Replace your supervisor

#98: Should I replace my PhD supervisor?

Are you experiencing problems with your PhD supervisor? Are you not receiving the support you need, or have you been exposed to misconduct? Have you thought about changing your supervisor for some time, but can’t make up your mind? Are you uncertain whether it is even possible to replace your supervisor and if so, how to kick-off the process? In this blogpost, we’ll give you an overview of why PhD students typically change advisors, how difficult it might be, and whether it is the right thing to do in your situation.  

Some time ago, we received the following message from one of our course participants, which inspired us to write this blogpost:

“Hi there! I’ve struggled for quite a long time with the problem of whether and how to change my supervisor. In my opinion, we’re not the best “team”. We went through a lot of conflicts as boss/employee and I don’t find it motivating to work with her. But still I struggle with just ‘quitting’ and changing the advisor, as I think that she won’t be happy about that, and I fear that the ‘loss’ of a PhD-candidate would surely be understood as threatening at face-value for her as an advisor. In my experience, she is not of the understanding or empathetic kind, but rather resentful.

So, I need your advice in handling the situation.

Kind regards, L.”

Because we know that problems with a supervisor are tricky to handle for PhD candidates, we want to give L., and everyone else who is in a similar situation, our advice. We’ll let you know what makes PhD candidates want to change advisors, what you should consider in the process, and whether it makes sense in your situation or not. Good supervision is extremely important, so overcoming some obstacles in order to replace a ‘less than good’ supervisor can be absolutely worthwhile! 

1. Most are happy with their supervision, but some are not

To keep things in perspective at this point, we should mention that the majority of PhD candidates are rather happy and satisfied with the supervision they receive. But working with PhD candidates over the past 14 years, we’ve also encountered some for whom this is not the case. They are in a situation where they experience problems with one or several of their supervisors. There are surveys that back-up this overall observation. Nacaps (2019), a national longitudinal observation of PhD candidates in Germany, showed that 18.6 % are not satisfied with their supervisory situation. In the Helmholtz Juniors Survey Report (2019), there are 25.3% of PhD candidates who are in the categories ‘rather unsatisfied’ to ‘very unsatisfied’ with their supervision. See also Nature’s 2019 PhD survey. 

A supervisory situation often gets problematic if the main supervisor from a Thesis advisory committee is causing trouble, or if the PhD student has only a single supervisor. 

A high percentage of PhD students today are enrolled in structured PhD programmes where supervisory committees consisting of 3 or more supervisors are mandatory. In principle, this is a great way to counterbalance weaknesses of individuals and ensure a high quality of supervision overall. However, problems often occur if the main supervisors are not living up to their supervisory duties. 

Also, there are still PhD candidates who pursue individual projects and have only a single supervisor, which increases the dependency on that one person. If that supervisor fails to give good supervision, the PhD student flounders, and may be left with virtually no support. 

2. Reasons why PhD students want to replace a supervisor 

There are plenty of reasons why a PhD student wants or has to exchange an advisor. Many universities and research institutes or governmental bodies have set out codes of conduct for PhD/graduate education that describe roles and responsibilities of supervisors (see e.g. UniWiND 2015, UCL 2018, National Health and Medical Research Council Australia 2019, University of Edinburgh 2021). Violation of these commonly accepted principles often constitutes a reason for a change of supervisor. 

In our blog post no. 10: Good PhD-supervision, we discuss 5 pillars of great supervision and describe what you can expect from a good supervisor. 

Below, we’ve listed some illustrative examples which highlight typical reasons you may want to replace your supervisor. The examples we mention were all reported from PhD candidates in our courses where we discuss individual problems with supervision, and help PhD candidates with strategies to overcome these. If you’re interested in benefiting from our support as well, check out the PhD success Lab. Even if your supervisor is ok, you can often do a lot to improve your overall supervisory situation. 

Lack of supervision or poor supervision

A lack of supervision includes insufficient guidance and support and irregular interaction or feedback on the progress of a PhD project. A clear sign of a lack of supervision is if one does not have regular meetings with a PhD supervisor (e.g. meetings only happen twice a year), if meetings are sporadic rather than regular, and if no substantial feedback on work or progress is given. Insufficient encouragement and interest in the PhD candidates work are further factors (see also Helmholtz Juniors 2019, p. 22). 

If you want to check how your supervision stacks up, check our free worksheet ‘How good is my PhD supervision’, in which we list key factors that allow you to assess the quality of your supervision.

Supervisor is not an expert in your field

It is possible that asupervisor is not an expert in the area in which the PhD student works. This can happen if a PhD advisor was originally allocated for administrative reasons (rather than scientific expertise) or if the PhD student’s project develops in a different direction over time. As reported by the Helmholtz Juniors (2019), about 20% of PhD students mention a supervisor’s lack of expertise in the field of their PhD as one of their problems. Also Helfer et al. (2019), cite it as one point of dissatisfaction with supervisors. 

Clash of personalities

In this case, the personal chemistry between you and the supervisor is off. You are e.g. hyper-organised and your supervisor is the chaotic one, coming up with new ideas for your research in every meeting, dwarfing any of your attempts to maintain focus. Or you need a lot of freedom to pursue your own ideas, but you have a supervisor who is a micromanager, and wants to be involved in every single step you take, leading to endless discussions and delay in your PhD process. There are fundamental character traits or ways to work that do not match well, and are a reason for perpetual annoyance – often on both sides.

