The relationship you have with your supervisor during the course of your PhD is a critical one. Like all other personal or professional relationships it can range from being harmonious to disastrous. Choosing a supervisor you think will work well with you in the first place is important, however it can be difficult to foresee any potential issues in the future.

Throughout your PhD you should expect adequate facilities and equipment, as well as emotional and intellectual support from your supervisor. Likewise, your supervisor can expect certain things from you such as academic competence, organizational skills, regular progress reporting and a level of independence and the capability to work under limited direction.

But what can you do when you feel like this is falling apart and your supervisor is not supporting you?

Maintain a relationship with your advisor

First off, make sure you try and develop a good relationship with your supervisor. Establish a clear idea of mutual expectations from each other.

Maintain good communication with your supervisor through regular meetings and work together to develop a structured yet flexible plan for your thesis. Make sure you are forthright about what you can handle, both experimentally and time-wise.  Be resourceful so you are not bugging your supervisor with every detail, but let him/her know if you are stumped or if you need more guidance.

Determine your supervisor’s style

If you feel like your supervisor isn’t supporting you, make sure it isn’t just a matter of not understanding your supervisor’s management style.  Some supervisors like to micro-manage and be made aware of every nuance in an experiment.  If you don’t give them enough information they may get frustrated.  Other supervisors are laid-back which might lead you to believe they are disinterested, when actually they are waiting for you to come to them.

Figure out your supervisor’s style and how to interact with them.  His/her management style may not be compatible with how you like to work – but you will be together for a number of years – so figure out how to make it work for both of you.

Determine the extent of your problem

Many students, if not all, will feel at some stage that they are not getting the support they need. What you need to determine is the impact and import of the situation.  Always take a step back and reflect on the situation from both viewpoints. If you think it is a temporary situation that will resolve itself with time, perhaps you just need to wait it out.  But if it is negatively affecting your progress or it is so bad that you don’t want to go to work anymore, then you might have to get other people involved.

Your supervisor has lost interest in your project (temporarily)

Sometimes it can feel like your supervisor is no longer interested in what you are doing.  Someone else in the lab might be obtaining exciting results and he/she is focused on that.  Or perhaps your supervisor is having trouble maintaining funding for your project.

It can be difficult drudging on day after day feeling like no one is interested in what you are doing.  You need to find yourself another cheerleader.  Perhaps a senior lab member has shown some interest in your project and you can turn to them.  Alternatively, talk to other people at your level about your work – sometimes just describing what you are doing to your peers can help bolster your enthusiasm.  If your work is still progressing, you can then rely on these people to keep your spirits up until your supervisor comes around.

Your project has forayed into an area in which your supervisor has no expertise

This is not an unusual problem in scientific research as research is increasingly multidisciplinary. While your supervisor may have provided you with a specific project outline in the beginning this will most likely evolve and even your supervisor may find themselves out of their depth. Show initiative and identify researchers that can be approached for advice. Try and work closely with your supervisor in this regard as he/she may wish to approach a potential collaborator or advisor initially.

Your relationship with your supervisor has degraded and it is affecting your project

If it has come to a point in your project where you and your supervisor are completely disagreeing on every aspect of your project, you may need to seek external help. Some students have a co-supervisor who can be a great mediator and source of advice.  Most graduate programs establish a committee that is responsible for checking in with graduate students on a yearly basis.  Don’t be afraid to approach these people for advice. Alternatively you can also approach the person responsible for post-graduate studies within your institute.

You think your supervisor is preventing you from graduating and treating you like a technician

I’ve heard this complaint from several grad students. Firstly, try and establish exactly what you think you need to do to complete your project. If you truly feel you are doing above and beyond, then seek advice. This is when it is time to go to your committee. Your committee can take an unbiased look at the work you have accomplished and help determine a goal for graduating.  With their advice in hand you can then negotiate a reasonable stopping point with your supervisor. Remember, many institutions have a limit on the length of a PhD  – this can work in your favor.

Keep in mind, earning your PhD should not be an easy task, but you should expect to have the proper support throughout.  Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need.

Have you had negative experiences with your supervisor?