Matters to a Degree

Woman looking through binoculars

Truth be told, almost everyone has had at least one bad research or clinical supervision experience. While we hate to think of such things happening in psychology training, the reality is that not all supervisors are created equal, nor do they all have the requisite skills to supervise effectively. Other times, the personalities of a supervisor and supervisee simply clash, making the relationship a bad one for both. What's a student to do?

  • Realize you're not alone. Bad supervision happens in every profession and in every learning and work environment where hierarchy exists. It would be unfair to characterize bad supervision as a large, typical or growing problem in psychology, yet it happens frequently enough to warrant this column. After all, the average graduate will have had a large number of direct and indirect supervisors through research teams, dissertation committees, practicum, internship and postdoctoral training.

  • Choose carefully. When you have the option to select the research team you'll be on or your clinical supervisor, learn about that supervisor to determine how well you'll match. What have other students' experiences been with this person? What's his or her supervision philosophy? Is regular feedback given? Will your strengths and weaknesses be identified, and will you be pushed to reach your potential?

Remember, a good researcher or clinician doesn't automatically make a good supervisor. Before deciding to work with a supervisor, consider scheduling a meeting to discuss supervision strategies and how he or she will help fill your knowledge gaps and expand your skills.

  • Seek diversity. Do whatever you can to ensure exposure to a variety of research techniques, theoretical orientations and applications, testing approaches and supervisory styles. Working with nurturing supervisors who share your worldview provides a good starting point for solidifying your emerging identity. Having the same supervisors for most of your training, no matter how much you like them, can lead to narrow thinking in a field that respects a diversity of opinions and valid techniques.

  • Seize opportunities-while you have them. If you thrive in analyzing quantitative data, challenge yourself to delve into qualitative data analysis. If you are convinced that you're ultimately going to practice with delinquent adolescents, consider a practicum focusing on geriatric neuropsychology. Be mindful that supervision can be interpreted as bad in situations that oppose your fundamental beliefs.

  • Acknowledge your limitations. Some say that it's human nature to initially blame others for our own discomfort. In bad supervision experiences, start to address the issue by honestly evaluating your strengths, and limitations. Are you particularly defensive or closed-off to certain types of feedback? Are you sufficiently humble about your skills? Do you have personality features that impede productive relationships? Are you respectful of your supervisors and those with more experience?

  • Know your rights and responsibilities. After you know your limitations, you have the right to discuss your concerns and needs with your supervisor. Directly expressing your opinions, observations and dissatisfaction about supervision is a valuable developmental task, and your responsibility. Supervisors must know what you're thinking and experiencing in order to modify their behavior to meet your needs.

Effective confrontation isn't accusatory. It's candid dialogue about behavior and consequences for both. If one-on-one conversation isn't successful, get outside assistance from another faculty member or your supervisor's boss.


While it may seem torturous at the time, having a bad supervisor can be a good learning experience. It challenges you to think independently, better understand our profession's ethical standards, learn to appropriately confront someone with power over you, clearly identify and articulate your training goals, evaluate your developmental shortcomings, seek outside consultation, negotiate difficult relationships and incorporate critical feedback. If you can manage the stress, you will emerge from a bad supervisory experience as a better person and a more competent psychologist.


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