A hazardous supervisor?


I write this reflection in case it helps others in similar situations, but also as writing is itself helpful to emotional processing. I also leave you with two open questions: i) can this supervisor be trusted not to later try and formally sabotage the PhD? ii) if war comes (i.e. they go in the 'attack' and insist on unrealistic outcomes), what are the best defences?

With half a 3 year PhD left, I have a lot of data. Indeed I worked flat out, at some points pushing myself to breaking point, as for reasons beyond my (or anyone's) control the PhD ends at 3 years on the dot without room for manoeuvre; this cannot be changed and was known from day 1. I knew I needed to get data, and data fast - and that I have done. As example, a student colleague pointed out I already have almost 3 PhD worths of data already. Even cleaning the data alone has taken literally months and I am only half way. The price paid is I have not developed the analysis as much as I would have liked to, but that's what I seek to do now. Importantly, what I have analysed so far shows I have useful and interesting results.

In order to finish on time, others (within and beyond the project) have told me I need to stop collecting data very soon, and no later than the end of year 2. A supervisor does not want me to stop at all, or ever, quoting a target that is the equivalent of 5 PhDs of data, and is almost double what I collected so far. This target is impossible; if I tried I would fail to reach it, and certainly could not do so and meaningfully analyse the complex data. Furthermore the rate of prospective recruits is slower now so could never reach that. Fundamentally, if I do not stop collecting data, I can never actually analyse properly, as the ground of data is forever shifting. Consequently should I keep collecting well into year 3, a failed PhD would be all but guaranteed.

I discussed this reality calmly with the primary supervisor, looking at what remains to be done, and how long this would take. I was verbally abused and told unrepeatable 'truths' apparently about my personality. I was told the grant (which funds the target number) must take priority, and my desire to define a realistic time to stop collecting data, unreasonably selfish.

This latter behaviour is sadly not a surprise, and unfortunately there is a track record of this both with me, and with every student of theirs. The extent and aggressiveness is however 'a new low', so as such I am not sure what they might do next.

My other supervisors agree with my position, indeed they suggested those time frames. My colleagues on the project think data collection should stop now. I simply cannot do, or achieve what is being asked, so I suspect irreconcilable conflict is on its way.

Thank you for reading.


Stop collecting data, and put your PhD first. Your supervisor does not have your best interest at heart. He is being very selfish. The amount of data you collect will be used for his research projects to come. If you fail, he won’t care because he will just get another person to go over the data that you have painstakingly collected, perhaps even without acknowledging you. Take care of yourself. Doing a PhD means training to be an independent researcher and thinker, and that includes learning when to be firm and stand up for yourself. The time is now.

If the other supervisors are ok with you stopping data collection, then you have supportive ppl to back you up.Record carefully all the actions that A supervisor say and do, you may need it to prove bullying case later. I predict A supervisor will try to pressure you into continuing your data collection by dangling the classic recommendation later excuse. You can get recommendations from other ppl in the lab and other supervisors. Do what is right for you. Complete your PhD and get out


Definitely stop collecting and move onto the next phase. Remember your supervisor cannot stop you from submitting you thesis when the time comes (eg he can't say 'you needed more data so the thesis isn't ready', if you and your other sups think it is ready). Could you try and freeze out your main sup by working primarily with your other ones, who seem more supportive? Remember again your supervisors are there to support, not control. Consider recording any future meetings, literally, in a device, (openly, not clandestine). If the supervisor is the grant holder you probably can't swap him, but you could try and minimise your contact with him.


Technically your primary supervisor has not told you how many hours to dedicate to continued data collection.
There is nothing whatsoever to stop you allocating 5-10 hours per week collecting and the remainder of your week analysing what data you already have. Only after completing your current analysis do you attempt to analyse the new data (if and only if there is time). I would even tell the guy that you are prepared to continue analysing the new data after the PhD funding ends. This should keep him at bay.

Cut off your primary supervisor as much as possible, working from home if needed. Let him chase you for progress updates etc and be vague when responding. At this stage you should need this person much anyway.

This is a pretty passive aggressive way to play things but it should work quite well.


Totally agree. Supervisors sometimes do this - to get the most out of their students' free labour - totally putting themselves and their own careers and ambitions first. So you have to look out for yourself here and do what is good for you.


I write to update you on what happened next, should it help others.

I took the strategies outlined, (i) I stopped collecting data and focused on analysis and writing draft papers [tru], (ii) I froze the primary supervisor out as much as possible [pd1598] and (iii) and thanks to the pandemic, I have been mostly working from home [pm133]. There are 3 months left and we are now in the end-game.

The primary supervisor is now becoming hostile, going back on his word to limit distractions. He is literally trying to find ways to waste my time. I have now engaged the other two supervisors on the issue of additional activities, as any time lost now will simple reduce the quality of the third potential publication which they all share an interest in ( I am working on that this month) - it will not affect my PhD as I have enough results and data. They both agree this is unreasonable and I accepted their offer to get in touch with him.

It may have dawned on the primary supervisor that I will finish the PhD probably just about on time (and we won't be friends thereafter - he had been trying to convince me to delay my end date - I said no, and asked me do work for him in my spare time once I am gone - I said "good idea!"). He wrote by email: 'you are trying too hard to finish your PhD... and should accept you won't... you should delay the work with the second supervisor and accept it will not be done on time'. Since he never asked, he is blissfully unaware the work with the second supervisor which does not involve him is currently a draft manuscript for publication in the second supervisor's inbox. Finally he said said no-one has ever finished their PhD on time with him, usually taking at least another whole year.

He will be in for a surprise.

Thanks for the advice.


Love hearing a success story! Good luck with the final months!


It's great to hear this.

It's a sad fact in academia often subscribing to unobtainable targets is a lazy way to boost a grant's success chance. Why propose a 10-person study when you can add a few zeros on a page then rely on a PhD appointee to pull it off?

In my experience some (and I hesitate to say it, but - EU/H2020) schemes are very vulnerable to this. It's seemed par for the course to me that successful grants promise the moon then result in 3 years of delivering well below target whilst scraping through review.

This is perhaps the way of the world but a supervisor's willingness to over-commit should not be something they pass on to their PhD students.

Avatar for rewt

Thanks for sharing a positive success story! It is nice to hear a happy ending and I wish you all the luck for your viva!