Jeff, a fifth year PhD student, got his thesis proposal draft back from his thesis supervisor, Paul.
The feedback was discouraging, but hardly surprising.
It was full of criticism, but offered no guidance:
“This part is confusing.”
“You don’t have enough detail here.”
“I thought we talked about how to make this section better!”
Since his first year, Jeff had had a rocky relationship with his thesis supervisor.
He went into every meeting with the intention of pleasing Paul, and simply getting along.
But Paul was prone to angry outbursts, and nothing Jeff could do seemed good enough for him.
Besides doing everything his supervisor asked him to do—demands that Jeff felt were sometimes abusive—Jeff even brought back gifts from his vacations to show his appreciation.
No matter what, Paul continued to be demanding and disrespectful towards Jeff.
The harsh criticism on his thesis proposal was the last straw.
At their next meeting, Jeff decided to take a risk.
He told his thesis supervisor the truth: the work was overwhelming, and he didn’t feel like he was getting any guidance on how to finish his thesis.
Jeff was expecting Paul to burst out with anger (and maybe even expel him from the program!), but instead, something unexpected happened.
His supervisor took a deep breath and said, “I am sorry, I didn’t realize you felt that way.”
Jeff couldn’t believe his ears, and he told Paul more about how he was struggling.
Instead of the end of his graduate school career, the conversation marked a positive turning point for Jeff.
Of course, Paul’s personality didn’t change just because Jeff was honest with him.
Paul still responded with anger sometimes, but it was easier for Jeff to talk to him about his work.
Most importantly, from then on, Jeff got more meaningful feedback and learned more from their meetings.
In fact, at the next committee meeting, Paul stood up for Jeff when the other committee members were questioning the research.
After five years of hostility, Paul became one of Jeff’s strongest allies.
Jeff could hardly believe it, but there was nothing magical about this transformation.
All it took was the courage to have an honest conversation with his thesis supervisor about his challenges, and to ask for the guidance he needed to finish his thesis.
Are you struggling with a demanding thesis supervisor?
Like Jeff, you can usually turn your relationship with your supervisor around, if you follow some simple strategies.
Here are five important tips for making even the toughest supervisor your ally.
5 Steps to Turn a Your Hostile Thesis Supervisor into Your Closest Ally
Step 1:Stop trying to please your thesis supervisor
It may sound counter-intuitive, but your thesis supervisor isn’t looking for a yes-man.
What’s more, you’ll miss out on key learning opportunities if you only try to tell your supervisor what you think they want to hear.
If you’re too focused on pleasing him or her, you can lose sight of why you’re there, and what you really hope to accomplish in grad school.
Your job as a graduate student is to finish your thesis, not to please your supervisor.
Ultimately, your thesis is comprised of your own original research, and it’s up to you to stay focused on what you need to do to finish.
It’s okay to disagree with your supervisor, and sometimes it’s unavoidable.
In fact, learning to defend your conclusions in a disagreement is part of honing expertise in your field.
The key is not to avoid disagreements at all costs, but to know how—and when—to state your case clearly and respectfully.
Step 2:Come to every meeting prepared
This second point ties in closely with the first one.
The most important step to earning your supervisor’s trust, and respect, is to come to your meetings prepared.
Your supervisor has their own to-do list, and academic career, to focus on.
No matter how overwhelmed you might feel, your supervisor is at least as busy as you are.
Your work is just one of the hundred things on their mind.
Don’t expect to sit passively and let your supervisor do the facilitating.
Come to each meeting with a clear agenda, including an outline of what you want to discuss, and relevant follow-up points from your previous meeting (more on that later in the post).
If you’re organized and prepared, this will immediately get your supervisor’s attention, and help you to keep the focus on areas where you need the most help.
At every meeting, proper preparation will make it easier for your supervisor to give you the support you need.
Step 3:Leave your emotions out of the discussion and focus on the problem you want to solve
This may be the toughest tip to put into practice, but it’s one of the most important.
Every graduate student will face criticism from their supervisor, and some supervisors might be particularly blunt with their feedback.
To avoid getting defensive, keep your emotions separate from your work, and avoid taking criticism personally.
If you’re facing a problem with your supervisor, keep the discussion focused on the problem, and not your emotions about the problem or the people involved.
Describe your issue by stating the facts, and explain how this is interfering with your work.
If you bring your personal feelings into the discussion, you risk sidetracking the conversation, and creating even more conflicts.
Instead of talking about your emotions, such as frustration or anger, keep the focus on your work.
Step 4: Listen to your supervisor’s viewpoint so you understand where they are coming from
Even when you don’t agree with your supervisor, you can learn something from him or her.
Your supervisor will have their own reasons behind their viewpoint, and they’ll usually include something that you hadn’t thought of.
When you do have a disagreement, listen carefully to your supervisor’s point of view, and let them know you value their feedback.
Look at the problem from their perspective, and brainstorm about solutions that will meet both your needs.
If your supervisor feels respected and listened to, they’ll be more likely to give you the same consideration.
You might find you both have valuable suggestions that will improve your thesis in the long run.
Step 5: Always follow through on your end of the deal
All supervisors, especially the most demanding ones, want to see a clear demonstration of improvement on your end.
You’ll both be less frustrated, and more effective, if you avoid re-hashing the same problems repeatedly.
By the end of each meeting, come up with an action plan, including some concrete steps for fulfilling your obligations.
This will also help you prepare yourself for the next meeting.
Always keep your commitments, and if for some reason you are not able to, let your supervisor know as soon as possible, so you can both work on a new plan of action.
In order to build trust between you and your supervisor, demonstrate that they can count on you to keep your promises and finish what you start.
No matter where you are in your graduate studies, it’s not too late to improve your relationship with your thesis supervisor.
Don’t assume it’s a lost cause, just because you didn’t get along in the past. By staying focused on your thesis, and approaching your supervisor with honesty and respect, you can turn them into your ally in finishing your thesis.
Are you struggling with a tough thesis supervisor?
Which of these five steps will help you the most, to get the guidance you need from your supervisor?
Leave a comment below, and get a direct response from Dora
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