Am I a student, or a therapist?!

Last year I published a post called “How I broke up with my supervisor” which detailed one student’s less than great experience of supervision. I got many emails after that post, some with really dreadful stories of neglect and bullying. I decided to publish some of them, with the authors’ permission, because I think they contain lessons for all of us, student and supervisor alike.

I posted one line from this email to Facebook and was amazed at the quick response and variation in thoughts, so I’m sure there will be a lot of interest in this story. Although the student invited me to edit the email post below, I decided to publish it verbatim. Finally, before you ask, I don’t know the names of either of the universities involved…

Hello Thesis Whisperer.

I have been thinking about writing to you for a while with my experience of flawed system that is thesis supervision. After reading the post you published this week I had to, I am happy for you to publish an edited version of my experience below. Feel free to email me back if you need to confirm my idtentity so that you know I am a real person and this is a real situation.

I am a part-time PhD student with a full-time, very demanding job outside academia. As a Masters student I was encouraged to consider a PhD by one of my most charasmatic, fun, knowledgeable professors. A few years after I completed my Masters, while still working full time, I approached him to be my supervisor. He agreed.

We were off like a rocket! He and I worked together really well. In the first year I had several conference papers (co-authored) by the third year I had published a journal article and book chapter where I was first author. This was on top of my full time job. I credited the success to two things.

First, he was an expert at the “art of the start”. He instructed me to write papers, submit them often, don’t see rejection as a failure, but rather as a way to get expert feedback on my topic. Go to as many conferences as you can afford, meet as many people as you can, write as much as possible, and conceptualise your topic with cool ideas you can hang a hook on for a career lifetime. I am a workaholic and went down the list. Done. Done. Done. Done.

Sure there were some dead ends, but with so many roads to take who cares? He was delighted with me and I was delighted that he was delighted. We lived a few hours away from each other so rarely met in person and almost never spoke on the phone. We communicated via email and he would respond to me with 24-48 hours. So the second great thing is that he was contactable, seemingly, all the time.

At one stage he actually advised that I slow down and enjoy the process. “The University might look down on someone being able to complete a PhD part time in four years,” he said. “Slow down and start enjoying yourself. Write more. Explore side avenues.”

Then one day he rang me. He told me a few things. First, he got a divorce. Second, his grown kids both moved overseas. Third, he was moving in with his new partner. Fourth, he was changing unviersities. I could go with him to a less research-intensive university or I could stay where I was without him. I advised him not to leave. Never having been out of a sandstone university I was confident he would not like a “new” university he was proposing moving to. He was resolute.

I decided to go with him. That was my first mistake.

Within three months at the new uni he was no longer full time. Within six, he was on medical (stress?) leave. The environment was so bad there he was no longer my supervisor; I became his confidant in all things HR. Within eight months the new uni was ringing me to find some information they could use to fire him. In the meantime I had hit roadblocks with interpreting my data. He was so focused on the vortex of shit he was in, he couldn’t help me out of mine. There is no way he could lead me to completion. I wanted to go back to the old university.

That is where I made my second mistake.

He agreed, and handed me over to a colleague and friend of his at the old university. The New Supervisor is a well-established, world renowned professor at the top of his field. He was one of my Master’s lecturers. His class was amazing and I was excited to work with him. Before taking me on, I gave him the completed 3/4 of my thesis and outlined my work style. I thrive on feedback and requested a 1-2 week turnaround on all work.

He agreed to all of my requests and brought me on board.

Once on board I found out a few things about New Supervisor. First, he has an inordinate amount of PhD students. When I discovered them, they all expressed frustration and concern over the time he would take to get work back to the student–six to eight weeks. When I met with him (once every eight weeks) he would express doubt over the content of my work. It was only three meetings in that I realised he had never read the rest of the thesis and did not intend to. In fact, it was at that stage that I realised he was hardly reading what I had given him at all. Hence the doubts? When I approached the uiversity to find out if he was just doing this to me or to everyone, they said everyone. When I asked them what they were going to do about it, they said nothing. And it was too late to switch supervisors again.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The upside? He was a great editor when he looked at my work. The downside? He hardly ever did. I was supposed to submit within three months of coming under his supervision. It has been a year. I am submitting next week, and I have organised that with the University. He can choose to sign off on my thesis or not. At some point I hope the University will want their money and force the process to continue.

