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Dealing with conflicting feedback from different supervisors

Chances are that your thesis or dissertation is not supervised by just one but two (or more) supervisors. Multiple perspectives and fields of expertise can be an advantage for thesis writing. However, they can also lead to divergent feedback. Find out what to do when your supervisors give you conflicting advice.


The challenge of having more than one supervisor

Both master’s or PhD students should never blindly follow all the recommendations of their supervisors. Writing a thesis is showcasing the ability to work and make decisions independently.

However, sometimes feedback concerns fundamental parts or structural issues of your thesis. In this case, it is unwise to disregard the advice of supervisors. And not all feedback from several supervisors is easily compatible

What should you do when your supervisors provide conflicting feedback on your work? The first step should be to try and resolve conflicting feedback during a conversation with all parties present. However, if conflicting opinions cannot be resolved, a good rule of thumb is to follow the recommendations of the main supervisor.

Team compositions for thesis supervision

Master’s thesis students can have a main supervisor, and a co-supervisor who is also sometimes called a second supervisor. For PhD students, it is even more common to be supervised by a team. Very often, they have a main supervisor, co-supervisors or daily supervisors.

The main supervisors are the ones who are ultimately responsible for conveying the degree to the student. For PhDs, the main supervisor often has to be a full professor affiliated with the university at which the candidate is based.

Co-supervisors tend to be less regulated than main supervisors. They can be lecturers or assistant professors, senior lecturers or associate professors. Sometimes, they are also based at different institutions than the candidate. In some cases, they can be also doctorate holders working in practice.

In some contexts, an additional distinction is made between co-supervisors and daily supervisors. The latter is the first point of contact for the student. They work more closely with a candidate and have regular 1:1 meetings. Very often, more junior professors (lecturers or assistant professors) take over the task of daily supervision.

Every team composition is unique. So are the agreements, division of tasks between supervisors, or the regularity of supervision meetings. As a student starting a thesis process, it is crucial to understand team composition.

If a team composition is unclear, don’t be shy and ask. Who should be your first contact when having questions? In a hypothetical situation if you get divergent feedback, who should you listen to? By asking these questions in the beginning, you can avoid complications later.

The general approach to incorporating supervisor feedback

Similar to dealing with reviewer comments after submitting an article to a journal, simply receiving feedback does not mean that you have to implement all of it. Instead, your thesis is your work and you should take ownership of it.

However, there is a big difference between kindly reflecting on feedback and deciding not to implement it, and being stubborn and not listening to advice. Even if you decide against implementing certain points, it is important to show that the feedback was taken into consideration.

The easiest way is to compile all recommendations in a table (in word, excel or anything similar). Then you can categorize the feedback thematically. For instance, put all recommendations related to your methodology into one section. The same for the theoretical framework, the analysis etcetera.

Then, add an extra column to the right and explain for each point how you are going to address or implement the feedback. Or reasons why you are not going to implement it. For instance this:

SectionSupervisor 1Supervisor 2Response
Introduction – The main argument is unclear
– Include key findings already in the beginning
– Shorten the introduction, it is too wordyThank you for your comments. I shortened the introduction by sticking to the key points and by highlighting my main argument. I also introduced a few key findings but did not go into detail to keep the word count low.
Literature review– Look into psychology studies– Make a more systematic review
– Stick to one discipline
I will conduct a systematic review in the fields of psychology and economics.
Methodology – Describe your method of analysis in SPSS better– Add qualitative methodsFor now, I will focus on the quantitative part, but I would be happy to discuss possibilities for qualitative methods during our next meeting.
Example table of responding to supervisors’ feedback

Creating these types of tables, even after meetings where you just jotted down some notes, is extremely useful:

  • You show your supervisors that you take their feedback seriously;
  • You can summarize meetings and check if you understood the feedback correctly;
  • You show a high level of reflection, which also makes it easier to reject certain advice.
  • Having a table that shows clear contradictions between the feedback of different supervisors is a good conversation starter.

Conflict resolution in a supervision team

The best way to deal with conflicting feedback is to discuss it in a joint meeting. The atmosphere should be open and constructive. Advantages and disadvantages should be put on the table, and a solution should be found together.

Ideally, supervisors do not disagree entirely or fight in front of a student in the case of a fundamental disagreement. They should discuss this among themselves because it puts the student in an uncomfortable situation.

However, reality often looks different. Sometimes, it is even hard to get all supervisors around the table at once. Maybe all supervision meetings are 1:1s with the student, but supervisors do not communicate with each other.

Try to solve the issue in a conversation. However, remember: It is not your job as a student to be a conflict mediator.

When in doubt, follow the advice of the main supervisor (but there are limits)

If you get conflicting feedback and know that your supervisors disagree, it is best to follow the advice of your main supervisor. Therefore, it is good to understand the hierarchy in your supervision team.

If you as a student disagree with the feedback of the main supervisor, speak to your co-supervisor or daily supervisor in confidence. Tell them that you feel uncomfortable and ask them to help you.

Your co-supervisor or daily supervisor can try to talk to the main supervisor. Maybe that is enough to resolve the issue. However, if conflicts escalate, or disagreements occur unconstructively and regularly, you should look for external help.

Many faculties and departments have PhD councils, PhD representatives or a member of staff who has a designated function to listen to a problem such as supervisor conflicts.

It is not your responsibility to keep the peace between your supervisors and to please everyone by implementing incompatible advice. Writing a thesis is stressful enough, and its quality should not suffer because of suboptimal supervision.

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