How to effectively approach working with your PhD supervisor

Some of the most powerful coaching questions for me, both as a coach and a coachee, have been about intent – as in, “what is the impression you want to create?”, “what do you want to get out of this meeting?”, “what do you want to focus on today?”. I find that asking myself or the coachee a version of those simple questions helps with focus and reframing the situation, and even more importantly, helps bring back a sense of control and agency. For instance, during my job hunt last year, I couldn’t control the outcome, who was on the panel, which candidates showed up on the day or what their professional background was. I could, however, control my intent as I was walking into yet another (usually) drab interview room and that intent was to appear professional, enthusiastic about the position and focused on providing succinct and relevant examples. Umpteen interviews later, that approach felt like a no-brainer yet it really helped to be consciously intentional, rather than sort of hoping that things would fall into place and the gods would be kind on that particular day. And yet this is something I see time and again when working with PhD students who bring up issues around supervisory relationships. As anyone who has ever done a PhD can attest, those relationships can be really tricky and somewhat intense. After all, you are relying on another human being to guide you in the process of producing an original contribution to research, plenty of scope for special kind of crazy. Depending on your discipline, this is somebody you see on a more (usually on the sciency spectrum of things) or less (usually on the social/humanities end of spectrum) regular basis, share your innermost thoughts with – or at least it feels like it when you hand over yet another draft, only to have it come back with loads of red track changes and critical feedback, not always delivered with great bedside manner.

So I do hear a lot about supervisors who are overly critical, not terribly supportive and generally not on the same team as the student they are supervising. Except said student hasn’t really shared their vision of what that team is and instead hands over all the power for shaping the relationship to the supervisor. For instance, I’ve recently worked with someone who decided that she doesn’t want to pursue an academic career but after a period of soul-searching has come to a conclusion that she does want to complete the dissertation. Importantly, she explained she wants to do it in a way that helps her reconnected with the joy of learning she felt when first starting out but lost it in the 15-hour marathon sessions of banging away at the keyboard interspersed with staring at the screen in frustration. We started out by looking at healthier and more sustainable work habits and she’s been receptive to research that shows that four-five hours a day are an upper limit of deliberate practice of essentially learning the skill of rigorous academic writing.

At the same time, as she was bringing in some control into her writing process, she felt increasingly that her goals were at odds with those of her supervisor who focused on getting his students in top shape for academic roles. My coachee was no longer interested in a thesis that would launch her academic career and instead wanted a final produced that would be “good enough” and most importantly, would be finished before her funding ran out and was getting really antsy when the supervisor kept bringing in suggestions for her research that would require a lot of additional work in the category of “nice to have” and would mean extended time to submission. At the same time, she never shared her changed intent with the supervisor and instead somehow hoped that things would work themselves out; after all, her experience of supervision meetings was that she usually left with a sense of vague dissatisfaction and loads of unfinished business, things she meant to say but didn’t and things she meant to bring up but forgot to mention. She had an idea of what she wanted the relationship to look like but no clue how to make that happen and so we kicked off one of the sessions with that very question I mentioned at the beginning of the post – “what is your intent, what do you want to get out of the meeting?” which felt like a game-changer to her and gave her a way to influence the meeting at least to some degree and come in prepared, with a list of things to discuss, including the elephant in the room in the shape of her future (non)academic career. And no, it didn’t make her grumpy supervisor suddenly more supportive and more considerate when delivering feedback and she had to be really careful about how she delivered the message about her change of focus regarding the ultimate purpose of the thesis. After all, she didn’t want to come across as somebody wanting to put in a minimum amount of work and hoping to walk away with the title; her focus, however has changed. She’s still in early stages of figuring out how the relationship will work out on those changed terms but asking herself that question meant that she at least could start the discussion. The most important thing, however, is that she recently said that she is slowly getting back the feeling of “fun” of learning and that was the intent all along.

2 thoughts on “Managing tricky aspects of relationship with your PhD supervisor

    1. Hi Irfan, thank you for your comment – your supervisory team would be best positioned to address those questions. Have you spoken to your supervisor about your concerns yet?

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