetings are infrequent and awkward. However, she provides good written feedback and seems to work better via email.
    I just want to stay on track to completing in 3 years and really hesitate to fire her.

  28. Pingback: On playing and starting a PhD | degrees of fiction

  29. I “divorced” my supervisor after he tried to tailor, restrict, direct me down the path he thought was where research was needed. I would try to explain my point of view in my sessions and he would literally doze off. I went to the postgraduate head, counsellor, head of department and they ALL told me to “talk it out” with him, that’s he great and respected in the field. In one of these difficult sessions my supervisor was finally so offended by my “lack of appreciation” and told me to find a new supervisor. Which I did. The second one was not very helpful intellectually but at least proofread my work and found all the grammatical mistakes! Otherwise I was left to develop my thesis and take it as far as I could. In the end, I received the highest distinction honors in my department for my work, completed my degree, and in talks now to get it published.The moral of the story is that supervisors need to understand when they need to back off and let a persons gorw to their full potential.

  30. I congratulate you on making this decision and goign through the process. To have a university department and discipline big enough to accomodate it it great. some of us are faced with similar experiences of strange, inappropriate of vague supervision with the pressure to finish in 3 years (an Australian push, though the University ostensibly gives you 4 years, and up to 3.5 years scholarship if are successful in getting one). The whole process is designed to dumb down the PhD. None of my supervisors did it in 3 years, they had time to go in and out of the PhD, do some work in between, think deeply about the processes and theories underpinning their work and had financial support to do so. Now they sit there and say the same things – don’t work, don’t get involved in anything else, jsut get on with the PhD, whilst giving the vaguest possible direction about what they think should be in it. Congratulations on you divorce, I hope things progress well , for some of us it has taken longer to realise the problems, and now it is just too late!

  31. Reblogged this on GraecoMuse and commented:
    A very interesting article by an anonymous PhD student. I have have many friends in different institutions who have found that there was some conflict between student and supervisor. Most of the time when talked about things get better and problems solved but if they don’t know that there is always a way. You can’t do a PhD without enjoying and embracing it or you will damage your sense of self and even your health. I have been fortunate that my supervisors are absolute legends, I hope others are so lucky or get that lucky in the future. Good luck and best wishes to all PhD and thesis writers.

  32. A vote of thanks, Graecomuse, for re-blogging; I would possibly not have found this topic otherwise. And I believed I was the only one ever who’d gone through this depressing saga!
    I’m frequently told, ‘It’s YOUR PhD.’ Yes, it is. We shouldn’t lose sight of that aspect.
    I can relate to Dr K. Devitt [above] regarding producing something ‘creative, original and genuine,’ ~ albeit it’s not easy to BE creative and original within the confines of academic prescriptions. And Anonymous’s statement, that other PhD~ers alleviate the sense of isolation, is also relevant. One of my circle emailed recently, “As I understand it, a thesis is a case of ‘research, write, check, double check, rewrite…,’ ‘ad infinitum.’ With the supervisor’s job being to slot in between to make sure you aren’t swanning off on a side track that, however interesting, will ultimately lead to a ‘cul-de-sac.’ The whole point seems to be that it is 90% perspiration with 10% fun and games! I know it is your thesis, but in the end someone has to agree it is up to academic standard. It’s the supervisor’s job to make sure it becomes second nature and not a huge job of ‘putting right’ at the end.”
    H’m. I’m not arguing that this isn’t THE ‘modus operandi’ in an ideal academia, but reading the experiences here it’s obvious the process varies widely ~ and none of the multifarious ‘Knit your Own PhD …’ handbooks are of any assistance whatsoever.
    I’m self-funded, not a careerist, and just embarking on my third year. During a wasted year at first institution no one gave me any info on how this project could / should be constructed, what was ‘de rigueur’ and what was not, etc. I had to make it up as I went along.
    It’s your baby – no one else loves it like you do, but you will receive all sorts of conflicting advice.
    Incidentally, I can recommend ~ Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at Nottingham; her blog’s worth reading for the nuts and bolts of research, etc.
    And yes, doctoral research in A&H is a very different beast from the sciences.

