I’m having problems with my supervisor

The supervisor’s role is to guide students through their postgraduate program and usually involves

  • offering advice in the field of study and the direction of the research
  • setting milestones and monitoring progress
  • providing feedback, encouragement and support

For the student, the supervisor is the single most important individual in the research process and a good working relationship is essential. Like all relationships, however, the student/supervisor relationship is likely to undergo periods of stress. These stresses can be made worse under certain circumstances – for example, when the supervisor has a particularly heavy workload or the student is under time pressure or has doubts about aspects of the research. In the vast majority of cases these stresses are manageable, but occasionally the relationship can face serious difficulties.

The causes can be academic (for example, the student and supervisor have different views on the topic or the direction of the research) or personal/cultural (for example, student and supervisor may have different communication styles or different expectations about the nature and extent of support being offered).

If you are having problems, there are a few things to consider:

  • Act early! Address the problem as soon as it arises (or, at least, as soon as it is apparent that the problem is not just temporary).
  • Make an appointment with your supervisor. For example, you could say: “Could we arrange a meeting to discuss how we can work most effectively together?” By phrasing it this way, you are encouraging dialogue and your supervisor is less likely to be defensive.
  • Before talking with your supervisor, speak to a friend or a counsellor. Expressing your frustration with a third person will help you be calmer when you speak to your supervisor.
  • Make notes of the points you want to raise with your supervisor. Refer to those notes during the meeting if you need to.
  • Meeting your supervisor can be daunting. Remember, though, that if you are open and courteous, and listen carefully to what s/he says, your supervisor is more likely to respond positively.
  • Ask open-ended questions such as “What are your expectations of a supervisor-student relationship?” and “What can I do to make your job easier?”. Once you have heard the supervisor’s point of view, you can share your own perspective.
  • You might use your annual progress review to express your problems – other staff members will be present, and they may be able to offer solutions.

There are services within the University who may be able to offer assistance and advice, for example, the Counselling Service or the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA).

Changing supervisors, or even institutions, is sometimes considered an option by students having problems with their supervisors, but it’s a very disruptive process and should only be used as a last resort.

For more help on this topic see the links on the right...