supervisors, gut feelings and support



We shouldn't speak about our assumptions, but let people's deeds speak for themselves. However, psychologists advice it's good to trust our intuition/gut feeling, which makes things a bit complicated, especially when under stress.

So, how would you deal with a general gut feeling that your supervisor doesn't exactly wants you to fail, but to succeed less than others. For instance have you ever felt that if you have a good idea for a project they would try to make you focus on other things, in order to give/discuss this idea with others later on? Or misguide you while working on something, having you focused on solving not very important aspects of the research problem? Or that you don't have the same level of guidance (clear steps, meeting summaries, literature), but at the end the shown outcome would be that it takes you more time to finish or even continue with something, or that the supervisor might even be happy if you don't provide new input during a week. Or that s/he doesn't seem supportive/happy when you thought and solved something by yourself, but does with others. Instead, the general feeling would be that comments/reactions would accumulate to a minimization of your efforts - is this a way to make students try harder and become better and better or what exactly? Or how would you deal with a situation where your mistakes are treated as 'we lost time' (i.e. 1.5 week, for something that initially was 'not urgent' but later on became, and not because of your fault. But then, when it comes to others there are no blaming comments for months lost because of their mistakes/training or because the supervisor wasn't really there. Or say, you expressed concerns about things they responded with high confidence, and later they correct them,either without mentioning something, or if they do, without telling 'it seems you were right' - which, well, is not that important to hear, but I guess it makes sense to expect it when in a good collaboration.

So how would you deal with the above? Would you express your concerns to your supervisor, initially, and, say if the responses were something like 'you see ghosts' or 'yes the same happened to me when I was in X lab when my supervisor and colleagues did Y', would you swallow it and continue or you would further express your concerns to co-supervisors and other students?

I don't know how, but the outcome is right now to doubt myself, being unable to make a decision or continue with confidence and trust in myself. I generally feel that my work/effort is going to be minimized. I'm at the very beginning - I don't know if my gut feeling makes sense or whether it's normal thoughts that we all have?

Any advice is welcome - just be honest and share your thoughts/experiences.


I'm going to come back to this to answer it properly, but it's a situation I am depressingly familiar with.

Avatar for rewt

Hi Ambi,

I completely agree everyone should trust their gut instincts however it doesn't mean we should ignore logic. I understand you have been purposefully vague for anonymity but what you are saying is serious. I think in situations like this taking a step back and talking with someone you trust about the situation can clarify your thoughts. The act of explaining the details to someone can identify your true issues, highlight obvious solutions and rationalise your situation. Is there anyone in your lab/department you can talk with or another PhD student in a different department?

To discuss some of your points directly;
-Yes supervisors have favourites, they are human. If you want to be their favourite student you have to earn it or befriend them. Although a professional relationship with your supervisor does have advantages
-I highly doubt a supervisor will ever purposeful mislead someone. Usually supervisors are clueless and say what they think might be correct or something related to the last paper they read. Your supervisor isn't perfect and if they give you bad advice, it is more likely they are clueless than malicious.
- I think you get as much guidance as you ask for or put in. Supervisors can be vague and hands off in nature unless forced to be otherwise. You can sometimes get a lot of feedback by simply showing them something and discussing it. When I need guidance I go prepared to my supervisor with a plan or specifically framed question, otherwise I get vague pleasantries. If you feel you need more support it is also perfectly fine to ask for it.
- Achieving nothing during a week is fairly common and your supervisor not caring might actually them being understanding
- I can completely understand you wanting proper recognition of your work from your supervisor, I have childhood issues relating to that very issue. My advice is be more confident/positive about what you did (if you don't think you did something significant neither will other people) and try and figure out what your supervisor appreciates. Again my supervisor takes most lab work for granted but she is amazed by a pretty graph or certain types of statistical analysis. If you learn how what your supervisor considers good work you can tailor your output to get proper recognition.
- Don't worry about falling behind, everyone falls behind. Research is full of dead ends and you shouldn't take it personally. Losing 1.5 weeks isn't that big of a deal, I once lost 3 months going down a dead end with the full support of my supervisor. Even if it was a dead end you gained some experience that will be useful in other work and will help you gauge in future how to assess potential work.

Also, have you heard about impostor syndrome? It is incredibly common in PhD students and there is some very good advice out there on how to deal with it. PhDs are psychologically taxing and you are not alone.

Hope that helped,