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I'm a PhD candidate in biology about three semesters in. I am co-advised by two young married principal investigators (PIs), who are just about to get tenure. Things were going great initially, as I completed a medium-sized project and got publishable data very early on. However, now that it has come to writing papers, I’m finding my PIs to be rude, unpleasant, and excessively hands-on.

First of all, almost every time I send something, they respond with something like: "don't send us manuscripts with errors, next time they'll be sent back to you", or: "don't waste people's time with unpolished manuscripts." Of course I do check over them obsessively before sending, but I'm only three semesters in so I'm not perfect. They also will give me comments like, "you didn't explain how you mixed this solution," so I will write, "I mixed the solution by adding XXg of XX to XX." Then they have the nerve to tell me, "you're not doing a good job, you add useless details about adding XXg of XX to XX." Really?! They also make jokes about my writing, like "impossible [to test mice immediately upon birth] unless you're a mouse midwife." I know, it's not even clever. There's also random comments like, "what are you doing here [in reference to a statement]?," "stop doing XX," "don't do that," and "wrong, read it again." They also rewrite almost everything I write. None of my writing ever makes it to the final cut.

If I'm just being a baby, totally feel free to tell me just to suck it up. I'll submit a manuscript, and a certain section gets no comments. Then, I submit the manuscript again and the previously fine section is now crap! Why was it ok before, but now it's not? They're nice to everyone's face, but they have been very rude (i.e., actual severe harassment) to at least one other person over email that I know of.

I'm middle-aged with a spouse and kids – I don't need to take crap from PIs my own age. I've had two-dozen jobs, and I've rarely been treated so rudely. Switching labs is out, because our department is super tiny. I don't want to leave because I don't have much else going for me job-wise. I don't want to confront them, because past experience has taught me that it makes them even more aggressive and rude.

Is this type of behavior normal and acceptable in a lab? Should I just grin and bear it? How do you cope with rude and demeaning PIs?

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    What does it matter if they are married or not? What's the point of the facts about your age and family? Why do you point out that they are "my own age"? – Džuris Apr 13 at 21:13
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    While so far this has been only brought up in a previous comment's "New York" joke, I think it might make a big difference here what place you are, what culture you grew up in, and what culture your PIs come from. My own experience is that a lot of a German math professor's comments on a paper would appear incredibly rude to a Canadian student, but not to another German math professor. Could you amend that information if you see the possibility it might make a difference? – Torsten Schoeneberg Apr 14 at 22:20
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    I would suggest anonymizing your account if that's your real name lest your advisors or people in your community find the somewhat rude way you've written about them – Azor Ahai Apr 15 at 17:27
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    I'm not a PhD student, but in high school I had a literature/composition teacher like this. She made so many red pen marks on our essays, that the students commonly joked that she had sacrificed a goat on our homework. Her comments came across as terse, rude, and unhelpful. She gave me failing grades on every single assignment that semester. She was also the best teacher I've ever had, because that experience equipped me with technical writing skills that have proven extremely valuable since then. – DarthFennec Apr 15 at 21:17
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    @Džuris These are extremely relevant details because OP doesn't know if his PIs are feeding off each other's behavior, or if they're being rude because they are holding him to a higher standard (unfairly) due to his age. – spacetyper Apr 16 at 7:15
77

There needs to be a little bit of context in this situation...

Incoming Masters and PhD students often come in thinking that they are going to write one draft of a paper and submit it. The thinking is that writing a scientific paper is no different than writing a paper for one of their previous class assignments, and that they did well on all of those, so their writing must be impeccable... English is their first language after all...

To the contrary, I have never had either a masters student or PhD candidate who went through less than 10 revisions on their first paper before we submitted to a conference (let alone a journal). In all likelihood, this number is closer to 25. Even toward the end of their PhD, this often still involves about 5 revisions.

Everybody hates the advisor after the first few revisions (I hated mine), and does not see the point. However, I feel that if I have not taught you to write an impeccable scientific article by the end of your PhD, then I will have failed as your advisor. And in fact, everybody who completes a PhD seems to be grateful for the struggle.

