When I am the (very tired) ‘rescue supervisor’…. #helpme

To protect both their and their student’s privacy, the author of this post asked that they be kept anonymous. They have also modified identifying details and timing, so that it remains generic in nature. That said, the feelings and experiences resonate – as does their call for help from more experienced fellow thesis supervisors, to help them maintain #circleofniceness but stop #overloadme, especially when they are on board as the ‘rescue supervisor’  … Can anyone help with tips and words of advice?  #helpme 

This post expresses my frustration, as right now I feel pretty tired.A significant area of concern are my research students.

Lets start with those where I am Associate Supervisor – and did not freely choose to supervise. In my role as a higher degree research coordinator at my university, I tend to see many challenging supervision situations and often end up helping – by ‘picking up the stray students’, who now need a new supervisor late in their degree for a variety reasons (staff retirement, relocation and – too often – supervisor/student conflicts*).

Currently, I am associate on three students where they (and their tired primary supervisors) need significant help. This is not an ideal situation – for anyone. So when at the meeting yesterday,  the primary  supervisor looked exhausted and said she would do her best to edit the chapter before our next meeting in 2 weeks (clearly it was going to be impossible and it has been in our emails – unanswered, unedited – for a month now), I stepped in and said: whats your workload like, can you truly get to it, would you like me to look at it first? I know why I did that – #circleofniceness but really, it was a stupid example of #overloadme.
I tried to stop myself. As soon I said, yes – I will take the lead on editing that within the next 2 weeks, I wanted to retract it. But it was very clear that the primary supervisor was not getting to this document, and the student desperately needs some direction from written track changes help, not just great conversation at meetings. But, I am so busy, I told the stressed international student to email me lunchtime next Friday with a reminder to work on her chapter – a violation of many socio-cultural norms, I am sure… but she is going to have to be slightly assertive to prioritize getting her feedback right now –  #badme.  And then, there is Associate Supervision student #2 and #3: I can’t even bring myself to write about them and their situations, they are such a mess. 

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And then, of course, there are students for whom I am primary supervisor. I really do care for them, but  I can’t do everything for them and some (not many) are quite needy and I feel like saying (and will soon say); figure this out yourself, grow some academic confidence, ask someone else.. stop turning to me for minor things. 

This post, I think in many ways is simply a vent. And I hope, a warning to others – sometimes we step in to try and help.. especially if we have a formal role as a higher degree research coordinator, we sometimes inherit a messy situation or one we would not chose. To try and preserve my sanity and some type of work/life balance, I think I am going to have to get tougher about saying no earlier.. and about not picking up / helping those ‘stray, needy ‘rescue  students‘  – regardless of how much I feel for them and their situation. An early no, I think, is better than letting everyone (including myself) down by being that unreliable, not delivering supervisorsimply because their field is outside my area of expertise and interest (and I already have a large number of students I chose to supervise from the start of their degree!) 

So right now, the supervison going is tough… and I could do with some wise words from fellow supervisors about how to change expectations and better implement boundaries, not only with students but co-supervisors… #helpme.  Advice please. 

(P.S. I am trying very hard to remember, motivational quotes like “without darkness, stars can’t shine” and “iron is forged in the fire” (or something along those lines). That better be true). 

Post by Anonymous. 

^ Yes, I know – warning signs. Can someone help me with a post about how to keep saying no to these situations – both to supervisors and students?  

Image is of contemporary staircase, with funky balloon style white balls as the structure. 




  1. In the modern university NO is the most important and kindest word for all the people who matter ie postgrads and supervisors- managers don’t understand the meaning of the word

    Al Rainnie



    • I read this and it resonates with me on so many levels. It is as if I wrote it. I think part of the problem is when we allow students into our programmes when we do nat have adequate capacity. Personally I do not want to supervise students anymore if they are not in my areas of interest. And frankly, I am tired of babysitting students that just do not want to adhere to timelines. Basically had to beg a PhD to submit all the relevant documents to graduate. Oops, just vented and stole your post!


      • Golly – I hear you!!! Please vent more, formally, in a post on how to say no or set clear expectations?


  2. This is hard situation. I quote from Renee Brown that has helped me say no which can be uncomfortable is ‘I chose discomfort over resentment’.

    In terms of the current situation maybe a formal process of setting expectations and create a document that everyone signs might help (I am leaning to doing this at the beginning now). This could cover meeting frequency, turn around times on edits, how many times you will review a chapter, expectation that before asking you a question they will commit to trying to answer it and that if they do ask a question that you may ask them what steps they have taken to answer the question or rather than tell them the answer I will direct them to resource and ask them to report back what they decided.

    I have grown to accept that some of supervision requires coaching on life skills and workflow rather than technical issues. This means showing people how to keep a research journal, explaining about how to set actionable goals and implementing a weekly review and unpacking how communicate style is problematic. In the case of the communication that also lead to supervises changing how we approach things. Finally, I don’t do this all myself as a team supervisors will take the lead on coaching different skills.


    • Thanks – Thats a really good point – the best supervisor approach is about coaching really. Love you to write a blog post on that, if interested!


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