9 Types Of Difficult PhD Supervisor (And How To Domesticate Them)

Got a difficult PhD supervisor? Tough luck. Sometimes he ignores you, other times he yells at you, other times he makes you feel stupid. It’s like he is the enemy instead of being on your side.

The funny thing is that they have a bad reputation in the department, yet they manage to get graduate students to work for them.They probably get away with this behaviour because they are good scientists.

Anyhow, you have to deal with a difficult PhD supervisor and the only way out seems to quit your PhD or to commit a blood crime. Wait!! Don’t do that, maybe there’s an alternative.

Difficult PhD supervisor sharks

What can you do if your PhD supervisor is a very annoyingly difficult person?

As a coach for graduate students and postdocs one of the most common questions I get asked is how do I communicate effectively with my PhD supervisor and get the right kind of mentoring?

A few years ago I went to a seminar on “How to Deal with Difficult People.”  Not surprisingly, the room was packed.

The speaker asked the audience “Who had to deal with a difficult person in the past?” All hands were raised.

Then she asked “Who in this room is a difficult person?” No hands went up, but everyone laughed.  Her message was loud and clear – all of us have a tendency to be difficult sometimes.

One of the reasons that difficult people are tough to deal with is that they come in all different flavors. One person might be hostile-aggressive, and use harsh words to humiliate others. Another person might be extremely nice, but never follow through on their commitments. And then there are very negative people who bring you down as soon as your start talking with them.

According to the book “Coping with Difficult People“, by Robert Bramson, difficult people usually fall into one of the following 7 categories of difficult people:

  • Hostile aggressive
  • Complainer
  • Silent unresponsive
  • Super-agreeable
  • Negativist
  • Know-it-all
  • Indecisive

While I was interviewing for my book, “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates” I heard stories of professors in all of the above categories. In addition, students encountered 2 extra types of difficult PhD supervisor:

  • Extremely hands-off, or super busy
  • Excessively hands-on micromanager

With so many different types of difficult people, how do you know what the best “strategy” is to get through to them?

In my book I cover specific strategies to cope with the 9 types of difficult PhD supervisor, with real stories from former PhD students.  In this post, I will summarize a few basic tools that will help you to work effectively with any of these types of difficult professors.

In my post “3 Step Method Of Communicating Effectively With Your PhD Supervisor” I covered the basic principles of assertiveness.

A good rule of thumb is to always begin any conversation assuming that the person you are dealing with is reasonable, and will respond to basic assertive communication skills (see post for the simple 3-step method).

It is amazing how many professional (and personal) relationships can be mended quickly once we focus on the problem and not the emotions about the problem!

Rule #1: Always assume that the person you are dealing with is reasonable and will respond well if you communicate assertively. 

In reality most people are difficult at one time or another. Lack of sleep, emotional turmoil and overwhelming deadlines at work can lead to crankiness, negativity and lack of follow-through.What sets difficult people apart from the rest is that they are “chronically” difficult to deal with.

Difficult people have unpleasant habits that permeate their professional relationships and make it very challenging to collaborate with them.

Of course, one option is to avoid working with them, but this is usually not realistic if they are your PhD supervisor.

If you must work with a truly difficult person, you will need to sharpen your assertiveness skills even more to get their support or contribution to a project.

Rule #2: Difficult people respond to the same assertiveness skills as everyone else, but you will need more persistence and patience to get your point across.

Difficult people usually have self-destructive habits that affect all areas of their lives. A person who is always late to a meeting with you, is probably late to every meeting. Someone who does not follow through on their commitments is probably falling behind on schedule in other assignments as well.

Remember, when someone is a difficult person it is not about you, it is about them, and the poor habits they have developed over their lifetime.

Rule #3: Do not take difficult people personally. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Always focus on solving the problem.

While covering personal stories for the nine types of difficult professors is beyond the scope of this post, I have summarized a few general tools to deal with (and domesticate)  all 9 types of difficult PhD supervisor.

How To Deal With The 9 Types Of Difficult PhD Supervisor

Type 1 Hostile-Aggressive

When most people think of a difficult person, the hostile-aggressive personality type comes to mind.  Hostile aggressive people, as their name suggests, are notoriously antagonistic and impolite. They will crush all your ideas, and make you feel like a fool.  Your job, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, is to not let them do so.

