Lack of understanding from supervisor & department


Hi all. Found my way here googling for things like "phd stress". :)

How did / do you survive lack of understanding and support from your supervisors and/or your department?

I'd like to hear if you've had similar situations, so I can get some perspective. I'm close to the end of my 1st year and preparing to the registration. My topic is fun & engaging but I'm horrified stiff from the lack of understanding from my supervisors and my dept.

My topic is interdisciplinary and theoretical, connected to media and design. I had a hard time choosing which uni to go to because there wasn't anything exactly right.

In the end I chose the department where I did a theoretical MA a few years ago. I thought that there might be some problems but at least I already knew most of the staff etc.

The dept. assigned two brilliant people as supervisors. It felt like a dream come true as I was using their research as stepping stones. I knew we would have differences, but they were smart and could probably accommodate my ideas. They had both done fairly theoretical phd's like the one I had in mind.

Halfway through the year they both left. One for a sabbatical and one got fed up with the academia completely. The remaining staff are all doing practical or historical research. They like to keep things clearly measurable. They often do quantitative tests with user groups in controlled environment.

Now I have two new supervisors and I feel that I have no understanding from them or from the rest of the dept.

I get blank looks when I try to talk about things having also social values. When I plan doing qualitative interviews, they talk about how difficult it will be to arrange my interviews and get people talking.

Whenever they read my writing or hear me talk they still always seem to think I'm into looking at the functional aspect like they. As they don't understand it, they're constantly commenting in a pessimistic tone that "hasn't that been done before?" (as it has from that perspective)

I've read the horror stories on the web. And my supervisors are not bad supervisors in the real sense. They are quick, give fast feedback, meet with me regularly.

But every supervision meeting feels like an hour in a black hole of despair where these leeches suck all the energy and enthusiasm from me.

Afterwards I feel paralysed and get nothing done for a week or so. Then I go back doing exactly what I planned in my proposal 18 month ago. The new supervisors haven't contributed in any way to my work.

I'm not sure what to do. Should I just bare with them? Like I said, I enjoy my topic. I love the work. I know from the literature that there's a hole in knowledge which I can fill.

I'm very scared about the registration process. It just seems there's no point in doing a MPhil if they fail me.

Or should I seek to change my dept? But like I said, there isn't a perfect alternative available (maybe could talk with philosophy, applied linguistics or something).


I think a lot depends upon the type of help you
are looking for. Are you happy to get on with things and only use them as a
sort  of sounding board to make sure your work is of a suitable standard, or do
you like to have a lot of interaction with them as you go along? For example I
am  actually about to get my fourth supervisory team (which at the moment is
going to consist of one person who is the head of faculty as nobody else seems
confident in doing the supervision) and it has been a bit of a nightmare
getting  to the stage of actually having the prospect of some 'proper'
supervision - that is they might actually meet me more than once a year, and
the meeting might  actually be productive. They admit they have no expertise in
my particular area, but that doesn't matter as it has developed in ways that I
never thought it  would and is now looking at a problem from a completely
different angle to the one I envisaged and I just need to know if it actually
makes sense and has sound  arguments, in fact someone who doesn't know the area
is probably better than someone who thinks they do.  In your case people who
have worked in the quantitative area may find using qualitative methods
difficult to embrace, and  the opposite is also true. This will give you a
chance to convince people that what you are doing has value and could be a
positive thing. Perhaps you need to  write something that will show them where
your approach will lead, for example the subject  x has been covered adequately
by a, b, and c in terms of (whatever  approach they used) however my research
is examining the same area using (whatever your approach is). This will enhance
knowledge by enabling the aspects  1,2, and 3 to be studied which will throw
light on a previously untouched area related to x which would not be revealed
by the approach of a,b, and c.  Explain to them why you want to use the
approach you do, and if they suggest  something different, don't dismiss it out
of hand but look into it and present them with a balanced argument explaining
why it won't do the job for your  particular research - although you may find
some things may be of use, you never know! Supervisors are not necessarily
going to contribute to your work, that  probably depends a lot on the area or if
you are part of a bigger study but they are there to guide you, poke you and
perhaps question your approach so you can  be confident you are on the right
track. Use them for this and you should be fine.:-)


