Writing on the wall, Switch supervisors, or is there hope for my PhD?

posted
21-Jul-20, 20:25
Avatar for despoxcam
posted about 2 weeks ago
Before the lockdown I had expressed a few proteins I was working on and it generated low yields, to me and my supervisor's surprise. When I returned I continued working to optimize expression, although my time was limited due to uni rules. Today my supervisor and I had a long horrendous meeting. He was upset by the speed my project was progressing in the last couple months and he's not sure if I will be able to get a PhD time or at all. He then said that while he likes me as a person and appreciates the fact that I'm tenacious and work everyday, but he would absolutely not recommend I go into research at all because I suck at it. I admit that some experiments, like cloning, could have been done faster but some experiments do take time. He urged me to think carefully about whether I should continue or not. He then tried to be friendly and asked me to consider other career choices in which he thought I had potential to do well in, just listing things off randomly. He suggested I should go exercise more to relieve stress and improve my productivity. Truthfully, how can I even relax if my status as a doctoral student is in jeopardy?

His words were hurtful. A similar conversation took place for my upgrade viva, which he thought I’d fail. My assessors were happy with the quality and quantity of work, my understanding of literature. He said the only reason I passed was with the understanding that he had to constantly monitor my work for one year, which was not documented. I was only asked me to do was to submit a three questions my thesis will answer and they were satisfied with my ideas. Do you think the writing on the wall is for me in this lab? If I’m given a choice to change advisors, should I? Does anyone have experience here changing supervisors? How does that work and how do you adapt knowing that if things go wrong here, its over?
posted
23-Jul-20, 14:42
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 2 weeks ago
Hello there,

This sounds like a tough situation to be in. I'm not really sure if it's handwriting on the wall. But if it were me I think I'd actively be enquiring about the possibility of switching labs. Because even if your supervisor changes his tune (perhaps he is one if those ones who likes to negatively motivate his students as they call it - bit of an oxymoron), I guess the question is, are you happy to continue being supervised by him? Can you live with his supervisory style? The answers might depend on how much work you have left to do before you can submit, and on whether you've managed to identify another potential supervisor and switching is an option (eg they agree etc and your funding allows it).

If the assessors were happy with your work then that says something. I suppose to help your confidence, and to be able to make a judgement about how seriously to take your supervisor's judgement of your work and career prospects, it would be useful to get another opinion, perhaps on your more recent work.

Tudor
posted
25-Jul-20, 00:43
edited about 13 seconds later
by abababa
Avatar for abababa
posted about 2 weeks ago
He sounds like a jerk frankly.

I can't comment on the actual quality of the work, and there's always the thing that what a student hears vs what a supervisor says are often not the same thing.

But honestly; I'd make sure your co-supervisors are onboard, work hard, spend the rest of the PhD proving him wrong, and at your graduation speech slip in comedically 'I remember, last year, my supervisor said...'. The best way to deal with jerks is to channel the energy they generate by winding you up into proving them wrong; this will help you a lot with resilience if you stay in academia.

That said, if he's exceptionally backstabbing and will e.g. go to lengths to pick examiners to fail you, then you should get shot of him. But before doing so I'd have a meeting in which you explain the impact of the last meeting on you and that you're considering if a change in supervision would be the best way to go, as you may find it was a misunderstanding or you're misjudging his opinion.

Either way you will get the best result by standing your ground professionally rather than trying to administratively avoid him.
posted
25-Jul-20, 08:44
edited about 16 seconds later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 2 weeks ago
Quote From abababa:
He sounds like a jerk frankly.

I can't comment on the actual quality of the work, and there's always the thing that what a student hears vs what a supervisor says are often not the same thing.

But honestly; I'd make sure your co-supervisors are onboard, work hard, spend the rest of the PhD proving him wrong, and at your graduation speech slip in comedically 'I remember, last year, my supervisor said...'. The best way to deal with jerks is to channel the energy they generate by winding you up into proving them wrong; this will help you a lot with resilience if you stay in academia.

That said, if he's exceptionally backstabbing and will e.g. go to lengths to pick examiners to fail you, then you should get shot of him. But before doing so I'd have a meeting in which you explain the impact of the last meeting on you and that you're considering if a change in supervision would be the best way to go, as you may find it was a misunderstanding or you're misjudging his opinion.

Either way you will get the best result by standing your ground professionally rather than trying to administratively avoid him.


Great advice. My PhD experience attests to the point about situations like this being ones where you can develop (or increase) resilience that can serve you well later (I laugh when my papers are rejected!).
posted
26-Jul-20, 08:37
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 2 weeks ago
I hadn't thought of this when I first read your post, but it does remind me a bit of my own experience although it's different. Be careful that you don't allow this person to undermine your confidence. What stands out / raises question marks is that they are being critical beyond the realm of your work. I remember my old supervisor commenting or suggesting things that weren't to do with the work (eg. my appearance) and it didn't feel right, and that's when I began to realise I needed to get out of that supervisory relationship as soon as possible. Their comment about your stress / exercise may be nothing, but since you mention it here it sounds like it is significant.

I may be reading into it too much, but thought I'd mention it anyway. And I'm not suggesting that you need to switch supervisors (although you may be relieved if you did!). As the previous poster suggests, you could just knuckle down and develop an ultra thick skin. But at minimum, when they criticise beyond the realm of the actual work (ie. you as a person, your lifestyle etc), you might want to challenge it - even if it's just a confident "excuse me?!" that lets them know that you don't find this acceptable.
posted
26-Jul-20, 12:56
edited about 5 seconds later
Avatar for Jamie_Wizard
posted about 2 weeks ago
despoxcam, sorry to hear of your situation. abababa has given some really good advice. I would add that I recommend you find your own examiners, and do not let your supervisor pick them. If you suggest appropriate examiners with justification, then I would find it hard to see the university not accept it. I would try and do this formally, i.e. by emailing the suggestion of chosen examiners to the examinations department, but keeping your supervisor CC'd in.

Tudor, I can't believe your supervisor commented on your appearance, that's just plain wrong.
posted
26-Jul-20, 13:24
edited about 28 seconds later
Avatar for Tudor_Queen
posted about 2 weeks ago
Yeh it was really subtle but happened once or twice. I don't even think I noticed when it happened (though I knew I'd come out of our meetings feeling like crap), but then it would come to my mind hours or even weeks later, like huh, she said that?!
posted
29-Jul-20, 15:48
by xtr2054
Avatar for xtr2054
posted about 1 week ago
You do not "suck" at research if objective and independent assessors were happy with your performance at the 'upgrade viva'. Just as it is a school's job to teach, it is a supervisor's duty to help their students develop. In saying that you are not cut out for research despite having requisite personal qualities, they are failing to admit they are a poor supervisor. You would do well to find a better supervisor who, as others say is not psychologically abusive. If you have a better supervisor already, apply your energy there.

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