  33. Good on you anonymous for sticking to your guns, finding new supervisors, and continuing with your PhD.

    I had a similar experience recently, which started in the middle of my second year and lasted for about 12 months. I had feelings of dread every time I met with my trio of supervisors. I get the feeling my primary supervisor was operating from a voice of insecurity, in addition to probably having been bullied himself as a PhD, so felt it was part of the process to be constantly critical and ‘be the voice of the university’, rather than be supportive and provide constructive criticism. Instead of feeling like the supervisors were ‘on my side’, I felt so isolated, and like the PhD was constantly a battle with my supervisors. I felt crippled with fear and inadequacy every time I received feedback from my primary supervisor. I’m not sure this is how the normal supervisor / student relationship works.

    The supervision just eventuated in downright bullying. The supervisors ended up trying to kick me out of the program. When I told my supervisors that I would fight to continue my PhD, they bullied and mocked me, and kept telling me that I wouldn’t win in front of a panel of academics, since the supervisors were the ‘voice of the university’ and had ‘many many’ years of supervision experience.

    Well, I did win the right to continue my PhD. The panel recommended that I continue with my PhD with a new team of supervisors. The panel also apologised for all the stress that I had experienced over the past 12 months as a result of the poor relationship with supervisors.

    I now have a new team of supervisors, I have regular meetings with one supervisor only , who is supportive, and provides feedback in a way that is constructive, and friendly, and in a way that feels like I have the power to make the changes.

    I have a renewed sense of enthusiasm and interest in my project, and am really looking forward to finishing my PhD. If only I had changed supervisors earlier.

    Good luck to you anonymous.

    • That is a wonderful story, and it illustrates the point that students have more power in the PhD process than many of them realise. You may be called a student, but someone doing a PhD is considered in quite a different way than other students by the university. They are taken much more seriously, and many of the rules that students have in their heads about how to behave don’t apply to PhD students. As you’ve illustrated, students can take control of a bad situation and can get what they need from the system, if they’re clear about what they need and strategic in going about getting it. Any students needing help in this kind of situation but are unsure how to proceed can get advice from their local postgraduate students association. Don’t put up with bad behaviour from anyone, least of all the staff members who are supposed to be supervising, mentoring and guiding you.

      • Thanks for your words of encouragement M-H.

        It was very tough for about nine months, however I now hold my head up high knowing that the ‘University is on my side’, and am determined to finish my PhD.

        You are right about seeking advice from Student Advocates. I saw mine weekly for about three months as the situation unfolded. The advocate was so helpful with understanding student rights, and providing support.

        I also sought the services of a barrister who was able to present my arguments cogently, strongly, and from a legal perspective. Daniel was excellent and I’d highly recommend his services

  34. Wow! Thank you Anonymous for writing this story and thanks to the many shared stories (love Trucking On’s) that is making me feel less like a failure.
    I had a supervisor for my Masters tell me that a PhD is just what Anon experienced: that the PhD topic wasn’t important, it was the goal to just get through so I could get onto something I really enjoyed. So, I didn’t engage her when I was putting together a team of supervisors to work on a project that I already had planned.

    Next, was the primary supervisor who I interviewed for my team who said she would be there for my whole candidacy, but failed to tell me that she was trying to get pregnant. Three months into my PhD she leaves for 9 months, comes back for one meeting, leaves on holiday for another 6 weeks and then told me I was “too demanding” for requesting more supervision. (So, I got another supervisor in the middle of my candidacy – another painful exercise.)

    I have been yelled at, demeaned, and have endured personal attacks from supervisors.

    I have been told that I shouldn’t need my hand held (in my first year), but later told that I “did it wrong” when I did take the initiative.

    Getting a PhD has been a soul destroying experience for me, which is sad because I love learning. I have found the learning and research is the fun part of the degree, and the supervision is the most painful part of studying for my PhD.

    • Is this a Sydney thing? lol

      “I have been yelled at, demeaned, and have endured personal attacks from supervisors.” – So have I.

      How can this experience be so commonplace?

      • There must be the academic culture; that the student is submissive and ignorant and the supervisor is dominant and “always right”. I find that my complaints to other supervisors (who don’t yell) about those supervisors who have yelled at me are met with an uncomfortable shrug of the shoulders and a kind of attitude of “it must be you”.
        Only one person has been outraged by me being bullied, and she was a lab manager, not an academic.

