Top 10 ways to annoy your PhD supervisors

 

I should start this post by saying very clearly that what follows is by no means a comment on the many fantastic students I work with and have worked with. I should also be clear that this does not reflect official policy of UTS: it reflects my personal views and is deliberately provocative at times.

The title is a little flippant: this isn’t just about (not) annoying your supervisors, but about the broader and crucial issue of maintaining health supervisory relationships, and making the most out of what supervision has to offer. As you’ll see if you read on, successful doctoral candidature is also about being part of a wider institution and realising that doctoral education and support is much more than supervision.

This is written from the voice of your supervisor, and some points may be more relevant in social sciences and humanities, but most should be worth thinking about for all students.

1.   Disappear

This might sound obvious, but it happens quite a lot. Students, maybe because they are worried, or feel they haven’t been productive enough, can drop into radio silence. Chasing up disappearing doctoral students isn’t particularly pleasurable, and more importantly is a worrying sign. I’m not dismissing important and real issues around anxiety, and of course there are often good reasons why you might find it hard to keep up your work, or might lose confidence. Accessing counselling support services should never be discounted as an option. But going invisible / silent doesn’t do anything for your supervisory relationship and you should stay in regular communication with me.

2.   Mess me around with dates and deadlines

Yes, you might not always be able to meet when we planned, and yes sometimes your work will take longer than expected: unexpected other things in life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, turn up when we agree to meet, and provide me with your work by the deadline we agree. If you are late, this can compromise my ability to give your work the time and attention it deserves. Equally: I have to make a firm commitment not to change meeting dates and to give feedback in a timely manner. It’s about mutual respect as much as anything else.

3.   Continue to work on texts that I’m reading for feedback

This really is annoying: you send in a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc) and we meet a week later. Meanwhile you’ve been working on the same text, and arrive by telling me that the text I’ve spent considerable time reading and preparing to discuss, is no longer the one you’re working on. Grrr! Make sure you have something else to work on while I’m reading particular pieces of writing.

4.   Assume I’m your default source of support

As your supervisor I’m an important port of call for many sorts of help, support, advice, and guidance. But NOT all sorts of help, support, advice and guidance. You have librarians, administrators, IT support, peers, friends, family, other academics etc as alternatives. Good students consider who is best to ask for help (I’ve published about this kind of relational agency). Asking me stuff that others could have helped you with is irritating and unproductive. Help keep our meetings focused on the stuff that I can bring most value to.

5.   Ask for help before trying to address something yourself

Related to point 4, but slightly different. This is doctoral study: high-level stuff where learning independence is a key factor. If you come to me with a ‘problem’ and want me to offer a solution before you’ve really tried out a number of things yourself, chances are I’ll say (yep, you guessed): “go and try out a few things yourself and reflect on how they go, then we can have a better discussion about how to proceed”.

6.   Agree to things that you know aren’t realistic

One of several points relating to clear, honest, shared expectations. If I say “when can you have a draft of your methodology written by?” and you say “one month”, then make sure that that is realistic. If you know you’ve got to look after the kids in school holidays, or have visits from demanding relatives, or a crazy month in your job, don’t be scared to tell me. I have to respect your other commitments just as I expect you to respect mine. I’d rather we negotiated a reasonable timeframe up front, than you agreeing to something unrealistic and then messing me around later (see point 2).

7.   Leave the supervision with no idea what I was talking about

Yes, I admit: I’m not always as clear as I’d like to be when giving suggestions to students I work with. I’m as guilty as the next person of being cryptic at times. I need you to help manage this. Don’t sit there nodding and writing notes in a supervision, as if you understand everything I’m saying, and then come back a month later and say “sorry, I didn’t do anything on that chapter because I didn’t really understand what you wanted me to do”. If say “It needs more voice” and you have no idea or are unsure what that means, then speak up! You’re not supposed to be psychic. But you are supposed to be an active partner in supervisions and to play an active role in reaching shared understandings of next steps.

8.   Agree with everything I say

One of my biggest fears is that as a supervisor I lead you into doing your doctorate the way I would have done it. I worry a lot if a consistent pattern emerges when you acquiesce to everything I suggest and don’t contest any of my ideas. This is your PhD, your name is going on the certificate. Show you’re becoming a scholar worthy of the title ‘Dr’ by being ready to disagree with me. You’re going to have to disagree with much scarier people in future, and stand up for your decisions, so get used to it.

9.   Talk to other academics without discussing with me first

As with any workplace, academic institutions are not free of politics. I very much encourage and support you to interact with and get support from as a wide a range of academic colleagues as is appropriate. But it’s much better to talk to me about this before going and knocking on others’ doors. I can then guide you as to who might be helpful (and guide you away from others who might throw a spanner in the works for whatever reason). I might also broker an introduction. Some supervisors might have, er, shall we say tense relations with some of their colleagues, so a bit of openness about reaching out isn’t a bad idea.

10.                 Expect me to know your field as well as you do

Simple truth: if I don’t know your field when we start, I certainly won’t by the time you’re getting close to finishing. I haven’t read everything you have. I don’t know your data as well as you do. You’re (becoming) the expert in that area. So think about what that means for how to make the most of your relationship with me as your supervisor.

Obviously, this isn’t the 10 commandments: they’re deliberately frank, flippant and perhaps provocative. These rules might not apply in your context, but I’m guessing the chances are something related to each point is relevant in some way to how you work with your supervisor.

Reference to the paper I published on wider relationships and relational agency:

Hopwood, N. (2010). A sociocultural view of doctoral students’ relationships and agency. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(2), 103-117.

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40 thoughts on “Top 10 ways to annoy your PhD supervisors

  1. Prue

    That’s great Nick – great to get an open and honest approach from the other side. And phew I don’t think I am too annoying thank goodness…

    Reply
  2. Klara

    Great post – maybe I’ll simply tell future students to read this before anything else. Might save quite some trouble 🙂

    Reply
  3. Susan

    Number 7 has happened to me a few times. Supervisor talks, I listen. I ask questions. I challenge, he explains again. But at some point in the meeting I just have to give up and hope that sometime before the next meeting, or sometime in the next month or two, the message will sink into my brain. Sometimes maybe I don’t know what he’s talking about because actually he doesn’t (see Number 10 above). Sometimes it’s because I really don’t understand the finer points of structured equation modelling and I need to do further research before I can understand what he’s trying to say. All I can say is that it’s a horrible feeling when I leave the Supervisor’s room more in the dark than when I arrived.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Susan
      Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I’m sure you’re not alone! Look out for a student’s response (how supervisors annoy their students) next week…

      Reply
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  5. Leonhardt

    This is very useful for me, Nick, as I am somewhere halfway my PhD. A recent blog post of mine and yours are sort of complementary, as my recent post discusses employability. Based on working experience outside academia, my 11 suggestions may be valuable for those PhD students who do not need your advice and manage to quickly complete their research, but find it nonetheless hard to find a job afterwards: http://www.geomeans.com/my-11-suggestions-to-improve-your-employability/

    Reply
  6. sush

    Reblogged this on reflections on the everyday and commented:
    I just read this post by a Ph.D. supervisor or what we in the States call “advisor”…….most of it is common sense. I would admit that I fault on point 1 and 2 but mostly on 2 often!!
    I think for a lot of us its about being able to send in work to your advisor that you think needs more work. I default on deadlines because I find it extremely hard to show work that is not A+ in my opinion. Its a habit that I am finding very hard to break out of .

    Reply
  7. The voice of reason

    11. think that you and your PhD are the centre of my universe – while it should be the centre of yours, it won’t be the centre of mine. I have other PhD students as well as teaching and research committments to think about
    12. mistake quality and quantity – send me work in a suitable fashion that I can give you feedback on, not several hundred pages of work that wont even make the thesis (or even an appendix) because I won’t review it. students think they need to show you how hard they;ve been working by sending you copious amounts of work to read in an unsuitable format
    13. drop in my office as and when you need to – I’ve not got all the time in the world to spend on your PhD. I’m happy to deal with important queries if appropriate but I cannot spare you time here and there for ad hoc supervision
    14. expect all the answers – it’s your PhD. I’ll guide and support you and challenge you along the way, but it’s your PhD, not mine. Part of the process is finding out the answers yourself. if you need to be spoon fed, a PhD is not for you

    Reply
  8. Kelly

    Point 9 irks me a lot: “Talk to other academics without discussing with me first”. A student is free to speak with whoever they please. If another academic has expertise in an area your supervisor is lacking, you have the right as a student to contact this person. Politics should NOT come into it. Interpersonal issues between your supervisor and another academic is not the students problem. If your supervisor is quite ‘hands off’ (is not willing to be your ‘default for support’ with regards to your thesis) then you are largely working as an independent researcher and have the right to find support or information elsewhere, even without consulting your supervisor first. Of course, it is always best to tell your supervisor that you met up with academic A, but it is stressed in many institutions that students should not feel guilty for seeking information elsewhere or feel that they must be passively controlled. PhD candidates are adults, not students. The ‘im your authority/but dont rely on me’ kind of supervision attitude is most detrimental to a PhD students progress- and often younger supervisors are the culprits of this.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Kelly

      Thanks for your comment. Indeed you are not alone in being irked by this comment, as the follow-up post (written by a student) makes very clear!

      I myself as a supervisor wish to encourage students to be ‘relationally agentic’ (a term developed by Anne Edwards) and to diversity the sources of support. In hindsight I might have worded this less strongly, but then the deliberately provocative approach seems to be effective because it generates responses which actually give a better sense of how the picture lies.

      I do stand by my point to the extent that while ‘politics should NOT come into it’ (I agree), the fact is, sometimes they do. Students have every right and freedom to speak to anyone and I never dispute that. I think it worth bearing in mind that if done in certain ways in certain contexts it might have the effect of annoying a supervisor. I spend a huge amount of time meeting with students who are working with other staff, and am most comfortable if their supervisors know we are meeting. But I don’t stop talking to students if this isn’t the case. If a student of mine reports having spoken to someone else, I’m normally pleased and interested to hear what they had to say.

      But there is a chance that sometimes, with some supervisors, having raised a particular topic with a particular other person might have difficult implications. For example, some academics might be a bit prickly about the suggestion that their expertise was not enough, or perhaps that they are neglectful / too hands off.

      I would say even with the most hands on supervisors, talking to other academics is really important. And I wouldn’t advocate academics having a final say on this. But my experience has been that on the whole, mentioning to a supervisor you intent to find others (even if not named) is a good idea. A good supervisor will be supportive of this and might add to it by suggesting people who could be helpful (including those they don’t agree with intellectually or get on with socially). Another thing I could do if a student tells me they intend talking to someone else could be to help the student think about how to make the approach (some profs etc can be intimidating), or how to use language that will entice the other person, or perhaps suggesting some readings to help the student be really prepared.

      In sum: I think good supervisors encourage students to meet with other academics and don’t police that; I think good meetings with other academics often benefit from having been considered in supervision first (not for approval, but to make them more worthwhile); and sadly, it would be wrong to pretend politics can be ignored by students: most of the time there are no politics to ignore anyway, but when there are issues, they require careful management. Tis the way of the world, academic or otherwise.

      Thanks again for the comment – I’d much rather people disagreed and wrote about it! That shows this blog is no oracle or gospel of truth, and it gives chance to air disagreements in a respectful and scholarly way, which is happening here I think!

