I graduated from my PhD in the middle of last year and have since landed a full time job in industry. Currently I'm pretty ran off my feet with work, but I'm also enjoying having free time at weekends to spend with my Husband.

My supervisor has been in touch pretty relentlessly about publishing some of my last results from the thesis (also saying that I "owe her" and it would destroy my future if I don't see it through). Now I'm happy with never going back to academia, and career promotion isn't my focus if I'm honest.

I've tried to cobble together a draft but it keeps getting ripped apart (she was pretty notorious when I was doing my PhD for brutal feedback) and I'm looking at it and realising I don't care about seeing this through... I don't appreciate the pressure from her, it's not truly beneficial to me, it's taking up my personal time and I have a lot of things going on with family difficulties lately.

I've always been a bit of a wimp with confrontation. So given all I've said about this how would you advise for me to tell my old boss I don't want to publish (preferably without triggering an intense vendetta)?

  • 46
    "The obligations of my current job prevent me from giving this the attention it deserves."
    – Bob Brown
    Sep 22, 2020 at 23:20
  • 8
    Tell her you would be happy to collaborate with her at 20% higher than your industry salary. Sep 22, 2020 at 23:53
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    saying that I "owe her" and it would destroy my future if I don't see it through — This is the point where you just hang up. You don't owe her anything. You are done.
    – JeffE
    Sep 23, 2020 at 4:04
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    How about just...never talking to her again? Just stop e-mailing her back. You don't owe her anything. She's full of nonsense.
    – Mehta
    Sep 23, 2020 at 5:33
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    If she says that, I'm sorry to break it to you, but that's a sign of narcissism and pure manipulation. You should probably move away and from her and never see her again.
    – atheros
    Sep 23, 2020 at 7:04

9 Answers 9


Keep it short and sweet:

Dear [her name],

Thanks for the reminder about our project. I thought about it some more, and for personal reasons I won’t be able to continue with the work. Since you have all the data I suggest that you pursue publication by yourself or with other collaborators. And, if it matters, I do not care very much about the issue of coauthorship, so whatever you end up deciding about who should be a named coauthor of the paper once it’s finished is fine with me.



An important point is that, since you’re worried she will try to pressure or guilt-trip you, you should not apologize for or explain your decision. Manipulative people are expert at using every sign of guilt or embarrassment to pressure people relentlessly until they get what they want from you. I can almost guarantee it from experience: if you give her a reason — any reason — she will find some counter-argument to make that reason look invalid or insufficient, and will repeat this as many times as necessary with any additional details you add to your explanation, until you give in. Do not give her an opening to do this. A firm “no” with no explanation is the only approach that works with this type of person.

Good luck!

Edit: there’s been an extensive discussion in the comments about whether the email should mention the subject of authorship. To clarify, I don’t think it matters very much if you mention it or not. I included that part since, first, it seems factually true based on what you said that you don’t care about authorship; and second, letting the former supervisor know this eliminates one possible pressure point she will surely try to use to keep pressuring and annoying you in the hope of getting you to change your mind.

But if you prefer not to mention this, that’s pretty much just as good and won’t particularly affect the outcome.

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    Mostly good advice, but there is absolutely no reason to give up authorship. The asker already wrote a draft - presumably they should be an author, even if they do no more work. Sep 23, 2020 at 0:00
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    @AnonymousPhysicist good point. The reason I put that in is that for OP to state that they do not need authorship is the easiest way to quell any objections and make the business of dropping the project go as smoothly as possible, which is OP’s stated goal. If OP does want coauthorship, that leaves the former supervisor a point of leverage she can (and will, by the sound of it) try to exploit to bend OP’s will to hers. It may be something that’s worth it for OP to argue about, and as you say they technically deserve it, but it will make it more difficult to bring the discussion to an end.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 23, 2020 at 0:07
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Sep 24, 2020 at 1:12
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    Sorry, I just wanted to echo what @AnonymousPhysicist said. No reason to walk away from co-authorship. Also, OP, did you get a job with a PhD precondition or similar? Would walking away from this publication mean that you would jeopardize your PhD or career in the industry?
    – J. Doe.
    Sep 24, 2020 at 13:36
  • Thanks all, no the job required a degree, but not my PhD specifically. I don't see anyway for her to affect me professionally, my line of work is a different area altogether from her. Plus I don't see how she could jeopardise my PhD when I've already had my viva, made corrections and graduated right? Apart from a plagarism accusation (which I'm not concerned about it the slightes as there's no way that could happen)
    – Gerilk
    Sep 24, 2020 at 22:18

