This section sets out some of the most common supervisory challenges you could experience during your research degree.  They are designed to give you a sense of what you could encounter but the scenarios presented may not fit your circumstance exactly.  The examples shown have been developed in partnership with students and the Union and they offer practical tips for how you could approach addressing each challenge. 

Please be reassured that what seems to be a serious problem will often have a solution.  There is no need for you to suffer in silence and there are staff here to help you to find a way forward. 

If you are not able to resolve the issues you are experiencing yourself, please visit Sources of Support  to find out about staff and College support services which can help you. 

Common challenges

“my supervisor expects me to work late into the evening and at weekends.  This is impacting on my mental health and wellbeing.  I feel like there is a culture of “presenteeism” and I worry that I will be frowned upon if I am not in the lab.” 

Here are some options to think about:  

  • Arrange a meeting with your supervisor to re-visit expectations around your working hours.   You could use the Mutual Expectations document to facilitate this conversation. 
  • If you feel able to, you could talk about the impact working excessive hours is having on your mental health and wellbeing.  
  • Another suggestion is to show your supervisor the good progress you are making towards your research, whilst working normal/reasonable hours. 
  • You could also review your research plan with your supervisor and discuss whether there anything that can be adjusted to help improve your work-life balance and wellbeing.  
  • Make a note of what was agreed and email a copy to your supervisor so you both have a record.   

“my supervisor does not provide me with timely feedback on my draft thesis chapters, or when I do receive feedback, it is minimal and I don’t understand it.” 

 Here are some options to think about: 

  • Arrange a meeting with your supervisor to talk through feedback they provided.   
  • At this meeting, you could also use the Mutual Expectations document to re-visit expectations for feedback  
  • Does your research plan include a timeline for when you plan on writing and submitting thesis chapters drafts to your supervisor?  If not, amend your plan so this can be included and share it with your supervisor.      
  • Do you have a Co-supervisor or an Assistant Supervisor (Postdocs) who could help interpret your feedback?  
  • When you send a draft, could you indicate the sections for which feedback would be most valuable?  

“my supervisor rarely responds to my emails and never seems to have time to meet with me.  I feel like I am being annoying when I prompt my supervisor for a response or reply.” 

 Here are some options to think about: 

  •  For many reasons, it may not always be possible for your supervisor to respond quickly to your email, and it might be better to save your queries to be discussed at a forthcoming 1-2-1 meeting.  However, if you are waiting on an urgent reply, try gently reminding your supervisor when you next see them at a research group meeting or other staff-student meeting   
  • Be clear what you want to discuss, and how much time you are proposing for the meeting.  
  • Ask your lab colleagues or fellow students how they get your supervisor's attention– find out how your supervisor prefers to be contacted.  
  • If you a remain concerned that your supervisor is not responding to your queries, set an agenda item at your next supervision meeting where you can both discuss expectations around thisReferring to the Mutual Expectations document can help with this conversation  

“my supervisor and co-supervisors give me contradictory advice about the direction my research should take. I don’t have all the resources I need for my work. I am unsure what to do next and I don’t want to cause conflict between my supervisors.” 

 Here are some options to think about:  

  • Arrange a supervisory team meeting to discuss and re-visit your research plan.   
  • At this meeting present your thoughts and a suggested way forward (based on what you have been told by your supervisors) and seek agreement from your supervisory team.  
  • Where your supervisors have a difference of opinion clarify a way forward before you leave the meeting.  
  • If you don’t have this in place already, try to arrange regular supervisory team meetings with a focused agenda which can be sent to your supervisory team in advance.   

“I feel under pressure to publish research papers.  I do understand that publishing papers is an important part of research training, but I feel like this is impacting on my ability to write my thesis in time and finish my PhD.” 

Here are some options to think about: 

  • Talk to your fellow students and other colleagues you work closely with, for example, postdocs, who will be able to share their experiences with you. 
  • Talk to your supervisor about your worries and re-visit your research plan to ensure you have time to write your thesis and meet departmental expectations for publishing. 
  • If you need support for time management of thesis writing, take a look at some of the training available via the Graduate School and the Postgraduate Coaching Programme which can help you to develop strategies for coping when under pressure. 
  • If you do not feel comfortable talking to your supervisor about this, ask another member of staff about departmental expectations for publishing work, such as your Director of Postgraduate Studies, and see if your PGR handbook clarifies expectations for you. 

“the relationship between my supervisor and I has completely broken down.  We can’t communicate with each other, and I am really worried about being able to fix things and finish my PhD.” 

 Here are some options to think about: 

  •  In these serious cases, you should seek advice from either your Departmental Senior Tutor (PGR), who has overall responsibility for the academic and pastoral care of postgraduate students, or your Director of Postgraduate Studies.   
  • If you want to talk to someone outside your Department, you can talk to your Faculty Senior Tutor, who is responsible for ensuring the delivery of consistent, high-quality support for students in the departments that sit within their faculty. 
  • You should also take a look at Sources of Support [link] as potentially the Research Degree Mediation programme could be an option for you and your supervisor. 

“my supervisor belittles me.  I have been shouted at and reprimanded in front of colleagues in the lab.  I feel so embarrassed.  I have also received emails from my supervisor which I think are unprofessional.  I feel like I am being bullied.” 

No forms of bullying or harassment are tolerated at Imperial. If you experience bullying or harassment, there are different options for you to consider and you can get advice and support before you decide what you want to do. 

Bullying is the exercise of power to undermine another person. Bullying is not legally defined but is generally considered to be repeated behaviour which is intended to hurt someone either emotionally or physically.  

Harassment is defined in UK law in relation to protected characteristics (for example, race, religion, gender or sexuality). It includes unwanted behaviour, whether intentional or not, that is offensive, intimidating, humiliating or harmful; it includes emotional, physical or sexual harm. 

When so much depends upon the relationship you have with your supervisor, it can be hard to share how you feel and take action without fear of repercussion.   The College's Student Support Zone offers specific guidance and support. 

You may also witness bullying or harassment. 

You can report your experiences via the College’s Report and Support Tool.  Anyone can use the tool, including staff, students, contractors and visitors to the College. You can use the tool if you have witnessed an incident, or experienced bullying or harassment directly. You can disclose something anonymously or you can provide your details to be put in contact with someone. If you disclose something using the tool this does not mean you have made a formal report to the College. However, if you ask to be put in contact with someone you will have the option to discuss the best interventions, specialist support, and identify the next steps.  If you do not feel comfortable providing your name, the information you provide will remain confidential and this data will be used to monitor issues across the College.  

You may also find that your department offers Active Bystander training to students.  Active Bystander training is designed to empower individuals to challenge poor behaviours.  Active Bystanders are reinforce messages defining the boundaries of unacceptable behaviour.  Ask your PGR Administrator if this training is available to you. 


A complaint is “an expression of dissatisfaction by one or more students about an action or lack of action by the College, or about a standard of service provided by or on behalf of the College.”  If you wish to make a complaint about the supervision you have received, you can find out more about the process and how to make a complaint here. Complaints, appeals and discipline | About | Imperial College London