I had already lost a year at the new uni and now I had lost another year at tmy old one. Throughout my PhD experience all my biggest battle has been with the conflict between supervisors and their university: their perception of what their job is (as a supervisor) and what they actually do.

My first supervisor could have/would have got me all the way if he had not had his mid-life crisis. To his credit we are still friendly, still publish together, and he has taken it upon himself to cajole his friend, New Supervisor, into giving me some attention. New Supervisor means well but actually delivers terrible service to me, the University and the Australian government (who is paying my fees). No one seems to care, much less want to encourage him to do better. And no one warned me. I felt that I had done my due diligence by asking around about him but no one would tell me the truth until I was in too deep.

The silent, screaming voices of PhD students subject to the flotsam and jetsom of supervisors’ personal and professional whimsey goes largely unheard by the system. Professors seem to be untouchable, and un-correctable. If one more person tells me to “manage my supervisor” I will deck them. That is like telling the privates in the army to lead the battle. I am tired of leading from behind. Truth be told, I am just tired.

I wonder how many of your readers had a similar experience?

Regards,
PhD candidate, Australia

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51 thoughts on “Am I a student, or a therapist?!

  1. I am lucky to have a wonderful supervisor, but in doing a professional PhD I have had a lot of trouble navigating the requirements of both the university’s changing policies and the whims of our professional registration body. I really resonated with the frustration and exhaustion of ‘leading from behind’. If I behaved similarly to the academics that I am having to ‘manage’ whilst working within the business that I own, I would be bankrupt. Thanks for your story.

  2. Yes I can confidently say that my experience is similar to yours, maybe in a more dramatic way. But maybe every PhD student with a similar story thinks that theirs is the most tragic one. I used to be quite depressed because of what was happening to me, but now I come to know that the ability to keep a good attitude during the process is very important as we should be realistic enough to realize that very few things in real life are ever perfect. As part of life we have to deal with distress and frustration. Believe me I am not trying to be a saint. I just try not to get upset about the imperfections. Since we have no control of our circumstances, the only thing we can do is to respond in a positive way. Sorry these words are not to you, but more to myself… Enjoy the journey!

    • I also had very dreadful experience and totally agree with you that if you cannot change the situation sometimes, try to change your attitude for some specific conflicts. You can fight for the integrity later.

  3. Yes, my experience is similar in some ways. I certainly feel the Australian taxpayer is getting lousy value for their money in terms of the ‘supervision’ I have had. All the “how to manage your supervisor” courses in the world are not going to make a difference if said supervisor simply does not care.

    I have become cynical about the whole process – academics need to take on supervision of HDR students, or need to be on HDR panels, in order to achieve promotion. It’s another box they need to tick along with publications and grants. In my experience (and plenty of others I have seen) it seems that some of them hope you’ll go away and write the thesis without bothering them! In my department it is noticeable that some supervisors always facilitate their HDR candidates to complete theses in time. It’s equally obvious that there are some whose candidates always struggle, are working up to the last minute, need extensions etc. Yet no one seems to be asking the hard questions. Accountability is seriously lacking. Apathy rules.

    I went through a horrendous experience with my original supervisor which effectively cost me a year of my candidature. Yes, I should have acted more quickly but the situation was such that it took a while to work out just what was happening and assure myself I was not going mad. Then navigating the mysteries of the university’s system and finding the right channels to work through took time. Thank you Thesis Whisperer – you put me on the right track!

