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Ideas and advice

We who are included in this project realized that for doctoral students, changing supervisor is much more common than we had expected. Almost all experienced supervisors had a personal experience of this.

Given that cooperation between student and supervisor is a relationship that spans several years, a disruption is often something that can strongly affect both parties emotionally. In this discussion first we focus on aspects that might affect the relationship in a positive direction and secondly we offer some advice to support both student and supervisor if the cooperation between PhD student and her/his supervisor is discontinued.

Communicate with each other

The regularity of meetings between student and supervisor is of importance. A mutual agreement about expectations and commitments from both sides also facilitates clarity over time. Each faculty and each institution has its culture and taken-for-granted assumptions about practices varying from important things to small details. Talking about the atmosphere at the institution and approach to both management and individual employees and students can help the student to find their own early role where he / she feel comfortable as an academic.

Sometimes you have to leave

Despite the fact that both parties strive for a good relationship, it can nonetheless happen that one or both of the parties might want to suspend that working relationship. The reasons may be that the student's work has taken a new direction and content issues are in focus. It can also be that supervisor and student have different views on how the work of the research or of the thesis should be organized or structured. Yet another reason for students and supervisors ending their working relationship is that the supervisor leaves the service of the university. It is also in some cases not unusual, but most unfortunate, that the interpersonal communication simply does not function properly.

Third party can help

In the stories we collected from experienced supervisors we found that often in such breakdowns in communication and relationship, the institution's management and / or director had been or could be an invaluable support. In the worst cases, it is effective practice if a third party with experience of a practical approach and knowledge of conflict resolution comes in and handles the matter so that all parties feel satisfied. Depending on the nature of the conflict, someone, for example a working environment representative can be good at helping in a situation like this. As an example, Chalmers has its own ethics committee dealing with matters of this kind.

Early ways of preventing such breakdowns could include ensuring there is initial clarifying of expectations from both supervisor and student, supervisor teams or committees to offer different support and step in if there are difficulties, regular opportunities to meet and discuss working relationships and the development of the project. Supervisors who are retiring or moving university would be advised to ensure that they have discussed this with their student so it is no surprise, and they can both plan towards it, and that they put in place other colleagues to gradually be part of the supervisory team so they can fully take over when the supervisor leaves.

Contact person for Advice for doctoral supervisors

Margareta Jernås
Phone: +46 (0)31-342 94 33
Send e-mail to Margareta

These web pages were created by Silwa Claesson and Gina Wisker.

Page Manager: Olof Siverbo|Last update: 10/16/2014

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