When good supervisors go bad…

I get a lot of emails from students complaining about their supervision experience. This one, from an anonymous student, stood out. I think it’s the way the student thought they had it all figured out – before it went so very wrong….

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 8.20.27 pmThere are a lot of bad PhD stories out there. Stories of never-ending PhDs, of unprofessional supervisors, of labs exploding. But I think I might top them all… or at least a good many of them.

I had a great supervisor. The perfect combination of thesis-related support, professional development, collegial co-worker and friendly laughs. In the face of my peers’ stories of unresponsive, out-of-touch or exploitative supervisors, I used to smile smugly to myself. I’d done my homework, I was onto a winner.

Until I wasn’t.

This is a story of a good supervisor gone bad. But, more importantly for anyone who is in the early stages of a PhD, this is a story of the mistakes I made along the way that contributed to a bad situation.

I came to my PhD after working on a wide range of research projects. I’d seen first hand how important a good supervisor is, and I was going to find the perfect candidate. I practically conducted interviews for the job…

I take that back. I did interview for the job.

I settled on someone who was less experienced that I was originally seeking. She had supervised PhD students before, but never as a principal supervisor. But she knew first hand what it takes to survive in a sector characterised by dwindling funds and few permanent positions.

She was concerned about my professional welfare beyond the thesis, insisting on 12 month plans that covered publications, conferences, papers, presentations, and networking activities, accompanied by five year plans covering postdocs and post-post-docs (is that a thing?). I thought she was great, so great I also took a job with her, and then followed her to another research institution when she moved jobs.

And she was great. She was great for three whole years. Until ensuring that I “had three papers under review at all times”, “had at least two conference presentations a year”, “was involved in a range of professional committees”, as well as working two research assistant roles, applying for numerous awards, running a granted-funded project and doing a fulltime PhD took its toll.

Stress does terrible things to the body.

I got sick. Not just a little run down or out of sorts. I got ‘your life may never be the same again’ kind of sick.

Not surprisingly, things began to slip. I got kicked off a committee for missing too many meetings, I couldn’t find the energy to revise my papers, and the thesis chapters I was turning out were starting to become subpar.

In response, my good supervisor was less than supportive. I won’t go into all the details. Let’s just say that what started as tough love evolved into bullying, abuse, manipulation and lying and, finally, the blocking of my submission.

Over the course of eight months, my great supervisor had become an unrecognisable master of psychological abuse. We were engaged in a war of attrition, a war that took me to the edge of my psychological and physical wellbeing – beyond any place I thought I could go, or perhaps more importantly, beyond what I would have thought I could survive. This sounds dramatic I know, but read the literature of narcissistic personality disorder and you’ll get the picture.

But, you see, I had made myself vulnerable to this abuse. I’d isolated myself. I had two other supervisors but, because my principal supervisor seemed so fantastic, I never built relationships with them – seeing them once a year at best.

As I mentioned before, I also followed my supervisor to another institution. This meant that I was physically isolated from the department in which I was enrolled as a student, and which had responsibility and a duty of care towards me. I stopped going to seminars, chatting to students in the hall, sitting on University committees or doing extra bits of work for other staff members. I stopped being visible.

This was a critical error. Firstly, there were no witnesses to what was occurring. Secondly, because I wasn’t witnessing other student-supervisor relationships or chatting to people informally, I lost perspective of what a normal and acceptable supervisory relationship looks like. And thirdly, people lost touch with how I was doing – windows of opportunity for someone to lend a hand before the situation escalated were missed.

Finally, when I did seek assistance at the University, I was anxious that I was perceived as the problem. My supervisor was a colleague and collaborator of the various staff I sought support and assistance from. I was a PhD student no one had seen in two years. Looking back, I’d say only half the people I sought help from really believed me.

In the end, one of my other supervisors intervened and recommended my thesis be submitted. It passed with no changes.

Yup, no changes.

And my supervisor?

My bad supervisor turned good overnight.

So, what have I learned from all of this?

