I was threatened by my supervisor for termination

Z

Hi all,

I am a second year PhD student passing 18 months of doctorate. I am an international and funded student in the UK.

From the very beginning stages of my PhD I had challenges with my supervisor. The environment was more like a boss-employee relationship rather than student supervisor one. I assume this is due to the funding I receive for this programme. He also included his wife in my projects and they both had very impolite biased behaviour through me.

During this period he obligated me to do several tasks that were not exactly part of my PhD responsibilities like assigning me review journal papers that he is an editor of. Also, when I had just started my programme he forced me to supervise a master's student. I later realised I wasn't even eligible to do so because I hadn't passed my PhD confirmation yet. However, the most frustrating part of my story is being threatened several times for termination. This is while I have had an acceptable performance since now with publishing two conference papers. However, he understates my achievements and calls my conferences cheap ones.

I am really sick of this, I feel numb and demotivated. I want to quit my programme. I feel mentally affected by this experience. However, I need a graduation degree from the university to be able to apply for the graduate route visa. Do you think I could negotiate this with the university? How do you think I could get an MPhill degree and quit PhD ASAP.

Please consider I have already passed my confirmation exam and have a survey paper under review.

T

Hi, zeryan

The decision is ultimately yours, but a few things to consider:

1) If you push on, do you think he will change for the better and let you pass you PhD? What you don't want is for him to fail you at the last step and give all your PhD data to another person eg his wife
2) Will this supervisor write a good reference letter for you for your future work and graduate route visa? You will need an outstanding letter for both and if he can't, you will be in trouble.
3) Are you first authors in your research papers? Or will he swap you with someone else? My friend lost all her PhD papers to her co-supervisor who insisted on becoming first author because he wanted to progress his career. My friend was an international student and the graduate school sided her co-supervisor.

There is quite an imbalance of power in a PhD study. My suggestion is that considering the amount of power that a supervisor has over your future and you only get to do a PhD once, choose a good one. You will need reference letter and also collaborate in future.

There are three potential route if you want to quit this PhD

(A) Downgrade to Master
If you have two research papers published already, then you could graduate with a Master. If it's still at manuscript, then it's a bit precarious and you may want to wait until you got them published before you downgrade to Master. Then you are free to find a new PhD supervisor

(B) Change supervisor
If you don't think you will get any support, then maybe consider quickly switching to another lab. Speak to students of the lab you are interested in to know the real personality of the supervisor and if they are a good fit. Talk to your postgrad coordinator or graduate school in confidence and read the process on your uni website. DO NOT warn your supervisor you want to change. If your new supervisor is happy to receive you, initiate the PhD change. For now, save all your data into your external hard drive and not your uni or group folder.

(C) Just quit
Quitting immediately may be an option if your mental is so severely impacted. You will have to explain the gap of 18 months to future PhD supervisor or employer but that will be better than the 3 years gap if your supervisor fails your PhD. Given it has been Covid for the last two years, you actually can use that as an excuse for inactivity for the 18 months if you do decide to just quit. If you quit, NEVER mention your supervisor in any resume or to anyone in future.

It's challenging, particularly if you are an international student. All the best.

W

Everything you describe is completely commonplace and expected of PhD students. Reviewing papers and co-advising students are normal tasks for PhD students everywhere. In fact, you should be thankful to be tasked with such responsibilities, since both of these activities look very good on your CV, regardless of whether you pursue a career in academia or elsewhere. One should rather be worried if one's supervisor did NOT entrust one with paper reviewing and co-advising students. This can be seen as a sign of their confidence in your professional competence.

Of course you may not be officially entitled to supervise a student. In many countries, only appointed faculty may officially supervise students. Still, it is customary and commonplace that PhD students and postdocs de facto co-advise students (I did it myself many times). You can only benefit from this: You can put this on your CV and might end up as a co-author on any resulting papers. Why would you be against this?

To give you an idea of what truly inappropriate tasks in academia look like: As a completely self-funded (!) postdoc (!!) I was asked to 1) cat-sit my host professor's cats, 2) help him paint his house, 3) order coffee for in-house meetings and 4) maintain a conference website. I would have, as a post-doc, been very grateful if somebody would have OFFERED me to co-advise a student.

Z

Hi tru,

Thank you very much for your consideration to reply my enquiry.

I have two published conference papers that have been indexed already. I have one other conference and a survey paper under review as well. I am the first author of all the published works.

I prefer not to stay in the same department and change my supervisor. This will lead to biased behaviour through me. I prefer not to be judged.

I maybe ask my supervisor for recommendations, I also have another professor whom I hold his TA sessions. He is very satisfied with my performance.

Z

Dear Walter_Opera

Thank you very much for your response.

Yes I agree all these tasks can be beneficial for me and building my CV. However, the way a task is assigned to you is very important. My supervisor always uses intimidating language and threatening sentences. He does not respect me for asking my opinion on anything.

My main problem has been the insulting environment I am working in.

