“I do everything they say but my supervisor is never satisfied”

I have run five ‘finish your dissertation’ groups in my time as an academic, and it is such a privilege to get insight into the thesis process from a group of students who I am NOT supervising. One thing I hear from students is that they do ‘everything’ their supervisor tells them to, but the supervisor is ‘not satisfied’.

To be honest, I never really know how to respond to this. I can imagine a number of different scenarios as to why this is the case. I work through these below and suggest a couple of responses.

1. Your supervisor does not know what to tell you to do, but can tell something is not quite right with the thesis. Here’s a question for those of you in this situation: Do YOU think your thesis is all right? Why? Why not? You cannot rely on your supervisor to pull it together for you, but you can rely on them for help. In this case, the best thing to do is to read a few theses in your area, read YOUR thesis again, and see if you can work out what is not quite right. If your university has the examiner’s report forms available online, download them and take a look. What will the examiner be asked to consider? Pretend to be an examiner and read your work again, and even the other theses. How does your thesis stack up against the requirements? How does it stack up against other people’s theses?

Write a list of questions and possible issues, and book a meeting with your supervisor. Let them know in advance what you plan to discuss, but come with some possible answers.

2. Your supervisor has already told you what to do, but you didn’t do it. Whether it is because you didn’t understand, the supervisor didn’t explain clearly, or you forgot is not the point here: the supervisor believes they have told you what to do and it hasn’t been done, and they are not satisfied. One common response to getting feedback is to address the specific things the supervisor has told you to do (e.g. change a reference out, correct grammar) but not address the larger questions that have been raised about your work: is this the appropriate methodology? Is this theoretical framework really connecting with the research questions and methodology? Should this information be elsewhere in the thesis? In this case, your supervisor is asking some valid questions that will be asked by the examiner, and is ‘telling’ you to deal with them. They may not be satisifed until you do.

Go back over your meeting notes and feedback notes from your supervisor and check that you haven’t missed something. If you have some big questions you have not answered, think about them and come up with some possibile solutions. Then book a meeting and ask the questions back to the supervisor: do they think the methodology suits the research questions? Do they think you have enough data? Discuss the answers with an open mind: better now than in the exam, or worse, when you have to revise and resubmit.

3. Your supervisor has unreasonable expectations, or has not engaged with your work deeply. This is not out of the question, but shouldn’t be your first assumption until you have worked through the previous two options. If you are doing lab science or empirical work (especially if it is funded through a grant), they may be waiting for some amazing results before they are able to comprehend you moving on to other tasks, such as writing and graduating. In the case of lab work, your supervisor may be a great scientist because they keep going until the results are in. But in a thesis with a time limit of 3-4 years, you may not be able to keep going until then.

The trick here is to get out from your supervisor exactly what their overall expectations are. Ask them to recommend 2 or 3 theses that they think are up to scratch, and read them through carefully. Ask them what they like about those theses. If the issue is lab work, start writing it up anyway, and ask for feedback on those drafts. If the issue is that your supervisor is not really seeming to ‘get’ your work, perhaps because they are not reading it deeply or do not have time to think it through, create a thesis writing group with some other students and work on polishing your work to a higher standard before your supervisor sees it.

Investigate other possible issues: you are using theory that your superivsor has refuted or critiqued and you are not addressing their critiques; you are taking your thesis well outside the field that your supervisor has expertise in, and you need others to come on board to advise. Your supervisor has examiners in mind and is trying to get your work to ‘sing’ to those examiners. If your supervisor’s unreasonable expectations are still a burden to you, get a second opinion from a postgraduate coordinator or senior staff member: are the expectations unreasonable? A postgraduate coordinator in your department may be able to negotiate with your supervisory team and come up with a plan.

In the end, every situation is slightly different. Booking a meeting with your supervisor to discuss the issue is probably worth it if none of the above works. Give them a heads up beforehand: “I’m concerned that my thesis isn’t hitting the mark, and want to discuss with you any issues you can see and make a plan for moving forward”. Coming along with a sense of what YOU think is wrong is ideal, because then your supervisor has something to ‘bounce’ off and respond to. You may be wrong, but at least you have done some work, showing that you are serious about getting to the bottom of it.

What to do if you try all of the above and your supervisor is still ‘not satisfied’

I actually haven’t met very many supervisors who are not satisfied when you do all of the above. So if you have tried all the above and it is still not clear what is wrong, it might be time to get an outside opinion, and to also track your concerns formally. A great way to do this is to use your progress reports as a way of bringing up concerns you need to discuss. In my university, the student prepares these, then the supervisor responds, then the student responds again. We also have to sign that we have discussed the issues with the student. These are signed off by the dean of postgraduate studies, who will read them and follow up if needed. Creating a paper trail of your concerns is useful, especially if you have tried to have conversations and they have not worked out. One colleague I know felt her then-supervisor didn’t really want her to finish because she was managing his lab so effectively. In the end, a postgraduate coordinator stepped in to help create the final thesis to-do list and shepherd both supervisor and student through the final months.

My own experience as a supervisor

I’ve recently realised that it is very difficult to see the ‘full picture’ until the first draft of the thesis is complete. My main goal in the first couple of years is getting that first draft done. That means I mainly work on encouraging people to get going, to get writing, to get the fieldwork done and the reading done. The main form of interaction is encouragement. After the first draft is mostly done (usually minus the conclusion), my main form of interaction is then critique and questioning. This can be experienced as a sudden switch by students (because it is!). Many students think that after the first draft is done, they are pretty much done. But in my experience, that is when the hard intellectual work begins. I think it would be reasonable to assume students would go to support groups at this time and say ‘my supervisor is never satisfied’. But rest assured, for me, when that critique time comes that means you are close to the end.

The smoothest PhD experiences are those when students allow a good 3-6 months for polishing the draft (PhDs) and at least a month for Masters. This means we can back and forth at least three times and get it ‘singing’ for the examiners — and for yourself! So many of us don’t realise what our work is really about until close to the end. It can be a really invigorating experience to get that draft polished up and all the problems untangled. It’s a wonderful feeling when a student submits a polished thesis, and you can send it to pretty much any examiner in the field and it will be appreciated.

So, good luck — and let me know how you go in satisfying your supervisor.

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