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!

48 thoughts on “When good supervisors go bad…

  1. nouki says:

    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…

    • sophie says:

      “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..

      • whyev says:

        I don’t agree with at least 1/3 of the points here.
        And I know something about nightmare supervisors.

        Mostly the ones about not showing emotions and only honestly talking to HoS. What if your super is HoS? Do you honestly think HoS will always be understanding and wont pass things on? Bull. Sometimes it’s better to get your points and arguments straight and just go to yours supervisor, possibly with a welfare tutor as a mediator (or at least inform them of the problem) and talk it out. I also dont agree about not going through Uni with complaints and issues – you have to act as soon as you know sth is wrong, ad its best to talk to HR/welfare tutor so that it is all documented withing= the university. They are obliged to keep all the information you give them secure and not blab it out – that’s their work. They cn only act if you agree to any action being taken or any information being passed on.
        If your lab group is crap – don’t share your concerns, however they can also be a massive support group if they see the problem and more often than not they do. You have to figure this out based on people surrounding you.

    • lisa says:

      Why is that Nouki?

      – Set your own limits. Don’t let someone else push you to take on more than you should.

      This is a quintessential requirement for a ph.d scholar.

      – Work out what your goals and aspirations are. Don’t let someone else project theirs onto you.

      If can’t do this, how will you make the best of your time as a ph.d candidate and move forward?

      Maybe if you answer these positively, you will be able to have a ‘better’/ more enjoyable ph.d candidature?

      good luck

  2. Olga Walker says:

    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.


  3. Susan says:

    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. Elizabeth York says:

    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. Rock Doc says:

    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.

    • Recovering Candidate says:

      That sounds like a carbon copy of my old supervisor. This person refused to meet with me, got stroppy when I declined to meet at their private residence instead of the faculty, refused to sign ethics paperwork I needed to conduct interviews, made me do unnecessary work, and made me look foolish in presentations. My supervisor was the golden child of the department and everyone knew he was screwing me over but did nothing about it. I spent over two years trying to go up the chain of command to get into a better situation. In the end the stress and financial pressure took its toll and I left.

  6. anonymous says:

    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. Shari Walsh - Resilient Researcher Program says:

    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. Anonymous says:

    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.

    • anonymous says:

      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. Ivy says:

    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.

    • Anonymous says:

      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. Thomas P Seager says:

    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. stitchgnomercy says:

    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. FrancesB says:

    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.

    • PhDFinally says:

      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. HSH says:

    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.


  14. curious86 says:

    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.

  15. Dur says:

    What do you do when the supervisor starts claiming that you have not actually thought of any step of your work at all? What to do when they deny that they had said anything even when you show then the date of the meeting? What do you do when your ideas are nipped in the bud? I feel PhD is not about the research at all..PhD is only about the supervisors. No wonder we don’t have any innovation. Oh! And the innovative ideas are also called impractical by our supervisors!

    • AnonScientist says:

      I have experienced something similar in my 5 years of phd. Every idea I submitted to my adviser ended up being placed on the shelf, meaning that they were long tern projects and would be looked at only after my advisor’s broken ideas were completed to his liking.
      When frustrations amassed, mutual respect vanished and tempers got high, he took all of his support and threw me in the deep end of the pool. He took all the shelved ideas and gave them to his golden students. Now I have to find new ideas for my research and all of the old ideas are someone else’s . I asked around the authorities but all of them were so charmed by him that they started perceiving me as the problem. That too with no guarantee that my advisor would let these have my name. As advised by the chair himself, I should not publish that work as I was being funded as a research assistant and the funding itself gives the adviser a right for contacting authorship.
      As luck would have it , this started in the fourth year of my phd when the options were limited. Now I am writing my dissertation under this same guy, and he is forcing me to not put all my work, else he will make life he’ll for me. That would be the only proof for my contribution. I am keeping my fingers crossed now in hopes that justice will prevail and I will get a publication for my work. And hopefully this person will let me graduate on time.

  16. Dr Paul Gill says:

    This is a very interesting story and I’m glad to hear that you’ve come out the other end. It sounds to me like you took on too much and paid the price.

    A few words of advice for all PhD students – It’s essential you agree some ground rules with your supervisors (how often you’ll meet, when you’ll send work etc) from the off and review regularly, don’t take on too much additional work beyond the PhD, keep notes of every meeting (and all emails) so you have an audit trail that protects both parties, meet as a team with all supervisors where possible and when things go wrong, look to address the problem ASAP – informally first, formally if things don’t improve. PhD students usually leave it too late to address supervisory problems, so it’s often impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s often also wise to take some formal time out, if possible, if you are close to the edge and/or seek medical advice. If it’s making you depressed, think carefully if the PhD is really for you. There are far more important things in life (e.g. your health) than a PhD. Never put up with a bad situation, it rarely improves on it’s own and is usually destructive and damaging to all parties.

    Just to add the supervisor’s perspective into the mix here (since ‘we’ seem to be coming in for some damning criticism from some posters). Most academics supervise several students (I’ve currently got 5, 1 just starting out, one collecting data and 3 writing up) as well as juggling many other responsibilities. Furthermore, Each student is different; with different needs, expectations and abilities (and these also evolve during the PhD). Getting the balance right in a way that satisfies the student and the supervisor(s), especially when things are going wrong, is constantly a challenge. Furthermore, when there are significant problems and/or a breakdown in supervisory doctoral relationships, the blame rarely lies with one person. I’m sure if the above supervisor was asked for her perspective on this story, it would probably differ somewhat to the OP’s. I’m not condoning bullying by the way, I’m merely trying to highlight the fact that most supervisors are very busy, we don’t always get it right (but that works both ways) and we are only human.

