Let down and being asked to act unethically by supervisors!


Hi all,
Ok, so apologies first of all but this is going to be a bit of a rant and I'd really appreciate feedback from folks who are currently going through the PhD process. I am studying at a very prestigious institution who get top notch research ratings etc all the time... Trouble is, since I started my PhD in October I've had nothing but trouble with them and am now caught between a rock and a hard place.

Let me just give you some (pertinent) background: I worked for four years after my MA, one as a lecturer then three in an office. All the time I'd been hankering after pursuing my PhD, I'd always been highly academic and have good qualifications and referees. Two years ago, my institution accepted me but I didn't get funding so I couldn't accept. Unphased, I fought on and gained AHRC funding last year to take up my place. I left a good job to go to the big city to pursue my dream...

...Trouble is, it's been a bit of a nightmare since the start. I have dual supervision and have seen them only three times since September, which I feel is nowhere near enough. Responses to email queries have been perfunctory and untimely. My proposal, which they liked enough to accept me then elicited sucked teeth of concern and little constructive direction. I ploughed on and started to forge a way by myself. The first piece of written work of 7000 words which I submitted in November they never read, and despite me chasing them for feedback I never got anything from them. Then in March we had to do a presentation to our peers on potential upgrade topic (this institution upgrades early in April of the first year.) Again, I got no feedback despite both supervisors being present. I carried on, preparing my upgrade essay and meeting silence to queries from the other end. Then with a week's notice I was informed they were both going away fro weeks over easter so could I send them my draft by 31st March? (I'd emailed before and said I was working towards the 16th April, which since I hadn't heard back about I assumed had been okayed.) Nevertheless I knuckled down to write it and submitted by 31st. Silence for two weeks, then a scathing response which required rewriting it. This I did, my second supervisor gave me excellent feedback on the work and I rested easy.

So Monday was my upgrade meeting. Bearing in mind that 5 peers I knew of had been invited to an 'informal chat' I admit I was a little unprepared for the three person panel interview. My second reader ripped my work to shreds in the first minute and told me my proposal was rubbish because my subject had already been researched. (She gave no details however and from 6 months' reading I've found two articles on my are, the second reader was on the admissions committee so why on earth hadn't she - or indeed my supervisors - told me this earlier if they believed it to be the case?!) I went to pieces and didn't say half the stuff I'd planned to after that. then I was sent out the room>>>


>>> and when I returned I was told I'd failed. Then I was shown my upgrade form and pointed to the section where I'd written that I'd had three supervisions. Apparently - which I didn't know - we're meant to have four minimum. My supervisor then proceded to ponit out that they'd sat in on my upgrade presentation which counted as a supervision and I needed to amend my form to say 'four.' This presentation was 15 minutes long and I never had any feedback either in person or after it - it hasn't counted as a supervision for any of their other tutees whom I've asked!! I think this is wholly unfair as it is asking me to effectively lie to save their face.

Trouble is, I'm now in a complete quandry. If I don't do what they ask and cause a fuss about how bad communication has been and how I don't believe this is right, they'll fail me for sure again in September! I am so angry right now and hurt and humiliated... Why, if my proposal was so awful, was I ever accepted and how did it get me funding?! Why was my meeting so different form the informal chats being had by my peers (i suspect something to do with one of my supervisors being alost head honcho.) What can I do now?? There is no chance of me either feeling that I haven't worked hard enough or don't have the capacity to do this - plus I can't afford to give up, financially, with no partner or job to go to - so I HAVE to stick this out. It seems I have no option but to keep quiet, do what's asked and suffer in silence. It just seems so wrong and unfair when they haven't helped me or given me even the minimum of time required for first years!!?

I am so despondent right now; I don't know how to ever show my face again (i left the meeting in tears and I NEVER cry in front of people.) I have a distinction and a first and I just don't believe them in saying i don't have the capacity to do this.

Utterly at a loss. Have asked for a meeting with either or both of them ASAP but haven't heard anything back. I feel like writing to the head but they'll just close ranks and it'll do me no good. How can they treat people like this?????


This is ridiculous, they've obviously got no interest in supporting you or pursuing this research. I know they might want to close ranks but if they're that determined to fail you, what have you got to lose? I say make your case, make their lives tricky and hope you're re-assigned. First step, put together a file of all your emails, written work, and corresponding feedback (or a big red scrawl saying "none given"), then summarise chronologically how things have gone, ie:

Sept - sup2 approved work plan (which has since been followed)
Sept - no supervision offered, began working solo
Nov - sent x emails requesting feedback on 7000 words, no response
March - No criticism of research direction at presentation
etc etc etc. Out in black and white a list of unreplied-to emails and clearly hypocritical responses (written in their own fair hand) are pretty convincing.

