Unresponsive Co-Supervisor


Hi all,

I am in the first few weeks of the second year of my PhD and I am happy with my progress and the way things are going as I have completed my literature review chapter and have completed drafts for a couple of papers. I also get on well with the research group. However, one thing that is really bugging me is that I feel neglected by my co-supervisor. My primary supervisor has told me that I can always reach out to him and my co-supervisor if I need anything. They are both nice and we get on well, but whenever I contact my co-supervisor about something or send him something to review, he often doesn't get back to me, or if he does, it takes him ages and I need to send at least 2 follow-up emails for him to take notice. Even if it's an important matter, he takes a long time to get back to me. It took him several months to read my literature review, and I had to get a month's extension on the submission of that, even though I finished it well ahead of the due date. I reminded him a few times about it, but he still didn't get around to it until several months later. He is a very nice and knowledgeable professor, but it's just starting to bug me quite a bit that I feel I can't rely on him if I need him for something. I'm hoping he is a bit more reliable when it comes time for him to review my thesis as a whole or that could definitely be a problem.

Is perhaps now the time to be up front and let him know that I don't appreciate being ignored and that is important he keeps me updated with things?


I'm interested to hear what other people suggest about this too. Personally, I think that although it is annoying it is just one of those things. The main thing is, you have two good supervisors, one of whom is reliable. If anything, I'd say now is the time to get used to the fact the the second one isn't prioritising your emails (perhaps as he is very busy or maybe because he just regards it is lower on the list of priorities as he is the secondary supervisor) and plan accordingly. So that would mean planning your work so that you submit it to them for feedback way in advance of your own deadlines (e.g., for submitting papers or for submitting the thesis), and trying to plan so that you have other things you can be working on in the meantime. I know it is frustrating - once I waited months to get feedback on a paper I wanted to submit.

Another option could be to formalise your plans with them. That is, share a timetable with them, and actually ask them to indicate when they would be able to read drafts or do x by, and put it onto that timetable which you all agree to. I don't like this kind of approach myself as I find it too formal... but it is super efficient... It would just be important to approach it with them in a way that doesn't seem bossy or demanding (sometimes tricky when you're trying to take control of things).

Glad that your PhD is going well so far! :)

Avatar for rewt

Do you need feedback from second supervisor? I am in a similar position; super helpful main supervisor and a phantom second supervisor. My second supervisor only sees the final drafts of any submissions and the only significant feedback she has given me was on a journal paper. However, I don't feel I need her help, as my main supervisor is so helpful. So if your main supervisor is genuinely useful, I think you should be asking do you need extra support from a second supervisor?

If you do need their input, explain what you want in a polite manner. Lecturers are incredibly busy and they do prioritise work. Your supervisor may see supervising you as something minor and if you ask for more effort from them it may cause drama. Like asking for detailed feedback for an entire chapter is a big ask but asking for feedback on the section specific to them is a lot easier. I knew someone who had 5 supervisors and for her thesis drafts, she would tell each supervisor exactly what section she wanted them to read specific to their expertise. While if you are doing well and on time, asking for them to review everything you write is a bit demanding. So what I am trying to say is, with phantom supervisors be realistic with what you want from them and work with them to find out how much effort they can give you.


This is really great advice! Wish I'd done this. And I love the term phantom supervisor!!!


To add to this discussion, I would like to share my experience in asking for guidance from a colleagues who is not entirely helpful.

So I need to learn a technique from this colleagues and was told beforehead that he is reluctant to help. What I did is that I read tremendous amount of protocols and make sure I understand down to the very details. I compared protocols and ask very specific questions. That made him understand that I am not here to just get input from him. And at the end we revised the protocol and he turned out to be a helpful person as I further my experiment.

Being specific is great advice. I will also suggest that you add a deadline and let them know your next step in your emails. Do your part and if the person does not respond and you know maybe he/she is just not the person to go to.


I think that often the student thinks that all supervisors are meant to be committed supervisors, whereas actually, in reality, you get these "phantom" (or "on paper") supervisors. The problem is, it tends to be an unspoken thing!


If you genuinely need your co-supervisor, I would email and then either phone or ask by email for a meeting on date X, Y or Z for face to face feedback and allow them to select whichever of those dates best suits them. Allow them to offer an alternative date. I would also tell them how long you expect that meeting to last. You should try and make it 30 mins. Once the meeting starts you can probably get away with extending that to an hour.
That approach avoids the problem of setting deadlines on them which can provoke a less than friendly response.

The key is being as focussed during that meeting as possible so they trust that you won't waste their time by turning up and waffling like an idiot. You also want to make sure your questions are reasonable for you to be asking at this stage of ypur PhD.


Hi all,

Thank you all for your advice. I feel a bit better about things today. This is going to sound a bit weird, but the reason I feel a bit concerned is because I don't really have much to get on with at the moment. I mean, for the first two studies of my PhD I am working on analysing an existing large dataset and for the third project I will be collecting data, but that won't be happening until the start of next year. I have my first study completed now and the papers written for it, but I haven't had them reviewed by my supervisors yet and I am eager to finalise and submit to journals. I get these weird thoughts in my head wondering if I'm doing well enough, etc. Even though my co-supervisor took ages to get me his feedback, he had no comments at all and I literally had to change only 1-2 sentences and 2-3 typos in my whole lit review. So come to think of it, maybe he just isn't getting back to me quickly because he thinks I don't need the help at the moment. I have a serious case of imposter syndrome and I constantly wonder if I'm doing well enough and worry that I don't hear back quickly on my work, which I realise is silly really, considering I've been receiving nothing but good feedback so far. I can't start on study 2 because the data isn't ready for me to analyse yet until next month. I have also put some of my thesis together. But then I feel guilty because I don't have much work to do at the moment. I guess that's why I want feedback quickly.

I think I just need to relax a bit more, and I can even have a few days off. My mind seems to play tricks on me. I really appreciate the advice from everyone, thank you!