Identification of the Challenges and Remedies in the Supervisor- Graduate Student Relationship

This article was originally delivered as part of Future Professoriate course at Virginia Tech.

12/7/20209 min read


Nowadays, young scholars are influenced by experienced professionals in terms of scientific advisory and mentoring. In higher education institutions, graduate students need guidance from their supervisors to take the correct steps toward achieving excellence in scientific areas. In the relationship between the supervisor and the student, both sides ought to be familiar with the purpose of this relationship and be prepared to take steps toward that. However, the different perceptions of the issues by the supervisor and the student may lead to a conflict [1].

The extent of complications is dependent upon the dimension of the relationship. The simplest relationship is the one that has the least financial or commercial interest [2]. In this case, the expectations of the supervisor are restricted to the student’s thesis. On the other hand, any additional research or teaching assistantship requires more consideration by both the supervisor and the student as it adds to the complexity of the relationship through mingling employment and supervision. The role of supervisors is bolder since a student has to trust the supervisor, is less experienced in their relationship, and has less power [2].

The outcome of this relationship is important not only in the way it affects the professional life of a student but also in the way it influences the future of academia. A student at higher levels of education can become a faculty member in the future. In this case, this person unavoidably takes the behavior of his/her advisor as one of the role models. Now, what happens if the supervisor passes some inappropriate characteristics? Therefore, it is crucial to have well-educated faculty members not only in their scientific side but also in their supervisory role.

The tensions in the student-supervisor relationship are usually comprehended differently by the two parties; Students refer to reasons like bad advising while supervisors attribute the unsuccessful experience to the character of the student [3]. Faculty members usually look for skillful, motivated, and self-driven students, and those who lack these characteristics are more prone to have trouble with their advisers.

In what follows, we overview some of the major issues associated with the supervisor-student relationship. Moreover, we take a look at the mitigating actions that could be done by the student, faculty member, and university administration.

Factors affecting the student-supervisor relationship from the student standpoint:

  • Injustice:

In a research group, members may (mostly unintentionally) compare themselves to one another. If one feels that the privileges are distributed unevenly, the roots of dissatisfaction begin to grow for the student. Some of these privileges can be the frequency and quality of feedback, stipend, and recommendations [2]. In my experience, students usually do not express their complaints about injustice in a research group unless it becomes considerably influential in their research path. If they do so, the response of the supervisor is crucial. Supervisors with a sense of leadership would act to prevent the growth of any misunderstanding (which might have mistakenly reflected as an unjust advisory) or try to reduce any bias that they might have. If the student’s complaint is accompanied by a harsh objection from the supervisor, the relationship is less likely to have a happy ending.

  • Lack of Scientific Support:

To guide the students in the right direction and help them improve their research work, they need feedback from their supervisors [4]. Especially, depending upon the student’s personality and background, some may need to frequently visit their supervisor to start moving the wheels of their research. However, professors have many obligations, and sometimes, other responsibilities of the faculty member in the teaching or the research side (such as a grant deadline) may lead to days of late responses [4]. If this becomes a frequent habit, the supervision of the students becomes less effective and the students’ progress slows down.

The supervision does not have a global norm; in other words, faculty members usually have their own way of advising their students. Some advisors believe in spending more time for the student in the early stage and less as the research finds its path. Some others take help from their postdoctoral students to find more time for other aspects of their professional careers [1]. In all these cases where students are deprived of consistent supervision, they may suffer from poor support that results in slow progress or even a complete halt.

  • Misbehavior:

Motivating students to keep working hard is very effective in helping them persist in their research direction. While it is an accepted fact in academic society, the supervisors take different approaches toward it. In one of the academic laboratories I have worked with, a globally renowned professor was famous for his nasty comments about students’ performance. Statements like “you are stupid” were not much of a surprise in the research group meetings. He believed that toughness is a key feature to success and a student who flourishes under severe pressure is the one who can conquer the tall summits. This old-fashioned habit, however, can also destroy so many talents by generating hatred in their minds about not only their research but also science and academia. Psychologists have shown us that positive feedback and praise at the right time and the right place can be more efficient and drive the students to move forward [2].