  35. Pingback: Learn to manage your supervisor | SupervisorStuff

  36. This post highlights how important “compatibility” with your supervisor is to finishing your PhD. It is not just raw intellectual talent that counts. Identifying a compatible supervisor/committee member is key.

  37. Wow! I read this post, after just starting with a new supervisor yesterday! After 18 months of what I see as not moving, and not getting, what I think, is an appropriate level of educational support from my supervisor, I split up with them last week. I say it like breaking up with someone, because that’s how it feels! I too pondered my future, including quitting or moving unis. And I am a middle-aged male from a law-enforcement background – I think that this background made it harder as it is all about loyalty. But at the end of my internal deliberations, I decided loyalty to me and my journey was more important than one individual.

    I got a lot of comments from my ex-supervisor but (in my mind) got real no guidance, and then continually told that it is my doctorate and to do what I want – but they would not support any submission I make and tell the examiners as such.

    My new supervisor, so far, is enthusiastic and has already provided more guidance in one e-mail and one conversation than I have had since January this year.

    What was even better was my uni. When I broached the topic with a manager, it wasn’t why? it was when and who do you want. This decreased any anxiety I had and I am pleased to say that I am moving forward very quickly. So, if you are struggle, I encourage you to change and continue on.

  38. Wow- I can relate to this post – unable to function, unable to progress and feeling disheartened & wanting to shut down – I thought it was things going on in my personal life- but I’m starting to suspect that my relationship with my supervisor is coming to an end.
    My supervisor has been fantastic over the years – but I feel like the relationship (& supervision advice) has stagnated whilst the pressure to perform has increased.
    How to break up with your Supervisor if you still like them as a person but not as a Supervisor?
    (it’s the “we can still be friends” conversation)
    Need to tread carefully as we might work together as colleagues- still in the same Department/Faculty
    tricky tricky

  39. I experienced a similar situation in my phd, only I stuck with the supervisor and submitted within the minimum time frame she required. I finished some time ago and have long since accepted that my academic career was effectively over as soon as I submitted, but I will always regret that the experience was so much less than it could have been. Congratulations to the post author on standing up for the integrity of her own education.

      • Hi Saddened,

        I feel it was over because I focused all my time on getting the thesis completed within that minimum time frame and didn’t get to spend any time on career planning (or even simply thinking about whether I wanted a career in academia). I had a fairly hands-off supervisor who would often not show up to meetings but who was more attentive in the finishing stages. After I submitted, she went back to not turning up to meetings again and I realised that I was not going to get any of the advice or guidance which had been promised when I was being pressured to submit. I was very young and meek (in my early twenties). With the benefit of hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have done a PhD at all (the problems it can cause with other kinds of employment are underestimated, I think). My advice to all current students would be to make sure that your doctorate works for you and what you’re looking for, not for your department or supervisor, and to realise that you have far more power as a student that I thought I had.

    • I can relate to this post and many others above– my young female supervisor has caused me so much grief – and has turned several people in the department against me including my most senior supervisor who I initially got along with like a house on fire. My relationship with both of them is now beyond repair and quite frankly (as another person so eloquently put it) “they ought to be in a padded cell.” It would have been a whole lot easier had I recognised the early warning signs that she was manipulative and opposed my potential success.
      I feel completely powerless and totally misunderstood. I’m going to go and see the grad research officer tomorrow to discuss but I have thought a lot about my options and I think I’ll just stick with these two horrors as this will probably be the quickest way to submit within the minimum time frame she required and get the hell out of there. I too have basically accepted that my academic career will effectively be over as soon as I submit. But I’ve lost all the hope I once had for a fulfilling career in health research. Sad, I know…

      • There is a name for what you experienced, as I understand your post…it is called “academic mobbing.” I’ve also experienced it. However, being able to name and to recognize it as a phenomenon that many others have also experienced does help, and there is increasing attention being paid to it in the academic literature. I believe that a Canadian sociologist named Kenneth Westhues is considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject – you might find his work to be helpful to you. Best of luck to you as you go forward, and know that there are others out there who support you. I hope you don’t abandon your dreams completely, but if you must leave academia, that you find new ways to nurture them.

