DEALING WITH STUDENT-SUPERVISOR PROBLEMS

INTRODUCTION

Not all relationships work out as planned. Considering the stress graduate students experience and the amount of time it takes for some to complete a thesis, it is not surprising that some student-supervisor relationships deteriorate. Relationships break down for a number of reasons though supervisors and students disagree on the cause. Graduate students cite reasons such as bad advising (Gardner, 2008), lack of interaction, trust, emotional support (Golde, 2005), and a mismatch in styles (Lee, 2007). Gardner’s (2008) study on student attrition found that faculty members put the blame solely on the students who left. Faculty members cited students’ lack of ability, drive, or motivation as reasons they were not successful. Some believed the student should not have come to the university in the first place. This resonated with one supervisor I interviewed who said her department routinely accepted students of poor quality.

Issues of power imbalance exist in the academy, and even in the most collegial graduate student and supervisor relationships. University structures give supervisors powers over the students they supervise. In addition to help with their theses, students need numerous letters of reference from their supervisors. Some students are employees of their supervisors, and are dependent on them for their income. When faced with a deteriorating or unworkable student-supervisor relationship, what are the student’s options?

Addressing Problems with Your Supervisor

Changing supervisors may be considered, but that should be a last resort. First, meet with the supervisor to attempt to resolve problems before they escalate. Before meeting with the supervisor, discuss the problems with a trusted friend to articulate the problem. Students may not feel supported by their supervisor, but they need to be clear about what this means. In one case, a student did not feel supported by the supervisor because the supervisor elected to attend another student’s presentation at a conference but not hers. Another waited four months to receive feedback. Next, consider what specific actions are needed to resolve the problem. As an associate dean of students, I occasionally met with students who demanded, “something be done” about a particular situation. When asked what actions might remedy the situation, they often said, “Fire the professor.” One student wanted to expose the professor to the greater university as a bad supervisor. This won’t work and in many cases, there is simply no remedy for bad supervision.

Most universities have graduate supervision guidelines. Although these are usually policy statements or suggested best practices, they can give an indication of what the university deems as the supervisor’s roles and responsibilities. Guidelines also indicate the student’s responsibilities. Guidelines differ among universities. Some guidelines fill an extensive book while others are a few pages. It is good to become familiar with the guidelines before problems arise. However, it is naive to believe that students have the power to force supervisors to carry out their duties. Even if university guidelines clearly state it is the supervisor who is responsible for reading a draft for publication, pointing this out will not improve the situation. I reiterate that supervision is a voluntary act for faculty.

 Getting Effective Feedback from Your Supervisor

Students need feedback from their supervisors to keep the research moving and ensure it is moving in the right direction. There are times when students need more input than others. Students will need to see their supervisor when developing their proposal and at the start oftheir data analysis. As the research progresses, students should work to become independent researchers.

It is acceptable to ask when a supervisor expects to provide feedback. Most guidelines use the word “timely,” but few define what this means. How fast can the student expect a reply? Within an hour, a day, or a week? Consider the peak times for the supervisor. Is there a major grant deadline? Does the professor have midterm or final papers to mark? Is this the time other students are rushing to meet the deadlines to defend their theses? Does the supervisor respond to emails on weekends and evening? If not, send the questions in the morning or on Monday when the professor will read and respond. Otherwise, the email may be buried under other emails.

Receiving encouraging and motivating feedback goes a long way to help students reach their goal. Some supervisors give back news, but little praise. I have a memory of an instructor I had as a student who wrote particularly nasty comments on student papers. I went to his office to complain. When asked directly what I wanted, I told him I wanted some positive feedback to balance the negative comments. I still recall his words, “Oh, so you want me to be patronizing?” Incidentally, I later submitted an abstract of the paper to a conference and it was accepted. Students should not take this feedback as a personal attack, though it may certainly feel like it is. It is possible that supervisors are not aware of the tone of their feedback. Respond to any feedback in writing, quoting what needs corrected. Perhaps if these supervisors routinely read their remarks, they will consider tempering them.

Fortunately, some students manage to write a thesis despite their supervisor. They evaluate their needs and find alternative sources to meet them. Committee members can provide some help but most will be reluctant to step into the supervisor’s role. Peer groups, communities of practice, and friends can help. Many universities offer graduate workshops that provide information on grant writing, career searches, and other services.

 Making a Formal Complaint

If problems cannot be resolved with the supervisor, the student needs to be aware of the university’s chain of command. A well-written letter to the university president will be passed down the line, usually ending on the desk of the graduate program director. To save time, it is best to start there. The GPD should know the policies and procedures for changing supervisors. They may know what is reasonable to ask of a supervisor and what is reasonable to expect. Graduate program directors can usually be trusted to hold your discussion in confidence. If the GPD cannot help, the next step is to seek help from the department chair. Finally, seek help from the school of graduate studies’ director of student services or associate dean of students. Complaints should clearly indicate the nature of the problem and the action needed to remedy the problem. It is within the student’s prerogative to ask to meet the supervisor with another member of the faculty present. Usually this faculty member would be the GPD or department chair. Students who make a strong case of neglect or abuse will be treated with more attention. For example, students who claim their supervisor cancelled their last four meetings, and show documentation in emails have a strong case for action.

