Bewildered and confused by supervisor

posted
13-Nov-19, 14:02
edited about 10 seconds later
by drwubs
Avatar for drwubs
posted about 1 month ago
Hi,
So I'm in the first year of my PhD (arts and humanities).
I already have a couple of international conference papers published prior to uni. My first meeting with my supervisor was very informal and he showed me around the facilities.

I had started a new paper prior to coming to uni that dealt specifically with my research project. I requested a second meeting with him to get his feedback on what I had started and discuss with him some possible avenues I wanted to take my next paper.

During this second meeting he expressed how much he disapproved of me working on a paper and specifically told me it would not be a good use of my time. I typically like to write an abstract to form the basis of my investigations and then slowly write up the paper as I do reading into the topic and perform different concrete case studies. I find this is the best way for me to work.
I specifically asked him if not working towards a paper, then what he considered a good use of my time.

He then went on a monologue discussing his doubts about my abilities in every area. At this point I I felt I had to stand up to him and basically had to defend the very reason for their being written music at which point his tone changed entirely and he went back to being friendly and good natured.

He then gave me some reading suggestions.
I met with him again briefly recently to check in as I had read everything he suggested and then some.

We have to complete mandatory monthly reports on our meetings and I'm coming up on the deadline for the next report in a few weeks. With this in mind I suggested we set a time to meet again more formally in the next week or two and he simply said not to bother until I had something tangible to show him.

Has anyone else felt this bewildered and confused by their supervisor? How did you deal with it?
posted
14-Nov-19, 01:04
edited about 9 seconds later
by Chochka
Avatar for Chochka
posted about 1 month ago
This does not sound like a constructive relationship to me. You've only just started and are already having problems. He doesn't like your work style, which sounds like it works well for you so is worth continuing with. A good supervisor will recognise that and support you in that. He is also running you down already which is a bad sign. When you are further in and are maybe having doubts about your abilities (which happens to the majority of PhDs at some point) you will need somebody who will boost your esteem not crush it. Do you feel that you can discuss these problems with him? If not, I would think about changing supervisors. I think the most important characteristic of a supervisor is a good relationship rather than their level of knowledge or prestige.
posted
14-Nov-19, 10:19
edited about 7 seconds later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 1 month ago
You sound confident and sorted about your working style and your work. Self-aware might be the word I am looking for! I think you need a supervisor who can get along with this and one who doesn't criticize and express doubts in your abilities - not healthy - even if you think it won't affect you at the time, it will, believe me! My only advice would be seek to change supervisor asap.
posted
14-Nov-19, 11:27
edited about 54 seconds later
by eng77
Avatar for eng77
posted about 1 month ago
Hi. I agree partially with the Chochka and TQ. It is not healthy doubting your abilities and criticising too much. But be careful that he is still the supervisor. Papers which do not involve him and give him no credit are NOT the most exciting topics for him. In academia, in particular in the UK, supervisors care more about their publications. Their publications are more important to them than "their original duty" to support you. Sad but true. He should also have a "say" in how do you spend your PhD time. I know I sound a bit rough but I would like you to see the complete picture. Nevertheless he is still a bad supervisor.
posted
14-Nov-19, 13:17
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 1 month ago
I'm not sure we're getting the full story here.

I might be reading this wrong but the problem as I understand it from your post seems to be that you are taking incomplete work, in the form of a partially written paper, to your supervisor and asking for feedback. It sounds to me like he wants you to complete your research and your paper to the extent that you believe it is as good as needs be prior to publishing before seeking his feedback. Anything else is getting them to do your job for you. You also allude to this later on as regards the monthly meetings where you were told to come back only when you had something tangible to show. This is the red flag for me from what you've written.

Unfortunately it sounds like your response to this request was negative and defensive (not sure I understand your written music reference).I wonder if this provoked criticism of your ability (or attitude?).

I might be wrong here but if I was you, I'd clarify if this is the issue. If it is, then it's easily fixed by you only going to him with complete work. You can also ease the tension between you by saying you misunderstood the criticism you were receiving.
posted
14-Nov-19, 13:24
edited about 1 minute later
by rewt
Avatar for rewt
posted about 1 month ago
EDIT: I started writing this before I saw pm133's post and I agree with him

You started a PhD and the first thing you say to your new supervisor is you want his help on a project that he isn't involved in. He rebuffs you and says that you should develop your skills first in a very negative way (which he shouldn't have), to which you rebuff him. He then realises you are independent, so gives you minor suggestions and gives you space. You are then perplexed by him giving you space and not being supportive, when you implied by your actions that you don't want or need him. He might be sending mixed signals but so you are you.

To be honest you sound like you will succeed regardless of your supervisor but a student-supervisor relationship is give and take between both parties. There is nothing wrong with knowing what you want from a supervisor but you should also be prepared to give. You can probably reset this situation with some diplomatic words and talk about how you want to progress in the future. He might be feeling the same way and a frank discussion about what you expect from each other.
posted
14-Nov-19, 14:53
edited about 4 minutes later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 1 month ago
rewt, even when you know exactly what you want and have your shit together and both parties are onboard, you can still have these niggly issues at the start of any relationship.

