A tough call- how much more of my supervisor can I take?

18-Sep-10, 00:37
Avatar for Keenbean
posted about 10 years ago
Okay, you all know the story- she's great 95% of the time, the other 5% she can be a complete B$%&! As a supervisor she's fab, all work is returned with loads of constructive feedback usually within 2 days of giving it to her, I get regular and helpful supervision sessions and so on. She's a world-leader in her field and knows all the people I need to get to know. In short, it would probably be great for my career to do a post-doc with her, and we are drawing up proposals at the moment.

Now the bad side. When she's in a bad mood she can be foul. She has had me in tears 3 times in the last fortnight by shouting at me, losing her rag with me, slamming doors in my face because she's pissed off, and she piles a huge amount of pressure on me, I think without realising it. And then she'll come and apologise but it'll happen again a week later. Today's argument was ridiculous, over whether I need 50 or 60 participants in my group. She got really impatient and quite aggressive with me when I explained the difficulties I am having with recruitment, and made remarks about me keeping on trying to reduce the size of my PhD (the proposal was massively unrealistic so we have had to make quite a few changes).

The two docs on the team are constantly at war with her and she gives them a hard time with unrealistic deadlines and expectations etc. I have always wanted to stay on here but after today's argument I just broke down and cried and seriously wondered if I could deal with another 3 years of this woman. I don't know if I can. I want to stay and do a post-doc here and I think there is a good chance we will find the funding but she might drive me even more loopy than I already am. She did come and apologise again today but I know it'll just happen again next week- she's got a reputation for it and it's not surprising.

Sorry for the long post...but any advice anyone? She's fab 95% of the time but she's impossible for the other 5% and I don't know if I can take it. Best, KB
18-Sep-10, 00:41
edited about 3 seconds later
Avatar for BilboBaggins
posted about 10 years ago
Is there someone else local who could take over if you changed supervisors? I wouldn't put up with this myself, but it's your call.
18-Sep-10, 01:17
edited about 22 seconds later
Avatar for Walminskipeasucker
posted about 10 years ago
I think you're in quite a tough situation here, Keenbean. I've read some of your posts before on this supervisor of yours and I get the impression that's she's quite impetuous and has a problem maintaining her temper. I gather that's she's otherwise an excellent supervisor who has a really strong faith in your capabilities and what you can achieve. I think that's why she drives you so hard.
However, the more cynical side of me thinks that she's a ruthless career academic, focused intently on her own research output and that of her research team - that's how you become world-renowned I suppose. She doesn't like it when things go wrong or when she gets told something she doesn't want to hear because it messes with her own agenda plans. I think this is why she loses her temper with you and with the post-docs. Although she knows when she's gone over the top (she apologises), I don't think that she necessarily always has your best interests at heart. Of course, if you do exactly as she intends, you'll have some superb research at the end and she'll have another gold star for her own career. However, it all depends on you and whether you think you can handle her sometimes awkward attitude. It's almost catch-22 in a way.
I think that you could try talking to her about how you feel and how you occasionally feel as if she loses her temper, which upsets you. You could tell her about how incredibly overloaded you feel at times. Perhaps come to some kind of understanding about it (though she has a reputation)? But I can tell from your post that she's extremely ambitious with respect to your PhD. Like I said, this is a very difficult position to be in.
I'm actually in similar position with my own supervisor. She wants me to write a paper for publication while trying to finish off my PhD, because 'It'll be great to get a paper out on your work asap for our research team'. I really don't want to take on the extra work because I'm just trying to write up and get my PhD out of the way first. I already have no life because of all the hours I have to put into finishing, but what do you do? If I say no, she'll think I'm being awkward. If I say yes, she'll think I'm great until I go over the writing up deadline for my PhD. I lose either way. So, as with your situation, I don't think there's an easy answer. Sorry, I couldn't be more help.

