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My former supervisors seem to have lost interest in our relationship, and collaborating to undertake research. What should I do?

psychstudent90

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Hi everyone,

My former supervisors, two female academics, have always been very supportive of me and engaged in my academic life. We are also friends - we have enjoyed many lunches, dinners, etc together. I was initially a research intern with them, and then they offered me a role as a research assistant. From there, I undertook my honours year with them as my supervisors. We always got along very well.

I then began planning for a PhD, with them as my supervisors. Unfortunately, however, I was forced to take some time off due to chronic health problems and lost contact with them for a short period. I then initiated contact again (in 2018), and they were still supportive.

I am now at the tail-end of a masters degree, and am hoping to begin a PhD. They are still academics, but at small universities, where students cannot enrol in PhDs. They still expressed in person, however, that they would like to be involved.

I have found a primary supervisor at another university, and they are able to be involved, but they seem hesitant. I sent an email about a few months ago, which they never replied to, so I prompted them, and asked them what was going on. I explained that they didn't need to worry about offending me if they would like to take a step back, and that I understood if they did not have the capacity to be involved at the moment. All I really wanted was honesty. They assured me they were still interested in being involved.

I sent another email about a week ago, and received no reply. I'm not sure what to do. I would like to collaborate with them, but more than that, I want to maintain our friendship/mentorship.

What should I do? It seems that they are no longer interested in collaborating, but I don't want to end our professional or personal relationship via indirect, passive means, like ignoring emails - it seems immature. I would prefer to have a direct conversation, and settle things.

Thank you for any input!
 

thebalmofhurtminds

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I'm a little confused. It appears as though these supervisors cannot take on PhD students and yet you are hoping for them to be "involved"? What does this mean? Research collaboration makes sense, but it may be that you are looking for a more supervisory relationship than they are able to provide, especially as it is not apart of their official duties.

Also keep in mind the context of life right now. Many people are juggling a lot of things due to the pandemic and taking on extra supervisory roles may not be foremost on their mind.
 

psychstudent90

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Thank you for your response, you have got me thinking. I assumed they would take on a supervisory role at my university when I enrol. They have expressed interest in doing so, but perhaps they are just being polite, and they would prefer to collaborate rather then supervise. I wonder if I should try getting in touch in a couple of months just to say hi and check in, instead of mentioning my PhD research.

The pandemic isn't affecting my country that badly, we have less than 100 active cases, but I agree, it is still a concern.
 
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DynamicDidactic

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They have expressed interest in doing so, but perhaps they are just being polite, and they would prefer to collaborate rather then supervise. I wonder if I should try getting in touch in a couple of months just to say hi and check in, instead of mentioning my PhD research.
Supervision is a lot of responsibility. Collaborating is much less. Especially if you can entice them with publications that don't take a lot of their time/resources.

I'd go with this theory for the moment.
 
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psychstudent90

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Thanks for your input. I think I have been confusing collaboration and supervision. They have offered to collaborate, but not to supervise. I'm annoyed at myself, because they had the capacity to supervise prior to my illness.
 

WisNeuro

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Supervising research to publication in the form of a PhD.

I'm still a little confused. Your advisor/supervisor should be a faculty person in your PhD program. People will sometimes do work with people outside of their program for side projects, but your main advisor should be rooted in the program itself.
 
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beginner2011

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My main advisor/supervisor would be at my university in my department. I was hoping one or both of them would be secondary supervisors, but it seems they are interested in collaboration, not supervision.

I don't believe someone who has no formal affiliation with a university is able to serve in a supervisory capacity for a PhD student. You might have a conversation with your primary mentor/supervisor and they can clarify. Keep in mind, your primary mentor may not love the idea that you are already looking for supervision from others before you've really even gotten started working with them.

Based on what you're describing I would be surprised if these two former supervisors understood what you were expecting of them when they communicated agreement and interest.
 
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WisNeuro

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I don't believe someone who has no formal affiliation with a university is able to serve in a supervisory capacity for a PhD student. You might have a conversation with your primary mentor/supervisor and they can clarify.

Based on what you're describing I would be surprised if these two former supervisors understood what you were expecting of them when they communicated agreement and interest.

