“Look at me, I was a terrible supervisor”

“I was a terrible PhD supervisor. Don’t make the same mistakes I did,” writes Sian Townson in the Guardian.

Lots of points I agree with:

Research points to high levels of depression among PhD students.

I am not surprised. This is one of the reasons Cambridge has such an active counseling service and, as far as I can see, there is little stigma attached to using it.

I also share her observation about the lack of training for supervisors:

[Academic practice courses] taught me some technical rules and requirements but nothing about the practical processes involved in teaching, mentoring and career-building a fellow human.

I have lamented this fact before in my post “Why science needs continuous leadership support”.

She is also right when saying

I failed to see that even as mature, independent people, my students still needed clear achievable milestones and objectives and celebrations when they reached them.

Especially the celebrations can be hard to do. There is always a Next Goal, a Next Paper.

Like my supervisors before me, I was technically successful – all my students passed on time and within budget – but in practice they struggled, feeling lost, unsupported and sometimes depressed.

She is making an important point here: there can be a big difference between how successful you and your students look on paper, and how you feel about it.

But nothing she writes here sounds really worrying to me. First of all, if all your students graduate in time – that’s great! Well done!

PhD research is hard. You are pushing the boundaries of current knowledge. If you don’t struggle and don’t feel lost for a while, you are not pushing hard enough.

I am not sure what she means by ‘sometimes depressed’ – it’s too unspecific. Everyone has their ups and downs. As a supervisor I am not trained to and shouldn’t attempt to diagnose people’s mental health. This is a task for specialists.

However, her saying her student felt ‘unsupported’ is an issue – this is definitely something a supervisor can and should change.

Look at me, I failed

For my taste, there is to much “Look at me, I failed” in this article.

I was an utterly appalling supervisor and I didn’t even realise it.

What is this? Fishing for compliments? Does she want an answer like “Oh, no, you were not. You did the best you could.”

Or is this an indirect way of telling me I am blind? Maybe I only think that I am an Ok supervisor because I haven’t realised yet how appalling I actually am.


Her last sentence is

Perhaps you can learn from my example.

No, I can’t.

Because this is all about perceived shortcomings and weaknesses of supervisors. To learn, I’d need some positive examples about how these shortcomings and weaknesses were overcome in some concrete situations.

Without any positive advise, this is just Failure Porn.





One thought on ““Look at me, I was a terrible supervisor”

  1. Hmmmm……… I wouldnt say total failure. It hopefully got you thinking as a supervisor on areas that you can introspect and improve on which feels like the message in her article. That ‘hey you supervisor out there, identify what you need to improve in your leadership because there is always room for improvement’.


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