Please treat me like a grownup!

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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22 thoughts on “Please treat me like a grownup!

  1. tea&sympathy says:

    Angry Lady: you are in good company! I have just experienced much the same and like Inger suggests, my advice is get a new supervisor quick smart!

    My former supervisor used to belittle me publicly (as “jokes”) and would scold me for taking Saturday nights off (apparently he would monitor my facebook page), for meeting with my second supervisor without his approval, for taking research training courses (which he didn’t ‘believe’ in), for seeking work outside study – and that doesn’t even touch on the extreme steps he took to dictate my research! When it became obvious that he was not to going to stop obstructing my research I raised my concerns with him – in writing – which was then followed by an extended period during which he refused to speak or make eye contact with me. Yes: a grown man, a Professor, giving his own student the silent treatment, to the point where other colleagues began to comment about it. When I raised this with him at our next supervision meeting he argued he shouldn’t have to acknowledge the presence of someone who had insulted him.


    Despite since changing supervisors (and discovering many others who have also have problems with this individual – having a pre-existing support structure has also been a life saver), he’s still trying to dictate the terms of my research, now at the faculty level. So again, like Inger said, although the break is necessary it won’t always be easy or quick.

    I have to say there’s also a gender element to this that disturbs me – some male supervisors seem to treat their female grad-students and staff (and noticeably only the women) not only like children but like their own academic harem. The cross-over with the symptoms of abusive romantic relationships is very apparent. Same goes for the “break-up”.

    Stay strong.

    • New beginning says:

      Although I’ve posted below I thought I might say that your experience is so much like mine (including wanting to dictate and making me write it down). My supervisor was female, so not sure it’s a gender thing.

  2. tea&sympathy says:

    One more thing: as well as seeking student union/pastoral/graduate officer advice – consider also getting friendly, informal, confidential input from either a senior member of the department or a fellow student who’s been there before you. They can tell you about the reality of what impact of the complaints process may play out in your department. Be professional about it and avoid gossiping too. There is a formal process supposed to protect students, but there’s also informal politics which are equally powerful, and in the long run the complaints procedure might make things harder for you than simply getting out of the situation and moving on ASAP. If you do want to make a personal complaint make sure you have evidence, energy, time, know exactly what you want/need to get out of it.

  3. Tori Wade says:

    The personal bullying you describe is atrocious and inexcusable. Fortunately it has not happened to me but I have witnessed it happen to some of my fellow PhD candidates who were in a very vulnerable position as they relied on their supervisors to help them enter academia in some very small ponds where their supervisors were big fish. Certainly, on a much smaller scale, it can be annoying when one enters a PhD after or during a career where one has held or still holds a senior position. In my first month, one of my supervisors said to me “Now Tori, you’ve got to realise that whilst you used to be a corporate high flyer, now you’re JUST a PhD student!”. I decided to let that one through to the keeper and things worked out well; I received a much higher level of supervision than I’d ever experienced in any workplace. When I finished, about 2 years ago now, I was determined to get on with my career and found that many in the university thought I should “wait my turn” and that all my previous experience counted for nought. But that’s another story …

  4. carol says:

    Dear Angry Lady,

    I’ve been there….it was horrible, torturing and inhumane! I totally understand exactly how you feel. I left him after 2.5 years of my phd program. and yes, it was the best decision I made. No human being should be treated that impact your confidence level and self-esteem, and yes it was indeed bullying.

    I agreed somehow there is no easy way of having new supervisors too. You need to prove that you are worth and capable. but at least, hey..I can now see the ‘light’ at the end of the tunnel. Believe in yourself, trust you can do this PhD. Stay extra STRONG!

  5. another angry lady says:

    Angry Lady: I totally sympathize, your supervisor sounds a lot like mine. I’ve nearly exhausted my mental capacities trying to finish my PhD with him and even though I’m almost done (after 6 years!!), I have little confidence and his abuse of power has left my CV so impoverished I’ll be lucky to get a post doc (I wasn’t “allowed” to teach, to attend any conferences unless he suggested them, he’s even blocked my attempts to publish from my thesis and tried to stop my outside collaborations). My advice to you is to get out, quickly – find another supervisor. If that’s not an option (it wasn’t for me, I left it way too late), talk to your student services. They may be well aware of your supervisor’s behaviour, and there should be systems in place for you to explore your options in confidence. Get as much as you can in writing, make notes of what your supervisor has said or done (and when), and amass as much evidence as you can – it will help you make your case clearly to student services. And most importantly – the one thing I wish someone had said to me earlier – double check anything you’re told by your supervisor with others in the department. I was young and naive when I started and implicitly trusted that I was being told the truth, and that if they said I had to do something or couldn’t do another, then I had to follow orders. It took me YEARS to realize I was being lied to and manipulated, and that I had a choice. On the plus side, you may find you’re much stronger and more resilient than you thought. Don’t give up! 🙂

  6. Vickie says:

    Yep. I had a supervisor who yelled at me and I fired her. Best thing I ever did.