18-Sep-10, 02:44
Avatar for bleebles
posted about 10 years ago
Based on what you've said (past and present) I agree with Wally's "cynical" evaluation of the type of person she is. But, if it is a fair assessment, I'd consider the matter very carefully before attempting to speak to her about it at this late stage. She is clearly capable of being very unreasonable; how is she likely to receive accusations of bullying? Because that's exactly what she is; she's shitty to people who aren't likely to fight back (for good reasons!) because she can get away with it. And even though you wouldn't put it like that if you were to discuss it with her, it would be very difficult to find a tactful way of confronting her about her behaviour with anything approaching honesty. Her apologies demonstrate that she's aware she's at fault, but in no way demonstrate actual remorse - she obviously makes no attempt to address her unreasonable behaviour.

That she's fab 95% of the time isn't that surprising. Having power over people can really bring out the worst in a person; it's just too easy to behave as you please. I had a boss like this once - she was always good to me (largely because I spoke my mind from day one (I didn't care much for the job)) but I witnessed some truly appalling behaviour towards younger and/or quieter members of staff.

It is indeed a tough situation, and I feel for you. As staying with her will be good for your career, the only questions are: can you handle it and, if you can, is it worth it?
18-Sep-10, 03:13
edited about 13 seconds later
by fm
Avatar for fm
posted about 10 years ago
Hi Keenbean,
I could right a very similar post. My supervisor can be absolutely fantastic, she gives great feedback and can be really quick. However, she also can be really, really mean. I am not a big crier, but she knows how to push my buttons. The way that I have gotten around this is to have another supervisor that I can get some balance and perspective from.
I agree with the others, she sounds like a determined career academic who is only interested in her research, and what you can do for her - again, similar to my sup. As for staying with her for 3 more years, I guess you need to ask your self what type of academic you want to be, and if being with her will help you to get there. I hope you can work it out.
18-Sep-10, 09:45
edited about 27 seconds later
Avatar for Keenbean
posted about 10 years ago
Thanks for your replies guys- it really is a toughie. She is actually quite a softie and yesterday when she realised how upset I was she spent quite a while talking to me and making sure I am ok and so on. She can be lovely. Yet I look at the post-docs and they're tired and overworked, they have so much pressure on them and unrealistic projects that were proposed just to get the money. I really like her and we get on really well- but she can be so unpredictable and when you get on the wrong side of her she's awful. Problem is, you never know when what you're about to do or say is going to spark off a row because you can never tell what kind of mood she's in! But I still feel as though it would be stupid to turn down a post-doc with her- she has been great over my PhD and I know I can still learn so much more from her. But it would be good to retain my sanity as well.... KB
18-Sep-10, 10:16
edited about 19 seconds later
by phdbug
Avatar for phdbug
posted about 10 years ago
======= Date Modified 18 Sep 2010 10:17:53 =======
KB, I'm going out so very briefly - if I were you, I would not consider turning down a post doc with her. No way. Go for it. For all the reasons you say below - shes been gr8 and to learn so much more from her - they all apply to me too, and part of the reason I am eager to stay on with mine is that there's so much more to learn from her and she has her stressed moments alright but she has been a fab sup.
18-Sep-10, 10:55
Avatar for punksparkle
posted about 10 years ago
New here, just finishing off an MSc and hoping to commence a PhD soon. Sorry to say this but have any of you thought that being belittled, shouted at, reduced to tears constitutes bullying? Would you put up with this behaviour from a workplace supervisor?

The people you are discussing are professional and are acting both unprofessionally and in my personal opinion as bullys, however that would be up to you individually to perceive the behaviour as bullying, not for me to label it. I have looked up an essay I wrote on workplace bullying (sorry but may be useful)

Definitions of bullying within literature usually contain three common elements (Quine, 1999). Actions are defined as bullying from the recipient’s view point, not the intention of the perpetrator (Quine, 1999), so may be established, for example, by asking respondents if they “felt” a bullying incident had occurred (Rayner and Cooper, 1997). Secondly, the actions must have a negative effect upon the recipient, and finally, the actions must be persistent (Quine, 1999).