Another type of misbehavior is the abnormally high pressure imposed on graduate students by giving additional tasks [1]. Many graduate students are lucky enough to have financial support throughout their studies through various types of assistantships. While graduate students should majorly focus on their thesis, the heavy burden of such tasks hinders them from moving toward the main academic goals.

  • Harassment:

According to [5], 30-40% of female students undergo some sort of sexual harassment during their college or university studies. Needless to mention this is not limited to female students, there is no doubt that so many cases are buried in the students’ memories. In fact, some suggest that unless it is a very serious situation, students should refrain from taking action against the supervisor, especially if their research is going in the correct direction. This is due to the negative consequences that it might have for the student and the fear of the fact that the university administration may not intervene to the benefit of the student [2]. Personally, I believe this is not a valid decision to make. We are fortunate that, in today’s world, the dignity of people is cherished more than in the past centuries. This gives us the courage to raise our sound and speak up if we are being annoyed by someone’s misbehavior. Therefore, we should no longer let such sort of harassment find any place in academia.

Factors affecting the student-supervisor relationship from the supervisor standpoint:

  • Disloyalty and Mistrust:

Historically, the student-supervisor relationship was almost like a dictatorship. In this relationship, the students were committed to following the supervisors’ commands obediently. However, this is not the case today. Part of it is due to the borderless access to knowledge (which has shrunk the professors’ charisma in the students’ minds); the other part is because the students are more concerned about their rights and the world also pushes it forward. Some faculty members are annoyed by the fact that students do not look at them as a supervisor anymore. They believe these transformations have reduced the degree of trust the students had in their supervisors. It also makes them more inclined toward changing the environment (such as supervisor or university) rather than changing and improving themselves.

  • Inefficient Interaction:

While many students find supervisors’ feedback necessary for their scientific growth, some others are upset by what they call “micromanagement”. This group of students believe in their own way of doing research and prefer not to be distracted by the supervisors’ comments. However, it is rarely accepted by the supervisors that a student evades giving reports of the progress he/she makes. This becomes even more important if the student is also employed by the faculty member or there is a commercial benefit in the outcome of the project. The relationship, in this case, only survives if a student adheres to the guidelines of the supervisor.

  • Lack of Self-evaluation:

A supervisor’s role is to give some clues to the student and provide directions. To this end, in the early stages of the relationship, students may expect a high level of interaction with their supervisors. However, an advisor cannot be there for the student at all times, and the students must start to become their own supervisors based on what they have been taught. This idea is promoted by many faculty members and they expect students to become more independent as they move toward the end of the program.

  • Lack of Professionalism:

While the supervisor should provide a medium for the student’s progress, it is also expected that the students prepare themselves for the next chapter of their careers with professionalism. Supervisors desire to see the growing professionalism in their students’ actions [6]. Faculty members believe that their expectations elevate as the experience of their students enhances. Therefore, if students cannot keep up with this growth rate, they cannot be prepared for their upcoming role in academia, industry, or wherever they intend to work.


  • Educating supervisors:

Although supervisors are knowledgeable in their fields of expertise, this does not reflect their mastery in guiding students toward their academic goals. Therefore, they must be educated to avoid any bias in teaching, advising, and mentoring. It is also noteworthy to mention that faculty members usually do not practice “supervision” before joining an institution and they are hired mostly because of their academic achievements. Therefore, there is a gap here that must be addressed by the schools through programs that prepare students as future professors.

  • University Guidelines

University supervision guidelines can be a very good source for enforcing the proper practices and shining a light on the responsibilities of both sides [2]. Supervisors should be assured about the workload they should expect students. The problem is that, at least in the current era, the power imbalance makes it so that only supervisors can enforce the students’ duties and the opposite does not hold. Therefore, the administration policymakers should not only devise rules to protect the rights of the graduate students but also should advertise and inform the faculty members of these rules and their importance.

