Help! My Supervisors Disagree with Each Other!

Do you have more than one supervisor? If so, do they always agree on everything? Probably not. As Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted…
At AUT, doctoral students have two (or more) supervisors; and Masters or honours dissertation students may have more than one supervisor, if their project demands it. This isn’t always the case elsewhere. In fact, traditionally, the supervision relationship is one-on-one. But having more than one supervisor has its benefits – especially if their fields of expertise cover both your methodology and subject matter, or if they can comment on multiple aspects of an interdisciplinary subject. Having three-way conversations can bring a sense of healthy debate and dialogue to supervision meetings, too.


But what happens when your supervisors lock horns?
Maybe their disagreement is minor – one supervisor thinks you should use EndNote to manage your citations, for instance; while the other favours Zotero. In these cases, you can make your own choices. After all, as an emerging scholar, you have the right to your own opinions on these sorts of things. If you join Team Zotero, it’s unlikely that the EndNote supervisor will be deeply offended.


But sometimes the disagreement is bigger. Maybe your supervisors have vastly different supervision styles. Maybe they disagree on the appropriate methodologies or theories necessary for your project. Maybe they just plain don’t get along.


Supervisors who have a significant conflict can leave students floundering in the middle; or, what’s worse, they can cause students to feel like they must spend their time mediating their supervisors’ fight, rather than focusing on their own research.


If you’re in this situation: I’m so sorry. It sucks. And I don’t have any easy answers for you.


I can only suggest a way to look at your options.


Picture your situation like this…


Your supervisors have some form of conflict, and you are stuck in the middle. You’re in an incredibly uncomfortable position, and you want to get out of it. You need a solution that minimises any damage to your relationships, your career prospects, your research project, and your mental health. What are your options?


Option One: Compromise
It’s not your job to mediate between supervisors. You’re not expected to do it. But if the conflict is resolvable, and you can see a way to encourage compromise quickly, this might be a useful option.


Option Two: Choose a side
If you genuinely agree with one supervisor over the other, of course you have the right to make your perspective known. Hopefully the other supervisor won’t take it personally. However, you may be uncomfortable with the prospect of damaging the relationship or escalating the conflict.


Option Three: Break up with a supervisor
If you’ve aligned yourself with one supervisor, you might feel that you don’t want the other involved with your project. Break-ups do happen within supervision teams, and though they’re not necessarily pleasant, they can be a valid option. Talk to your Associate Dean (Postgraduate) if you want to explore this option.


Option Four: Leave
It’s heartbreaking to even contemplate this option. Nobody wants to throw away all their hard work. It’s a last resort. If you really feel it’s best for you, no-one will judge you. But before you consider leaving, try…


 Option Five: Seek help
A conflict between supervisors is not your problem as a student, and it’s not your job to fix it. The Associate Dean (Postgraduate) for your faculty will want to know about the situation, and can offer lots of help. The Graduate Research School and the Dean for Postgraduate Studies can also help. You can find contact details for all those people here.


Whichever path you take, I wish you luck. Ultimately, your postgraduate journey is about you, and dealing with conflict is the last thing you need. Don’t be afraid to seek help early; and please don’t feel silly calling on your ADP. That’s what they’re there for.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available