Do you have a good relationship with your supervisor? Are they supporting you with your PhD project and all the nitty-gritty issues that arise? Good for you, but this is not everyone’s situation. While the majority of PhD candidates are well-supported, there are some who are not and who might even suffer from the conduct or behaviour of their supervisors. In this blogpost, we describe recurring signals of problematic supervisors in the hope that it might help you spot warning signals early on and choose supervisors who give good support instead.
Most of my work at TRESS ACADEMIC is dedicated to helping academics master the complementary skills they need to succeed in academia. As such, I give advice to PhD candidates and postdocs on how to improve their current situation, complete their PhDs successfully and thrive in their careers afterwards. I do not usually dwell on negatives or bring attention to wrong habits or patterns of behaviour.
With today’s blogpost though, I feel I have to make an exception and shine a light on the typical signs of insufficient performance or the poor conduct of supervisors. Should your main supervisor or one of your co-supervisors display any of the symptoms described below, please take it as a warning signal. None of these are patterns of behaviour that good PhD supervisors would ever exhibit. In contrast, they are often an alarm that your supervisor might not give you sufficient support throughout your PhD. All of the seven issues below I have witnessed over the past years and heard personally from PhD candidates who spoke to me about their problems.
This blogpost is dedicated to three PhD candidates in my last round of the PhD Success Lab who endure a high level of personal suffering due to the lack of support, inadequate behaviour or misconduct of their supervisors. Two of them considered giving up, mainly due to the difficulties with their supervision.
Satisfaction with supervision
Since 2008 I’ve taught PhD candidates how to successfully complete their PhD, and I’ve always discussed the challenges they experience at their scientific institutes. Their personal situation with their supervision is always included. When asked about their satisfaction with their supervisors, in a group of 20 PhD candidates I often have 2-3 who are excited about their supervisors and happy with their guidance and support. The majority is satisfied with their supervisors, while pointing out one or two issues that could be better. In the same group, I usually have 1-2 who fall silent because they realise–often while listening to the positive reports from their colleagues–that they receive far from wonderful support and positive experiences. It dawns on them that their supervisors are not fulfilling the main duties of a good supervisor (Smart Academics blog post no. #10: Good PhD-supervision: What you can expect)
My experiences are broadly in line with results reported by PhD candidates in the Nacaps study (Nacaps 2023), where 55% of PhD candidates are happy with their supervision, and 16% of PhD candidates are not satisfied (Nacaps 2023). The Helmholtz Juniors (2019) Survey Report came up with 25.3% of PhD candidates who are in the categories ‘rather unsatisfied’ to ‘very unsatisfied’ with their supervision. Though the percentage of PhD candidates who are very dissatisfied with their supervision may seem small, we should not forget that behind each single count in this category is a person who is suffering and potentially not able to complete their PhD.
Let’s have a look at the 7 symptoms of a problematic PhD supervisor:
1. Continually ignoring requests for meetings or exchange
This is probably the most common of the seven listed issues. In this case, a supervisor is difficult to get hold of and speak to. This often goes for all means of communication. They are not easily accessible for spontaneous questions (‘sorry, no time!’) and repeatedly ignore requests to meet and discuss the PhD project over longer time periods. They might eventually get around to answering an e-mail or looking at a paper-draft, but often with a long delay. This makes for a distant relationship, where real exchange or support is not happening.
The PhD candidate often experiences this as a personal rejection and is hurt by a supervisor who’s not showing interest in their project. Communication is severely hampered and there’s a loss of trust often paired with anxiety on the side of the PhD candidate.
2. Contradicting or shifting advice
In this case, the supervisor often gives vague instructions to the PhD candidate only to come up with different ideas at random points later on. There is no follow up or documentation about the instructions and hence also no appreciation when PhD candidates want to report on a completed task or show results. When the PhD candidate wants to show what they have achieved, they are often met with surprise or get random new instructions. There is a lack of goals or a clear path that leads towards meritable achievements that give the PhD candidate the confidence that they can complete their PhD.
This type of behaviour leads to irritation, frustration and demotivation on the side of the PhD student. They desperately try to ‘get it right’ for the supervisor, but never will.
3. Temper tantrums
This includes supervisors who shout at PhD candidates or have fits of rage. The reasons why the temper tantrum occurs is often unclear, so the PhD candidate is left feeling guilty and searching for a reason as to what in their behaviour may have caused such frenzy. The rage may be for entirely different reasons, but the PhD candidate accidently pushed a button that triggered the explosion. Once they have calmed down, the supervisors often seem to regret their behaviour, but never formally aplogise or explain their outbursts. They may suddenly appear overly friendly and caring, but this wears off soon and the next tantrum can be expected any time.
