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I am a third year PhD student in an area of theoretical CS that would like advice for a difficult situation with my advisor.

My advisor is not involved in my research projects at all. In particular, I have come up with all of my paper ideas, and have executed the papers alone. However, she always insists on adding her name as a co-author. This has started to increasingly bother me, as I work very hard on my research and believe I should get credit for that. Note that in theoretical CS, there is no PI is always last author just because of funding tendency, all authors are considered equal and are ordered alphabetically. This makes it particularly bad to just add her, because it is completely ambiguous how much each of us has done.

For my most recent paper, I brought up how I didn't believe she was meeting the IEEE or ACM guidelines for authorship, and told her that I believed I should be sole author on my paper. She agreed that she shouldn't be an author, although she was visibly angry. She said that I was a "weirdo" for doing this, and said that everybody already knows that advisors take credit for their student's work and that publishing with your advisor is the same as publishing alone (this is absolutely untrue). But most importantly, she told me that she would not approve my proposal/dissertation if I did not add her name to several more top-tier papers because then I "have no ties to the university" since I am not working with a professor, and therefore cannot receive my PhD. She also made a lot of other threats, but that was the most relevant to me.

Obviously, I need a new advisor. However, there is really no one in my department in my research area. Switching research areas or departments are not options. So the remaining options are the following:

(1) Add her name to several more papers. I do not like this idea because it is unethical, and there is no guarantee that anything is even gained in this option. She could simply refuse to recommend me in the end after I got her a bunch of papers.

(2) Ignore her threats, and continue working towards my PhD, assuming that she will have to let me graduate. The reasons I don't believe she can stop me from graduating is because (a) I already have a good publication record and my papers are only getting better (b) I have funding independent of her through a fellowship and (c) our dept makes is difficult to kick out graduate students for no real reason. The downside of this is that she won't give me a letter of recommendation, but she doesn't have many connections anyways so this might not be too bad. On the positive side, I will have a bunch of single author papers.

(3) Try to convince a professor in an unrelated research area in my dept to be my advisor, emphasizing that I am independent and can do my work alone. There are a few theory professors in my dept, although they are totally different areas. I have no idea the chance of this working out.

I am also planning on talking to the chair about my situation. But I just wanted to get more of an opinion, what do you think I should do?

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    I want to emphasize: Adding your advisor to your paper even if they haven't done anything is not the norm in my research area. It is not uncommon for students to do single author papers. I know this is more normalized in other areas. – anonymous37242 Apr 12 at 16:47
  • If you go to war with your advisor they can probably just dump you and you will need a new advisor anyway. They don't need to actively "block" anything. So you are back to only two options in effect. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 12 at 20:24
  • She said that I was a "weirdo" for doing this, and said that everybody already knows that advisors take credit for their student's work — OP already knows this is untrue, but for the record: It is not "weird" for theoretical computer science students to publish without their advisors, and advisors taking credit for student work is neither common nor accepted practice in theoretical computer science. Quite the contrary: I require my PhD students to publish at least one paper without me before I let them graduate, because otherwise the community doesn't give them enough credit. – JeffE May 13 at 5:52
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You describe behavior that is certainly unethical and should be grounds for dismissal. One doesn't threaten graduate students or try to bribe them (with graduation) for what is in CS, in the US, anyway, improper co-authorship.

That said, your options are limited. I think the best option is to start with the department chair and see where you stand. If the chair is willing to act ethically you may have a solution, but otherwise you may just need to try to do whatever is necessary to accelerate your graduation and move on.

One option that the chair might suggest is a mediated meeting with your advisor and either he chair or another faculty member. Your ideas about working independently and getting someone else to sign whatever is needed to graduate might be worth pursuing.

The problem will then be finding proper letters of recommendation to move you to your next position. That will be difficult unless you cultivate opportunities around you.

I'm going to also suggest that if the chair isn't supportive that you explore opportunities elsewhere. If other faculty aren't available, it might be worth looking at other institutions. It might actually be less disruptive to do that and someone with a publication record might be seen as a "catch" by another university.

But I'll guess that your option (2) is the worst.


Note to readers. Co-authorship by advisors is not the norm in CS and mathematics in many places. My advisor (math) never would have thought of it even though he had substantial contributions to the work, and I never would have considered it for my own students (CS). It would have felt "icky".

  • The problem will then be finding proper letters of recommendation to move you to your next position. — Students typically need multiple letters, only one of which comes from their advisor, so OP will need to cultivate external references anyway. And in my experience, strong letters from researchers who are not from the applicant's home institution and who have not collaborated with them—but are written strictly on the basis of their published research—are taken more seriously in postdoc and faculty searches. A missing advisor letter raises eyebrows, but it's not the kiss of death. – JeffE May 13 at 6:49
  • So in my opinion, option (1) is far worse than option (2). – JeffE May 13 at 6:55
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I agree with @Buffy, this does sound like an unethical situation, but a very tricky one for you to handle carefully. As you mentioned, you are working independently and you probably will never work with her for your entire degree. So I think your best bet would be to seek another faculty in the department, even if they are not in your area of interest. As long as you are working on your own, that shouldn't matter. You can try convincing them that you just need to supervise you and sign formal documents.

I believe changing supervisor is better than patching things up with your supervisor, because your relationship has already been ruined, and their is no guarantee that it will be smooth in future either. I would suggest talk to your chair about helping you find another advisor. Ultimately, you are going to need few letters of recommendation, which I am almost certain that you won't get from your current supervisor. If you get a new advisor, you can build rapport with them and maybe contribute a little bit in what they do.

Your option 1 is bad because it is just unethical and without guarantee that you will get letters in future. Option 2 is no good either because even if you end with a bunch of single author papers, that is not the whole game. In job applications, papers have a certain weight, but they are certainly not the only thing that matters. Without a letter from your supervisor (or a bad one) your employer might perceive it as a sign of bad team player. Therefore, I believe you have a chance of option 3 working in your favor. If nothing works, then try to expand your reach and find somebody else at another institution. That might be easy/difficult depending on your funding/family/personal situations.

Good luck!

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Sounds like you are in a bad situation.

Let me just expand on what previous posters have suggested. I strongly suggest that you find another adviser. If you have peer-reviewed publications, you should be able to find someone who will allow you to graduate even if they are not in your area. Moreover, I don't think it is a big loss, since it sounds like your current adviser may not give you a good recommendation even if you stay with her.

You should be able to find a postdoc position based on your publications even without a letter from your current adviser. Your postdoc adviser can then write you a letter. Other suggestions for getting a letter include:

  • The adviser you switch to can write you a letter -- even if they are not in your area, they can comment on working with you, on your communication skills, and the quality of your publications. They can also explain the situation (i.e., why you did not work with the person in your department in your area).

  • You can bring in an external expert for your thesis committee. This allows an expert in your area to get to know you and your work.

  • You can meet people at conferences who might be likely to read your paper anyway (because they are working on related things) who might then be willing you write you a letter.

Good luck!

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