PhD Supervisor Problems with 2 months to go

W

Hello,

I have less than 2 months left to finish my PhD and my supervisor is causing so many problems. She was okay for the first few years of my PhD, but in the last year I have noticed her gradually becoming more and more controlling and generally quite nasty. She constantly sends me emails trying to micromanage everything and keeps telling me I should see a therapist for stress/lack of motivation/anger/depression, which I think is crossing a line. Over the summer I had a problem with my final paper that wasn't my fault, which meant the results were wrong and I would need to redo the paper. I informed my supervisor that if the problem with the paper wasn't resolved (there was something that had to be fixed by someone else) before the end of September then I wouldn't have the time to redo the paper, and that I would have to go ahead and finish the PhD without it. She agreed to this plan. Fast forward to this week and the problem with the paper has been fixed. I told her it was too late now to redo the paper and that I would need to press on with writing the thesis or I wouldn't have everything finished in time. Bear in mind I already have 2 papers published and one submitted, so this extra paper is not necessary. She is now kicking up a huge fuss, implying that I'm being lazy for refusing to redo this paper. She is bombarding me with patronising emails and I'm struggling with having to fight against her. She has also set up a meeting with someone higher up now too, as if she is trying to get me into trouble. I feel as if she is seriously crossing a line here towards harassment/abuse with this and I can't actually believe this is happening with less than two months to go before I'm due to finish. It's really getting me down and I feel constantly anxious, which is stopping me concentrating on writing my thesis. I'm also dreading sending my thesis to her to review because I just know she is not going to be nice about it and will expect me to change it all.

I guess I just don't know what do in this situation and wondered if anyone had any advice on what to do? I'm really stuck in this situation and can't see a way out.

E

I can't really advise because I and others I know are also in this situation. So for what it's worth you are not alone, this kind of abuse seems to be so common in academia, I'm honestly just stunned we as phd students have so little rights and representation. The level of gaslighting blows my mind. In my own case, my supervisor has to sign off everything, including a change of supervisor, or even quitting the PhD (how this would even work I cannot imagine: would they hold me hostage or something?! XD). The only thing I am looking into is what the limits of a supervisor's power is and who to complain to if they prevent us from graduating despite having done the work.

From an outside perspective she is trying to squeeze you for free work with this paper. You could try to placate her and say you will be happy to work on it after your viva but you are worried you won't finish if you do both. She is likely a narcissist from what you've described so if you can stand it flattering her ego and telling her you really appreciate her support in helping you finish and the opportunity to do this paper (after you have a finished thesis draft) might help. Once you've defended then you can decide what to do or just be 'busy' and she'll likely pass it off on to a poor master's student given half a chance.

"She constantly sends me emails trying to micromanage everything and keeps telling me I should see a therapist for stress/lack of motivation/anger/depression, which I think is crossing a line" : yes mine has also done this, except they also emailed the school and told them i had mental problems. I think they are trying to deflect blame to be honest. They are perfect supervisors, it's us who are 'crazy': this is just gaslighting.

Can you pass your drafts through someone else secretely? I think it can be helpful to have additional perspectives to remind you that they are toxic and your work is at the very least perfectly fine.

Sorry I can't offer more concrete suggestions, sorry you're having to deal with this and good luck. If you find a good solution please do share!

T

Tell her that you will finish that new paper after you defended your thesis.

Get your postdoc admin/coordinator on board to clearly state what the immediate next steps are so you can submit. Document all the things that have happened in great detail and talk to your student union body if you have one.

Regarding the thesis, do you have a senior postdoc or other researcher to read it?

A

From experience;

- Micromanagement is the last resort of the failing academic. A successful academic does not have time to micromanage a PhD student. What you're likely experiencing is her passing on her own stress over lack of publications/funding on to you (further evidenced by a likely desire for you to produce that paper with her named as co-author).

- Whenever someone 'threatens' meeting with the higher-ups, call their bluff and immediately and enthusiastically encourage the meeting. You will likely see a swift back-down or that the meeting never gets scheduled. Because if it happens, it's a) going to inevitably demonstrate the supervisor cannot manage you; and b) give you a chance to air all your legitimate grievances.

- A supervisor can't prevent you completing a PhD under the vast majority of systems. But they do have the power to a) select your examiner; and b) refuse to sign the submission forms. b) does not - under most systems - mean you can't submit, but it means they go on the record as not thinking it was appropriate that you submit. Usually this should trigger a review of the situation, which is in your benefit. Very, very few academics would actively seek to undermine a student by picking an examiner they know is likely to fail them, as they gain nothing from doing so, but if you suspect this might be one of those rare cases, it makes a lot of sense to formally request a change in supervision before proceeding to submit. The problem if you proceed and then fail as a result of a biased review or an inappropriate examiner is it's unfortunately a lot harder to then make a case that's not seen as a spurious attempt to change a fail to a pass by complaint.

P

Hello There
So sorry to hear you are having these issues. I thought my supervisor was superwonderful but over time things went bad. Some of the things they said would be considered completely over the top in a non-academic setting. I won't quote them here in case I am identifiable! My PhD has been very over the top all the way through for many reasons, but I felt I had a good supervisor to see me through most of it. However, it's not just students who get depressed and stressed, supervisors can behave in extremely odd ways and then the student is treated like they are the ones with the mental health problem. Projection!
Get some time with people who don't know you and do not know you are an academic and do ordinary things, like really unacademic things. That helps get it all under perspective.
There's a lot of bullying in academia, but it took me a long time to realise how badly I was being bullied because I was just expected to be tough. It's so strange because doing a PhD is more like joining the army than being with sensitive intelligent people trying to write something thoughtful and creative. Every day I am told off by the graduate school for something, usually because they have made a major error, and no one ever apologises.
Many sensitive intelligent people seem to leave the PhD or academia in my experience. I think academia has lost its way.

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