PhD candidates often reel from the emotional fallout of being shouted at long after the incident. They get nervous and anxious, and avoid making mistakes at all costs. The emotional processing of the shouting incidents takes up a huge amount of space and time for them (e.g. they may spend hours or days just re-playing the incident and how they might have reacted differently over and over again in their minds) at the cost of good scientific work.
This ranges from subtle occasional verbal quips to full-blown unveiled assaults. The bullying supervisor uses personal performance, race, background or gender of the PhD candidate to display power and to make it unmistakably clear who is higher up in the hierarchy.
A PhD candidate with a bullying supervisor may feel shame or inferiority and is coerced into more or better work, often to the benefit of the supervisor’s career. As with some of the other described traits, PhD candidates with a bullying supervisor find it difficult to speak up about incidents. Over time, PhD candidates lose confidence and self esteem and are in an unhealthy dependent relationship with their supervisor.
5. Perpetual criticism
This is a supervisor who dishes out criticism about everything a PhD candidate intends to do or has been working on. No matter how much one tries or what is delivered, the supervisor is never satisfied. The perpetually criticising supervisor may hold themselves to high standards, be a perfectionist, and can be a very successful scientist. With their permanent negativity however, they let a PhD candidate know that they’ll never be anywhere near. The criticism may feel unjustified and usually comes without constructive suggestions as to what to improve or change.
The ongoing reception of negative feedback erodes the self-esteem of a PhD candidate, who feels insecure and intimidated.
6. Track-record of failed PhDs
Highly successful and supportive supervisors often have an impressive track record of PhD candidates who finished within the standard funding period or with reasonable overtime and went on to have successful careers themselves in academia and beyond. In contrast, a line-up of former PhD candidates who have dropped-out or took an overly long time to complete their dissertation is a clear warning sign. If someone in a work group or lab tells you that ‘it’s common here to take 8 years or more and no-one completes without trouble’ and among them they know a host of people who left before handing in a dissertation–that is a very clear warning sign. This is a supervisor with an obvious inability to lead a supportive team and to direct PhD candidates towards successful completion. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll be the exception and that this supervisor may have a different and unproblematic relationship with you.
7. Mistaking PhD candidate and project employee
There’s an abundance of 3rd party funded projects who perfectly lend themselves to involve PhD candidates and lead them to successful completion within the umbrella of the larger project cluster. But not all supervisors manage that alignment and not all projects are suitable for PhD candidates. The problem occurs when a supervisor does not differentiate between a PhD candidate and a project employee. The supervisor’s focus is on project results and completion, not on PhD completion. PhD candidates with that type of supervisor may get so much project work allocated that they have no time to pursue their dissertation project. Or, the research project is very applied in its character and its results are very difficult to transfer into a high-quality dissertation. There are also research projects whose timeline exceeds the period of the PhD so that publishable results will not occur during the time in which the PhD candidate is normally funded. The described situations are ill-perceived from the onset and can make it virtually impossible to complete. For PhD candidates, this makes for a frustrating experience where they feel lured into exciting project work only to discover later that they have achieved little that could be put together and handed in as their dissertation.
My fingers are crossed and chances are good that you do not experience any of the above. If however, you actually have a supervisor who displays the above behaviour, or you know anyone else who has, then please do not take the situation as set or unchangeable. It isImportant that you acknowledge that there is a problem but that it is not your fault or a consequence of your own behaviour. Speak-up about the situation: It might be easiest first to talk it over with other PhD candidates or your partner, friends, and family. If you have someone in your supervisory team you trust, speak to them. Consider talking it over with experienced and supportive colleagues and if you can, flag it to representatives at your institute. Today in academia, there is a growing awareness and readiness to address supervisory problems, but your organisation or institute can only help and support you if you let them know.
- Smart Academics blog post no #98: Should I replace my PhD supervisor?
- Smart Academics blog post no #81: Meet your PhD supervisor online!
- Smart Academics blog post no. #80: Do I have to include my supervisor as a co-author?
- Smart Academics blog post no. #68: PhD Support: Pick the perfect co-supervisor
- Smart Academics blog post no. #57: Can’t get your message across to your supervisor?
- Smart Academics blog post no. #10: Good PhD-supervision: What you can expect
- free worksheet ‘How good is my PhD supervision’
- DZHW, Nacaps (2023): Promovierendenbefragung 2019-2021.
- Helmholtz Juniors (2019): Survey Report.
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