  • Set your own limits. Don’t let someone else push you to take on more than you should.
  • Work out what your goals and aspirations are. Don’t let someone else project theirs onto you.
  • Build relationships with all of your supervisors. Make all of them accountable and responsible for your progress and wellbeing.
  • Keep in contact with people in your department (staff members and students). This is important not just so you have someone to turn to, but so they know what’s normal for you and can help you realise something is amiss before you find yourself engaged in all out psychological warfare.
  • Document. Let me say that again. Document. When things finally got bad enough that others got involved, I had a history of missed meetings, strings of emails and inappropriate feedback that I was able to produce to support my claims.
  • Smooth it over. I don’t plan to work with my supervisor again. Hell, I don’t plan to talk to my supervisor again. But I did sit down and (very awkwardly) patch things over after my thesis had passed. Academia is a small world and I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve thanked my lucky stars for having “cleared the air” (no matter how tokenistic these efforts might actually be).

Thanks Anonymous! Glad to hear it all worked out, despite the difficulties. I think these are great tips. Has anyone else had to patch up a relationship gone bad after it was all over? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments section.

Related posts

How I broke up with my supervisor

Treat your supervisor right!

24 thoughts on “When good supervisors go bad…

  1. Great article…the advices are very useful, however bullets 1 and 2 are not feasible, at least at my institution…at the end you usually do what your supervisor wants…

    • “Unless You Try To Do Something Beyond What You Have Already Mastered, You Will Never Grow.”

      —Ralph Waldo Emerson

      Fact 1: There is no such thing as a smooth Ph.D, so once you accept this simple premise, things will start to make sense during the Ph.D journey…Don’t forget: Not everyone is cut out for a Ph.D..
      Fact 2: Academics (your Ph.D supervisor), live off/ take advantage of their students- YOU…, that’s how they stay in business and make a profit (e.g. promotion to Professor..)
      Fact 3: It is highly unlikely (not impossible though..) to end up with a post doc position, if you leave on non-speaking terms with your senior supervisor.

      · If you just want to get a Ph.D- persevere and fight on (check some tips below)…
      the old fashion ‘cooperate and graduate’ does not apply to the Ph.D degree.

      · If you want to make a career in academia- then stop reading this text, play your cards smart, don’t offend too many people, and learn to ‘play the game’… Remember your supervisor was just like you before she/he started..the system transformed them, so it is sth that will also happen to you down the track, you cannot prevent this from happening…

      AUSSIE Ph.D(C) TIPS:

