Types Of Difficult PhD Supervisors And How To Successfully Deal With Them

Types Of Difficult PhD Supervisors And How To Successfully Deal With Them

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Supervision is a difficult task, and there is often conflict between supervisors and their PhD students. Even if you find a supervisor with whom you have excellent rapport, there can still be problems. Here are some of the types of difficult supervisor which you might encounter, and tips on how to manage them.


A micromanager is one who is overly controlling and wishes to make input on all of your decisions, however small. For example, they may want to check every single slide or piece of writing which you produce, multiple times. Or they may try to dictate the way in which you divide up your time and how you prioritise. Micromanagers can be difficult to deal with, as different students and supervisors have different ideas about how much management a supervisor should perform. For some PhD students, having a lot of guidance and having their work checked regularly can be reassuring, while for others, it feels patronising. So if you find you supervisor to be too involved, remember that this is an issue of preference and not necessarily an indication that your supervisor thinks that you are not competent.

To deal with a micromanager, you'll need to take a dual approach: firstly, demonstrating that you can perform tasks competently without their guidance. If you show that you can prepare a presentation well, for example, without their influence, then they will feel less need to manage you in the future. The other approach is to talk with them and try to discover their underlying concerns. Do they feel like they need to micromanage because they are concerned about your ability to organize your time? Do they worry that your research will go over budget? Or are they trying to be supportive by giving you lots of feedback on your writing? Identify the underlying concern which is leading to the micromanaging behaviour, and try to demonstrate that their worries are not founded.

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Absentee supervisors are those who are not present during your PhD, either physically (i.e. they are away travelling a lot) or metaphorically (they are so busy that you never see them). This is a common problem with senior professors and those who supervise lots of PhD students. Without advice and guidance from a supervisor, performing your PhD research is much harder.

To deal with an absentee supervisor, you can first try laying out an agreement with them about regular meetings. If you can arrange a meeting with them once a week or once every two weeks at a set time, you'll know that you at least have the chance to get their input on any issues. Often professors can be bad at replying to emails, so a face-to-face meeting is the best way to get their attention. If you can't get regular meetings with them, you can turn to your second supervisor or other senior researchers who you trust, and ask for input from them instead. However, if it is truly not possible to see your supervisor regularly, you should consider moving to a different supervisor who can give you and your research the time and attention which you deserve.

Overly Critical

It is part of the supervisor's job to offer criticism of your work, but some supervisors take this too far. Supervisors who yell at their students, who belittle them, or who make unpleasant personal comments are not unheard of. Dealing with such a supervisor can leave students stressed, depressed, and insecure about their own abilities. Doing a PhD can certainly be an emotional experience, but if students are regularly leaving the office in tears after speaking with their supervisor, then something is very wrong.

To deal with such a supervisor, you will need to assess how severe the situation is. If you supervisor is generally well meaning but rather harsh with their feedback, you can try talking to them about your overall progress in your PhD. Some supervisors, especially if they are new to management, forget that it's important to give positive feedback as well as pointing out errors. They may in fact be very satisfied with your work, but they only mention the negative points that they see. In this case, by talking to them about your overall progress you can get a more positive picture of your work.

In severe cases, however, this may not help. If a supervisor is abusive towards you and they are having an overall negative effect on your life and your work, then you need to protect yourself by leaving their group and finding a new supervisor. Remember that a supervisor should support you and assist you, not make you feel like a failure. You can always get another supervisor, but your mental health is of the highest priority.


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