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How to Resolve The Biggest Conflicts Between Students and Supervisors

Nancy was a PhD student in Biology, and despite all her friend’s advice, she joined the lab of Dr.Burns (names changed to protect identities). The reason all her friends discouraged Nancy from working for Dr. Burns, was that none of the students in her lab ever got their PhDs.

Dr. Burns was so critical of her student’s research, that they either dropped out of graduate school, left with a Master’s degree, or switched groups. This was quite a record, as Dr. Burns had already been at her department for 5 years when Nancy joined.

Nancy was passionate about her research, but she was struggling to keep up with Dr. Burns demands. Whenever she submitted the draft of a manuscript, Dr. Burns “shredded it to pieces” and requested more data or more rigorous data analysis. Nancy was already in her 8th year of graduate school, when she decided she had enough.  She was going to graduate – and she would be the first to do so.

At the end of of this post, I will share how Nancy rescued her thesis from the most difficult professor in her department

After working with over 200 students in the last 5 years, I learned that the relationship that students have with their supervisors is very highly correlated with how happy they are in graduate school.

If students get the support they need, they can usually stay on track and have a good experience. However, if students don’t get sufficient guidance, they are frequently frustrated and struggling. They might fall behind on their milestones, lose self-confidence, or perhaps drop out of graduate school. At the other extreme, some students are micromanaged, and can’t get a moment of peace without their supervisors breathing down their backs.

Having a bad relationship it’s not always your thesis supervisor’s fault. You can dramatically improve the communication with your thesis supervisor if you take a proactive approach to determining the requirements for your graduation.

Most  the conflicts between supervisors and students are due to lack of communication or disagreements regarding the direction of the thesis or requirements for graduation.

Some conflicts are related to the writing of publications, work ethics (hours), work  conditions (lab space, office space), or the management of resources related to research (budget, time from support staff).  In some situations there is a bad personality fit between the supervisor and his or her student.

For example, I knew a supervisor who was very taciturn. Most of his meetings lasted 5 minutes or less. Some of his students felt that he was ignoring them, but he was actually just trying to be efficient with his time by getting right to the point and resolving it.

Whichever is the source of your conflict, you need to keep in mind that ultimately you are the person responsible for your thesis. You need to take leadership on the direction of your research, and you need to negotiate the requirements for graduation.

Although supervisor personalities come in many different flavors, there are certain communication skills which will work with most professors whether or not they are the right personality fit for you. In this article I will share  3 principles with you that will help you resolve 90% of the conflicts with supervisors. 

Principle #1: Express your ideas Assertively 

What is assertiveness?

While human interactions can be quite complex, a few basic communication skills will resolve 90% of conflicts. The number one strategy to resolve  conflicts is assertiveness. Some people confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness, but the two attitudes are worlds apart. Assertiveness is a happy medium between passiveness and aggressiveness.

A passive person likes to please others and avoid conflict. An aggressive person is focused on achieving only their own goals without consideration for other people’s needs.  An assertive person, on the other hand, is able to communicate their ideas confidently, without stepping on other people.

Effective people skills do not come naturally to most of us, and we have a tendency to be either too passive or too aggressive. In my experience, many graduate students fall on the passive side of the spectrum because they are afraid of causing conflict with their supervisors.

It is important to remember that assertive communication skills, when used appropriately, will not lead to more conflict. In fact, they will probably lead to more interesting research discussions, and more importantly, respect from your supervisor.

Sounds intimidating? You can begin practicing assertiveness right now at the workplace and in personal situations with a simple three-part formula.

A simple three-step method of communicating effectively

Assertive behavior is the foundation of effective communication.

Through assertive communication you will be able to voice your opinions confidently and negotiate with others to achieve mutually beneficial goals.  Easier said than done?

This method is based on the teachings of Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, who was one of the first people to study the principles of human interactions.  Interestingly, the strategies described by Dale Carnegie are very similar to the suggestions of accomplished PhDs from academia and industry whom I interviewed for my upcoming “Finish Your Thesis” program. 

In summary, the secret to resolving any conflict is to focus on the problems, rather than your emotions surrounding the problem.

