Switching Supervisor(s)

Don’t Look Back in Anger: Switching Supervisor(s)

by Veronika Schuchter


Switching supervisor. Awkward. There doesn’t seem to be the usual abundance of blog posts on the subject and I do wonder why – it’s certainly not due to a lack of occurrences. Shame? Taboo? Fear? University structures and academic hierarchies? Probably a mix of all; don’t get me wrong, I respect hierarchies and think they are important and useful but I also feel that more often than not they continue to be abused in academia by those in power to shame, exploit and manipulate those in more vulnerable positions. In the humanities especially this is, of course, highly ironic. If you’re lucky, you have a supervisor/supervisors who understand(s) their position of power as an opportunity to teach, guide and support you on your way to becoming an independent researcher and carefully navigate this relationship of dependency on your part. Unfortunately, this is not the case for some PhD students. If you feel something is going terribly wrong with your supervision and your experience doesn’t match those of your colleagues at all, read on.

Relationships in all walks of life are complicated. Duh. Navigating that relationship with your supervisor(s) is perhaps the second most difficult thing to writing your actual thesis. One of the most accurate descriptions that has helped me a lot over the years to understand this minefield of cultural, generational and emotional differences is that of raising a teenager (it’s no coincidence that in German speaking countries your supervisor is literally called your doctoral mother or father – Doktormutter and Doktorvater). While a first year PhD student, just like a child, might start out with relatively little resistance when it comes to “parental” guidance, as one goes along and grows as a young scholar, adopting a more critical mindset might cause friction. In most cases this should spark passionate and fruitful debates between supervisor and supervisee; in other cases this might lead to some serious misunderstandings. And sometimes relationships just don’t work out and this might happen to the best of supervisors and the best of students.

Before you do anything drastic (and irreversible), however, make sure that you’ve explored all alternatives. I cannot stress how important communication is: talk to your supervisor, talk to your committee, talk to your mentors, talk to your friends and family. Get as many different perspectives as possible, and since you’re in a vulnerable position, be discreet at this point. Also ask yourself some hard questions: have you done everything to salvage the relationship? Have you communicated your needs clearly? Have you repeatedly asked for support and not received it? Have you set deadlines and met them? Have you tried to engage with feedback in a positive and constructive way? You can see where I am going with this. It’s not particularly fun to face your own demons but it might also help you to either rectify your situation to a bearable extent or at least, when it comes down to it, you’ve covered all bases.

This might be really obvious but supervisors are human. Doing a PhD is a turbulent time for anyone and in times of intense emotional and professional pressure, we might sometimes be extremely needy and it might be very easy to forget that while your project is on your mind constantly, it is not constantly on your supervisor’s mind. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, if only to try and understand that what you might perceive as hurtful disinterest from their side has actually very little to do with you as a person or the quality of your work and might much more be a sign of them trying to cope with their own workload. BUT. But you are part of their workload too and you are important. Ignoring you, not making time for you and providing feedback mustn’t become their default mode as supervisors. Having a supervisor should make the burden of doing a PhD easier and ultimately navigating the ups and downs of that relationship will help you grow in an academic environment. Be honest with yourself because switching supervisors won’t magically make all of your problems go away. It’s important though to know when you’ve had enough, and when the relationship with your supervisor has gone sour and might have turned abuse and unproductive.

Once you feel that your current supervisory arrangement is seriously impacting your emotional well being, it might be time to think about a new supervisor. Carefully consider the repercussions, but ultimately only you can know what is right and whether deciding to turn over a new leaf is the best possible option for your project. It might also be worth thinking long-term: if you intend to stay in academia, be aware that your supervisor will most likely act as your referee for some time after you’ve finished your PhD; so just trying to “get through” your doctoral studies might present you with a whole set of new challenges once you’ve succeeded. Do know that in many cases switching supervisors can be a tedious, painful and ugly process and it might get a lot worse before it will get better eventually (and I promise it will!). You will also need to carefully consider who will replace your supervisor at this point and do take into consideration that this might be a very tricky decision to be made (departmental politics!), so approaching someone new will require your utmost professionalism and discretion. Make sure to look after yourself and to have a support network, institutional as well as personal, in place. To have an institutional ally is particularly important; once you’ve made the decision to formally end the agreement with your current supervisor, you will require assistance in finding your way through the bureaucratic maze (and there will be paper work but it will be a walk in the park after you’ve come this far).

So, communicate as much and as clearly as possible (first and foremost with your supervisor), know your boundaries, plan very carefully, jump, move on and don’t look back in anger. Be strong and stand up for yourself!

I understand how difficult it can be if you find yourself in such a situation and to find someone who’s successfully gone through that process. Do feel free to contact me if you want to ❤