  40. I had to break up twice. First time I was harassed and I was just a big baby who didn’t get it that sometimes boys are just “joking” when they are being sexually violent. I begged to move to another group in the same university, but of course, I was “reading into things” and “emotional”. I was left alone and I felt afraid. It was insinuated I was a drama queen who was too dumb (unlike all the boys) to know men don’t really hurt women all the time, they just do it once and then never, ever again. What was my damned problem? Second time I went to into a field because I was afraid of meeting my attacker and bullies at conferences and hearing their names…but I really missed what I did in my first PhD. I had crazy ideas like, “why shouldn’t I do what I want?”. So then, the third time I found a good supervisor, good topic, tonnes of people smarter than me who push me so fricken hard to compete… and I’ve suffered ever since, but I’ve only ever suffered because of my PhD and teaching load, not because others are hurting me. I can’t wait to leave academia behind forever and earn six figures: money doesn’t make it better, but to run poverty stricken from place to place, worrying about funding etc, I will never do that again.

    Respect to all the poor folk here who’ve had to move on. It’s an utterly gut-wrenching decision.

  41. I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. It’s emotional abuse no matter how you cut it and the worst part is that recipients of this, too often blame themselves. I’m really glad you escaped that situation, instead of internalising it as some fault in yourself. My thoughts are with you and anyone else who has been through this invisible institutionalised abuse.

    I’d also like to share my story here. I’ll try to stick to the key points, but it’s gonna be long. Sorry in advance.

    I recently broke up with my supervisors over similarly depressing and anxiety inducing circumstances. I was on an industrially funded project and some of the conditions of the funding were the completion of certain milestones. At the start of the project I saw this as no problem, after all I was a PhD candidate working within a very large collaboration.

    I had expected that if someone wanted to take on a student, it was because they intended to train them in the art of research. I can’t believe how naive I was!

    It became clear within the first semester that I couldn’t have been further from the reality. My supervisors were essentially expecting me to generate data for their use. Attempts at digesting the literature in my research space were met with demands from my co-supervisor to return to the lab, as was my attempt to focus on formal stage one candidature assessments.

    Common rhetoric included comments like “so when are you actually going to do some work?” and “what you don’t seem to understand is, if you don’t meet these milestones, we will lose all our funding. No milestones, no project!”. Don’t worry though, I didn’t actually believe that the presence of research funding was entirely contingent on one PhD student’s progress in the lab. Not for a second.

    To make matters worse, I was sharing the lab space almost exclusively with my co-supervisor who would also regularly attack my character while micromanaging my activities. That did wonderful things for my self esteem, as perhaps you can imagine.

    Early on I did manage from time to time to write up what I’d been doing, in the hope that it would develop into a publication. I didn’t really know what I was doing in that regard, so I’d send what I had to my supervisors to see what direction to move in.

    Pieces of writing I submitted for feedback were returned to me with critical comments, which lacked any constructive input on how and where to improve. I was also told at various stages things like “what you submitted to me was crap” and even that “scientific writing is a highly specialist skill, which only reaches it’s peak well into one’s career”. I’m not even kidding. I have emails. Many, many horrible emails.

    In hindsight this was all a strategy to make a case for directing my attention to lab work. To add insult to injury, my primary supervisor had me submit to him all the data I had on one particularly interesting study I had done and written up for him. He told me I would be the first author on the publication, but because it was to go to a high-impact journal, he needed to write it. He was very aggressive on this point.

    They told me that I would be the first author, but as soon as all the key work had been done, they shifted me down the author list. I was even told “The only reason we told you you’d be first was so that you’d actually do something”. I had done all the experiments, I generated the figures and I wrote the experimental section. The case made to me for why I did not deserve first authorship was that “I did not do enough of the science”. The fact that meetings, about additional analysis between my supervisors, were being held in my absence was not recognised.

    I challenged this decision and was pushed away with more lies, belittlement and even straight up, nut-case style abuse (my supervisor pretty much yelled at me in the student office for about an hour while I just copped it. It was talk of the department for a couple of months lol).

    Anyway, after three semesters of this kind of “supervision” I decided that I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to manage a PhD project AND and an abusive relationship, so I bailed. I’m now looking into various options on how I can finish the project with more sane, secure and reasonable academics.

