A supervisor was retired in a small research group. The retired professor continued to guide the studies under the power of the new supervisor. After some years, the supervising altered more and more unsupportive for scientific work. This delayed the studies and made our cooperation difficult. The supervisor forbade the retired professor to have relations with companies, which limited his possibilities to guide students and purchase financing. I was workplace bullied during my PhD defense. In order to avoid such problems, I suggest that the power of the retired professor, the actual supervisor, should be expanded. I also highlight the importance of academic freedom for successful studies.
A professor emeritus continued to guide our studies after his retirement. Our new supervisor was an old PhD student of the retired professor. The new supervisor had made a consult agreement with the retired professor for handling the studies. The new supervisors’ participation was only partial. As a consequence, I together with the retired professor led our research and purchased our financing.
Our group of two PhD and one licentiate student made progress and created many new research contacts. Also the new supervisor was very interested in our work at the beginning.
A change in atmosphere
The new supervisor had gathered plenty of project financing. It appeared that he started to see our co-operation as a threat for his own studies. Providing samples to be studied to our partners was limited. When I asked, why he did not allow to purchase samples to our partners, while similar samples were provided for the supervisors´ own partners, he answered that our partners were “not buddies of his”. He also explained that this was a way to prevent research competition.
PhD students from our partner group were in a big trouble. They had not produced any meaningful results despite of over two years research. The students asked my help. I understood, how difficult the situation was. Hence, I made a plan that had a good synergy for my studies and would have produced the needed results quickly. We needed a very conventional sample for the experiments. The supervisor forbade purchasing the sample. We, therefore, had to replace the plan with another with much higher risks. Unfortunately the risks of the new plan realized and the partner group students remained without any results after four years work. It appeared that the PhD studies of the partner group students were cancelled.
The supervisor appeared to become reluctant to cover the expenses (like travelling costs) of the retired professor. While my colleague from our group was finalizing his PhD, the supervisor accused the retired professor of “information leakage”. The retired professor had shown my colleagues PhD plan to an international research partner. The supervisor ended the retired professors’ consult agreement and told that he was not allowed to have contacts with companies. The decision was poorly justified. After all, the plan was already nearly 100 % public and the rest were to be published within months. Discussing about it was in line with the long-range policy agreed with the companies. Naturally, the retired professor was shocked of, de facto, being kicked out from the laboratory by his own student. The decision made our guidance and possibilities to purchase funding difficult. Ever since, the retired professor concentrated to make science in another laboratory in another country.
The supervisors’ incomplete presence affected his competence to evaluate the studies. A big project ended after three years. A licentiate student had made plenty of work for the project. The supervisor told that the project had been lousy and decided to dumb the results to a wastebasket. Later, an international scientific evaluator estimated that the project had been of good quality. Also in the opinion of mine, and the other professors related to the project, the results were good and therefore a suitable basis for her licentiate thesis. The licentiate student had to start her studies from the very beginning.
The supervisor and retired professor had some differing views related to my PhD. While the retired professor emphasized the quality of science, the supervisor was focused on timetables and the fluent progress of the PhD process. PhD defense and post-doctoral party was very important for me. At the age of 8, I had witnessed my fathers’ PhD defense. During my studies I was very impressed about the extreme pride of the Custos, when they told about the brand new thesis and doctors. The university guidelines emphasize the nature of the post-doctoral party as “coronation”.
My PhD manuscript was a few months late, because I had faced difficulties in writing my last articles. In addition, two of my last articles were rejected in the beginning of September. Because of the unexpected drawbacks the retired professor recommended adjourning the defense to the next year. This was, however, denied by the Head of Department denied due to budget reasons.
The supervisor reacted to the problems partly in an abusive manner. In a private meeting he laughed to me derisively about the timetable of the thesis.
In order to complete my studies, I needed to write a report from my last experiments. The supervisor called and asked about the situation of the report.
I answered that I would first make the corrections proposed by my pre-reviewers to the PhD manuscript and then finalize the report.
Something was wrong in my answer. The supervisor started to bemoan loudly. It was not possible to continue the conversation. Three days later my forthcoming Custos (supervisor) called again. He told with an extremely impolite way that the defense would be arranged 5 days earlier than already agreed. No apologies were presented. My wife became angry, since this surprise move messed up the efforts to find the place for the post-doctoral party. Only two weeks was left to find a new place for the party and to invite guests to the new place. I had already informed my relatives about the defense date. It was only good luck that no one needed to retract airplane tickets.
PhD thesis must be public 10 days before the defense. One (!) day before this compulsory 10 days deadline Custos (supervisor) called. He shouted to the phone to take the manuscript out of press in the middle of printing. The reason was the minimal corrections (few typographical errors etc.) that had arrived to my last article. Demanding these corrections was not accordance with the practices of the university. It is enough that the article has a permission to be published. The press was upset. I made the small corrections and send the thesis again to the pressing queue. The PhD ceremony was not far from cancellation due to the episode.
My big day dawned. I defended my thesis successfully. Opponent gave praise to the thesis. My family, wife, doctor-father, who paid the post-doctoral party and the workplace were witnessing. Despite of the tight timetable, my wife had managed to book an elegant place for traditional post-doctoral party.
Custos tried to hide his antipathies during the ceremony. He made, anyhow, several sarcastic comments about me such as: "Jee, is he really going to follow the rules" (the procedure of dissertation was discussed together with Opponent). He also carefully avoided saying anything positive about my thesis and presented only negative critics. This was in contrast with his earlier views that had been very favorable for the thesis. Custos became angry, when I mentioned the corrections. ln his speech Custos brought up positive aspects, such as my capability to supply money to the laboratory, but what it came to the thesis itself, he quoted and paralleled the words of the head of the department (apparently, he was not willing to say anything positive from his side personally). The speech included a sarcastic remark about the PhD timetable.
When the supervisor discussed with other people about my work, he appeared to unilaterally focus on its negative aspects such as the thesis being late (I spent plenty of time in answering continuous questions about the difficulties faced during in my party).
During the post-doctoral party, while the supervisor was not around, the retired professor recommended me to change workplace into another laboratory.
Custos left from the party around 23. I escorted him to the door for hand shaking. His facial expression was disrespectful and hand so sluggish that it was difficult to shake.
Next time I saw my Custos two days after the defense. When I arrived his room, his face turned red. We had a very short conversation, since Custos was hardly able to speak anything.
5 weeks after the defense our laboratory engineer called. She had a long experience about salaries. The laboratory engineer was angry and depressed. She had tried to raise my last salary due to my graduation, as was the common practice. My supervisor had, however, refused to raise my salary. The meaning came clear. No thanks in the end.
After the defense I had meet the retired professor and another one of the pre-reviewers. They had started to behave in a peculiar way (avoiding eye contacts etc.).
The behavior of my supervisor was characteristic for workplace bullying /1-4/. The bullying was “subtle”, which is typical for academic environment.
The timing of bullying was worst possible. After all, I had just recovered from the depression caused by the rejected articles. PhD ceremony happens only once in a life and an identity of doctor is a life-long one. Custos has an important ceremonial role. Pride of PhD, if successfully defended, is part of academic culture. One may compare the situation to weddings, where the priest bullies the bride and bridegroom.
After the defense I suffered sleeping disorders and flashbacks. I was not able to read my PhD thesis for many years. In post-doctoral parties I feel myself uncomfortable near the number one table, where the Custos and Opponent sit. My symptoms are typical for chronic posttraumatic stress disorder, a common consequence of bullying.
The supervisor has afterwards explained his behavior by accusing me of causing hard stress, since he had promised my thesis being ready by the end of the year and, according to him, I had delayed the completion of my PhD. The supervisors’ critic is imbalanced. The timetable became challenging, because the supervisor had prohibited sending our last article to the editor before he had read it. This was despite of the tight timetable. We waited the comments of the supervisor over a month. We reminded him about the topic. Nothing happened. Finally, the retired professor decided to send the manuscript for the editor without supervisor’s permission, since defense timetable would otherwise collapse.
The end of research branch
Soon after my PhD defense, I left the university. This was a difficult decision. The head of department had hinted that my future might not be at the laboratory. Also the retired professor had recommended me a career outside the laboratory. However, the professors of our partner groups saw my leaving as a big loss.
While I was leaving, I took care about the continuation our research. I guided one master´s thesis maker and purchased financing for a big project. The same licentiate student, whose results the supervisor had earlier abandoned, continued her studies in the project.
We had had good experiences about utilizing master´s thesis in scientific articles. I, therefore, made a scientifically ambitious plan for the master’s thesis worker. The supervisor rejected the plan. He also discouraged us in making any scientific articles.
The last student from our group made her studies without any guidance a long time. Naturally, this hindered her studies. Finally, she asked help from the project partners and from the retired professor. With the aid of them she was able to finalize her licentiate thesis. The project partners planned to carry on the studies and purchase more financing. The supervisor told, however, that he was not interested to continue. The laboratory even withdraw from the project prior its’ ending. The licentiate thesis was finalized as unemployed.
Later, the research branch has gathered plenty of scientific and financial interest. Meanwhile the big projects at the laboratory ended. This caused lack of finance. At this situation it would had been a wise idea to focus the research on our field again (researchers in close contact with the laboratory had been hoped so). Once terminated, the research branch was difficult to revive. Valuable contacts and know-how had been lost.
What could be learned
Two out of three students, the retired professor and our project partners suffered from supervising that had altered unsupportive for academic work. This prolonged the studies and hindered our cooperation. It had also financial effects, since the income of the laboratory was allocated by means of accepted theses.
The roots of the problems are related to change of generation in supervising. This is a common source of tensions in academy. The new supervisor holds the power, while the studies continue under the guidance of the retired professor, the actual supervisor. I suggest that our problems would have been avoided, if the power and guidance were more clearly concentrated on the hands of the retired professor. The retired professor had originally hoped more power relating to our research. Those universities offering official positions (as a research director etc.) for the retired professors should set a good example. These kinds of positions should be decided at an upper level of the organization and not by one supervisor alone.
I was ordered to cede my thesis for pre-reviewing, although the retired professor, who had handled tens of PhD thesis, had warned that it would be unwise. Do these kinds of orders violate the rights of students? According to the rules of our university, PhD candidate decides his thesis timetable. Budget estimations should not control the graduation timetables.
I would also like to question, whether it is wise to close down research branches in the middle of successful studies. I have been familiarized myself to three such cases. In all of them, the ending of studies has been regretted afterwards.
Finally, I manifest that it is important for researchers to freely implement their ideas. Certainly, co-operation with companies limit the academic freedom. Anyhow, the restrictions should be as minimal as possible. Good ideas are rare and difficult to replace. Research synergy is difficult to build, if the research partners are seen as potential competitors.
1. Peyton P.R., Dignity at Work, Eliminate Bullying and Create a Positive Working Environment, Brunner-Routledge, 2003.
2. Rayner, C., Hoel, H., Cooper, C.L., Workplace Bullying, Taylor & Francis, 2002.
3. Workplace Bullying, Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workplace_bullying
4. Bully On-line: http://www.bullyonline.org/workbully/amibeing.htm