From reading your accounts, I would guess that this is what you are victim to?
18-Sep-10, 13:13
by joyce
Avatar for joyce
posted about 10 years ago
Think about this, being top dog can really take it out of people. This ruthlessness will not go away, it is part of her. So, What do you feel like when you know you have a meeting/something that might spark off a row? If you think, OK it is just her, I can do this,or do you think OMG I have to see her today, and dread the outcome. However big or important she is it is no way to treat anyone. In every field there are nice and - shall we say - not so nice people. Personally I could never work with anyone who behaved like this. If you think you need to be with her to further your own career you could have years of angst ahead. Those who may not be quite so well known may be well known in a few years and may welll have a better outlook on life. We all have off days, no-one is nice all the time (except maybe Mary Poppins, although I think even she had her moments :$)but you have to learn to control these things and go and kick a door or something, not take it out on others and especially not on those who are your students or those for whom you are providing guidance. I would advise taking a piece of paper and writing down all the good things and all the bad things and see which list is a)longer and b) more important to you. It might help you decide. Incidentally, if anyone behaved like that towards me, and there have been a few, I have always said to them that I was not prepared to discuss anything until they calmed down a bit, and when they had done so, they could come back to my lab - a had a whole suite of rooms at one time (which sounds quite posh, but wasn't really, they were just so I could separate my various bits of work, and some bits of equipment were so big they needed a room all to themselves) and we could discuss it further,don't accept this appaling behaviour it is unporfessional and rather childish as well. Good luck!:-)
18-Sep-10, 13:43
by Eska
Avatar for Eska
posted about 10 years ago
======= Date Modified 18 Sep 2010 14:12:46 =======
======= Date Modified 18 Sep 2010 13:44:46 =======
Hii KB, I agee with Punk Sparkle and Bilbobaggins, and, personally, I would not put up with this and would be looking for another supervisor right now. For me, however heartbreaking leaving the good stuff would be, my mental health and well being would come first, no contest. What's the point of being a high flyer if you have no marbles or self esteem?

I think she is being particularly cruel on two counts: Firstly, she knows about your illness and is a professional in that feild, so she knows the damage she is doing to you and should rightfully be thoroughly ashamed of herself. Secondly, that kind of confusing mix of cruelty ad kindness is enough to send anyone off the rails. If she is so understanding about what she has done and so eager to make up for it then she knows how destructive her behaviour is, and she should get some help. I find people who have this kind of Jeckyl and Hyde character the worst, precisely because they muddy the waters about what they are doing and give you reasons to stay, take more punishment and eventully crack and/or end up like them.

I've experienced similar behaviour from my last supervisor and she was not a high flyer, also, my father behaves much as your sup does: Iron fist an velvet glove, and I've seen it in many different situations so I don't think it is related to the stress of being brilliant or anything like that. I think it is related to being an *rse**le.

My current sup is a legend in his field and is an absolute delight, very sensitive and very professional in his relationship with me. Only people who believe brilliance means covering the cracks of ther own shabbiness behave like this, and to me that's just a waste of a life and I have zero respect for them.
18-Sep-10, 13:59
edited about 22 seconds later
Avatar for stressed
posted about 10 years ago
Shocking behaviour..... my sup is a wonderful man, so kind, so caring, an absolute genius in the field - yes he ticks me off, but always for my own good, no because he's having a tantrum which is what she is doing - its flipping toddler behaviour, blowing up and throwing her toys out of her pram one minute and then all 'I'm sorry....' the next. Not good enough KB. Some people can handle it, and if you could then stick with her, it sounds as though you'd learn a lot from her, but I couldn't. That constant walking on eggshells wondering if the wrong look, slightly wrong gesture, the moon in venus or whatever would cause another meltdown would drive me mad and make me very uneasy and upset. You don't need it KB, life is too darned short to be constantly on edge and having to take utter sh*t from a grown woman who should know better - heck, I refused to take it from my kids lol. You say her post docs look exhausted and basically ill, is it worth that?
18-Sep-10, 14:32
edited about 11 seconds later
by sneaks
Avatar for sneaks
posted about 10 years ago
======= Date Modified 18 Sep 2010 14:33:31 =======
I remember I had a conductor in one of the orchestras I went to like this. She used to blow up, in front of the whole orchestra and pick you out, then shout at you for 10 mins, embarrass you, and then she'd come back the week after and quietly say sorry.