If things have happened as you describe then it sounds to me that you have a good case. Consider sending your summary to your head of department/school (skip the supervisors, if they're not responding you need to go above them) explaining your concerns and asking for their help in resolving this, suggest meeting them to discuss how to progress. Also talk to student support or even your student's association, they may be able to help you. Lastly, you might want to consider talking to your funding body, after all, these idiots had an obligation to support you and are wasting the funders resources by setting you up to fail. If nothing else might you be able to salvage your funding and get it re-assigned?


I agree with Teek. Put it all in writing, in the way Teek says, and complain to the head of department, and ideally also your funding council. This isn't right and can't be allowed to go on. Make a formal complaint. Don't worry about what will happen. As Teek says what do you have to lose. And, to be honest, if your supervisors have behaved so shabbily up till now they're not going to suddenly improve without being forced.

Good luck.


Minerva I'd agree you need to complain. To the best of my knowledge, the AHRC refuses to intervene in disputes between the university and studentship holders so you might want to leave that for the moment. What I think you need to get hold of is the institutional code on research supervision - it's probably on-line somewhere (if you have a website for your research training programme that would be a good place to look). If you can't find it, ask the education officer in the student union - they'll know. You need to show exactly how far short your supervision is from the mandated level. (And if it is only 4 meetings a year that is truly shocking - the Russell Group uni I'm postdocing at insists on twelve structured interactions per year).
I would also suggest complaining not just to the HoD but also taking it up, with whoever is the dean for research or postgrad students in your faculty. that's whose head is on the block, if they fail to get enough AHRC funded students to completion, so it's in his or her very best interests to get things sorted for you. If you feel too upset to act forcefully on your own behalf, then enlist the help of any student union advice centre there is. But get going quickly - it sounds as though you have a good case, but if a complaint is made soon after the incident, then it's more effective in my opinion. Good luck.


Hey! This sounds like such an awful situation. I agree, you have nothing to lose by taking this further and putting in some sort of complaint. Do you have an appointed chairperson you can speak to about it, or a director of PhD studies or something? We were always told that our chairperson was there to deal with any situations that might crop up with supervisors. And as the others have said, keep a record of everything, it will be hard to argue with. And even 4 times per year seems inadequate to me- I'm in second year and see my primary sup every month or so for formal supervision but also have a lot of informal contact with her as well since we are in adjacent offices. I have noticed though, I have just had my forms through for my June review today and they come with a second confidential form for you to say how often you are receiving supervision and whether you feel it is enough- it seems like the universities are trying to tighten up on the inconsistencies in this sort of thing. I know qualifications aren't everything and don't always guarantee suitability for a PhD etc, but I'm sure with your grades to date you are perfectly capable of producing PhD-level work with the appropriate support etc, so you are right to put up a fight for your PhD. It sounds like it has been one mess-up after another on the part of your supervisors so I would act on it- the sooner the better. Good luck with it and let us know how you get on. Best, KB


This really is appalling. The advice others have given is good, especially gathering up as much information as you can and making a file of evidence. However, I would recommend you copy anything you send to your HoD to the highest appropriate person ie. dean of faculty, director of graduate research at the highest possible level, plus I would also find out what your student union or student-staff liaison rep has to offer. Within a department ranks might be closed or things brushed under the carpet, so I would take this to the next level or higher to get things noticed. Given that you're an AHRC funded student, as has been pointed out, the ball should start rolling pretty quickly else future funding will be affected. I saw my supervisor every fortnight in my first year. I have lots of complaints about her but that certainly isn't one! Given that you have chased throughout, and presumably have email evidence of it, you can't be held responsible. Don't worry about how your supervisors will respond - it's far too late for that. Best of luck.


I agree that you need to take action sooner rather than later. We've had students in situations where the supervision hasn't been ideal and they've got to their viva and failed through not much fault of their own. Of course they have grounds for appeal, as you would, but in that case it means at least another year trying to pick everything up to the necessary standard.

I don't understand why a funding body wouldn't be interested in knowing that a student they are paying for is being left high and dry, I would have thought they would have been more concerned in their investment.


Have you an independent person who oversees your research project so they can intervene on your behalf or sort out any supervisory issues?  Or a postgrad tutor who looks out for your interests? Unfortunately it's all too common to have supervisors who don't care or even interested in their students' research - you do wonder why they accepted them in the first place and is a very frustrating position to be in! Generally when supervisors reach a senior position they seem to get away with anything and students seem to be ignored.  It's ingrained in the system as many supervisors are employed for research and not their supervisory skills (indeed many of them lack social skills!) so they get away with alot. I'd suggest talking with someone in your department who is in a position to help and see where you stand as sometimes they may need a reason for you to switch supervisors (this depends on the politics of your dept and how student focused they are!)  Some head of depts just seem to decide things which are quite crucial to students but they don't get a say in these things!  

