Dealing with very demanding and critical supervisors


Dear forum,

Although I'm working hard, I'm constantly being criticised and flamed by my supervisors, and am always feeling that what I ever I do, no matter how hard I work, it is never good enough for them. I'm not stupid (this will be my 3rd postgrad degree), I know what I'm doing but I'm self esteem keeps on taking a battering from their very critical nature! I've just submitted a 65,000 word upgrade report (draft copy)and I've got supervision soon and I'm dreading it!I've developed my own questionnaires, interview scheudles, focus group schedules as well as my own observational toolkit out of a brand new area within social sciences which all could be used to improve services though recommendations for regulatory bodies to follow. It's an important project and I've already had interest from various organsiations wanting to view my measures.


Does anyone have any tips in coping with this?? I take criticism quite personally which I think, is one of my biggest problems.

I know I'm in a lucky position, they are very interested and keen for this project to go forward (it's integrated into a bigger project) and I get frequent help and assistance from everyone, so I can't really complain, but it's soul destroying to be constantly dealing with critcism all the time, and wondering what kind of state I'm going to be when the time comes to submit! (if I get that far!)

Other PhDers don't seem to be having as hard a time as I'm having-but maybe that's to do with differences in projects...


Hi *Pineapple*, I think that I can relate very well with your situation. The positive thing is that I get positive responses from everyone else, even from experts in my field (and my supervisor is not). This gives me the strength to move forward, but as you said, it's very difficult to cope. Psychologically very tiring. Energy that I could channel into more positive aspects of my work. I am myself considering changing uni, fully conscious of the risks of leaving at the end of my 2nd year. On the other hand, there is no alternative for me here.


I can only recommend you to focus on the positive relationship that you have with other people around and try to build up on that side. I know how difficult it is to see that other people are supported when you are not. Reason tells you to look at all the things that you have achieved, but the irrational part of you starts to question whether you should be there at all. I think that it's healthy to try to focus on your project and on people that may be more helpful and relevant for your future career. xxx


I just wanted to say I really feel your pain on this one. I'm in a very similar situation. My supervisor has little expertise in the area I'm working in right now, and all he does is put pressure on me and make me feel bad. I feel like the damage he's done to my self esteem has caused me to become stagnant in my work, and I don't know what to do. The situation just keeps getting worse, and I hate going to the lab now.

I don't suppose I can offer you much advice since I'm in the same situation, but I understand how you feel. I hope things get better for you.


As Dale Carnegie says, no one kicks a dead dog. the reason you're subjected to harsh critisism is because they expect a certain high level from you. sometimes such harsh critisism is a compliment in disguise.

I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, one can not avoid critisim unless one is a Doll up on a high shelf, and said as long as in your heart you did the best you could, that is all that matters.

you're damned if you do , and damned if you dont.

i know how it feels to have harsh critisim hurled at you, i am like you, i take it very personally. and it does hurt. no doubt about that.


If all you get is criticism--then I think the supervisors are not doing their job. Their title is SUPERVISOR, not CRITICISER--and there is a huge difference in their two. Any criticism from a supervisor ought to be packaged up so it is constructive, so you can work with it--there is the famous sandwich method of putting a criticism between 2 statements of what is good. As well, the criticism should show you or lead you to ways to overcome the concern...not leave you like you want to run away.


Perhaps they only offer criticism because they have nothing else to offer--not as in your work is poor--but because they haven't a clue on how to do supervision, and think what they are doing is THAT! Supervision ought to be a dialogue, and while I think this cuts against the grain of the norm of doing things, its more helpful. I dialogue with my supervisor--and we have reached a comfort level with this way of interacting. Sometimes its hard to do it if you are initiating that, but you could do it with something like, " I think that comment is very interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you were thinking about with that?" some kind of lead in to get them to expand...and offered in a non-threatening way.


There is the stereotype of the introverted academic, afraid of his/her own shadow, low on people skills....and while I doubt this is true of everyone in academia, it may hold true to a greater or lesser degree for some...and your supervisor may just be very uncomfortable on those people skills....who knows? If its not working for you, politely invite them into a dialogue.


Just a thought - but maybe they are just overanxious and not entirely confident about their own ability to supervise this project - espeically if there is some expectation of using it in some way. Alas, academics are often lousey teachers and have the bedside manner of a starving vampire. Sounds very disagreeable but try not to take it personally (hard I know - I take my supervisor's total neglect too personally sometimes).


Olivia and Smilodens comments are wise and comforting to all of us that have suffered from unjust harsh critisims from our supervisors.

i have personally taken comfort from the following comments made by them :


"Perhaps they only offer criticism because they have nothing else to offer--not as in your work is poor--but because they haven't a clue on how to do supervision"

how true that is !

"Just a thought - but maybe they are just overanxious and not entirely confident about their own ability....
Alas, academics are often lousey teachers and have the bedside manner of a starving vampire"

when i next undergo harsh critisism, I will keep that in mind


that is so true what Olivia and Smiloden have said. just because they are called a 'supervisor', it does not mean they have actually acquired the skills and know how to be a GOOD supervisor. i really think academics given the position of becoming a phd supervisor ought to undergo specific training and kept an eye on. i've heard too many cases of supervisors that are down right tyrants! what gives them the right to treat phd students like this! there is a huge difference between constructive critisism and critisism so harsh that it leaves the student falling into dispair. you seem like an intelligent and level headed person. sometimes people just dont know how to CONSTRUCTIVELY critisise. it is a great skill, unfortunately few have the ability.


I guess I can contribute from the other side of the fence. As a defacto supervisor (my PI is in the states and I am basicallly supervising his PhD students) I would say I am quite harsh, as most of you can probably imagine.

However, I am not indiscriminate in my criticism. There are two types I normally go gunning for. The first type of student are the ones that are genuinely taking the piss. Turning up at luncthime and leaving at 3pm. More time gossiping in the canteen than in the lab. Saying they will do work but never getting it done. Those that consistently turn in very poor standard of work (esp. lots of errors, or sloppiness).

The second type are the ones that never take previous suggestions on board. This is the worst type, and co-incidently seem to be the ones that aren't the brightest among the PhDers. There are about 3-4 of these in my department and I dont rate any of them making it.


So Pineapple, what is my point with all of this?

Yeah, supervisors can be A-holes. They can be unfair, demanding and downright unreasonable. However, its important to be honest and see if the student is contributing to this particular equation.

Ask yourself is the supervisor JUST critcising you, or is open season on everyone? Is there anything you have done/ not done/ could have done better or are you working pretty much as expected. How are other PhDers or postdocs treated? Could you be in the position of the lab "runt", who is somewhere down the lab pecking order? (unfortunate, but happens too often).

Anothing thing I wonder about is the emotional upset you mention. A lot of supervisors don't handle personal issues well (no training, maybe not that way oriented) and may see that sort of breakdown as unprofessional or evidence of not being able to manage at a doctoral level, and this can lose respect in the eyes of the more traditional hardcore academics.


I don't think that being a PhD supervisor is all that different from being a supervisor in a work capacity. The supervisor in my opinion, in either setting, has a certain amount of responsibility to the employee/PhD student. If the employee/student is not performing well and up to expectation, what has that supervisor done? Are the expectations clear? Has there been a meeting to discuss them and make sure that both supervisor/ee are on the same page?