 Changing Supervisors

Not all problems can be resolved and not everyone is willing to work toward a resolution. If the student-supervisor relationship is beyond reconciliation, what is the best way to end the supervisory relationship? What are the costs involved in changing supervisors? What are the benefits? How does a student go about finding another supervisor? I posed these questions to many supervisors. Some were nonchalant and recalled experiences where they and a student mutually agreed they were not the best person to supervise. In one example, the student’s research interests changed and both felt a colleague was better suited for the task. However, others recounted instances of students switching supervisors, saying they felt betrayed. A key factor in this discussion was how much supervisors felt they had invested in the student’s progress. Supervisors who believed to have invested little in terms of money and time were open to students changing supervisors. Those who perceived that they had given special attention or gone above and beyond the call of duty for the student were resentful and hurt. This suggests that students should act early rather than continue when the relationship is not going well.

Disciplinary differences should be factored into decisions to change supervisors. In the social sciences and humanities, supervisors typically provide less funding for students and have less reliance on them for their research, than do those in science and engineering. Among the supervisors whom I spoke to, those who had provided funding for students, and made place for them in labs, were more concerned when students planned to change supervisors. In addition, supervisors were less likely too accept a student who left another faculty member’s lab. Students who have been accepted into programs on the condition of working with specific supervisors and rely on them for funding and research space will have a much harder time finding another supervisor than will students in the social sciences and humanities. It should also be noted that if a student changes supervisors, it is also likely the advisory committee will change as well.

Among those I interviewed, there was little agreement about the wisdom of changing supervisors, but one thing is clear: changing supervisors slows student progress. Time lost depends on where the student is in the thesis. Students at the proposal stage lose less than students who have written a complete draft of the thesis. Changing supervisors can require students to write a new proposal, with a new topic and methodology. For the masters student, most agreed it was not worth the time and effort to change. They held that most masters students should persist for a year, even with a less than satisfactory supervisor relationship.

Golde’s (2005) research on student attrition found that a number of students elect to transfer to another university rather than change supervisors in their university. According to Golde, students who elected to change schools made more informed choices about their new supervisor and this allowed them to “start over with a clean slate” (p. 687). However, it can also require students to take additional courses and repeat comprehensive exams. In some cases, students may lose government funding.

This bleak discussion might give the impression one should never change supervisors. However, in some cases the benefits can outweigh the costs. This was true for a student I call Joseph. After working two years with a supervisor, and writing three chapters for his thesis, their relationship came to a mutual halt. There was, among other issues, a disagreement over how much feedback a supervisor should provide. Joseph asked that his supervisor read and comment on papers for publication. The supervisor expressed that his job was to supervise the thesis. Lee (2007) might label the supervisory style as “benign neglect” (p. 685). There was a mismatch of the student’s needs and the supervisor’s willingness to attend to those needs. After several unproductive meetings, they independently agreed to dissolve the relationship. Joseph was able to find a new supervisor, but this supervisor was not an expert on the original topic and research method. The new supervisor required Joseph to rewrite his proposal. Despite the time lost in starting over, Joseph was able to write and defend his thesis in two additional years. And with his supervisor’s support, he was able to publish. The time lost in starting over was gained in self-confidence and supervisor support. Starting over or redoing work may be a better option than dropping out. If students change supervisors, they should give credit to the original supervisor for his or her contribution to the research and for any financial support.

Before initiating a change in supervisors, students should know their rights and ascertain if another faculty member is willing to serve. They should also weigh the cost. For example, students at my university are given only four months to secure a new supervisor, after which they will be withdrawn from their program. Other universities may require the department chair to assign another faculty member to the supervisory role provided he or she is qualified to supervise the research.

 Sexual Harassment, Racism, Homophobia, and Discrimination

Research indicates between one quarter and one third of all female university and college students face sexual harassment (Smeby, 2000). Certainly, harassment is not something that happens only to women and as we know, it is a vastly underreported crime. Most universities have policies to deal with sexual and other forms of harassment, but these are not always effective and in some instances, the student’s complaint is not given the attention it deserves. This was recently demonstrated in an advice column where an anonymous writer asked Alice Huang (2015) for advice concerning her supervisor looking down her blouse. Huang replied,

As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice. (n.p.)1

Huang added that this sort of behavior was common in the workplace. This was confirmed by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s “trouble with girls in the lab” speech. “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry” (quoted in Clatterbuck Soper, 2015).

Unfortunately, some professors who agree to supervise lack adequate social and academic skills needed to effectively mentor graduate students. It bears repeating that professors are rarely trained to take on the demanding role of supervisor and many would not avail themselves to such support if it existed. Moreover, there is little consequence for bad supervision. Golde, Bueschel, Jones, and Walker (2006) write, “More insidiously, the student is completely dependent on the faculty advisor, who, through ignorance, convention, or malice abuses or exploits the student” (p. 5). They claim that a “culture of privacy” means that faculty members and departmental leaders seldom intervene on behalf of the student leaving the student with little recourse (p. 5).

Some, like Huang, may advise students to ignore problems, get their degree, and move on, noting the costs of complaining are too high. I disagree. No student should have to endure harassment or psychological abuse to obtain a graduate degree. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and forms of discrimination are unacceptable and should be brought to the university’s attention. The academy is not above the law, nor is a faculty member exempt from civil behavior. It is the university’s responsibility to provide a safe, welcoming environment for all students. Operating under a culture of privacy allows the abuse to continue.

 NOTE

1 Science removed the column and issued an apology.

Reference:

Blair, L. (2016). Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation (p.121). Springer.

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