"I am afraid that, despite trying, with my new job and duties it has become increasingly difficult to allocate time for writing the paper. I have tried to give the paper my best shot, but it has taken more time than expected, and unfortunately my resources have now run out. I am afraid it is not realistic for me to complete the paper and I am forced to close the file on this.

I am, of course, happy to let you have all necessary data and materials if that is of use to you. Here is the link <...>."

Note that I make no mention of authorship - she should keep you co-author, but if she doesn't, you probably don't care either.

The other point is that you have made clear that your resources are used up. You have given her your resource she was not entitled to in the first place, she wasted your time by "ripping the drafts apart", so in a way, you very indirectly indicate that she herself waylaid the paper with wasting time in complete disregard to your resources. So, this response gives you the satisfaction to have let her - very indirectly - known that she has not used her "grace time with you" well. Of course, you could just cut off without any feedback as per @DanRomik's suggestion, but maybe this one is more cathartic for you without being outright confrontational; and it does not open further doors either. You are "forced" to close the file - it's not anymore in your hands, most certainly not in hers.

  • The formulation does open a door: "I am, of course, happy to let you have all necessary data and materials if that is of use to you." I would suggest "Here is a download link to my lab data" instead. (That is, assuming the advisor did not keep a coup when the student left, which is already a but irresponsable.)
    – UJM
    Sep 23, 2020 at 6:33
  • @UJM I have worked your suggestion in. I didn't understand your sentence with "coup". Sep 23, 2020 at 6:44
  • "assuming the advisor did not keep a copy [of the data] when the student left, which is already a bit irresponsible" is what I meant (autocorrect thought I was writing in French)
    – UJM
    Sep 23, 2020 at 6:49
  • @UJM Ah, now it makes sense, thank you. In any case, your idea with the link was good. Sep 23, 2020 at 6:56
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    Instead of sending them a copy of the data, you could publish it to Figshare, Zenodo, or some other repository that supports data publishing, and then give them a link to it. (This protects you from data loss, although you might want to take a little time to make sure the data is documented; See youtube.com/watch?v=N2zK3sAtr-4 )
    – Joe
    Sep 23, 2020 at 15:33

How about just...never talking to her again? Just stop e-mailing her back. You don't owe her a thing.

You sent a reasonable e-mail to her explaining your situation. Then she replied and said that you owe her.

What wonderful nonsense! She needs a reality check. That is not the way things work. She is your former supervisor.

I think that you should block her e-mails. Put them in the spam folder. Maybe in a few months, once you have established some distance (both physical and temporal) you will see just how unreasonable she is being.

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    "You probably didn't owe her anything even when she was your supervisor." You owed her making a decent effort finishing your PhD (if you can't do that, you should quit).
    – user9482
    Sep 23, 2020 at 6:13
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    A supervisor-supervisee relationship does come with a range of mutual obligations, some of which persist after graduation. In particular taking reasonable actions to facilate the publication of the research results is one of those. In this particular case, "reasonable actions" is sending the email Dan Romik suggested, and thats it.
    – Arno
    Sep 23, 2020 at 10:15
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    Why not answer? This is rather childish behavior. If people do not listen to a "no", at some point this surely is the way to go, but ignoring is the ultima ratio; don't burn bridges that you can simply close by other means.
    – Mayou36
    Sep 23, 2020 at 14:42
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    It honestly sounds like the advisor wants to continue using OP as cheap, easily manipulable labor.
    – bob
    Sep 23, 2020 at 16:48
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    @Mayou36 Absolutely, but if someone does not leave you alone? OP made their wishes clear and the former advisor simply does not respect that. I think a finalizing response is in place (see my response), but I can see reason in simply letting this connection burn out. Especially since there is no guarantee that a "final" or a "final final" response will be respected as such. Sep 23, 2020 at 19:56

It might be important to know what such a "vendetta" might look like. Will you depend on your advisor in the future as a character reference for your next job? Or do you fear an actual, physical vendetta (hopefully not)?

