How Do You Get Along With the Most Difficult Thesis Supervisor in Your Department?
Carmen was the first graduate student to join the group of a young assistant professor in her department.
During the initial interview it seemed like their personalities were a good fit – they were both passionate about their research and discussed several projects that would be appropriate for Carmen’s thesis.
However, their relationship became rocky after Carmen passed her qualifying exams and she began working full-time in the lab.
As Carmen’s supervisor was just starting her career in academia, funding was tight and she was under a lot of pressure to publish.
Carmen set up regular meetings to discuss her thesis project, but her supervisor always seemed to go off in a tangent about saving money on lab supplies or switching to a different research project that had a higher chance of leading to a publication.
At the end of her second year Carmen thought about changing groups.
She described her supervisor as being always under stress, micromanaging every aspect of her work day, and wasting time by being indecisive about Carmen’s research project.
How could Carmen ever finish her thesis if her supervisor was always changing her topic?
In Carmen’s third year, a new student, Diane, joined her group.
Diane was the same age as Carmen, but she worked in industry for 2 years before going to graduate school.
In contrast to Carmen, Diane developed a very collegial relationship with their supervisor. Their meetings were productive, and Diane’s thesis project was on track by the end of her first year.
While Carmen and Diane worked on different projects, they did have joint meetings with their supervisor to discuss how to manage resources in the lab.
Carmen noticed that Diane never got emotional when their supervisor was dissatisfied with her progress, and she was always able to come to an agreement with her by the end of their meeting.
“How do you get along with her?” Carmen asked Diane one day. “I am always so frustrated by her indecisiveness, that I always end up leaving the meetings without resolving anything.”
Diane admitted that she was also apprehensive of the meetings with their supervisor, but she had learned to manage meetings with difficult people during her career in industry.
“In industry my work always depended on other people, and I had to find a way to come up with an action plan, even when I had to collaborate with really unpleasant or unreliable people,” Diane explained. “I was always angry when people did not do their part, but I had to let go of my feelings so I could make progress on my work.”
Diane’s strategy, to focus on solving problems rather than letting emotions get into the way of meetings, paid off. She finished her thesis in 4 years, while most of her peers took 5-6 years to graduate.
Focusing on the problem you are trying to solve, rather than your emotions, will solve 90% of your conflicts even with difficult supervisors.
Carmen, inspired by Diane’s example, also started to let go of the resentment she felt towards her supervisor.
Carmen was still frustrated by her supervisor’s management style, but she put her focus on her thesis project, and eventually she was able to develop a working relationship with her supervisor that allowed her to graduate three years later.
How Focusing on the Problem Will Help You To Resolve Almost Any Conflict with Your Thesis Supervisor
Communicating effectively with your thesis supervisor is one of the most important factors determining your happiness in graduate school.
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 are proactive about seeking their mentoring, listening to their viewpoint, and addressing their concerns.
In my work as PhD coach, I always advise students to choose a thesis supervisor who is a good fit in terms of their personality. Start by understanding what type of supervision you need.
For example, if you are an independent researcher then a “hands-off” thesis supervisor would suit you better than a micro-manager. However, if you need more guidance, then you would be more successful with a professor who is involved with their students, rather than someone who is so busy they have no time for personal attention to their students.
If you already chose a thesis supervisor who is not the best fit for you, you will probably need to resolve some personal differences in order to complete your thesis.
Consider this challenge as a learning opportunity for you to practice professional relationship skills.
Once you get a job (in academia or industry), you will most likely have to work with many different personalities and graduate school is a great place to begin practicing communication skills.
Furthermore, learning effective communication skills with your supervisor will go a long way toward improving your productivity and self-confidence.
Although supervisor personalities come in many different flavors, there are certain communication skills which will work with most professors even if they are difficult people.
Just a few basic communication skills will resolve 90% of your conflicts. If I had to use one word for this group of skills it would be this: assertiveness.
What 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 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.
Practice Assertiveness with a simple three-step method
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.
