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By Susan Carter

It’s common for supervisory relations to grow tense somewhere during a doctorate. It’s also usual for the parties involved to work through such tension, and move on, that very usual process in most human relationships. Now and then, though, emotions grow intense, and the disagreement between candidate and supervisor threatens to obstruct the doctorate. And while some tensions may emerge from differing personalities, some relate to differences in writing processes or style preferences. A few times I have worked with supervisor/candidate couples in strife, and this post describes my suggestions for managing discord.

Student and supervisor could both check their preferences for thesis work with the following set of more or less contradictory sentences:

Issue Option A Option B
Main criteria for thesis prose


Clarity is the most important feature of thesis prose.


Clarity is less important than theoretical complexity or creativity or [something else].
Internal thesis consistency (e.g., with use of first person pronouns, register of language etc.) Consistency right throughout the thesis is essential.


Sometimes consistency rules need to be broken.
Doctoral thesis length is usually 70 – 100 thousand words


It’s best to take all the words needed to fully explore material and ideas. It’s best to produce something as direct and succinct as possible to achieve doctoral success.
The thesis must show knowledge and critical analysis of literature Novice researchers need to spend lots of time to fully understand the literature. Novice researchers should be discouraged from endless reading because it would go on forever.
Standard of submitted thesis


Each doctoral thesis is its author’s only one: it has to be perfect. As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be where writing becomes more sophisticated.
Closure on research project


Students shouldn’t submit until they have fully interpreted their findings. Students should submit as soon as possible–they can do more with the data later.
Fast lane or slow lane


Students should progress beyond the doctorate as soon as possible. Students should experience the doctorate to full satisfaction before moving on.
Holistic or discrete writing practice


It’s best to work on individual sections of the thesis one at a time. It’s best to work steadily over the whole thesis, ranging between sections.
Risk taker or risk averse


The best students take risks in thesis writing for the satisfaction of a cutting-edge style. The best students make choices that ensure safety through the examination process.


Supervisor and student can compare their opinions on these questions, and doing so might help them to locate any other difference of preference that is causing trouble. The premise is that locating the cause of tension can be the first step to a conversation on how to work around it.

The aim is to itemise what is wrong, and then consider the consequences of either bailing out or continuing with the project and relationship. If the best path forward seems to be finishing the project together, it’s necessary to move this relationship away from blame and reaction. Supervisor and student should be encouraged to non-emotionally find the causes of tension and, from there, a plan to avoid activating them as much as possible.

I include acknowledgement that this situation is not ideal for either person: the problem has not gone away but now they are both shifting to developing the skills of handling a difficult relationship. Then I suggest the following. You’ll probably need:

  • Genuine commitment to acting as a team—“your failure is my failure so I have to learn how to handle you and work with you”
  • Commitment to avoidance of blame: change the stories you tell about each other even in your own head
  • Commitment to avoiding what triggers tension: there is no outsider going to change the triggering of tension and no blame so you must learn (co-operatively) the safest routes through the minefield you are both in.

In separate meetings with supervisor and student I also ask:

  1. What is not working from your point of view and how might it be advantageous to you to bail out of what has proved to be a difficult supervisory relationship?
  2. Can you identify the causes of tension?
  3. Why would it be disadvantageous to you to change the supervisor and (possibly) the project? What do you lose by bailing out?

In a final meeting with all parties, we can terminate this relationship as smoothly as possible, or find ways to go forward by acknowledging the causes of tension and trying separately and together to avoid re-activating them. I’ve posted this because the few times I have been invited to act as a mediator, this approach has worked, and because when the supervisory relationship becomes an insurmountable obstacle, then a path forward needs to be found and this post may prove helpful. Comments on other ways to defuse supervisory tension would be welcome.