How to be a crappy supervisor (or: how to confuse, depress and dumb-down your students)

After my blog post ’10 ways to annoy your supervisors’ I was contacted by a doctoral student who felt that an accompanying view from the other side could, and should, be expressed. I’m delighted to post her response. I’m particularly pleased by her direct challenge to my point about asking for permission before talking to others. I agree with her, as well as with my original point (yup, I’m human, so I can live quite comfortably with contradictions).

As you’ll see, my posts tend to be quite frank. The point is to spur discussion, debate and thinking (not to spout unquestionable truths). So thank you Verity Quill, for engaging with the post in exactly the way I hoped!

By Verity Quill, PhD (elect)

I just read Nick Hopwood’s discussion about ‘How to annoy your Supervisor”.  Well, it takes two to tango, as they say in the old country, so I thought it was worthwhile assembling some of the experiences of my fellow students and I into a collection of good natured snippets of Advice to Supervisors.  Note that these remarks are based on the combined experiences of people I know.  They are not intended to alienate my own quite beloved supervisors, about whom I am generally NOT talking about here.  Smooches to you, girls.

I have even been able to arrange my list using almost the same headers as Nick used for his list of ways to annoy supervisors.  Just to needle him.  So if you were ever wondering how to lose the attention of your student, how to confuse or depress them, dumb them down or how in general, to be a crappy supervisor, here are ten top tips to start you off.

1.       Disappear

Yes we have had supervisors go off the radar too.  Supervisors can get ill, depressed, overworked, they go on walkabout or have sudden carer’s duties, and they may not have made an arrangement with students before they went.  These are all reasonable reasons to disappear.  But you can disappear without any of that, just by going a very long time not answering emails.  A student may go on requesting meeting times, sending work, or posing questions by email without reply, for weeks or sometimes months.  See how long yours can go!

2.       Mess me around with dates and deadlines

Yes, you might not always be able to meet when planned, and yes sometimes work will take longer than expected: unexpected other-things-in-life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, students still expect you to be there when you agreed to meet. The key for you to remember here is that you are the supervisor, so you call the shots.  Geoff’s supervisor was a master at this.  Geoff learnt from experience that when his supervisor arrived to a meeting late, she would still need to get to her next meeting on time.  She would rush through the supervision.  Geoff picked up on her brevity: he asked fewer questions and agreed with ideas to save time, figuring he would be able to work it out later.  Voila!  A confused student!  More fool Geoff, ay? Meanwhile Molly had a supervisor who she hardly ever saw, because he would double book himself and then when she came to his office, ask her to make a new time, or he would not be there at all.  The message she took away was, “I am not interested in your work”.  After months of not being able to see her supervisor, she was suitably depressed and unsure of the value of her project.  Careful though, some students in this situation will find it easier (and interesting) to discuss their ideas with other academics, see Tip 10 below.

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

If a student asks you how long you need to read 8,000 words, and you say a fortnight, they’ll believe you.  If you know you have 240 essays to mark in the next fortnight and your wife is going to the Hebrides for a conference, leaving you and the kids, then it wasn’t a good idea to also schedule in a meeting to discuss those 8,000 words. But it sets you up perfectly to try Tip 4.

4.       Don’t read what I have sent till we meet

Your student Joe sends you a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc.) and you meet to discuss it a fortnight later. You haven’t read the writing, but Joe sits quietly in the office while you read it and give feedback on the spot.  You have finally found the perfect way to manage all the conflicting tasks in your day!  And probably, Joe is congratulating himself on finding a way to get feedback from you, because he knows if he reschedules, you will have still not read it the next meeting either.  Or maybe he is grinding his teeth and thinking about what you could have said if you had had time to think about his work.

5.       Take a very long time to give feedback

If you play it right you can really freak your student out by forgetting about feedback deadlines.  As the clock ticked on his scholarship, Harold sent his full PhD to his supervisor to read.  Four months later, the supervisor hadn’t finished reading it.   Given the nod by her supervisors, Jenny submitted her Intention to Submit form setting the big date for a month later.  One supervisor was still “just finishing” reading her final draft.   A fortnight later, three months after receiving the draft, he provided an hour of insightful, sit-down feedback involving theoretical and methodological implications, some of which Jenny incorporated into her final submission.  Her supervisor was surprised when she submitted on time, rather than read that new author he recommended.

6.       Make untimely suggestions

On that topic, a classic move you could try is to continuously suggest new areas of study.  Of course, we all know that at some point the PhD has to finish.  The manuscript must be submitted.  A line must be drawn, and those deeper and broader understandings must begin to flower in the garden outside the PhD enclosure.  But as your student prepares their final draft, pretend the world worked differently.  Hiding the twinkle in your eye, insist that she must incorporate X’s theory of the world, and needs to read their seminal work on the topic. Hoop-lah!  Confidence, gone!

7.       Expect my PhD not to change

One day way back when, I came to your office and pitched a PhD, and you said, okay, let’s do it.  Since then, I’ve been reading and thinking, trying ideas, failing and learning.  That’s good, isn’t it?  Now, my PhD is different.  If you don’t recognise it, see point 8.