    Saddened as I am knowing how many people have suffered over this kind of pointless power struggle, it’s really great to know that I’m not alone. Thanks everyone for sharing.

  42. I feel really positive until I have a supervision meeting then feel completely demoralised. My ‘good’ supervisors went on maternity leave and the remaining are just not on the same wave length as me at all. I dread meetings with them and my only positive experiences come from conference attendance. It’s so important to have others comment on your work. My plan is to struggle through (now in final year) as long as I possibly can. One supervisor is highly respected in the field and browbeats me into submission and the other is completely unable to offer any sound advice, is unaware of key literature in my field and criticizes me in front of colleagues but not in one-to-one meetings. I get so depressed and anxious lately I have stress dreams about meetings. I literally spend most of my days now confused or anxious, I’m holding on because I love what I do, I feel I was just unlucky supervision wise. Hang on for as long as you can people, if you are feeling this way, it’s probably because you are destined to be a far better supervisor one day and at least our future students will benefit from these negative experiences we’ve had and hopefully learnt from…

  43. Pingback: Am I a student, or a therapist?! | The Thesis Whisperer

  44. I believe that this situation is much frequent than we would like to admit, and perhaps 70-98 per cent of phd students encountered at one moment or another during their studies some supervising shit like this.

  45. I am suffering now. my supervisor changes my topic again and again. and after my comp.exam, he told me to switch and said ” there is no alignment between what you did and my area”. oh, god, he gave me the topic!!! this is my worst experience!!

    • Hi, I have already posted about my experience, which is similar to you. My ex-supervisor spent 12 months bagging my idea, even though they agreed to supervise me. Then after I submitted my research proposal, they waited two months to say they would not support me. So 18 months worth of work, I had to restart on a vague notion they felt would be suitable. Then when I asked for guidance I got none.

      So, after some soul searching, I changed supervisors, and it would suggest you do the same.

      I assume ‘comp. exam’ is you candidature confirmation? If so, you have bigger hurdles to jump.

      Talk to your faculty adviser, or department head.

  46. My academic career ended when I was forced to be at the mercy of a number of supervisors during my Master’s program at a Swedish university. Although I was previously encouraged throughout my time there to apply to a Phd program, the supervision of my thesis lead me into such deep depression that I wasn’t able to function anymore and eventually left academia.

    Ever since, I have been looking for ways to have my thesis re-examined at other universities. After a few attempts though, I realized that bureaucratic procedures and the simple fact that the thesis has been rejected, place a huge hindrance. Supervisors and their abilities are never questioned, it is always the student, who is suspected to be inadequate.

    Back then nobody at my department was an expert in my study field. So I was assigned to a visiting professor from Copenhagen, who was reluctant to accept my proposal from day one. This turned out to be a disaster as it took him weeks to get back to me. If I received a response, it was destructive and disheartening. Most of the faculty staff members’ English was really bad. Instead of admitting that they had problems understanding my thesis, I was told that I should reconsider my abilities as an academic writer, and that I had allegedly no idea how to conduct a research paper in proper English.

    At my defense, the program’s administrator was assigned to evaluate my thesis and despite the petitions of many fellow students, who were present on that day, my thesis got rejected. I was given another try with a different supervisor. Yet, this turned out to be even worse than before as he literally ignored all my emails. I complained to the administrator of the program and he agreed to supervise my thesis himself, on the condition that I write something that suits him so he could use it in his further projects. A few weeks into the process, I was repeatedly told that I was inadequate and couldn’t fulfill the requirements the university was presenting before me.

    All of this has cost me a lot of my mental health. Especially, since I figured that the bullying was strategic and its main purpose was to make me leave. The most shocking thing, however, was to find out that the program’s administrator, while being so opposing to my thesis topic, introduced courses on my study field, shortly after I left the university.

    Until today, I feel very helpless about my situation and would appreciate to find any feedback on how handle this, so that I might return to academia one day.

    I am also glad that I have found this blog. After being ostracized by the academic community for being a failure, I now come to realize that such occurrences are more frequent than I have thought.

    • Hello Monika,
      I read your piece and feel much compassion. Here is what I think: Try to change universities completely. If possible (depending on source of funding) explore the U.S. or Canada. Write a proposal and send to a number of them. See what feedback you get. Canada has a lot of funding if your grades are good, for both citizens and international students. See how that goes. You might be very pleasantly surprised. All the best. D.

