Supervisor and supervise relationship: who's the leader/boss?


I've heard a lot about supervisors dominating their PhD students, to the point of making the candidates quit their PhDs or bullying them to the point of making them feel really demotivated.

Assuming that the PhD candidate paid the tuition fees in full, as well as other expenses, wouldn't the student now be the leader/boss or simply the customer (considering they are actually paying the supervisor's salary) and the supervisor is just merely giving a service based on their advises and other obligated tasks?
The supervisor now has no whatsoever right to "order" them around isn't it?

Avatar for Eska

Hi tt,

I think it should vary. Ideally the relationship would be flexible but with understanding that the supervisor knows more about the big bad academic jungle and that as the research progresses, the student has more insight into the topic.

This said, a supervisor may need to assert authority at times, but only to keep the student on track.

Hope this helps.


Your tuition fee is for supervision (and obviously access to the university's facilities). That suggests to me that your supervisor has a duty to try to ensure that you are progressing satisfactorily and meeting the milestones expected by the university/graduate school (because if you don't, you'll fail any progress review). I think supervision, like Eska says, is always more directional in the first year / 18 months because this is when PhDs can go really wrong. Gradually as time goes on, I think you get more ownership of the project, as you mature as a researcher.
I realise English isn't your first language so I might be misunderstanding your post - is it that your supervisor wants you to do something that you don't want to do, or is it (like your post seems to suggest) that you wish him/her to act as your employee? If it's the latter, forget it. Your tuition fee is not paying his/her salary - you are just one of a variety of tasks funded in a multitude of different ways that s/he is expected to perform as part of the job. If you left, it's not as if s/he would lose his/her job.
If it's the former, reflect long and hard before you refuse. It's not just because it tends to be wise to maintain good working relationships and to pick your battles carefully, but also because they may be trying to stop you heading down blind alleys and wasting a lot of time, simply because in the early stages, they tend to have a better sense of what is required for a PhD than you will have.


As much as I disliked my supervisor, the tone of this really irritates me. A supervisor is not an employee of a student, if anything the student is an apprentice.

The idea that a student is a customer is philistine, and turns education into a commodity rather than the transformational process it should be. You are paying to access the facilities and expertise of an institution, and if one part of that expertise tells you to do something you ought to at least consider it.

The idea that you are the boss of your supervisor is as ridiculous as a baby being viewed as head of the family. If this is the sort of thinking increasingly happening among students I am glad I left academia.


Actually, the question could be more appropriately on the rights of postgraduate students…

For example, the right to request an Extension without the supervisor's support; right in research results and commercial exploitation; right to the Intellectual Property; right to any design produced…

However, postgraduate students could be exploited when they collected data and involved writing the paper… But the supervisor became the first author. Postgraduate students have the “right” to report certain improper or unethical practices of supervisors.

The pilot-in-command of an aircraft shall have the final authority as to the disposition of the aircraft while in command. In a sense, the supervisor is the pilot; but postgraduate student is the co-pilot who has the right to complain the pilot-in-command for violating rules… It is not right that certain supervisors bully the postgraduate students whether they have paid the tuition fees or not…