Marriages of Equality – Your Relationship with Your Supervisor

Your relationship with your supervisor can make or break your PhD. You will hear countless stories of people who quit their studies because their supervisors were awful, or useless, or just plain never around. You will also hear stories of people who ended up having their work stolen by their supervisor who then published it under their own name (okay, I’ve only heard of this happening once, but once is one time too many).

There are any number of reasons you won’t form a good relationship with your supervisor. Most of those reasons are not your fault; unfortunately, as it often means you can’t do anything to change the situation.

I recently did an online MOOC about surviving your PhD (after I’d finished my PhD), and one of the main ideas they raised was that your relationship with your supervisor is like a marriage.

That’s a loaded term, obviously, and perhaps not the most useful, considering there is a variety of definitions of marriage in the world. So let me clarify by saying that it should be something like a marriage…

…of equality. If it is anything else, the relationship will cause your thesis to suffer.

What do I mean by this?

A marriage of equality is exactly what it sounds like. A coming together of two people, with a shared interest/passion, who support and compliment each other equally. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they can play these off each other and, in the end, form a relationship that is very much a whole.

So few people ever have this time of supervision relationship, alas. I wish it wasn’t so. Everyone deserves to know what this feels like; what good supervision is, what good support is, and what wonderful things a student can bring to a supervisor’s views on the field. But it is not the way academia usually works.

Most supervisors will be decent. Some will be completely MIA, others will only be around when it suits them. Others can be completely controlling and demanding. None of those are okay, but if you get a decent supervisor, appreciate them, because it means they probably have a chance to become a great supervisor one day, if they have the determination to.

But sometimes you get a wonderful one. Sometimes you get a marriage of equality. And they can make your PhD experience an astounding journey. They can make your PhD better than it would ever have been. And they can also benefit from your views, and develop their own work in conjunction with yours. You can inspire them to new ideas, as they can inspire you to great theories.

If you get one of these supervisors, don’t brag, but do appreciate that you got very lucky, and enjoy the journey as it unfolds.

If you didn’t get one of these supervisors, don’t despair. Plenty of people finish their PhDs without very good supervision. A lot of that depends on what sort of person you are and how you adapt to the situation.

Don’t get mad. Don’t be annoyed you didn’t get a brilliant one. Do something about it, even if what you do might not change the situation, at least you will have tried.

Talk to your department. Can you switch supervisors? Yes? No? Can you talk with other staff in the department – even if only informally – to ask advice on your research, etc.? Can you talk to others at your university who may be much better supervisors, who might not know your subject, but can still advise you on how to do a PhD?

What can you realistically do yourself for which you don’t need a supervisor’s help? Can you find information online about aspects of the PhD you’re unsure of? Can you talk to other PhD students?

A PhD is an independent research project. It’s on your own head. But that does not mean your university shouldn’t support you. If they have not given you a good supervisor, find other ways to get the support you need, but you have to be willing to go out and find them. And you have to be willing to step up to the plate yourself and fill the gap.

But if you get a decent supervisor, one who is around, who has office hours, who looks over your work, who actually has conversations with you, then great. You can teach them to be better at their job. Identify what you need most and tell them. What kind of supervision do you want? Tell them. Do you need a specific type of support? Tell them. What are your expectations for your PhD and your journey? Tell them. Ask them, challenge them, question them. Don’t sit meekly by and wait to be told what to do. You are there to learn, but so is your supervisor.

One thing I found very useful (and I have a great supervisor) was to ask for contacts to people he knew who were in the same field, or similar fields, who might have a different view or a different idea about a certain theory. A second opinion, as it were. You get to network with other academics this way, while also talking about your topic with someone in the know, but who is not your supervisor. This can create whole new ideas and directions (it did for me). My supervisor had no issue giving me such contacts, and introducing me to people he thought could be of help. He was willing to acknowledge where his expertise ended, and point me in the direction of others who could fill that void. That is the mark of a great supervisor.

Whatever you do, you don’t have to suffer. If you are truly unable to have a useful relationship with your supervisor, you need to consider carefully whether to continue your PhD. I know several people who started at one department, were given an awful supervisor, and switched to another university several months in. Then ended up with great supervisors because of it.

If, in the end, you have to endure your PhD journey without good advise, then don’t despair. I do know many Doctors who managed it and have lived to tell the tale. And, strangely enough, it’s made them very good supervisors themselves.


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