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Author: Ashton Scherrer

The first year of supervised training for PhD students is extremely daunting. Many students fly by the seat of their pants with only the guidance of their supervisor to keep them from possibly doing immense harm. But what if you don’t have a reliable, capable supervisor? Unfortunately, this was my reality for my first year of training. I was assigned a supervisor who didn’t have experience in the population I was working with and wasn’t licensed for my first six months of supervision. I consider myself lucky because I had come into training with some background in my chosen field.

But not everyone has this advantage,  so let’s discuss some tips and tricks to navigate the choppy waters of working with a sub-par PhD supervisor.

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Trust your instincts


First and foremost, do you feel like your supervisor is sub-par? Do you often leave meetings with them feeling angry or upset? Do you often think to yourself, “they don’t need to know this”? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have a Not-So-Great supervisor.
As students, it’s easy to minimise our accomplishments and understanding, which, in turn, makes it easy to rationalise what you’re experiencing. Only you know when you’re learning, so trust your instincts.


Have an open dialogue


The supervisor/supervisee relationship, in many ways, is a transaction. You’re there to learn and they are there to teach. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but I highly encourage you to have a discussion with your supervisor about your expectations and what needs you have that are not being met. Many facilities will expect you to speak with your supervisor directly about any complaints you may have before seeking help from training directors, like any other work environment might.

Having an open dialogue can be tough, but knowing what you need and deserve is key to making this conversation as easy as possible. Be confident in what you are asking for and have valid reasons to support your requests.

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Learn to be your own supervisor


In some disciplines, particularly in mine- clinical psychology – universities may require you to video record their sessions for review. These reviews are typically done with your supervisor, but if you have a supervisor that you can’t trust to teach you, watching your videos on your own is a great way to learn. Do you reach for the tissues as soon as the patient starts crying? What is their body language when they’re speaking to you? How do you show up in the room with them? These are all questions that you can answer without guidance and they are minute, detailed things that will only benefit you in your career. You will not always have a supervisor and you will not always have video recordings of sessions so learning these skills now will be helpful in the future.

If your discipline doesn’t require you to record videos, there are many other ways to be your own supervisor! Maybe you have a trusted friend or colleague that can double-check your work for you. Believe it or not, there are folks out there that study supervision techniques—and their information is just waiting to be read! You can find websites, blogs, and peer-reviewed articles on what supervision is supposed to look like and use those techniques on yourself! And, if you can afford it, you can actually pay for outside supervision. Don’t be shy in reaching out!


Keep Things In Writing


Writing out your case conceptualization and diagnosis is a great way to not only learn but to also protect yourself if you have a subpar supervisor. If, like me, you have a supervisor who doesn’t have a lot of experience working with your population, it can be difficult to rely on their support on a case that you’re working on. For example, in my discipline, I see my patients and sit in a room with them for an hour a week. If I see symptoms and my supervisor doesn’t, I make a note of them with the time, date, and situation in detail. If there ever comes a time when a decision you’ve made comes into question, pull out your notes and protect yourself.

But whether or not you’re working with patients, there may be times when your decisions are called into question. It’s always helpful to have a paper trail of your thoughts and decisions, meetings, and your supervisor’s directions.


Research, research, research


Working with a subpar supervisor means that you’ll have to educate yourself. Are you interested in a certain perspective that your supervisor doesn’t work with? Buy a few books or manuals on those perspectives and practice them on who ever you can. There may be times when your supervisor tells you to “Google” something, instead of teaching you. Take that advice, no matter how annoying it is, and Google everything! Do you have a loose idea of something you can do in your training but aren’t sure how to execute it? Search for the idea online and you’ll likely find exactly what you’re looking for.


Find inspiration


Lastly, find your inspiration and hold on tight! A PhD with a subpar supervisor is a very difficult one. You’ll not only be managing your own emotions, but you’ll likely be in charge of your supervisor’s as well. This can be exhausting and can quickly lead to burn out.



Ashton is a third year PhD student at Palo Alto University studying clinical psychology with an emphasis in Neuropsychology. Her training sites have included The Gronowski Clinic and Goodwill Wellness Center of Silicon Valley.

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