    As suggested, being a supervisor is not a license to abuse your students.

    Dump them now.

  7. cat says:

    Don’t even look back…fire him and move on. There is life after this kind of abuse. Listen to what is being said here. It’s true. I thought I would have to give up my PhD and go home with my tail between my legs and I really had to work to screw up my courage to make the move. I finally complained so bitterly and for such a long time and eventually to the right people that I even got a substantial break on my tuition because my situation had been that bad. And then the door opened and for whatever reason, this amazing person stepped up and I never looked back and I am now writing my conclusion. The professor who accepted me was and is academically head and shoulders above the person I left. GO! Don’t even look back. You can do this.

  8. New beginning says:

    I thought I had a great relationship with my supervisor, until recently, when she decided to control everything I did and the controlling started to roll over into being abusive. When I resisted (because of the experimental teaching methods she used didn’t work) the supervisor blamed me. I will now have to go overtime. I haven’t been to any conferences (because I was told I wasn’t ready) and haven’t done any teaching (because it might interfere with my study). I now have a new supervisor and had to tell the old one to stop being abusive. I feel like the old one squandered my time. It’s early days, but if I kept the old one, I would still be sitting here, getting nothing done and feeling bad about myself.

  9. papercut says:

    Dear Angry –

    The first thing I thought was how fortunate you are to feel angry. I was mired in a similar situation (with a female supervisor). For example, I had three deaths in my family, in the span of 10 mos, By the time of the final funeral I was exhausted. I recall meeting with my supervisor, explaining how I’d spent my summer – travelling for funerals and hospital visits, not doing any research – and her response was: Well, some people just bury themselves in their work so they don’t have to think about grief.

    There are other similarities, down to micro managing the project, constantly changing project expectations, lack of timely responses to important emails, and on and on. But that’s not the important part. The important part is that rather than anger, I went to straight to “it must be me”, which lead to accepting the situation far longer than I should have. It was crazy making.

    The important part for you, as Inger says, is to leverage your situation: start with your anger as a healthy source of energy. It is a cue that something is amiss and it can be a spark to start the change you need to finish your degree. Because it NOT a healthy, fair, or acceptable situation. The feedback you’re getting here is one way to confirm that gut feeling you already have. Changing supervision is one solution to the problem.

    There are a few things to watch out for as you set out to do this. I didn’t study in Australia, so procedures might be different, but these are steps I needed to take and things that came up, in no particular order:

    1. document everything – timeline of events with a brief description of the outcome.
    2. be clear about your reasons to change supervisor, and your expectations of a new supervisor.
    3. be open and candid about what you are doing with appropriate administration. do NOT have informal chats with other faculty about your supervisor. this is more of the same bad behaviour you’ve experienced – political, gossipy – and could come back to haunt you.
    4. DO use official channels and DO take a lead role in managing your request. YOU get to drive this process. E.G – the dean of your faculty or programme is there to ensure students complete their degree. they are there for this exact situation. arrange a confidential meeting, present your case, propose a solution and a timeline for resolution, and understand exactly how this will happen in the bureaucratic world of a university. who does what? when? how many forms do you have to fill out and who signs? will you let the old supervisor know about a change or will the dean?
    5. figure out who you want to take on the new role and have similar info ready for them especially expectations. prepare to shift course in the research or its presentation, as a new set of eyes sees the project for the first time. set a tone for the new relationship by being explicit about mutual expectations, options for problem solving etc. again, you have a chance to regain control here and hit the reset button. AND keep the old supervisor out of your work with the new. they might be a challenging person for everyone, but retaining professional working relationships in spite of personal problems is often necessary. don’t put the new supervisor in the middle of anything. at the very least, you can model this behaviour. this is about what you need, not what the old supervisor did. (this tactic will also help you to let go – in time – of all the crap you’ve endured).
    6. prepare for some resistance by old supervisor – they have “invested” time with you so far – how will they retain credit for that? will they be angry or continue to demand a hand on the project? a meeting with admin (e.g. dean) could help do an end run around these requests. they may retain a background/nominal role in completing the degree, but have no day to day involvement. prepare for their input during exams/editing and know how to handle that.
    7. consider approaching the university’s student ombudsperson. they will know the policies and regulations that apply to your situation. they should have your back, and be able to guide you through this. they understand students have lives, that academia is often messy and political, and that faculty sometimes do NOT work in the best interests of their own students.

    Good luck Angry! Go gently with yourself on this. You know what to do, it is now a practical problem. Once you’ve started the ball rolling and have a resolution, consider a mini break to clear your emotional plate, take time to gather yourself for a new start with the project itself, and enjoy finishing your work on your own terms! You can graduate as Empowered Assertive Lady!

