Only 3 months left - massive bust up with supervisor


Hi all

I'm in the last 3 months of my lab based science PhD. To cut a long story short, I stood up to my supervisor when he was trying to do something (work related!) that I think even he knew was wrong and he didn't like it one bit. Since the incident he has been telling lies and generally being nasty about me to others in the department behind my back. I know this because many of them are my friends so obviously they told me about it. For instance, he told one of the other PhD students that he thinks I am a terrible research student and told the student to pass the message on to me. He has also sent me a string of quite aggressive emails but when I see him in person he won't even look at me or acknowledge me. I feel like I have gone back in time to school.

Prior to this I would describe our relationship as so-so as he is no longer interested in my area of research and is trying to move the lab's work to another, more lucrative, area of research.

Word has got around the department what has happened between my supervisor and I and thankfully everyone is on my side as they know what he is like. That doesn't stop this being very stressful.

In addition I am 5 months pregnant, which is making me easily upset and probably less able to just brush off this nastiness. I also still have LOADS of lab work to do before I leave. I must say though that this whole situation has left me very demotivated and tired.

I just don't know what to do. Should I make a formal complaint or am I just making a mountain out of a molehill? A friend (another student) suggested changing my primary supervisor but my second supervisor is just a supervisor on paper and has no idea what I'm doing. With the end so near I worry that any change would disrupt my PhD to my detriment and may cause me to fail.

What do you guys think?



That sounds like an awful place to be in.

As your username reminds me, your pregnancy is likely having a significant effect on your mood.

Do you have someone other than your supervisor you can explain your problems to? It seems to me that you are taking on an awful lot! Perhaps a female ear (ideally a mother herself) would be able to listen to you and help you make a plan to get through the final push (no pun intended!)

Ejc x


Thanks for the reply Ejc. Yes I have lots of friends in the department, some of whom have children, who have been really supportive since this situation blew up. The problem is that none of them is in a senior enough role to help me get out of this mess with my supervisor. I worry that telling anyone who is senior enough would make the situation 'official' and probably cause me more stress.

I would like to add that I stood up to my supervisor on what is best described as a HR issue. I wouldn't dare tell him how to do lab work!

Also, this is the second time he has added to my stress levels in the last few weeks. A few months ago he said that funding might be available for a post doc in the lab and, if he got the funding, he would like me to take on the role (so he obviously doesn't think I'm a terrible research student like he said this week!). He still hasn't got the funding and I hadn't heard anything since but about 2 weeks ago I walked into the lab and he was talking to the other final year PhD student in the lab. I was listening in (like you do) and realised that he was talking about the position he offered to me - except he had obviously offered it to her now and they were talking about carrying on her funding while she is writing up until she starts the post doc (if the funding is awarded). I was stunned into silence and must admit I shed a tear when I got home. Knowing that I had a job to start after having my baby would have relieved me of so much worry as money will be tight in the first few months after the birth. I know this is one of those things you should take to a tribunal or something but I don't want to be labelled a 'troublemaker' at this early stage in my career. Also, the other PhD student is a close friend of mine so I would be in an awkward position - as if I was 'stealing' her job (even though I was offered it first).

I just don't understand why he is being like this.


Sorry to hear what's happened :( Is there a postgraduta officer or general point of contact in your department for post grads? It seems to me like they'd be a good person to go to and make aware of the problem in an official capacity. Even if they only take note of it. That way an eye can be kept on things in case it escalates.

Has some sort of code of conduct not been breached by them talking about you like that to another student?


Yes, an postgraduate tutor was the sort of person I was thinking of. You could request that the meeting be "off the record" just do get some perspective.


I hate to say this but I'd bet millions that the student who passed back that comment to you, had spent the previous few minutes detailling anything critical you've said in their earshot about your supervisor to him. It would be a bit bizarre to go up to someone and say tell littlekick she's an awful researcher, without that person having already raised the subject. I'd be very careful about discussing this with anyone other than whoever has responsibility for PhD students in your department in case it backfires on you.
How much of all of this (the argument and the job offer) is either on paper or witnessed? If it's not, you may have difficulty proving anything in a formal complaint. I think I personally wouldn't go that route unless you have evidence to make it clear you would win. I would though look into changing supervisors as it sounds as though this is an irretrievable breakdown and that pursuing working with this person will cause more disruption than bringing someone new in would. If you were nearer to being completely finished, I'd risk toughing it out, but I'm assuming you'll be writing up after a break for maternity leave, so you will need someone who will read drafts in a timely and constructive fashion. My feeling though would be that it might actually be OK though if the person is new to your work, as they're predominantly reading it as a scientist in the field looking for whether it makes sense and reads ok.