In certain circumstances, this can happen, but it goes through a review and vote by the faculty. Generally, pretty rare. For example, student's research interest/career aspirations change considerably. Definitely the exception rather than the rule, and would not be something that happened off the bat in a program. Or at least most programs.
 

futureapppsy2

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I had the weird situation of having my dissertation project be a project I completed with a faculty member at another university who had no affiliation with my university. My formal PhD advisor was still a faculty member in my actual PhD granting department, despite having had no role in the project itself, and the outside faculty member with whom I did the project wasn't even on my committee. But that was very usual and just how the chips fell.
 

singasongofjoy

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It seems very impractical and highly unusual for someone from a different university to be supervising you at all unless it were a very specific circumstance like y'all were continuing some sort of on-going work that you were alraedy in the thick of when you began your PhD, or they're an expert in some really narrow topic. but even then there would have to be, I suspect, some sort of formal process and agreement that included your advisor from your PhD program and it would be supervision on something very specific like a specific project or specialized type of clinical work. Chances are very high that your previous supervisors misunderstood what you meant (I mean, I certainly would have been confused; the words collaborate and supervise are extremely different in terms of time demands and regularity/frequency).

The time demands in academia are generally very high. Adding in anything, literally anything at all, that is work-related but does NOT enhance your own career or workplace environment (i.e., either add to your CV / chances for promotion or foster/maintain good relationships/environment in your day to day) is generally something to be carefully considered because the amount of time you have for such things is extremely limited. Young/early to mid career women in particular often end up doing a disproportionate amount of such work (committees and stuff) that have little obvious personal benefit (or are at least asked to do more of these things). I would not be least bit offended that they are not eager to add supervision of someone who is not actually their student, even if you were their most favorite student in the history of ever. I would go with your idea to just check back in with a friendly hello, how are you doing, mind if I stop by your office to say hi or grab lunch one day approach a couple of months into your grad program. And you could always also write them a thank you note for being such fabulous supporters of you throughout your educational career thus far. Not because you need to, but just because it's always good to recognize the people who helped us get here because notes like that go a long way on days that feel like drudgery (or am I the only one who keeps a folder of happies to pull out on the particularly ****ty days?). It sounds like y'all had a really good relationship and it's worth maintaining for sure- one day you may be colleagues and reconnect at conferences and such which is super fun :)
 
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MAClinician

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Agreed with what’s been posted. But I’m confused:
The pandemic isn't affecting my country that badly, we have less than 100 active cases, but I agree, it is still a concern.
Are you in the USA? You said your country has 100 cases so that is definitely not the US. Academic studies often look different in Europe or wherever you might be?
 
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psychstudent90

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Thank you for your input, everyone. I think I may have misunderstood their intentions, although their intentions have changed over recent times. It feels awkward now, and I'm not sure how to proceed. Should I write to or call them now and explain myself, or just leave it for a few months?

I live in Australia, so the pandemic is mostly just impacting on one state at the moment because that's where most of our international flights land. I'm not sure how the USA and Australia compare, but from what I've read, I think there are a number of similarities. I hope you are well keeping well!
 

Unipsychler

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It's a little hard to answer this without understanding better exactly what you have been requesting of them, and what they've agreed to.

If they've generally affirmed an interest in "being involved", then I would just let this go until you have something very concrete that you want their input on. I.e., when you've discussed specific dissertation ideas with your primary supervisor at school, and have some actionable steps that you'd like their feedback or help with.

If, however, they had agreed to something more specific and have since been unresponsive to concrete requests (like they agreed to collaborate on a specific research idea and you asked their feedback on a certain measure, or to look over a draft, and they didn't respond; or they agreed to be your primary supervisors and haven't responded to research brainstorming ideas), then I might reach out again asking them to clarify their current ability to collaborate. But I would first send some lighter follow-up emails ("Hi, just following up on this, have you had a chance to think about it?") which are a pretty normal part of getting professors to respond.

What should I do? It seems that they are no longer interested in collaborating, but I don't want to end our professional or personal relationship via indirect, passive means, like ignoring emails - it seems immature. I would prefer to have a direct conversation, and settle things.

This may just be my personal style, but unless they are neglecting very specific agreements I would choose to read between the lines and gracefully allow the relationship wane a bit. I would find it much more awkward to have a direct conversation about it.
 
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Ollie123

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Most/all here are North America-based so there may be differences in systems here so we may not fully understand systems differences. I will say that what it sounds like you are proposing sounds really weird to me and just isn't how things normally work, which may partly explain the lack of response. You want to keep in touch and maybe collaborate on projects? Great. "Outside supervisor" isn't really a thing here. Sure it happens, but its usually on a case-by-case basis and not something plans for when starting graduate school. In other areas (I know at least a few EU countries) I realize this is more common/required and just don't know what the Australian system is most like.
 
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