  10. DT says:

    I had to change advisors and it was extremely painful at the time but so so good in the long run. In hindsight I wish I would have made the change sooner, and I wish I would have had the courage to speak face to face to my former advisor and let them know why I was changing. Instead, because of fear and lack of claiming personal power, I talked to friends and to one or two other professors who I deemed safe, but word got back to the advisor that I was unhappy and they took it as an opportunity to dump me (via email) and save themselves the potential reputation hit of having a grad student ditch them. Their behavior throughout the relationship was often abusive and demeaning so the change was overall a good thing. It would have been less painful if I would have made the decision sooner and quit the relationship of my own accord though. I wholeheartedly agree with this post!

  11. Marwan says:

    Dear angry lady,
    I have gone through a different story, having to battle cancer at the end of my second year, then restarting a new project and, you guessed it, a reshuffle of my supervisory panel and a new main supervisor. I must say that, despite a few issues with the previous project and supervisor, which where absolutely due to logistic issues rather than meanness, I had and still have a very good relationship with my ex-supervisor. He stayed on my panel, but is no longer my supervisor. And my new project is going on smoothly, largely thanks to the amazing support I am getting from my new supervisor. It is doable! You can and must change your supervisor, and it can be as easy or as hard of a transition period if you make the right decision, giving it ample thought and getting advice from peers and faculty around you. You must do it. You have no excuse to quit because of your supervisor because you have the tool to change the situation, so do it! I wish you all the best and I hope we’ll hear your good news soon.

  12. Liz says:

    Been there done that have the t-shirt. I was told a true professional wouldn’t let anything get in the way of their performance (father’s death, my cancer surgery – they wanted me to take my comps from my hospital bed the day after an 11 hour surgery while under the influence of powerful pain killers). The asshole factor never went away. I did fire the jackass and was retaliated against. There were times I had to repeat to myself there were good reasons why I wanted to get a PhD; the fact that I couldn’t think of any of them right now was not good enough reason to quit.

    I hate to tell you but these same assholes turn into peers and as an assistant professor you can very well end up in a similar minefield.

    My advice:
    1) emotionally detach.
    2) don’t tell the person anything more than absolutely necessary and be very polite about it
    3) Play dumb and respond to stupid comments with things like, “I appreciate the advice and will take it under advisement” (while struggling to keep your tone of voice pleasant and not rolling your eyes)
    4) watch who you complain to. Abusive faculty often have an agreement that they will not beat on those who tattle.
    5) Be flawlessly professional
    6) I found it helpful to sometime privately wish for them to have a collision on the highway with a cement truck. I also fantasied that I would get rich and would give a huge donation to the college with the condition that asshole was fired with a huge public release of information about the firing LOL
    7) document everything and if necessary go to the graduate school dean (helps to sidestep the power structure in the department and college. You are likely not the only one being abused and many people won’t help you because they would prefer that the asshole stays away from them and their students thus you can’t always expect help within the department or school/college). By doing that you put the pressure on the college/school dean to fix the problem or at least protect you. You need to make at least one stop at the dean’s before you go up the hierarchy. To finally get out I filed on won several grievances (asshole changed grades of mine – asshole was dept chair and I got him off my committee, asshole changed me out of my advisor’s dissertation credits into his and then failed me… My committee chair had to call campus security to remove asshole from my defense due to his disruptive behavior).
    8) Be polite but stay away to the extent that you can. If you don’t come to the office as much let the asshole know that you are working where you won’t have interruptions because you are working on X (where X is important to asshole). Sometimes asshole will start picking on someone else if you aren’t there all the time. Not fair, but it at least gives you a break for a while.
    8) recognize if the department truly wanted to do something about this they could. Since they haven’t they aren’t likely to do anything. Grad students are often collateral damage in whatever other power struggles, infighting and backstabbing that goes on in a department. You are expendable, disposable and if a few grad students are chewed up and spit out they will just blame the victim. No skin off of their teeth. Don’t expect fairness/equity and you won’t be disappointed.

    None of this fair, right or ethical. And likely you will just have to learn how to live through it, realize that once you have your PhD you can walk away from your advisor although resist the impulse to give them the finger because they can still screw you professionally if they want. Continue to be polite and kill asshole with kindness. You will be forgotten and a new victim unfortunately will be in place.

  13. Liesel says:

    This 100% happened to me too! My supervisor wouldn’t let me do anything, teach, go to conferences, publish, network, because it was all a waste of time. I had to sit down and write my thesis, then, when I have my doctorate, I will be ‘grown up’ and ready to do those things.

    He generally functioned under the assumption that I owed him an enormous debt of gratitude for making my project possible.

    His employment was since terminated for unrelated reasons, but he still lurks around in the shadows, boycotting and sabotaging whenever he feels I am doing things ‘behind his back’.