This simple three-step method will help you guide your discussions into a problem-solving mode:

  1. State the facts.  Make sure that you do not let personal feelings get into the way of the discussion.  Focus only on work related issues, and state the objective reality that concerns you.
  2. Clarify your thoughts about the situation, and why it bothers you. Are you concerned that the project is not being completed properly?  Is it taking too long?  Is it too expensive?
  3. Explain what your goals are and how you would like the situation to be resolved.  Before the meeting, draft a plan that will be beneficial to everyone.  If you cannot accommodate everybody, what plan do you think makes the most sense?

Let me illustrate this three-step method with an example, that is based upon a real situation that I recently helped a PhD student to resolve.

Imagine that your thesis supervisor is asking you to complete a project that you find burdensome. If you are a passive person, you might decide to say nothing and do the task while feeling bitter. Or, if you are an aggressive person, you might storm into your thesis supervisor’s office angrily and tell him or her that it would be a waste of time for you to work on this project. As you can guess, neither of these approaches is ideal.

In the first case, you might feel like you are being taken advantage of and you will probably not get much out of doing the project.  In the second scenario, you might anger your thesis supervisor and jeopardize your relationship.

How can you communicate your disagreement without offending your advisor?  As an assertive person, you can express your ideas confidently, while being sensitive to the needs of others.

If you were in a situation where your supervisor asked you to work on a burdensome project, you are more likely to convince your supervisor to see the problem from your point of view if you communicate assertively.

Your chances of getting this project off your back will be higher if you think of creative solutions in advance. At your next meeting remind your advisor that he or she has asked you to do this project, and ask whether he or she has time to talk about it now.

You should always begin every conversation on a positive note, either by sharing some good news about your research, or thanking your advisor for their time. As a general rule of thumb, always assume that the person you are dealing with is reasonable and will respond well if you communicate assertively.

When you get to the stage of conversation when you can discuss your project, let your advisor know the facts about the project and why you do not think completing this project will be beneficial on the long run. When your advisor shares his or her viewpoint, make sure you listen with an open-mind.

At the end of the conversation make an assessment of how you would like to resolve the situation. Perhaps you decide to work on the project after all, share the responsibility with another student, or defer the project until later. Either way, you will have clarified the situation by using assertive communication skills, which will go a long ways towards developing a professional relationship with your supervisor.

In the extreme case that you cannot come to an agreement with your supervisor, and this impacts the requirements for your graduation, I recommend consulting with you thesis committee chair or department chair. As a last resort, some students switch groups, but I usually suggest that they every method try to come to an agreement because changing advisors can put you right back to square one.

Principle #2: Make it Easy for your supervisor to mentor you

Professors are busy people. Most of them teach, serve on committees, write grants, travel to conferences and in their spare time they mentor their graduate students. While your problems with your research are central to you, they are only one of the hundred items on your professor’s task list.

If you feel stuck in your research, the writing of a paper or manuscript, or you cannot come to an agreement with your supervisor then it is time to take a proactive approach to completing your thesis.

The more independent you become and the easier you make it for your professor to support you, the better your relationship will be. Furthermore, by becoming more self-sufficient in your research you will become more prepared you will be for your career ahead, where no one will hold your hand. 

Tips to make it easy for your professor to support you:

1)      Come prepared for meetings with a clear agenda.

2)      If an important decision needs to be made, decide in advance how you would like it to be solved. By thinking about possible solution(s) beforehand, you will be able to present pros and cons of each possibility, and make the discussions more efficient.

3)      If you need your advisor to review a manuscript or part of your thesis, illustrate very clearly on your draft where you need their help and what your questions are.

4)      If you need their signature on something, ask them personally and show them where they need to sign. (If you leave it in their inbox or email it to them, it might get to the bottom of the pile). In the even that you have a long distance relationship, call them and ask them politely for their signature.

5)      If you need a recommendation letter, give them a list of accomplishments/publications that they can use as a draft for the letter.

Seems like a lot of work on your part? It is, but the reality is that when you get a job after graduate school you will probably need to be just as assertive and proactive with your coworkers and supervisors.

If you package your challenges with your supervisor (and coworkers) into learning opportunities for your future career, you will become the independent, assertive and proactive person that all employers and universities desire to have.

