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Changing PhD supervisor

(16 Posts)
CDAlady Thu 06-Apr-17 13:03:56

I started a phD in October 2015 and got the impression I would soon be able to upgrade from Mphil. My main supervisor has generally been quite happy with my work but my second supervisor has said once or twice he doesn't think one of my areas of argument is worth pursuing but he's not always been able to give FB on my drafts or come to meetings so I've just carried on with my idea.

Last week the second supervisor said I definitely should give up on this main topic. This is really annoying because I've spent a long time and written 35,000 words on the topic. I honestly think it's a reasonable and quite well argued idea too. I suspect he wants me to avoid it as it takes a critical approach to a field his wife works in. My main supervisor doesn't seem to feel strongly but did not disagree openly with him at the meeting.

I was due to upgrade in the next couple of months but will now have to start writing more or less from scratch again and abandon my idea which I'm very attached to.

I am wondering whether to approach a different supervisor at another university and transfer there? Is this an acceptable thing to do. Have other people done it?

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 06-Apr-17 15:48:03

It is possible to transfer supervisors. It's also possible to transfer universities, but IME generally that would be something you'd do if your supervisor moved university. And I know it can be a problem in terms of funding.

Before all of that, if you can, speak to the person responsible for all PhD students in your department. You ought to be able to get some impartial advice.

It's really hard to know, without knowing you or the subject, but it seems to me there are three possibilities:

1) this supervisor genuinely doesn't want you doing a project that takes issue with his wife's work, and genuinely believes your PhD would do that. I find that pretty unlikely on several counts. For one, most people are perfectly happy with critical approaches to their work. Most people end up disagreeing with their supervisor's line of thought in some way, anyway - let alone their wife's.

2) This supervisor is a bit of a poor communicator and you need someone more on the same page as you. This seems fairly plausible and the head of PhD (or your other supervisor) ought to be open to discussing it with you. It's not unusual to switch supervisors just because the whole thing is a bad fit. If the supervisor is absolutely opposed to your whole research project, and other qualified people agree with you that there's no way what he's suggesting you do could be seen as a similar project, then you might be better with someone else.

3) This supervisor is a bit of a poor communicator, and your 35 thousand words are part of a perfectly normal stage in the PhD where you scrap and/or improve on your early work. The supervisor wants to communicate that, and knows that it's totally normal to write 35k works you never use in the PhD. They don't want you doing a totally different project, and they think they're asking you to try a slightly different thing now. But they haven't managed to explain this to you, so you feel you're abandoning a good idea that hasn't been fairly given a chance. If it's this option, why not try writing something else for a bit? You could always come back to the 35k later, and perhaps incorporate all or part of it into your new project. Or, it might make a stand-alone article.

I hope that's helpful!

corythatwas Thu 06-Apr-17 16:53:18

That is a brilliant summary by LRD.

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 06-Apr-17 19:02:53

grin Thank you. Can you tell I spent my own PhD totally productively and never once spent too much time reading 'how to do your PhD' blogs?

CDAlady Fri 07-Apr-17 10:42:58

Thanks so much for taking the time to reply!

At the moment I can't get to the bottom of why this situation has arisen as my main supervisor has been happy for me to pursue this line of argument for a year or so. I'm not taking a critical approach to an area of somebody's research but to an organization which my supervisor's wife is quite high up in. I didn't know she worked there when I started the project. But, my second supervisor did know what I wanted to do as it was in my proposal. So, I don't know why he agreed to take me on and I also wish the two of them could get it together to agree.

At the moment I just want to get the upgrade done. Last night I realised I could probably do that by including various other bits and pieces I've written instead (I've written 35,000 words but only 15,000 of that can be submitted for upgrade). You are also right to point out that the controversial parts aren't wasted. I can either try and sneak them back in later or see if I can make them into something which stands alone for an article or presentation somewhere low key to start off with.

I'm very happy at the university and department otherwise and there's a great person who's going to be my examiner so I should try and see what I can do to carry on for the time

CotswoldStrife Fri 07-Apr-17 10:57:12

Agree with LRD, great points there.

It sounds like the two supervisors should be having a discussion themselves tbh and coming up with a slightly more united front as to the direction of your thesis. How strongly has the second supervisor expressed his concerns in the past (I can see that he hasn't given you any detail or background as to why he feels that way if he hasn't given you any feedback) and out of interest, do you know if he's had PhD students who have failed to complete before or moved supervisor?

LRDtheFeministDragon Fri 07-Apr-17 11:35:20

Well, definitely write an email to both of them stating your understanding of the case. It could be main supervisor isn't objecting because that job is covered by secondary supervisor. Or it could be that they do disagree, and you need to work out how and why.

Again, I just cannot see why the supervisor would mind about the slant of your research and his wife's work. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I am saying that if it's that, he's doing something extremely odd and deeply unethical.

I've never had my own PhD students, but I've supervised MPhil projects on things that I absolutely disagreed with, on an ethical level. It really doesn't change how I act as a supervisor. I think that is normal. Of course sometimes I talk to students about my personal views, but not always.

