By Mandy X. Hu

Dear supervisor,

Thank you for playing a significant part in guiding our PhD candidates to become the cutting-edge researchers, the innovative inventors, and the academic doctors of tomorrow. Because of you they may grow up to improve and save lives. Perhaps you feel like you’re given too much credit, but I beg to differ. The stories from our PhD candidates make abundantly clear that supervision is the most important factor that determines whether the PhD journey is delightful – or dreadful.

When I recap the stories told by our struggling – and thriving – young researchers, an essential theme that keeps coming up is the importance of appreciation. In a line of work where gratification is often delayed, words of praise and encouragement are favorable – vital even – but unfortunately frequently forgotten. Another recurring theme is the wish for equivalence. Former hierarchical and authoritarian forms of leadership may have once been effective, but don’t fit in the zeitgeist of our young researchers. Instead, they yearn for space to express their needs and opinions, and co-design their trajectory. The last theme I’d like to address here is the longing for personal support and self-development. In an environment where performance pressure is high, there is a higher need for mental well-being and growth, and the delicate balance between work and life.

The themes above are just a few generalizations of the many personal stories that reach my ear. You may not recognize these and perhaps these are not helpful to you at all. So rather than reading my stories, I want to ask you to go and collect your own. Have that conversation with your PhD candidate and listen to their story. Who are they? Who do they want to become? What is your role in their story? I believe that the best supervisors feel that – in their role as supervisor - they are not the protagonist. Rather, they are the main supporting role with the power to help their PhD candidate become the hero.

Dear PhD candidate,

That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. If the relationship with your supervisor is not what you would like it to be, you play an equally important part in improving it. I get it, you’re in a dependent position and you need to struggle through your PhD - at any cost – to get to the next scene. But let me sketch you another narrative. What if the limitations of your position are greater in your mind than in reality? What if you would have that honest, open, and respectful conversation with your supervisor and tell them what’s on your mind? Perhaps you’ll find them more receptive and open-minded than you thought. And perhaps you’ll learn that you yourself could improve a thing or two as well. If this is the storyline, great!

I know what you’re thinking: but what if they’re not receptive and open-minded? And I will give you a cliché but nonetheless true answer: then at least you tried. So at least try. What’s the worst that could happen – truly – for respectfully speaking your mind? The most likely ‘bad’ scenario is that you voice your concerns and your supervisor simply doesn’t agree or won’t change. Then you have a decision to make. You could quit. Yes, you read it. If this is not a place where you can be yourself and grow, perhaps you don’t want to spend the coming years trapped in it. There will be other opportunities if you choose to see them. Alternatively, you could choose to accept that the situation is as is, that your supervisor is only human, and that you can make the most of it and be okay. This may sound like a passive choice but it’s far from it. Practicing that kind of acceptance and compassion is an active and brave choice, because it requires you to learn that the only control you can and should practice is that of your own mindset. Lastly, you could choose to stay, hold a grudge against your supervisor, and suffer through your PhD. You could. But is that really the kind of hero you want to be in the story of your life?


Are you a supervisor and would you like to improve your supervision skills? Take a look at the Superb Supervision course for junior or senior supervisors. If you have any questions or if you’re in need of support, the Amsterdam UMC Doctoral School is also here for supervisors. Take a look at our new website pages for PhD supervision at AMC or VUmc, or contact us.

Are you a PhD candidate and are you in need of advice or coaching? The PhD advisors are here for you. Take a look at our Coaching, Advice, and Support page or get in touch with us for a consultation (