By Roseanna Hare
Picture this. You are embarking on a new research project. You might feel nervous, excited, and even apprehensive. What will your supervisor be like? Will they guide you to become the next Nobel Prize winner? So imagine the horror when you realise they have no interest in you or your research. What do you do? (Hint: cry is not the answer!)
If you’re in this position, you have my sympathy – I’ve been there. Difficult supervisors are hard work and can leave you feeling undervalued and underwhelmed. But don’t despair! This is actually a blessing in disguise, representing an invaluable opportunity to develop independence, motivation and leadership skills.
Establish ground rules
First and foremost – manage your expectations. The supervisory relationship can be challenging as this person is both your boss and your mentor. Knowing what to expect from them will leave you better placed to cope with disappointment and find support elsewhere. Outline what you want to gain from supervision meetings. Determine responsibilities – both yours and theirs, and set boundaries early on. Keep focussed by having long-term goals in mind and trust me, this experience will help you achieve these.
Channel your inner Sherlock
It’s important to find out all you can about your supervisor. By understanding their motivations, strengths (there will be some) and bugbears, you’re in prime position to manage difficulties. If they wear noise-canceling headphones and ignore your presence (true story), try alternative forms of communication. Are they not a morning person? Save questions for after coffee. Investigate support networks within the institution, seek guidance from others and hunt down students who’ve shared similar woes.
The onus is on you to be independent. Schedule meetings – don’t wait to be invited. Establish a recurring arrangement, knowing you can cancel if there’s nothing to report. Before meetings, email a list of discussion points. Take notes in meetings and agree on goals for next time, making sure to keep a shared record of what was decided. Don’t shy away from asking. Do you want to go to a conference? Do you want that new pipette? If so, put forward your case and ask!
Confidence in yourself and your work is key. Communicate your ideas assertively to your supervisor to encourage them to take you seriously. Prepare for potentially difficult meetings so you can speak with conviction. When there’s an issue, arrive with suggestions as to how to resolve it. Be honest and let your supervisor know if you don’t agree with or understand something they’ve said. How are they supposed to improve if you don’t alert them to the problems?
Persevere – do not give up!
Remember, it’s their job to supervise you – they agreed to take on a student! Their busy schedule shouldn’t be the reason you postpone meetings. If your email doesn’t receive a reply, email again. There’s no harm in politely following up a few days later. If you’re still left unanswered, try calling, ask others to keep a lookout for them or even ambush them after a lecture. It’s important that you don’t get despondent and keep pushing for the support you deserve.
About the Author:
I am a first year PhD student at the University of Manchester, working to understand the mechanisms behind cancer immunotherapy checkpoints. Before my PhD I completed an Integrated Master’s degree in Biochemistry at the University of Sheffield, having spent a year at AstraZeneca in Sweden, alongside a stint in the publishing team at Nature Research before coming back to the lab. In my free time I enjoy baking and going for brunch.
You can find me on LinkedIn: Roseanna Hare