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Dealing with a Difficult Supervisor in research and academia

Research and academic environments are workplaces too. However, people sometimes forget this and behave unprofessionally. To many ECRs, their supervisor can appear difficult or unprofessional to deal with. This article discusses how you can deal with these situations.

How your supervisor is beneficial

As an ECR, you are at a stage of your career where mentorship and guidance are key for your career progression and development as a researcher. Your supervisor usually is that mentor, and in most cases, this relationship is a fruitful, mutually fulfilling experience. Supervisors, being senior researchers themselves, would have had experiences from which you can learn. So, working with them and their experiences with the appropriate respect and a willingness to learn is the foundation of a good mentorship experience.

When your supervisor can be detrimental

However, in rare instances, your supervisor may have attributes and working practices that result in a trickier relationship. The world is not a perfect place, after all. In these cases, you’ll have to manage the situation as best as you can, by addressing any problems that arise as soon as possible and, where needed, reaching out for additional support from your department or institution. 

Difficult supervisory scenarios

A difficult supervisor relationship can take a number of forms.

  • It can be as simple as not getting along and the marred relationship having a negative effect on you. 
  • Perhaps you feel that your supervisor is treating you unfairly compared to others or you might feel that they are pushing you harder than you can take.
  • It may be a more extreme situation where the relationship is abusive. To be clear, this case is extremely rare.

Any of these situations requires attention, as they can have a detrimental effect on your wellbeing, even if there is no ill intent from either side.

Dealing with challenging scenarios

While there can be several causes of a strained relationship with your supervisor, let’s look at a few common ones.

a. Setting high expectations for yourself

It is possible that your relationship is based on a certain ideal or expectation you have created for yourself. It is very easy to slip into a frame of mind where all you are thinking about is pleasing your supervisor. In these cases, every mistake can start to feel catastrophic or you might feel inclined to oversell results or make too many promises.

Try to avoid this, as you’ll be setting the bar too high for yourself and your supervisor will be holding you to the standard you have set. Be realistic about the expectations you agree on between yourself and your supervisor, and manage to set your targets in such a way that you don’t find yourself realising how unrealistic they are in the future. Remember that you do not need to overreach and deliver 110% in every instance. It is enough to do your best and give 100%. (Read about a related phenomenon here: Imposter Syndrome in academia)

b. Having mental health challenges

If you have a mental health issue and it is affecting your work, it is best to be upfront and open about it as early as possible, so that your supervisor can adapt accordingly. Our understanding and appreciation around mental health has exponentially increased in recent years, and it’s very possible that your supervisor is not adequately informed or trained in dealing with this. If you feel that no understanding can be reached, you can always reach out to your HR department for advice and mediation. 

c. Being treated unfairly without reason

If your situation does not include any of the above scenarios, and you feel that you are being unfairly treated for illegitimate reasons, consider reaching out for further help and support. Most universities have a reporting system in place involving HR, which you should take advantage of.


Interpersonal relationships are a maze that can feel impossible to navigate. In the vast majority of cases, animosity that arises in working relationships can be traced back to simple misunderstandings or differences of opinion. The main takeaway here is that the best way to deal with this is through open and honest discussion, and failing that, through proper, official channels.


Read next/third (final) in series: Developing a Healthy, Productive Working Relationship with your Supervisor/Principal Investigator

Read previous/first in series: Finding the Right PhD Supervisor


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