      Reply
  9. Leanne Hallowell

    Point 1 – Disappear. In the first attempt at a research Masters, my supervisor disappeared. I turned up for a meeting, a month after the last one. I had emailed ahead the previous week with some work to discuss. I found her office empty and name off the door. Reception informed me she had left. Email hadn’t bounced. No email/letter to let me know this had happened or an offer by anyone for a new supervisor. I was left stranded. Dropped my enrolment and enrolled at another University where I completed my Masters.
    Now as an academic I have seen the same thing happen from the other side. Students/candidates bounced between supervisors as they move from one place to another with little regard for completion. I am not suggesting that academics should stay in jobs until all students/candidates are through, or to take students/candidates with them, or to keep the student/candidate on (in one instance I did that – hard for both of us, but with 3 months to go, and as I was the last in a line of supervisors I felt it was unfair to move her onto someone else). I do want to suggest that as supervisors we do have some responsibility to transition that candidate onto someone else. That is – we shouldn’t just disappear.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks, Leanne

      What strikes me as amazing is that I felt the need to raise this point at all! That people disappear (students or supervisors) in such a way is remarkable.

      There are softer forms of disappearing including radio silence, avoiding meetings, cancelling meetings etc which are more common, but still to be avoided (and as the follow-up post says, can be done by both parties!)

      Reply
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  11. mothius1506

    Thanks for this. I believe in point 9, you’re trying to control the student’s freedom to consult with whoever he/ she wants. The goings on/ politics and/ or small misunderstanding that may exist between you and your academic colleagues should not compromise what your student needs. I wouldn’t like it if my supervisor made decisions on who I can get help from. I also don’t feel obliged to keep my supervisor informed about all my collaborations with other academics.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi
      Thanks for your comment. I understand and agree with your point about number 9. Perhaps I should not have put it there but I won’t delete it because the comments show the kind of debate I think blogs are good for!

      As a supervisor I can’t think of any colleagues in my uni or discipline that I wouldn’t want students I am supervising to talk to. So it’s not about control or blocking access.

      But I and my colleagues are sometimes frustrated when approached by students we are not supervising who for various reasons aren’t able to make the most of meeting time.

      I would hope that a student I am supervising would feel comfortable coming to me to say ‘I am going to meet this person how can I make the most of it?’.

      Sometimes there are also little things to bear in mind about avoiding too much contact with people who might be good examiners down the track.

      I agree with all comments who protest the idea of supervisor veto on meetings. But I stand by the point that informing supervisors of intent to talk with colleagues can be beneficial. It can also alert me to things I need to help students with better myself!

      Reply
  12. Daniel

    Wow you are an annoying and controlling professor I want to avoid. #3 is proof of that. It only means the student is interested in his work.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks for your comment. It shows that no one supervisor will please all students and that a good fit is important.

      I am far from alone in the view expressed in point 3.

      I am loathe to discourage eager and keen students but would say if I’m reading something you’ve written then focus your enthusiasm on something else. Otherwise I am wasting time reading an already out of date text and our meeting to discuss it won’t be so useful.

      But I accept this wont suit all students. That’s why it is so important to set out expectations early and to get to know potential supervisors before you start if possible. And to remember that changing supervisors is often a possibility too if the fit isn’t good.

      Reply
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  14. Steph

    I find that some of the points discussed above may irritate some advisors.
    As a Phd student, for example, whenever I disagree with my advisor I get into trouble, even when I’m right.
    It really annoys me when Im forced to perform an experiment which I knew was going to fail. Sadly it happens on a daily.basis.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      No-one ever promised that supervisors would never ask you to do things that are annoying, or even things that they know will fail!
      If disagreement really is leading you to getting into trouble, that strikes me as curious. That said, in my world (social science) it is rarely a question of right / wrong. I wonder ifwhat you see as being ‘right’ and her/him being wrong as perhaps seeing something from a different perspective from him/her in terms of what its value will be for you.

