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, that her students either dropped out, 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” with harsh critique.
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 after all.
After working with thousands of students in the last 10 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.
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.
No supervisor is perfect for every 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.
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 communication problems – maybe you will start looking forward to meeting with your supervisor!
Principle #1: Express your ideas Assertively
What is assertiveness?
Human interactions can be quite complex, but 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 nearly 100 years ago, are very similar to the suggestions of accomplished PhDs from academia and industry whom I interviewed.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
Example of applying the three-step method in graduate school
Imagine that your thesis supervisor is asking you to complete a project that you find burdensome.
Scenario #1: If you are a passive person, you might decide to say nothing and do the task while feeling bitter.
Scenario #2: 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.
In a situation where your supervisor asks you to work on a burdensome project, you are more likely to speak up for yourself.
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 about this project, and ask whether they have time to talk about it now.
You should always begin every conversation on a positive note or thanking your advisor for their time.
As a general rule, always assume that the person you are dealing with is reasonable and will respond if you speak up.
When you discuss your project, let your advisor know why you do not think completing this project is beneficial.
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. This discussion will go a long ways towards developing a professional relationship with your supervisor.
In extreme cases where you feel stuck I recommend consulting with your thesis committee chair or department chair. As a last resort, some students switch groups. However, changing advisors can put you right back to square one. It’s always best if you can find a way to get your thesis on track with your current supervisor.
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:
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 have more productive discussions.
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.
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 into learning opportunities, you will become the independent and assertive that all employers 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 assertiveness, but you will need to be more persistent and patient
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 is at stake.
5 keys strategies to cope with difficult supervisors and get your thesis on track
1. Do not let your supervisor 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. If your advisor is super-busy, make it easy for them to support you. Bring everything that they need to sign and review to the meetings you have with them.
3. Get support from other professors: Thesis committee members, department chair, deans, your university’s ombudsman (in the event of unethical behavior) can help you.
4. Set boundaries, put them in writing if needed: This applies particularly to micromanagers who expect you to work 24/7. Some students put their work hours in writing to set boundaries with extreme micro-managers.
5. Persistence, persistence, persistence: Persistence is a key element for getting a doctorate for every PhD student. Writing a 100+ page 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. This is the strategy that Nancy used to be the first student to get a PhD 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, Nancy 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 feels smooth in comparison to her PhD. 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? Please share below and I will respond to you directly