Research councils only give money and take no part in deciding the student or their welfare.  But having said that it is prestigious to get research council grants so the dept will do everything they can to keep you so you have that in your favour - sorry to be so direct about it but students are generally viewed as a number and output (i.e. completion rates!!!) It does the dept more harm if you don't complete so they will do everything to keep you.  Just wondering if your funding is tied to your supervisor (i.e. for a specific project) or a general grant which I think would be the case from what you said. Having 4 supervisors does seem a bit excessive especially as they didn't seem to tell you.  They were really harsh at your upgrade meeting.  Can you do what they asked for you to pass the upgrade? Generally if they were that harsh it's usually them if you've researched your project well - i.e. you may have disagreed with some of their research as some supervisors like to protect their "status quo" esp if they have been in research a long time and don't like people challenging their position. It's kind of ironic as this what research is all about and generates new ideas! 

Keep a written record of everything so that you can use it as evidence to strengthen your case if you want to change supervisor as supervisors never change. It's an awful position to be in but you need to believe you can do it and pass the upgrade (do whatever it takes) and then get even!!! One more thing - are your supervisors generally known for their lack of support as it might help in your case - it depends on the politics of your dept again. Alot of this depends on that and the power structure. Keep going and I hope you get something sorted! A PhD is hard enough without having supervisory problems which just doesn't help and bad for your health too! I think they've forgotten what it's like to do one and all the stress and uncertainty that goes with it! Good luck!


Thanks all so much for your help and support. I really have been in an awful state since this all happened; feels like I've been hit by a bus... I have since seen the more personable of my two supervisors last week; an apology was made about how the viva was handled but ultimately I am still with my back against the wall. The answer I got was that my research methods were all wrong; all I can say is they haven't changed since my last degree and nor has my time put in or attitude so I would say there's a fundamental institutional misalignment if this is the case, and I am going to have to learn their ways as if it's a new discipline. (It's a much more traditional place than my last institution.)

Unfortunately this is a really small institution and there's a shocking lack of support - the head of dept is on the research committee so I can't talk to him as he's involved; they have a 'welfare officer' but the rules and regs online say no appeals may be made about academic matters. I can't believe that three hours in three terms constitutes decent supervision but the only place I have to turn to is the head of the institution and that could jeopardise my resubmission mark if my supervisors get wind of it - which they invariably would. One of you said that you get to comment on your supervisions confidentially - of course; you'd think that was common sense good practice! But ours goes straight back to our supervisors first, so what's the point?! It's utter rubbish. I suppose I'm thankful for the comment about funding - no, it wouldn't be in their interests to fail me and thus admit they'd allocated funding to the 'wrong' student... I've been waking up having palpitations about what i'd do if sudddenly I got the AHRC cut - basically no job, no money, very quickly no home. Great...:-(

Anyway, i'm still investigating who I can go to to talk about this as it isn't like other universities - if only it was... Every part of me wants to fight but I'm so scared they'll just take it out on me if I complain and finish me off!! I waited so long to achieve this goal. Thing is it's just my word against theirs; they can refute emails easy enough. (When I asked why no such grave fears about my work had been raised beofre the viva they said 'we did, but you didn't listen'. How can I argue with that?! It's apparently not in my notes of the meeting because i "didn't listen"?! I think I'd have noticed SOMETHING?! So you see I'm over a barrel.

Will keep you posted. What a nightmare....


Yuk that certainly makes it more complicated. I think I'd tackle the welfare person, unless they give off vibes of untrustworthiness, and just ask for help understanding the structures of the place and where you are meant to seek help and advice. Is your institution completely independent i.e. do they award the degree? If say you're part of the University of London, there may be some sources of support and advice at the federal level, even if there's nothing obvious in your own institution if you know what I mean? I also wonder whether you'd be able to get any advice from the National postgraduate committee http://www.npc.org.uk/ - particularly on where you stand with the AHRC. It might be worth a try.
I'd also document everything from now on. Make a formal note of supervision meetings and send it to your supervisors saying that if you haven't heard from them by such and such a date, you assume they accept it to be an accurate record of the meeting. Reading between the lines, my suspicion would be that your supervisors might be in trouble over this already as they're going to such lengths to try and deny responsibility. It might therefore genuinely be worth talking to your HoD, even though he was on the panel, stressing that you were very shocked at the time and didn't really take in everything that was said, as you'd been assured by supervisor 2 that it was fine, and could he/she clarify what the problems are and what your status actually is. Then raise the supervision issues. Or if not the HoD, perhaps the most sympathetic seeming person of the three. But only you know the people involved, so this might not feel possible.