Destructive behaviours (to avoid) 

Students ask:  What should I do when I haven’t made any progress? I don’t want to waste my supervisor’s time…

There are few problems that any student is likely to encounter that some other student hasn’t encountered – and solved – previously.  Similarly, there are few mistakes that students are likely to make that some other student hasn’t made previously.  Here are three destructive behaviours [1] [2] that are common (and costly, if not catastrophic), along with suggestions about more productive alternatives.  

1. hiding (var.: camouflage, invisibility) 

Students are often embarrassed when they haven’t made progress (or when they are struggling with some life challenge), and, rather than admitting it and potentially facing criticism or embarrassment, they hide from their supervisors (convincing/kidding themselves that they’ll sort it out soon).  But ask yourself:  rather than postponing your supervisory meeting (again), would you be better off admitting that you’re stuck and asking for help?

• Don’t hide; if you’re in trouble, say so.  Supervisors can’t help solve problems of which they’re unaware.
• If you’ve only done some of what was promised, present what you’ve done.  It may be that there is some misunderstanding, or an unexpected obstacle that can be resolved with help.

• Focus on learning, on making progress – not on fear of ‘being judged’ or on misplaced concerns about your reputation.  

2. ignoring – or by-passing the supervisor(s)

Rather than engaging directly with supervisors’ advice, students often ignore what doesn’t suit them.  Students who don’t have an effective relationship with their supervisors often dodge engagement:  making decisions without consultation or against advice, taking action without discussion, seeking advice elsewhere, and so on.  There’s a difference between ‘just getting on with it’ and ignoring or by-passing your supervisor.  The latter often have destructive consequences.

• Don’t ignore what you don’t understand; if you don’t understand, ask (or the lack of understanding could snowball into a problem).

• Don’t just ignore what you don’t like – speak up: offer an alternative or justify an objection.  Again, supervisors can’t address issues they don’t know about.  It may be that the discussion will reveal something you’ve overlooked, implicit assumptions, or miscommunication.

• Don’t ignore advice you’ve solicited.  Give things a fair try, and then discuss the outcome.

• Avoid the fait accompli; discuss changes and decisions as they are happening, and keep your supervisor informed.

• Consult your supervisor before you submit material for publication, don’t publish without consultation, and give credit where due. Getting your supervisor’s permission to submit material for publication is good practice; it may also be a university requirement.

3. assuming / underestimating

I once had a conversation with a student that started: “My supervisors are idiots…”.  The student assumed that, because the supervisors’ views did not align with his, the supervisors were “idiots” and their views should be dismissed.  Students’ views are often (understandably) student-centric, but PhD success demands openness to the discourse:  to other perspectives, evidence, and reasoning.  That discourse starts within supervisory relationships.

• Don’t assume or second-guess; ask. Don’t assume you understand your supervisor’s implicit thinking or motivations – they may be complex and nuanced in ways you’ve missed or draw on knowledge of which you’re unaware.  Ask questions and discuss key issues until you understand your supervisors’ motivations and reasoning. 

• Don’t assume that your supervisor is at liberty to put you first. Supervisors often have heavy workloads and multiple responsibilities; it will help you to understand how you can fit into that landscape.  If you’re not getting the support you need, then discuss that openly with your supervisor.  

• Don’t assume that ‘it’s owed to you’ – it isn’t; you have to earn it. Establish reasonable expectations.

• Don’t underestimate your supervisor’s own scholarship or experience.

• Don’t underestimate what your supervisor is doing for you behind the scenes, or assume that you see everything that’s happening. 

• The Golden Rule applies here:  behave to others as you would have them behave to you.  So don’t treat your supervisor like an idiot or an incompetent – lest you reveal your own shortsightedness or incompetence.

Good practices

It’s not just a matter of avoiding destructive behaviours (before they damage you), but also a matter of promoting good practices. 

1. cardinal rules for dealing with your supervisor(s):

• be honest

• be articulate (say what you mean, and ask for what you need); 

• be informative (keep your supervisor(s) informed) 

• be respectful

• take appropriate responsibility.

2. mutual responsibility

The student-supervisor relationship is bi-directional, requiring mutual responsibility, and mutual respect.  If in doubt, ask.  

3. independence

You are ultimately responsible for your work—make it easy for your supervisor to supervise you.  Ask for what you need; engage with what is offered.  

Relationships evolve; this one is likely to last a number of years – perhaps well beyond the degree.  Most difficulties in the supervisory relationship are ‘cock ups’ rather than ‘conspiracies’.  Start from the assumption that all parties are acting in good faith.  Good communication  can help avoid difficulties – and help sort out problems before they become serious.

N.B.  There are rare occasions when supervisory relationships become genuinely dysfunctional or even toxic (which is a topic for a future post).  If you’re in a bad situation, conscious use of these strategies might give you the time you need to address the bigger problem[3].  

[1] Adapted from material in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research (3rd edition, p. 50-51).

[2] I used to refer to these as ‘pathological’ behaviours to convey their catastrophic potential – until I realized that ‘pathological’ implies that they cannot be changed, whereas the point of the discussion is to help students identify and avoid them.  

[3] My thanks to Greg Wilson for the reminder to include this.

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