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How do you deal with conflicting advice from your supervisors?

Welcome to our first installment of 'Ask WOTS', a new blog segment where we answer reader questions and try to clarify some of those tricky dimensions of the education process.

Today's question represents a common theme for PhD candidates: supervisor troubles. Some of us are blessed with excellent supervisors, but many find themselves struggling with this potentially fraught relationship. Here, we will be exploring what happens when the people on your supervisory team can't agree with each other or give you the clear instructions you need.

For my PhD I have 2 supervisors and often get conflicting advice. Even when I get them in the same room, the feedback gets really muddy. While I’m fine to take my own position in drafting, the relationship management is a bit of an issue. Any advice on how to approach this?” – TE (she/her), Sydney

Hi TE,

Thanks for being our first WOTS asker!

You’re certainly not the only person to be stressed out by conflicting advice or instructions from your supervisory team. Unfortunately, the stereotype of academics being unable to agree or negotiate in a timely fashion tends to be true.

It’s great that you’ve taken the initiative to speak to both supervisors together to try and iron things out. Usually this is the most sensible way for everyone to get on the same page, but it seems like this still isn’t enough for your team. You deserve to have clear and consistent instructions from the people helping you to manage your project.

The best way to get a definitive answer from people who ramble or give ambiguous feedback is to ask a closed-ended (yes/no) question. For example, swap out ‘what do you think about me submitting early next year?’ to ‘would you approve a March 2022 submission date?’. This gives them less of an opportunity to wax lyrical and instead encourages a more solid response.

You can also use your strong grasp of your draft to your advantage. For example, let's say you want to structure your thesis with five chapters and want to make sure this is acceptable. Send an email to both of your supervisors stating 'I believe that a five chapter structure is best for me. Let me know by the end of the week if you have any concerns with this. Otherwise I will go ahead and finalise the draft in this style'. This lets both supervisors know what your plans are and gives them a timed opportunity to intervene if they are concerned with your choices.

Ultimately, relationship management in your supervisory team shouldn't be your responsibility, so I'm sorry to hear that this pressure has been put upon you. While this isn't fair, the best thing to do is to take away room for discussion and move towards communication with priority placed on simple, actionable responses.

What do you think of TE's dilemma? Have you been in a similar situation? Or have some of your own advice to give? Please share it in the comments below.

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