How to divorce your supervisor and still remain friends?

You and your supervisor are a team. Together you can scale tremendous heights and get the best out of each other. In a previous post I talked about how to be a brilliant PhD student. Follow my advice and you will achieve great things.

“No road is too long with good company”  ~Turkish Proverb

However, your relationship with your supervisor may be in serious trouble. You have two options. Either to resolve any issues or get a divorce for good. I have no personal experience of having to divorce from a supervisor, student or indeed my spouse. I have been married to the same wonderful women since my student days. I have however been an observer when divorces took place. They were painful for both parties. The pain lasted years in many cases. You would not want to wish such a happening to your worst enemy.

In an academic world freedom of thought and expression is the norm.  You will have heated debates about your project, results and theories. At time you’ll be at each others throats over trivial things. Politics is one things everyone can debate till the cows come home. Normally nothing changes. Heated debates are healthy and must be encouraged. Quality research does not take place when there is no difference of opinion. However, keep it in the spirit of learning. With opposing views you have a great opportunity to learn. You learn fast.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress” – Mahatma Ghandi

I spent most of my time during my PhD trying to prove my supervisor’s theories wrong. This stimulated my mind. Ignited my spirit. Every time I went to see him I told him “your theory must be wrong”. His reply was always, “OK prove it wrong”. The struggle led us to develop an improved model of non-uniformities in in-situ doped polycrystalline silicon in a LPCVD system with Prof Klavs Jensen (MIT).  The was presented at the European Conference on CVD in Sweden and published in peer reviewed journals. There is something magical about healthy academic debates.Disagreements are the life blood of academic research. How else would you improve.

What causes of problems between supervisors and students?

1. You are not crystal clear about aims, objectives and mutual expectations. They may be unrealistic. Can’t be achieved or meaningless to you.

You need well define aims, objectives, plans and agreed actions. Make these simple and put them in writing. Get clear agreement before executing them. If you have not done what you have agreed with your supervisor then you deserve to be criticised, no question. At every meeting clearly articulate the plan and your progress against it.

“For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity” – G E Lessing

2. As a student you must assume 100% responsibility for the project. You are thinking about it 90% of the time and going to do 99% of the work. If you don’t accept responsibility you won’t progress. You will not solve problems as they arise. PhD involves solving problems. Clearly define them. Act now to solve them as soon as possible. Don’t procrastinate and let problems linger. Remember action is the solution, you must take massive action.  So get on with the tasks at hand. Now is always the best time.

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today” – Abraham Lincoln

3. Clashes in personality. You both may have strong opinions and your personalities may clash so that you find it hard to tolerate one another. Focus on being constructive and accept anything that helps the project to move forward. Don’t things personally. Any criticism should be focused on work and never attach the other personally.  Often a bigger problem is that if both parties are laid back things don’t get resolved and this delay is gets you completely off track and behind in your work.  In this case focus on sticking to the plan so that you can finish on time. Take the initiative in keeping progress on track. If things become intolerable them changing supervisors may be the only option but we will talk about this later.

4. Laziness, lack of interest in the project, lack of expertise and making no contribution. Keep your supervisor up to date. Be enthusiastic and passionate about your work. If this doesn’t work then change is an option.

“Failure is not our only punishment for laziness; there is also the success of others”. Jules Renard

5. Verbal abuse, aggressive behaviour and lack of mutual respect. See if you can find a way to resolve the situation. Be clear about the specific problem.  Offer constructive solutions. Be prepared to change your behaviour. Relationships rarely survive past this stage. Change in supervision is advisable.

6. Lack of progress. Often students are frustrated with their supervisors due to lack of progress in their studies. They blame the supervisor. They fail to accept responsibility. Often the lack of progress is due to students having other commitments, personal problems or being lazy. It may be that students get poor guidance, support and encouragement. Academic support is rare and of low quality. The resources to complete the project are inadequate. In many cases this situation can be turned around.

What are the solutions?

1. Work hard, focus on the task at hand, get going and finish. You are in charge. Maybe there is no need to change.

2. Change supervisor. This is the last stop for you as a team.

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination” James Dean

3. Have a chat with a neutral party to think things through clearly before making a decision about changing supervisor. See you personal tutor about the issues.

4. If you have 2 supervisors. If swap the roles around between the supervisors, will this resolve the situation? You may get on much better with your second supervisor and make faster progress. You will have less contact with the problem supervisor. This is a good compromise and can be done ameacably. You may need to change the emphasis of your project to match supervision expertise.

5. Remove the supervisor from the supervisory team. Before considering this option. Do you have an alternative in mind? Will he accept being a supervisor and perhaps upset a colleague? What impact will changing supervisor have on the projects? Does the replacement have suitable academic expertise? There are a lot of things to think about making this decision.

6. If you must change you must always follow proper procedures. Speak with your personal tutor. Get as much advice as possible to do things in the right manner. Keep polite and cordial relationships with the supervisor you want to replace. Communicate honestly the reasons why you want to change.

“Character is doing the right thing even when it costs more than you want to pay”.  ~Michael Josephson

7. After the change keep good relationships. Never publicise his shortcomings to members of group, his colleagues and superiors. Offer sincere complements whenever you can about all the positive parts of his personality, expertise and work. Always offer thanks and gratitude that he was kind and understanding. Even if your old supervisor is bitter towards you. You must always be polite, humble and complimentary towards him.


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