Magoosh GRE

What to do if your Dissertation Supervisor is Unhelpful?

| March 14, 2013

When you’re writing your dissertation, things can get heated. You’re under pressure and might get stressed, bad tempered and irritable. The last thing you need at a time like this is to have a supervisor who doesn’t seem to be doing what they are supposed to. It would be great to have a supervisor who’s on your side and helping you every step of the way, but it’s sadly not unheard of to have a supervisor who’s distant, rude, doesn’t seem to have read your dissertation, and more. This guide will help you work out what to do if you find yourself in this situation…Dissertation Supervisor

Things to Avoid, Things to Do

Of course, it’s not always your fault if things go badly with your supervisor. However, you also have responsibilities to remember, and there are some things you need to avoid if you want the relationship to go well:

  • Be prepared for meetings, particularly the initial one where you are talking about your plans for your dissertation. Come with notes and make sure you’ve done some initial research
  • Be professional at all times, friendly but polite.
  • Make sure you turn up for meetings in plenty of times.
  • Don’t be confrontational or emotional. Discuss things neutrally and professionally.
  • Address any misunderstandings or problems as soon as they arise, rather than brooding on them for days, weeks or months.

When Things go Wrong

  • Ask yourself (and be truthful) if it’s entirely your supervisor’s fault. Talk things through with someone who isn’t directly involved. This could be a member of the department or a friend. This will help you see the situation more objectively
  • Ask for an appointment to talk things over with your supervisor
  • Make notes of what you feel the problem is, in case your mind goes ‘blank’
  • Keep the channels of communication open, and try and talk through your difficulties and get through them.
  • Try and distance yourself from the situation. It will be difficult, as things may have become stressful and emotional, but try and see things from a distance. Avoid understanding issues in terms of what your supervisor’s personality is.
  • Equally, try and be tactful. Don’t shout, raise your voice, or get emotional.
  • Don’t criticise your supervisor to anyone who will listen. It’s fine to talk through your concerns, but you can do this without being rude or disrespectful.

When the Relationship Breaks Down

It’s unfortunate, but sometimes things go so badly wrong that the relationship breaks down. It might seem like the end of the world if this happens, but don’t panic, it can be sorted.

  • If the relationship seems beyond repair, it might be worth trying to find a third person to act as a mediator, for example someone else in your department.
  • If you really don’t feel you can continue to work with your supervisor, check with your university or college’s administration department to find out the procedure for changing supervisors
  • If you’ve thought it through and you really believe your supervisor has acted inappropriately, you might decide to make a complaint. Your college or university will have a procedure for making complaints. This will differ from university to university so consult your student handbook or department.
  • Try and stay positive. You won’t be the first or the last person this has happened to, and there’s likely to be a fairly easy solution to the problematic situation you find yourself in.


University of Reading (2013) ‘Working with Supervisors’ [online] (cited 27th February 2013) available from

University of Sydney (2013) “I’m having problems with my Supervisor” [online] (cited 27th February 2013) available from

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Category: Dissertation Writing Guide