Hyper-critical supervisor - reality check needed!


I have had problems throught my thesis with critical and unsupportive supervision, although a change to a more experienced first supervisor did help considerably with the overall strategy and approach to the thesis. I dealt with my second supervisor by being pleasant to her, and over time her behaviour did seem to modify.

However, some months ago, and for no obvious reason, she reverted to her former hyper-critical behaviour. I am now writing up, and hope to submit by the end of the academic year. I live some distance from campus, and am quite isolated from my fellow-students as a result. I would appreciate a reality check.

I have not received any positive feedback on my work from her at all since the recurrence of this behaviour. Everything is turned into a negative. For example, I spent considerable effort trying to get some material for a chapter, without success. She accused me of not spending enough time on my research.

I have long-standing concerns about her abilities. She has made several claims in the past about certain sources being essential for my thesis, but when I've examined them, they haven't contained the information she insisted they did.

My first supervisor has made positive comments, but in quite general terms, and tends to leave most of the commenting to second sup. The effect of this is that I am very unclear on which parts of the thesis are good, and which need more work. I read other theses for inspiration, but need constructive feedback on my own work.

I feel quite demoralised. I work hard at the thesis, but can spend an hour on a single paragraph, trying to make it perfect in a futile attempt to avoid the negativity.

When her negative behaviour resumed, I changed tactics, and became more assertive with her. But she hasn't backed off, and I fear the situation is deteriorating into one of petty point-scoring. Also, I work best with collaboration, not competition, and this is getting quite upsetting.


Hi, I'm sorry you're going through a difficult time. One of my supervisors is similar actually, so to an extent I can understand what you are going through. After speaking to him, I have realised that he will only make a comment on my work if it is negative, in other words if he thinks that a paragraph or whatever is 'fine' then he will leave it rather than indicating that he thinks it doesn't require any more work. Could your supervisor be doing this at all?

I've also found that my supervisors tend to get a bit more fractious at certain times of the academic year, namely when they are really busy with undergraduates. This probably shouldn't have an effect on your supervision but it might be inevitable. Similarly, you are at a rather intense stage of your PhD with the biggest deadline looming, so your supervisor might just be feeling stressed about that, and maybe concerned that you aren't as stressed as she is, although I'm sure you're very motivated to finish and submit.

I really think that you need to speak to someone other than your supervisors about this, if you think you have real concerns about your supervisor's conduct. Is there a director of postgraduate research or similar who you could talk to? It might also be helpful for you to have a bit more presence on your campus, as talking to the other research students can be really reassuring; I live 60 miles from my campus but i make the effort to go there at least twice a week, and I'm doing some teaching as well. I think that seeing more of your supervisor, even informally, could also help your relationship with her.

Sorry if this message is a bit rushed, I have to get a train in a minute, but I hope that helps.


Thanks for responding. The point about stress is interesting. I am as capable of getting anxious as anyone, hence my post to this forum! But I would find it unprofessional to exhibit this to my supervisors. Hence my second sup might perceive me to be coasting, though I most certainly am not.

The word limit on this forum meant that I had to leave some things out of my first post. Background: I had to make a change from my original first sup, although my second sup remained on the team. My new first sup has great experience as a supervisor, but my work isn't quite in first sup's field. So I think part of the problem is that second sup is seen by first sup as the subject expert on the team. But it's become increasingly clear to me over the last couple of years that there areas where she's not so expert, only she won't admit this to first sup. Also, since the new first sup came on board, I realise how poorly I had been advised previously as to the structure of the thesis, and I wonder if she's come to realise this too.

I think that some of her behaviour is along the lines of 'attack is the best form of defence', as she tries to deflect attention from her shortcomings to mine. However, I'm concerned that it is not just professional criticism, but personal antagonism, since she barely speaks to me outside supervision sessions. I do try to be polite, and she will make awkward small-talk, but it's not a happy relationship.

Thanks for the suggestions about talking to people. I have had a chat with one of the student counsellors, but since reading the above response, have realised that there are a couple more people who might be helpful. Also, the vacation will soon be over, and my weekly meet-ups with fellow-students will recommence. It's the last month or so that's seemed so isolating.

Avatar for Pjlu

Hi Iseult,

from what you say, it sounds as if she is a very critical person. I can see how it seems as if the antagonism does tend to towards what you would see as personal. I get completely what you say about working best in a collaborative rather than competitive way-it is how I operate best myself.

However, she may be a hypercritical bitchy sort of person who is this way with anyone she sees as either in a student-teacher or employee-supervisor sort of role. So from her perspective-she might not see this behaviour as particularly 'personal' but just 'what you do' when people need to be 'directed' into better performance behaviour. People like this can be very difficult to work with, especially if you are a little more flexible and tolerant yourself. But it usually isn't personal as in it is just about 'you'-it is more that bossy and directive, hypercritical people just steam roller over people who they see as softer targets. They don't seem to operate under any code of ethics or values regarding this sort of behaviour (although they may be quite ethical and value driven in other areas).

They seem to believe that this is good for the person and they are being helpful. Talking about it with them can have mixed results. If the behaviour is part of who they are, they may or may not acknowledge it, they may be unaware of it, they may deny it, they may change occassionally and resent you for making them have to spend more energy on adapting their behaviour.

