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Career Advice

How to navigate the ‘cruelty of supervisory care’

Despite their good intentions, some interactions with our supervisors can cause feelings of stress, guilt and anxiety.


“She made me cry. I didn’t let her see that…She told me: ‘people didn’t think that I could be a professor, and I’m really just trying to toughen you up. You need to be tough if you want to succeed in academia and you’re not tough enough.’”

Even when our supervisors are well-meaning, they can still inflict pain and suffering. If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. Now, what can you do about it?

“The cruelty of supervisory care” is how I describe the problem whereby well-meaning supervisors offer guidance, feedback, advice, or encouragement that’s detrimental to students’ wellbeing.

Despite their good intentions, our interactions with them can cause negative feelings, such as  stress, guilt, anxiety and being overwhelmed. These interactions might even cause us to experience more complicated feelings, like ambivalence, or  what Lauren Berlant has famously described as “cruel optimism.”

The cruelty of this is not only that these feelings are unwelcomed and difficult to deal with, it’s that the supervision often (re)produces prevailing systems of social power relations (e.g., capitalism, patriarchy and racism). Even when it’s well-meaning, supervision can result in these systems of power materializing in our everyday lives.

The quote at the top of this article provides one example of this type of interaction. A female supervisor offers their racialized female student the advice that she ought to toughen up for the academic environment. It’s not only that this interaction led to tears. If we accept that whiteness and masculinity continue to be privileged in academia, then we can develop an understanding of this advice – though well-intentioned – as cruel.

Know it when you see it

The thing about the cruelty of supervisory care is that it’s pervasive and not always apparent, even to those of us who experience it. So, how do we know it when we experience it?

Give yourself permission to feel. Having emotions isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength. As Sara Ahmed illustrates in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, our emotions can tell us a lot about the world around us. That said, it can be hard to know exactly what we’re feeling. For those who struggle to articulate how they’re feeling, The Feelings Wheel may be a good resource to consult.

Pinpoint the moment. What about your supervisory interaction made you feel this way? Was it a specific piece of advice? Was it the delivery? Maybe these feelings have been building over multiple conversations. Try your best to tie your feelings to something specific about interaction(s) with your supervisor.

Situate your experience. Think about how these interactions could be a part of norms, practices and ideologies prevalent in university life. Do this as an alternative to the more toxic practice of pathologizing or individualizing your experience in ways that make you think you are the problem. If you’re having a hard time doing this on your own, don’t be afraid to leverage one of our most cherished cultural practices: commiserating with other graduate students. It can be generative.

Address the problem

How much power do any of us have to change the systems that govern our daily lives? My advice won’t resolve the perennial tension between structure and agency – but it could improve your overall student experience.

Lead with empathy. Your supervisor is a person with flaws just like everyone else. They’re likely making assumptions about your wants and needs based on their own experiences. Approach conversations from this standpoint, showing empathy through the practice of open and honest communication about your goals, wants, needs and expectations.

Have the hard conversation. Contact your supervisor to let them know you’d like to discuss something you’re struggling with. Be specific about the topic so they know what to expect (e.g., advice they’ve given you about preparing for the job market). Don’t elaborate. Wait until you’ve both had time to prepare. Leading with empathy, let them know how you’re feeling and what’s not working for you. Invite them into conversation about their approach. Work collaboratively on steps forward.

Don’t take the advice. A newly minted assistant professor said to me in an interview, “I think it might be because I’m weird, and awkward, and not always the most concerned with social norms and protocols, but I d[idn’t] necessarily feel bad telling [my] supervisor… I think this is unreasonable, or that this isn’t going to work for me.” We often feel like we have to take the advice that we’re given even. The simple truth is that we don’t. If something doesn’t feel right, engage your supervisor in exploring more options.

It’s okay to break-up. You don’t have to stick with your supervisor just because you came into the program to work with them. Sometimes your supervisor might be doing research that perfectly aligns with your interests, but research isn’t everything. You might be better off with someone else.

Remember, you’ve got this

The most important changes to our experience won’t come from administrative efforts to manage the student-supervisor relationship. They will come from the way we choose to relate to one another. As students, you have more power to shape this relationship than you think.

This article has been developed from my dissertation research. I conducted in-depth and open-ended interviews with past and present doctoral students. Participants were enrolled at Canadian universities in social sciences and humanities disciplines between 2018 and 2023.

Meagan Auer is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Alberta, as well as a community engagement facilitator in the office of research services at MacEwan University.

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