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I am the PhD student of an advisor who is known within my institution as extremely strict, controlling and prone to temper tantrums, making undergrads cry in lecture halls, etc. I am in my final year of writing, 12 months to go with all of my experiments completed and 60% of my writing done.

I have found my own ways of managing our relationship (i.e. to grin and bear it), but now, in my final year of thesis writing, I am finding it increasingly difficult to cope. He is extremely controlling of my personal time: making it clear that he expects me to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week 'just to keep my head above water'. Though he always cheerfully reminds me that 'deadlines are flexible', on the rare occasion that I do try to take him on his word (this has happened twice in 4 years), he completely flips out and makes me work to the deadline (even when this has meant me working 20 hour days). This happens even though the events are out of my control (a problem with an experiment, the death of a friend) and though I have never asked for more than 7 days extension. The death of a friend thing happened recently and is the straw that broke the camel's back, I just can't understand how I couldn't take a week to deal with that (it was over Christmas, when I was still 'supposed to be working'...).

I would almost understand his behavior if I were a terrible PhD student in need of a kick up the backside, but by all objective accounts I am on track to finish well before schedule. My advisor tends to go through periods of bombarding me with compliments and praise for my work, teaching, etc. until I feel totally great about our relationship, only to completely flip and treat me like a child in need of chastisement. What disturbs me about this is that he will often make me agree that he is in the right, and that he is 'not a horrible advisor, just has my best intrests in mind'. Two friends of mine have left our research group because of difficulties working with him, telling me personally 'I don't know how you are able to work with him, I feel sorry for you.' A friend's advisor has said: 'I hope Anon is OK and has someone to talk to, their advisor is really tough'. I'm including this context because I consistently doubt my own perception of this situation, and need to justify my feelings to myself (and anyone reading this) by remembering that others corroborate my perception of my advisor. I am also extremely paranoid about him finding out about this (hence not using my usual SE account).

Usually, I would make my feelings clear and ask for a mature discussion about our needs, but I think my advisor will take that as confrontation and I don't want to jeopardize my thesis or my job prospects in these final stages. I am too apprehensive to talk to other staff in the institute about this in case somehow word gets back to him.

At most, I'd like to get a good reference and bounce out. At least, I want to survive with my sanity and happiness in tact (I have self-esteem problems and am feeling increasingly awful about myself - I see a therapist so I'm accountable to someone and don't plan on hurting myself etc.).

TL;DR: Overbearing advisor, I feel increasingly bad. My strategy at this point of is to continue my mantra of 'grin and bear it', keep a low profile and ride out the end of my PhD. Please could you share some strategies for doing so in a non-confrontational way?

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    How does he keep track of the hours you put into this? How much of his criticisms and outbursts will affect the final work/grade? I only ask because how you handle it is affected by whether his outbursts are just a hot headed way to relieve stress (which is inappropriate), versus he could ruin your thesis grade. He sounds a bit irrational though. – doctordonna Jan 16 '18 at 8:14
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    Does your advisor have bipolar disorder? Maybe you should think along the lines of "How do I work effectively with someone who has a mental illness?" Rather than "How do I hide?" It's not like you won't find more people with mental illnesses later in your career. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 16 '18 at 8:27
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My advisor tends to go through periods of bombarding me with compliments and praise for my work, teaching, etc. until I feel totally great about our relationship, only to completely flip and treat me like a child in need of chastisement. What disturbs me about this is that he will often make me agree that he is in the right, and that he is 'not a horrible advisor, just has my best intrests in mind'.

Your advisor is abusive, and this is classic gaslighting. It can really do a number on your confidence, and "I consistently doubt my own perception of this situation" is exactly what this behaviour is designed to achieve. It is very difficult to keep/regain perspective within that situation.

Recommendations:

  • Minimize face to face interaction as much as possible. With e-mail, you can go back and re-read the past conversation, and confirm that things were like you remember them.

  • In the same vein, document all your verbal interactions, the positive just as much as the negative. Keep a journal or an advisor log. Re-read what you wrote during the last 'nice phase' when your advisor is being nasty, and vice-versa. This will help you keep some distance from both (giving you a better perspective of the whole situation). It will also be very helpful in case the situation deteriorates and you need to argue for yourself against your advisor with the administration or others. People like this are extremely good at convincing others that you are the crazy one - so good, they can even make you believe it yourself.

  • Read up on the patterns and techniques of abuse. There are few resources for abused grad students, but it fundamentally all works the same way, so looking into husband/wife or parent/child abuse you will recognize many facets. I highly recommend Lundy Bankroft's "Why Does He Do That", it's an incisive analysis of abuser mentality.

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Seek out avenues for addressing your current situation outside of your relationship with your supervisor:

  1. Within your faculty, seek out options for additional support, such as an advisor or another supervisor who can provide counselling, advice, or mentoring from an inside point of view.

  2. Within the university, seek out student support services to provide similar assistance to your situation.

With some additional assistance, this might tip the balance in your favour, making the final 12 months manageable.

Within your relationship, you can take steps to establish your independence as a researcher, and this would be part of your professional development. For example:

  1. Tell the supervisor that you are taking time off (a certain number of days) during which you will not be doing any work at all. Make it clear that this is a separation of personal and academic life, and it's not a matter for discussion.
  2. When the supervisor provides a deadline, take the step to negotiate a different timeframe, from the point of view that you are an equal in this relationship when it comes to discussing time frames.

You need to be able to establish your own boundaries, and create the space in which you can work effectively, and with appropriate regards for your own health. You'll need to be assertive to have a successful research career, beyond just surviving the PhD.

Your approach to accessing assistance should always be phrased in terms of "I need assistance in my final year" and not "I have a problem with my supervisor".

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Well, the key here will be support from the department/the university. Once an administrator is aware of the situation, and has indicated to what extent the department (or university) will back you up, you'll be able to quietly assert yourself.

I would make an appointment to speak with the director of graduate studies or the department chair, to make him or her aware of the situation. (You could print out your question here and bring it to the appointment for the administrator to read.)

In the U.S. I would expect the administrator to say that yes, of course you can take a week off when someone close to you dies, and also that a certain number of weeks of vacation per year are perfectly reasonable, as long as you work out the when with your advisor. (But there is no need to get permission to take a week off when someone close to you dies.)

Once you know where you and your advisor stand with regard to rules, expectations, and unwritten customs, at your university (i.e. once you have your ducks in a row), you'll be able to assert yourself with quiet confidence. For example:

(email) Dear Prof. X,

I too want to move forward with the project as quickly as possible. As soon as my two-week [for example] period of mourning is over, I will be back at work. I will send you an update halfway into my first week back, on (date).

If he blows his stack, you immediately inform the administrator you checked with earlier.

Obviously, only draw a line in the sand in this way when it really matters. As much as possible, avoid conflict with him as you've been doing.

Note the lack of emotion in the sample email. That will be your emotional shield.

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