When Supervision Goes Wonky

When I started my PhD I never would have guessed supervision would become a problem. My people skills aren’t too bad, especially compared to those of many an academic I know, and I love professors, the quirkier the better. So far, so good, I thought. But a few short years later, the list of embarrassing supervision stories had grown to astronomic proportions, with the first absolute low resulting in me sending my supervisor an email at 4 o’clock in the morning of a very sleepless night asking him to ‘allow me some air’. I thought I’d never dare face my supervisor again (I was brave and, instead of moving to another continent, I scheduled a meeting to see him. He drily remarked: ‘you write very melodramatic emails’, which made me laugh in spite of myself.)

The second absolute low revolved around getting feedback on my manuscript that I was finishing after a number of years of having fallen off the grid and not being able to work at all. The problem with feedback? I didn’t get much. Twice I caught a plane or train across Europe to meet my supervisor(s) to discuss my work, and they hadn’t read any of it. I felt gutted: I didn’t feel respected, and it felt like proof my work did not matter.

Actually, it felt like proof that I did not matter. Confidence levels tend to be low in the average PhD student, but I can tell you they can drop a lot further still when you put invisible chronic illness into the mix. I often felt like I had entered some sort of twilight zone that no-one including myself understood. It certainly didn’t help me being as assertive as I should have been, when interacting with my supervisors.

I never told my supervisors how I felt about these incidents – I felt oddly and undeservedly ashamed, and simply plodded on, by myself, in my lonely bubble.

I know, that sounds awfully sad. It was.

In hindsight, the supervision issues were mostly based on silly misunderstandings, miscommunication and bad luck. In hindsight (in hindsight!) some of it is hilarious.

When I flew to Italy to meet my supervisor after 3,5 years of absence what happened is the following:

I sent my supervisor an email well in advance with my work attached, with the news that I would come to Italy for two weeks, and a request for a meeting. He said he would be away travelling until date x, but we could meet the day after. OK, fine. So far, so good. Or so it seemed.

What he was thinking: “She will be in Italy at the university for two weeks, so we’ll have lots of time to discuss her work.”

What I was thinking: “Great! I have finally been able to finish this chapter! I will discuss it with him at the meeting we scheduled, and then I am off on a well-deserved holiday in Tuscany!”

When we met he had just come back from his travels, and he had not read my work. My heart sank and my mind went into overdrive as this was proof again that he did not care. He did not care about my work. He also did not care about me, my ‘situation’ and my return to Florence against all odds. He seemed completely oblivious to my existence! 

Naturally I did not mention any of my frustrations (I was only going to let myself be called melodramatic once!). So instead, we chatted over coffee, and agreed to make a new appointment via email.

Then I left town. On holiday.

Without a smartphone.

Bad idea.

I figured I would just travel back to Florence for the meeting as soon as we had arranged an appointment. But arranging that appointment wouldn’t be as easy as I’d presumed. The odds of finding a hotel with a wireless connection, an Internet café or a wireless hotspot in the Tuscan countryside is about close to zero. As I found out all too soon.

Long story short: my supervisor grew increasingly irritated as I didn’t respond to his messages, and wasn’t at the university as he apparently thought I would be; and I spent my supposedly relaxing holiday frantically searching the Tuscan landscape for an Internet café (though intermittently soothed by Rosso di Multepulciano, spaghetti and ice-cream).

He then sent me a few very short, very short-tempered emails that, when I finally got to read them, sent me into a spiral of anxiety. Why could I just not seem to communicate normally with this man?What was wrong with me? And what was wrong with him? What was wrong with us, seriously? Just setting up a meeting was beyond us.

So there we were. I was irritated because I had an evasive, non-committed, uninterested supervisor. He was irritated because he had an evasive, non-committed, uninterested PhD student. Nothing ever is what it seems, is it?

In the end we did meet up, and it worked out all right. My work wasn’t the problem. If only writing a PhD was just about doing the work!

I see now see that I blamed myself and my supervisor for things gone wrong, that were the result of miscommunication and premature assumptions more than anything else. It’s nothing really. But the emotional impact was very real. I honestly thought he did not care whatsoever. It affected the quality of our interaction considerably – I never got much out of supervision, because of our inability to communicate properly. The PhD became a solo venture.

I see a lot of PhD students struggling in similar and unneccesary ways. Things don’t go well in supervision, and instead of sorting things out, they hide and engage in all sorts of self-destructive thinking and behaviour.

Sometimes supervisory neglect is real, and it’s not strange you feel hard-done-by. Oftentimes its emotional impact is far out of proportion.

I wish my supervisors would have known how I felt. I still do not know whether I should have told them.

So, life lessons:

  1. Most academics/ supervisors are ridiculously busy. Their neglect is (most often) not personal. It might simply be the result of them having to reply to a hundred emails a day, do their own research, go to conferences and workshops and endless boring faculty meetings, endless publishing or perishing, organising funding, and PhD supervision all squeezed into a mere 24 hours a day. If you want their attention you may have to command their attention. Be courteous though. Buttons may be easily pushed.
  2. You deserve good supervision. If your work is not getting the attention it deserves because your supervisor is too busy writing people hasty single-sentence emails, don’t let it slip. There is no excuse for poor supervision, but there is such a thing as letting them off the hook too easily. Be brave. Do not hide. Show up and discuss your work. If it fails: show up again.
  3. Supervisors have the privilege of writing single-sentence emails. If you do the same, it might piss them off. Also (note to self), don’t use email for emotional communication. It tends not to end well.
  4. Most supervisors mean well. They are not out to get you, sack you or make life difficult. Blaming them for everything under the sun creates bad karma. Bad karma will not enhance you academic career, nor will it, in the grander scheme of things, ameliorate your next life prospects.
  5. Things go wrong. Most often you are not to blame. So don’t blame yourself. See the bad karma comment under 4. Self-blame may be even worse in terms of karmic effects.
  6. Some supervisors are evil and do not mean well. If your supervisor’s neglect is systematic, consider changing supervisors. At the very least find an additional supervisor to comment on and supervise your work.
  7. Know your supervisor’s strengths and weakness, and plan for them. If you have needs your supervisor cannot fulfil, find worthy substitutes. Support yourself, and allow yourself to be supported.

Have you got additional insights? Or supervision stories to tell? Share them in the comments!

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