Lab Life

Dealing with Difficult Advisors

Deanna Montgomery

Advisor. Supervisor. Principal Investigator. Boss. Regardless of what you call them, the person responsible for guiding the research of a graduate student or postdoc plays a large role in their trainee’s professional life. With this role comes influence and sometimes complicated power dynamics. An advisor can make or break your graduate or postdoctoral experience.

Despite the importance of the advisor-advisee relationship, it is not always an easy one to establish and maintain. Some relationships are more difficult than others, and so are some advisors. Whether it’s as simple as a difference in personalities or working styles, or as challenging as a toxic personality that is debilitating to individuals or teams, there are steps you can take to try to improve your situation.

Talk with your advisor about the situation

Your first step is to talk it out. Studies show that the most beneficial way to manage conflict is by addressing it. If something is impeding your research progress, it is in the best interests of you, your advisor, and the research group to get it resolved as quickly and smoothly as possible. This can be scary because of the inherent power dynamics at play, especially if you are conflict-averse or if your advisor has an off-putting attitude. But it is important to have a direct conversation with your advisor in a productive and functional manner.

The Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model developed by the Center for Creative Leadership is one effective approach. You capture and clarify the Situation, describe the specific Behavior observed, and explain the Impact that the person’s behavior had on you. Try to avoid placing (or taking) blame. Instead, focus on problem-solving together. Let your advisor know as specifically as possible what is not working for you and come prepared to share potential solutions and to listen to their perspective.

If it feels uncomfortable to approach this conversation out of the blue, use something concrete to ground the conversation. Mention a relevant seminar or event you attended or a book or article that you read. You can even use this article as a conversation starter. For example, “I wanted to talk to you about something tangentially related to my research. I recently read an article about advisor-advisee relationships, and it got me thinking about our meetings. I really value your input and think that I would be better able to progress in my research if we met more frequently. Could we schedule a regular meeting time?”

Learn about interpersonal communication skills and relationship dynamics

You cannot control someone else’s words, actions (or lack thereof), or behavior, but you can learn to control your own reactions. One way is by preparing yourself to better handle situations as they arise. Understanding why your advisor is acting a particular way may ease the tension you feel, even if you disagree with their approach. Talk with lab mates or alumni from your group about how they managed their relationship with your advisor: What worked for them? What didn’t? How does your advisor typically communicate? Be careful to keep these conversations professional. Although a vent session can feel cathartic in the moment, it can end up causing an even bigger divide.

It may also be helpful, both to your current situation and to future relationships in your career, to learn some general principles about interpersonal dynamics. I have personally benefited from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most and the University of Michigan’s Graduate Student Mentoring Guide, so much so that I jumped at the chance to assist with a major revision of the latter.

ACS career and professional development experts also recommend the 2021 study Interpersonal relationships drive successful team science: an exemplary case-based study and the article Become a Better Listener: Active Listening.

Use other people as resources too

There are likely other resources that are available to help you manage your relationship. Department administrators may offer practical advice or support with logistical issues related to graduation requirements, publishing, and other topics. Many universities also have an Ombuds Office staffed with people who are trained to help resolve conflict. Typically, these types of resources are free to those affiliated with the university and include services such as confidential consultations and mediation.

Note that these resources are best for negotiating a conflict. There is a difference between conflict or disagreements and harassment. If your situation has crossed the line from conflict to harassment, you should find a new advisor and officially report your concerns, or even seek legal action. Be sure to get help from people within your institution, such as the chair, the dean, the vice president, human resources, or a counselor, as well as anyone else who can support you, such as a legal aide. 

Manage your emotions

Dealing with a difficult advisor can take a toll on you emotionally and can negatively impact your work. It is important to give yourself space to process your feelings. Lean on lab mates or co-workers you trust for emotional support. Talk with friends or family who are outside the situation whom you know will support you. Consider talking with other people who have been through similar situations. Do you know someone outside of your research group who had trouble with their advisor? Do you have a friend outside academia who has a difficult boss or other less-than-ideal working relationships?

It may also be helpful to talk with a professional counselor who is trained to help you process your emotions and choose how to act or react in certain situations. Your university may offer free mental health services  or reduced costs for students or employees. These services may also be covered by your health insurance plan.

Build an advisor and mentor team

Ideally,  your research advisor will also serve as a mentor—someone who can offer support in various areas of your professional and personal life. Whether this is the case for you or not, seeking out other people as mentors can help move your research forward. If your advisor-advisee relationship is difficult because your advisor is often absent, it may be helpful to find someone who is willing to act as a surrogate advisor—either for a short period or a long one. Sometimes it is difficult to get in touch with your advisor for an extended period of time (a semester or a year) because of a concrete reason like sabbatical, medical leave, or family leave. Other advisors are chronically difficult to reach. In either circumstance, consider who may be able to fill the role of providing guidance and feedback on your research and graduate/postdoc experience. Perhaps a senior lab member, another faculty member in your department, a committee member, or a past advisor would be willing to meet with you to provide insight.

Even if your advisor is available as much as you need, having mentors can help move your research forward, build self-efficacy in your research skills, and make you feel more secure in your current position. Look for people who can provide an external perspective and advise on one or more of the following areas: research, classes and/or other program requirements, professional relationships, career exploration, psychological support, and job search advice. Having multiple mentors for different things helps to make sure you have a strong professional support system even if your primary advisor is absent, unpredictable, or hostile.

Consider a co-advisor

If someone is taking on the informal role of “surrogate advisor,” you may consider whether it makes sense to have them advise you in a formal capacity. Many programs allow and even encourage students and postdocs to have multiple faculty advisors. If you do choose to seek a co-advisor, you should always keep your primary advisor in the loop about what is going on. When possible, it is often best to approach them before speaking to a potential co-advisor.

Change advisors if you need to

There are instances in life where you have no choice but to remove yourself from a bad situation. Many disputes can be resolved through communication, hard work, and implementing some of the aforementioned strategies. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you and your advisor have irreconcilable differences, you may need to search for a new advisor.

The first time that someone suggested I might consider changing advisors in graduate school, I told them in no uncertain terms that it was simply not an option for me. Months later, I had a different advisor in a new research group that was a much better fit. Although the process of changing advisors can be a hurdle logistically and emotionally, it is possible. The same resources you turn to for managing conflict (administrators, family, lab mates, mentors) can be used to help you to determine whether this is the right decision for you and to navigate the transition if necessary.

Final thoughts

Dealing with a difficult advisor is a frustrating experience, but it can also force you to learn conflict management skills that will come in handy in future work environments. Remember to stay calm, be intentional about understanding the situation from all sides, educate yourself about managing conflict, and seek solutions that will bring about successful resolution. You’ve got this!