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To be brief, I am a PhD student in the UK, and I have recently had some disagreement with the way my advisor handled our collaboration on research. This was initially a fairly minor thing. Not in the sense of what has happened, but minor in the sense that I only wanted to move past it, and to continue productively, but unfortunately he appeared to be too preoccupied, or for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to work together on correcting our results. Frustrating and not good for me, but ok, fine. At the time, no harsh words were exchanged at all, and there was some degree of understanding, although I was not happy with the mistake.

This has escalated beyond belief as soon as I relayed this problem to an administrative person, to explain there was a mutual mistake and I needed more time to submit. I explained the situation briefly to the person responsible for these things, made it clear I held no animosity or any interest in dwelling on it, and just needed some recovery time to move forwards. This was made totally clear to him and he was fine to shift the submission date and funding termination back slightly and he had agreed with me that there should be no blame here.

This has resulted in my advisor going on a furious rant at me in public, saying he refuses to work with me anymore. In private, the advisors have said that my 'complaints' have made the group look bad (no complaint was ever made, only a request for further time), and that they have now lodged some files or something on me with people at the university marking me as problematic. I have also been told that my complaints will make it difficult for me to get a job even after graduation, if I get to that point, because my advisor has no intention of giving me a reference, much less a positive one, and that they can make finding a job very difficult.

What on earth can I do? It seems that my career is now in ruins before it even started.

This whole situation has made me disgusted since it appears to have come almost out of nowhere, based on one conversation with an admin person. But I cannot work elsewhere if they follow through on their threats. How can I salvage my potential career?

Edit: There are just too many details I left out to edit down to size, and I would like to simply close this question or delete it if possible, due to confusion. I would prefer this to editing a popular question with too many specifics.

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    (1) please edit this down to the question you want us to ask. (2) Is this in the Anglosphere + Western Europe or somewhere else? That matters greatly as to how things work for this. – virmaior Feb 25 '19 at 11:34
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    Did you consult with your advisor on whether to ask for extra time, and if so how it should be done? – Patricia Shanahan Feb 25 '19 at 12:52
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    What was a fairly minor thing? What did the advisor say has upset him? Also, careful about talking about "shared blame" (see below comments). This is a codeword for "actually it's you, but I want to be so generous to take part of it.", similar to the infamous politician's apology, "if I have offended somebody", which is not really one. Maybe indeed it is your adviser, but for you to be helped, please let us understand the complete picture. BTW, once realising one's mistake, heartfelt and unconditional apologies may work wonders, although it might be too late now in the present case. – Captain Emacs Feb 25 '19 at 12:54
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    Sorry for being blunt, but I am currently in the UK system, and while I absolutely do not condone a furious rant in public, if I was supervising a student who acted like that, I would be very offended. And while I might be able to admit that part of it comes from mistakes in advising and leading the student (and that, as a consequence, I might need to work on those skills as an advisor), I would take such a behaviour of the student as a big breach of trust, possibly big enough that I could not work with, advise or lead such a student any more. – penelope Feb 25 '19 at 14:06
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    I have a friend who is a professor in a UK university and he always rants (privately to me) how sensitive the environment is about complaints of any kind. Next time think twice before bringing stuff up to anyone. If you want a friendly and quick resolution go the private route. The moment you bring anything to any kind of authority, apparently, it's a huge issue in the UK independently of how small the initial fact is. And other answers below seem to corroborate all the examples I've heard from this friend of mine. – Bakuriu Feb 25 '19 at 18:45
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You went to the administrative person. That was your error and the core issue.

Allow me to give an example from the other side in which this happened:

While I was at another institute, I was asked to take over a lab for another person. The lab hosted a guest cohort from another country so the university needed someone with content knowledge and dual language fluency on short notice. So I was asked if I could take over the lab for a week.

Suffice to say, I did not know that there were particular rules for this lab. Some were obvious (like not leaving equipment plugged in) but I was a little overwhelmed with taking over a course last minute. Further, my work is primarily computational rather than lab focused so the reflex nature of lab rules was not there for me.

After a few nights, the lab manager came in and saw the lab after I had left it. Equipment was left out and plugged in. All a very big mistake on my part. The way she responded was where things got messy.

In hindsight, a more measured response would have been talking to me or even the lab's PI to find out what was going; even going to the department head. Instead she went to the Dean. She did not know the situation with the lab and the dean didnt, but as soon as it went to the dean, the situation became "administrative". Funds were threatened and it ended with me having to write a formal apology to the department head and the lab manager with everyone CCed on the email. Everyone was aware the situation and most parties were mainly pleased that I was willing to write the apology so the "administrative" side of the situation could go away and we could fix things in house. (I ended up just getting an assistant who was a little more lab savvy). The department head came by and gave me a sympathetic pat on the back.

Was I wrong, certainly. But it was likely an issue that could have been dealt with "in house".

So, what was the end result of going to the administration rather than keeping things in house? At one end, awkward elevator rides when the lab manager and I crossed paths. She found out the situation, and to find out, she didnt even know I was in the lab. I heard she thought it was an undergraduate group. On the other end, it did leave some lasting trust issues and undermined what had been before a very good working relationship between two labs. But I think that things have smoothed out since that happened.

In other words, once you go to the administration, the situation becomes administrative.

  • Would you mind expanding on 'You went to the administrative person. That was your error and the core issue.'? I am not asking in a confrontational way - just genuinely a bit lost. I also cannot figure out the 'scale' of OP's situation, but let's assume that the situation was as OP describes it ('a fairly minor thing') and simply needed more time. If the administrator approves, OP did nothing wrong by being granted more time from higher authorities? Would love for some others to chime in! – Reputable Misnomer Feb 26 '19 at 15:33
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You have not quite told us what happened with you, your advisor and your research group. But even your vague description betrays what I believe to be a lack of awareness to certain aspects of professional/interpersonal interaction which is now biting you in the ass.

This was initially a fairly minor thing. I just needed to explain to others that there was some confusion which my advisor admitted to me privately

This was not a minor, thing - it was a major thing. A huge thing probably. Why?

  • You repeated something told to you in confidence, to outsiders, and made it (somewhat) generally known.
  • You assigned blame to your advisor while (seemingly) hinting he was incapable/unwilling to take on the blame, thus slighting his character as a person and as a manager.

... and this was even before any official complaints were lodged about anything and anyone.

Now, maybe that's not the only way to look at what happened, but it could very well be the way that your advisor and many others - in and out of your research group - see things. It's possible that, on the merit of the original matter, what you said was true - but that doesn't help with how you conducted yourself.

This whole situation has made me disgusted.

You must realize that the feeling may be mutual. Try to look at things from the other person's perspective - what do they expect and believe - and be aware that they will judge you from that perspective, not on the basis of the facts, or what you consider to be the facts and circumstances.

What on earth can I do?

Unless it jeopardizes the integrity of yours and others research - swallow your pride/disgust, stash your ego somewhat, and apologize to your advisor for your conduct. Be, or pretend to be, penitent.

Does this mean that he's not really to blame for anything? Not really. Maybe most of the blame is with him. But - that doesn't really matter. You have to be generous with taking blame and cutting people slack (whether they deserve it in your opinion or not), as long as others/society/science don't suffer as a consequence. That's an important salve to apply to situations of people being offended.

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    Thank you for your advice, but I should make it clear I did not blame him, in fact I made it very clear I was not complaining about anything, only requesting more time due to a shared mistake. I took every step to say that the relationship was good. There was in fact no complaint lodged by me at all. I was requested to edit things down so I removed some clarifying information, perhaps. But there was no complaint ever lodged, informally or formally. – user97048 Feb 25 '19 at 12:02
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    @user41208: This may be clear to you, but reading your question - the opposite was clear to me. I mean, you don't have to say "I'm blaming him" for another party to construe what you've said as an assignment of blaim to him. – einpoklum Feb 25 '19 at 12:03
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    @user41208, there is something missing in your story, if I understood, you only asked for extra time due to a shared mistake, I would like to know how you delivered this request to make this situation escalated to that point. The best thing you can do is to go and speak with a good professor who can smoothen the waters with your supervisor, maybe there is misunderstanding or gossiping. – user103209 Feb 25 '19 at 13:34
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    It seems from your story, that your relationship with your supervisor was good, but I do think he got offended that you mentioned " you request further time for this mistake" which is obvious what made him furious, if I were in your shoes, you have to apologize. – user103209 Feb 25 '19 at 13:37
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    You were new, you did not realize the trouble you would be causing your P.I. Now you need to profusely apologize and eat crow. This is unfortunate because in some sense you were not made aware of the “way these things work.” In the end, that does not save you from having to give a humble and sincere apology. – Dawn Feb 25 '19 at 15:43
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The damage has been made. The question is not who to blame, but how to reduce the damage.

Your best option is to do what @einpoklum suggested:

Unless it jeopardizes the integrity of yours and others research - swallow your pride/disgust, stash your ego somewhat, and apologize to your advisor for your conduct. Be, or pretend to be, penitent.

I would also suggest to read the book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. In summary, you need to ask yourself

  • What do you want the other person to do?
  • How can you influence them to do what you want?

Looking back:

I have recently had some disagreement with the way my advisor handled our collaboration on research. This was initially a fairly minor thing. Not in the sense of what has happened, but minor in the sense that I only wanted to move past it, and to continue productively, but unfortunately he appeared to be too preoccupied, or for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to work together on correcting our results.

  • You want your advisor to work with you to correct the results.
  • What you did: you ignored him when he disagreed.

Does this action likely lead to the desired result? Is it a surprise that your advisor appeared not to have time to work with you?

Regardless of who to blame, whether you did was right or wrong, your action did cause trouble to your advisor, and you turned him into an enemy.

Having an enemy is never a good thing, in particular if you want to work in academia and they work in the same field.

  • What you want your advisor to do: help with your research, or at least provide a strong reference for you to find another lab.
  • How can you achieve this?

Hint: you can't force anybody to help you, they only do it when they really want.

Note: it is your advisor's best interest to have successful students. Failing a student affects his performance and reputation too.

  • This is the best answer because it is the only one that addresses the question - which was not "what went wrong", but "what can I do going forward?". Don't understand why this was downvoted. – PoorYorick Feb 26 '19 at 10:18