    I sort of resolved things in that I have a new supervisor who is good although way too busy to give me the time I need. I’m not asking for the world – an hour a week would be very nice rather than that per month. One thing I would strongly advise prospective candidates is to thoroughly vet prospective supervisors in every way possible. Dig deep.

    There’s no doubt that resilience is a key requirement for a successful PhD candidate, that and a good dollop of bloody mindedness. Thank goodness I have both!

    Thanks PhD Candidate for your brilliant post. Your paragraph about the screaming voices of PhD students really resonates with me. And I too am tired. Very tired.

  4. I’m so sorry to hear this! Everyone should ‘manage up to their supervisor’, just as all workers should ‘manage up’ to their manager. But like all work situations, it’s not a way of rescuing you from a terrible boss / unfair job, it’s a way of working with them as a peer (as you did in the halcyon early days!)
    My best advice for people in your situation is to find out if your university has any Academic Skills advisors–they will often be able to read your drafts and comment on them (not as content experts, of course, but often as experienced writing experts). (It’s what so do all day, and I know it helps fill that gap!)

    • Thanks Katherine. In an ideal world ‘managing up’ is great. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about an ideal world. I tried with my original supervisor, and I have a lot of experience of management – up and down. It sounds as if the writer of the original post – PhD Candidate – tried. Sometimes it just does not work and it’s important to be able to recognise that and move on to a more workable situation.
      Thanks, though, for reminding me of the Academic Skills advisors. I used them early in my candidature and found them helpful so will turn to them again.

      • I’m sorry if I seemed to suggest the person should try harder–they have already clearly done everything they should and should therefore (as you say!) move on without a shred of guilt.
        And I’m glad Academic Skills were useful, hope they are again!

  5. Similar thing kind of happened to me, but to a much lesser and lesser extend. I think it is always good to keep some level of professional distance with the supervisor. at the end of the day, if the supervisor needs a therapist, it is better to live it to the professionals. I hope everything will be all right for the student.

  6. This is where the annual reporting meeting should uncover problems, but often doesn’t. If all of supervisor 2’s students had reported their problems it should have resulted in action from the faculty/department/school. Chances are, in real life, it would result in hand-wringing and little else. It’s really hard to know how to handle supervisors who are so intransigently remiss, except to refuse to let them supervise any more students. And that would require systems to be set up with a kind of disciplinary outcome, which just doesn’t happen. It’s very frustrating.

    • Ugh, yes to this. The thing with reporting problems though is that if you are the only one doing so, you’re more likely to be regarded as the problem because you were the one who spoke up. In my case, I can’t afford to report the issues formally because that would seriously damage my work relationship with my Supervisor (he has a track record of burning bridges) and I need his good name as a reference when I leave academia. For those who are staying in academia after the PhD and will need a good reference and the good will of their supervisor, particularly if they’re a big name in the field, the risk is even higher. Lab groups aren’t often so big that an anonymous complaint would remain anonymous. There’s also a potential conflict of interest issue when the supervisor in question is good mates with those in charge in the department.

      I heard from a mate in my former department that the students who had complained about their supervisors were *literally* told the supervisors bring too much money in for them to be reprimanded.

      In my own case, my internal assessors for the yearly reporting/progression system were collaborators with both my supervisors and yet were also there as the people I should turn to if I was having serious difficulties with my supervisors. The whole system is so unbelievalby susceptible to cronyism it’s no wonder suffering students are less in the mire.

      • I agree. From my own experience, my supervisor said that I was the only one he had problems with. I spent an hour of supervision session (which I paid for this) accusing me and trying to feel me with guilts. The more formal procedures invented to complaint, the more the university covers the supervisors and the own disfunctions.

    • annual reporting is not going to uncover this kind of problem if it is run the way i’ve experienced it.

      if you have to get the people involved to sign-off on your review before it can be lodged … and if the people/person you most need to complain about is the person who deals with reviews … ??

      • Complaints?

        At my university, there have been dozens of complaints about one professor. Probably the worst of all this woman has done is threatening violence against (at least) one student, who promptly left chemistry to become a biologist. I won’t detail the rest of her activities, because there would be more words than in this entire blog.

        When I first came here, a postdoc friend at another institution told me to always, always heed the words of the departmental admin staff. While the admin staff would dearly love to see this professor fired, no one can do anything about it because she has tenure. They threatened to cut her salary if she loses any more students, but that’s all they can do. And still she continues. Now I’m leaving for my own postdoc elsewhere, the first thing I did was remember what my friend said – and go talk to the administrators.

  7. Dear Thesis Whisperer,

    Yes, I went through the same experience at RMIT. I think the level of supervision at RMIT is so horrendous! But I’m a survivor as well as a fighter so quitting is not in my life dictionary. I am definitely going to submit my PhD by end of this year. YES!

    Regard, R

    >

  8. I also have struggle with my PhD, due to my supervisor’s personal life. The husband of my supervisor has a severe illness. I’m finishing the first year of my PhD and I have completely lost one year. I haven’t received help at all by my supervisor, not even a single reference advice. She doesn’t even know what my new dissertation topic is about. She isn’t interested in my work and I’m starting not to have confidence in her.
    I’m going to meet another professor in June at a different university (in another country). Hopefully she will give me some precious advice.
    I’m convinced that the most important thing is to be self-confident and keep a positive actitude. It’s very difficult sometimes, but it is really helpful.
    Thank you for the post.

    • If you haven’t had any contact with her for a year, you really need to talk to your university and get them to assign you a new supervisor.

      • Thank you for your reply, Ros. I had contact with her, but we speak about other things (teaching, the book she’s publishing, etc.). When I share to her my struggles with my PhD, she says that I need to solve them by my own. Once she said: “I don’t give you bibliographic references, because I don’t want to guide you too much”. At the same time, when I said that I wanted to quit, she said that she would be very upset and she wouldn’t forgive herself.
        So, I’m really in a doubt. The Department I’m working in is a sort of family. I don’t want to have enemies.

  9. I don’t get it to be honest – I mean I get the general angst of having a poor supervisor but not this specific case – you have managed to publish a number of things and are clearly motivated and organised – so why don’t you just forget all the drama and just get on and write the thing as you are clearly capable.

    • Forget the drama just because you are capable? I have problem understanding the logic behind this. To me, this comment is like saying capable students don’t need supervision at all. I don’t think students should suffer from poor supervision regardless of their capability. It’s more of an issue of commitment. If a supervisor doesn’t deliver, (s)he doesn’t deliver. It’s a disservice. There’s no way to sugarcoat the fact. Yes, students can surely overcome poor supervision with extraordinary resilience. But then after all, what are supervisors for?

      • I don’t disagree with any of them and am not trying to sugarcoat anything – but in this *specific* case – what is to be done? spend months trying to sort it out, another supervisor? What’s the point?

        She’s in the brown stuff and the quickest way for her to fix her individual problem is to get out of it by simply finishing – nothing she does will solve the structural problem of supervision.

  10. Well, I just had the same problem. I lost nearly a year by a supervisor that constantly expressed doubts about my research plan, misleading me with questions and talk that were irrelevant, but most of all, I lost confidence in my self and in my project. This year with a new supervisor I tried to regain my confidence in writing but I think the damage is irreparable and I am moving away from one area of studies where my first supervisor was supposed to be an expert.
    As a result, I constantly doubt about the efforts and comments of my current supervisor. All the presentations and publication are first my own initiative. He never advises on that.
    How could you know that he does enough to support you?

  11. So sorry to read this story, but I have to admit it does make me feel better knowing there are others.
    I have a similar experience. I was taken on by a supervisor that did not want to supervise me, just add me to the number of students graduating in his group.
    I was ignored for my first year, given an unworkable model to ‘optimize’ in on my second that he had personally seen almost ruin another persons PhD…
    and now is complaining about the lack of progress in the project.
    I felt hurt and panicked for way too long.
    Its nice to hear all the positive comments on here too :)

  12. i am trying to complete my thesis having withdrawn from my candidature.

    in my first year, after my initial research proposal was accepted, i was asked to change supervisor. this led to my second year being spent going round and round in circles trying to explain my proposal, trying to explain why my methodology was even research, trying not to loose my mind as months would go past between proposal panels.

    along the way i had to revise everything about my research. my case study was taken away from me. i was denied access to funding to attend conferences. i was told not to waste time on publications. my supervisor agreed to all of these things, effectively on my behalf – i was given no opportunity to argue my case.

    so, literally the day before Christmas of the second year of my candidature (and scholarship), i was permitted to proceed with someone else’s research design. given a year to learn a new methodology, new methods, and expected to find a new case study to apply them to – and do the research – i basically ploughed into the ground.

    along the way, my supervisor left to try to get elected to parliament, a relationship imploded, and a second ran away from me. i got to watch the spectacle of admin staff so obsessed with ‘completions’ that they actively obstructed several efforts of mine to triage what was left of ‘my’ research.

    finally, everything gave way at once: i was told to withdraw or be suspended for ‘insufficient progress’, my scholarship ran out, and so did my second partner. my supervisor had only read drafts haphazardly amongst his efforts to get elected, stints as acting head of school (he actively avoided the role proper), and efforts to avoid being moved to a new school.

    a year after being told to walk the plank, or be pushed, i am sifting through almost 200,000 words: draft chapters and a 10,000 word publication (two years after the ‘ban’, it was revoked – my thesis model is/was always supposed to be “including publications”) …

    and yet, throughout all of this, i have seen many others in worse situations (and more than a few in better). i still reach out to those i know struggling through this journey. many have started, and completed, during my time.

    this year *has* to be the end of this.

  13. I’m a Master student and I’m living the same experience.Maybe it would be ambarasing to say that but It’s a relief to find people abroad living the same problem. I passed a year and I didn’t make any progress. I can barely meet my supervisor and when I did I wish that I didn’t because he never liked what I’m doing or he didn’t take time to read it.I’m not sure.I’m loosing my confidence in myself and the most dagerous thing that I’m starting hating research. also, which make things harder it’s the fact that in my country we don’t investigate in resarch so basically there is no free access to journals neither a good libraries

  14. We all have the same problem here. I have lost a lot time in my research as well because supervisors can be so demanding yet they don’t actually help you on anything at all.

  15. Similar thing kind of happened to me, but to a much lesser and lesser extend. I think it is always good to keep some level of professional distance with the supervisor. At the end of the day, if the supervisor needs a therapist, it is better to leave it to the professionals. I hope everything will be all right for the student.

  16. My thesis supervisor isn’t nearly as difficult to manage as in your case, but I’m very familiar with the frustration of “manage your supervisor.” Because my supervisor is not an expert in my domain of research (rather poor planning on my part), I’m forced to collaborate with other researchers at my university to get the feedback I need. Unfortunately, this usually results in me sending out dozens of email reminders about meetings, giving strict deadlines about when documents should be read and feedback given, and organizing my progress around the needs of my supervisors. It stinks. I feel like I get all the management resposibilities without any of the authority. Before my PhD, I thought that supervisors were supposed to supervise the student, I now know that it’s the other way around.

  17. I don’t see much mention of the co-supervisors in these discussions. Do most of you have more than one supervisor in order to cover some of the gaps (and may keep the others honest!)?

  18. Pingback: Do other PhD students do this too? | cartesian product

  19. I am a lecturer in a university, and getting a PHD is in my plan, maybe in a couple more years. This story is an eye opener, now i can better myself at preparing for the road ahead. Thank you.

