Some common causes of problems between people

Assuming the worst of others

  • Psychologists have found that we tend to think that the actions or inactions of others are governed more by their character (e.g. they’re mean spirited) than by situational variables (e.g. they’re stressed or tired), but the opposite for ourselves. So, give your advisor the benefit of the doubt and try to think of a “positive” reason for why they might have behaved towards you in the way that they did.

Thinking that the problem is wholly the other person’s fault/responsibility

  • If you don’t like what’s going on and you don’t say anything, whose fault is it that the problem continues?
  • In most cases you will find that you have contributed to the problem in some way, even if only to a small extent.

Arguing over positions rather than interests/principles

  • Business example: costs need to be reduced by reducing staff versus being open to how costs might otherwise be reduced.

Using “You” rather than “I”, and “Never” or “Always” when raising an issue you have with someone else’s behaviour

  • The problem with “you”, “never” and “always” is that they lead to defensiveness, and people who are busy defending their character are not open to resolving your problem.

To explore the above ideas further, for each of the following scenarios, try to identify for yourself what the source(s) of the problem(s) are and what you think the student can do to productively improve things or what he/she should have done to have avoided the problem in the first place (you’ll learn more if you try to have a go yourself first). Then take a look at our thoughts on the situation.

Scenario 1

Sarah gave her supervisor a copy of her literature review two months ago for feedback and is getting frustrated by the long delay. What should she do?

Our thoughts

  • Recognise that supervisors are generally very busy people and that sometimes things can get “lost” or “forgotten”, so polite reminders (by email?) that acknowledge the supervisor’s busyness and ask for an expected completion time are perfectly okay.
  • Maybe verbal feedback would make it easier and quicker for the supervisor than written?

Scenario 2

Yousef submitted a draft chapter to his supervisor for feedback. After making all the recommended changes, Yousef submitted a revised version for feedback. When the latest feedback came back, Yousef was shocked to find that his supervisor had basically recommended it be changed back to how it was originally. Yousef is now wondering if his supervisor likes stuffing him around and whether it’s worth submitting anything else in future for feedback.

Our thoughts

  • One issue here is to recognise that complex writing is often a “try it and see” business, so ideas that might have seemed good at the time, are later found to be not so good when implemented. Such is life.
  • Also, it may be that Yousef needs to distinguish between suggestions – “This might be good to try” – and requirements – “This is not acceptable unless you address …”. And sometimes you can see that your supervisor is trying to address a problem with your writing that you didn’t recognise, but now that you do, you can see a better idea than the one your supervisor suggested for addressing it. Or maybe you aren’t happy with your supervisor’s suggested changes so you start looking for a “third way”, which hopefully everyone will be happy with.
  • Another idea for when you are experimenting with how to most effectively write something (either because of your adviser’s suggestions or your own ideas), is to before making any substantial changes, save your document with a different version number (i.e. “save as” filename-v2.doc, filename-v3.doc, etc.). That way, if you decide to go back to your original way of doing something, or decide to add back a paragraph you deleted, it’s not lost! (Recreating something you’ve done before seems so much more painful than creating it the first time!)
  • Another issue here is that Yousef appears to not be sufficiently independent. While it is generally wise to take the advice of those who are more experienced than you are, it is possible that, because you are more intimately familiar with your work than your supervisor, you will see problems with their suggestions that they won’t. Consequently, like anybody getting advice, a student shouldn’t just blindly accept it, rather they should think about whether it really does best address their problems. In this way, you will also learn to think for yourself and, therefore, not have to rely as much on others telling you what you need to do. However, if you decide to not implement something your supervisor has suggested, it is best to explain to them why you didn't implement it so that they don’t think you’re just being lazy or ignoring them, which wouldn’t help with your relationship. 

In summary, don’t make changes if you don’t agree with them or understand why they have been recommended. If you don’t understand, ASK! (Or if you don’t want to “bother” your supervisor, or they aren’t good at explaining writing, then you could try asking a Learning Adviser at Student Services.)

Scenario 3

Romita has been careful to check with her supervisor before ordering any lab tests. Her supervisor has recently told her, with some exasperation, that she should be more independent and shouldn’t bother him with every little thing. Romita then orders a very expensive test without consultation and gets blasted for doing so. Romita is now upset and confused about what is expected of her.

Our thoughts

  • You are expected to be relatively independent, but there are limits. Find out what these expectations are.

Scenario 4

A student and supervisor begin working together, having discussed the student's project, and its theoretical framework. They meet a number of times, usually at times arranged by the supervisor. At one of the meetings, the supervisor, a recognised authority in a particular data technique, encourages the student to use it in the student's project. The student tries to do so, despite being unsure of its suitability to the project. The student begins to feel confused and troubled about the project, and at a later meeting, is critical of the technique, without expressing the difficulty encountered in using it. The supervisor is relatively silent, and stops calling meetings. The student stops coming onto campus, becoming increasingly discouraged about the project, and stops responding to messages from the supervisor and the Department until a progress review is due and a meeting is called. At the meeting, the student feels criticised for a lack of progress and explodes with feelings about the supervisor. The supervisor says: "You don't have to use that technique, I just thought it might be interesting to try it". Months have passed.

Our thoughts

  • Don’t confuse non-negotiable directions (e.g. about university rules or occupational health and safety matters) with “suggestions” – ultimately the thesis has to be yours.
  • Also, recognise that research is an uncertain enterprise. In their own research, supervisors will undoubtedly try ideas that won’t work out. Therefore, expect that some of their suggestions to you won’t work out. But talk to them about your concerns and thoughts and explain why you think the technique isn’t suitable in this case.
  • Also, when critiquing an idea or approach, it is often best to recognise its strengths before explaining why it isn’t good in your case. (E.g. “I’ve tried the technique, and while it seems to be good for X and Y, it doesn’t seem to work well in my case because …”. NOT “Look, I’ve tried the technique and it’s just useless.” Think about how you would respond emotionally to both types of feedback on one of your ideas.)