• Varnika Singh

How to deal with a demanding/stern Ph.D. supervisor.

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

I wanted to take this opportunity to blog about my personal experiences at university several years back and list down my anecdotal learnings in the blog. I hope this write-up does provide encouragement as well as Insights into how to let great & challenging relationships nurture you into a better person as well as professional.

I was allotted a room in the hostel that I had to share with a girl, who was a decade older to me. Meanwhile, I also got to know that she was pursuing a Ph.D. in Science. I freaked out even more as I started imagining sharing space with this nerd, in a room full of silence, with no loud music, only books all around, no late-night fun, and all that I didn't even plan my next five years to be like. I was calling up all my friends/seniors, to seek help with a mutual exchange of the room. It was until when I actually met this Ph.D. girl when all my fear, anger, anxiety, and other weird imaginations broke and I stayed back with her for the next four years. She was newly married, full of life, matured in her thoughts, was a big foodie like me, an excellent dancer and so good in managing her personal relationships.

Indeed we became best of friends until she completed her degree and left.

Here, I am going to share some simple but effective tips that I learned out of her experience of managing a super demanding, stern, or as I used to say a "sadist" Ph.D. guide.

1. Break their "know it all" bubble

So, yeah she was a student of the most sort after Professor in the university as he had a big name in the field of material chemistry and nanotechnology (use to be big words for me back then). The thing was that her guide would often preach his old literature and play his "experience card" which misled her during her endless chain of experiments. So she started vocalizing about each failure frankly in front of her guide and would put a question mark on his fundamental theories. Like, silver and gold are widely used noble metals, but what about them being so expensive! Any inquisitive person would love to learn something new if it is taught, without hurting their big egos. Of course, that required an extensive literature survey, to fill up all the gaps, but it worked out so well.

2. Never miss those "morning greetings"

As funny it may sound, her guide used to reach 15 min early to check if any of his students are late for the attendance. All the bosses have this universal hatred for the latecomers. She made it a point that her morning's greetings to her Professor are never missed. And she also added those greetings with a brief description of her scheduled plan for the rest of the day. That solves so many other problems! The progress of your work, dedication, and presence in the workspace were reassured for the whole day. Plus she narrowly escaped from his extra "clerical" workload (I know that comes very often).

3. Set your priorities and goals mutually

Sometimes we both use to wonder, why most of the Ph.D. supervisors in the world have these overburdening, jealous (infrequently) and selfish approaches towards their students. You never know if your guide is fully dependent on you whereas you think it to be the otherwise (haha). In order to make the decided projects/experiments more productive, it's important to align and plan the tasks mutually. Reaffirm their skills by praising and making them realize that no one else could do the task better. This brings in the sharing factor and the encouragement to handle things collectively rather than single-handedly.

Another very courageous thing that my friend always did was she always use to err words about the ramification of his overbearing work style in one or the other way. For example, she slipped in her thoughts through a good sense of humor that simmered the tensions.

4. Count the positives shun the negatives

My friend was kept overburdened with n number of projects, lectures, and volunteering useless conferences/workshops(sheer business)! But that grilling done during all this allowed her to showcase her talent and indulge herself in something apart from just her regular research routine. She discovered herself to have an amazing hand in writing these scientific projects, met renowned scientists, and even had a chance to explore her research topic at an international level. So, by the end, she took all those overbearing deadlines, nodding down on unproductive things to make her a much stronger, confident, and optimistic person. They say the rainbow shines the brightest after the hardest storms. It suited her so well!

5. Cordial relationships and smaller targets

Now having a cordial relationship with your colleagues at the workplace can be a challenging spot to be in. But if you ace at this, you might deal with your demanding supervisor/boss much more to your advantage. Divide the workload amongst your colleagues and return back the favor doing the same for them when in need. Imagine, a two-day long work getting completed in half a day.

Another very important aspect is to have a healthy mindset when your supervisor throws lemons at you. It is well said, “Bit by bit, whatever you see to be petty becomes plenty.” Break the mountain of the work into a tiny heap of rocks, you will reach the top sooner. You start enjoying those small targets and complete the task more efficiently and effectively.

Apart from following all these tips, my friend never distracted herself from our core principles (just to be his favorite), always spoke her mind and never put anybody down in her journey of Ph.D.

And yes, most importantly, she inspired me to pursue Ph.D. too.

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