  • Meeting with Supervisor:

In almost every student-supervisor relationship, a situation of dissatisfaction may happen for each side; if we can resolve the issue in the early stages, we may prevent it from turning into a bigger issue and ultimately, endanger the entire relationship. Speaking to a trusted friend or an experienced consultant can be insightful before meeting with the supervisor [3].

  • Formal Complaint:

If the problem is not resolved in a one-on-one meeting, the intervention of the university may provide an opportunity for reconciliation. The graduate program director can be the first one to start with as he/she knows the procedure and policies [4]. If the discussion with the program director does not come helpful, the department head can be the next choice. Ultimately, the dean of graduate school and president of the university can be the student’s options. The process of seeking help can be very stressful for the students and strong documentation is essential for this purpose [4].

  • Changing Supervisor:

Changing a supervisor should be the last choice [4]. The least cost is slowed progress and delayed graduation due to the time needed to find and calibrate with the new supervisor. This process can also hurt the faculty members, especially, if they have financially supported the student and expected a satisfying outcome. Moreover, finding another supervisor with a common research interest is not a trivial task; in [7], the research shows that many students prefer to change their university rather than the supervisor since they fail to find supervisors that fit their research area.


The next generation of professors, world leaders, entrepreneurs, and all other occupations are most likely to be brought up in higher education institutions. Therefore, the current faculty members have an undeniable impact on not only the scientific career of the students but also their characters. In this study, we targeted the supervisor-student relationship from both perspectives. It was discussed that the injustice in a research group can lead to the dissatisfaction of students. Scientific support is another important factor in the relationship; students expect feedback on their work to make sure of their progress. Also, the misbehavior and harassment conducted by the supervisors endanger the health of the relationship.

From the supervisors’ perspective, lack of trust and loyalty is a major reason behind the troubles in the supervisor-student relationship. Besides, inefficient communication, self-assessment, and professionalism are other key features in a successful relationship.

Any of the issues above can ignite the conflict’s flame and lead to more severe issues. What the university administration can do to prevent such conflicts is to make things clear and set up rules for the standard relationship. Also, the administration must assure both sides that they would be treated equally against these rules. If troubles in a relationship exceed a threshold, the first remedy might be a talk between the supervisor and the student with both having the will to resolve the issue. The next step is a formal complaint to the administration level at the department level or higher. The final choice should be the change of supervisor as it is costly for both sides, especially, the student who may have slowed progress and should overcome the problem of finding another supervisor.


[1] E. Löfström and K. Pyhältö, “Ethics in the supervisory relationship: supervisors’ and doctoral students’ dilemmas in the natural and behavioural sciences,” Studies in Higher Education, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 232–247, Feb. 2017, doi: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1045475.

[2] C. MacDonald and B. Williams-Jones, “Supervisor-student relations: examining the spectrum of conflicts of interest in bioscience laboratories,” Account Res, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 106–126, 2009, doi: 10.1080/08989620902855033.

[3] S. K. Gardner, “Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programs in the United States,” Higher Education, vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 97–112, Jul. 2009, doi: 10.1007/s10734-008-9184-7.

[4] L. Blair, “Dealing with Student-Supervisor Problems,” in Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation, L. Blair, Ed. Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2016, pp. 121–126.

[5] J.-C. Smeby, “Same-gender relationships in graduate supervision,” Higher Education, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 53–67, Jul. 2000, doi: 10.1023/A:1004040911469.

[6] A. Yousefi, L. Bazrafkan, and N. Yamani, “A qualitative inquiry into the challenges and complexities of research supervision: viewpoints of postgraduate students and faculty members,” Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 91–98, Jul. 2015.

[7] C. M. Golde, “The Role of the Department and Discipline in Doctoral Student Attrition: Lessons from Four Departments,” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 76, no. 6, pp. 669–700.