The PhD Student and the Supervisor

Admittedly, this is a complicated relationship, which develops along the same lines as a dysfunctional love story. It starts with the excited anticipation of a blissful future together. The student will be the eager learner and the supervisor will become the wise teacher and guide and protector. The student would look up to the (godlike?) supervisor with pure admiration and the supervisor will look at the student as a protégée and valuable future colleague. The intricacies of the situation and the potential pitfalls are not important at that stage. The only thing that matters is the love of the subject, the intelligent discussions and the exploration of new ideas.

The love story does not last long. The practicalities of daily life in academia intrude as early as end of the first year, when the student is getting ready for the next stage: the upgrading. This is when stress kicks in. The supervisor is eager to get the protégée through the new obstacle with minimal effort, while the student is suffering from last minute jitters. ‘Am I good enough? Is my thesis original? What questions should I anticipate? What if my supervisor overestimated my abilities? What if s/he has not prepared me adequately?’ Only after the upgrading finishes and the complimentary drinks are downed, only then does the sun shine once more in a clear blue sky.

But the first crack is already visible and from then onwards the relationship could be in decline. The practicalities of daily life intrude dangerously. The student is juggling research, writing the next chapter, part time teaching, attending conferences and trying to survive financially until the thesis is submitted, with admirable agility. On the other hand, the supervisor is burdened with ever increasing paperwork, teaching and research abroad. Time is limited and regular contact between PhD student and supervisor becomes elusive. And this is when the misunderstandings start; misunderstandings that could escalate to the point of a complete relationship meltdown.

Despite the fact that I have experienced both positions (first as a student and later as a supervisor), I am still mystified as to what should be done after the breakdown occurs. Instead, before the worse comes to the worse, I am trying to connect with the students at an emotional level and develop mutual understanding. It is also imperative to remember that behind excellent research hide flawed human beings. Academia can become a cruel place, if we forget our human nature in the relentless pursuit of professional success. What do you think?

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. The relationship between PhD student and supervisoer can work out well, I think that the blog does suggest that this “love story” is doomed to fail.

    Things can work out well, me and my PhD superviser managed to stay on good terms during my PhD and afterwards.

  2. C, do you exclusively write these blog entries when you are in your darkest moods? Not exactly encouraging reading for those of us just setting out on the pathway to academia.

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