Stuck with a toxic supervisor #3

A pernicious power balance at the uni

Almost everyone who works with PhD candidates knows how they can get stuck in a difficult situation because of their supervisor’s questionable behaviour. Solutions to protect the PhD candidates are apparently difficult to come up with. ‘It always boils down to power.’
1 March om 12:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 1 March 2021
om 15:59 uur.
March 1 at 12:09 PM.
Last modified on March 1, 2021
at 15:59 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Christien Boomsma

1 March om 12:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 1 March 2021
om 15:59 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

March 1 at 12:09 PM.
Last modified on March 1, 2021
at 15:59 PM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

This is the final installment of a 3-part series on questionable behaviour by PhD supervisors.

Previously on UKrant:

#1 ‘My PhD broke me’
#2 Speaking up (or not)

It’s no secret, not even an open secret, and everyone who deals with PhD candidates knows it: not only is working towards a PhD extremely hard because of the stress and other mental health issues that candidates face, but also because the problems they have with their supervisors are extremely hard to resolve. 

Confidential adviser Marjolein Renker receives around twenty reports a year on the matter. It may not sound like a lot, but ‘I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. These people depend on their supervisor for everything.’

The Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN) says the problems are ‘highly familiar’. The PNN often gets phone calls from PhD candidates who are at odds with their graduate schools. ‘We also often hear from people who are afraid to talk about those issues’, says PNN chairperson Rosanne Anholt. ‘They’re worried it will affect their job and their academic career. That complicates everything even further.’

In a national survey by PNN, 42.9 percent of PhD candidates answered that their supervisor exhibited ‘questionable’ behaviour. However, only 12.9 percent said they’d ever considered changing supervisors. For most of them, that’s where their actions ended. ‘Either other people discourage them from taking action’, says Anholt, ‘or they figure it’s no use anyway.’

Lowest rung

After all, in the strongly hierarchical university culture, PhD candidates are on the lowest rung on the ladder. ‘Even regular employees don’t feel safe’, says Susanne Täuber, member of the national advisory committee on diversity and inclusion in higher education and research. She’s referring to a 2019 study by union FNV, which showed that half of university staff works or has worked in a socially unsafe environment. ‘These are the people we’re talking about here.’ 

These people depend on their supervisor for everything

PhD candidates are often young, inexperienced researchers who’ve left their friends and family behind in order to get a degree at the UG. They aren’t aware of the mores at their new job and they still feel insecure about their skills. However, absolutely everything depends on them getting that degree. 

‘There’s this constant looming threat’, says university council member and PhD candidate at the UMCG Simon van der Pol. ‘You need to get your dissertation approved. If you’re not doing a good job, that might not happen. You might be financially secure after your go/no-go meeting, but we’re obviously in it for the doctorate degree. Not to mention what might happen when your contract is up.’

No guarantee

What happens when you do sound the alarm? What if you have to try and make it in the rest of your career without your supervisor’s recommendation? What if, worst-case scenario, they declare war? ‘Your supervisor has the power to make your life very difficult’, says PhD candidate María Leyva Vallina, who also sits on the university council as a member of the Science Faction. ‘Even if they don’t use it, you know they have it.’

On top of that, there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get help when you sound the alarm. Renker knows how difficult it can be to improve a situation if the supervisor refuses to cooperate. ‘Especially when they’re a renowned researcher who brings in a lot of grant money. Faculties will think twice before dealing with someone like that.’

The PhD candidates are all too aware of this. They’d rather keep their mouth shut than be labelled as difficult. 

Aware of the issue

This doesn’t mean the university isn’t aware of the issue, though. The UG’s Wellbeing Survey 2018 showed just how much help its PhD candidates needed with their mental health. 

43 percent of respondents were at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, more than a similar study done in Leiden in 2016 (38 percent) and in Flanders in 2013 (32 percent). 17 percent of respondents said their supervisor was having an adverse effect on their mental health. 

Faculties will think twice before dealing with renowned researchers

‘The results from the survey drove home to us that mental health was a real issue’, says Petra Rudolf, dean of graduate studies. ‘We set up a department to help people and prevent these issues. That department is up and running now.’

In the past, Rudolf says, the UG mainly tried to solve issues between PhD candidates and their supervisors through mediation. When that failed, they’d try to keep the warring parties apart as much as possible. She, too, once played messenger between two people who weren’t allowed to contact each other. ‘These days, there’s a whole process to it.’

Information and training

These days, PhD candidates have at least two people in charge of them: a regular supervisor and a daily supervisor. The UMCG has also hired a PhD counsellor, who candidates can turn to with their problems. A second counsellor recently started at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and the other faculties will also get one.

New PhD candidates receive information during their introduction, there’s a support website that refers them to the proper channels for their issues, and the university is investing in support groups where candidates can talk about their problems. ‘We also provide training for PhD candidates’, Rudolf says. In many cases, the problems stem from the fact that the candidates lack agency, because they’re not used to defending themselves. 

The course Mastering your PhD is aimed at teaching PhD candidates what is and what isn’t expected of them. The workshop Managing your supervisor is meant to improve communication between candidates and supervisors. ‘But’, says Rudolf, ‘these aren’t mandatory and we’re not forcing anyone to go. PhD candidates are adults, and when someone decides to close themselves off and not participate, there’s nothing we can do.’

Huge step

It’s not that these initiatives aren’t any good, say the people involved. But all these empowerment courses put the responsibility on the candidates’ shoulders. ‘You run the risk of victim blaming’, says Anholt. ‘You make the most vulnerable person responsible for solving the problem.’ 

Not just that, but signing up for training or just sending an email can be a huge step for people once they’ve ended up in a difficult situation with their supervisor. ‘There is always a lot of bureaucratic stuff’, says Leyva Vallina. ‘You ask yourself: is it worth the hassle? Should I just deal with it?’

You make the most vulnerable person responsible for solving the problem

Dealing with the other party, however, is much more difficult. What is a faculty to do with a misbehaving supervisor who’s in charge of the grant that pays for the research a PhD candidate is doing? What can they do about a top researcher who brings in endless funds while driving their candidates mad? The PhD candidate leaves after four years, whereas the supervisor has a permanent contract. ‘It’s in the organisation’s interest to blame the candidate for the problem’, Täuber thinks. ‘Otherwise, it would mean the organisation has to change.’ 

Pressure cooker

Let’s not forget the environment that perpetuates this system. ‘Everyone is expected to do the work, perform, keep their heads down, and keep going’, says Renker. Supervisors have to keep several balls in the air. They have to publish articles, make a name for themselves, meet the demands of their tenure track. ‘They might have a lot of PhD candidates under them, but they also depend on them. The whole thing is like a pressure cooker.’ 

PhD candidates might feel like their supervisor is getting away with everything, but supervisors also have a vested interest in their candidates finishing their dissertation. Every graduate earns the faculty approximately 75,000 euros in premiums. Supervisors need this money, just as they need the extra publications they get as a result of working with PhD candidates. ‘Supervisors are also judged by how they coach their candidates during their performance review’, Rudolf emphasises. 

And in most cases, everything is just fine. In the PNN study, PhD candidates gave their supervisors an average of 7.4. In the Wellbeing Survey, when asked if they felt their supervisor would support them in their mental health, PhD candidates answered with 4 out of 5 points.

However, that same supervisor is usually overworked themselves, and the killer demands of a tenure track don’t help, either. ‘Supervising PhD candidates doesn’t come with more teaching or research hours. After all, they’re doing the research for you’, says Täuber. Add in lack of experience, and the result is a fatal cocktail. ‘It leads to a kind of symbiotic stranglehold. We’re all passionate about science, but this is a wicked problem.’

What to do? 

Better training

PNN’s Anholt thinks better training for supervisors might do the trick. Rudolf agrees, which is why the UG is working on setting up a training and intervision programme for supervisors.

It leads to a kind of symbiotic stranglehold between PhD candidates and their supervisors

Besides, says Anholt, candidates can always find a different supervisor. PhD students on a scholarship may be able to do this, as they have their own funding, but in reality, it’s much more difficult. Either no one else is available, or potential replacements don’t want to anger the original supervisor.

Others, like Täuber and Van der Pol, argue in favour of small support groups where PhD candidates can talk about their problems. It’s important that other people tell them what is and isn’t okay. ‘Have coffee with them once a year. Just have a casual conversation with them, one on one’, says Van der Pol. ‘If everything is okay, the whole thing will last five minutes. If things aren’t great, it might take thirty minutes. But at least you’ll have unearthed a problem.’


‘Take them seriously!’ argues Täuber. ‘Don’t just automatically think that they’re not cut out for a scientific career if they can’t handle this. That’s unbecoming of a university that wants to be an educational organisation.’ She thinks it would help if the university would just say what is and what isn’t okay. Simply because it would lend visibility to the issue. A clear protocol and step-by-step plan of what to do when someone reports an issue is important, as well.  

Acknowledging their goodwill and their nice initiatives, Renker thinks faculties should just show a little more backbone now and then. ‘Everyone knows about this’, she says. ‘But it’s easy to tell people to let it go or not talk about it. Faculties should screw up the courage to talk to those people that are crossing boundaries.’

But it’s up to the PhD candidates to talk about it. Sure, it’s terrifying and you put yourself at risk. ‘I understand that people need to weigh the pros and cons first. But you have to come forward. You have to report it. Because you should be able to trust your organisation to take those reports seriously.’