      TIP 1: Always check Senior Supervisor’s track record on completions, talk with past students, some might have had a ‘free ride’, so always ask a few to get larger sample- better understanding of the person. Don’t forget to ask students that are ‘different’ to your supervisor, e.g. orientation/ gender, helps with grasping the bigger picture.. Never bag your supervisor or supervisor to be, as some students don’t have a life and will most certainly dob you in, especially if they are trying to ‘get in’ to a cushy post-doc or lectureship position or just the usual ‘free ride’…
      TIP 2: If you suspect that your Senior Supervisor is dodgy… play your cards close to your chest, always pass on compliments about him/her to fellow students, on how great your supervisor is, and that if it wasn’t for her/ him you wouldn’t/ couldn’t have imagined the Ph.D journey to be possible…
      TIP 3: If you decide to publish, always get your Senior Supervisor to contribute, if they don’t or ‘just not that interested in you’, start looking for additional supervisors to add to your candidature, if the supervisor doesn’t accept, move on..will save you heaps of tears and sweat down the track.
      My view is not to over-publish during your candidature, just do an article or 2 (will assist with your examination) and primarily focus on your piece, at the end of the day, supervisors only care about their careers not yours.., so focus on getting your Ph.D, and then publish post completion or have manuscripts ready post completion, with or without them!
      TIP 4: Never blab in your School that you are unhappy, it will ALWAYS go against you. “She didn’t have friends, she was always isolated, Un-Australian…,complaining…bla bla bla bla bla…” When necessary seek legal advice (never use uni legal advice, they pass these things on..)- the best would be a lefty QC (there are some pro bono around for the right cause), keep appearances and when the time comes, go to your head of school and have A CHAT THAT YOU MEAN BUSINESS, BUT WANT TO PLAY IT LOW KEY AND BRING A WIN WIN SOLUTION to the table, BOTH FOR YOURSELF AND THE DEPARTMENT.
      TIP 5: Never sign any documents before you have read them. When supervisors are exposed and the relationship has soured, they will resort to anything.. most common is to hit you on official docs, e.g. progress reports or completion seminar report, most likely submission doc- but it is too late anyway by then… JUST READ AGAIN AND AGAIN..
      If you are not happy with the feedback, and the supervisor is not prepared to comment honestly, sign the doc, and pass it on to your legal team, AND make a comment via email to your additional supervisors or head of school, that you signed the doc, despite it being far from the truth…
      TIP 6: If your senior supervisor cuts communication TIES with you, just be polite and cc your other members of your supervisory team, they will not respond/ comment, but will report to the head of school that sth is going wrong… Expect this to take from 2-3 months, depending on the uni (e.g. redbrick vs. big 8)
      TIP 7:Always document events in a memo kind of style, preparing for the worse.., summarise your case and then have your 15 min’s of ‘fame’ with your head of school. I suggest this to occur after the end of the second year (you should have at least 1 peer reviewed publication/ a conference or 2/ and be confirmed ofcourse!).
      TIP 8: Be prepared to come across dodgy academics/ supervisors that’s academia, learn to deal with it in your own way (e.g. count sheep or get a stress ball!), or learn a trade in the real world.. Don’t give up without a fight, be patient it is not going to be a smooth process, “Come in peace, but prepare for war”…
      TIP 9: If it feels wrong, it probably is… Draw a plan before you start a fight, just like a Gantt chart. Never be emotive in public, unless you are dealing with your head of school.., emphasize the negative impact your supervisor has had on your bio-psycho-social health, back it up with a psych if necessary.
      TIP 10: You are always going to find somebody that will be on your side, so act smart, and be positive, as you will only get one chance to tell your story. Don’t forget to keep your academic friends close, and your academic enemies closer..

  2. It is very sad that a post like this on the relationship between supervisors and students continues to be relevant. But (I know bad English) it is a good post for those of us going through similar problems to read and learn from in that you have provided concrete tips for us to follow. I am intrigued though by the notion you expressed as follows” …”Make all of them accountable and responsible for your progress and wellbeing” Is this a requirement as I haven’t read anything like this sentence in the documentation I am now reading to address the issues I am currently facing.

    Well done to you for getting through and how lucky any future students (if you ever become a supervisor) whom you may one day supervise will be – you will have been through the wars and can advise them based on this experience.

    Olga

  3. Well done for getting through and I sincerely hope your health is improved and you’re now working productively in some way. Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Responding to the latest post – When good supervisors go bad…
    I am responding to this post to say thank you-thank you for sharing information that helps me realize that I am not the only one who has experienced this type of situation. My experience with my doctoral dissertation mentor was similar and I can certain relate to the feelings of frustration, trepidation and shame. I had a motorcycle accident in which I was severely injured, including a traumatic brain injury. Then after a year of trying to recover, my husband abandoned the marriage and everything fell apart ever more from there. And through it all, my once active, supportive mentor seemed to disappear. Soon I was having to send multiple emails and phone calls to get even the slightest response, only to be told she “couldn’t find” my submissions. I finally had to go to the doctoral advisors to get any response at all. My greatest fear, of course, was that since she was faculty and I was just a doctoral student, she would either make it my fault or get so pissed off that I had had the audacity to complain, that she would sabotage my efforts. She did both.
    However, I stuck to my guns and stayed the course. Finally things got better. I had spent so much of my time isolated from my peers, in fear that I could not get help with an unresponsive mentor, that I waited way too long to bring the issues to the dissertation board. I strongly recommend to anyone out there that if they are experiencing a less than productive relationship with a mentor or supervisor, don’t wait, go now and get help. I wasted 2 years of my time and money.