Difficult PhD supervisor angry

Don’t get emotional if a passive-aggressive person humiliates you. Let them calm down, acknowledge their opinions, and direct the conversation towards solving problems.

Type 2 Complainer

You might also be one of the unlucky students who needs to work with a “compleat” complainer, who does nothing but moan about their troubles.

If you have to work with a complainer, listen to the complaints for a few minutes, and then direct the conversation towards solving the problem.

Type 3 Silent or unresponsive clam

This type of difficult person is not common among professors, but there are difficult PhD supervisors who fail to respond to email and even ignore your questions during a meeting.

If you have a silent or unresponsive type of PhD advisor, it might be a good idea to switch groups or take your thesis into your own hands.

Always let your difficult PhD supervisor know about your plans to give them a chance to respond. Seek the support of your committee members or department chair if needed.

Type 4  Super-agreeable friendly

Such a person will tell you all the things you want to hear and make empty promises.

Do not rely on a super-agreeable supervisor to help you with your work. Complete as much of the work as you can on your own to make it easy for them to do their part.

If you need letters of recommendation, write an outline to make it easier for your difficult PhD supervisor to support you.

Type 5 Wet-blanket negativist

Negativist PhD supervisors can bring the morale of an entire group down (hence the term “wet blanket”) because they believe that nothing improves the situation.

Focus on the problem and alternative solutions, rather than the pessimism of a negativist. If your difficult PhD supervisor is a negativist, get help from your coworkers and other professors

Type 6 Know-it-all expert

A know-it-all expert is someone who believes that their way is the only right way.  Know-it-all experts fall into two categories, the bulldozers and the balloons.

Difficult PhD supervisor smartass

The bulldozers really do have expertise, and if it were not for their difficult personality type, others would enjoy working with them.

Balloons, as their name suggests, are just full of hot air.  Know-it-all professors usually, but not always, belong to the bulldozer category.

If your difficult PhD supervisor is a know-it-all bulldozer, it is very important to be prepared for meetings so you can discuss your work with expertise.

If you have to work with a balloon, listen to them and suggest your own ideas as well, but avoid embarrassing them.

Type 7 Indecisive

Indecisive PhD supervisors can be particularly frustrating to students, because as soon as some progress is made, the topic of their dissertation is changed.

Your advisor might hesitate to make a decision, for fear that it will not be perfect, but you can cope with this indecisiveness by emphasizing the advantages of one particular project.

If your  difficult PhD supervisor is indecisive, take leadership of your project. Be assertive about your ideas, but also find out their reasons for being reluctant to making a decision.

Type 8 Extremely hands-off or super busy

Super busy professors were usually described by their students as “she would have been a really great advisor if she had time to meet with me.”  Students with super busy PhD supervisors had to be particularly self-motivated to complete their dissertations.

Get support from coworkers and other professors if your difficult PhD supervisor is extremely hands-off.  Consider this challenge an opportunity to learn how to become an independent researcher.

Type 9 Excessively hands-on micro-manager

Students with micromanager advisors complained of getting “too much attention.” Their PhD supervisors called them after-hours and questioned every detail of their project.

If your difficult PhD supervisor is a micromanager, you need to be very assertive about your work hours and scope of your project.  Set reasonable boundaries if your professor is a micromanager, but also listen to their needs and opinions to understand where they are coming from.

Wow, who can keep all these nine strategies in mind and use them when needed?

The good news is that most people you work (or live) with will respond to basic assertiveness skills. In other words, if you express your ideas confidently while also being sensitive to the needs of the other person, you will probably come to a reasonable agreement.

Keep in mind that most people will be difficult to work with at one point or another. This does not mean that they are difficult by nature, only that they are having a bad day.

Only a small percentage of the population falls into the truly difficult person category.

What is the upside of practicing these skills besides making it through graduate school?

Most jobs (academic and industrial) require you to work in teams where you will encounter a variety of different personality types. By getting comfortable with being assertive you can get a head-start on teamwork and leadership skills before that first job!

Do you have any fun stories about a difficult PhD supervisor?

Or do you work for a difficult professor who does not fall into one these categories?

I would love to hear from you! Leave your story in the comments below.

You can also email Dora Farkas here.

About Dora Farkas

Dora Farkas, Ph.D is a thesis and career coach for scientists. She is the founder of FinishYourThesis.com and author of the book The Smart Way to Your PhD: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates