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Advice for Resolving Conflicts between Supervisors and Research Students

Avoiding Conflict in the Supervisor - Research Student Relationships

Many instances of conflict arise from unmet or unmanaged expectations by one or both parties. To minimise opportunities for misunderstandings (and thus avoid conflict further downstream) it is a good idea for both student and supervisor to be clear about what their expectations might be, what milestones or other deliverables might be required over the course of the degree generally, and more specifically in the upcoming 6-9 months.

It is also good practice to ‘model’ behaviours and work/workplace practices which we wish to see in others—this includes discussing concerns openly as they arise, but also encouraging open dialogue generally, treating people with respect, acting in an inclusive way, and demonstrating appropriate work-life balance.

Supervisor – Research Student Agreement as a useful tool to manage mutual expectations

A Supervisor – Research Student Agreement provides a good basis for understanding the roles and responsibilities of both student and supervisor and provides prompts for discussing matters relating to learning, research, wellbeing, training and administrative requirements. The agreement template includes open fields for students and supervisors to mutually agree on the type and frequency of communications, and how they propose to raise and resolve matters as they arise within the relationship.

We encourage supervisors to use the agreement; bring it to your first (or an early) meeting with the student and begin the process of mutually agreeing the principles therein and populating the open fields. This document should be treated as ‘live’ and revisited annually, or more often as needs arise. The agreement template may be adapted, if required, for individual research projects to suit the requirements of the project, student and supervisor(s).

Setting the groundwork

Whether or not you are using the agreement, it is good practice in the early stages of a supervisory relationship, in the interest of avoiding conflict at a later stage, to have a conversation that includes:

  • Roles of both student and supervisor,
  • General expectations around working hours, annual leave etc. (full-time PhD students may take up to 30 days annual leave each academic year),
  • The style of supervision that is envisaged and how this might develop as the student’s experience and autonomy grows,
  • The frequency of meetings,
  • Where and in what format (in-person, online, etc.) these will take place,
  • Who will be responsible for setting the agenda for meetings (student, supervisor, or both),
  • Who will be responsible for recording notes of the meetings (very often this is the student),
  • Mode of contact outside meetings (usually this is by @tcd email),
  • Training requirements,
  • Consumables, technology requirements, access to machinery, etc.,
  • Any specific access requirements or accommodations (including for disability, ongoing conditions, caring responsibilities, etc.)
  • Academic and administrative milestones and expectations in the upcoming weeks, months and overall year looking at both the project and the requirements for annual review reports and confirmation/transfers,
  • How queries or concerns can be raised by either party and how they will be addressed

When a conflict arises

‘Conflict’ can sound quite serious, but many ‘conflicts’ are simple misunderstandings and can be resolved between both parties early on and in an informal way. Including this in the agreement prior to any conflicts arising will help to normalise frank conversations when the need arises.

It is important to refer to how both parties agreed to raise and resolve disagreements and follow this process.

Informal conflict resolution

In general, the best advice is to raise any concerns with the other party directly and as soon as feasible—typically this is at a meeting which will allow the other party to better gauge the issue from tone of voice, body language- tone is often difficult to correctly infer over email or text.

When a concern arises, place it on the agenda for the next scheduled supervisory meeting, or, where this is not appropriate, schedule an additional meeting to have a discussion about this. At the end of the meeting, it is a good idea to agree which one of the parties will follow up with everyone by email with a short summary of the agreed actions or next steps. The email should not include a summary of the discussion (which may inadvertently reopen the matter again), and should confine itself to what actions or next steps are to be taken.

It is important, when raising a concern, to be specific, diplomatic, curious, and action-orientated:

  • Specific: Use specific examples of behaviours or practices which are causing concern, or specific instances where responsibilities are not being fulfilled. Avoid generalities, even in cases where you feel the concern relates to more general ways of being or day-to-day behaviour.
  • Diplomatic: give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they may not realise there is a concern: use the personal pronoun (“I feel that …” “for me this feels like …” etc.). It is important to offer space for someone to understand where they have transgressed and to offer them a change to apologise and/or alter their behaviour or expectations.
  • Curious: Allow the person an opportunity to explain their position and to outline any factors which may be feeding into their behaviour or their missed milestones.
  • Action-orientated: Focus on how to move forward: what would you like to see change? What can be done differently? How might they need to be more responsive/ communicative? How might you need to match these changes with changes in your own behaviour? If you agree next steps, make sure to note them and that each side understands what the actions will be.

