Difference of opinion with superviser


Hi all,

I'm a first year, self-funding PhD student. I've changed my initial supervisors already because we had very ontological perspectives. (And she wasn't great - told me I only got a place at uni because of her among other things)

My new second supervisor is supportive and lovely. I struggle with the primary. She regularly Interrupts me and tells me I'm wrong. When I ask her to explain more (so I can learn and understand), she'll say things like 'it just is'. I tried asking for more structured feedback but she cut me off and basically told me to suck it up. I'm not too proud to be wrong I just need a nudge to literature etc that helps me understand.

Most recently I wanted to include a little scoping study, because the area we are studying is different way of looking at something in the literature, and neither myself nor my supervisors are experts in this topic- but we have access to several published scholars. I'd like to interview them to check our assumptions and suggested this, quoting other well respected studies in my field that have adopted this approach.

She has told me 'no' but not said why (other than she doesn't think we need it). But I feel it gives me a better standing to defend the assumptions I'm making.

My question is.... can she force me to drop it (I'm not receiving any grants, funding or stipends)?

I nervous of kicking up a fuss, and it starting to look like I'm the problem child....


At most Unis there is some form of annual review system, though it's not an essential requisite of a PhD so varies by institution.

Also at most Unis, your supervisor will be involved in the decision of the annual review, which can include ending your studies as a potential outcome, usually after some opportunities to repeat. Your supervisor will also select your PhD examiners. In brief, they have quite a lot of power to determine the outcome of your PhD.

You could change, but as you say, you don't want to look like a 'problem child'. To paraphrase, to have to change supervisors once is unfortunate, to have to change them twice might mean you need to self-reflect a bit on your expectations of supervision and how you approach the supervisory relationship.

Traditionally, PhD students were primarily there to help supervisors deliver their research. Academia has shifted a bit, in that it's happy to take on far more unfunded PhDs for the money. The problem there is that an unfunded PhD can come with expectations of a one-sided transaction with the supervisor who will do 'stuff' for them - not unreasonable, because they're paying. But the money you're paying the Uni is not money the supervisor will ever see, so if it's a one-sided transaction, it's just extra work for them, which can make them dismissive.

Some things to consider;

> When was the last time you asked you supervisor what they're working on, and if there's anything you could do to help (within reason)?
> I wouldn't ask your supervisor to find things for you to read. Read things, then ask them their opinion.
> You shouldn't expect your supervisor to 'teach' in the sense of the subject matter, particularly if it's undergrad/msc level things. It's their role to guide your studies, not act as a lecturer.
> Before asking your supervisor for resources/contacts, get a clear research question and strategy put together. The worry your supervisor probably has is you'll waste their time, and that will reflect badly on them (this does happen a lot, even with the most well-meaning students). Bear in mind academics in general if it's not undergrad teaching will also be somewhat along the lines of 'what's in it for me' if you generate work for them (a stance we're forced to adopt, because we're overloaded); you need some form of answer to that question.

But all that said;

> I have no idea what the actual supervisor is like. They may indeed be a very difficult, or impossible person, academia has more than its fair share. But I'd attempt to approach them with a slightly different strategy and see if it yields results before changing again. If it's an unsalvageable relationship, then it is indeed far better to change early and quickly than continue with one that will sabotage you.


Thanks abababa, that's helpful.

I completely understand your points (though I'm not expecting my supervisor to do things for me, and I've certainly done my own networking for contacts as my supervisor isn't an expert in my topic).

All I want is that if they say something that contradicts what I've read in literature related to my topic, to sign-post me to something that more I can read, in order to understand their point of view. Not just to say 'because it can't be'.

I'm trying to work on my research question and strategy - but when I try to explain my thinking and how I've reached conclusions, she interrupts, talks over me, and tells me it's wrong but with no rationale.

I sense there may be a difference of ontological position, she's very positivist, and I'm more critical realist/mixed methods. I also wonder if there are cultural differences in communication style - I thrive with a coaching style not an autocratic one. I've tried adapting my style to suit her's but I'm wondering where the 'meet me half way' point is?

I appreciate what you say about academics being overloaded. And whilst I see your point about the money going to the University not the supervisor; she did agree to supervise me. And the flipside of that is that I'm paying out £10,000's, and living off of my savings and loans. I'm quite prepared to do the work. I don't view it that I'm buying a PhD and someone else will do the work, but I do feel they should be trying to get the best out of me too. (I should say I started a PhD straight from Uni, but couldn't afford to continue - so I've come back to academia later in life - and my last experience was nothing like this - my three supervisors were fantastic - I met with them all separately, and it worked amazingly. This time they insist on meeting together so I get very little input from the highly supportive second supervisor because the primary dominates).


No problem, glad it was some help.

There is a classic ontological clash at PhD level between positivism and many other approaches, because positivism is generally an easier stance to do research from, in the context said research will be evaluated, especially as 'pass or fail'. The problem is that whilst critical realism etc. are not inherently bad, a lot of bad research is inherently qual/small sample/self-reflective 'waffle', and CR without careful, rigorous application is more disposed to falling into this than an empirical study, where the criteria can be much more measurable, and statistically reportable - and, frankly, show volume of work, which is often over-appreciated compared to volume of thought.

It's perhaps the higher-level you're overlooking - e.g. when you say you want to use this methodology, you're doing so genuinely, but what you're supervisor is hearing is 'they want to base the PhD off a few interviews, rather than a large scale study because it's less work'. Alas the less mainstream methodologies have a somewhat bad reputation particularly in areas where empirical RCTs hold a 'gold standard' (esp. mixed methods, which is not inherently bad, but often in PhDs emerges as 'I could not do one good study, so I did 3 bad ones').

This might not be a great deal of help in solving the problem, but might be some help in getting insight into where your supervisor is coming from - which, I'd again say is more than a bit of a guess, as I don't know them. It's also very hard to gauge whether this is a solvable problem if you demonstrate through planning and execution the rigour, and effectively work with them to teach them an appreciation of your method(ology), or if they'll just stick to their guns and prefer every student does a neat quant A/B study with an ANOVA and large-enough-power-to-merit-a-PhD. I'd think the other worry would be if you do keep working with them if they'd be in a position to appoint examiners from an appropriate field.

And by the way - yes there are massive cultural differences in supervision style. Which might actually be the whole thing. In southern europe and most of the world, by and large, a student does what they're told and the supervisor is massively respected to the extent directions are followed and opinions are only challenged in dire circumstances or over drinks (in Japan, particuarly, there's a whole system around that, where the student often has to get drunk to ask a critical question because then their implied disrespect can be passed off as drunkenness!). In northern europe and the US it's generally more discussive or argumentative. Which is a *really* broad stroke and of course not universally true, but has been my experience. The approach your supervisor takes will very likely be influenced more by the system they're from when they did their own PhD, than the system they're in.