  5. In what was once a friendly working relationship, issues developed with a postdoc supervisor I had that resulted in all out psychological warfare, including: (1) them refusing to sign off on grant application paperwork, (2) subsequently being denied contract extensions, and (3) me ultimately resigning and leaving for another position elsewhere (currently in progress). That’s not to mention the ongoing personal taunts. The bullying reached such extremes that at one point I had actually contemplated ending my life over it. This went on for over 18 months, and while numerous reports had been made to the appropriate people at the university, no action was taken due to this person’s prolific research output and the fact they didn’t want to lose that. Everyone in our department saw it happening, nobody denied it was occurring, but nobody wanted to reprimand the “golden child” in the department.

    I agree wholeheartedly about making yourself visible, but as well as doing so within your department, I strongly recommend doing so to people outside of it as well. Internal departmental politics may not always work in your favour.

  6. This story, and the stories in the comments, are sickening. My progress towards my PhD had also been impeded by a chronic illness, and the first reaction of everyone in the department was sympathy for my *advisor* for “wasting his time” on me. He went bad in much the way described in this blog post. Long story short, I’m now suing the university.

    BTW, documenting will help you with a legal action, but it probably won’t help much within the university. The motto here is, “Everything is the student’s fault,” and it doesn’t matter how much documentation you have to the contrary.

  7. Thanks for sharing the story. It is truly a horrible ordeal when supervision goes bad and not an uncommon experience. However, I think the supervisor in the initial post was bad from the start – too much pressure to buy into the supervisor’s not the student’s agenda. It is great to read the learnings from the situation. We learn an amazing amount about our resilience following such incidents.

  8. I also am in a very similar experience. In my view, many academics do not allow their students sufficient time or guidance to grow into this new being, expecting and wanting it to happen with little input from their side. They are often unable to support over a distance. They are often unable to manage power in a relationship. They are unable to look for facts in cases and take sides along power lines. It is a small inbred group with very long memories. They have all the power so it is best to shut up and try to understand what they put over so poorly – using a liberal honey brush in the process.

    • I don’t think they are unable so much as unwilling to look for the facts. They simply don’t care what the facts are. What matters is constructing a narrative that protects the advisor and preserves the authority of the university. Paying attention to the facts just gets in the way.

  9. I had a similar experience. She was first ‘bigging me up’, telling me (and everybody else) what a great researcher and academic I would become. My biggest mistake was fully trusting my supervisor and even considering her my friend. In trusting her, I isolated myself from everybody else in the faculty – she would always comment how ‘territorial’ others were with me. It’s a downward spiral once you decide to trust one person only. She gradually stopped communicating with me and became angry and mean when I attempted talking to her. My confidence, sense of identity and drive took a massive hit from which I am still recovering. All this has drained me mentally, psychologically, physically, financially and has affected my personal life as well. I can relate to the phrase ‘beyond what I thought I could survive’. I don’t see my PhD experience as empowering at all, even now that I am nearing submission after 5 long years. It’s just a sense of closure and relief that I won’t have to endure this lifestyle any longer. But I still feel very isolated in my faculty and will need to work very hard on ‘putting myself out there’ if I want to remain in academia.

    • Hello Ivy,
      Although you did not give much detail, I can really relate with losing confidence, losing the drive to work or write, and losing joy. My supervisor has done absolutely nothing to help me grow academically. I doubt that the degree once earned is of much value, because I did not learn much, and whatever I learnt, I did on my own. I grieved so much in the process that I totally isolated myself from colleagues, not wanting to be reminded of everything they had that I did not have. Like you, I am nearing completion, and I think I’d rather stay out of academics and rather go professional instead. Almost a total waste of precious years and funds.

