How to cope with an absent PhD supervisor

Unfortunately, there is very little consistency in the amount of guidance and feedback PhD students receive; with some left for months or years with no contact at all. So what can you do if your PhD supervisor doesn’t supervise your PhD?

Perhaps the most important tip is to make sure you keep pushing for support. If they don’t reply, email again. If they still don’t reply, call them, go to one of their lectures, do whatever it takes. The chances are they simply forgot to reply, so you need to be politely persistent. This might not work, but at least you’ve done something and not just given up after the initial non-response.

You should also look elsewhere for support. There are other academics and PhD students you can talk to about your work, and the most valuable resource you have is the expertise around you.

This isn’t just about getting feedback, but about learning from other researchers. As much as you can learn from reading the literature, you can learn a lot more from talking to people and seeing how they approach the chaotic process of research before it gets tidied up for publication.

It’s deeply frustrating to have an absent or uninterested supervisor, but if that’s the situation you’re in then you have to be resourceful and find other people to talk to.

Obviously there are times when it’s a bit more complicated than this, so if there’s a specific reason why you can’t talk to other people then leave a comment below and I’ll help if I can.

See also:
“I can’t contact my supervisor until I have something to show”
Tips for surviving a remote PhD
Is your PhD supervisor a facilitator or a barrier?

10 thoughts on “How to cope with an absent PhD supervisor”

  1. Mine have been disinterested and pretty much despised my topic since almost the get go. In the beginning I was in a bit of a mess with my ideas. I was in a new country and my chosen topic did not fit with the context so I was grappling about for something that was similar to my original idea but doable. I needed a fair bit of support during that time but I think they thought I was useless and when I finally came up with an idea that was based on a real social problem and which had a real foundation they considered it boring. I wrote a very long proposal and got NO FEEDBACK but it was passed anyway *shrugs*. Since then the journey has been pretty much a solo mission. I have met some other people in my field who are fantastic but I have been careful not to overload them too much with my questions because they will be my peers in the future and those relationships are important to me. It is a very small field. Both my supervisors have been uninvolved in my research throughout and often forget what my topic is… I have been told they only want to be involved at the end when I have the chapters completed and in a form that is passable. They dislike the topic but it is of interest to many other scholars who are pushing academic boundaries and this is what inspires me onwards. However, this means I am gambling. I am gambling on each chapter meeting their expectations which they have never shared. I am gambling on it meeting this passability test which I have to guess the requirements of. To survive, I am using the work of the best in the field and the best methodologists to really ground the work. Your guidance James and others like you is also fundamental in keeping me going and guiding the path.I keep trying to extend my networks. I draw on friends who are already Drs to read over my work. Towards the end I plan to employ a retired scholar who I have met to edit and review the topic (they provide these services). This is how I am surviving and hope to survive until the end. I learnt a while back that to continue pushing my supervisors to care or provide the support required would just involve interactions where I would (1) be provided with no guidance and (2) be belittled. I saw no benefit in this and so I have forged my own path. I agree with all your advice James but sometimes students are in a really difficult predicament and trying to hold their supervisors to account is harder than just taking the PhD by the horns and being as Cal Newport says ”so good they can’t ignore you” (getting back up from others who are influential in academia is KEY to this). Best of luck to all students caught in the same situation as I. You can do it but at some point you need to be OK about doing it alone and work out your strategies for survival.

  2. That is sort of the case for me as well, plus the fact that I am the only one in the institution in my field of research and with virtually nobody to discuss my topic with. In the end I figured that I had to risk it and publish as much as I could even though not being really sure to which direction my research should or was going to have the opportunity to meet people from my field. This worked for a while, but to be honest the lack of interest on what I’m doing from the supervisor’s side and the fact that the institution decided to toss the whole research field altogether kind of made me have little interest now for something that takes every waking hour of my life in the moment. I wonder why there was a position for this PhD to begin with.

  3. I cannot discuss with my superviser. She always find my proposals ambigous. She asks clear methodology, but I am just at the beginning of my finding a topic journey. What can I do to get help from her?

  4. Am not finding it easy to discuss my research work woth other but with only few, I mean very few researcher. I dont know why

  5. An absent supervisor is indeed annoying, but don’t forget that the point of doing a PhD is to prove that you can do research autonomously, so you should not be relying on too much guidance anyway.

    • Doing it autonomously is not the same as doing it alone. One of the crucial skills you need to develop is the ability to talk to other academics, and the people who I see struggle the most are those who do it in isolation.

  6. What should you in the case of credit assignment on a prepared manuscript? Should your supervisor really be an author on the paper, if they haven’t given input to the project?

    • In principle, no they shouldn’t. But Sometimes you have to play the political game and let them have credit if they are asking for it.

      The most important thing is getting papers published with your name on, and if giving them undeserved credit helps that happen then just do it.

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