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

It can be really hard to describe what I’m trying to say, because my ideas are still forming about it.  Meanwhile, because you’ve read all kinds of stuff I haven’t, half the time I’ll say something that reminds you of X.  Please don’t therefore assume that I am talking about X, and forget to listen to what I’m saying.  So here’s how it works.  We’re sitting in your office, and I’m telling you about how this new idea fits in with my other ideas.  You get a glazed look on your face and start fidgeting.  When I finish explaining, you comment that it won’t work because of a series of factors, which don’t seem connected.  I am surprised, but decide to listen and wait for them to connect to what I was talking about.  Sadly, I never see how they connect, and then the time is up, so I agree to think about it.  Let’s rewind and run that again.  I was talking about my messy ideas, let’s call them M.  You listened, and probably quite rightly, noticed some of the early part sounded a bit like X.  You started thinking about X.  The next parts of M didn’t sound like X at all, which got you worried.  You started thinking about how common it is for people to misunderstand X, and began to fidget and prepare your discussion of the problems with misunderstanding X as I continued to talk about M.  You remember a really easy way to explain the problem with Example Y.  I finish.  You start talking about Y.  I don’t know why you are talking about Y, and you don’t know what M was about because you got distracted by X.

9.       Expect me to agree with everything you say

Your student wants to explore governmentality in their data, and you don’t see the value.  What’s more, the methods they want to use aren’t like your previous work in that field.  Here’s what you could do next:  tell your student not to follow that path as it will lead to uninteresting research.  Or you could ask your student to put together a clear argument for their new direction.  Ask for 2,000 words.  This is an important moment as your student may be learning to think for themselves.  Jeffery told his supervisor he was considering an ethnographic approach.  His supervisor told him ethnography was positivisist, and she pointed out that Jeffery’s work was not ethnographic as he would not be undertaking participant observation.  Jeffery found evidence to support a move from traditional forms of ethnography to more social constructionist approaches, and submitted 2,000 words on how he could undertake participant observation.  Both supervisor and student learnt more about ethnography, and eventually negotiated a middle path for its application in Jeffery’s research.  But wait!  You want to discourage originality in your student, so best you follow my first suggestion:  steer them back towards what you would have done.  When they disagree, insist that they don’t understand the literature.

10.  Try to protect me from other academics

NB. Nick here: please note how this goes against my original point on this issue, and to a large degree, I stand correctly corrected! 

This can work in a few ways.  I have seen supervisors who, when their student makes a public presentation, the supervisor answers questions from the floor.  Good idea!  If you answer ahead of the student, it says they don’t know, to everyone in the room, including the student. The student is there to answer questions, might have prepared themselves, and maybe they could answer perfectly well.  If they falter, then stepping in could be kind, and normally one is of course a very kind supervisor, but that is not the point of today’s lecture.  At the other end of the scale, I hear that some supervisors want their students not to talk to other academics without consulting their supervisor first, to avoid political mishaps.  This sounds like excellent advice for the production of damp students, still curled inside their cocoons: perfect for our purposes.  You wouldn’t want a student like Valerie:  she spoke to many academics in her vicinity while doing her PhD; she met them while attending their presentations, or in the hall.  She had long conversations with them over coffee or short exchanges in passing.  Their ideas, including their criticism, were inspirational and strengthened her work.  Describing her research to them made her more confident and clarified her ideas.  If you are working on particularly ground-breaking or competitive research, sure, then maybe secrets are important and boundaries are valuable. Otherwise, the point is to develop students who are able to speak and think for themselves, who have collegial connections into the academy after submission (enhancing their job prospects), who understand the politics of academia, and who are producing strong, well examined ideas, so share your understanding of the political landscape out there, and then encourage them to network and share their ideas.   But if you want vulnerable, unadventurous students, better keep them safe from other people’s ideas.

So that’s my ten tips for how to confuse, deflate, alienate and dumb-down your students.  These methods are field tested (though results may vary).   Good luck and enjoy!


10 thoughts on “How to be a crappy supervisor (or: how to confuse, depress and dumb-down your students)

  1. Gail Smith

    Thank you both for starting this debate, it is really helpful to see both sides and to know others have felt just like I have :-). I must admit I am guilty of continuing on with my paper if I am waiting for a long period of time before I receive feedback. My fear is getting behind I don’t think I have ever thought I might be antagonising my supervisor…. fortunately, even when I resubmit I have never felt this was the case but I will certainly be far more mindful now I have heard both sides of the story. Thanks again!

  2. Faye Miller

    Interesting. I think some ECRs are still developing relational agency in the academic context while others have already developed it (or least have a greater awareness of it) through prior experiences and would prefer greater independence with their networking. So everyone is at a different level and supervisors may need to adjust their levels of guidance depending on the learning needs of their students.

    Of course, supervisors can be amazing gatekeepers of ‘know-who’ and their advice should be sought when needed. My own supervisors have introduced me to some of their colleagues who have given me lots of advice and encouragement. At the same time, I’ve chatted with people who are not in my supervisors’ circles, within and outside of academia – these people have also been very helpful for gaining different perspectives. Sometimes you agree with them and use it for strengthening your thesis and sometimes not (you might run someone’s wild idea by your supervisor and they completely disagree – makes for interesting discussion!).