Typically, I tell students that they must "finish" a paper 2 weeks before the conference deadline. Then we do one revision every single day until the deadline. I mean no malice in the corrections. But there are some common mistakes that need to be refined and refined. Furthermore, everybody asks, "Why can't we just do one revision?"

The answer is simply that often the writing in the first few papers is too ambiguous and vague for me to infer how the rest of the paper should be written. For example, "Are you stating A or B as your hypothesis? Are you stating C or D as your takeaway from the plot you are showing?" These lead to further questions like... how did you come to that conclusion? These things cascade, and the process ends up taking several iterations, particularly at the beginning of a PhD.

With that out of the way... let's address your case...

you didn't explain how you mixed this solution

This is a legitimate point. A scientific paper must detail every minute detail in the most unambiguous way possible. If the paper is at all ambiguous, then the results cannot be reproduced, and the work is not science!

what are you doing here 

This is a comment that I would write when I believe that you have not unambiguously explained your procedure. Or perhaps you added a plot, without explaining why it is relevant.

don't send us manuscripts with errors, next time they'll be sent back to you

This is a bit cheeky I think. I wouldn't write this, but I can imagine that the advisors are perceiving that you are not trying hard enough in your edits. When I make edits, there are often errors that are repeated over and over again. If I correct 2 or 3 instances, I expect you to spot this pattern and propagate the corrections to the rest of the paper. If you aren't doing that, I would get very annoyed. The reason is simply that it may take you 30 minutes to apply all of the changes I suggest. However, on my end, I will spend hours going over your paper. Literally I can be spending 2 to 3 times as long reviewing your paper as you are taking to write it. If I don't feel that you are pulling your weight, then I will let you know.

EDIT: They also rewrite almost everything I write. None of my writing ever makes it to the final cut.

Quite common for the first paper a student writes.

The final point I want to make is concerning why we do this? Why do we go through the trouble?

The most obvious answer is that if a paper is not clear, concise, and unambiguous, then the work is not reproduceable, and hence not science.

However, as you will no doubt have seen, there ARE many papers in very well respected journals that are extremely poorly written. These are the ones that you and your advisor will debate for weeks on end... I think they are doing this! I think that their results show that!

Those are bad papers. If I was reviewing them, I would reject them.

By going through this process with you in writing your paper, I am not only helping future scientists (by making your work more clear), but I am putting you in the best possible position to get your paper accepted into the conference or journal. The worst reason to get your paper rejected is because, "I could not understand what the authors are trying to accomplish", or a review which suggests a misunderstanding as to what the paper is trying to accomplish. That is just a waste and completely avoidable.

The papers that have been rejected by my group will often start with, " This paper was extremely clear and well written. However..."

EDIT:

I think that in general, it sounds like the PIs may be going a little bit too far in your case, but it is really hard to tell without knowing your research topic, the scope of the revisions, and your conversations with the PIs. So the following are some more takes on the things you wrote which I did not initially address:

"you didn't explain how you mixed this solution," so I will write, "I mixed the solution by adding XXg of XX to XX." Then they have the nerve to tell me, "you're not doing a good job, you add useless details about adding XXg of XX to XX."

I can see 3 plausible explanations for this:

  1. The PIs simply changed their minds about whether this information was relevant. People make mistakes, and opinions change...
  2. They meant something different when they asked for "how you mixed this solution". I am not a chemist, but perhaps technique or something else matters and they wanted you to describe that???
  3. Perhaps over the course of several revisions, this information got included earlier in the paper, in which case, you should avoid writing this info again at this specific point in the paper.

In any case, the statement "you're not doing a good job" is a bit aggressive from my point of view. My guess is that they are getting really stressed about reviewing this paper. Perhaps they have been putting in a lot of work doing revisions and don't think you are "getting it" yet, or aren't trying hard enough. Whatever the case, they snapped at you here when they probably shouldn't have. In cases like this, you should have a sitdown meeting with them to understand why they do not think you are doing a good job. Did they sincerely mean it? And if so, how can you improve? If they really meant it, then this needs to be clarified in person.