    Ps in response to Sophie’s comments, I don’t live off or take advantage of my PhD students. Some supervisors might, but don’t tar us all with the same brush!

    • Pocahontas says:

      Thank you for sharing the “other side” of the story. Perhaps, one would then recommend that supervisors acknowledge their limitations and not take on more students than they can supervise, even if it means having fewer publications and grants (in my setting, students apply for grants in the supervisor’s name).

  17. Mellora says:

    Amazing article – spoke to my very soul. So much more eloquently put than I could ever had written myself.

    It’s a sad truth that people act this way. But I’m hopeful to take the lessons learnt from my bad experience and never make them as a supervisor myself.

    It’s even sadder when everyone in the faculty can see the truth of the situation, but leave you to fend for yourself and worse – the a university protect the bullies, not the victims (even where it is all written down, documented and backed by witness statements).

  18. Anonymous says:

    The worst is, the relationship between you and that narcissist adviser will never stop. You will always be dependent on that nuts for your reference letter! This is your last degree and from there, wherever you apply for a job in academia or outside academia, you always have to beg him for recommendation. What a pity! I have just started my PhD and I already have started facing bad behavior from my supervisor, So i am thinking not for continuing. Only because I care about my time and my future! I can west my 4 months and that makes sense. But if I decide to continue next 4 years under this stupid drama-lover professor, I might end up having no degree. Its wise to quit in the beginning rather than wasting more time here

    • Karambolly says:

      It is such a shame that so many people encounter the very same problem of narcissistic supervisors, from drama-lovers and micro-managers

  19. Bubu says:

    I am also one of the people “blessed” with a hands-off supervisor. The fact that he is a genuinely nice person does not make things any easier; on the contrary. Many of his students, including me, are disatisfied with his supervision, but he is such a nice guy that no one wants to hurt him by facing him with concrete accusations. I think my supervisor simply justifies his lack of involvment on antipaternalistic grounds, which in my opinion, is just an excuse from his side to get some load of his back. I think the additional problem is that he landed his very well-paid and prestigious position relatively easy, because he and many other members of the faculty were there in the right place and time (there was a new university opening and the standards weren’t so high, and the offer of potential job candidates wasn’t as ample as it is now). This is not to say that he is not competent, on the contrary – he is a really brilliant scholar capable of giving a good feedback, when he feels like. However, this did cause a certain amount of callousness from his side when it comes to realizing the harsh reality of a contemporary academic job market and subsequently, the needs of his students. He is not encouraging me to go to conference (he hasn’t suggested a single event in 3 years of my PhD), publish or network. He hasn’t introduced me to anyone in the field and is reluctant to “push” his students into meeting useful people or attend events. He is just advising me to concentrate on my thesis, as if that was the only thing that is important for a personal growth of an academic. Further problem is that his behaviour is not an isolated case – most of our professors come from a similar background, had the same kind of hands-off supervisors, landed their jobs relatively quickly after their PhDs and haven’t moved ever since. Workload for professors and requirements to publish at my university is relatively easy compared to other places, so professors tend to fall in the same slumber they are often accusing their students of. This creates a generally bad supervision culture and makes it really hard to complain or change a supervisor. New professors at my department are usually better in this respect, since they had a harder time getting this job, but unfortunately, they are not working in the same area as I am. At this point I just don’t see the way out and I decided to just finish my PhD SOMEHOW, on my own, but it is really hard and I feel very, very alone. Especially since my supervisor does turn kind of harsh in his comments once I’ve submitted something as part of my requirements (comprehensive examination, for example) but never raises those complaints PRIOR to me handing something in. It’s driving me nuts!

  20. Einstein says:

    I am facing a similar situation. I am a Physics PhD student at a renowned university in UK. My advisor had been very nice in the first two and a half years. We were working on tough problems and I was able to find the solutions to them. Interestingly enough she kept me from publishing the non trivial parts of the problem and said that she “does not want to spill the beans” on the good parts of the problem. The result of this was that we were always publishing low quality papers with no interesting results. I did not percieve this as a problem as I had full faith in her, until I realized she showed her favouritism towards a colleague and she praised every conjecture that this colleague claimed without proof in front of others. She even presented my solution in her research grant presentations without giving any credit to me. In fact she said I should never showcase my work on any forum for the same belief of “spilling the beans”.

    To make things worse, she used to recommend her favorite students to great places for internships and she used to send me to complete his funding requirements in labs that were not even half as impressive as the other places the other students went to. I felt that it was fair given her liking of others. The worst thing was that she talked to the other golden students behind my back telling them I was jealous of their progress and hence they should not communicate with me. She told one of the golden students that I was actively trying to find counter examples for their conjecture which had no proof,

    After completing her grant requirements in the internship when I talked to her, thinking now she should be happier, she practically disowned me. She asked me to change departments for no reason. I went to the grad chair and they kept mum on this issue too. At the same time, she had been bad mouthing me in front of other profs. So now after not being here for summer (while I was completing the funding requirements for her grant) I found out that she complaint to the other professors that I was not interested in her work and was merely eating the money.

    Now she has agreed on me graduating but their are 9 papers that “she has not found time to look at” for over two years. She said their is a right time for their publication. I told her that these are crucial for my resume and I would publish these myself (to cut my own losses) but she threatened to give me a legal notice for stealing IP as now she has joint rights over the publication.

    I feel hopeless and helpless and have nobody to confide in. Due to my depression, I have started working in the library rather than my office. Each night I cry myself to sleep, I did not ever realize how life could be so unfair until I enrolled in this Godforsaken program.

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