Previously, I have written on the topic of how to make your thesis supervision work for you. Subsequently, I’ve noticed people find my website trying to find out an answer to the question “Does my supervisor hate me?”. Trying to accommodate to these “my supervisor hates me” searches, I will here give some perspectives to the topic as someone who of course has been herself supervised in her BSc, MSc, and PhD thesis work and who is currently supervising BSc and MSc theses herself.
1. Your supervisor is just stressed
Let’s first look at what seems to me the most obvious option: Your supervisor doesn’t really hate you at all. Why might you then have gotten this impression? Well, sometimes supervisors can be very stressed because they have a lot of teaching and research duties, and life can get extremely hectic. What you perceive might be simply stress, not a personal negative feeling about you. It is easy to come across as annoyed and tense when one has too much to do. In this case, the best solution from the student point of view might be to stop asking “Does my supervisor hate me?” and forget the idea that your supervisor has something against you. Acknowledge that you’re just dealing with a stressed and tired individual.
A related unfortunate truth is also that not all academics like to supervise theses. For some, thesis supervision is merely something they have to do, not something they want to do. On my own MSc thesis journey for a long time ago, I was initially given a supervisor who seemed very enthusiastic about the research I would conduct but not so committed to the apparently annoying side tasks such as having to answer to my emails or actually treat me properly. I marched to the office of the head of the department and said I wanted a new supervisor. She took me under her own personal supervision and I completed the thesis successfully. I do not think that my supervisor hated me, but I do think he hated supervising.
Lesson learnt: Just as you as a student have to do your job, so does your supervisor. If you don’t get the guidance that you should, according to the rules of your own department, then do not just accept the situation but go ahead and try to have a conversation with your supervisor. If this doesn’t help, you can always contact someone, whether it’s the study advisor or someone higher in the departmental hierarchy (the right protocol of how to seek help in problem situations varies by university and department). In any case, even supervisors have supervisors.
2. Your supervisor has an issue
What on earth do I mean with “issue”? I don’t necessarily mean a personal issue with you as an individual, but something that is nagging at your supervisor and causing friction in the relationship between you and them. Your supervisor’s mind might be full of academic responsibilities and stressors and it is not rare for some of them to be somehow linked with your thesis work. Perhaps they had high hopes of you the student collecting quality data for their own project, and now it looks like the respondence rate of the survey is too low? Perhaps they have the idea that they would like to work on some of the theses to become a real peer reviewed paper, and this causes them to put some extra pressure on the students? Possibilities are many.
There is also the chance that the “issue” is of a more psychological quality. One time in the past, I was dealing with a situation where a mentor had not written one single word in a paper about to be published and the student was claiming that the rules of both the university and the journal where the paper was supposed to be published say that only being a supervisor doesn’t warrant an author status. I believe the student was correct and had simply spotted something that is not a rare sight in academia – a person who wants a quick and easy way to get a new paper in their CV.
In this case, the supervisory relationship never became smooth again and the student was considered by their supervisor a “difficult” person until the very end of the supervisory process. The supervisor’s answer to the question “Does my supervisor hate me?” might have been “No, but the student is annoying and demanding and stepping on my toes.” Well, this answer would not have been just and correct, and the student in question has no reason to think they did something wrong for having triggered their supervisor.
I would advise all students to look out for their rights. This is not always easy in the hierarchical systems of academia, where being young and without a PhD often equals to not having a strong voice. That being said, I have observed that the young generation of PhD students can be more straightforward and aware of their rights, to the point of announcing to their supervisors that “You will not just sign up my papers, you will work on them, too.” Working for a just and democratic academia demands actions exactly like that, but also of course structures and systems that support open and fair play.
3. Your supervisor is not the issue
The third option I would like to present here is the most unpleasant one if you’re a student. If you’re a supervisor reading this post, this is where you might be letting out a sigh of relief -finally she mentions this side of the story!
While all of the students I have supervised so far have been predominantly hard-working, motivated, polite, and pleasant to interact with, I know this is not the experience that all supervisors have with all supervisees. I do believe that if you as a supervisor treat your students with respect and acknowledge them as the smart and independent individuals they are, nothing creates better conditions for thesis success. However, the supervisor’s attitude and treatment is just one side of the coin. There are also students who assume that they have no responsibilities, only rights, to the point of them expecting that the supervisor is there to answer immediately to all of their questions and to practically write up the whole thesis for them. Cocky, challenging, and disrespectful behavior from the side of the students does exist.
For some reason, so far my mindset of “First get yourself a PhD, then you can start talking back at me” has never had to manifest in my overt behavior. That is, I’ve never had to say these words out loud to any student. Perhaps this attitude of mine is clear in my vibe without having to be verbalized in any authoritarian statements. Maybe my genuine liking of and respect for my students helps me not to get into tense situations with them.
