One of the pleasures of running the thesis whisperer blog are the large number of emails I receive, on a daily basis, from research students located all over the world.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 5.16.27 pmSometimes students submit a guest post in response to the open invitation I have on my About page. Other times they just want to thank me – or tell me that they have finished their PhD and how I have helped them along the way. Both these kinds of letters make my heart burst with happiness. I couldn’t continue the blog without guest contributions. I love hearing the blog has been useful.

But there is another kind of letter I get. The type that makes me sad – even angry. Over the years I’ve become a kind of thesis ‘agony aunt’. Students from all over see me as someone to whom they can pour out their tales of woe to and ask for independent advice. I want to help. My sympathetic ear is what got me the nickname of Thesis Whisperer in the first place, but writing these emails is time consuming. When it’s possible I prefer to reply publicly as the problem is usually common enough that what I have to say to one person can be useful to many.

This is the latest one:

Dear Inger,

I have been an avid Thesis Whisper reader for some time. Always reading and feeling less alone by reading other perspectives – but now I’m looking for sympathetic/understanding ears who have gone through or are going through a PhD with psychopathic supervisors.

Mine feel they need to own my soul.

I am an adult with many years of experience behind me, but they infantilise me and I can do nothing without their prior consent. This includes writing papers or applying for internships or workshops that might aid my career plans. Or taking on a job to support myself and pay my bills!

Unless they are kept abreast of EVERYTHING going on in my life, and all my plans, they are vicious and passive aggressive. I feel like I am having a relationship with a person with some sort of malicious personality disorder.

My father passed away early in my PhD and this obviously impacted my work. On the one hand my supervisor wanted to know what was going on, but then made insensitive comments about my reaction to it. At other times, it is like my father’s death never happened at all and any issues I have are just because I am selfish and lazy. At other times I am told that supervisors are not there to “baby” their students, and that our issues are our own and not to use them as excuses.

It takes all the self restraint I can muster not to just quit and move elsewhere 🙁

My vent is over. I imagine I am not alone with these sorts of PhD challenges?

Angry Lady

Here’s my response:

Dear Angry Lady,

Thanks for your mail. I’m sorry to hear that you are having a difficult time. I lost my mother a long time ago now, but I remember the pain and anguish lingered for years. It’s hard enough doing a PhD without major life events going on in the background. You should be congratulated on your resilience so far.

Of course I only have your side of the story, but let’s just go with that. The behaviour of your supervisor sounds unprofessional and bullying. Assertive language can help, but it will only get you so far if you are really dealing with what Robert Sutton calls “a flaming asshole” in the workplace.  The only way to really deal with this kind of person, in my experience, is to recognise their actions for that they are: an abuse of power. When someone treats you like a child they are attempting to render you powerless and reduce your ability to take action.

A book I’ve found particularly helpful at sorting through these problems is ‘Secrets to winning at office politics’ by Marie McIntyre. She points out that in any power relationship, no matter how unequal, you will have some sources of leverage. Leverage comes from the word lever – it’s the ability to make something move a lot from a small amount of effort. Sometimes it’s hard to see what leverage you have in any situation, but it’s usually there if you look hard enough.

One thing to look for is the difference between personal power and positional power. In our hierarchical academic workplaces, there is a lot of positional power floating about. As a supervisor you are automatically granted a lot of it. You can sign off leave, milestones, ethics applications etc. You can make it easy for a student to move forward, or you can make it very difficult.

Personal power is different. Sources of personal power are complex, but they have a lot to do with how a person is positioned in a network of other relationships and how they act towards other people.

Now, my own experience of flaming assholes in the academic workplace is that they usually appear to have a lot of personal power. However, when you look more carefully, that power is derived from fear, not love. People who are loved will have people rushing to their defence if a student complains; people who are feared are more vulnerable. Often others in the department would love to help you, but are unable to do anything until you hand them the ammunition.

As a student you have entered into a charter of rights and responsibilities with the university. Those of us working with research students deal with this stuff all the time. There are processes and procedures for handling students who have had deaths in the family and are grieving. There are counselling services and student advocacy groups. If you have performed your responsibilities, to the best of your ability, you have rights.

Use them.

Your first step in exercising these rights, Angry Lady, is to stop being afraid of your supervisor and recognise your own personal power. If you were here, watching me type, you would probably claim that you are not afraid. But if you were genuinely unafraid you would have kicked this unhelpful person to the curb already and asked for a new supervisor. Seriously – no amount of expertise that one person offers is worth the trouble of feeling belittled and angry all the time.

I’m not here to tell you this new supervisor road will be easy. You will have to work hard on building networks of other people to help you through. I’ve seen a lot of people flounder for a time after changing supervisors, but 99% of them tell me later it was the best thing they ever did. You are an adult with years of experience. You can work this out.

Angry Lady – you’ve got this. You really do.

All my best


Do you have any advice for Angry Lady?

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