When Supervisors Don't Last Forever
Cover photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash
One of the most important aspects of working on a research degree is our relationships with our supervisors. These relationships look different for every researcher and are therefore immensely complicated to nail down and discuss. If you’re lucky, you get on and work well with all of your supervisors and your project moves forward smoothly and you’re happy for the entirety of your degree. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. And it’s time we talk about it more openly.
When I started my research degree, I had already known my primary supervisor for about seven months. He also supervised my master’s dissertation and played an important role in my decision to stay at the University of Glasgow for my PhD, so I knew there would likely be no problems between us. My secondary supervisor, however, was completely new to me but soon became an important asset to my research project. She provided a much-needed outsider’s perspective to certain areas I’d grown a little too comfortable with and was consistent with her constructive criticism of my writing. As the first few months of my first year passed, I realised that I had lucked out with my supervisory team. I heard some unpleasant stories from my flatmate and other friends about one or both of their supervisors being a struggle to work with. I saw them stressed not only about their projects, but also about what to do to solve the issues with their supervisors. I knew how fortunate I was – I worked well with both of my supervisors and could genuinely say that I looked forward to the next few years with them.
Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash
Then my secondary supervisor, whose contributions were much appreciated and so important to my project, earned a fabulous placement at a fabulous university . . . in England. The distance as well as the requirements of her new job made continuing to work together impossible. As happy as I was for her when she told me, I was also incredibly nervous and slightly stressed about finding another secondary supervisor who would fit the mould of my project as well as she did, and who I would also get along with.
When I started looking into a research degree, people told me that supervisory relationships weren’t always smooth. There might be disagreements or other challenges, including an unexpected change of location for the supervisors. I knew this wasn’t an abnormal situation, but I also didn’t know what this part of the process was supposed to look like. And as it turns out, it’s really not that big of a deal, so long as you have time to plan. Again, I was lucky in that my secondary supervisor took it upon herself to search for a replacement as soon as she knew she would be leaving. I was also lucky in that she managed to find someone relatively quickly. I literally had to do nothing but plan a preliminary meeting between all of us to make sure the new secondary supervisor would be a good fit.
Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash
I wasn’t aware of this before, but It’s important to remember that changes to supervisory teams happen quite often. And because of this, you should always know who to turn to in these (or other difficult) situations. Of course, having open communication with your team is vital, but you can also talk to your school or department convener if you need extra help or advice!
Losing or having to change supervisors is not an ideal situation to be in, but it’s also not the end of the world like it can sometimes feel. Because of this change, I am able to gain perspective from yet another academic I respect, which, in my opinion, will only benefit my research. I’ve also learned how to make the most of a seemingly difficult situation and will be better prepared for any future obstacles during the remainder of my research degree. If something similar happens to you take comfort in knowing that no one’s path to a research degree is perfect. Everyone faces some kind of bump in the road along the way, but as long as you remember that communication is key and know who to talk to when situations get difficult, you and your research will be absolutely fine!