One day she did it to one of the better brass players who promptly got up and walked out - quit the whole thing. Problem was, this girl was really valued, so for once the conductor had to apoligise to her in front of every one,, rather than in a quiet corner. I think it taught her her lesson.

However, I guess you need quite a lot of leverage to be able to pull the whole 'right I'm off then' trick. I know if I tried it with my sup, she would hardly come crawling back to me. Its tricky.

Maybe you can send her an anonymous invitation to some anger management classes- maybe your uni's staff development unit do them?
18-Sep-10, 14:56
edited about 14 seconds later
Avatar for Keenbean
posted about 10 years ago
Thanks guys. I know you are all right- this kind of behaviour is unacceptable, yet she gets away with it because she's so damn good at what she does and she brings the funding in to the uni in its millions. Despite everything, I find it hard to dislike her because she can be so genuine and kind, and we share a similar sense of humour so generally we really get on. She is also very encouraging and I feel really lucky that she has given me  chance- I'd had a really bad few years with the bipolar before coming to this university (i'd been admitted to hospital loads of times and even been sectioned a few times as well) and she knew that but still fought for funding to take me on and give me a chance, just like she's pressing ahead to get funding for me to stay on for a post-doc. She's paying for me to go to the US to present out of her own funding because I don't have enough of mine left and is very good about things like that- she creates a lot of opportunities. I am so grateful for everything and I suppose in a way I feel indebted to her- maybe that is what's making me accept this awful behaviour without questioning it. On the practical side our interests match perfectly, chances are she will get funding for me to stay on and I can do exactly the research I want to do, and I know she will do her best to help me succeed. But can I take it? I don't know. I need to have a tougher skin, but I'm a softie...I don't think that will change. I suppose I have another year to make up my mind for sure...but my worst fear is ending up exactly like her- a world leader with no family and a lot of enemies because she can't control her temper. Maybe I just answered my own question. Thanks for your thoughts guys, much appreciated. KB
18-Sep-10, 18:54
edited about 23 seconds later
Avatar for bewildered
posted about 10 years ago
I suppose the other thing you need to think through is how easy it's going to be to find a postdoc elsewhere in this miserable jobs climate, and whether you want to have to uproot yourself from your current city. Do you know to what extent the pressure is generated by her and to what extent she's under external pressure herself? University managers are cranking up the REF pressure at the moment and everyone's scared about what the cuts will mean and it gets passed down the chain. Whether that's got anything to do with it, I don't know. Do you think the postdocs are actually productive or is she being mean with good reason?
I don't know - it all depends what you can and can't stand in the way of management as an individual. I personally would rather someone like your supervisor, who at least behaves badly in a transparent manner than someone who stabs you in the back all the time. And I suppose there's an argument 'better the devil you know'. But I think most of all you've got to ask what do you want career-wise and whether you need someone like her in your corner to get there. Has she got a good track record in ex post docs getting lectureships for example?
18-Sep-10, 19:35
edited about 19 seconds later
Avatar for algaequeen
posted about 10 years ago
Hi Keenbean, I hope you are finding the solution is coming a bit easier to you now. I must say I have to agree with Eska here, no point being a fantastic acdemic if you have no marbles. I think that given your past history and the fact that this woman is getting to you so much, aside from jobs and the sense of responsibility you feel to her for taking you on in the first place, if working with her is really affecting your mental health, then it's not the right place for you. If she is repeatedly blowing up and then apologising to you, it's obvious she knows she is behaving wrongly, and it's not right for you to be on the receiving end, but if she keeps doing it, then she'll never stop.
If you think you can handle it then fair enough, it is a great position to be in knowing you have a good chance of obtaining funding to research exactly what you want, so I understand your reluctance to leave. Maybe if you go to her and tell her you've been having doubts that you can stay on due to her mood swings, perhaps she will rethink her actions? Don't go in saying you're going to walk out unless she wises up, just say that you would love to stay on, but you will have to seriously consider it, given the kind of working relationship you have.


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