10 Feb

How To Deal With Various Types Of Troublesome PhD Supervisor

Difficult-PhD-Supervisor

Is your PhD supervisor very difficult person to deal with? Do you feel that you are often ignored by the supervisor? Does it occur to you that every piece of draft produced by you for the PhD Thesis is always frowned upon for trivial reasons? Does the supervisor end up making you feel stupid in every meeting? If your answer is ‘yes’ to any or all of the above-given questions, it is apparent that your PhD journey is not going on as smoothly as it should and that you need to focus on improving your relationship with the assigned supervisor. This article will apprise you of the various types of nagging supervisor and outline the strategies to deal with each type so as to enable you to stride forward on the path of PhD effortlessly.

It might sound unfair to you, but the difficult supervisors often get away with their inappropriate behaviour because of their past achievements and accolades as academic researchers. What this means is that making a complaint to your university against the supervisor’s inappropriate behaviour is an option to you as doing so is only going to complicate your life further.

So, what do you do as a student to cope up with a difficult PhD supervisor? Well, you can work out strategies that will help reduce your PhD woes by bringing you and your supervisor on the same page until the completion of your PhD journey. In order to devise such strategies, you first need to figure out the type of supervisor you’re dealing with.

According to a book titled ‘Coping with Difficult People’, there are 7 categories into which difficult people could be divided. The categories are listed as follows:

  1. Hostile aggressive
  2. Complainer
  3. Silent & unresponsive
  4. Super-agreeable
  5. Negativist
  6. Know-it-all expert
  7. Indecisive

In addition to the above-mentioned 7 types of difficult people, the author of another book titled ‘The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets From 100 Graduates’ has talked of two additional types of difficult personalities which are:

  1. Super-busy
  2. Micro-manager

Your supervisor is most likely to fall in any of the 9 categories mentioned above.

Let us discuss what each of the 9 categories means and what strategies you can use to handle each type in detail.

Hostile-aggressive

Supervisors or advisors that fall into this particular category are normally confrontational, unfriendly, impolite, rude and aggressive in nature. Such type of supervisor will reject all your ideas and drafts point blank, leaving you to feel down and out in almost every meeting.

What you should do is not let such supervisor run over your work, thoughts and ideas by trying out the following strategies:

  • Bide your time – You need to wait for the person to switch into a calm-mode so that your voice could be heard and understood.
  • Be assertive – Once the supervisor’s drilling speech has lost the momentum in the meeting, you need to assertively respond to supervisor’s concerns regarding your PhD, backing up your arguments with logic and reliable sources of information.

Assertiveness

  • Maintain eye-contact – Look into the eyes of the supervisor while you’re speaking your mind. This will reflect your confidence and positivity which, in turn, will help you take charge of the situation and direct the conversation towards problem-solving.

 

Complainer

This type of supervisor will always have something to complain about. It will not be wrong to say here that such type of supervisor is born with the talent for picking up holes in a student’s work.

You can do the following to deal with a supervisor who complains a lot:

  • Listen – You should actively listen to the complaints raised by the supervisor to be able to deal with the same appropriately later on.
  • Acknowledge – You need to, then, acknowledge your supervisor’s comments in an appropriate manner. You could say ‘I understand what you are driving at’ or ‘I understand where you are coming from’ or ‘I see why you’re concerned about xyz section of my research paper’ to acknowledge.
  • Intervene – If you find any complaint of your supervisor to be illogical, intervene and explain why you do not agree to any particular point mentioned by the supervisor. Statements, such as ‘With your permission, I would like to contradict your point here’ or ‘With due respect, I beg to differ on this point’, might be helpful.
  • Avoid accusation – When you speak your mind to your supervisor, it should not sound like accusation. Rather, you should state facts and figures to back up your arguments on any topic which your supervisor has been troubling you with. Don’t let the conversation turn into an accusation-re-accusation sequence. You could extend the sentence used above in the following manner: ‘With due respect, I beg to differ on this point and my reasons are X, Y & Z’.
  • Get down to problem-solving – Besides stating facts and figures to your supervisor, you need to present solutions to the problems that have been highlighted by the supervisor during the meeting. For example, ‘‘I see why you’re concerned about xyz section of my research paper. With due respect, I beg to differ on this point and my reasons are X, Y & Z. Do you think it is still an issue? If yes, what changes do you want me to make to this section so that this particular chapter falls in line with your expectations?

It is to be noted that complaining supervisors do not always moan about any particular research issue with a view to getting to its solution. They would rather do so in order to be admired and appreciated for their ability to pick faults. So, appreciate them to fulfil their unspoken desire for recognition.

 

Silent & unresponsive

This kind of supervisor is not what you get to see in the academia. However, there are certain supervisors who do fail to return your calls or emails and might try to skip your questions silently during a meeting.

Below given are few methods you could consider while dealing with such kind of supervisor:

  • Open-ended questions – You should ask open-ended questions to get as much information out as possible. For example, Professor, what do you think about the solutions I have proposed to the problems raised in the previous meeting?
  • Pausing helps – When you feel your question or doubt has not been duly addressed, try pausing for a while, allowing the professor to break the ice and address the question or doubt with a satisfactory explanation.
  • Sum-up the conversation – Before the meeting ends, re-iterate what has been discussed and seek confirmation of your understanding from the supervisor. This would make sure that any gap in understanding is duly identified and filled by the supervisor, and that you have clear set of goals to achieve before the next meeting kicks off.
  • Follow-up regularly – If your supervisor has asked you to work on certain aspects of your PhD Thesis, you need to agree to a deadline for the same and schedule the next meeting to discuss its progress. Continuous follow-up is the key to success while working with this type of supervisor.
  • Use your own judgement – If the supervisor remains silent on any question or doubt of yours (related to the PhD Thesis), you may need to use your own judgement and keep the supervisor informed about your plan of action via email.

