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.

64 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…

    1. Sceptical phd

      I hope you discuss these expectations with your students and do not expect them to be mindreaders. I see these complaints all too often on academic twitter and always wonder if there was a safe enough space to discuss such expectations about the advisor advisee relationship. Dealing with people is hard. But frustrations should be shared and discussed with the person in question. It’s unfortunate that advisors are rarely trained in this kind of communication.

      1. Nick Hopwood Post author

        Hi @Sceptical phd. Thank you for your comment! I think you’ve hit the core of what this post is all about: not expecting each other to by psychic or mind-readers, and the importance of safe, shared spaces to talk not only about the research/thesis but about how we work together. Supervisors getting frustrated and expecting students to suddenly change unprompted is as unhelpful as students getting frustrated with their supervisors and expecting them to magically change too!

  2. Klara

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

    1. Gabriela

      Some supervisors are quite nasty when it takes to dealing with students. It is true that students can annoy supervisors, but it does not give them the right to tear students down, or to humiliate us in person or through e-mail. During my first year, I tried not to annoy my supervisor and I was very keen to learn and improve myself, and I blamed myself and took responsibility of everything that went wrong during my first year, until I realized that my supervisor was never really supportive from the very beginning of my candidature. On the contrary, he was nasty, and had nothing good to say, and did not provide feedback on time.

      1. Amine

        Hello Gabriela, Could you please tell us how did you manage to cope with your supervisor and how did you manage to have self confidence and continue your work?

  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.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      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…

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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:

  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 .

  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

  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.

    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!

    2. Jo

      I would say point 4 and point 9 are contradictory. This is something that supervisors can do to get their PhDs crazy. Obviously I do not agree with point 9 and I have been myself a victim of it.

      When, after a long time struggling with something, I told my supervisor: “I think we should talk with someone from group X, since they are expert in this problem”, then my supervisor reacted angrily: “Why do you want to talk with group X? What can they do that we can not? You should not go there, but go instead to person B, who works in our group, and know a lot about this problem too”.
      I had already tried person B, but scared from my supervisor reaction, I went once again. A few more weeks were lost. When I finally stopped caring about my supervisor reaction, I went to talk with someone from group X and I had my problem solved immediately.

      How insecure can a supervisor be? So damaging.

      1. nickhopwood Post author

        Hi Jo. Thanks for your comment. Like I said in my other reply – check out the counter-perspective from a student, that highlights many ways in which supervisors can be crappy and worse (lots of which are the exact same idea as those listed here).

        Contradictory points – kind of yes and no. First the no: It is totally possible to consult a range of people (f2f, remotely) and try many avenues to solving a problem before going to a supervisor for help – all without dashing off to an academic from another group that might have unanticipated complications. But then the yes: and? Human beings and the systems we are in are full of contradictions, and that is just part of our reality. I never expect nor promise a contradiction-free understanding of the world. That to me would just be false.

        I’m sorry to hear about your experience – it does indeed sound to have been an unhelpful response from your supervisor, and wasteful of your time and more. I wonder what it was that made your supervisor feel so wary about going somewhere else? Insecurity, as you suggest, sounds like a good guess – so what drives that? The reaction you describe is strange to me as that kind of group-based research isn’t so common in my field. I have explained elsewhere what I think might be reasonable and ethical reasons to urge caution, or at least take care to be fully informed before contacting others (eg. not undermining possibilities for examiners later on), and expect these are relatively rare. The norm I would hope for, and reason for point 9 in the first place, was the expectation and hope that supervisors would normally support and add value to making contact with others, not block it out of insecurity. But you are right, insecure supervisors can do a lot of damage and the more people put that kind of thing out in the public domain (as I am grateful that you have chosen to do), the better chance we have of alleviating this problem.

  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.

    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!)

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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.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      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!

  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.

    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.

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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.

    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.

      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.

  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?

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      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!

  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.

    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!


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  21. Shewill Bud

    Is this article a troll? Absolving the supervisor of all responsibility and referring to the supervisor in your article as “me” makes your bias evident. How about you try to anticipate the needs of your students and coach them to success instead of preaching from atop your high horse? You are the nightmare that plagues academia.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Shewill, it is not a troll. I recognise not everyone agrees with what I wrote. I do not agree the piece absolves supervisors of all responsibility. Indeed there is a companion post written by a student that flips each point the other way: demonstrating that responsibility is mutual in this kind of work. This particular post came out of lots of conversation with supervisors and students about things that really do happen and often cause problems. Putting it out in the open for discussion not as gospel could, I hoped, be helpful. Most people even in disagreement have responded in a collegial spirit of academic discussion.

    2. One student

      You’re calling this guide “the nightmare that plagues academia.”?! Well I don’t know about you but for students like me who are pretty much silent between them and their advisor and there’s A LOT of ‘reading between the lines’ this might actually help since no one in university taught us what’s polite or not or what the norms and expectations are for a student interacting with their supervisor who might not be so forgiving of mistakes in behavior. I legit wish there was a course or class that taught us what the norms are between advisors and their students or what’s considered rude or polite. I made too many minor mistakes due to never having been told about them.

