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Career Advice

How to tell your supervisor you want a divorce

Use your problem-solving hat for this difficult situation.


For a graduate student, a PhD dissertation is your first major independent scholarly work, supported in its production by a supervisor.  As with any relationship, the one between doctoral student and supervisor can experience difficulties establishing what works well for both parties. What seemed like a good idea at first may turn out not to be the best fit. And in rare cases the relationship can unravel. What do you do then?

Every university has policies about graduate supervision. Look for it online or ask the graduate studies office for a copy. The policy will set out what you are entitled to, who is responsible for assigning supervisors, what paperwork is required to make a change, and so on. The role of the other members of your committee will also be specified, along with the official complaints procedure.

Policies on sexual harassment, academic integrity, or other issues may come into play. Your field’s scholarly association may have relevant policies, especially if your concerns include attribution of authorship.

Read the policy so you know what the official framework is. Then get your problem-solving hat on. It is not a good idea to get officious right off the bat. No matter how upset you are about how things are going, you need to approach the situation calmly.

Before the situation can be resolved you need to articulate what the specific issues are. There are a lot of assumptions about the meaning of both “independent” and “supervision.” Ask yourself:

  • What do you need from your supervisor that you aren’t getting?
  • Do you have specific examples of problem situations in the relationship?
  • Do you have any specific examples of aspects of the relationship that are working well?

The earlier you identify the issues and try to resolve them the better it will be. Approach the situation as if everyone is doing their best.  Avoid blame, and don’t make the problem bigger than it needs to be.

Begin by trying to make the supervisory relationship you have work. The vast majority of academics who take on graduate supervision are committed to it and want their students to succeed.

Keep in mind that your dissertation may be your number one priority but for faculty, it is one among many diverse responsibilities. Invite your supervisor and your committee to participate in solving the problem. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you communicating with your supervisor?
  • Have you been clear about the support you need?
  • Do you keep your commitments?

It is good practice to send an email after supervisory meetings, summarizing the issues discussed and confirming what each of you agreed to do. Ask for clarification on anything that remains unclear and set timelines for work. Writing this email helps you focus on the important parts of the meeting and offers an opportunity for your supervisor to correct any misunderstan-dings right away. If you do need to request a change or make an official complaint, these email messages will also be important evidence.

Keep in mind that your supervisor doesn’t need to meet all of your needs personally. There are roles for other members of your committee, and the university provides other support services for graduate students. Use what is available.

But, not every problem can be resolved with clear communication. Your supervisor may see this, too, and may even assist you in transferring supervision to someone more appropriate.

If, despite your best efforts, you still want to change supervisors, the university policy will guide your next steps. You may have to tread carefully so as not to alienate your current supervisor, especially if that person has influence in scholarly or other networks that are important to your career.

Your first port of call is probably the director of the PhD program (or, if your supervisor is the director, the head of your department). Your committee may be able to intervene through the normal review process. Maintain your conciliatory problem-solving manner. Explain your needs and your attempts to get them met, and describe the problem. Suggest an alternative that you think might work.

Although this process will be stressful and take time, it has a silver lining. The communication and problem-solving skills you develop and use in this process will be helpful throughout your career. In fact, you should take notes of the process for the future, when other tricky interpersonal situations arise.

Dr. VanEvery, a career coach, was previously a lecturer at University of Birmingham and a program officer with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is a blogger with University AffairsCareers Café blog.

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