 

Super-agreeable

A supervisor falling into this category would always appreciate your work and would hardly mention any fact that might upset or displease you as a student. If such supervisor makes any promise, it is not to be trusted blindly as most of the promises made by this category of PhD supervisors are empty ones.

In short, you cannot depend on this kind of supervisor for much help with regards to your PhD Thesis. Here are certain strategies you can make use of while handling such type of supervisor:

  • Speak your mind – Do not wait for the supervisor to pick holes in your work. Rather, approach the supervisor with all the problems you’re faced with while drafting various sections of your PhD Thesis and seek solutions to the same. Get the supervisor to confirm if he/she is absolutely happy with the work done so far in relation to PhD Thesis so that major amendments in the latter stage of the research work could be avoided.
  • Look out for unrealistic commitments – As mentioned earlier, a super-agreeable supervisor is good at making empty commitments. So, you have to be on the look out for such false commitments and find a way around these. For example, if your supervisor has promised to provide a letter of recommendation to you in response to your request for the same, you cannot rely on such promise as the supervisor is most likely going to delay the delivery unnecessarily. What you need to do in this case is create an outline for the requested letter and provide it to the supervisor, requesting him/her to issue the recommendation letter at the earliest. This step will expedite the delivery process and you will end up getting the letter much sooner.
  • Actively listen for humour – Such type of friendly supervisor, when holding a conversation, uses elements of humour to highlight the deficiencies of a research paper. Hence, your job is to keep your ears open all the time and be attentive to such humorous comments in order to improve the content of your PhD Thesis.

 

Negativist

A negative PhD supervisor will always highlight the negative aspects of your accomplished work and try to bring your morale down. Such type of supervisor will not be happy with your academic efforts ever.

The strategies you can use to deal with a negativist supervisor are as follows:

  • Avoid getting impacted by the negative behaviour of the supervisor. You should rather draw inspiration from the supervisor’s negative attitude and strive to use it to perform and achieve better results.
  • Try to focus on the problems you are seeking solutions to rather than the supervisor’s demoralising behaviour.
  • Do not get into arguments that, you know, will escalate tension between you and the supervisor to a great degree.
  • Seek help from your peers and other professors if you are able to get nothing out of the negative supervisor you have been assigned with.

 

Know-it-all expert

As the name suggests, a supervisor falling into this category has great deal of knowledge in his or her area of research and would not be pleased with any piece of content that is not well-researched and thought through.

Difficult-PhD-Supervisor

You can cope with a know-it-all expert supervisor by using the following strategies:

  • However good you are as a researcher, you need to be polite while talking to this kind of supervisor. If you try to show off your expertise in a particular research area, you may not get the best support you want.
  • Before you meet this type of supervisor, you should equip yourself with the required amount of knowledge. A little preparation, before the meeting, would help you critically evaluate the problems you are faced with and seek solutions to the same from the supervisor.
  • Always thank your supervisor for providing you with relevant input and guiding you in the right direction at the end of every in-person meeting.

 

Indecisive

Have you come across a PhD supervisor who first asks you to proceed with your research work on a particular topic and later on, suggests you to switch to a new research topic, for the previously-agreed topic does not look very promising any longer? If yes, that type of supervisor is what you term as indecisive.

Indecisive supervisors are not comfortable with making firm decisions, for they fear lest their decisions should turn out as inappropriate and ineffective.

While dealing with an indecisive supervisor, you could use the following tactics:

  • Assertiveness is what works the best with such type of supervisor. By being assertive, you can explain why a particular research project is worth doing after your supervisor has rejected the research plan. This would help restore the confidence of your supervisor in both you and the research work you are carrying out.
  • You need to take charge of the PhD Thesis and do considerable amount of research on your own before you meet an indecisive supervisor for guidance. Only when you are well-informed about the research area, will you be able to convince your supervisor about the decisions you have made in relation to your PhD Thesis.

 

Super-busy

This type of supervisor would barely have any time to dedicate to your PhD project.  Students, who have been assigned a super-busy PhD Supervisor, need to remain self-motivated to finish the PhD Thesis successfully.

Below-given are few tips for you to cope with a super busy supervisor:

  • If you are unable to get an appointment to see your supervisor, please do research on your own to find solutions to the problems you are stuck with in relation to your PhD Thesis. Thereafter, drop an email to the supervisor, informing about the steps you will take to solve a research issue or issues. If the supervisor finds any fault with your chosen course of action, you might get some constructive feedback on the same that will enable you to move in the right direction.
  • You can also seek help and advice from your peers and other professors in relation to the various chapters of your PhD Thesis.

 

Micro-manager

A micro-managing supervisor is someone who scrutinizes every aspect of your PhD work and keeps track of every deadline that has been agreed to discuss the work-in-progress and future course of action. Such type of supervisor might even call you at odd-hours to discuss about the ongoing research project.

You can do the following to cope with a supervisor who micro-manages:

  • In each meeting with your PhD supervisor, you should pen down every piece of feedback shared by him/her and agree to a deadline for submitting the revised draft. This would ensure that you are not interrupted before the agreed deadline expires and you can complete the agreed revision on time.
  • Inform the supervisor about your working hours in a polite way so that he/she knows when to get in touch with you to seek an update (if need be).

The long and short of what this article is trying to convey is that you are bound to face troubles from the assigned supervisor on certain occasions while you are busy working on your PhD Thesis, but you do not have to lose heart. Assertiveness and self-motivation along with other strategies discussed above will help you deal with your difficult supervisor to a great degree which, in turn, would enable you to complete the PhD Thesis successfully in the end.

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