Really?! They also make jokes about my writing, like "impossible [to test mice immediately upon birth] unless you're a mouse midwife.

Probably they are trying to show that your logic is flawed, and simply giving you a counterexample. It probably isn't meant to be funny, it probably was just the first thing that came to their mind which conclusively showed the logical error in your writing. Scientific writing needs to be extremely precise, leaving no room for doubt. If there is an easy counterexample, then the writing is not precise enough.

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    @fqq but it isn't false in the case of the OP, as far as I can tell, and more importantly, native speakers often assume they can write papers because they're native speakers. But scientific English is a very specific dialect and being a native speaker is in no way sufficient. Native speakers often have a harder time even since they expect this to be easy. – terdon Apr 13 at 14:21
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    This answer is too generous to the PIs. They are giving their feedback in a rude, disorganised manner when it could be done constructively. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 14 at 4:38
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    "you didn't explain how you mixed this solution," so I will write, "I mixed the solution by adding XXg of XX to XX." HOW you mixed the solution. Not what you mixed. Did you shake it, did you stir it, did you put it on an agitator and wait a day, did you add a drop of X to XX every second for an hour? The answer is spot on for highlighting they need a sit down and chat, but OP needs to brace themselves for being told "when asked a question, answer the question that was asked, not the question you think was asked" – UKMonkey Apr 15 at 10:48
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Apr 17 at 13:47
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I had a similar shock when I started my PhD. I am a native English speaker and a language geek to boot. My father is a professional editor and I grew up playing language games and helping him edit texts. I consider myself a pretty good editor, too. Despite all this, when I wrote my first paper as a young PhD student and sent it off to my Catalan/Spanish-native speaker adviser, he sent it back covered in corrections!

My first reaction was to scoff! What can this guy tell me about writing? I'm a native speaker! I have always been praised for my writing skills! I'm sure his corrections will be total crap. And then I sat down and started going through his corrections and damned if every single one of them wasn't correct!

A few years and a few papers later, I sent my first paper as a post-doc to my French PI. This time, I had considerably more experience, I had submitted a few papers already and my PI's English, while good, was not as good as my old PhD adviser's. And yet, once more, she sent it back to me with loads of corrections. Some of her corrections weren't in perfect English, but again, every one of them was either a clear improvement or, at worst, a reasonable suggestion.

I have never written a paper that was not significantly improved by someone else. I have also edited many papers for friends and colleagues, many of whom were far more experienced than I, and I have always been able to improve their work. It is simply very hard, if not impossible, to edit your own work as well as someone else can do it. An outsider's eye always sees things that you missed. And things that seem perfectly clear to you might not be to someone else. You know exactly what you did, so what seems crystal clear to you might be completely opaque to someone else.

All this said, I cannot judge how they treat you from what you've written. You may very well be right and they're being unreasonably harsh with you. But things like "what are you doing here [in reference to a statement]?," "stop doing XX," "don't do that," and "wrong, read it again" seem absolutely fine to me. Don't take it personally, listen to what they're saying and learn from it! When editing, you don't have time to sit and write a long comment on everything you find. I won't write "I am sorry, but I really think that this particular point might be expressed better", I'll just say "this is wrong". And then we can go over it together and I'll point out why.

All this is to say that writing papers is an acquired skill, and nobody expects to send a paper to someone for revisions and get no revisions. So while their tone might leave something to be desired, and you might want to discuss that with them, the fact that they rewrite everything most likely means that you need to change the way you write.

