Stuck with a toxic supervisor #2
Speaking up (or not)
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on questionable behaviour by PhD supervisors.
Last week part 1: ‘My PhD broke me’
Next week part 3: The pernicious power structures in academia
Sophie wrote her supervisor a poem.
It was time for her third result and development (R&D) interview and American-born PhD student Sophie was done with her supervisor. Instead of helping her, her supervisor had refused to read her articles and banned her from going to courses. But when the woman made her cancel a deal for a joint experiment with a university in Denmark, something inside Sophie broke.
‘For this R&D meeting, I asked for a mediator in the room’, she says. ‘I hoped it would stop my supervisor from doing something extreme.’ She realised speaking up was ‘kind of a nuclear option’, but she felt she had no other choice. So the PhD coordinator of the faculty stepped in.
‘I read my supervisor this poem, in which I basically said that I didn’t feel supported, that I wished she would read my articles.’ But it got thrown back in her face. ‘Everything was turned around and made out to be my fault’, she says.
The PhD coordinator was no help at all. ‘She was not there to protect me. In any conversation between a professor and a student, someone should be there to protect the student, because the professor is pretty protected already.’
Sophie left the room feeling no better and still not heard.
12.9 percent of the PhD students who participated in a national survey by PhD network PNN in 2020 considered changing supervisors. They usually feel their supervisor is putting too much pressure on them or undermining their confidence, or it’s just a plain and simple mismatch. But only 18 percent actually succeeded in getting a new supervisor. Another 19 percent tried and failed. ‘The promoter or other supervisor did not allow it, or they were hampered by bureaucracy’, PNN states.
Everything was made out to be my fault
Sophie followed the rules. When the problems with her supervisor became too much, she went to the PhD coordinator for help, as instructed. She was open about her point of view in the R&D interview, hoping to leave a paper trail. But then her supervisor refused to sign the paperwork until Sophie changed the wording. ‘And then she stopped showing up for work.’
It took three months before Sophie was told her supervisor was actually on burnout leave. ‘At some point I thought she maybe had some kind of cancer.’
She was not allowed to contact her supervisor anymore, nor could the supervisor contact her. ‘Because I was supposedly the one who caused it’, she says. ‘I remember talking to the PhD coordinator, saying: “This is ridiculous.” And she said: “You are definitely not the only reason she’s having a burnout.” And I remember leaving the room thinking: I am not even at the top of the list of problems here. How can I even be remotely responsible?’
So Sophie spent months writing her thesis without a supervisor, even though she begged for a new one. It was not until her supervisor wrote an email saying ‘Sophie is not allowed to publish anything while I’m on medical leave’, that things turned around. ‘That email was unethical. But it was also not in the interest of the university. So that finally got me a proper supervisor.’
Her new supervisors were ‘both fantastic’, she says. ‘They were older white men, which I was avoiding the whole time. And I thought: OMG, this is so easy! They just wanted to talk about ideas and not put me down. One of them was an encyclopedia, it was insane! The other was super strategic. I learned so much from them in those final months, where I didn’t learn a single thing from her.’
Sadly enough, by the end of her PhD track, her supervisor showed up again, and took back ‘full responsibility’.
PhD student Gianna also asked for help when the stalking and controlling behaviour of her supervisor became too much for her. ‘I was lucky’, she says, ‘because no one liked this woman. That saved me.’
Her department organised a meeting with Gianna, the supervisor, and the head of the department. ‘I was terrified. I hate conflict.’ Also, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to convince the other people of the gravity of the situation. ‘But then she went for me’, Gianna says. ‘She couldn’t hold back and pointed the finger at me, saying: “You told me you were an honest person, but you are not!!”’
‘Now I understand what Gianna is saying’, the head of the department stated.
No one liked this woman and that saved me
However, Gianna didn’t get another supervisor either. The faculty wanted the relationship to work and her supervisor refused to let her go. And so Gianna’s supervisor was told not to contact her, and Gianna was only to contact her supervisor if she needed feedback on articles or drafts. ‘But she kept shooting down my articles, still micromanaging everything.’
Then her R&D interview came up and her supervisor painted her as a ‘bad PhD candidate’ who wouldn’t publish. ‘I had twenty to thirty drafts of the same article with irrelevant changes’, she says. ‘I printed the whole thing, a big stack of paper, and I put it on my promoter’s desk. “This is how many times I re-edited the article”, I said.’
The woman stayed on as Gianna’s supervisor, however, even when she went on medical leave and even after she had found another job abroad. ‘But then she wanted me to send her my data, because she said she wasn’t sure I collected it properly.’
Gianna has no proof, but – since her supervisor had already presented Gianna’s data as her own once before – she believes the woman wanted to use it for her own gain. Gianna refused to send the data. Fortunately, this time she got the help of her promoter, but it took a fight about authorship with yet another professor to get the message to sink in. Gianna’s supervisor finally let her go.
‘I wish they had forced her away from me, instead of all this political back and forth’, Gianna says now. ‘All this time, I didn’t know where to go, what to do.’
Suck it up
‘They should have separated us immediately’, Sophie says, looking back. ‘That email was grounds for separation, but all I got was a two-month extension because I suffered from burnout, too.’ Also, she had to look for a postdoc without letters of recommendation.
That’s why most PhD students just suck it up and try to keep going, problems or not. Of those respondents to the PNN survey who considered changing supervisors, almost half never took any steps to arrange that. ‘The main reason is fear of not being able to finish the project, fear of risking their future career and not wanting to be a troublemaker’, according to PNN.
If the uni doesn’t take my side, they can easily cancel my visa
Which is exactly why PhD student Ray is very cautious about speaking up. He doesn’t trust his promoter after not getting recognition for his work and being put down on a regular basis. ‘My promoter told me that they might be able to help me with my post-PhD career. But if I insisted on being an outlier and not complying, that would be the end of me’, he says.
Ray is afraid the supervisor might ‘pull something’. In the end, his promoter has to decide on giving him an extension. ‘And if the uni doesn’t take my side, they can easily cancel my visa.’
So he decided to avoid contact as much as possible. Covid provides a silver lining there, he says, by putting more distance between them. But it hampers his research. ‘My daily supervisor is very good and all that, but not a full professor. I need more theoretical feedback.’
Keeping the peace
PhD student Sara, who has to deal with constant micromanaging and is pushed into teaching courses she is not equipped for, did go to her PhD coordinator. ‘They backed me up and told me it was not okay. But I still had to teach that course, because it was already too late to change it’
They had another discussion when her supervisor tried to force her into accepting an author that had not contributed to her article. Again, the coordinator took Sara’s side. ‘Then my supervisor said: “Well, no one’s to blame. These things happen.” And for me, keeping the peace is important and there are not many professors who can promote me.’
So Sara, too, tries to keep her distance and to collaborate as much as possible with other people. ‘Maybe it was a mistake that I never sat down with the graduate school. The PhD coordinator did offer often. But now it’s too late.’
Double degree PhD student María never spoke up at all. She was bullied into doing extra work for the supervisor she had in her home country, doing analyses for his PhD candidates there, which had her working fifteen hours a day for days on end. She was much too scared to say anything.
In her department, she says, she couldn’t trust anyone. She and her fellow PhD students were all competing. There were endless presentations and the best of them might get a postdoc. ‘We were competing for a real job.’ Showing weakness was out of the question.
I was pushed to wrap up my PhD quickly
She felt she couldn’t talk about her depression and exhaustion. ‘When this message came from the faculty about mental health problems with PhD students, my supervisor read it and dismissed it immediately, saying: “Ah, this is academic life. Everyone has their problems.” That means that if you have problems, you are weak.’
Her Dutch supervisor was nice enough, but she didn’t want to add to his workload. ‘He had seventeen PhD students and still found time to help me’, she says. ‘I didn’t want to become a problem.’ But there was something else too. ‘I felt like all professors protect each other. I didn’t trust he would take my side if I were to say something.’
And she’s not the only one. Many PhD students feel like they don’t really matter. The interests of the university as a whole are bigger than theirs. ‘These professors bring a lot of money to the university. That gives them power. Who’s going to go against them?’ says PhD student Lucia.
‘I was pushed to wrap up my PhD quickly, because my supervisor would only come back when I was gone’, Sophie says. ‘I was put in a position where a professor’s future depended on me and the uni wanted to please her at my cost. I understand that finishing up was a solution for me as well, but still…’
María still hasn’t recovered. She has defended her thesis, of which she is proud. ‘But my PhD track was the worst time of my life. I used to be a happy and excited person, but now I’ve lost my love for science. I miss the person I was before.’
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. Their real names are known to UKrant.
- 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