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Bad Professors? Poor Academic Supervision? Advice for Seniors on What to Do and How to Manage and Survive Your Thesis

Updated on March 14, 2012

One of the worst nightmares for any student working on an honors thesis, final year project or any important academic project is to receive poor supervision from an academic advisor.

What does poor supervision look like?

It really depends on your course, the expectations, academic culture and norms of your faculty. What might be something you expect may not be the same as another student in another faculty, or in another university.

There are several examples of how poor, inadequate or inappropriate supervision might look like. For example,

  • providing wrong academic advice that jeopardizes your project
  • inappropriate behavior that crosses the lines of academic supervision eg. sexual harassment
  • negligence on the part of the supervisor


The best way to find out the roles and expectations that you should have of your supervisor is to talk to other seniors students in your department. Better still, if your department lays these things out at the start of the semester before you embark on your final year project, or thesis, and before you choose your supervisor!

But if you have a bad supervisor, what should you do?
What can you do to safeguard yourself should you discover that you are suffering from poor supervision?

1. Keep a record of all communication - with your advisor AND other individuals who are involved in your academic project

One of the best things about email is that you have an electronic record of the communication that has taken place. When you consult your professor, thank him or her, seek advice over email, you’ll always have a record to refer to.

This is very advantageous when you are suffering from poor supervision. If your supervisor does not reply any emails that you send, or if you have a problem that he ought to have addressed much earlier on, keeping track of the emails sent are a great way to go. These record of emails provide something that you can refer to as visible evidence to your supervisor that you have done your part in terms of taking the initiative to consult him. Also, email records are good references in the event that you have to speak to other authority about this problem.

In your emails, you should never be rude or emotional. Always be professional when communicating to your professor. This includes the languages and the expressions that you use. No !!!!!!!!! or !@#$# or ‘pleeeeeeeeeeeease Sir!!!!!!!!!!!’ language should appear in your emails at all, although you might be feeling completely frustrated and exasperated.

If you have had a face - to - face consultation with your professor, then when you next email your professor, it is a good idea to briefly thank him or acknowledge the advice given in the past consultation. This can be done very subtly, and hopefully genuinely too (if you are thanking him for advice). The purpose of this is to keep track of what he said - it’s almost like gathering up evidence in a crime investigation.

One very common problem is that the professors are very forgetful or too busy to reply emails. Worst still, some might give you wrong information. Having an email record helps you to clarify things if necessary.

Sometimes, it is necessary to speak to an academic advisor, honors coordinator, the head of department, or even the dean, depending on what your problem is. Unfortunately, many of these figures of authority are not the most helpful people around, as they are not that willing to do anything for you unless they see some benefit in it themselves (sadly). A very common reply would be that ‘Prof _____ is very reputable... .very experienced.... has supervised many students before..... accomplished.... we would advice you to check with him yourself.....’ Sometimes, it is only when you can produce ‘evidence’ such as emails that demonstrate that there is a real problem at hand, then they will sit up and take you seriously.

Keep the emails from these academic advisors and honors coordinators too. Sometimes, especially if all the students under your particular supervisor is suffering, these emails will come in most handy should you have to surface this issue with even higher authority, like the deans of the faculty.

2. Be polite at all times

You’ll really never know what will happen in your academic journey, and with your professor. It is always wise to behave professionally towards your professor, and toward other students. If you need to air your grievances, choose who you share your problems with. Sometimes, it is so tempting to bad mouth and gossip about the professor. But it is always wiser to hold your tongue, as careless words might cause a misunderstanding, and the likelihood of it backfiring is very high.

Besides, if you appear too bitter and resentful, your peers might start to sympathize with your professor instead of you, although the truth is that you are really really a victim of poor supervision.

There is a possibility that your professor might just choose your work to be published, despite the fact that he only read it properly after you submitted it to the department. Who knows! Things like this do happen. Bearing this in mind, you will always be grateful for the times that you did not act carelessly toward your professor.

3. Act Early should you discover that you are suffering from poor supervision

If you discover that your peers are receiving much better supervision, it is always wise to sound out other professors and the academic counselor or honors / final year project coordinator to see if what you are experiencing is normal.

Act early, before it is too late. Once you have submitted your thesis or final year project, it is too late to ask for help, as your work will be graded based on what has been submitted.

Also, if you talk to someone in a higher position, you should request that you speak in confidence, just to preserve your working relationship with your professor. It could be that your professor or supervisor is so new to the university he really has no clue how things are done here, and he needs someone in authority to speak to him.

It will take a lot of courage to speak to someone, especially if you are the sort that is conflict adverse. However, always be professional and discerning in the ways that you manage the situation. If you are dismissed lightly without a satisfactory explanation, keep searching for someone else to help you. While there are professors that really frustrate students, there are also others who genuinely have the interests of their students at heart.

Do you have other advice to someone who might be experience poor supervision in their academic life? Leave your thoughts and comments below!


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    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Hey Marellen!

      Thank you so much for reading this and for your vote. I appreciate this so much!

    • profile image

      marellen 6 years ago

      Very informative and great advice. Voted up...