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    I have never written a paper that was not significantly improved by someone else. I have also edited many papers for friends and colleagues, many of whom were far more experienced than I, and I have always been able to improve their work. – Take my upvote. – Oleg Lobachev Apr 13 at 19:40
  • I used to study quite a lot of Spanish and I sometimes correct the grammar and spelling of articles written by native speakers for El País and newspapers like that on Facebook, not very often, but if there is a mistake there is a mistake, doesn't matter that it's not my first language. – Tom Apr 14 at 12:49
  • IMO, unless statements such as "stop doing XX," "don't do that," and "wrong, read it again" come with a reason why that is the case, it comes across as a rude and unhelpful comment. A PhD supervisor should also teach and not just berate. – fridaymeetssunday Apr 16 at 11:34
  • @fridaymeetssunday: The reason why a Prof would typically not include a reason is space... Think about the formatting of a conference or journal paper. My comments often flow onto the back of the paper, but there is simply not enough room to put a well-written comment in the margins of a paper. Typically, the workflow is this: I review the paper, send the revisions, student incorporates "easy" revisions, then we have a meeting to discuss which points were not clear. Repeat. If I wrote a comment like the above, and it was not clear to the student what I meant, then we would discuss in office – bremen_matt Apr 16 at 12:38
  • Comments such as "stop doing XX," probably mean that the student has done something over and over, despite having already been told by the PIs not to. – bremen_matt Apr 16 at 12:39
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First of all, almost every time I send something, they respond with something like, "don't send us manuscripts with errors, next time they'll be sent back to you" or "don't waste people's time with unpolished manuscripts."

This does seem very rude. Either they are just rude people, or your work is really so far below what they expect that they are losing patience. I suspect it's the former (but impossible to say).

I would reply one-by-one to every comment, including this one (perhaps in person). You can say bluntly that you did the best you could and would welcome specific suggestions for how to improve as a writer.

They also will give me comments like, "you didn't explain how you mixed this solution," so I will write, "I mixed the solution by adding XXg of XX to XX." Then they have the nerve to tell me, "you're not doing a good job, you add useless details about adding XXg of XX to XX." Really?! ... I'll submit a manuscript, and a certain section gets no comments. Then, I submit the manuscript again and the previously fine section is now crap! Why was it ok before, but now it's not?

Annoying, but editing is a skill that not everyone has. For the first part, they may have asked the question because they didn't understand, then agreed with your original assessment that it didn't seem appropriate to put in the paper. For the second part, they may not have read the section the first time. In both cases, I would attribute this to stupidity rather than malice.

They also make jokes about my writing, like "impossible [to test mice immediately upon birth] unless you're a mouse midwife." I know, it's not even clever. There's also random comments like, "what are you doing here [in reference to a statement]?," "stop doing XX," "don't do that," and "wrong, read it again."

This seems fine/common, I have no problem with this.

They're nice to everyone's face, but they have been very rude (i.e., actual severe harassment) to at least one other person over email that I know of.

While this may be true, I would set it aside and focus on your interactions with them. Re-litigating old cases with other actors is fruitless, even if it does suggest a pattern.

I'm middle-aged with a spouse and kids--I don't need to take crap from PIs my own age.

I've had really bad experiences with people who make statements like this. I hope you do not "play this card" when you have a disagreement with your advisors (or anyone else). It sounds like these advisors demean all their students -- which is not great, and you can complain about it -- but your past life experiences and age have no bearing on whether it is acceptable.

I don't want to leave because I don't have much else going for me job-wise. I don't want to confront them, because past experience has taught me that it makes them even more aggressive and rude.

There are probably certain strategies that work better than others for dealing with them. For example, you say they are nice in person -- maybe it's worth asking to go through their comments point-by-point in person rather than by mail. If you ask them to explain their corrections in excruciating detail (without being confrontational), they may think more carefully before they make excessive changes (or maybe you will learn something).