      1. nickhopwood Post author

        Hi One student!
        Thank you for your comment. While I am aware that some of the things I wrote were controversial (indeed, unpopular, as you picked up yourself), I am nonetheless happy that is has provoked a debate that brings aspects of supervision out into the open when, precisely as you say, they are often hidden. Increasingly universities are offering workshops on managing supervision and producing documentation and guidelines for both students and supervisors. I hope this reaches wherever you are soon!

  22. Relationships

    Kinda crap advice!
    Don’t talk to us about problems see others. No don’t talk to others before seeing us??
    Arrogant, unproductive and ghost supervisors – could do my thesis on that!

    1. Charlotte Gray

      Looking forward to a university that supports both student and supervisors (relationship) so the end goal of completing the thesis is achieved and someone from the university can sort out the so called “bad student” or “bad supervisor”
      Win win for all!!
      If universities do this I guarantee you’ll have more students completing their thesis and less stress for all parties.

      1. nickhopwood Post author

        Hi Charlotte
        Thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree more that support for both students and supervisors, and for the relationship between them is important. My understanding is that many universities put in a lot of effort into all of these, and things are getting better. Sadly I don’t think non-completion and stress will ever be eliminated completely – doctoral work is so hard (intellectually and emotionally) and the pressures on academics so extreme, plus there are human beings involved…

    2. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks for your comments. You will see I approve all comments regardless of how ‘nice’ they are. In my defence I would suggest that this piece is best read as part of the pair of which it is half – the other being the mirror from a student’s perspective about crappy supervisors. That makes some of the same points in the reverse direction and clearly shows that supervisors are often not blameless in problems in doctoral work.
      I do stand by my comments that may seem contradictory, and in your words ‘crap’. First, running to the supervisor before trying other avenues is a recipe for getting poor feedback from an overwhelmed supervisor, but also for failing to ‘take off’ later down the track when many of the issues will be ones that any supervisor, however brilliant and unfettered by other academic and personal commitments, will be able to solve.

      The one about not going to other academics has proved unpopular with many readers and commenters, and in many ways, I agree. From a personal perspective, I see a big role as supervisor as helping students cultivate a wide network of academics who they can approach, and who I can help to become aware of the student’s work. That said sometimes I would urge caution in case (i) it might be too early, and the best approach to someone might be made later on; (ii) we might be thinking of that person as an examiner, and have to tread carefully so we don’t set up a conflict of interest that creates a problem later on. In some fields I know there are good intellectual property reasons why academics, for example, but a block on others reviewing papers, and might reasonably also want to be very careful around students going to meet people, say from other labs. There is plenty of precedent of intellectual property theft among academics, and I do think it is reasonable for supervisors to work productively with students when they are thinking of making contact with others, who might in fact be in that group that for ethical and acceptable reasons, information about procedures, experiments, or data, is kept from. Plus, and it makes me sad to say this, some academics, being human, just don’t get on. I would hate to think of students who unwittingly blunder into a toxic relationship between academics. It’s not an excuse, but a reason to support the idea that when thinking of making contact with other academics, in some cases it can help to talk with a supervisor about it. Most importantly, I would hope (as I said before) that the supervisor would in nearly all instances be supportive, and be able to help the student get the most out of that contact.

      And anyway, with pieces that are as clearly and deliberately provocative of this, it’s not offered as ‘advice’ but as a set of things to bounce off, reflect on, disagree with, and discuss (one hopes in a spirit of collegiality and professionalism).

      And yes, I totally get it about arrogant, unproductive and ghost supervisors – both from my peers from all sorts of institutions when I was a student, and from a study I did documenting students’ difficulties in the doctorate.

  23. One student

    I’m guilty somewhat of “vanishing” for a while because I’m simply afraid of my advisor. 😦
    I always try to do my best but honestly he’s been telling me sooooo many times that the only reason he’s accepted my thesis is because of the topic and has directly and indirectly told me that he doesn’t need this paper or me that I feel like at any seconds he might throw a tantrum again and drop me high and dry. Yes, I know he doesn’t need me and I know I’m being difficult with him because I’ve been pretty stoic due to my fearing him, which stops him from knowing me properly but there’s no need to rub that in anyone’s face. I think he’s pissed that I’m polite but not verbally flattering him. The topic is also kinda not fair as it requires me to only read in another language I don’t know and hence the need for me to have 200-pages long thesis and dissertations sent to be translated. And I don’t even dare to tell him about it.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi again
      This makes me sad to read your comments. It doesn’t sound like a comfortable relationship if you are constantly under fear that you might be dumped at any time. It also sounds like you are reflecting on some of the reasons why this mightn’t be so easy for your supervisor either. I wouldn’t want to provide advice as to what to do directly, but I would certainly recommend finding some other member of staff you can talk to in the University – particularly if you agree that the status quo isn’t really working (intellectually or emotionally) for either of you, and therefore doesn’t make sense to continue exactly as things are. This is a really hard situation and I know you won’t be alone in having an experience like this. Ideally we would want supervisions to be places where we can be open (in both directions) about how we want the relationship to work.