      • Thank you very much for your encouraging words! I have been actually grappling with the idea of looking into American or Canadian universities.

        In any case, thank you for taking the time and offering this great piece of advice. I will definitely pursue this idea further.

  47. I thought of posting here after i reached a phase where i should make a decision. this should no longer happens as it affects me, my life, my future plans. but i need any opinion please!!! i am in my third year, barely achieved much. i am registered in one of the uK universities, but working my data collection and research in home country. i visit the campus every year. However, it s happening that my research plans and methodologies havent received much attention from my supervisor, even when i am there on campus, the discussions are bits and pieces, no plan..the papers i submitted are never reviewed to discuss methodologies or approaches. when i am back home, i would wait for 4 months fora reply on my inquiries and questions on results or opinions. So i suspended my studies during the first year. the second year again, it may take a month up to 2 months to get any feedback. same until now..i feel am totally on my own… that is fine..i could learn and do trials..but i could also spend a year of work that may be rejected for any details that we havent discussed. strangely there hasnt been any idea and proposed new way i could learn from.

    I have raised the issue of ineffective communication twice to the head of grad.student..following this i would receive a reply but then again, once i start to step into a new phase, the supervisors disappears or if i call, there is always a little time to talk telling me he ll get back to me..
    i started to feel that he might be so busy that he is not interested in supervising my work, probably pushing me to the limit till i drop out, by the way, i am self funding my phD and i have been trying to shift to another university, i hope it looks not easy as i have already started.

    what would you do??

  48. Pingback: When good supervisors go bad… | The Thesis Whisperer

  49. I’d like to thank everyone who shared a PhD experience on this blog. For years I have been going though indescribable grief in the course of getting the degree, owing to multi-dimensional difficulties including no support from Supervisor/Committee, until I concluded that I had made the greatest mistake of my life in starting this at all. I had no idea that many others across the world have similar, relatable tales to tell! Now I am over the worst and writing the last few chapters. I will share my experience in detail when the whole episode is over. Thanks, everyone.

  50. Hello everyone. I’m just a master student who doesn’t have any ambition to do a PhD, because I’m a very practical person. However, I have to do my master thesis and I’m more than struggling with it.

    I feel like I do not understand my topic anymore. Everything I do my supervisor doesn’t like. I have a feeling that she doesn’t express what she truly thinks about my work in real life meetings. Only when she sends me emails, then I get all the criticism.

    Another thing is that I’m not used to have so many meetings at my previous university where I did my bachelor. My supervisor got disappointed when I said that I simply can’t to invest all my energy into my master thesis, because I have other obligations such as setting my own business at the moment. I think that she somehow thought that I don’t care at all, which is not true. I care, but this master to me is a way to get practical skills first and I don’t want to reach superior results in the world of academics. When I sincerely told this to my supervisor at the beginning, she got upset and took it very personally.

    Now every time we have to meet or contact via email is a big stress to me. The big problem is that I want to finish it asap, but I’m struggling, because sometimes she wants to show her power and then even don’t respond to my letters or respond in a way “I’m your supervisor, it’s not you who decides how often and when we will meet”. If you can advice me something, I would be very thankful, because I feel lost and don’t want to waste more time justr because of inappropriate communication.

    • Suggest to your supervisor to have a second professor who would be more open to hear you guys out help you two sort out your opinions so you can get things going. You are more direct face to face, your supervisor isn’t. Maybe it would help to be more direct with her via email lol! That way she’ll have time to think it through. I understand because I am more direct via email lol!!!!! Maybe also reprioritise which is more important to you for the long run 🙂