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    I'll note that editing your own work is very difficult. Harder than editing that of others. It is because your mind is already primed to read and accept what you wrote, rather than what you should have written. Your eyes and mind can just dance over mistakes that are obvious to other readers. – Buffy Apr 13 at 11:42
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    Excellent analysis. The part about "I'm middle aged..." I completely agree with, I can completely confirm this from my time as young PI. It should not make a difference at which stage of life you are as to how the interaction with the PIs go. You are a student now; you should be treated no worse, sure, but also no better than the other students. Their text sounds snarky in writing, might lose some humour/flippancy that it would have in person, but is very far from the worst I have seen when I was a student - there is a lot of space for nastiness on top of this. – Captain Emacs Apr 13 at 13:07
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    "For the second part, they may not have read the section the first time. In both cases, I would attribute this to stupidity rather than malice." That's not even stupidity. When my supervisor reads what I read, he spots errors I didn't spot. When I read things my supervisor wrote, I spot errors he didn't spot. When I read things I've given 3 people to check for mistakes, and re-read myself twice, I find errors. There's nothing wrong about not spotting an error the first time round. – sgf Apr 13 at 21:27
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    I'd also add that while it may sound rude when you are used another environment, many of these comments, e.g. "stop doing that", are simply a very direct short form of comment that are normal in these circles, because a) time is short and b) in proof-reading one often directly writes down one's immediate thoughts while reading. Academia is in this regard often more blunt than feedback in industry, also because it is assumed people can separate criticism of what one is doing from criticism of who one is. This can feel off if one comes from an industry environment. [cont] – Frank Hopkins Apr 14 at 4:46
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    Now, some quotes are indeed a bit borderline. In particular contradictory advice is obviously not helping and threatening direct rejection instead of suggesting how to get to higher quality seems off. As for the contradictory advice, one additional innocent explanation would be that, given there are two PIs, each time another one read the text and they have a different opinion on what's important. They might also be jerks after all, but for now I would cut them some slack. – Frank Hopkins Apr 14 at 4:49
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Your PIs were without questions very rude.

However, from what you are describing here:

I'll submit a manuscript, and a certain section gets no comments. Then, I submit the manuscript again and the previously fine section is now crap!
...
They also rewrite almost everything I write. None of my writing ever makes it to the final cut.

That means after several attempts to help you to write the paper, your PIs concluded that it was impossible to fix your writing, and it would be better for them to write the paper themselves.

This is counterproductive, you and your PIs were wasting a lot of effort, and everybody were understandably frustrated.

I also had problem with writing during my PhD, and although my advisor told me several times that he just wanted to re-write the papers, he never really did. So you need to understand how much effort your PIs had spent on you and your paper.

Your PIs were rude, as a result of losing patience, and losing self-control.

Should I just grin and bear it? How do you cope with rude and demeaning PIs?

You need to address the root cause: improve your writing to meet the satisfaction of your PIs.

I'm unable to give advice on how to improve writing, but there are some good ones in my own question, you can find a bunch of others on this site or in the internet.

Your PIs re-wrote the paper, so now you have to versions: what you wrote, and what they expected you to write. You can learn from them.

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    This is the only existing answer that starts with your PIs are very rude. And while I agree to most of the points put forward by the most-upvoted answers, I can't really bring myself to upvote them with them fully focused on the student. All the suggestions on how to interpret advice and improve writing are spot-on, but giving a pass to bad advising because the student has much to learn... not ideal. – penelope Apr 15 at 10:53
  • I disagree with your first conclusion a bit. There are good other reasons for suggesting edits on sections that one previously ignored. On first pass-throughs, an editor is looking at broad strokes. Later on, one might concentrate on only particular sections. Even later on, changes to one section might impose changes on another previously un-edited section. And finally, at the end, the paper needs to be edited for grammar, spelling, paragraph breaks, and general (low-level) flow. – march Apr 15 at 23:37
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I don't think you should be so eager to discount your alternatives.

  • Just because confronting hasn't worked before, doesn't mean you can't ever succeed in reasoning with them.
  • Your university surely has some sort of ombuds office or campus climate unit. In this situation they would almost certainly side with you, and if nothing else should give useful, practical advice on how to mediate the conflict.
  • You could quit and do a PhD in another university. Yes, it will make the application more complicated, but you can spin your experience into a strength. You will have wasted your 1.5 years, but in the grand scheme of things that's a fairly minor loss. Consider that a typical PhD takes 7 years in your field.
  • You could go into a different career. Grad students are usually anxious about jobs but if you figured out how to get yourself into grad school, you can surely figure out how to get yourself hired for a job that pays more than grad school.

Regardless, don't forget that you're not a slave or prisoner. You were the most promising guy out of several dozen highly qualified applicants. They wanted you to be there. It's costing the university and your PIs a lot of money to have you there. It's taking their valuable time. They have very little reason to waste your potential and failure on your part would also diminish their own prestige. So the interests are aligned in this: Everybody would be happier if you succeeded. The manner in which they have chosen to ensure your success might not be pretty, it may even be ineffective. But rest assured that in the back of their mind they want it to be effective.

