How to Maintain a Good Relationship with Your PhD Supervisor

Doing a PhD is an exciting thing. To make sure you stay on track, you have a supervisor supporting you through this minefield!  And as helpful as they can be, navigating your relation to your supervisor can be a minefield on its own. Essentially, it’s a difficult relationship where it often isn’t clear what the exact guidelines are. And that can get confusing.

Quick disclaimer: this article is only about what’s going on during the PhD. If you want some more tips on how to pick the supervisor, please read this article on “How to pick your PhD Supervisor.”

Individual Differences
It seems that you two just don’t get along that well, neither personally nor professionally. Why?

It is possible that your supervisor has been supervising PhD students for years, and has their own style of doing it that works best for them. But if it’s not working for you, let them know. Have a meeting and indicate what you need. Some people need their supervisor to stop micromanaging, some need their supervisor to be more involved, other just need them to sign off on things. Every PhD is different, every PhD student is different and every PhD student-supervisor relationship is different. So, just indicate what you need or would like from them, and see where that takes you.

The best policy is honesty. If you don’t tell them things aren’t working, how are they supposed to know? They are researchers, not mind-readers.


Cultural Differences
It is also possible that you and your supervisor are from very different cultures. The most notable cultural differences in PhD supervision are those relating to hierarchy.

I know PhD students who come from very hierarchical cultures, who take their supervisors’ word as gospel, do everything they say and beat themselves up if this doesn’t work or doesn’t lead to good results. This is not what a PhD is supposed to be. The PhD research is yours and your supervisor(s) support you through it. They should not take over, nor side-line you, nor should you expect them to or want this from them. The other way around is true as well: your supervisor shouldn’t expect you to blindly follow all of their suggestions and do the research as they say it should be done. Hierarchical or not, this is your project!

Again, if it’s causing a rift between you and your supervisor the best thing to do is to talk about it, and go from there.

Lightyears Apart
It is possible that after trying to work together for some time (a year or so) it still doesn’t work. The individual or the cultural differences are adding up to the extent that it has just become unproductive. This does happen more often than you think, and you can choose two options from here on:

  • You can suffer in silence. You don’t know what to do, don’t want to speak up, or have already spoken up and nothing has changed. Just going with it is less of a hassle now, but is likely to affect your mental state and your ability to deal with work throughout the rest of the PhD.
  • You can take action. If you’ve had all the conversations you could possibly have had with your supervisor, then that’s that. Your final conversation will be them helping you pick and transfer to a different supervisor. It will be a hassle initially and you will have to get re-acquainted with a new supervisor and their supervision. But the risk is worth it. The unknown is often better than a known disaster.


Clear Exceptions

There are always exceptions to the rule. In this case, those exceptions focus on any type of inappropriate behaviour. Things that should immediately spring to mind are racism, sexism and abuse of power.

The best thing to do if these scenarios are occurring or have occurred is to immediately talk to someone, preferably someone in charge. If you’re not too sure about what’s going on and whether it qualifies as any of the above, talk to your friends and fellow PhD students. If they too don’t think what’s going is appropriate, talk to someone in charge. Even if you’re not too sure, but feel incredibly uncomfortable, I would still recommend you step to HR, the head of your research group or the head of your department, whoever you feel most comfortable with.

There is no excuse for this type of behaviour. It is not condoned and should not be. There is also no coming back from this. If you still want to continue the PhD, you’ll need to transfer supervisor immediately.

All in all, supervisors are people. PhD students are people. And when people get together and have to work together, sometimes friction arises.

The most important part is that you are honest with each other, that you communicate clearly and have the right expectations. And if you feel that you are not meeting each other’s expectations, talk and adjust. It’s a relationship like any other.

by Merle

Merle van den Akker is a PhD student with the Behavioural Science Group at WBS, looking into the effect of contactless payments on how me manage our finances. She tweets at @MoneyMindMerle.

If you have any tips on maintaining a good relationship with your supervisor, tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

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