How to tell your supervisor you want a divorce

The Thesis Whisperer | March 15, 2011 | by ingermewburn
Monday 27 June 2011
by  antonin
1 vote

This week’s guest post comes from Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell, who gained her PhD from the Geography Department at King’s College London in 2010. Sarah is also the managing editor of ‘PhD 2 Published’ - a blog all Research students should have on their list. Here Sarah talks about the delicate matter of ‘supervisory divorce’

This post results from a twitter conversation I had with @thesiswhisperer about how someone could quit at the point of submission because they had a fundamental disagreement with their supervisor. This seemed unfathomable to many people; however, it made perfect sense to me as I had been in near enough the same situation in 2009.

The relationship had broken down spectacularly, there was no communication, and I sat in tears not knowing how I could get myself out of this. However, I managed to recover and submit my thesis, thankfully, and am now the proud owner of a doctorate, but I understand how isolating it is being in that position and feeling there is no way to turn. This can lead many people, more than you would initially think, to quit. However, there is much that can be done to resolve the situation should you wish for an academic divorce and allow you to finish and submit your thesis. Therefore I offer you some advice based on my own experience.

 Your Dept / University will have a procedure for dealing with this …

You will not be the first or the last student to require a divorce from their supervisor and all Universities and departments will have a procedure for dealing with it. Thus I would encourage all new PhDs to actively seek this information out when they start. This is not a doomsday prediction that everything will go wrong, as I am sure that for the majority of PhDs the relationships with their supervisors are perfectly workable. However, it is always worth being aware of what the policies are just in case. In many departments the impetus to request a divorce will have to come from you and so you will need to be prepared.

 Be persistent and record everything …

I followed my department’s procedures and repeatedly documented my concerns on bi-annual progress reviews and in emails to the member of academic staff responsible for PhD students. However, initially I did get told that it wasn’t anything too important. This is not because they didn’t believe I had an issue. I think it related more to the fact that a number of students whinge because doing a PhD is hard work and some just want to find a way out.

If you have a genuine problem (and they will be able to spot the difference) keep going back to them, make sure they know and record by email etc what you said to whom and when so there is a paper trail of concerns if everything explodes. Talk to your head of department, or go further if needed, especially if you are a funded student. The last thing they will want is for you to leave.

 Talk to your second supervisor / another member of staff …

The nature of PhD supervision in my university meant that every student had a primary and secondary supervisor. The secondary supervisor was there to provide a third eye if you like, to cover when the first supervisor was away and of course to assist with problems like this. They can assist you in taking the right steps for you and I assure you from personal experience they will not let you quit!

My second supervisor knew there were issues but not quite the extent of the problem till we passed the point of no return. I had tried to deal with everything myself and that had caused me far more stress. Fortunately they were happy to take over and deal with the monumental task of getting me back in shape to finish and submit. It took 10 months to get the thesis ready for submission and 12 months in total from meltdown to viva. Quite frankly my second supervisor deserves a medal for what they had to deal with, the tears, the complete lack of confidence and the continual desire to give up but I did it and am very proud of the final volume.

 Once it’s all signed sealed and delivered – COMPLAIN …

The impetus for a supervisory change generally has to come from the student. Even if you suspect your supervisor isn’t very happy with the situation either you will probably be the one who has to instigate the change and that can be difficult and make you feel that you are out on a limb and you may not want to draw further attention to yourself. However, once you have your doctorate then complain, it’s the only way you can make changes.

See your Head of Department, write to the head of the PhD Board of Studies, make sure they know what you went through, why it was not resolved earlier etc. If they don’t know they can’t change things and anything you do may ensure someone else doesn’t go through the same thing.

 Don’t Quit …

It’s easy to say but don’t. You will regret it. Maybe not now or next month but in year or two from now you will. You’ve dedicated a huge part of your life to undertaking this research you owe it to yourself, to everyone you interviewed etc to finish it and submit.

Discussing the breakdown in the student / supervisor relationship seems to be one of the last taboos in academia and we have to do more to get students to talk about their experiences and enable them to feel they can request a change without being branded a ‘troublemaker’. You won’t get on with everyone you meet and yes, many students blame their supervisors for problems that are their own fault, but sometimes when two people don’t see eye to eye it is better for both to acknowledge the problem and agree to disagree and move on.

To successfully defend a PhD it has to represent you and your beliefs and ideas. At the department / university level there needs to be more support and procedures to spot the early warning signs so these relationships don’t reach crisis point and also enable another member of staff to step in and pull the student out if necessary.

For all those reading this currently going through the same problem you can get it sorted. I experienced some of the best supervision ever in the last ten months of my PhD and that will outlast any memories I have of the bad.


Read on the blog of The Thesis Whisperer

Picture: "Le poison" by René Magritte (1939)



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