In a perfect world, you would be able to just reason with them and improve matters. Morally, it is also the most correct act to step up and break the cycle of institutional abuse. However, in practice it may be very difficult to get anywhere by resisting, so I'll leave the choice up to you. If you do choose to not fight it, and instead decide to get with the program, here's some advice:

  • Try not to take it personally. A criticism of one sentence you wrote is not necessarily a criticism of your character. Even if the critic meant it as such, it is up to you to interpret it as merely a comment on the work discussed rather than you as a person. Nobody except a mind reader can ever know what you are truly like as a person, therefore personal criticism is ultimately kind of futile. Don't identify with your work, don't think of your draft as your baby. That's just asking for anguish when the baby gets spanked. If possible, try to pretend you didn't write the manuscript, you're just helping edit someone else's text and have no personal stake in it beyond improving it as much as possible given the circumstances.
  • Sending unpolished manuscripts is a bad habit. Even the nicest advisor has limited time he can devote to editing, and there is an infinite amount of editing that can be done, so you have no guarantee that the edits your advisor chooses to make will be the most useful ones. If you send an early draft and your advisor spends his time fixing some typos, you have just wasted a very valuable thing. You could have found the typos yourself, and the advisor could have instead clarified some aspect of theory that only he has the wisdom to. There are edits that your advisor can make, that would substantially improve your paper, that nobody else can (including you). You want to maximize your chances of obtaining these "profound" edits. Since every edit they make is an opportunity for such profundity, and there is a finite number of edits they can make, you want to eliminate less useful, "minor" edits from the pool. You should aim to make it impossible for an advisor to tell you something you couldn't have thought of yourself, or learned from someone else. That way everything they can possibly tell you will necessarily be useful and insightful. I don't know if this is what your advisors mean to tell you, but it is in your interest to interpret it this way regardless.
  • If their comments are confusing, try putting the agreement in writing as objectively and clearly as you can. Eg. "you told me to rephrase this part, but earlier you recommended the opposite...". Just typing this out can help you understand their point. If not, you can then make your case to them and ask them to clarify. Don't be confrontational or accusatory when asking for clarification - frame it as wanting to understand them better and improve yourself. And don't forget to demonstrate an effort of trying to understand their point of view.
  • Sometimes writing style can be a bit subjective. When the disagreement is mostly a matter of taste, it is not a bad idea to suppress your own taste and follow your advisor's taste. You'll have plenty of opportunity to "find your own voice" once you graduate. But when in doubt, you can only go so wrong if your voice is your advisor's voice. They can't criticize that too much without also criticizing themselves.
  • When they give negative criticism, solicit constructive feedback. For example, "I appreciate your comment that this part could use work, what do you think would be the best way to improve it?" or "I agree that extraneous details should be removed. What do you think is the most important detail about making the solution?" A neat trick is to give them a few versions of a passage and ask which one is best/worst. That way it's very hard for them to avoid giving you some kind of constructive feedback. Keep in mind that even people who suck at giving constructive advice, and only criticize, can still be tricked into being constructive by clever phrasing.
  • I appreciate that the wisecracks are painful to hear, but it's unlikely that you can get them to stop. Try to look at it in a positive light. It's a minor error, you can correct it and move on. You can even have a chuckle at the silly mistake you made. I'm not saying the remark you quote is fair to you, but if your goal is to not let it get to you, the way to do it is to not take yourself too seriously. Generally, if you get an actionable mean comment, remember that the best, quickest way of getting out of it is to just do what it says, and the comment will become irrelevant (beyond your hurt pride).
  • Don't think of it as "sucking it up". That sets up a defeatist attitude. Instead, appreciate that you're overcoming a tough challenge: That of effectively working even with difficult people. It's not about who is being a baby. It's about a bunch of people with difficult personalities who could produce something great if only you figured out a way to make it work. That way instead of ruminating about how unfair it is to be abused and have to turn the other cheek, you can instead feel proud of yourself for making the most of a difficult situation.
  • It's good to be confident, but don't be too eager with platitudes like "I have a family so I'm above this". The fact is that almost everyone marries and procreates at some point, it's hardly a distinction. In fact, since the typical PhD student is much younger and less experienced, but is able to handle it just as well, bringing your family into it reflects poorly on you. Again, be confident, don't let the criticism grind you down, but be cognizant of the subtle difference between confidence and pride. One will open doors wherever you go, the other is a cardinal sin.
  • This isn't to put you down, but the general impression I get, especially given that you're older than the typical student, is that you could use a little more assertiveness. If these people are really the same age as you, how is it that they get away with the tone they take? If you had met a random stranger on the street that was being condescending to you, how would you de-escalate and resolve that conflict? Do the same principles really not apply to your advisors?

But in general, try to maintain an attitude of making the most of the hand you're dealt and improving as a person. We can't know if your advisors really mean well and are just coming at it wrong, or if they're truly just bullies and enjoy abusing you. But the good news is, it doesn't matter. Even a negative, mean or hurtful comment meant to put you down can still be turned into something constructive that you can grow from. It doesn't make the hurtful comment right, but if you can't meaningfully redress the offense, you might as well benefit from the situation if possible. And it is often much more possible than it may seem.

Lastly, I would also strongly recommend seeing if there's some sort of counseling or support group available at your university. Try as you might, the emotional aspect of it may be very tough in isolation. If you can commiserate with people who are basically in the same boat as you, shrugging off the negativity can become much easier. And who knows, you might learn a useful trick or two from it as well.

4

In Germany cases have been reported at the Max-Planck-Institutes, where PhD students are treated as working slaves by very famous Professors. Being critized and pressured, e.g. when getting pregnant during PhD and so on. Some of those PhD students then anonymously contacted journalists and the Max-Planck-Society had to take care of this issue. Some professors where put to other institutes or a sabbatical year.

So, this happens even at very prestigious institutes and you don't have to tolerate every kind of behaviour by your advisors, especially when colleagues of you suffer under the same behaviour.

One of my current colleagues left his former PhD position because of the Professor being a manipulating, sexually harassing slave driver, yet with very good publication record.

There is a german proverb: the route becomes the destination. While this is true for a PhD journey/odyssey, it's also true for your advisors. Both still have to learn a lot. Making fun of you in comments on your paper sketch is a no-go. This says more about them than your sketch.

As a sidenote, being co-advised by an apparently very ambitious non-tenured married couple looks rather suboptimal and uncommon to me. It doesn't have to be negative per se, but in your case it can even worsen the situation and pressure. No PhD student submits his first paper to a reputable peer-reviewed journal without several revisions by the advisor. So they could even divide the work load.

  • 3
    The MPI case was a very gruesome one, I do not think it's comparable. Note, email has a particularly bad record on getting flippancy across. Being flippant in writing is dangerous because there are no mitigating clues such as face expressions etc. to make clear how it's meant. The comments I found to indicate that the PIs are beginning to lose patience with OP because OP does not seem to get the point of right level of detail of writing after repeated rounds. Both PIs and OP have to learn, the former to have more patience, the latter to accept imperfection being pointed out. – Captain Emacs Apr 13 at 13:25
  • So, are you saying the case of the infamous MPI professors apply to OP? Why? What do you take away from this anecdote? What's your suggestion? – henning Apr 13 at 13:40
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    @henning I don't make suggestions as no one knows the real situation of OP's group described shortly in the question. Apparently, one of his colleagues faces the same behaviour... But someone reading this question, facing a similar situation and having much ruder advisors should be aware that advisors/professors are no holy cows and their behaviour can be reproven by a higher/external instance. For me it's not about comparability, as the transitions from rude speech to manipulating of PhD students are apparently floating and unfortunately I have heard such stories often enough. – user847982 Apr 13 at 14:08
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It's mixed, which parts of their behavior are rude. But in total, they are just plain rude here, even when some parts would be okay for other persons.


