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

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.

A hazardous supervisor?

I write to update you on what happened next, should it help others.

I took the strategies outlined, (i) I stopped collecting data and focused on analysis and writing draft papers [tru], (ii) I froze the primary supervisor out as much as possible [pd1598] and (iii) and thanks to the pandemic, I have been mostly working from home [pm133]. There are 3 months left and we are now in the end-game.

The primary supervisor is now becoming hostile, going back on his word to limit distractions. He is literally trying to find ways to waste my time. I have now engaged the other two supervisors on the issue of additional activities, as any time lost now will simple reduce the quality of the third potential publication which they all share an interest in ( I am working on that this month) - it will not affect my PhD as I have enough results and data. They both agree this is unreasonable and I accepted their offer to get in touch with him.

It may have dawned on the primary supervisor that I will finish the PhD probably just about on time (and we won't be friends thereafter - he had been trying to convince me to delay my end date - I said no, and asked me do work for him in my spare time once I am gone - I said "good idea!"). He wrote by email: 'you are trying too hard to finish your PhD... and should accept you won't... you should delay the work with the second supervisor and accept it will not be done on time'. Since he never asked, he is blissfully unaware the work with the second supervisor which does not involve him is currently a draft manuscript for publication in the second supervisor's inbox. Finally he said said no-one has ever finished their PhD on time with him, usually taking at least another whole year.

He will be in for a surprise.

Thanks for the advice.

A hazardous supervisor?

I write this reflection in case it helps others in similar situations, but also as writing is itself helpful to emotional processing. I also leave you with two open questions: i) can this supervisor be trusted not to later try and formally sabotage the PhD? ii) if war comes (i.e. they go in the 'attack' and insist on unrealistic outcomes), what are the best defences?

With half a 3 year PhD left, I have a lot of data. Indeed I worked flat out, at some points pushing myself to breaking point, as for reasons beyond my (or anyone's) control the PhD ends at 3 years on the dot without room for manoeuvre; this cannot be changed and was known from day 1. I knew I needed to get data, and data fast - and that I have done. As example, a student colleague pointed out I already have almost 3 PhD worths of data already. Even cleaning the data alone has taken literally months and I am only half way. The price paid is I have not developed the analysis as much as I would have liked to, but that's what I seek to do now. Importantly, what I have analysed so far shows I have useful and interesting results.

In order to finish on time, others (within and beyond the project) have told me I need to stop collecting data very soon, and no later than the end of year 2. A supervisor does not want me to stop at all, or ever, quoting a target that is the equivalent of 5 PhDs of data, and is almost double what I collected so far. This target is impossible; if I tried I would fail to reach it, and certainly could not do so and meaningfully analyse the complex data. Furthermore the rate of prospective recruits is slower now so could never reach that. Fundamentally, if I do not stop collecting data, I can never actually analyse properly, as the ground of data is forever shifting. Consequently should I keep collecting well into year 3, a failed PhD would be all but guaranteed.

I discussed this reality calmly with the primary supervisor, looking at what remains to be done, and how long this would take. I was verbally abused and told unrepeatable 'truths' apparently about my personality. I was told the grant (which funds the target number) must take priority, and my desire to define a realistic time to stop collecting data, unreasonably selfish.

This latter behaviour is sadly not a surprise, and unfortunately there is a track record of this both with me, and with every student of theirs. The extent and aggressiveness is however 'a new low', so as such I am not sure what they might do next.

My other supervisors agree with my position, indeed they suggested those time frames. My colleagues on the project think data collection should stop now. I simply cannot do, or achieve what is being asked, so I suspect irreconcilable conflict is on its way.

Thank you for reading.