To summarize, the secret to a successful meeting with a thesis supervisor 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:
- State the facts. Make sure that you do not let personal feelings get into the way of research. Focus only on work related issues, and state the objective reality that concerns you.
- 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? Is it difficult to get along with someone on the project?
- 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.
Imagine this. 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 suppervisor 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.
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.
It is a good practice to 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.
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 mutually-respectful relationship with your supervisor.
Do not make the mistake of focusing on winning individual battles- it is more important to develop a long-term, respectful professional relationship with your supervisor and coworkers, than to have the last word at every conversation
The Biggest Communication Mistakes You Have To Avoid
You cannot expect your professor to resolve all your problems for you, but you should be proactive in seeking their support when you feel stuck in your research or writing.
However, it is also very important how you ask for help.
Avoid the following 5 common communication mistakes to get the best possible mentoring:
1) Lack of Communication
Avoiding your professor because you are embarrassed about your lack of progress is the biggest communication mistake. You always need to make sure that you are on the same page about deadlines and graduation requirements.
Even if the conversation is uncomfortable, it is better to know your supervisor’s point of view than to be surprised if his or her expectations are different than what you had planned for.
2) Agreeing with your supervisor just to avoid conflict
Are you always striving to be a “good” graduate student? If you always agree with your supervisor to avoid conflict, you are not only heading in the direction of a passive attitude, you may be hurting your research.
You may know more about your thesis topic than your supervisor does, and there is no reason to assume that your supervisor is always right.
It is possible for two people to disagree and still maintain a friendly relationship. In fact, most professors expect their students to know more than they do about their dissertation topic.
If there is a disagreement between you and your advisor, listen calmly to what he or she has to say and explain your own reasoning afterwards using the three-part method above.
3) Coming to meetings unprepared
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 walk into your professor’s office without a clearly defined agenda, there is a good chance the meeting will get derailed as you or your professor go off on tangents.
4) Taking criticism personally or becoming defensive
Our natural tendency is to become defensive if someone critiques or work.
Try to resist the urge to interrupt the other person (especially your thesis supervisor) when they are giving you feedback that you may not want to hear.
Using constructive feedback to improve your writing, research, or presentation skills can be the best way to grow professionally.
What if you have a difficult supervisor who seems to constantly criticize your work (putting you down), rather than providing you with genuine feedback to help you grow?
5) Discussing sensitive issues over email
This is a toughie. We are so used to communicating over email, that it is not always clear what is a sensitive topic that would be better discussed in person or over the phone.
The advice I give to my students is to only use email to send documents, non-sensitive information, or to ask for a time to meet.
If you have any disagreements with your supervisor, or have a strong opinion about something, it is always best to discuss it over the phone or in person.
Talking in person or over the phone will reduce the chance of miscommunication, but it can be challenging to track down professors for a meeting.
If there is an important and sensitive issue you need to discuss (feedback on paper, committee meeting, or your thesis), be “persistently polite” until they agree to at least a 15 minute meeting.
Conversely, do not over-analyze emails that you receive. Unless the person clearly states that they are upset about an issue, do not assume that they wrote the email with a negative tone.
For example, an email that says “I would like to discuss the paper you just submitted to me” can be interpreted negatively (Oh no, my supervisor must think I submitted an awful draft), or positively (Wow, my supervisor read my paper and maybe he/she will give me some great feedback so we can submit it).
I recommend that you do not make any assumptions about your supervisor’s opinions . Simply agree to a time to meet, and ask whether they would like you to bring any additional information to the meeting to make it more efficient.
You may have a difficult thesis supervisor, but remember that they are a human being too. They will probably respond well if you take time to prepare for meetings, listen to their opinions, and make it easy for them to mentor you.
These simple and powerful strategies can transform a strained relationship with your supervisor into a mutually respectful one, that can help you to get your thesis on track and develop professionally.
Did you have to resolve a conflict with a difficult supervisor? How did you do it, and what was the outcome? Please be specific because we have people from all over the world who are looking for inspiration!