  51. I’m in my 3rd year of PhD and this has been the worst experience that I have. Nowadays most of the PhDs projects are written by the supervisors and it makes sense because most of the students when they finish their degree they don’t have enough knowledge to write a PhD project. In the past PhD people would do a PhD when they had at least 5 years of career which means they would have acquired enough knowledge to understand what they wanted to do. So in this way Supervisors nowadays need to change their concept of PhD and they cannot leave a PhD student by their own and suddenly expect from the student to be a genius. Supervisors need to share their knowledge and understand what are the trainings that the student needs in order to succeed in his PhD. Most of the PhD students that I have meet complain that their supervisors don’t care about their progress and some don’t have a clue of what they are doing. We are using public money to train qualified people. So what is the purpose of spending public money is supervisors that don’t have the skills and sensibility to train a PhD student? Im sick of this bullshit , Im sick of the lack of humanity! Maybe because of this we will find in the literature opposite results, maybe because we are publishing data that our supervisors don’t know how we did it. If this doesn’t change we will be spending public moneys to do bad science!!
    The only way that I could progress in research was to do a PhD. Before going to a PhD I spent few years doing research until I found the area that I would love to spent 3 years working on it. If you work with passion working 12h in the lab are amazing. But this you will only enjoy if you have a good supervisor that give you feedback about your results, that knows what you are doing, that helps you thinking in others ways. The relationship between supervisor-student need to be dynamic otherwise who will suffer with the lack of dynamic will be the student. And supervisors need to remember that most of the students in Uk are foreign people away from their families, friends and it is a real pain in the ass when you don’t have a supervisor, you work alone with no colleagues around, when you try to meet people and they are cold. I have experienced the worst feeling of loneliness.
    I went in a severe anxiety and told my supervisor who didn’t care about. But he didnt care about what Im doing for a long time, since I start my PhD. I try to add more 2 supervisors in my 2nd year but was also useless, I try to find a doctor to medicate but the health system its sucks. I try to speak with the counselling about the lack of supervision and was useless and when you are trying politely to ask for help and you don’t see any return, anyone that will give you support you collapse. Its inhuman when you expose yourself that you are fragile and what you receive is disdain.

    The University should protect their students and give them the best support. The University doesn’t have any clue about the level of dissatisfaction of their students. They just care about numbers of PhD graduated and publications.
    Im really pissed with my supervisors and I never imagined that they could be so cold and unconcerned about what was happening with me. I didn’t improve much in my PhD and because of my severe anxiety I need to do things slowly. I will finish this PhD but I don’t think I will continue doing science in this way, where everyone is concerned about their life and there is no sense of teamwork. Doing science should be a teamwork, change of ideas, excitement, but also persistence, positive thinking and effort.
    Doing a PhD is not a hobby, is not like we are in the secondary school playing science. Nowadays we have so many information and so many people specialized that we are not using all this resource to progress in science, to get good results even if negative. I don’t trust in many of the the publication that come out because of this situation. Its frustrating when you want to give your best, to do good science, to give a contribution to science and what you see is bad science, is all about publication without being authentic.

    “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”

    I don’t want to be fast , I want to go far!

    • You are passionate about what you do! Don’t change it. It’s beautiful to do something that you enjoy. I am studying overseas myself and I understand what you are saying. Maybe you won’t find the best supervisor yet – but work with what you got now. And please do speak your mind when you talk to your supervisor – don’t try to be polite to meet their expectations of you – be true to yourself – let out your frustrations and emotions – let them know in a nice way – I’m sure they won’t know until you communicate it to them.
      I hope you know the story of the race between the rabbit and the tortoise – the rabbit was fast – the tortoise was slow – but the thing is – the tortoise was slow but consistent – and sure! Don’t be discouraged neither be dismayed – TO ME – it’s because THE LORD MY GOD IS WITH ME. 🙂

  52. Pingback: Who should pay? | The Thesis Whisperer

  53. I am currently doing an interdisciplinary PhD with a focus in using sociology and history as a lens for looking at the changing nature of hospitality in the city. I have the same experiences that have been described. I am refused teaching, prevented from attending conferences (I got accepted for one and they refused to fund it as well) and actually discouraged heavily from spending time in other faculties like the sociological faculty (I am based in Business/tourism). I was told today I must cut all ties, refuse any other work and complete the thesis. I am constantly belittled and mocked by my team who claim I use sociological vernacular and thus waffle. I had a progress review recently where the independent chair was so belligerent with me, s\he refused to let me answer questions properly. I am made to attend writing groups and events in there faculty to do research culture but am prohibited from doing other events outside university. It has been a totally demoralising and emotionally difficult period. In my progress review, my supervisors did not have my back, did not defend when it was their ideas being attacked and sat quietly for an hour as I got bulldposed by someone in a different discipline and perspective.