What you can do though-much harder but pays bigger dividends in the end- is change your beliefs and behaviours around this supervisor and her 'ordinary' ways at mentoring you through this process. For example you wrote, 'I can spend an hour on a single paragraph in a futile attempt to avoid the negativity'. Sometimes, we do spend an hour on a finicky little bit of the thesis but it shouldn't be just to avoid her negativity. What if you just thought to yourself,

"okay, she's a hypercritical, negative and bitchy woman-I don't really like her way of operating, and this is a good lesson to me in what not to do myself to people in the future-now given this-what can I do to help myself get through this without actually strangling her or alienating myself from the rest of the faculty and others." Then make up a mental list of the the things you will do and listen to and the things that you will disregard.

It doesn't mean that you don't listen to the helpful stuff she says or to disregard everything but be critical of it yourself and have some faith in your own discernment.

Good luck and have faith in your own good judgement-great & perceptive advice from Natassia as well.


Hello, sorry to hear that your adviser is not giving you constructive feedback. We all know that a good professor will let you know what the positive---as well as the negative---aspects of your work are and give you tangible tips for improvement. At this point, I wonder whether it would be more beneficial to you to start steering your own ship. More specifically, most grad students write their theses/dissertation with the aim of publishing with a reputable press. How feasible would it be for you to begin finding work by solid scholars that model what you aspire to write and how you hope to develop? You may even be inspired to contact them about their work, which will help you develop valuable connections with scholars/mentors who genuinely matter to you. At the end of the day, you want to ensure your own professional development---even when your forced to work under faculty who don't seem to have your best interests at heart. At least this tactic promises to help preserve the fire within yourself that prompted you to pursue a grad degree in the first place.


I'd like to thank everyone who responded to my posts about my hyper-critical second sup. On re-reading the first post, I can see how low I was feeling about the whole situation. The fact that total strangers took the time to respond kindly and constructively really helped me get a perspective on what was going on, and encouraged me to take action, rather than sitting around in despair that I could ever change the situation.

In the hope that it may help other people in a similar situation, I thought I'd post an update as to what I did next.

I set up a one-off meeting with a student counsellor (mentioned in my second post). It was helpful to talk to (or talk at?!) another person face-to-face, to clarify my thoughts. She offered to come with me to talk with my first sup about the problem. In the end, I didn't feel the need to take her up on this, but I was grateful that she said this - I now felt I had at least one ally at the university.

The lack of constructive feedback on my thesis remained a problem. I found a couple of books which were helpful in clarifying my thoughts around its structure. 'Authoring a PhD' (Dunleavy, 2003) and 'Structuring Your Research Thesis' (Carter, Kelly and Brailsford, 2012). I read into these an assumption that the student is taking command of the thesis (rather than jumping when the supervisor says jump) which was empowering.

Some months ago, another lecturer (not on my supervisory team) said he would read a draft of my thesis. I took him up on this. His feedback was genuinely constructive. I also, for the first time, got some detailed comments from my first sup, also very constructive. This really helped put the negative comments into perspective. I wish I had asked my first sup for some substantial feedback much earlier.


Update, part two.

One book that was helpful to me in understanding hyper-critical personalities was 'Impossible to Please' (Lavender and Cavaiola, 2012). This examines why people might exhibit hyper-critical behaviour, and strategies for coping with them. Not all the book was relevant, but it did help me understand that I was never going to please her (quite possibly due to high anxiety levels, as indeed was suggested on this forum). It also suggested a possible coping strategy, that of avoiding the hyper-critical person.

This sounded ideal! By explaining to my first sup that what would be of most benefit to me and the thesis would be to just quietly get my head down and work on the thesis, submitting drafts for comments by email, I have managed to avoid any formal meetings. There has been some informal contact, but this is bearable.

Thanks again to everyone who responded.


The worst supervisor is not someone who is hyper-critical,
The worst thing a supervisor can do is to provide no feedback or refuse to give any comment.


Quote From MeaninginLife:
The worst supervisor is not someone who is hyper-critical,
The worst thing a supervisor can do is to provide no feedback or refuse to give any comment.

My supervisor doesn't give any comments so far on my papers...


my final supervisor - i had quite a few in my time - never looked at my thesis even once when i was asked to resubmit. i still passed. it was hard but... i just moved forward without them. i think its a good thing you are reading other thesis. you should be ok in the end in terms of the standard expected.

avoid taking this hyper critical supervisor seriously. just go to enough meetings as you need to prove you have supervisor contact. otherwise, forget her!

you can do it on your own. decide to be on top of your area and be an independent researcher.

try to supervise yourself. write a draft. keep it away for a day or two, then come back to it with the eyes of a supervisor. you can get a list of possible viva questions and try to ask yourself these in relation to your chapter. it worked for me.

all the best.

Dr. Jojo.


Quote From dan:
My supervisor doesn't give any comments so far on my papers...

My supervisor told me that she would like to be the corresponding author for the paper i wrote; but she has difficulty understanding my paper. :-)
Similar to Dr Jojo, she superficially glanced my thesis... and just told me that if examiners' decisions are to re-submit, it has to be revised within a year...

I wish she were hyper-critical...