Dilemmas: when you disagree with your supervisor(s)

It has become the norm for a student doing doctoral-level research to have at least two supervisors. The configuration varies: your co-supervisor can be an academic point of contact for emergencies only, or an important part of the team. The co-supervisor might even be your main supervisor in all but name. There can be co-supervisors working on different campuses, even in different countries, and for some professional doctorates a co-supervisor can be an external advisor, not an academic but a gatekeeper to data or financial resources who is resident in a different workplace. All of these configurations offer opportunities for power play (Manathunga, 2012) and point to the need for a neutral language and tools that you can all use to explore how to use your strengths to become successful.

One of the most distressing experiences for students doing research is to find that their supervisors strongly disagree over a key point. Of course, this creates a learning opportunity, but it is better if it is used as such rather than a batdeground between supervisors.

The importance of ‘negotiating roles, expectations, timelines and communication protocols’ is made clear in establishing a relationship of trust (Manathunga, 2017, p. 4). Without such negotiation there is a risk of innocent but slightly thoughtless actions (such as engaging in writing for publication without the knowledge of others in the team) escalating into a loss of trust across the team. Where professional trust is established there are resilient teams who empower students. In the next section we explore different ways of establishing trust in supervisory teams: negotiating responsibilities, empowering students, making the most of differing approaches, sample case studies for departmental discussion and using the five approaches to summarise different ways of establishing and recognising trust.

Enabling understanding across research teams: making the best of differing approaches

As I have said before, the most useful table in this book for establishing trust is Table 7.5: Establishing a good relationship from the beginning.

In some supervisory teams the language of the five approaches that runs through this book is well established. In that case it can be used to chart the supervisory team as a whole and to look at where the strengths and weaknesses might be. Either from using the self-assessment questionnaire in Chapter 2 (Table 2.2) or just through discussion, spider diagrams can be created which visually demonstrate where there might be gaps.

In Figure 10.1 we possibly have a nearly perfect team with two supervisors, a graduate school director, a postgraduate administrator and a researcher. All

Charting a supervisory team

Figure 10.1 Charting a supervisory team

aspects of supervision are covered, but supervisor IB needs to be aware that they have the greatest interest in supporting the student over compiling the literature review, discipline skill building and any publications to be considered (not a role normally undertaken by the graduate school director - who is strong in enculturation but who will probably be more focused on organising group events). The whole team needs to recognise that the student may need support in meta reflection, refraining and careers decisions (emancipation).

Developing and extending your research team

In Chapter 6 we saw in Table 6.1 a range of people who might be available to support the student doing research. It is important for you to understand the role of the postgraduate administrator in your university - they can be an enormous support for you and may well have seen more students doing research through their projects than any other member of staff. Lab assistants or technicians and subject librarians can also be vital aids to success. Making good relationships with key people from those in the list below might save you considerable time.

Who can be included in your academic support network?

  • 1 Principle supervisor
  • 2 Secondary or co-supervisor
  • 3 Work-based or industrial supervisor
  • 4 Specialist advisors (including post-doctoral researchers)
  • 5 Postgraduate administrator
  • 6 Doctoral candidates/PGRs
  • 7 Postgraduate teaching assistant co-ordinator
  • 8 Lab assistants/technicians
  • 9 Specialist librarians
  • 10 Postgraduate careers advisors
  • 11 Director of postgraduate research/director of postgraduate school
  • 12 Others?

Establishing trust: case studies

An institution and a department has a collective responsibility that goes beyond individual supervisors (McAlpine, 2013), so while this chapter focuses on the relationship between two or more co-supervisors, that should also be seen in a wider context. The culture of the department, school and faculty will also have an impact and a culture where some difficult issues can be aired and problems shared will be a healthier one. One way of enabling non-confrontational dialogue is to have group meetings of supervisors where case studies such as the following are discussed.

Case study la: conflicts at a distance

Your co-supervisor is at another university many miles away and rarely can all three of you meet together. At the last meeting one supervisor told you that they thought your analysis so far was too superficial. You said that you had met with the other supervisor only a couple of weeks earlier, and was told then that everything was fine. What can you do now, and how can you stop this happening again?

Case study lb: conflicts over theory

Your supervisors have significant differences over the theoretical approach that you should take in your research. One believes that the way forward is to use narrative enquiry - as an interview/discussion tool it will enable you to uncover rich material for analysis. Your co-supervisor is very experienced in action research and wants you to set up an action research project. He says that this will enable you to publish work with a demonstrable impact. You sense an impasse and ask both supervisors to agree a route forward so that you know what to do next.


