Mean supervisor


Guys I have a question,

How do you deal with a supervisor (not really my supervisor but a lecturer who is employed by my supervisor, my supervisor is too busy so I have to work with her)who assumes you are stupid and don't know anything. I just started my PhD but before that have been working in the same field for a while.
I didn't know what to say when she implied today that a fellow student should show me how to use pubmed and endnote. I was tongue-tie but so furious that she assumes I know nothing. :-s


Are you sure she's not just trying to be helpful? I'm a mature student but had never used those things before and no-one ever showed me how to use anything or even told me they existed. I was late discovering quite a few helpful things because of this. Perhaps this is just the routine she goes through with all new students. Are you sure she is being mean?


Thanks for your reply. I am trying to be positive. The reason I think she is mean is because the things I've heard from people and how she behaves.

I was working on some sequences with her on a program that we both are familiar with. As the student I kept quiet and let her do her thing. She got stuck and I tried to assist but she kept ignoring my suggestion. I was really trying to be polite because I didn't want to make her think that am looking down on her. I suggested like three times but to deaf ears. She went on and it still didn't work. Eventually she tried what I suggested and it worked but all she said was 'good for you'. Of course you can tell when this is said in a mean way.

E.g she is giving a student who just submitted her thesis a hard time telling her to clear her desk and locker for other people and yet this student is preparing for her viva next month. The worse thing is that we are not pressed for space and she could honestly just wait till January to start harassing her.

Its just annoying. I just want to learn how to work with her without loosing my cool.

Thanks for listening guys;-)


Sounds like this is her style - not very tactful and a bit opinionated - and it's not personal.

I had my desk and locker cleared, without notification - I just turned up and there was a new student sat there with my stuff in a bag! I think even just an email would have been polite. I'm due to submit in March. All the 'oldtimers' i.e. those in their 4 th year were moved to the 'attic' and us part-timers didn't even get that:-(

I really think a lot academic depts need some 'people -management' training!


If there is anything I'm learning over time, it's to try to avoid hearsay.
She did respond in the affirmative when your suggestion worked, the advice on endnote etc... has to be assumed to have been well-intentioned (i.e. why would she waste her time/ another students time making the suggestion if she didn't think it would be helpful).
Office politics can be extremely negative and occur in all environments; I think in a lot of cases we need to start approaching our supervisors from the 'it's in there best interests that we do well' POV.


My main supervisor is a Prof who is very abrasive. I've tried various approaches, the submissive student, the opinionated student, the keen student and none of them has worked. He still thinks I'm hopeless and tells me so regularly. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that some academics are like this. You need someone who you can vent with - I have a colleague who is also a great friend and he sits and listens to me rant everyone time I see my supervisor or get an email. It really helps. You can always come here to rant :-)


I have a supervisor who just wouldnt give the time of day to help me with anything. I am quite new to the field and she was extremely unfriendly and rude whenever i asked her for help...i ended up befrieding another lecturer who taught me all the basics and when i went back to my lab to continue my work, my supervisor was like 'hello,stranger, what are you doing here?, i thought you were working with X'...anyways now i have learned to ignore her, both of us pretend that the other doesnt exist...not a big problem bcos she is not my main, i guess you should be lucky that you have someone who is willing to spend their time for you...supervisors come in all types, i guess we need to take them as an additional challenge in the challenging world of PhD...and ofcourse, it always helps when you have someone to listen to you rant about them :)


I think other people are right, it is just her way, i work with people like that and you just have to try to get past their attitude because they probably can't help it, they just have no people skills. The endnote thing was probably an attempt to be helpful. i wish I had had someone to fill me in on some of its workings and I'm still getting to grips with it - so much so that I am using it as a backup to the ref list I have created in Word :$


Wow. All these problems with supervisors. I think mine are brilliant: one is so laid back he's almost horizontal; the other an up-and-coming with everything to prove who works flat out. Happy me is medium in the middle.
I suggest treating them as professional equals (helps if you've had professional experience - managers find it a little hard to argue with someone who knows more about industry/certain techniques than them); defer when appropriate and resist when appropriate but at all times maintain professional courtesy. This goes both ways. If they are not being professional, confront and ask: "do we have a problem, if so, let's sort it out".


I think you are being a bit too sensitive - if you are nearly 'losing your cool' just because she suggests how you can get help with endnote I don't see how you will cope with other things like criticism of your work. She may not be the friendliest person but that doesn't mean you can't work together! My supervisor has ZERO people skills... once I tried to make small talk at the end of a meeting in the canteen and he said 'ok, off you go now' - he may as well have said 'shoo'!!! But you have to laugh about it, it was pretty hilarious ;-)


Pum - don't lose the cool ... most senior academics have the social graces of a stone, so just get on with the "Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir". I am not saying that you become a total brown-nose but seriously, pick your fights - in the grander scheme of things, getting help for EndNote may actually be beneficial and worst case is you are doing something unreal important - feeding her ego! The people who have good supervisors are now probably saying "Oh ya cynic!" but its fact that for every good supervisor there are at least two bad ones (for one reason or another). There is plenty of evidence in this forum to substantiate this (if anyone thinks I am being harsh or just cynical I will respond to any private posts rather than fill this post).
Pum - as you are starting your PhD there are several steps which you can do in order to keep on the good side of the supervisor and still maintain some sense of dignity (this is coming from someone two years in who didn't do these until very recently)
1. Keep a written record of any substantial agreed actions from meetings and so forth and have them close to hand
2. As for meetings, force the issue of regular meetings - they won't so you have to. Aligned with point 1, follow minutes
3. As for EndNote, take the help graciously - keeping the refs in good order is paramount and there is
4. Remember, at the end of the day, it is your project but you will need their guidance from time to time

Its a good thing to vent any anger and use these devices (such as the forum) and others to get that frustration out. You will have to deal with these people for the next few years of your life, but if you get the attitude right (not saying you have a prob) you'll get thro'. Its hard to do, but just treat them for what they are - someone who is "assisting" you with your job for that period.
It could be a lot worse - you could be sharing a gaff with them - YIKES!!!!! :-(

I assume it is Friday when you will read this, so have a few pints over the weekend and switch off - another invaluable skill.
Good luck and keep posting.


Bonzo, you're so right (not that your advice was written for me, but still...) my first supervisor is brilliant, really knows me and is supportive. But another supervisor (retired, a bit head in the clouds) drives me nuts with congratulating my lab-mate for work and ideas that were mine - not a big deal but it happens on a weekly basis, and I am getting it all out of proportion in my head. I should just be grateful for my brilliant first supervisor and let the other comments go, cos it's bringing out the worst in me. I think it's possible to go stir-crazy during a PhD.


Exactly Juno - And thats the point I wish to make to Pum as well - you WILL go crazy if you start taking everything that is said or suggested to you by the supervisor seriously (there will be plenty of back-tracking and contradictions along the way). It is hard not to take it personally but try to have some mechanism to bring yourself back to reality after such events (a walk out in the fresh air, phoning/emailing a good friend, having a rant here or ... dare I say it ... have a quick ciggie:p )