    I think the trick is to be a part of the wider university research community, to find out what is par for the course and what isn’t, and to not be afraid to use the resources available to you, especially the ones your supervisor thinks are a big waste of time and university resources.

  14. Liesel says:

    Reblogged this on Archaeology and Science and commented:
    The isolation that comes with postgrad research can be dangerous when you don’t know if what you’re going through is normal or not, OK or not. I guarantee your university has things in place to help you. Use them! Don’t suffer in silence, it isn’t worth it.
    This post is from the Thesis Whisperer about supervisor bullying.

  15. NQ says:

    Is this unusual in your field? In mine, I couldn’t apply to anything other than maybe a half-day, free, department-led workshop without asking my advisor. How could you write a paper without getting your supervisor’s approval? You’re doing work that doesn’t concern them, somehow??

    Otherwise, yes, I used to have an evil, psychopathic supervisor who bullied all she came across. She had this desperate need for manipulative control over everyone she met, and because she’s a big name, all she ever got handed was more power. These people will never stop – but you can change your responses to them. I still see my evil ex-boss around, and because of her extreme paranoia she still wants to destroy me. However, she can’t! When you finally get to graduate, make your views known to someone else in your department. They’ll probably say “ah yes, Professor X”. And again, nothing will happen, but the more this knowledge spreads in your field, the safer future students will be.

  16. västgötaspets70 says:

    Academia is the last bastion that considers itself well outside of the rules of industrial relations and any form of workplace legislative framework. In most other industries and public service sectors, the majority of the antagonists described above would have been subjected to disciplinary action in one form or another. The core problem of enabling this evil and despicable behavior in academia will not change until fundamental reform is made in the funding and review models for research. No university will discipline an academic that has successful track record, grant funding, and supported by outdated medieval hierarchies. These layers of protection need to be dissolved and done away with, then there may begin to be change. Victimised, traumatised, post-traumatic stress disorders, suicides… what will it take for the academy to change the extraordinary power imbalance within universities? Money. Universities should be held accountable for complaints and disputes arising from students like those above and fines should be imposed on an offending institution by an education ombudsman. Just like the Telecommunication ombudsman directly fines each company in proportion to the number of complaints and disputes that they receive. I would campaign for an external solution to this problem that appears to be systemic throughout academic institutions that an education and research ombudsman office with the power to impose substantial fines for each dispute, then there may be some actual change in disciplining or controlling the psychopaths and sociopaths that fill most of these research institutions.

  17. Christoph Schnelle says:

    There are a lot of excellent comments and advice on this page.
    When I end up in a dysfunctional relationship I wonder where my part in all of this is, especially if I observe others who relate well to that person. Am I only reading part of the situation or are there important aspects of the relationship that I missed?

    Why did I not read the situation from the beginning? Did I consciously choose a difficult supervisor for the other benefits and was I correct in that choice? If I wasn’t aware from the beginning of the foibles of my supervisor, the question is why wasn’t I? How come I couldn’t see or feel it? Did I ask others about their opinion of this supervisor? Did I socialise with or relate to my supervisor beforehand in any way? If not, why not?

    What actually happened? Why did the supervisor accept me? A bully in my experience is very uncomfortable with a person who will not accept even a hint of abuse – there are usually some telling moments right at the first meeting. A bully may need to know whether you are suitable and I have often seen little giveaways right at the beginning.

    Once you realised you were with a bully, did you take immediate action? The earlier you act, the smaller the damage usually. Did you make sure you had more than one supervisor? If you ended up with multiple bullies – how come?

    These questions may or may not lead to useful answers but dysfunctional relationships are endemic and understanding them and dealing with them is in my experience suitable in any area of life.

    I am also learning enormously from my dysfunctional relationships though they are not unequal at the moment – I am becoming aware of many aspects of my behaviour, of ideals and beliefs that make me react to what happens rather than reading the situation and respond appropriately.

  18. unsigned self says:

    Just a comment in relation to these remarks, which I find quite fitting 🙂

    – “the difference between personal power and positional power”.
    – “…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”
    – “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.”

    I wanted to add that it is important to remember that one source of your personal power is the university’s obligations to the law. Read and re-read the university’s policies and procedures, equip yourself with the knowledge that allows you to understand what legal acts they are beholden to, where it is relevant to your circumstances.

    An example of how this can become a source of personal power can be seen in this message from the Australian Information Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, who invites all Australians:

    “… to take a few minutes to look at our [Office of the Australian Information Commissioner [OAIC]) website, and understand what you can do to take privacy into your hands.
    … while your personal information can be collected and used for reasonable purposes, it always remains your personal information and you retain a number of rights including:

    – the right to see what information an organisation is keeping about you and;
    – the right to make a complaint to my office if you think your information has been mishandled.

    [because] in the information age, your personal information is one of your most valuable assets.”

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