I am a Ph.D. candidate in economics in the UK, and now start my 4th and hopefully final year of the program.

I currently consider changing my supervisor (SV hereafter) because of an ongoing conflict. During my second year, she matched me with a former Ph.D. of hers, "co-author" or "CO" from now on, so the three of us could write a paper together. While things started OK, CO became increasingly possessive of the project. His tone became aggressive and disrespectful, he gave me non-sensical, inconsistent instructions, lied to my supervisor behind my back about things I had never done or said (learned of this during meetings with my supervisor), and he repeatedly deleted content I produced from our draft for reasons that stood in complete contradiction to earlier agreements. Suffice to say, progress was unsatisfying.

I was baffled that SV did not intervene, but seemed to go along with him; I had severe self-doubts. Yet after a particular crappy "revision" of our draft by CO, SV shortly after told me she considers CO's input crap and admitted he's difficult -- turns out she was not paying attention and had until then simply trusted CO by default. I was relieved, but unfortunately, nothing changed afterward; while SV repeatedly agreed with my views, she nevertheless continued to humor CO, and backed him when he criticized me for lack of progress. At some point, SV finally admitted to me she has no understanding of our project topic and what we are doing, which explained a lot of her weird behaviour.

This toxic situation has taken a toll on me mentally, and it needs to stop. Unfortunately, SV is a leader of our rather small field, and I was told not having a letter from her is a red flag in job applications. Fortunately, I have done research assistance for another young prof at our faculty who appreciates me, and he would be willing to take me on as his student.

Any advice on how I can handle this gracefully? I have no reason to trust my SV anymore, and think her perfectly capable of ruining my reputation if I changed. Is there a way to protect me against this? Or should I just accept the academic trail is dead for me and look for suitable industry jobs instead?

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    I find this a bit puzzling. Can you specify your ideal out come and second-best outcome here? Have you actually asked to quit the co-authored project? Did you explicitly ask for the supervisor to have a conversation with the former student about behavior or did you just assume she would when you told her you didn’t like it? Have you had a conversation with coauthor about their behavior?
    – Dawn
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 15:33
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    Ideally, I would change to the other prof without burning bridges with SV, meaning I might still get a good letter from her (puzzlingly, she actually said I am a ``high-calibre student'' to me recently). I did not ask to quit because the research idea is from me, and I still think it has high potential. Yes, I had told SV I do not know how to tackle CO's behaviour, and asked her for advice. She told me she's looking into it, but I am not aware anything actually happened. No, I have not talked to CO directly; we now despise each other to a degree that makes any normal talk very hard.
    – dante
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 15:37
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    Excuse my vague wording. Yes, I have asked my SV at some point to talk to CO and pay more attention to our exchanges, which she said she did. The only effect seemed that CO was passive for a while, only to return 100% to earlier behavior. I mentioned this to SV, she agreed this happens, nothing changed.
    – dante
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 16:04
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    There is no one who has full power to ruin your academic trail. Please remove this idea from your head. Try to be diplomatic and keep a nice relationship with SV (even if you change her) and also with CO. I don't know how it works in UK but in a lot of European countries, A boss is obliged by law to write a letter when former employees are searching for other positions. Also, do not make assumptions before taking to SV. Sometimes those ideas are only in your head.
    – Yacine
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 16:44
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    SV is clearly not forceful enough to put CO in place. It's a weakness, but not necessary an antagonist disposition. So, don't open a fight at multiple frontiers. Keep your SV friendly, or at least collegiate, add your new prof to the team (if they can help you), cut off contact with CO (or at least downgrade it to the lowest possible level). CO will not become your friend. If you can afford to not have to continue this work with CO, discontinue it. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 1:50

4 Answers 4


Since you have already completed most of your PhD, your best course of action is to finish your PhD as soon as possible. Then you will be free of CO's bad behavior. Negotiate a plan for completion of your degree with your supervisor. Request that this plan does not rely on CO since they are not dependable.

should I just accept the academic trail is dead for me and look for suitable industry jobs instead?

The information you have provided in the question tells us nothing about your ability to find an academic job. However, academic jobs are in general scarce and low paying.


The situation is resolved: I spoke to SV plainly and explained to her that I found her supervision last year unacceptable. I did so in a factual, polite manner, listed specific occasions where I felt left alone, and concluded, given the poor results, that it may be best for both of us if I continued to work with the other, younger professor.

It turned out she reacted well to clear words. While she is not happy that I leave, she supports my decision, reassured me she will still write a letter for me and sent favorable comments to the young professor. I suspect she is actually ashamed she didn't tackle CO and let me down; as Captain Emacs noted, it seems to be a character flaw, but not hurtful intention.

In any case, I thank you all for your comments (which encouraged me to do this).


Having a Ph.D. supervisor who "admitted to me that she has no understanding of our project topic and what we are doing" sounds crazy to me, especially after she arranged for the three of you to write a joint paper (presumably on this project). This sounds as if you definitely need a new supervisor. You mentioned that another young prof wold be willing to take you as his student. Does he understand your work? Or will he understand it after a reasonable amount of explanation? If so, might he and your present supervisor be willing to be co-supervisors, if you really need the present supervisor's recommendation? The ideal situation might be that the new supervisor actually supervises your work while the present supervisor handles administrative stuff and adds her recommendation's weight to your job applications. (Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if your present supervisor's recommendation counts for less than you think, in a field that she doesn't understand.)

  • The project is based on a joint paper of SV, CO, and another guy. My research proposal extends this paper, thinking, naively, this would help us all to start from a similar level of understanding since I had provided research assistance for said paper. Unfortunately, it turned out SV had severe misunderstandings about what was done in this past paper, so her main contribution seems to be her name on top (prestige trading, saw and heard about that before). While I like what you propose, the issue of CO remains. This guy will not leave the project willingly, as he sees the potential as well.
    – dante
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 19:40
  • Sure CO remains a problem, but not one you have to deal with much in the solutions that Andreas and I are suggesting. It sounds like SV has very little power over CO because this all stems from CO’s work. SV certainly can’t kick CO off a paper stemming from his work.
    – Dawn
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 20:24
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    If you've almost finished your PhD, finishing it makes more sense than changing supervisors. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 0:10
  • Co-supervisors are not so unusual in Economics.
    – Dawn
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 1:10

I would say that the overarching problem is that Co is not easy to work with and that SV doesn’t have the capability, motivation, or bandwidth to deal with it. Just because someone is a good researcher doesn’t mean they are a good manager. If, as you say in a comment, this is an extension of CO’s work, then SV also has very little leverage, other than seniority.

So, if you want a career in academia, move on to the new faculty member for the third essay, and it will become self-revealing if you should move on all together. If this will be your job market paper, and if it is done well, it may be enough to get you an academic job in Econ (particularly with a post-doc). To maintain your relationship with SV, I would frame this as a conversation specifically about the future of your third paper, rather than the past. Explain the topic you would like to work on, and that you think that engaging the other advisor as a co-advisor would be useful. Then forget about the first paper for the time being and focus your efforts on the new work. This should allow you to get good work done while keeping a positive reference from the first advisor — both of which seem positive for your future prospects.

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    I don't think this answers the question. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 0:12
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    This answers the question of “any advice on how I can handle this gracefully?” Based on the two priorities from OP in the comments, which boil down to working more with the junior faculty member and less with SV.
    – Dawn
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 0:42

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