Supervisor problems


This forum doesn't appear to have been used in a long time so I might be talking into the abyss here. I started my PhD only a few weeks ago but I'm struggling with my supervisor/s. When I first met my primary supervisor we only had about 20 mins to chat and he sent me away to write a 6 page document outlining my research question. I had no idea what to write because I'd already written a proposal when I applied - which had obviously been accepted. Also, my supervisor hadn't actually offered my any guidance. A few weeks later, I've finished the document and sent it over to him. His response is to invite me for a meeting with him and my second supervisor (who is also the head of the faculty).

I turn up to the meeting on strong painkillers because I'd hurt my neck, and my second supervisor just savaged my document, saying how incredibly broad it was and stating it wasn't 'the starting point of a PhD'. Basically making me feel stupid. I was obviously annoyed because I only wrote what I was asked to and I was given literally no guidance whatsoever. The second supervisor then tells me my research project isn't 'groundbreaking', though he couldn't reference any literature which explored the same topic or made similar arguments. He then suggested I do another topic, and laid out exactly what that would be. He was really intimidating, he's powerful in the faculty, and I was really woozy from the painkillers, so I just sat there taking it all in. My primary supervisor stepped in by making suggestions that were a lot closer to my original topic, but the second supervisor shot him down too. I was then asked to go off and write 6-10 pages on this new topic, again without any guidance. I don't like this new topic.

I contacted the head of PhD studies in the faculty, who was useless. I don't know what to do now!


I am so sorry for you to have been through and I can appreciate your situation. The most important advice that I can give it to you, speak to them directly and frankly in a courteous manner, explains your concerns that you need guidance. I have been in the same situation, the supervisor didn't give me any guidance, and I was doing all of that on my own, so it ended up not in a good manner. Give your self enough amount of time to judge whether this supervisor can really support you and interact with you, you must make sure that everything is clear and obvious from the beginning instead of sticking in a vacuum loop, so please do the report as it is required and then discuss with them during the meeting your concerns.


Hi, JohnGalt,

You have outlined two terrible supervisors. The primary one is an inexperienced supervisor who clearly doesn't give guidance and is powerless in front of the secondary supervisor. The secondary one has toxic personality and again doesn't give you any guidance.

How are you funded? Are you on scholarship? If you are, would you consider changing to a different supervisor? If you are self-funded, you have an even stronger reason to change since you are not getting any guidance despite paying. Characters don't really change, so if things are already so bad in the first few weeks, imagine how bad it would be like in a few years. Don't wait for situation to change. Take action if you can.


I'm self-funded so there's no restriction on me changing supervisors. I just worry because my second supervisor is the head of the faculty so he's the last person I should be annoying! But I agree, I need to scrap them both. I've emailed my primary supervisor twice and he either responds defensively or replies really fast and shows that he clearly hasn't read my email. He was annoyed because he wanted me to write a long document to explain why the new topic that was suggested won't work. But why would/should I waste time justifying why I don't want to do this topic? They accepted my proposal so they can't just make me scrap it within 3 weeks. It feels like laziness on their part as they just want me to toddle off and write stuff for them.

My concern is that changing supervisor is something that the head of PhD research deals with, but he was really unhelpful when I raised my concerns. When I emailed him last, he did the same thing by replying within minutes but not addressing or acknowledging anything I said in my email. I've been thinking about transferring university but (even though my course only started 3 weeks ago) I'd have to re-apply for the next academic year (11 months away). But I wonder whether the worst case scenario is that I can spend the year doing all my research without a university, and then officially start next year and get the PhD done early.


I think it's a little premature to jettison everything on the basis of a single meeting when you were not at your best personally. It seems that the problem is that they don't think that your original proposal is doable as a PhD - to be honest, 99% of PhD candidates have to considerably refine their topic so don't take that as an insult. It's normal. WE're all a bit clueless when we start about what is and isn't possible. My suggestion would be to have a look at the abstract and maybe introductions of a few theses in your area - your university library should have those done at your institution or try the British library's online thesis collection. Get a sense for how others have defined their research question, methods, analytical framework etc. That will probably help you to see where you are going wrong. There are also lots of online guides depending on your subject.
If you don't like the second topic, I would suggest doing the following. Do the work on the second topic alongside working on refining and narrowing down the original topic perhaps using the ideas the first supervisor gave you in the meeting. Send both to the two supervisors saying as agreed I did the work on topic B, but I was really taken by the suggestion of 1st supervisor on topic A so I worked that up too to see if you both think it could be a viable topic. I also think that some things you seem to think odd, like being called to have a meeting with both of them, are actually normal. It's easier to get everyone together for major decisions than trying to do it via email. You're not going to get a sympathetic ear if you demand a change on supervision on the basis of one meeting, so I'd suggest at least trying to make things work first.


I had concerns from meeting one about my supervisors and these turned out to be justified, very much so. I too was subjected to intimidating behaviours and didn't receive guidance, and my project was changed. From what you have said it sounds like they had no interest in the project you proposed, hence the lack of guidance and only negative comments. Its possible they had a project idea for a while but no funding to take it forwards until you came along. The second supervisor sounds quite controlling. Sorry this sounds a bit pessimistic but I speak from experience of being in a toxic environment. As you are self-funding and proposed the project you could take this elsewhere if you chose. Given the position of your second supervisor I would tread carefully now. As the Head of PhD studies was no help then its possible they informed your second supervisor of your contact with them, particularly given your second supervisor's position.
As you are self-funded you will have more say about who supervises you than someone who has a stipend. If you are not happy then I advise requesting a change of supervision, or even going elsewhere as sadly in these toxic environments once you find yourself in a situation where you are seeking alternative supervision you can be seen as a problem even if you haven't done anything wrong. Not all places are like this, departmental cultures vary widely where I am and the institution itself is very different to where I did my masters. I advise speaking to someone you can have a confidential discussion with in your department. You could try discussing your concerns with these supervisors and should maybe try this first, but maybe also have a backup plan in place.


Hi JohnGalt,
Having gone through a mess of PhD listening to poor advice from supervisors who are not experts in the field I've carved out for myself there are a few things you can do.
1) Accept that your first document was too broad. But that it's good to get an overall view on the field you are entering. It'd be worse if it is too narrow.
2) Decide if you were to start an experiment tomorrow, what is the short term question you need to answer? What controls, equipment would you need? What is the impact of your question and once answered is it a platform for more work? This is difficult and usually a supervisor guides you through it.
3) I'd focus on supervisor 1 suggestions, if you struggle with point two. It's good to be flexible but it's bad to be dragged to far away from something you need to be passionate about for 3+ years.
4) When you feel you're confident in a direction with short term goals (with glimmers of long term ambition) arrange a meeting with your primary supervisor. Send an email or pass by his/her door and say "I've been thinking a lot about our last meeting. I'd like to talk about the PhD direction. Do you have 15 minutes for a quick chat?"
5) During this meeting say you appreciate you were broad and that this is an area you'd like to focus in. Ask about his/her thoughts and opinions. Ask about practical limitations and even if your work can link in with the wider group

If this supervisor is being helpful, great you'll feel more confident writing the literature review. If not and you really don't like the direction you're going in, talk to post docs and colleagues in the department. Ask for their advise and more importantly who they could recommend as an alternative supervisor.
It's better to have a respectful relationship with your supervisors and not worth putting up with less.
Good luck.