University

Stuck with a toxic supervisor

‘My PhD broke me’

Many PhD students are forced to deal with their supervisors’ questionable behaviour. Their supervisors won’t leave them alone, put them down, or behave unethically for their own gain. ‘In retrospect, my supervisor was abusive, both verbally and emotionally.’
15 February om 14:16 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 18 July 2021
om 23:19 uur.
February 15 at 14:16 PM.
Last modified on July 18, 2021
at 23:19 PM.


Door Christien Boomsma

15 February om 14:16 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 18 July 2021
om 23:19 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

February 15 at 14:16 PM.
Last modified on July 18, 2021
at 23:19 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on questionable behaviour by PhD supervisors.

Next week part 2: Speaking up (or not).

One day, PhD student Gianna snapped. It was the day she finally mustered the courage to go to her PhD coordinator and ask for help with the toxic relationship she had with her supervisor. She was going to say she couldn’t take it anymore.

But maybe she smiled too much when she was telling her story of being overworked, of being bullied, of practically being stalked by her supervisor. Maybe she didn’t look distraught enough, because of her efforts to keep herself together. So the PhD coordinator said: ‘You know… It’s normal to have some issues with your supervisor sometimes.’

Gianna exploded. ‘If this is what doing a PhD means, I’m out!’, she screamed. ‘Just tell everyone that I’m leaving, I cannot do this!’

That was the moment the coordinator realised something was really wrong.

Bullied and put down

According to a national survey among over 1,600 PhD students last year, conducted by PhD network PNN, 43 percent of all respondents have had to deal with questionable behaviour from their supervisors. Most report supervisors for not recognising the pressure they’re under or downplaying the workload (22 percent). Others reported that their supervisor contacted them all the time, sometimes even at night (16.7 percent), or that they were pressured to take on additional tasks (13 percent).

But those are just cold, hard numbers that don’t reflect how all this affects the PhD students in real life. How they feel bullied and put down all the time. How they feel they have been ‘broken’ in the few years that they are trying to finish their thesis. 

Constant emails 

Gianna initially thought she had lucked out. Her supervisor picked her, even though she didn’t have the ideal background for the research project. ‘She told me I was going to get the job right after the interview’, she says. ‘I think she liked me more than my research.’

Things went sideways very quickly, however. Her supervisor kept checking up on her, coming by her office regularly to see what she was doing. She said Gianna was allowed to keep her own hours, but whenever she was a little late to the office, her supervisor would start calling. ‘She emailed me several times a day and kept wanting to check on my articles every few days. But I don’t know what I can produce in two days.’

If this is what doing a PhD means, I’m out!

Gianna was pressured to work harder, but she was also forced to do all kinds of chores for her supervisor. ‘She even called me on Christmas day because she was applying for a grant and made me do graphs for her. She was always there. But I felt it was normal; in Italy you’re practically a slave to your supervisor.’

She wanted Gianna to help out during a summer school she organised and made her cancel a flight that had already been booked, right before a weekend visit to her family in Italy. ‘She wanted me to attend a student event. I sat there for two hours without doing or saying anything and then she sent me home.’ 

Not okay

It was around that time that her office mate said: ‘I think you have a problem. This is not how we do things in the Netherlands.’ And Gianna started to realise that it was not okay. And she was not okay.

‘My supervisor wanted me to be involved with the department, with the faculty, and to do stuff I didn’t want to do, like being a tutor to master students. I hardly slept and was severely overworked’, she says. 

She was working and writing, but her supervisor kept sending her work back, every time with minor changes. The notion of publishing an article was far, far away. And Gianna slipped, slowly but surely. 

Ordered to teach

Gianna’s story is not unique. Stories like hers are not even hard to find. Take Sara, an international PhD student. She was only in her first year when her supervisor told her she needed to teach a course. It couldn’t be helped, because the department didn’t have enough teachers. ‘I got an email one week before the course started,’ Sara says, ‘saying it was last minute, but I later found out it was all set a year before and my supervisor had the hours to teach that course.’

I hardly slept and was severely overworked

The year after, the same thing happened, but because the course had completely changed, Sara had to do the work all over again. ‘I basically had to teach what I didn’t know. I tried to keep up with my students and learn it in time.’

Sara’s supervisor often demanded to have Skype calls, even while she was away on holiday. ‘It was non-stop. You have to work, no matter when, where, why, or if you have social life or not. They really don’t care’, she says. 

Abusive

Sophie, an American, came here on a Marie Curie scholarship. She, too, thought she’d struck gold, because her supervisor went out of her way to get her to come to Groningen. ‘I couldn’t have seen it coming,’ she says, ‘but, in retrospect, she was abusive, both verbally and emotionally.’

Sophie hadn’t written a paper before, but soon she found herself working on an op-ed for a ‘very nice journal’ in her field. ‘And it went to review. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, but it actually meant a lot.’

The editor recognised how new she was, but asked her to revise and resubmit. However, her supervisor did not read it, even though it was only a couple of pages and she was the second author. ‘It threw me into a loop. Every month or so I would send her the improved manuscript and be like: I made some more modifications. And then she didn’t read it and a month later, I would say: “I made some more modifications, read this instead.” And at some point she said: “I’m never going to read it.”’ 

She ruined the relationship between me and other people

Sophie wasn’t allowed to go to courses, apart from the ones that were mandatory for her programme. ‘There was another PhD candidate, her favourite, who went to those courses and we had to learn from him. And then, because we learned from him, his name had to be in the publications’, she says. 

She was forbidden to learn how to code, although she did it anyway, as it is a vital skill in her field. Experiments with other parties were blocked, or frustrated. ‘She ruined the relationship between me and other people’, she says. ‘I had started a couple of things with random people, having analysed their data. But she forced me to stop and I left them hanging. So I will never be able to work with them again.’

Sophie cried on her way to work every single day.

Burned out

PhD students being overworked, suffering from depression and burn-out: the stories are everywhere. Lucia, a former PhD student at the Faculty of Arts, says she had a good supervisor. But she too was supposed to work sixty hours a week and always be available. ‘I don’t know how it’s possible that these things are still happening. I have friends who’ve burned out, who cannot finish their PhDs. It’s everywhere.’

And in many of these cases, the ‘questionable behaviour’ doesn’t even stop at merely overworking your PhD students. According to the PNN survey, 4.9 percent of the respondents have witnessed ethical misconduct by their supervisors. Or, in the case of María, were forced to take part in it. 

María had come to Groningen on a double degree programme with a university from South America. She thought nothing could go wrong with two supervisors back home and three in Groningen. However, when she arrived, she found out there had been no contact between her supervisors and she couldn’t do the research that she had collected samples for back home. ‘I had to come up with a completely new research plan on my own’, she says. ‘I thought it couldn’t get any worse.’

But it did. After she had rewritten her research plan and had done genetic analysis of the samples that would get her her PhD, her supervisor back home asked for the results, so one of his other students could use them. ‘The equipment to make these analyses is very expensive, so he said I had to help him out.’

Giant pressure

María ended up working almost sixteen hours every day. Not just doing her own job, but also doing lab work for her supervisor’s PhD students at her home university. ‘I didn’t want to’, she says. ‘But he made me feel very bad. He said that I didn’t want to help my colleagues back home, he called me selfish and said I owed this to him, because of the amazing opportunity he had given me. There was giant pressure.’

He called me selfish and said I owed him

María used up her own budget for other people’s research, afraid to speak up. ‘I was exhausted’, she says. ‘I didn’t feel well, I hardly slept.’ She knew it was unethical, but she didn’t feel there was anything she could do. ‘The professors will have each other’s backs’, she says. ‘My voice doesn’t count.’

Scholarship PhD student Ray was also bullied and suffered ethical misconduct. His problems were partly the ‘usual’ things, like his supervisor rarely reading what he wrote, or him being forced to attend conferences his supervisor hosted for contacts. ‘My supervisor always wanted to show this collection of PhD students to funders. That was clearly not for our benefit.’

Whenever Ray would refuse, he would get bombarded with passive-aggressive emails, or be singled out in public in a passive-aggressive manner. 

Unethical behaviour

The worst, however, was the unethical behaviour, like when Ray’s supervisor asked him to supervise a student. ‘Fine’, Ray said. ‘But if I do this, I want to be recognised as a co-supervisor and publish something with him if it’s good enough.’

Ray supervised the student, whose thesis received a high grade and was publishable. However, when he ran into the student a couple of months later, he learned that his supervisor was already writing an article with him, yet had left him out of the loop. ‘I asked about it, and my supervisor refused to include me, claiming that my contribution wasn’t enough for the paper.’ 

The feeling I remember from that period is desperation

In another instance, he found his supervisor was imposing co-authorship that had not been agreed on by all of the authors. ‘We found out through the other editor. But my supervisor – who was also one of the editors – must have known.’

Sara saw her supervisor try to squeeze a friend into one of her articles which was almost done. ‘My supervisor asked this friend to do some editing, but the paper was finished, and this person was not an author!’

And Gianna knows her supervisor presented her research data as her own during a conference. ‘A friend of mine attended that meeting’, she says. She recognised the data from my field work and my supervisor had never been to that area.’

Damaged

For every one of these PhD students, the years working on their theses have been detrimental. Sara spent a year in therapy. ‘Of course it damaged me’, she says. Gianna says she suffered from panic attacks. ‘I would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating out of my chest. If I remember one feeling from that period, it is desperation’, she says. ‘And it hasn’t happened to me since.’

Sophie suffered from burnout and a depression. María got severely depressed, to the point of having suicidal thoughts. Her PhD ‘broke her’, she says. 

‘And nobody is held accountable’, Lucia says. ‘In academia, the rules seem to be completely forgotten. We should be more protected.’

The names of the PhD students in this article are aliases. Every one of them is afraid that speaking up in public would severely harm their future in academia. 

  • Gianna has defended her thesis and is still working at the UG.
  • Sara is still working on her thesis 
  • Sophie has defended her thesis and is doing a postdoc at another university
  • Lucia has defended her thesis, but has quit academia
  • María has defended her thesis and is hoping to continue her career in academia
  • Ray is still working on his thesis

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