Foureyesarebetterthantwo Fri 07-Apr-17 11:39:26

Do you have a mentor or a head of postgraduate studies? If so, I would go to them and outline the problem, that the supervisors disagree and that they also don't meet as a team (we are supposed to do that once or twice a year for this reason). I would ask their advice on how to proceed.

The danger is that it will become an arse-covering exercise for the second supervisor and/or an academic battle. That's why we have academic teams now for PhD supervision so that there's a bit of fresh air flowing around and stops any problems going further, although it's still fine to have one main supervisor.

Foureyesarebetterthantwo Fri 07-Apr-17 11:43:05

Also, if they have not read or given feedback on these 35,000 words then how do they know this isn't a strong argument?

I am very sceptical that from the outside one could simply declare an argument 'not worth pursuing'- I would look to change the second supervisor and go and see the first one and clarify a) if they think the work on this argument is strong enough and b) if they think your work is ready for upgrade, then get this in writing.

I sometimes think our institution is a bit anal about contact events, team meetings and reports on student progress, but it does avoid drifting on like this where no-one is really giving enough direction or working as a team.

CDAlady Fri 07-Apr-17 20:22:02

Thanks for all your comments.

My main supervisor has read all of my writing and given written FB and discussed each piece at regular meetings. He has been happy with my arguments. My second supervisor has given very little feedback and come to a few meetings. He was sceptical about this one aspect of my argument but didn't argue strongly against it until now.

CDAlady Fri 07-Apr-17 20:43:07

Two of his ex students have told me (unsolicited) they were unhappy with his supervision. One failed to meet an important deadline because he didn't tell her it was due (she says).

I am very unassertive about this kind of situation but I know I need to be. I think I thought of moving universities so that I could avoid this difficult conversation. In retrospect I can see that's a bad idea.The second supervisor has an extremely strong personality. He's like a charismatic celebrity in his field and will easily just dismiss me as a lightweight with a silly argument.

I don't think he's necessarily being unprofessional in not accepting my argument but because he moves in that world he doesn't want to see it any other way. Sorry I can't be more specific. However my position really isn't eccentric at all, it's quite well argued and my main supervisor seems to think it's fine.

The work's hard enough without having to deal with this too!

LooseAtTheSeams Fri 07-Apr-17 21:42:18

It's all a bit odd and possibly bad communication. When I did mine, the PhD handbook had a clear procedure about what to do if your supervision was running into problems. I think you do have a case for talking to the head of postgraduate research but I'd do it in the spirit of saying that you are getting conflicting advice from the 2 supervisors and just want to know how to proceed. And you may end up having to put the contentious material to one side for now and submit something else for upgrade.
You can transfer university and supervisor - a friend of mine did this - but do check funding implications if you have it. My friend was funding herself.

CotswoldStrife Fri 07-Apr-17 23:05:08

Two of his ex students have told me (unsolicited) they were unhappy with his supervision. One failed to meet an important deadline because he didn't tell her it was due (she says).

Well, what a surprise that was not <removes Sherlock hat>

LRDtheFeministDragon Sat 08-Apr-17 08:30:39

Oh, I can understand him seeing the world a certain way and just not even thinking your argument is valid - that rings a bell for a certain kind of 'star' academic! Great to have as a supervisor in theory, but in practice sometimes they trade on reputation and are sloppy supervisors.

Given he is your second supervisor, I bet you can either get someone else in (there will be standard procedure for this as loose says, and it shouldn't need to be confrontational as the nub of the issue is that he is not comfortable supervising in the subject area you wish to work in). If you absolutely can't, it might be time to quietly smile and nod, run everything religiously past supervisor one in writing, and do things your own way so long as supervisor one is happy.

FlyAwayPeter Sun 09-Apr-17 12:22:34

I'm a pretty experienced supervisor, and I think you need to stick with it - but DO involve your Director of Postgrad research studies - there will be someone like that, if you're at a decent place. Talk to them confidentially.

If your principal supervisor is happy with your work, then I think you should proceed. Even if your second supervisor is being personal about it, they still might be playing Devil's advocate to help you test your arguments.

At my place, the 2nd supervisor comes in to a face to face supervision about twice a year, and I DO encourage them to offer an "outside eye" - as a critical friend. It can be good preparation for your viva.

The other thing - I wrote around 30,000 words for my transfer from MPhil to PhD - none of it was in the final dissertation - although the research I did for that chapter-that-never-was helped me get my head around material & primary sources I still use 30 years later.

You have to get used to "wastage" in a PhD, and not think of it as wastage, but rather pieces for later. And you have to get used to arguing your corner, and - even more importantly - learning to understand when that argument is productive, and when it is just being stubborn.

Try to think of this as productive learning for your viva and future career.

FlyAwayPeter Sun 09-Apr-17 12:26:05

One failed to meet an important deadline because he didn't tell her it was due (she says)

Hmmmm - at PhD level I do not expect to have to tell my supervisees of important deadlines. Actually, it's their job to tell & then remind me - that's the sort of independence that the PhD needs.

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