During my interview, I thought I had sorted this all out with my supervisor before day one but then I found myself panicking 5 weeks in when a calculation failed and I didn't know where to start. I remember emailing him the log file and being in his office for a chat, wondering why he kept giving general advice instead of just opening the damn file, reading the error code and telling me what was wrong. Then I remembered our discussion at the interview where we both established that this PhD was mine alone, that this is what I asked for from him (to keep out of my way as much as possible) and that this is what he thought would best help me for the future and I burst out laughing at being so daft.

I was a bit embarrassed after that but I didn't repeat the error.
It was a bit like cockily announcing to your parents that you don't need any help with your new home. You're an adult now. And then 20 minutes after taking possession of the property, you're knocking on their door asking for milk because you don't know the area but the supermarket could be easily found with the internet and a bit of work on your part.

It's just important that if this is the OPs problem that they correct it immediately.

I miss the early days of my PhD. :-(
posted
14-Nov-19, 17:00
edited about 17 seconds later
by rewt
Avatar for rewt
posted about 1 month ago
pm133, I completely agree that there are issues and misunderstandings at the start of any relationship. You both start with different expectations and preconceptions and the aim is to build a productive relationship. Your example is very poignant in that we don't know what we want at the start of the PhD and that things will change.

Though I think one of the stages of any PhD is realizing your supervisor is only human. I read the OP's original post and thought the supervisor was acting normal apart from the monologue dissing their abilities. As the OP defended themself by saying how independent they are and that the supervisor has backed down, now thinking they should keep their distance. I am not saying the OP should keep him as their supervisor (if it is not working now it probably won't work later) but from an outsider I see clear cause and effect.
posted
14-Nov-19, 17:18
edited about 1 minute later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 1 month ago
I'm keen to learn more about the situation from drwubs. I think my opinion and the advice I gave got formed quite quickly on reading this:

Quote From drwubs:
Hi,
He then went on a monologue discussing his doubts about my abilities in every area.


I see no justification for this approach, even if drwubs does have strong weaknesses in every area (which by the sounds of it they don't). Perhaps pm133 and rewt are seeing more of the nuances in the situation. I do tend to see things in black and white when it comes to supervisory relationships - probably shaped by my own experience and wishing I'd been more assertive and changed supervisors earlier on when I saw that it wasn't a good match. I have a strong belief that mentoring / supervisory relationships should be positive / nurturing / encourage growth - as opposed to critical and negative - even though each person's styles and the amount and type of input will differ.
posted
15-Nov-19, 01:00
edited about 3 minutes later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 1 month ago
TQ, that monologue directly followed the OP rejecting the advice from their supervisor regarding their approach to paper writing.

I'd also like to hear a bit more about how that prior conversation went to see if some understanding of the monologue can be gained. A bit more detail about exactly what the supervisor said would also help. I think that's at the heart of the problem the OP is facing and it's the bit I don't think we are getting the full story on because nothing from the original post justifies such a negative monologue unless the supervisor detected and was trying to sort out a negative, defensive attitude from the OP. Was it frustration from the supervisor?

I think we're all guessing at this stage.

I agree with having a supervisor who meets your needs and I know this caused you some considerable trouble. There is a fine line between being supportive and being expected to critique incomplete work. That last bit would be an absolute red line for me. If I was a supervisor I wouldn't entertain this at all.
posted
21-Nov-19, 15:33
edited about 9 minutes later
by drwubs
Avatar for drwubs
posted about 3 weeks ago
For rewt and pm133. I think you misunderstand what I was trying to say. I presented a paper I had started working on to my supervisor looking for feedback such as "do you think these are good questions to begin with?" (too broad or should I narrow it a bit) and I also had a small project/experiment in mind I wanted to run by them for advice as to whether they thought it would be too much of a time investment or if they thought it might be useful. This is looking for their advice as in maybe they would have an idea from experience whether this would be worthwhile or not. I was NOT asking them to do my work for me. If you can't ask these sorts of questions or converse with your supervisor about your ideas then what are they even there for? It sounds like if that's the case then there's really nothing to discuss during supervisor meetings, it's more like just a process for documenting that I'm not screwing around, which seems pretty plebian. Why have a supervisor at all in that case and why do a PhD at all if it would be no different than doing the work on my own outside of academia? Isn't the point of it (besides the piece of paper, the value of which is very debatable nowaday) to have the guidance of a mentor along the way?
I would think that if I were supervising a student and they presented that much motivation and had started working already I would be encouraging and use it as an opportunity to ask them questions about their ideas and try to offer some insight from experience, not just "I don't want you working on anything right now" but then later say "Don't come to me unless you've been working on something, but not a paper". I also find it odd that they basically said "Don't focus on making the outcome a system you've come up with" ... that was the entirety of my proposal to begin with... like what gives?