    But these are all learning experiences and the more learning experiences you can get during your candidature the better. You learn how to deal with different types of personalities you find in academia and research-related work. Self-directed learning is invaluable for future research employment.

  3. Marcelle

    Totally with you on point 8. It used to cause me great anxiety and confusion to have words put in my mouth just as I was struggling to articulate a new idea or direction. Now it just annoys me. This behaviour can come from supervisors but also colleagues who hold some degree of power advantage.

  4. SheriO

    To the rescue, a flurry of books on supervision. In Supervising the Ph.D., Delamont, Atkinson, Parry (2004), “Our basic philosophy is that good, pleasurable supervision is based on self-consciousness, not intuition or flying by the seat of the pants. The whole idea of the book is that successful, pleasurable higher-degree supervision is based on making explicit to yourself, and to the students, what the processes and issues are. Many of the problems that arise stem from supervisors thinking that students know things they do not know, or vice versa, or both.”
    Negotiating the supervision relationship in a business-like manner from its onset, could pave a smoother road.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Oh yes. Very much so.
      And yes (in reference to your other comment) Delamont et al’s book is great.

      Also very useful is Oxford’s supervision website which has a lot of material that is relevant to all students and supervisors (the Oxford-specific stuff is very clearly labelled as such, making the website very useable)

  5. Bruce Blackshaw

    The 1908 adventure novel and play The Scarlet Pimpernel has many quotes that suit both supervisors and students that could help. Students need help to keep moving toward the goals of the research. Some supervisors are extremely critical about work submitted without guidance of how to improve (Quote 1) and others who are difficult to locate or tie down to a meeting time or even reply to emails (Quote 2)

    Quote 1 “It does seem simple, doesn’t it?’ she said, with a final bitter attempt at flippancy, ‘when you want to kill a chicken…you take hold of it…then you wring its neck…it’s only the chicken who does not find it quite so simple. Now you hold a knife at my throat, and a hostage for my obedience…You find it simple…I don’t” ― Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

    Quote 2 “They seek him here, they seek him there
    Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
    Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
    That demned elusive Pimpernel”
    ― Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

  6. rusty (@mativity)

    Great post, thanks, I could recognize most of these in my supervisors, though I could also see myself in Nick’s previous post on students. In other words, we’re all fallible and human.

    I have three similar behaviors I’d like to get off my chest, though, that either my supervisors have exhibited at some time (though fortunately, not most the time);or friends’ supervisors have.

    1. Student as sounding board: when the supervisor spends most of your scheduled meeting complaining about his/her department politics and how they are being pushed out (quite frightening for the student, if taken seriously – what will happen to you?) while slipping in negative references about their peers, who they know you have chatted with, which has overtones of “supervisors want their students not to talk to other academics without consulting their supervisor first, to avoid political mishaps” from point 10. Or enthusing about all the new conferences, programs, research etc, that they are embarking on. Which have little or nothing to do with the your topic or interests. Then suddenly, they look at the time and “gotta fly” to the next exciting appointment, rather like point 2’s “I am not interested in your work”

    2. The “rite of passage” application: those major landmarks, such as the ethics application, that can be overwhelming the first time through. For some reason, supervisors seem unable to advise you in advance of the hurdles you’ll meet or pitfalls you need to avoid. Even worse when they don’t seem to know much about the process themselves and welcome your newly acquired knowledge, once you have made it, sweating and aged, out the other side. I don’t know why they think it’s good if you go it alone, especially if it takes up precious time you could’ve spent working on your actual thesis. More than once, I’ve thought of writing a book for newbies on how to get through these processes relatively unscathed, and call it “What your supervisor won’t tell you”.

    3. Keeping your supervisor up to date on supervisor things: those crucial dates or procedures that you think they should know, but you have to tell them about. I don’t think it should be my job to keep them informed on the latest procedures from the research office, and which forms they ought to be filling in. This goes beyond the supervisor into the whole research management area, but when I find myself having to be the go-between the graduate office and the supervisor, and forwarding critical emails that they say haven’t received – which concern supervisory sorts of admin, nothing to do with me – then I being to wonder, who is really the running the show?

  7. The voice of reason

    In my experience, most supervision problems are largely due to a failure to agree needs, expectations and ways of working at the outset (and renogotiating as and when). the other biggest problem, is failing to address issues of concern in a timely manner. when the supervisory relationship is problematic (for whatever reason) students often hope things will get better, but they rarely do, unless you do something about it. Supervision problems can be all consuming and most students fear that addressing them (informally or, especially, formally) will essentially amount to career suicide. But what is the alternative if you aren’t progressing? drop out? fail?

    Don’t let that happen. As a PhD supervisor, I often say to my students ‘i’m not a mind reader – if you don’t tell me, I probably won’t know’. always try to sort things out informally first – speak to your supervisor and raise your concerns in an appropriate way. also, keep an audit trail (minutes of meetings, emails etc) just in case you have to take things further. If things still don’t improve then look to sort the problem out formally. Go speak to your postgrad tutor and tell them but don’t allow things to drift.


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