The point is that your supervisor probably knows more about research than you do. Respect that. Listen to feedback and value the time and effort your supervisor puts into guiding you. Questioning the advise of someone who is more experienced than you are is not a sign of you being an independent critical thinker, quite the opposite. Chances are that the answer to “Does my supervisor hate me?” is not “yes” but something along the lines of “No, but they think you’re acting disrespectfully and are not putting in enough effort.”
Writing a thesis is not easy; it’s a long, independent project and it requires a lot of patience and work from the student, as well as tolerance for guidance and advise. When your supervisor sees you trying your best, they are quite likely to give off a vibe that doesn’t make you ask whether they hate you at all.
That being said, there are some supervisors out there with a fairly 1950’s authoritarian energy about them. Personally, I’ve had a supervisor announce to me in a very annoyed manner that he sees more in the data than I do. I still wonder whether my simple questions and observations about the data at hand really warranted such a strict response, or whether my supervisor simply felt intimidated, channeling this feeling into an authoritarian re-claim of their expertise. I can’t quite relate to a situation where my own self-confidence as a scholar would be so fragile that I would have to tell a student I see more things than they do. Maybe I will catch myself doing this very thing some day in the future.
The point here is that if your supervisor is acting in a way that makes you think they hate you, maybe you have to take a look in the mirror. Have you bombarded them with email questions to which Google could have provided you with the answers? Have you time after time disregarded their advice, missed your scheduled appointments, or talked back when they tried to help you? Maybe the question is not even “Does my supervisor hate me?” but “Do I hate my supervisor?”. Perhaps the case is that your supervisor really is getting annoyed with you -and maybe for a good reason. The simple cure for this situation is to acknowledge your own behavior and try to make some adjustments. I’m sure your supervisor will appreciate your open acknowledgment that you haven’t had the best of attitudes, especially if this is followed by you actually trying to be more professional and polite in the future.
4. The issue is chemistry
I know, the headline sounds so lame. One could talk about chemistry in a blog post about dating and romantic relationships, what does that term have to do with professional academic relationships? Believe me, a lot. We all know this from all corners and fields of life. Sometimes we just don’t hit it off with a person. No matter how much we try, we just never seem to have the interaction going in a way that would feel smooth and satisfying.
One of my good friends had a feeling during their MSc thesis writing that the supervisor would rather have been outside in the rain counting stones in the garden than reading any more theses. The supervisor was close to the retirement age at that point, and my friend was doing her thesis on a topic that wasn’t exactly up the alley of the said supervisor. His demeanor was bored and detached for reasons that had nothing to do with how good a student my friend was, or how good her thesis was. In addition, as a character he was very restrained and didn’t have a habit of expressing himself a lot. This was very difficult to deal with for my lively and expressive friend, who felt she didn’t get anything out of the supervision.
For fellow supervisors I would have this one piece of advice: Please do put some feeling into your work. The students can sense if you’re bored or uninterested. You can hardly expect them to be passionate about their research if you don’t model how one gets excited in academia. If you never show any positive emotion to your students, they might wander off your office asking “Does my supervisor hate me?”, even if your own sentiment for them is nothing like that at all.
That being said, sometimes chemistry issues are just too hard and go beyond quick fixes. Perhaps it can help you as a student to just accept that a thesis writing is a limited time project and when you’re finished, you will not have to tolerate your supervisor anymore? In the real working life, you will also have bosses and mentors that you don’t exactly click with either. You might just as well learn to work with such characters while you’re at the university. The whole world doesn’t revolve around your personality, after all.
5. Does my supervisor hate me? If yes, then your supervisor truly is the issue
Now that I have covered several possibilities that all have the meta-story of “your supervisor does not really hate you, something else is going on”, it’s time to look at the option that your supervisor really does have something personal against you. Unprofessional people do exist at all levels of academia. As a student, you never need to tolerate improper behavior. Tough feedback and harsh criticism, yes, but that is part of the deal. Bad behavior is not. My advise is simply to talk about the situation. If you genuinely feel your supervisor is acting in an inappropriate and unprofessional manner, then you need to open your mouth. Find out how your university and department recommends you to act in problem situations. Often, the first point of contact is a study advisor. The important thing is just to start somewhere.
Does my supervisor hate me? Take your time to think why you feel so
Before jumping into the conclusion that your supervisor hates you, I would try to understand the situation deeper. This is also a chance for you to understand yourself better. I recommend this nice blog post on resolving conflicts in academia as well as (especially if you’re a PhD student) Professor Tara Brabazon’s material on YouTube, such as this video on how to establish a professional relationship with your supervisor. With these tips, I do not mean to recommend the stance where a problematic relationship with your supervisor is entirely your fault and something to be solved only psychologically.
Learning how to confront and deal with people who truly are not doing their job in a proper manner is something you need to do in life. Seek support. In my experience, fellow supervisors, study advisers, as well as the management level of departments are mostly very eager to help out, as it is their own interest to make sure students have a good supervisory experience. Of course, this is not always so easy -especially as a PhD student you might be in a really tough spot, working in your own hard way towards a more just and open academia.