  10. Part of our job as senior faculty is helping less experienced mentors manage the crisis of confidence that they are eventually going to have with every graduate student. That is, we all hit a point in which we think to ourselves, “OMG, what have I done? This student will never graduate? Why did I ever accept them? I’ve wasted tens of thousands of dollars and years of effort!”

    At that point, it’s essential for faculty to have their own mentors to help talk them down by sharing our own experiences.

    It sounds like the move from one institution to another put this supervisor in a new environment, in which she was severed from a support network of senior faculty with whom she worked well. Her emotional management, confidence and productivity suffered, and so did her student.

    FWIW, a big part of what academic leaders need to do is manage conversations, because the conversations we have about students, about faculty, about our institutions in general become real. Unfortunately, academics are habituated to toil in isolation. So when things begin going in a bad direction, we lack the self-correcting conversational mechanisms to reorient a relationship towards a positive trajectory — until we experience a crisis.

    I’m SO glad you completed your PhD.

  11. Thank you for posting this. Between a major health event, major surgery and rehab, I know I haven’t been the easiest doc student to mentor (the surgery happened at the beginning of my second semester in the program)…but at the same time, my adviser was going through a lot of stuff and just taking her stress out on her students in really passive aggressive ways. It wasn’t until I heard about her own issues (through the grapevine…not from her) that I felt like I ought to push through everything…I felt trapped like in your position.

    Anyhow, thank you…I needed the reminder to broaden my mentoring beyond one person, even though it takes more explicit work/effort (especially as an older disabled student) in my discipline.

  12. I am conscious that we have only heard one side of the story here. My reading of it is that certainl the student was in a very difficult place, but the supervisor may very well have been as well. From what I see, academics are often under huge pressure. When you have two people with very high expectations working together, and one starts to fail or not achieve at as high a rate and the other doesn’t know how to help or feels threatened by this, things can go bad very quickly. I find trying to see how things might be looking from the other person’s perspective is very helpful in overcoming some of these tensions.

    • While not a severe as some of these stories, I went through something similar. I worked very hard to see my faculty’s POV. To understand why they would tell us students, “your dissertation doesn’t really matter to me” and “I got two emails during my dissertation process from my advisor–you all are lucky for what you get” (I got 1, in which he said he was to busy to answer my question). In my situation, I felt the latter was the key to his behavior. He had models of supervision that were high in productivity and prestige/acclaim, but had poor management skills, and entered postdoc and academic environments that perpetuated this model, rewarding pubs and grants and literally not reviewing student feedback on courses or faculty (faculty confessed they had no idea where our feedback went, since they had never seen it. I imagine a tardis-like supply closet somewhere in the basement filled with large manilla envelopes…).

      How can we expect our leaders though to sacrifice writing time for supervision, to engage in empathy and engagement when it does not concretely bring them closer to tenure or promotion if we don’t teach them that it is valuable, and mentor them in how to have these difficult conversations, which require a significant level of emotional intelligence? Until actual management/leadership/systems skills are valued as part of the faculty identity and training in them is provided as part of doctoral education we will have the same wholly human and understandable, but wholly unacceptable “me first” attitude in our leaders and supervisors, with students who have real life challenges getting thrown under the bus instead of a helping hand.

  13. The stories here all speak to the unique nature of the PhD process. We’re supposed to be both dependent and independent, and this tension never goes away. Perhaps the key lesson here is not to put all your “supervisory” eggs in one basket, and to diversify in order to manage the risk.

    It also seems the relationship takes a hit when a bad life event strikes. I recently came across a blog for PhD students coping with chronic illnesses or disabilities. There’s a lot of good advice (and stories) there.

    http://phdisabled.wordpress.com/

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  16. Another tip that I would add (if possible): find a mentor that is not related to your institution. Where I live, one of the local psychologist groups sets up mentors and graduate students. Mine has been wonderful at providing both support and empathy for my experiences. She also provides a reality-check of sorts; it can be easy to get lost in the world and culture of your institution and not realize that what you are experiencing is abnormal, unhealthy, or unfair, and having someone to help me sort all that out has been really helpful.

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