When a conflict cannot be resolved in the context of normal supervisory meetings

Where a conflict escalates or becomes fractious, it may be possible for both parties to agree to meet in the presence of a third party (such as a DTLP, a Head of Discipline, someone from outside the School, a nominee of the Dean of Graduate Studies).

This third party may act as a chairperson, a facilitator, or an observer. Often the presence of a third party who can be a ‘witness’ to the meeting can be a reassurance to either or both the student and the supervisor. Equally, having a facilitated conversation with someone else present can act as a deterrent for any anticipated unwanted behaviour such as aggression. The role of the third party will play in the particular instance should be clarified at the start of the meeting.

Where a third party is present, the process may be the same as above: specific, diplomatic, curious and action-orientated.

Accompaniment and emotional support

Where an informal meeting to resolve a conflict is specially convened or where a meeting with the third party, mentioned above, is to take place, it is useful for both student and supervisor to know that they may bring a person to the meeting as a support. Where the meeting will be comprised of a number of staff members meeting with a lone student, the student may feel particular need for an additional person in the room whose role is specifically to support them.

For students this support person may be a fellow student, a TCDSU rep, a member of the Postgraduate Advisory Service or another support service in the university. For a supervisor this is most often a colleague. Generally, the accompaniment is there to provide a ‘friendly face’ and does not have a formal role in the discussion.

Emotional support for students is available from the Student Counselling Service, and for staff via the Employee Assistance Programme.

The role of a Thesis Committee in resolving issues

Students may request an informal meeting with their Thesis Committee to discuss any substantial concerns related to their supervision or their academic progress. The members of their Thesis Committee may offer advice to help them develop a strategy to move forward before the issue escalates or may guide them to appropriate College support services. For more information please refer to Thesis Committee Guidelines and the Terms of Reference for Thesis Committees.

Conflict resolution styles

It is also important to note that not everyone approaches conflicts in the same way. In general supervisors should be aware that their students will perceive a power imbalance in the dynamic which may inhibit student’s coming forward with issues.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent on both students and supervisors to raise issues in a direct way, as soon as possible—it is unlikely anything will change iof either party adopts a ‘wait and see’ approach.

The most frequently cited conflict management / conflict resolution styles are:

  • Collaboration
  • Compromise
  • Avoid
  • Accommodate and
  • Compete

Examining past conflicts/ disputes you have been involved with may help you predict how you will respond to perceived conflict situations into the future. It is worth noting however that your style may not be the same as the other party’s; while you may be prone to compromise, the other party may be more instinctively drawn to avoiding raising issues.

At all points during a conflict resolution process, informal support and advice may be sought from the Office of the Dean Graduate Studies, the Postgraduate Advisory Service (student) and Human Resources (staff).

Conflict resolution flowchart

The conflict resolution flowchart outlines a series of steps and decision points that help research students and supervisors in identifying the nature of the conflict, determining appropriate strategies for resolution, and implementing solutions to resolve issues.

The flowchart below can be downloaded as a .pdf document at this link.

1 A formal Supervisor-Research Student Agreement is recommended practice but is not mandatory. If an agreement is not in place, it is advisable that normal supervisory meetings include time to review and clarify responsibilities and expectations in the supervisor-student relationship.

2 College support services that can be contacted for confidential advice include:

Additional services for students are available on the College website. Additional services for staff are available on the College website.

If conflict arises in a relationship based primarily at a site eternal to the College (e.g., in a hospital setting), it might be more appropriate to contact the School Contact Person for advice (see No. 3 below).

3 The School Contact Person varies by School. It can be the Dignity and Respect Officer, and, in many cases, it is the Director or Associate Director of Teaching and Learning (Postgraduate). The details of the School Contact Person can be obtained from your School Manager.

Escalating to a formal process

Where a conflict cannot be resolved in the informal way outlined in the Student-Supervisor Agreement, or where the matter requires more formal intervention/ escalation, a process under a relevant policy may be required.

Depending on the issue this may proceed under:

Guidance provided by Postgraduate Advisory Service and Work Package #6 (Staff Experience) of the Postgraduate Renewal Programme

Relevant Policies

Guidelines and Resources

College Support Services

If you have any questions please contact the Administrative Officer in Graduate Studies.