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Na_arf

Telling my supervisor I want a co-supervisor...

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I am entering my second year of my M.Ed. and working with a supervisor who, up until recently, has been very supportive. Due to individual personal issues that happened to each of us this winter & spring, I have made little progress on my thesis. While my personal issue has been resolved, my supervisor's issue continues and they remain largely unavailable for support. Since I am now running out of time, I have had to change my project completely to one that is "easier" and more "doable." While I don't mind this—and, in fact, am appreciative that I still have the ability to complete a project within my area—it has definitely made me wary about my future, given that I intend to apply to continue in this program for my Ph.D. I have a dissertation project in mind that several other professors have deemed interesting and important, and one professor identified its potential to grow quite large (AKA could become a large-scale project and specialty if I continue in academia and research beyond my doctoral program). However, I would want to have the support of my supervisor to encourage me to pursue this project, rather than abandon it for an "easier" project, and lately, their attitude has been quite dismissive. They seem to have lost confidence in me because of this delay, despite also being partly responsible for delaying the project.

My current supervisor is both (a) dealing with ongoing personal issues that interfere with their supervisory duties, and (b) essentially the only viable supervisory match for my Ph.D. Due to our previously strong and supportive relationship, it has kind of always been assumed that, if admitted, I will continue my Ph.D. with them. No one else in my department, or even an adjunct department, specializes in or has much experience at all in my area. However, given the events of the last few months and my supervisor's uncertain future, I want to ensure I can be successful by applying to my program with a co-supervisor already indicated. Fortunately, I have done some RA work for a professor who has a lot of experience with a method I am interested in. I approached them and explained my desire to work with them based on their expertise in a method that is less familiar to me and my current supervisor, and they have indicated they are willing to co-supervise my Ph.D. I now need to tackle the difficult task of approaching my current supervisor and explaining why I feel the need to introduce another professor to my supervisory team.

TL;DR: My supervisor assumes I will apply to work with them for my Ph.D., but they are going through some serious personal issues and our working relationship has been affected. How can I explain to my current supervisor my desire to apply to my Ph.D. with a co-supervisor when the other professor is not in my field (like, studies-a-completely-opposite-population kind of field), especially since I sought them out less for their expertise and more to ensure I have the support of someone with more stability? And how can I phrase it to minimize any hurt feelings on the part of my current supervisor, who is someone that tends to take things very personally?

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Wait, you want a co-supervisor for your PhD, which you haven't applied yet? PhD advisors can change, so I am not sure what's the big fuss about wanting to add someone into the mix, especially since you might be doing your current advisor a favor. The way to do it is: request a meeting to discuss your doctoral application(s) and very respectfully but firmly suggest that you think it might be better to include another reader so that your current advisor doesn't have as much work. If you frame it like that, they will be relieved. Don't suggest someone yourself, allow them to drop a name they feel comfortable working with. 

Just talk to them, it'll be fine. 

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42 minutes ago, AP said:

Wait, you want a co-supervisor for your PhD, which you haven't applied yet? PhD advisors can change, so I am not sure what's the big fuss about wanting to add someone into the mix, especially since you might be doing your current advisor a favor. The way to do it is: request a meeting to discuss your doctoral application(s) and very respectfully but firmly suggest that you think it might be better to include another reader so that your current advisor doesn't have as much work. If you frame it like that, they will be relieved. Don't suggest someone yourself, allow them to drop a name they feel comfortable working with. 

Just talk to them, it'll be fine. 

Thanks AP! I agree that, for the most part, just talking to a supervisor should be straightforward and, if there is conflict, other department members can facilitate these types of discussions. I am mostly looking for dialogue that presents the matter as kindly as possible; this supervisor is someone who once said "but you can't, you're my student!?" in protest to a student they were supervising accepting RA work with another professor... meanwhile, my supervisor has absolutely no funding for any of their students, and we have bills to pay.

I am interested to know more about why you think I shouldn't suggest someone myself? I think my discomfort arises from the fact that I don't really want to offend my current supervisor, who has a lot on their plate and has tried every step of the way to defend their competence and maintain that they can handle everything that's going on. My thought was that approaching them already having a name in mind allows for me to present it as more than just "I don't trust you to support me on your own;" although that is true, I don't think being that blunt with this particular person would be conducive to a good working relationship. I also wanted to make sure this other professor had the capacity to take on co-supervision next year and I wasn't sure how many students they had already. The situation is bad enough that, if I can't be reasonably sure that I can secure a co-supervisor, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable continuing in the program.

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12 hours ago, Na_arf said:

I am interested to know more about why you think I shouldn't suggest someone myself? I think my discomfort arises from the fact that I don't really want to offend my current supervisor, who has a lot on their plate and has tried every step of the way to defend their competence and maintain that they can handle everything that's going on. My thought was that approaching them already having a name in mind allows for me to present it as more than just "I don't trust you to support me on your own;" although that is true, I don't think being that blunt with this particular person would be conducive to a good working relationship. I also wanted to make sure this other professor had the capacity to take on co-supervision next year and I wasn't sure how many students they had already. The situation is bad enough that, if I can't be reasonably sure that I can secure a co-supervisor, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable continuing in the program.

The fact that your supervisor has no funding and is affected by personal issues is a big red flag. You could end up in a helpless situation if you proceed to do a PhD with them. If at all possible, I would apply elsewhere to someone who is in your field of your interest and has the resources and capacity to support you. 

I second AP's advice on approaching the subject. (1) Office politics do exist in academia. Although your supervisor and the professor you suggest may appear to get along well, they may not want to work with each other for various reasons. You don't wish to get involved in it by accident. (2) You are not sure how available that professor is. (3) The professor is not in your field, so you may not receive quality guidance and support. 

It is common for PhD students to have co-supervisors, so it is not an offending request. Meet with your current supervisor and go from there. 

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On 8/2/2019 at 9:06 PM, Na_arf said:

I am interested to know more about why you think I shouldn't suggest someone myself? I think my discomfort arises from the fact that I don't really want to offend my current supervisor, who has a lot on their plate and has tried every step of the way to defend their competence and maintain that they can handle everything that's going on. My thought was that approaching them already having a name in mind allows for me to present it as more than just "I don't trust you to support me on your own;" although that is true, I don't think being that blunt with this particular person would be conducive to a good working relationship. I also wanted to make sure this other professor had the capacity to take on co-supervision next year and I wasn't sure how many students they had already. The situation is bad enough that, if I can't be reasonably sure that I can secure a co-supervisor, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable continuing in the program.

Sure!

I see what you mean, and I agree with you being prepared with a name in mind. I think that shows initiative and autonomy, both very important assets in grad school. 

I suggested you didn't drop the name but I should have been clearer. I would approach the conversation with your current supervisor not as "I want someone else to jump in" but more of "we would both benefit if someone else jumped in". If you play your cards well, they will agree with you. If so, I'd allow them to drop names first, so that you also know who they are comfortable working with (I have done this when deciding my committee and avoided working with a person I thought was great for my project but, apparently, was not a good advisor). Once they say, "Great, Na_arf, I would suggest you talk to Prof Smith", you can also play your hand saying that you had already thought of that or that "mmhm I found that interesting, I wouldn't have thought of that...".

What I do want to emphasize, and I can't stress this enough, you should be comfortable with whomever you work. Do not get stuck with someone just because you are afraid to hurt their feelings. I know that your situation has other variables, but really. I have a friend who hasn't told his advisor he is not looking for academic jobs... a year into the job market. You need allies. As you very well said, you need their support. Sadly, this means that you will be a little selfish because if you don't look after your interests, no one else will. 

I truly believe that having an honest conversation will play out to your advantage. Be sure of what you want out of it and go for it! :) 

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