Lets analyse the different parts:

don't send us manuscripts with errors, next time they'll be sent back to you

When you made a good attempt with your manuscript this is rude. Even when it would be bad, its partly their responsiblity to help you or at least point out the obvious flaws.
When they needed to point out the same mistake three times, they would be right. But the first time, they should help or at least give some rough pointers where you need to improve on.

don't waste people's time with unpolished manuscripts.

That's just rude.

I'm only 3 semesters in so I'm not perfect

You don't need to. You need to make a best-efford attempt and teaching you what you got wrong is their responsiblity, when you did your best.

impossible [to test mice immediately upon birth] unless you're a mouse midwife

If you're having a good relationship, this would probably be an acceptable attempt at pointing out some mistake with a bit of humor. Then it would even make the cricticism less harsh. But your relationship is not like this.

what are you doing here [in reference to a statement]?

Just a short way to point out a mistake. This is normally not rude for persons that have little time. They point out a flaw and it's your task to check what can be improved.

stop doing XX

This can be some short advice as well.

wrong, read it again

A bit impolite, but still pointing out that you should read the source more careful. Implies, that they think you should have read it better the first time.

In the sum it is not acceptable, and some statements are not acceptable in any case. I just wanted to point out a few statements, that are not polite, but not unusual for busy professors, even when they are much more polite persons when they have enough time.

If I'm just being a baby, totally feel free to tell me just to suck it up

It is not okay to make you feel like that. They need to get this right on the interpersonal level, independend of the quality of your work.

I'm middle-aged with a spouse and kids--I don't need to take crap from PIs my own age

Right. But you do not need to justify this with anything. You just do not need to take crap.

Is this type of behavior normal and acceptable in a lab? Should I just grin and bear it? How do you cope with rude and demeaning PIs?

No. Some people seeming rude because of their brevity happens often in labs with busy people that need to take care of many PhD candidates, but they still respect their subordinates. You do not seem to be respected and that's absolutely not okay.

They also rewrite almost everything I write. None of my writing ever makes it to the final cut.

I am not sure here. I think you should first try to understand the interpersonal problems. When you get the respect you deserve, it can be clarified if your work really misses important points all the time or not. But this cannot be clarified as long as you are not able to interact in a respectful way.
Anything they say may just be not objective because something's wrong about you, so you have no way to actually tell if their criticism is correct or not.

To build some self-esteeem, you could try to find some neutral people to review your work and tell you whats great about it. Then you will be able to trust them, when they point out flaws as well.

2

The PIs' comments on the OP's writing are not constructive. If the OP's university has some kind of writing lab or writing center [1], they may have people who are trained in helping you identify and use best practices for scientific writing.

Writing centers can be tremendously helpful. I trained to work in such a writing center around the time I defended my PhD. This was shortly before I submitted my final chapter to my PI. Two previous chapters had a combined 45 drafts. After reading the final chapter, my PI asked who had helped me with it and that the style was much improved - and this was just with me taking the training for a writing center (~20 hrs), not having actually worked with someone on it. While at the lab, I assisted several PhD candidates on both publications and theses, up to 5 hours a week for 10 weeks.

[1] http://writingcenter.oregonstate.edu/

2

Your PIs are being rude and giving you non-constructive comments.

Currently, the top voted answers to this question incorrectly focus on you needing to improve your writing skills. They should be focused on your question, about your PIs' behaviors and comments. Many people give their PIs and advisors a pass because they have it in their head that graduate school should be miserable and comments made by a smart or successful PI cannot defacto be misguided. This is wrong.

You don't have to be an asshole to be a successful scientist, PI, or advisor, despite the fact that there are plenty of them with these undesirable qualities.

Do not just grin an bear it. I would suggest approaching them civilly in person to explain why you felt their comments were not constructive, and how they could be more constructive with minimal effort. Explain how this would benefit both them and you (e.g. you get more clear feedback on how to improve your writing, they don't have to endure as many mistakes in your writing).

Graduate school is all about learning how to do independent research, and everything that goes along with it. This is part of your PIs job. This shouldn't be miserable; challenging yes, miserable no (your PI especially shouldn't be adding to your misery).

Best of luck.

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