 Principle #3: If your supervisor is a difficult person,  take assertiveness to the next level

Yes, we all know them. The professors who have a bad reputation in the department, yet they manage to get graduate students work for them. What can you do if your supervisor is a very difficult person?

You can resolve conflicts with really difficult people with basic assertiveness skills, but you will need to be more persistent and patient to get the support you need. 

On the bright side, you will probably need to deal with difficult people in your future career. It is better to learn how to cope with difficult people in graduate school than at a job when your paycheck depends how well you work with others.

5 keys strategies to cope with difficult supervisors and get your thesis on track

1. Do not let them intimidate you: If they are hostile with you, they are probably hostile with everyone else too. Their unpleasant manners are a reflection upon them and not you.

2. Take leadership of your thesis: Come to meetings with a clear agenda and determine in advance what you would like the outcome of the meeting to be.If your advisor is the busy hands-off type, make it super-easy for them to support you by bringing everything that they need to sign and review to the few meetings you have with them.

3. Get support from other professors: Thesis committee members, department chair, counseling deans, and even your university’s ombudsman (in the event of unethical behavior) can help you to get your thesis on track

4. Set boundaries, put them in writing if needed: This applies particularly to micromanagers who expect you to work 24/7 including weekends and holidays. Some students put their work hours in writing to set boundaries with extreme micro-manager supervisors.

5. Persistence, persistence, persistance: Persistence is a key element for getting a doctorate for every PhD student. Writing a 100+ thesis based on years of research takes tenacity. If your supervisor is a difficult person to work with, consider it an opportunity to earn a PhD in Persistence as well. This is the strategy that Nancy used to be the first student to get a PhD working with the most difficult supervisor in her department.

How Nancy Rescued Her Thesis from the Most Difficult Supervisor in Her Department

To summarize, Nancy used all of the strategies above to get her supervisor to approve her defense date.

1. First, she decided not to take her supervisor’s harsh criticism personally. Instead she used the feedback constructively to improve her results and manuscript.

2. Second, she decided the structure of her thesis – as an 8th year student she was a real expert in her field!

3. Then she met with her committee members and reviewed her progress and requirements for her graduation. She got these requirements in writing.

4. With the support of her committee members, and the requirements in writing, Dr. Burns reluctantly agreed to schedule Nancy’s defense

5. Nancy worked full-steam ahead to get all the data ready for her defense and to analyze it rigorously. She predicted that she would be grilled by Dr. Burns at her defense, and she was right!

In retrospect, Nancy regretted her decision to join Dr. Burn’s lab because it took her nearly 8 years to get a PhD and the average in her department was 6-7 years. However, she was also proud of herself that she was able to get her PhD in spite of working for the most difficult person in her department. In her current job as a researcher in an academic institution, life seems quite easy – the obstacles that Nancy had to overcome to get her PhD prepared her well for the challenges of a rigorous research environment.

Do you have a difficult supervisor? 

Click here to get on the waiting list for the online “Finish Your Thesis Program” and get a copy of my free book “Finish Your Thesis Faster”

How to Find a Faculty Advisor

All new GRA's and GTA's must participate in the thesis advisor selection process during the first month of their first semester in the Woodruff School.

The process for assigning new, undesignated GRA's to research projects and advisors accommodates both student and faculty desires to the maximum extent possible. You are expected to interview at least three faculty members. By the deadline, submit your top three projects or advisor choices to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies on the Faculty Advisor Interview form. Similar feedback is obtained from each faculty member.

The Chair of the Woodruff School and the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies make the final GRA/GTA project-advisor assignments based on:

• Student preference
• Faculty preference
• Project priority (externally-funded projects have the highest priority)
• Current distribution of graduate students among advisors

Changing Your Faculty Advisor

If you wish to change your advisor, you must first discuss the matter with your current advisor and satisfactorily complete all your graduate research assistant and research obligations and find a new faculty advisor.

To initiate your Change of Advisor request, please go to:

Fill out the form and submit. Your current advisor will automatically be sent an email to approve this request and "release" you. Your new advisor will then automatically be sent an email to approve this request and "accept" you. The request will then be automatically routed to the Office of Student Services. Upon the Office of Student Services approval, your file will be officially updated.


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