  20. All rings true. Cynically (perhaps) I’m starting to think that MA’s and PhD’s are just routes to revenue for Universities. It’s all about cash. In the good old days it took 7 years to read for a Doctorate, now, they’re being given out like Smarties. The more the merrier – kerching – without the infrastructure in place for appropriate support.

  21. You are right, you can’t manage your supervisor, you can only make the best decision for yourself at the time. In my experience, that personal drama and decision-making, good and bad, is the only thing that will prepare you for life after school [unless you become a prof or work for the gov :), not the thesis or the methodology or the published papers.

  22. Great post. The supervisor-student relationship, and choosing a supervisor (or advisor in the US) seems to be critical to advanced degree life. I work in a collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty and have watched students struggle through miserable relationships. Best piece of advice I’ve heard is talking to advisees before you enroll–some casual place like a bar or pub away from the university.

  23. I have the same sentiments with my undergraduate adviser (who was a PhD). I think PhD professors are likely to be eccentric rather than bright and brilliant, thus accounting for a number of adviser-advisee blues. For example, the botanist at my univ drinks strong beer every night; a guy in the same academic group died of liver cirrhosis — they weren’t friends. My adviser in particular works on holidays, never goes home even during Christmas, doesn’t get along too well with co-faculty, lives alone and doesn’t eat right. I would hate to hear about a death and 4 external hard drives that stopped working, because that’s where all his nearly 10 years of data and samples are stored. When I asked if I could submit my manuscript, he said to wait for 10 years. While the guy at the lab next door published the anti-cancer properties of some plant extract that he tested in a few weeks.

    Nevertheless, I love the academe. Working now in consulting, which is like the cancerous clone of academia, scientific language and quality of data-to-interpretation argumentation is shit, yet rakes in hundreds of thousands in contract completion packages. World academic culture just needs to reformat and re-vision just a little!

  24. Nightmare supervisors aren’t all that rare then I see. It’s an awful thing to say, but I’m glad I’m not alone! My supervisor throughout my phd promised me funding. The only reason I stayed on from a masters was because I was convinced by the supervisor that funding was being sought for me. Sadly it wasn’t and it never materialised! You could say I’ve seen more poverty than some postgrads. Topping this off the supervisor (such a loosely used term, because they were far from one!) would shout at me in public, declare my data as rubbish in front of external guests, accuse me of wasting their resources, was racially abusive at one point (but I put it down to their age – yes, that’s no excuse, but that’s what I did), stole my work to present as their own, ignored me when I asked for any kind of advice, and when they didn’t ignore me they would shrug at me instead!

    They are a prof at a prestigious institution and have lots of friends in high places that are able to cover for them. They are incapable of collaborating with other academics – it essentially turns into “mine is bigger than yours” competition, egos flare, and nothing gets done! They are also an alcoholic (which is none of my business) but have shown up drunk to internal meetings (that they set up), and fail to arrive to potential commercial collaborator meetings (embarrassing beyond belief! I spent the whole hour apologising!).

    You would think that the advisor would be a bit better in this regard, ie the go to person when an altercation occurs with the main supervisor. But when I went to them in confidence, my advisor held up their hands to me and said they wanted nothing to do with me or my phd. So that ship well and truly sunk!…so I was alone! I thought by the end of my phd I thought I was finally free…but they didn’t read my thesis, and didn’t bother seeing things through in my thesis submission period.

    Complaining further up the food chain didn’t help, they just told me to be ready for the backlash that would most definitely occur. That told me I didn’t really stand a chance (and that they weren’t going to do anything to help me), so I withdrew the complaint and kept my head down. When will this epidemic of crappy supervisors be contained? My guess is never. It’s a vicious clique of old school academics, who are very happy back-scratching each other in their cosy tenured positions.

    Crapademia is a farce as far as I’m concerned, and I now have zero respect for crapademics. The sooner I’m out, the better. Two fingers at the ready, with a special middle finger medley for the supervisor I ended up with.

  25. Pingback: Am I a student, or a therapist?! | Human Relationships

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