Jan 29, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

In a perfect world, we’d all get along with everyone. In the world we live in, however, relationships -- and the personalities that influence them -- are dynamic. And sometimes, unfortunately, they can change for the worse. This applies to all aspects of life -- from the personal to the professional. As all students are aware, it also applies in the classroom. Perhaps no one knows this better than PhD students, for whom a good student-advisor relationship can be a major boon and a bad one can be a bust. Here’s a closer look at the PhD student-advisor relationship, along with four tips for making the best of yours.

Why PhD-Advisor Relationships Matter

Much has been written about the importance of finding and choosing the right PhD advisor. But what if what seemed right when you started feels all wrong now? The reality is that having a good relationship with your advisor can make or break your doctoral experience -- both in terms of the thesis you produce, as well as regarding your academic and professional development and career.

A quick internet search turns up woeful tale after tale of woeful student-advisor relationships. In some cases, this is due to the inherent one-sidedness of the relationship. After all, advisors are responsible for checking up on their students, but who’s responsible for checking up on them? Proposes The Guardian, “The imbalance of power in these relationships needs to be acknowledged. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but only if supervisors use their position and privilege to empower students. When they say and do things that impede learning and advancement, it is an abuse of their authority.”  

In some cases, this manifests in the form of lack of responsiveness and feedback. In other cases, it can take the form of excessive criticism and negativity. In both situations, the end result can be the same: It can take you further away -- as opposed to closer toward -- your goals. Not to mention being extremely demoralizing in the process.

Fours Ways to Improve Your PhD-Advisor Relationship

Just because your relationship with your PhD advisor isn’t where you want it to be doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. In fact, there are several ways to start things off right, and/or to turn things around when they go wrong, including the following four techniques:

1. Watch out for red flags.

You’ll probably hear a lot about what to look for when choosing an advisor. Equally important? Red flags than an advisor candidate may not be up to the task. For starters, new faculty members may not be the best choice. Why? Because they may be more focused on establishing their own careers than on helping you. Advisors who want to be called by their first names, are over-committed within the department and/or other advisees, and/or who fail to lay out what to expect throughout the process may be less than ideal choices. One note? None of these mean you must cross a potential advisor off the list. However, it does mean taking a more judicious approach when making your decision.

2. Expect ups and downs.

Can you think of any relationships in your life that have perpetually remained the same? Probably not. The same applies to the PhD-advisor relationship. By expecting ups and downs, you can be more prepared to weather storms as they arise and or/get ahead of imminent issues.

This can also help you distinguish temporary problems from permanent ones. Says Next Scientist, “In reality most people are difficult at one time or another. Lack of sleep, emotional turmoil and overwhelming deadlines at work can lead to crankiness, negativity and lack of follow-through. What sets difficult people apart from the rest is that they are ‘chronically’ difficult to deal with.

So what do you do if you determine that your advisor falls in the chronically difficult group? Continues Next Scientist, “If you must work with a truly difficult person, you will need to sharpen your assertiveness skills even more to get their support or contribution to a project.”

3. Identify the problem.

To borrow from (or bastardize, if you prefer) Tolstoy, “All difficult people are difficult in their own way.” Next Scientist breaks difficult PhD supervisors into nine distinct types, including hostile-aggressive, complainer, silent or unresponsive clams, super-agreeable friendly, wet-blanket negativist, know-it-all experts, indecisive, extremely hands-off or super busy, and excessively hands-on micro-manager. Knowing what kind of difficult person your advisor is can be a vital management tool in dealing with him/her.

4. Take control when you can.

It’s easy to feel powerless when your advisor is negative about your work. However, the truth is that you’re not without options. Advises CheekyScientist, “Start making something happen for yourself. Take control. Don’t ask permission. Just do it. Too many students fear getting in trouble for doing anything outside of the classroom or lab. This is ridiculous….No one is going to arrest you or kick you out of school for having a hobby or a small project on the side. You’re allowed to live. Stop begging for permission to live.”

Focusing on what you know you do well -- and calling on a support system that believes in you --is also a smart way to regain a sense of control.

One last thing to keep in mind? If you’re truly in an unfair or insurmountable situation, switching advisors is an option. Although this may seem like a temporary setback, it may ultimately be the best thing to do if the situation can’t be turned around. People change advisors for a variety of reasons, and most universities have a process in place through which to do so. However, make sure to address your decision with your current advisor before taking action. As one PhD candidate who successfully made the switch told Science Mag, "Don't be antagonistic, don't burn the bridge, don't create enemies. If the person has power in their field or department, they can make things very bad for you."



Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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