On supervisors

Inevitably you will experience moments during your PhD where things between you and your supervisor do not go as smoothly as you would like. Small wonder: a PhD is a pretty intense project in which you yourself go through a considerable personal development and in which your supervisor has to balance two roles that are hard to combine, that of coach and that of examiner.  Most supervisors know exactly which role to adopt at a given moment, but there will be a day, or days, where e.g. you receive fierce criticism while you actually badly needed a pat on the back.

Sure, this can make you feel awful, or angry. But guess what? Supervisors are humans, too. And there is more to that than just to say that everyone has good and bad days.


What Ambition Means - Marcus Aurelius

If you find yourself repeatedly not getting the supervision you need, and you have already tried to communicate this to your supervisor, it may help to consider whether you recognize your supervisor in one of the following stereotypes. These characteristics are usually part of his personality, so you won’t change them easily and need to adapt your strategy accordingly.

  • the absent: he is never in his office, and if he is, he is ‘busy’
        • befriend his secretary and/or make clear appointments for meetings with a well focussed agenda. Ask your supervisor to specify how it is most convenient for him to meet with you.
  • the life worker: doesn’t care about the limited time you have available for your PhD thesis, because he ’took 10 years himself’
        • you can show how the world has changed since your professor did his PhD, but don’t expect much practical result from that. Design and agree on a feasible project planning, enlist e.g. your department’s PhD coordinator to put this plan on paper and make everyone involved accountable at specified moments. However, bear in mind that your supervisor in the end still is the examiner. 
  • the negative critic: knows exactly what is wrong with your text, but does not suggest how you should write it
        • ask which parts or aspects of the text he did like rather than how you should rewrite the part he has just criticized.
  • the petty editor: correcting minor spelling mistakes (preferably with a fat red marker), but has nothing to say about the contents or structure
        • ask peers for comments on structure, enlist a co-supervisor or an informal third supervisor from your field or department. Do not wave this in your supervisor’s face or he will feel by-passed and threatened.
  • the structuralist: focusses on structure but has nothing to say about the contents
        • discuss the contents of your project with other researchers in your field, e.g. at lunch with fellow PhD’s and junior faculty during lunch, or at meetings of national research schools. Never criticize your supervisor for this in front of his colleagues in the department or field.
  • the indifferent: has no opinion, everything is allright
        • ask for honest and critical feedback on your work from a somewhat senior colleague in your field that you trust. Don’t do this too often: it may just be that your work is okay and that you should stop feeling like an impostor.
  • the hyperactive: constantly sends you off in different directions without caring about cohesion and direction
        • articulate the core of your project very clearly and carefully evaluate whether and where this new idea contributes to that core. If not, it is your responsibility to learn to say ‘no’ to your supervisor’s impulse (and explain why).
  • the conservative: sticks to what he is familiar with
        • show, rather than tell or argue the benefits and results of the new way you want to pursue.
  • the talker: holds monologues and uses precious time to recall your project for himself
        • gently but firmly direct his attention back to the agenda and talking points at hand which you, of course, send him in preparation of the meeting. It also helps to provide your supervisor with a brief summary of your project, locate the sub-project you are to discuss and give an overview of the most important changes/questions since your last meeting. If you are discussing a piece of writing, you may provide a brief synopsis of the chapter or thesis as a whole and indicate in the margin of your text which parts are new or thoroughly rewritten.
  • the tyrant: has strong opinions about what the project should look like and does not accept changing the framework
        • investigate how much wiggle room you have and who your helpers may be (e.g. co-supervisors, but consider that they have their interests to guard to with respect to the professor). If you feel you cannot own the project you might re-evaluate working with this supervisor.
  • the competitor: feels threatened because you will surpass him before long and therefore steps on the brake
        • practice the independence you aspire as a researcher. E.g. enlist your own network. However, make sure not to offend your supervisor, let alone hurt his interests while doing so, because in the end he still has to approve your thesis and also after your defense he can be a great help to further your career.
  • the professional: always has time for you, reads your texts promptly, comments adequately, motivates you and combines his roles of coach and examiner admirably.
        • Cherish this supervisor and express your appreciation! 

(Supervisor stereotypes from H. Lelieveldt “Promoveren”, AUP 2013, p. 63)


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