Questionable research practice or scientific misconduct

Many Higher Education Institutions, funding agencies, or governmental bodies have developed codes of good scientific practice (see e.g. Australian Government (2007), Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science (2014), Swedish Research Council (2017), German Research Foundation (2019), UK Research Integrity Office. These lay out guidelines of how research should be conducted, how data should be handled, ethical principles in research that must be considered, how results are published, and how junior researchers must be treated and evaluated – these are broader than the codes of conduct for supervision that we mentioned above. If a supervisor engages in behaviour calls into question these commonly acknowledged practices, or violates them, this will negatively impact the PhD candidate, the quality of their research, and their relationship. As just one example: A supervisor of one of the PhD participants in our courses published an article with data from the PhD candidates’ research without that person’s knowledge or consent. The results that were published would have constituted part of the PhD candidates’ thesis.  

Harassment, discrimination, or abuse 

Harassment, discrimination, or abuse, even in milder forms, constitute a breach of good scientific practice. Like any workplace, scientific institutions are not free from misbehaviour from (in this case) superiors. Strict hierarchical settings and tough competition may exacerbate bullying behaviour or abuse of power (see Max Planck PhDnet, 2018). As an example: One South American PhD candidate had to endure constant negative comments about her background and ability to perform by her supervisor. Quotes like ‘you are a latino, they usually work hard, but you are an exception’, where part of the regular communication. Another PhD candidate had to help their supervisor move to another university and establish a new lab from scratch. Months passed with moving goods, ordering parts and equipment. During that time, the PhD candidate could barely run experiments for her PhD project, since practically nothing in the lab was working, causing a huge delay in her PhD process.  

3. Is it difficult to change a supervisor?

In most cases, a change of supervisor is possible, but there are a few things that need consideration. 

Formal or legal aspects:

Some universities or graduate schools have formal proceedings for an exchange of supervisors anchored in their PhD regulations (or elsewhere) which are publicly available. In such a case, there is transparency around the process and you will be able to find out what you have to do and who you need to talk to in order to change yours. For one good example that sets out clear guidelines, see Griffith University’s (2019) Code of Practice for the Supervision of Higher Degree Research Candidates.  

The most progressive or advantageous of PhD regulations will e.g. mention that you can add or exchange members of your thesis advisory committee at any point in time during your PhD. In this case, giving notice to the graduate school that you would like to change one of your supervisors and follow the outlined procedures is all that is needed. 

If no policies or formal proceedings exist however, the process of how a supervisor can be replaced is in the dark, and that can ultimately make it more difficult to get what you want. 

Financing of your PhD:

In the event that your PhD is financed by a third party funded project of your supervisor, or they are in any other way financing your PhD, a change might be tricky. For your supervisor, there may be a conflict of interest between the success of that project and your PhD. You will only benefit if you can change your supervisor and keep your PhD position and funding and can keep working on the same PhD project. That can surely be sorted out, but it might need a bit more discussion to come to a mutually beneficial solution. 

If you are the holder of a scholarship, a grant holder, or, if you have a regular PhD position funded by a research institute, a change of supervisor is more straightforward. In this case, the financing is independent from the supervisor. 

Personal aspects:

Of course impacts to your personal and professional life play a role as well. Like in the above example, many PhD candidates are afraid of the conflict that will occur once they speak up, and the damage this might do to the reputation of their supervisor. 

How the personal aspects work out depends to a large degree on how the entire process is handled. If it is done well, the damage can be limited and no one has to lose face. Many arrangements are possible, and depending on the reasons for the change, the parties can also determine what is and is not made public. Supervisors may also be relieved that they can end a supervisory relationship with a PhD candidate they knew was unhappy with their guidance, and are glad that a colleague will take over. 

So in conclusion, in most cases it is possible to replace a supervisor. Universities have formal proceedings that take place in order to exchange a supervisor and it might happen more often than you think. 

4. Is it the right thing for you to replace your supervisor?

Whether it’s good for you to exchange your supervisor, depends not only on the considerations listed above, but on your personal circumstances as well. Don’t rush it, but eventually try to arrive at a decision, after carefully balancing the pros and cons. Some personal factors that you should think about, before replacing yours, are the following:

How far in the PhD process are you?

 If you’re right at the start and you already notice that things aren’t going well, it is certainly worth the effort to try and get another supervisor. In contrast, if you’ve only got a few months left until submitting your dissertation, you might decide to just ‘live’ with a not-so-good supervisor, finish, and move on. 

How much does the problem with your supervisor impact the quality of your PhD?

Would you be significantly better-off with another person? Does this require a replacement of your main supervisor? Or could a great co-supervisor be added to the team? See our blog post no. 68 for suggestions on how to pick the perfect co-supervisor.

How much do you suffer personally?

How much does the problem with your supervisor affect your ability to work, and your potential to do excellent research? How much does it influence your well-being and your life? 

Does it jeopardise your PhD completion?

For us, the ultimate question to ask is always the following: If you don’t change your supervisor and just continue as is, would your PhD completion be in danger? If that is a clear ‘yes,’ then a change of supervisor is on the agenda. 

Conclusion

PhD candidates often wait too long before they initiate the process of changing supervisors. Some only speak up about a problem when they literally can’t take it any more and are desperate. Don’t wait that long! If you realise that you are suffering from poor supervision, by any means, change your supervisor if it will help you do better research and have a happier PhD life. PhD candidates who went through an exchange of supervisors often tell us later how relieved they were, how much more positive they experienced their PhD life to be, and that it gave a big boost to their motivation to complete their project. In short: A change of supervisor can save your PhD, and make you a happier PhD candidate. 

If you want to know more about how to overcome difficulties and have a happier PhD process, sign up to our free webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’

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