EDIT: Also, I don't really see how I can help you figure out what's going on with my situation as I didn't transcribe the entire conversation word for word. If that's what you need to offer any helpful advice then I get the distinct impression that you're manipulating what I've shared to shift the blame for the outcome of the discussion entirely onto me. I act and behave in a manner that is respectful and gives people the benefit of the doubt. I do my best to be very clear in my communication with people and so I find the argument that I am somehow entirely responsible for other people's actions very flimsy.
posted
21-Nov-19, 19:18
edited about 4 minutes later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 3 weeks ago
drwubs, I am not sure why you think I misunderstood what you were trying to say.

I have seen this type of situation so often that my advice in these cases almost writes itself.
My gut feeling from your original post was that you were presenting partly finished work and then asking for feedback. I then felt that you were poor at taking such feedback and that your response would be negative and defensive and that your supervisor would then behave the way they did. These were my thoughts on how this situation has occurred and that is precisely what I am seeing in your response (above) to my advice.
My advice then follows that analysis. I would now add that if you want to bounce ideas with your supervisor, you should not hand over partly complete paperwork for "review". Just chat about possible work.

I have no idea why you are talking about apportioning "blame". You are going to receive a lot of advice over the years. If you are going to be interpreting that advice through the prism of believing people are trying to "blame" you, you are going to have difficulty.

My advice stands as I described it in my first response. If you persist with your current approach you are going to cause yourself serious but entirely avoidable problems. As ever, you are perfectly within your rights to accept it or dismiss it. Good luck either way.
posted
21-Nov-19, 22:38
edited about 1 second later
by drwubs
Avatar for drwubs
posted about 3 weeks ago
Quote From pm133:
drwubs, I am not sure why you think I misunderstood what you were trying to say.

I have seen this type of situation so often that my advice in these cases almost writes itself.
My gut feeling from your original post was that you were presenting partly finished work and then asking for feedback. I then felt that you were poor at taking such feedback and that your response would be negative and defensive and that your supervisor would then behave the way they did. These were my thoughts on how this situation has occurred and that is precisely what I am seeing in your response (above) to my advice.
My advice then follows that analysis. I would now add that if you want to bounce ideas with your supervisor, you should not hand over partly complete paperwork for "review". Just chat about possible work.

I have no idea why you are talking about apportioning "blame". You are going to receive a lot of advice over the years. If you are going to be interpreting that advice through the prism of believing people are trying to "blame" you, you are going to have difficulty.

My advice stands as I described it in my first response. If you persist with your current approach you are going to cause yourself serious but entirely avoidable problems. As ever, you are perfectly within your rights to accept it or dismiss it. Good luck either way.


pm133 The purpose of having a supervisor is to review and provide feedback on works in progress. For example https://www.findaphd.com/advice/doing/phd-supervisor-expectations.aspx I think it is very widely understood already. If they are not there to provide feedback then there's not even any point in sharing finished work with them either. What would they possibly have to add to something that's already completely finished and ready to send off to a publication? If that's the case then it completely negates the need for doing the PhD in the first place. Your reply is an obfuscation of the reality of what a supervisor's purpose is. Your tone, at least as I'm perceiving it, seems to indicate you're assuming some sort of "hard knocks" approach, which if that is the case then you're definitely barking up the wrong tree.
posted
22-Nov-19, 08:05
edited about 27 minutes later
Avatar for kenziebob
posted about 3 weeks ago
Just going to jump in here. My supervisors are very clear on what they expect of me: they will read and review finished drafts but they do have to be finished. I don't see the point of sending, for example, an unfinished dissertation chapter to them - it should be finished but still a draft that will change. Is this what you mean?
posted
22-Nov-19, 09:26
edited a moment later
Avatar for Jamie_Wizard
posted about 2 weeks ago
I agree with Rewt and pm133, it would have been more appropriate to go to your supervisor with a nearly completed, or even completed draft to ask for his opinion, especially since it doesn't involve him directly. In your words: I presented a paper I had started working on to my supervisor looking for feedback such as "do you think these are good questions to begin with?". Also, it is true, being defensive will be an obstacle to your relationship.

I say this because during my PhD, one of the things that I am grateful I gained from my supervisor was developing my paper writing skills -- essentially in my first year I had all the material for an important review paper. I wrote this and then gave him the draft and we discussed not only the results but the narrative. The narrative was important as it led me to develop some final checks to really back-up the results. This wouldn't have worked well had my work not been complete (i.e. final draft) or with such defensiveness on my part. Defensiveness is the opposite to openness to other's suggestions. I had the review paper submitted by the end of my first year and it was accepted in a high profile journal (OK not Nature, but still). He likewise helped me fine tune my later papers too for which I am very grateful.

I appreciated this because my supervisor was trained in hard science (Nuclear Physics) and my background is in Chemistry, although we were both working in Computer Science at the time. I valued his time and insight. It wouldn't be good etiquette to go to him with something half-baked.

I think on one occasion, I too was eager for his opinion on another paper that I was progressing with and he just said OK let me have the final draft when it's ready. I remember thinking to myself "fair play" and just got on with it.

You have an opportunity here, just lose the attitude (no offence) :-)

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