    I am told I write in jargon but my supervisor published a piece of writing with an ex PhD student which used theory from French philosophy and was super jargon ridden. I brought this up and my supervisor disowned it, said the student couldn’t write well and that they just signed it off because it wasn’t important. Yet, I am being utterly smashed to bits for daring to use words that the common reader might not understsnd.

    • Keep on whatever is true to you! You are not strange – just unique. Find people that can nurture your uniqueness. Let no one’s opinion waive you from where you stand unless you decide it’s necessary!

  54. The best things they say happens unexpectedly and not all that glitters is gold. Am Maia Brigdeston from Canada i have been sick with cancer for the past 8 years and it has really affected my marriage. Due to the fact that my husband could no longer bear the shamed, he decided to break up with me. I searched everywhere for help but all was to no avail until i saw a post on the internet about a spell caster who has helped several people. I decided to get in touch with him and the spell caster and he told me that the sickness and problems i see today that i will see them no more. He prepared a spell for me and in less that 24 hours, i went for a test in the hospital to God almghty i was confimred cancer free. Before i could finish rejoicing about me been free from the sickness, my husband called me that he needs me back. If there is anyone out there that needs help should contact Doctor Okpamen either via his email or his website. Email:

  55. Can someone please tell me what to do when your supervisor compares you to other students, in presence of other students? Of course he also has clearly told me that I compare the current students to my older students with regards to progress. I do not want to feel bothered. He also told me in a group meeting “I am confident about the other two PhD students, but I am not confident you have enough to get out your thesis.” And I complete my three years in October, have one paper in writing stage, and other paper under supervisor’s review, since six months.

    • Maybe ask your supervisor to put himself in your shoes and you compare him with two other professors whom you think would be better supervisors than him – ask him how he would feel. I’m sure he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in your shoes when he behaves that way. Keep on Anon – you can do this! Work at your own pace!

  56. Pingback: Cracking the Ph.D. interview | Breakthrough Blog

  57. I was just dumped by my supervisor after several years of doubting whether my frustrations with her were substantial enough to justify moving onto someone else. It turns out they were, and I only wish I’d recognized it sooner. I could have written this article myself our experiences were so similar. Her hardline fast-paced approach just did not square with my process at all and ultimately had begun to really mess up my progress. I had to laugh at the part where your supervisor told you to go find a “feminist supervisor who would let you take 10 years.” My ex-supervisor is a feminist scholar, and I assure you just as fast-paced down to business as anyone in any field could possibly be. I wish the touchy-feely stereotype of the nurturing feminist mentor/scholar were true in this case, I’d have been happier.

  58. I had similar experience. A sister of mine told me it’s my work, so I decide, not the supervisor. I was pressured not because of the deadline but because I wasn’t true to myself first before taking in any advice from my supervisor. True to myself in the sense that I get across to the supervisor my thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and anger. Let them know where I stand. Bottling it up didn’t help for a start. Not knowing it was my work not my supervisor didn’t help at all.

  59. Reblogged this on TuWorks: helping students to excel with tutoring and commented:
    A student contacted me about difficulties that he is having with his thesis supervisor. He wanted to do a survey, but his thesis supervisor said that would have to either discontinue the thesis with him if he wanted to do the survey, or to do the thesis with him but without the survey. Initially I advised him to talk to the head of school, but then I said that that could cause issues. I also suggested that he could find another thesis supervisor. After reading this article, I said to forget about taking to the Head of School, and instead try to find a thesis supervisor whom he could have a better working relationship.

  60. Pingback: My Supervisor Is Intimidating – French Girls Cams Live

  61. same situation here , but i didn’t cray or give up they resigned from supervisor- i found out both have no basic knowledge in the area we are working on whoever they claimed a lot of papers and patents … the funny bit is none of the publish on a relevant journal … as well as they the papers are were written in a mess leading way not including the core results … unfortunately this is a sensitive area in public health and such guys shouldn’t get involve in it …. please if i can contact the writer some how it will be useful to add my case online too contact me on

  62. My supervisor wants me to write a paper from the first meeting and also wants me go to a conference and present it even before discussing the proposal of the thesis. Is this normal?

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