When I was a child, I sometimes fell while playing, and ripped a hole in my jeans. As soon as I got home, I took off those ripped jeans and threw them in the laundry basket.  I hoped my mother wouldn’t find out, or find out so much later that I could pretend I had no idea how the hole could have gotten there.

Well, that strategy never worked. Not the first few times, and definitely not later on as I grew older. Has never worked well, that tactic. 

I notice PhD students doing something similar: they don’t contact their supervisor if their thesis is not going well, in the hope that at some point, they will have a breakthrough and something to show again. The whole time, they hope their supervisor doesn’t notice anything.

Believe me, I understand how that logic works, there are weeks – or sometimes even months – that you might not be making any substantial progress or developments with your writing. Maybe you aren’t sure what step to take next, or the data analysis takes longer than expected, or the experiment or study is inclusive or has disappointing results. Or, you might be struggling with procrastination and realising your research is difficult to read.

Avoiding your supervisor then seems the easiest thing to do, but then, you end up with a problem. Think about it, what happens if you still have nothing to show a few weeks later? Then it only becomes even harder to reach out to them. The longer you delay sending any type of message, the harder it is to reach out again. You end up isolating yourself and depriving yourself of the opportunity to get help.

Yet, contacting your supervisor via a quick email does not have to be as hard as it may seem. 

Consider something like this: 

“I realise it has been a while since I last reached out to you. I want to admit that I feel quite a bit  behind, but I can assure you that I will do my very best to get back on track. I would really like to discuss with you on the best way to do that, I recognise that working on [____] is not progressing the way I would like.”

You should restore regular contact with your supervisor again, and preferably as soon as possible. Don’t let your frustration and disappointment in yourself fester. You know you won’t get anything out of it.

My suggestion is to send an email to your supervisor every two weeks in which you keep him or her informed of your progress, and include how you feel about it, whether good or bad:

“The last couple of weeks I have been working on analysing the data. The analysis is taking a little longer than expected, because I had issues with SPSS. Consequently, I think I may need two more weeks to complete the analysis. Then, I will work on [___]”

Composing emails like these only take a few minutes, but can be very important in the long run. The emails ensure that you do not just bury your head in avoidance, instead,  your supervisor knows what is going on. Because they are aware of the progress (or lack thereof), it is that much easier to start the conversation. Just remember what I said earlier, throwing those pants in the bottom of the laundry basket won’t make your mother not see that hole …


Do you want to stay informed about all the handy tips, tricks and tools? Receive 244 #phd tips and get the newsletter as a bonus! Register here.


Get your free PhD tips


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment