April 13, 2016

Working with an unsupportive supervisor

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-lin


Anonymous said...

My Ph. D. supervisor was simply negligent, largely because he wasn't interested in my research project.

Looking back, there were definite indications that he wanted to scuttle what I was working on, hoping that I'd throw in the towel on what I was investigating, and salvage a degree by working on his pet project. I wasted a year on my initial project. My supervisor went on sabbatical and made largely neutral comments about what I had done.

Then that project was torpedoed, so to speak, in a meeting with the departmental members of my committee--a committee that was soon dissolved. One professor retired a few weeks later. The other one dropped out (after behaving in a shamefully adolescent manner in that meeting) because he wasn't interested.

Within 24 hours, I had a new project idea and pushed ahead with it. My supervisor resorted to his neutral comments (mustn't say anything negative, lest I become discouraged, right?) and did his best to avoid me. And why not--one of his newest students was a clever young lady from outside the country and she was working on what he was interested. Those were two good reasons for him to push me aside.

He delayed an important meeting with my new committee, claiming that it took "several months" to set a time and place for it. (Pig's ear, I say. I spent several years in industry, so I knew better.)

I did my residency during my final 2 years and he finally confessed that he was never interested in what I was working on, as if that justified his deliberate negligence. Worse, though, is that young lady had moved in with her boyfriend and, at the same time, my supervisor became quite hostile towards me, not that I had anything to do with her decision. (Coincidence? I don't think so. There were signs that their dealings were sometimes less than arm's length, making them ethically questionable.)

My final 2 years were more like a running brawl with him. I wanted to have meetings with him and he often claimed to be "busy". I asked for advice and I got verbal abuse instead. Eventually, I pushed him aside, so to speak, and finished the thesis largely by myself. (I paid most of the expenses out of my own pocket, so I gave myself that authority.) Stubbornness, which I acquired during my years in industry, plus a few lucky breaks were what allowed me to finish.

His negligence and abuse didn't stop. I had to prod him to hold my candidacy exam, with less than a year left. I had to organize my own defence because he was away on vacation and couldn't be bothered. (He wasn't too pleased that he had to read my thesis while I was away.) In just a matter of days, I had contacted everyone who would be attending and had a time and a date that they could all agree on. How come he couldn't do that?

(Continued in my next entry)

Anonymous said...

During my defence, he deliberately asked me obscure questions in order to embarrass me in front of the committee. (I bet he never did that when his "sweetie" had hers.)

After the defence, which I passed, he made unreasonable demands concerning certain corrections. He did so in the hope that I would miss the submission deadline and, possibly, get my degree after that other student. He threatened me with not signing it if I didn't comply, but I refused to budge. I knew that those corrections were trivial and, if they had been so important, the issues in question should have been dealt with while I was writing it.

I never specifically mentioned him in the thesis acknowledgements because I'm not in the habit of rewarding someone for being lazy, negligent, and abusive, particularly when I'm the one signing the cheques. That may be one reason I never got a university position after I received my degree. I refused to play the game of making smoochies with the right sort of people, I guess.

I last spoke to him just before he retired (officially, that is--the way he acted, he retired on the job years earlier). That was early in the previous decade and I haven't spoken to him since.

To this day, I can't think of him without wanting to spit.

Anonymous said...

Further to my two earlier entries, I seriously considered firing my supervisor because of his negligence and his lack of co-operation.

The grad student ombudsman was useless in his job and, as I recall, his position was abolished the following year. No great loss there.

The university ombudsman's office was bit more helpful, but the news wasn't good. If I couldn't find anyone to take over my file, I could kiss several years of work good-bye. That's when I grabbed the bull by the horns and pushed ahead on my own.

One reason I did that was an incident at the university where I began grad studies about 20 years earlier. One of my student colleagues was part-way through his Ph. D. research when his supervisor quit and took a job in industry. The institution didn't give him much leeway and he had the same choices I had. He decided to abandon everything, take his wife and newly-born son back to his homeland. As far as I know, he never finished his degree.

So, if one's supervisor messes you over, the university reserves the right to leave you up the spout after taking your money and several years of your life and effort. Nice system, eh?

Anonymous said...

I've got one more story to tell about my experiences.

I enjoyed my time as an undergrad, except, of course, for exams. When I began grad studies in the late 1970s, I thought it would be similar but, as it turned out, I was sadly mistaken.

The department I started with treated undergrads better than the grad students. Anything we got for our own facilities, we were supposed to be overwhelmingly grateful for. Never mind that we didn't have easy access to a telephone (which, by law, was required, if one considered a university lab a workplace) or that the undergrads had a nicer lounge than we did. We were supposed to be thankful that we got anything.

My supervisor treated his grad students as cheap labour and behaved like the money we were paid came out of *his* pocket. If anyone finished their degree, let alone on time, it happened by accident and he worked hard to make sure that it didn't happen again.

For example, there was a foreign grad student, who came to the country already with a master's degree in his discipline. He worked for several years on his Ph. D., only to be cut off at a level well below that. The result was that he got yet another master's degree in the same field. The man decided to stay on and managed to get his doctorate.... about a dozen years after arriving to start working on it. Apparently, he hung around the department for a while longer as a research associate and, some 20 years after coming here (and acquiring some children in the process), he returned to his homeland. I heard he got himself a faculty position at a major university there.

I'm sure our supervisor had a lot to do with it. He knew a good "earner" when he saw one and dragged things out in order to get the poor chap to produce even more data for him.

Then there was the case of another grad student, though this happened before I began. Our supervisor apparently published some data that the student had obtained, but did so without giving him credit. Doing that may or may not have been a breach of ethics. However, that didn't matter to the student. When he found out, he filed complaints all over the place and it reached quite high up in the university's administrative chain.

The matter nearly resulted in litigation, though it was, apparently settled out of court in an amicable manner. The student did finish his degree, though how much worth it would be was debatable. After all, one often uses one's supervisor for a reference when looking for a job, right?

As far as I was concerned, that supervisor was completely useless. He didn't do anything for me and I learned much more about what I was working on from his senior grad student than I did from him. His excuse was that he "didn't know" and that student could assist me. However, I wasn't paying for that student's advice and guidance, I was paying for my supervisor's.

Another example of his uselessness was the one course I took from him. I was the only student taking it. All he did was photocopy some notes, hand them to me, and I was expected to figure things out from him. There were no formal scheduled meetings, as far as I can remember, no lectures, zippo. That might be acceptable for a Ph. D. student, but not for someone who just started grad studies.

The one and only exam in the course was a joke. It was a take-home and, conveniently, he made sure I passed. I guess it wouldn't do to have the only student taking the course, who happened to be under his supervision, to fail it.

With respect to my thesis, he offered no guidance whatsoever. As I mentioned earlier, his senior grad student gave me more assistance than he ever did. On the other hand, I remember how, one day, he started whining about my apparent lack of progress. That was fine for him to say when he didn't outline any expectations or objectives. I guess he was worried that I wasn't giving him value for his money.

There's more to come.

Anonymous said...

The situation I was in caused me a great deal of personal stress and anxiety and I eventually decided that I'd had enough. I dropped out after a year and arranged to transfer back to my alma mater. I abandoned my thesis but salvaged my course credits.

Two years after escaping his clutches, I found a job in that field. Unfortunately, though, my time as his grad student, and what I did and studied, weren't regarded as valid qualifications by my employer. That company fired me a year later and I never worked in that business again. My time as his grad student had, effectively, been a complete waste.

He died over a dozen years ago and I wasn't displeased when I read his obituary. I'm sure that it contained a few outright lies, unless he had radically changed in the years since I had been his grad student--such things have been known to happen. However, since he had been elevated to near sainthood, I had to read over it several times just to make sure that it wasn't referring to someone else with the same name.

To this day, I can't think of him without cringing. That man made my life hell for a few months and ruined my academic and professional ambitions.

Anonymous said...

As anonymous noticed in his comment, the university organizations very often do not support the PhD students in problematic situations. The phenomenon is worldwide. My experiences presented in "working with an unsupportive supervisor" - text and also the comment by anonymous are examples. Something should be done for the system.

Anonymous said...

Coming back to my earlier comments, I had no idea that the post-secondary educational system was so vile. Back then, there was little publicity. Anyone who talked and was found out didn't have much of an academic career. There was no Internet back then and there few articles about it, if any.

For years, I thought that what happened to me was all my fault. (To be fair, though, I may well have contributed to my miseries as I was young and, to be honest, quite foolish back then.) However, it wasn't until about 20 years ago that I began hearing rumblings of discontent. I read articles in "Science" about how many post-docs were quite dissatisfied with their experience. Those struck a chord with me because what they described seemed awfully familiar. Maybe what happened to me wasn't my imagination and may not have been my fault.

Meikäläinen said...

Related to the comments of anonymous:

Self-blaming is typical in these cases. In my case too. I though, it was to large extent my/our own fault. It took several years for me to understand what really had happened to me/us. That is why published my article now (13.4.2016), although the happenings were much earlier (years 2005-2010 (2003-2011))

Anonymous said...


As I mentioned in my previous comments, I started grad studies in the late 1970s, though I received my Ph. D. just over 15 years ago. It makes me wonder whether abuse and negligence of grad students was part of the system all along.

All of this took place in Canada, by the way. From what I gathered from other sources, this situation is not unique to my part of the world.

There's one thing I can say with certainty through my experiences. If getting a Ph. D. had anything to do with intelligence, talent, or hard work, many universities would have to close because they can't find enough qualified faculty.

Grad studies is nothing more than pure politics, particularly at the doctoral level. Whether one actually receives one's degree is like a Roman gladiator standing before Caesar, waiting for which way the emperor will point his thumb. What one has done before that is of little consequence.

I used to teach at a certain technical college. I had students who, frankly, should never have passed my courses. However, if they did their work properly and passed all the exams, they received credit. It was not my decision, nor did I have the authority, to decide whether or not they did. Graduate supervisors, however, behave as if they do or, more likely, gave themselves that power while, on the other hand, the university administration looks the other way.