These are common situations and both provide a learning opportunity'. Distance can make things more difficult and requires some longer-term planning. In case study la is there an opportunity' for you to travel to the other supervisor and learning anything there? Below are some ways that the different approaches might help you find an answer.

Case study 2: conflict over co-authorship

You plan to write most of a journal article based on your research. One supervisor has contributed a key idea and the other one has offered to edit it for grammar and use of language. Now you find that both supervisors expect to be named as co-authors. You do not want to upset them, but you are not sure that this is appropriate.


This is one of the most difficult situations of all, but an important one to learn how to manage. Different disciplines and different journals will have conventions that you will have to become familiar with. Some journals now ask each contributor to state clearly what they have done. As we saw in Chapter 9, the Vancouver protocol can be helpful if it applies to your type of work (www .research.mq.edu.au/documents/policies/Vancouver.pdf).

Table 10.1 Some approaches to managing contradictory advice



Critical thinking


Relationship development

Plan ahead for a joint meeting - Skype or face to face. Consult both on the agenda in advance Are there specialists available in the type of analysis/research that you are doing who can help you further?

Can you review some successful research projects? Can any be recommended where this type of analysis/ theory has been used?

Do the supervisors come from different traditions? Might this explain the difference? (See also Chapter 5.) What position will your assessor come from?

Interview both supervisors (perhaps separately) and write up a position paper summarising your recommendations

Request a joint meeting. Quietly but clearly say to both supervisors together that you find it confusing when they espouse contradictory views and ask for their help

Table 10.2 The invisible supervisor - working it through



Critical thinking


Relationship development

Check with the postgraduate administrator that you are fulfilling all your obligations

Review your Gantt chart with the active supervisor - is everything on track?

Discuss the roles of different supervisors with the active supervisor. Has there been an agreement that Pat will just oversee the formal procedures? Request a mock assessment or second opinion to check that your work is up to standard

Are you getting enough advice and support? If you need more, what are your options? Who can you go to raise this question?

Is everything else proceeding well? Is there a problem? What is the problem?

What should happen if the active supervisor is no longer available? Is Pat intended to be just an emergency academic point of contact?

Work through the active supervisor if possible Request a meeting with your main supervisor or with both supervisors together as appropriate. Send material that you want feedback on well in advance

Table 10.3 Five approaches to building and assessing trust



Critical thinking


Relationship development

Transactional trust: doing what is agreed on time

Meeting together and sharing work plans Discussing hypothetical case studies together

Trust in academic integrity and rigour

Being explicit about who will undertake different responsibilities

Trusting that while the other members of the team are elsewhere they are supporting not undermining your work

Spending time together over coffee or the occasional meal Demonstrating interest in the well-being of the other team members

Part of the art of managing this situation is working out how to prevent it becoming an issue before you go any further. Suggesting you have a meeting with both supervisors where you outline exactly what each is going to contribute and discuss any disciplinary or departmental conventions is the best way forward. Agreeing authorship and co-authorship in advance (while always being open to renegotiation if things change) is better than discussing it later. Remember, there is also a role for acknowledgements in every journal article. If this situation has already arisen, you may need to take advice from someone responsible for ethical research in your institution.

Case study 3: the invisible supervisor

Pat is (on paper) your main supervisor. You have met Pat once in the last 18 months. Pat agreed with all your recommendations and signed the annual review. In passing Pat said to you that you are doing an excellent job, but didn’t pause long enough to have a proper discussion. Should you do anything about this, and if so what?


This could be a serious problem or no problem at all. While good practice normally suggests there should be two active supervisors, it is not universal. The way that co-supervisors divide the work up between them varies enormously. The main supervisor may know more than you realise, or might be negligent.

Building and assessing trust in supervisory teams

Academic teams of supervisors and researchers are not going to be perfect. Some of the suggestions for building and assessing trust in Table 10.3 are easier to achieve than others. Each of these approaches to establishing and maintaining trust will reinforce the whole process. Where trust has broken down it might be possible to use this table to identify priorities for development so that it can be re-established.

In this chapter we have looked at a range of tools to help academic teams of researchers and supervisors to work together. There is a great deal of work involved in using these tools, so the wise supervisory team will select the ones that are most useful for their situation. In the next chapter we turn to look at some of the ethical dilemmas that might confront supervisors.

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