Career Advice

10 signs of a bad PhD supervisor

A PhD supervisor is arguably the most important person in a PhD student’s journey. Therefore, a good match between PhD supervisor and PhD student is crucial. The following ten signs help prospective PhD students to expose bad PhD supervisors or at least a bad match between the supervisor and themselves.

Why finding a good PhD supervisor is so important

Academic research has repeatedly highlighted the importance of the right PhD supervisor for PhD students. And not only the quantity and quality of supervision matter.

Studies have shown that PhD students fare much better when they get along with their supervisor on a personal and academic level. The latter means that PhD students work on a topic that is closely linked to the supervisor’s research.

If you don’t have a good PhD supervisor, not all is lost. You can still make it, but it is fair to say that your PhD experience will be much less enjoyable.

Having a PhD supervisor who is not only competent in terms of research content but who is also genuinely interested in your well-being and academic success, makes a PhD journey much more enjoyable.

Therefore, it is extremely important to be able to spot a bad PhD supervisor.

#1 A bad PhD supervisor only asks what you have to offer, not the other way around

The first sign of a bad PhD supervisor can often already be detected during the interview stage of an application: Bad PhD supervisors are only interested to find out what you have to offer to them.

They don’t explain what they, and their department or lab, can offer to you. This attitude is based on arrogance: A bad PhD supervisor believes that only you are under scrutiny, and not the other way around.

Bad PhD supervisors also don’t give you any space to ask questions about the support they would provide to you. Instead, they simply assume that anyone would be happy to work with them, regardless of what they have to offer.

#2 A bad PhD supervisor does not show interest in your personal story and situation

Everyone has a personal story related to his or her research interests. Why are you interested in your research topic? Where does your motivation to do a PhD come from? A bad PhD supervisor does not ask about your motivation.

Additionally, a bad PhD supervisor shows no interest at all in your personal situation. For instance, whether you are an international student. Or whether you have family or care responsibilities.

Bad PhD supervisors are only interested in your academic ability and outputs. They don’t care about you as a person with a life outside of academia.

#3 A bad PhD supervisor gives you the impression that a PhD should be a painful experience

A bad PhD supervisor talks about a PhD journey as something that is not, and should not, be enjoyable. Instead, struggling emotionally and financially is presented as a normal and accepted part of a PhD process.

A bad PhD supervisor stresses that everyone who does a PhD suffers and that you should expect to suffer too. As if this is part of the deal.

Additionally, a bad PhD supervisor warns you indirectly that complaints about workload etcetera will not be accepted.

#4 A bad PhD supervisor tells you that it is normal to work overtime

A bad PhD supervisor does not emphasise the need for work-life balance. On the contrary, a bad PhD supervisor tells you that you are expected to work during evenings, weekends and holidays.

A bad PhD supervisor gives you the impression that unless you give up everything (your social life, hobbies, sleep and health), you are not fully committed to your PhD. And hence not worthy of receiving a doctorate.

#5 A bad PhD supervisor is not genuinely excited about your research topic

A bad PhD supervisor may be interested in taking you on as a PhD student, but for the wrong reasons. For instance, having PhD students is an important factor for academic promotions.

Bad PhD supervisors want you as a PhD student because it will look good on their CV. However, when they talk about your research, they don’t express any enthusiasm about your topic.

You can spot bad PhD supervisors for your research if you see that their research is not connected to yours. Furthermore, when they talk about your research idea, they seem disinterested and detached, instead of passionate.

#6 A bad PhD supervisor has a personality that simply does not click with yours

Sometimes, a PhD supervisor may seem like a perfect match for you on paper. But when you meet in person, you just have this gut feeling that the two of you don’t click.

When you click with someone, you get along well. You feel comfortable asking questions, and the conversation simply flows.

If you meet a potential supervisor and you constantly feel awkward, you feel like you have to read between the lines, the way they speak stresses you out, and the conversation does not flow, this person is probably a bad fit for you.

#7 A bad PhD supervisor is not active in any academic networks in your field

Some PhD supervisors have outstanding publication records. And while the academic reputation of a supervisor in terms of publications can be an advantage for you as a PhD student, publications are not everything in academia.

Instead, PhD supervisors play – and should play – an important role in connecting you to others in the field. They should link you to networks and help you to gain access to inner research circles.

However, bad PhD supervisors don’t care about connecting you in the field. They only care about the research right in front of them and don’t care about future opportunities for you.

#8 A bad PhD supervisor operates in a tense and competitive environment

A bad PhD supervisor creates an atmosphere of competition instead of collaboration. If you have the chance to visit a department or lab in person, you can test whether the atmosphere feels tense and competitive, or convivial.

Do people chat with each other? Are people smiling and looking like they are enjoying their work? Or does everyone seem completely stressed out, and hardly acknowledge you and everyone else around?

If possible, also try to talk to current PhD students and postdocs of a potential supervisor. While being aware that the supervision style may not suit them, but could suit you, negative impressions from several people can indicate the potential PhD supervisor.

#9 A bad PhD supervisor makes you singlehandedly responsible for financing your PhD

A bad PhD supervisor is not interested in how you finance your PhD. Instead, a bad PhD supervisor puts the burden of financing your PhD entirely on your shoulders.

This means that bad PhD supervisors don’t brainstorm with you about financing options. They also don’t share any experiences of securing funding for previous PhD students.

A bad PhD supervisor is also not willing to work on grant proposals with you, to secure future funding for you.

#10 A bad PhD supervisor wants you to avoid all types of side projects and activities

PhD supervisors are certainly right if they don’t want you to lose focus on your PhD. Bad PhD supervisors, however, are negative about any activities that are not 100% related to your PhD from the get-go.

A bad PhD supervisor does not understand the importance of creating an all-around academic profile, for PhD students to be competitive in (academic and non-academic) labour markets after graduation. This includes, for example, teaching experiences, collaborative work, learning to write a grant application, or being active in academic networks.

Bad PhD supervisors view these activities purely as distractions. They don’t understand or don’t care about, the importance of some side-projects and activities which can improve your future (academic) success.

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