I can understand your frustration. I've had a similar experience where the details are quite different, but the outcome is the same. In my case, I went to a new uni, where, on paper, they seemed to have everything I needed. I made the mistake of thinking that since I explained my research interest in my original email; met with the proposed supervisor in advance; and they funded me; that they must have liked my idea. Once I got here, however, I found that no one much cared about the idea/methodology, or about my career plans or prospects, etc.: and soon, they were pressuring me to just change to the methodologies that they are already comfortable with, etc. I went through a dreary year, trying to meet folks in the middle, cobbled something together for the upgrade (which wasn't a pretty sight), but managed to make it through to an acceptable position by the half-way mark (new supervisor, reverted to my original plan after getting good external feedback once I'd ditched all the crap aimed at patching in the other methodologies etc.). So, I have the bare necessities in place (funding preserved, new supervisor etc.) but I, too, feel like I'm working independently and without the benefit of an intellectual community: which is really a shame, a great disappointment, and a practical risk for the dissertation itself. Plus, no matter how well I do in official terms, I am unlikely to get the kind of eager support/references etc. that staff can give to the students they are enthusiastic about. I, too, considered transferring, but, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like the lesser of two evils to just stay and get the dissertation done.

If it helps, here are a few things I HAVE done to try to compensate for what feels like a bad hand: 1) I limit my time in the department (I don't volunteer for grad student committees; have scheduled supervisor meetings much farther apart going forward etc.) This minimizes the "black hole of despair" feeling. They can't really help, so I am trying to limit the opportunities for them to make me feel out of step. 2) I am on my very best behaviour, though: no bitching about the department (anymore), show up to all research presentations (seeming chipper and enthusiastic etc., -- "if you can't make it, fake it."), make a point to keep my body language optimistic. I think of all my relationships in the department as part of my "job" -- I plan leave them feeling good about me, don't want to worry about the small world in the future, etc., but it's surface level stuff: I no longer expecting much in terms of finding an intellectual mentor or colleagues. 3) I contacted three experts at other unis whose work I admire, mentioned my interest in their work, hinted at the course of my research (but didn't belabour it) and asked if I could stop by next time I was passing through. All three of them responded warmly and with open invitations; have followed up with two, and got very practical support and the beginnings of a professional relationship are starting. They are basically serving in place of my supervisors, intellectually. I'm supposed to meet the third this fall. Basically, I'm depending on "the kindness of strangers" for the intellectual support I thought I would get here -- but at least I'm no longer trying to make this place into something it is not -- and I've gotten confirmation from experts in my area that I'm on the right track. 4) I upp'ed my exposure on various social media where some of the experts in the field hang out, and have broadened my intellectual supprt base and built some contacts that way. In short: I am trying to work around the limitations of where I am.

Will it work? Who knows. I know I'd feel better about making it through if I had better confidence that my supervisors appreciated what I was doing and were enthusiastic about my career. But, once I made the decision


Thank you both Joyce and Bejasus. I've had a couple of informal crisis meetings with the one supervisor who I feel is more sympathetic to me. Of course I couldn't explain the whole problem but I discussed the pessimistic attitude that I've been encountering from the department. It probably didn't change anything, but at least I got some of it off my chest.

Bejasus: I totally relate to your situation. The measures you described are pretty much what I'm doing and planning now. Now the situation is that I've decided to stay at this department. Just like you described, you just have to work around the department and they will provide the bare necessities. But it's such a shame. This was supposed to be fun. And although research is often lonely, it makes you so utterly marooned when there is no community you could pop into every now and then.

The funny thing is, whenever I go to the local pub (filled with uni graduates and staff as it is next to the campus) or talk to academics in other universities, everyone seems to be very interested in my research. So it is hard to understand the total lack of interest at the dept. I'm getting used to the fact that even though the people there are usually not in my field, pub nights are much more fruitful than the so called supervision meetings.