“Did I Just Say That to My Thesis Supervisor?”
I took a deep breath as filled my pipette with the last drops of my reagent in the bottle.
I had just enough reagent for this experiment so I could generate data for my presentation the following week.
Just as I was about the cap the vial, my thesis supervisor stormed into the lab and asked “Dora, do you already have the data for the presentation?”
I was so startled by his voice that when I turned to him I knocked over the glass vial and my solution spilled all over the my lab bench.
So much for having data ready for my presentation the following week.
I was speechless for a moment, and then I heard myself saying:
“Look, you cannot treat me like this anymore. You keep walking in on me when I am trying to work. Can’t you tell me in advance if you want to meet with me?”
He looked at me with surprise, and said. “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your work. Just go back to what you were doing and we’ll talk later.”
As he walked out, all I could think was “Did I just say that?” and “Will he fire me for talking back to him?”
He didn’t fire me, and he didn’t get angry with me for “talking back to him”
Instead, he started treating me as an equal, an independent researcher, rather than just a data-generating graduate student.
That day I learned one of the most important lessons about getting along with other people:
The reason people don’t respect you or your time is that they learned that they can get away with it.
You explicitly or implicitly allowed them to demand things from you or talk to you in a certain tone.
If people don’t treat you with respect, it is because you didn’t put your foot down and showed them that you are worthy of their respect.
Or maybe you don’t think that you are worthy of their respect.
I know that one of the biggest killers of productivity is self-doubt that maybe you “are not smart enough” to finish graduate school.
Unfortunately, if you don’t feel supported by your thesis supervisor, you will struggle much more than necessary.
Imagine how much more confident and productive you would be if you knew that your supervisor and thesis committee members respected you and your research?
I bet you are thinking, “Dora, that sounds nice, but how do I gain respect from my supervisor? I can’t just tell them to treat me with more respect.”
You are right, you cannot just tell them someone to treat you with respect, and there are a few reasons for this.
First, being treated with respect means different things to different people.
Second, a conversation about “being treated with more respect” is probably scary, especially with your thesis supervisor.
The good news is that you don’t need to have a difficult conversation – you can show your supervisor that you are worthy of respect, and they will treat you differently.
The best part is that the more respected you feel, the more confident you will be – and your productivity will automatically increase.
An added benefit is that you will have the skills to get along with your boss in your future job, even if they are difficult person, and this can help you to get promotions and advance your career.
Seven Simple Strategies to Gain Your Supervisor’s Respect
Lack of confidence is the #1 reason that students hesitate to stand up for themselves if they feel mistreated.
How can you speak up to someone who has years (maybe even decades) more experience than you do?
The strategies below will help you to gain more confidence and your thesis supervisor’s respect, without having to have a difficult conversation.
By following these strategies you will demonstrate that you take your work seriously and respect your supervisor’s opinions – and in turn they will have more respect for you.
Strategy #1: Understand your supervisor’s expectations
A hands-on supervisor might expect weekly or biweekly progress reports. However, a hands-off busy supervisor might get annoyed if you schedule meetings or send updates frequently.
The easiest way to meet your supervisor’s expectations is to ask upfront: “How frequently would you like me to check in with you?”
For a specific project you can ask when he or she would like an update, and whether they would like a written report or to meet in person.
Regardless of your supervisor’s management style, bring challenges to his or her attention as soon as you can.
The strategies below will help you to have more productive meetings even if you had conflicts in the past.
Strategy #2: Prepare an agenda for every meeting
Thesis supervisors are busy and your work is just one of the hundred things on their minds.
If there are any forms that need to be signed, or manuscripts that need to be reviewed, bring them to the meeting. This will make it easy for your supervisor to support you.
One of the main advantages of having a written agenda, is that you can bring the conversation back to it if your conversation goes off on a tangent – this way you will make sure you get done what you need to during the meeting.
Strategy #3: Explain problems without getting emotional
Do not assume that your supervisor is familiar with the minute details of your work.
Describe the problem by stating the facts and explain how it is interfering with your work.
Avoid talking about your emotions, such as frustration or anger, because your discussion will get side-tracked, and you might create even more conflicts.
If your supervisor sees that you are focused on problem-solving they will be able to support you better.
Use this approach for sensitive issues such as a conflict that you have with your supervisor.
For example, if your supervisor is very demanding, you can start the conversation with something like:
“I know this project is very high priority, and I have been feeling a lot of pressure lately to get data. Can we talk about how we can make this work for both of us?”
Strategy #4: Define in advance how you would like the problem to be resolved
You know more about your work than your thesis supervisor does.
You can save yourself and your supervisor some time if you come to every meeting with one or more proposals to resolve your problem.
In the example above, where you want to talk about a demanding project, you can write down some deadlines in advance which are realistic – this will be a good reference to discuss how to take pressure off you.
Strategy #5: Listen to your supervisor’s viewpoint and brainstorm about mutually beneficial solutions
Your thesis supervisor might not agree with all of your ideas, but he or she probably has their reasons for it.
Do not take criticism personally or get defensive.
Look at the problem from their viewpoint, and brainstorm about solutions that will meet both of your needs.
For example, they may not like your timeline because they want data faster – if their request is unrealistic, let them know why.
In the above example, you can talk about getting help from someone else to meet the deadlines, or modifying the project slightly so it can be completed within their desired timeframe.
Strategy#6: Put important agreements in writing
One of the most frequent sources of conflict is miscommunication.
For example, you might misunderstand your supervisor’s suggestions and take your project in the wrong direction.
The best way to avoid miscommunication is to follow up after every meeting with an email that summarizes what you have agreed upon and your action items.
This will give your supervisor a chance to review what you have discussed and add suggestions if needed.
Since professors are under a lot of pressure to publish, this strategy is very important if you need to modify your timelines, so your supervisor knows when to expect data from you.
Strategy #7: Always follow through on your end of the deal
When you meet with your thesis supervisor, prioritize your action item list and set some approximate timelines.
Be sure that you keep your commitments, and if for some reason you are not able to, let your supervisor know as soon as possible.
In order to build trust between you and your supervisor, you need to demonstrate that they can count on you to follow through on your commitments.
What If You Have Frequent Disagreements with Your Supervisor?
Remember that you don’t need to agree on everything in order to have a good relationship with your thesis supervisor.
There will be disagreements along the way, and the best way to ensure that you maintain a professional relationship is to communicate openly with your supervisor.
One of the biggest mistakes that students make is that they “hide” from their supervisors if they fall behind on their timelines or they had a conflict in the past.
It is not possible to solve a problem with your thesis supervisor by avoiding them.
Remember that they need to approve your thesis, so if you want to graduate you will need to have a conversation with them – and the sooner the better.
The best way to prepare for a meeting if you have not communicated for a long time is to write a very simple agenda just to make sure that the two of you are on the same page about the requirements for your thesis.
Once you get the conversation going and start to communicate more openly and frequently with your supervisor, you can make your meetings more efficient by following the strategies above.
You may already have a good relationship with your supervisor – if so, keep it that way by showing respect for them and taking your work seriously.
If your relationship has been a little rocky, start practicing these strategies with another colleague so you get used to expressing your ideas openly.
Either way, you can package challenges with your supervisor into learning opportunities for mastering communication, one the most important skills for getting along with others and advancing your career.
Which one of the strategies would be the most helpful for you to gain your thesis supervisor’s respect?
Leave a comment below and Dora will respond to you directly.