      Reply
      1. Chia

        Though I like research, the relationship with my advisor is turning the PhD into a not so nice experience.
        I work in biology and in some cases right from wrong is very evident.
        My only complain is just that the PhDs student opinion should be taken more seriously (sometimes).

  15. Chia

    It really annoys me when Im forced to perform an experiment which I knew was going to fail. Sadly, it happens on a daily basis and most advisors dont like students to disagree with them.

    I thinks advisors should guide students but some of them want students to do what they want and nothing else. For such a purpose an undergrad student would be enough.

    Reply
  16. Light

    After reading this entry I have realized I had annoyed my supervisor…I’ve done almost all you have mentioned except #1, #4, #5 and #9. Currently I’m doing #6. The example you had given just like my current condition. I’m feeling very guilty. What should I do now?

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi
      Thanks for your comment, and your honesty!
      The point of the blog is not to cultivate guilt – but hopefully to think about a shift to more productive (less annoying!) practices.

      If #6 is your real issue right now – agreeing to unrealistic things – then I would suggest considering a discussion with your supervisor where you talk through the enablers and limiting factors in terms of your study. You could frame it positively and say “looking at my plans, I’m a bit concerned I might not be able to deliver, could you help me prioritise and think of some strategies to ensure I stay on track?”

      Let me know how it goes!

      Reply
  17. Yeah Right

    So basically you consistently fail to establish expectations with your students from beginning to end of the process, and then you get frustrated and complain that students don’t match what’s in your head. You seem to think students should magically be able to comply with what you expect simply because they have been accepted into your program. Please own your part of the problem and treat your role as a professional educator. Professionals negotiate expectations up front and for tasks. They don’t leave everything to chance and then blame someone later.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Response re supervision

      Thank you, ‘Yeah Right’ for your comment. I post blogs in the spirit of debate and approve all comments providing they are not spam or abusive to others.

      I think you have hit the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of expectation management. Managing expectations in supervision (from both parties) is crucial – not a guarantee of success in itself, but surely one of a handful of must-have agreements.

      I had rather hoped that my original post would be read as a playful way of pointing precisely to the things that both students and supervisors might wish to make clear of each other expectation-wise.

      I’m very sorry that you felt my post was ‘blaming’ others for failures, and that you read it as a series of complaints from a supervisor frustrated because of students’ lack of psychic powers.

      I took care to state that the post was not based on my experience with students I have supervised, though it seems you interpreted the post as a direct reflection of my own (in your opinion, poor) practice.

      I would also point out that there was a follow-up post more from the student point of view that resonates with some of the gist of your post, though in a markedly different tone (mimicking the provocative yet impersonal approach taken in my original, rather than directing concrete critique of others as if what was written came directly from the author’s experience or faults).

      I absolutely agree with you that supervision needs to be thought about seriously as an educative or pedagogic practice. I’m very familiar with the extensive literature on this, indeed have written some of it myself. And while I make no claims as to 100% success, I do consciously try my utmost to practise supervision in a supportive, respectful and pedagogically impactful way. This does include being clear about setting expectations, but it does not mean the same expectations are set with every student, nor that they are fixed in stone with any one student: it is a mutual and dynamic process that reflects shifting contexts, demands, personalities etc.

      Your point also goes to show how such blog posts produce very different interaction effects when read by different people. Some chuckle and see part of themselves themselves (past or present, student or supervisor) in what is written; others take serious issue with particular points (especially, in this case, point 9, as the many comments that followed show!); and others take the opportunity to pass judgement on me (which you can also read above). It strikes me as very interesting, as this is pretty much identical to what happens during peer review for academic publishing, except it is normally kept behind closed doors!

      So thank you for reading the blog and for taking the time to comment. It seems we may actually agree more than your comment suggests – and I appreciate you bringing the expectation management issue so clearly to the fore – you’re absolutely right, in my view, that leaving things to chance, or magic powers, is not a helpful way forward in supervision!

      Nick

      Reply
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