  24. Alan

    Your point #9 has the potential to be seen as unscientific, without careful qualification.

    Especially coming, as it does, from someone in your position, with a focus on science history and *communication* (no less).

    Without the softening you have applied in later responses, I would regard it as a “Top 10 red flag for an insecure, nannying supervisor”!

    Politics operate in every workplace and I sympathise that it can require courage, resourcefulness and tact to navigate these waters. Physical scientists (not all of them) in particular often lack emotional intelligence, resulting in petty jealousies and the inability to admit they’re wrong, that they lack expertise, or have acted below-par and need to say sorry.

    But we have to be careful not to place artificial restrictions that are a barrier to getting good science done.

    I collaborate widely outside my group often without getting the OK from my supervisor *precisely* because I don’t want any risk of pre-filtering (through a different/opposed mental model), pre-communication/priming of the collaboration source, or (where it might provoke insecurity) conscious/subconscious obstruction.

    And sometimes just because it has become necessary to show my supervisor he is dead wrong about something. (And it’s great science to welcome being wrong).

    This means I can drive my project forward more effectively and that I can *educate my supervisor* at our next meeting. Any good supervisor practising in the name of science must welcome that.

    No one owns science. It is open to discussion, debate and dissent as and when anyone sees fit, regardless of who’s grant or lab it’s operating off of.

    We need more of a culture in academia of breaking down informational barriers, less ego, more acknowledgement, more openness, – and ultimately – more truth. Please be a part of this, Nick.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Alan
      Thank you for your comment.

      I think you might be confusing me with another Nick Hopwood. I am not the one who focuses on science history and communication.

      A piece like this ‘works’ (if at all) by virtue of others engaging with it and highlighting some of the issues that might be taken with the views presented. A number of others have raised some serious concerns about Point 9. If I were to write it again, I might remove it – but then again, it seems to have at least brought out a discussion of what supervisors/students should do in relation to reaching out to other academics, so in that sense my comments may have been of some useful. If I were to delete it now, it might please some people, but we would lose the context for what has been an interesting discussion.

      The part I do stand by is that sometimes, talking to others might ‘annoy’ your supervisor. This is not to say students should not do it. But it does highlight some things that might be useful to bear in mind. Such action might have only positive benefits, as I expect would be the case most of the time, and seems to be the case for you. It might have other consequences though. A student might inadvertently reach out to someone a supervisor had been hoping to approach as an examiner. Or someone who they might normally restrict in other ways (eg. by putting in a request not to be a reviewer on a paper). Or someone there is or has been deep conflict with. So, I guess my message would be ‘Know the potential risks’. That’s all.

      I do agree that in some cases a restriction on talking to others might well be an effect of a nannying, insecure supervisor.

      I am not inclined to agree with the characterisation of physical scientists, but I do agree that the ultimate aim should be to get good research done (I am not a scientist).

      I do love the idea of students ‘educating’ their supervisors, and indeed I expect most supervisors in my field (which is not science!) would agree – they often talk about that exciting moment, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, when students become more expert in an area than their supervisor.


  25. Dahlia

    I think supervisors like you are the main reason why more and more young researchers are increasingly leaving academia.. (P.S. it’s a bit narcissistic to reference one and only paper, yours! don’t you think?)

    1. Nick Hopwood Post author

      Hi Dahlia. My post was written as a provocation (based on a range of sources); not a reflection of my supervision practices, and in that spirit I’m happy to approve your comment as part of a wider set of responses and reactions. I hope the balancing post – one from a student mirroring many of the same points but from the ‘other’ side – helps to put my comments in relief. The general spirit of posts in my blog is cheeky and sometimes a deliberately exaggerated to both poke fun while also nudging some healthy reflection and disagreement.

  26. Amine

    My supervisors really roasted me when i disagreed too much (relative, as it is too little in my opinion) with them with either unrealistic schedules or scientific topics. Now, they can’t even tolerate a simple question for a clarification.
    With all due respect, I believe this post only represents your own opinion and the results of your experience not everyone’s.

    1. Nick Hopwood Post author

      Hi Amine
      Thank you for your comment. I am really sorry to read how you are experiencing supervision – what you have described doesn’t seem like okay to me, based on what you’ve mentioned. It is my view that supervision should be a safe space, and certain questioning and clarifying are part of a healthy supervision meeting; equally leaving a student feeling ‘roasted’ doesn’t seem right to me. Disagreement is always tricky to manage – it is hard often to know (as student and supervisor) when it is best to defend/counter-argue, and when best to accept (or give in) – and that applies from the supervisor side too (when students want to do something we don’t think is the best, but sometimes it is best to let students pursue the course of action they choose).

      In relation to your last comment: absolutely, this post doesn’t reflect everyone’s experiences. It doesn’t reflect my personal experiences either – it is partly personal, partly based on what others have reported to me. And it is uncomfortable and provocative, and in some ways some readers find it less helpful. If I were to try this post again today I would certainly write parts of it differently, but I will not erase the bits I now realise aren’t perfect: partly because the value coming from others commenting below (often disagreeing) is so great.

      I hope you’re able to resolve things and move to a more productive supervision relationship soon.


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