C

I faced the exact same situation 10 days ago. My co-supervisor threatened to terminate my Phd. Both my main supervisor and co-supervisor have been against me for the last 3 years. I continued to push on and published a paper in a top conference with a travel award. My co-supervisor made me work with his student who was lazy and didn't work but used to take credit for the experiments. I complained and asked to work alone. Since then, they started torturing me. For my accepted paper, they questioned the reproducibility and made another masters student test it. It turned out to be reproducible and my paper got saved. However, they continued to torture me. I once confronted my main supervisor about this behavior. He said that it was all normal. Since I had put in 4 years and had a good paper, I thought of somehow completing my Phd and pushed on. Another journal paper of mine came back for a major revision and neither of them has really bothered to review it properly. I was working for another conference paper and my co-supervisor shouted at me and threatened to terminate my Phd. I am really confused and don't know what to do.

Z

Dear Chinnu

I am really sad to read what you have been through.

Threatening and intimidating behaviour is really unbearable. I have been nonproductive for months. It is very difficult to concentrate on my work. I have faced serious depression condition. I could say I don't enjoy any part of my life with my mind being very busy with my situation.

I am really afraid to seem a weak person who could not bear difficulties. It seems really complicated.

D

Hi Zeryan and Chinnu,

I have a very similar situation to yours. I am now a senior research assistant. The employer that I am working for is very rude showing no respect for me and other colleagues. I know I get paid for my job so one part of my job also includes putting up with his rude behaviors. But the fact is that I don’t really enjoy my job now. The intimidating and rude work environment has made me unable to sleep well.

In your case, I think the best thing for you to do is to complete your phd thesis as soon as possible if you are in your final year. However if you are in the first or second year, you could request a replacement for the rude supervisor.

In my own case, i am looking for other research jobs now. I would resign immediately if I could manage to get a new job.

T

Hi, Zeryan, I would suggest that you wait until your two other papers are published. How much longer do you have to wait? Lay low and do not show any signal that you want to go. Regarding recommendations, I will not be asking the awful one for it. If your other supervisor is nice and trustworthy, you can ask him for recommendations as long as he doesn't tell the awful one. What you don't want is for your awful supervisor knowing where you are gong and sabotaging you. Alternatively, you can ask a postdoc or senior research fellow who knows your work to be your referee instead of supervisors.

Hi, Chinnu, what motivates your supervisor to behave in this manner? Jealousy? Wanting to give the PhD project and your data to another favourite student or other researcher? Wanting to be the first author of your papers? You have put in 4 years of work so you do have a lot of data. I hope that you are saving your work in an external hard drive because if they are as toxic as you say, they may 1) stop your access to group drive where you store your data and 2) terminate you and use your saved data to publish without you. How much longer do you have before you can wrap up this PhD? Do you have a postdoc or senior research fellow who knows your work to be your referee instead of supervisors in future?

Hi, dotdottung. If you are an experienced research assistant, have you thought about working in a company instead of academia? Companies do prefer experienced researcher and it's easier to transition at research assistant level.

Hi, Walter_Opera. Sorry to hear that your situation is so awful. However, it isn't a competition of whose case is worse. I can hear your frustration at work as a fully funded postdoc doing these menial, inappropriate tasks. However, if you are fully funded, is it possible to move to another lab and take your grant with you? Have you explored that? Additionally, have you ever stood up for yourself and said no to your supervisor? I would suggest that you document all these "requests" with details on date, time, venue, sequence of events etc and even emails as evidence and lodge a complain with HR.

D

Hi Tru,
I am not an experienced researcher. I am just a recent graduate (last year). Not many companies hire researchers in my field of applied linguistics. I used to be an English teacher too. I don’t have many choices for me - either working as an English teacher or a researcher. Since I want to develop my career in academia, I would choose the latter job as my career. But I am so unlucky that I am now working in a very rude environment. This has made me unable to sleep well. I really want to quit now.

C

My Phd story has finally come to an end. I kept hoping and working for my Phd. I submitted a major revision of my journal paper and a conference paper with almost no help from my advisors. I got an intermediate result of a strong accept and a weak accept for my conference paper. But this made my advisors angry. I wrote the rebuttal for the conference and kept asking them for reviews. On the day of the submission, my co-advisor wrote a very rude email saying that he was uncomfortable putting his name in my paper due to integrity issues but did not state in what manner. He had already asked twice before and I had made other students run my code and was able to get the result. This put me in a depression and I stopped working. I then got an email from the university telling me that they were going to revoke my student status. I then applied to a startup and they were impressed with my profile and immediately gave me a job. I then formally resigned from my Phd since it is better in the record if I have left rather than receive the termination letter. This is what I would advice anyone based on my experience. If you are facing trouble with your advisor and he threatens termination, immediately change supervisors even if it is 4 or 5 years. I was in a dilemma since I had spent 4 years with my advisor and was reluctant to change at an in-between stage. Oral threat is just the beginning. They will cook up something and send a written letter sooner or later. By then it is generally too late to save your phd since the profs typically gang up against the student. This happened to another friend of mine as well. So as soon as you get an oral threat and face rudeness, please leave.

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