If all you fear is burning bridges and getting one last angry "I'm very disappointed in you, after all I've done for you" email, the other answers provide good starting points if you really definitely wish to end any discussion with your advisor (which, given what you said about their communication style, is understandable). However, in case you are not fully resolved, there might be additional points to be considered:

  1. Closure: indepedently of whether or not this has any impact on your future career, I've found that having unfinished projects (i.e. half-written papers) kept me from moving forward in the past. Only you can decide if this is relevant for you, but if you suspect it might be, then finishing the paper becomes much harder with time up to a point where you could not realistically restart writing the paper in a year, so you might want to just do it now for your own peace of mind.
  2. Confrontation practice: You said yourself that you've 'always been a bit of a whimp with confrontation", so this might be an ideal opportunity to practice holding your ground while still moving a project forward. This is possible because your advisor (i) has absolutely no power over you any more and (ii) actually wants something from you (your time and work to publish another paper that might advance only their career with no benefit to you). For example, you could respond to her tearing apart your first draft along the lines of "Dear Advisor, I've received your feedback on my first draft but found that your comments were not sufficiently detailed to enable me to improve the manuscript. In order to efficiently move forward, I would appreciate it if you could explain your comments in more detail and outline what needs to happen before we can submit this manuscript". Situations like this (unclear/unconstructive communication from someone that you need to work with on a project) are likely to happen to you again, but usually, there is much more at stake.
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    OP made clear they want to close the matter; they do not mind dropping the ball and they do not wish to engage with the supervisor anymore, so I am not sure that either case 1 or case 2 is relevant to OP as the question has been posed. This is not necessarily a wrong answer for the general situation, but I do not think it is an answer for the OP. Sep 23, 2020 at 9:52
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    Right. At this point basically if the advisor wants the paper written, they need to write it themselves or have one of their current students do so.
    – bob
    Sep 23, 2020 at 17:01

Such manipulative people are only interested in their own personal goals and aspirations and do not care about the needs of others. All their life they have been perfecting the 'art' of exploiting the goodness in the personality of others (which they honestly see as 'weakness'), to their own advantage. I totally agree with Dan Romik. You do not need to do it if you don't want to and more importantly, you DO NOT NEED TO EXPLAIN OR JUSTIFY your decision. You said

I've always been a bit of a wimp with confrontation.

No need to be "confrontational", at least not in the conventional sense. But a polite but firm NO is necessary. And for heaven's sake, don't give up authorship for the work you have done. That too is a part of your life which you will never get back! Good luck.

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    Adding nothing to the existing answers, just emotional language. -1 Sep 23, 2020 at 15:03

Beside the other good suggestions, you might want to be a co-author if she, or someone else on her behalf, takes the burden of writing the paper by developing the research a bit further. As that happens, you probably ought to be a co-author. So you could make it clear that you don't have time to write the paper (as much as she hasn't got that) but could help with the 'supervision' of a master student set to fine tune your results (if she understood what they boil down to, seen her ruthless rounds of revisions).

Or maybe the university could pay your current employer the work time for writing the paper against mentioning the new affiliation? Let your manager discuss this with her. I doubt that a company would give away even a small part of what is needed to write an article in normal conditions (let alone with a compulsively dismissive counterpart, clearly a bad collaborator for any company). You know the field situation.

Anyhow. It is clear that the supervisor cannot write the paper herself, for lack of time or skills or virtues or for sheer circumstances. You are in the strong position here. In the worst case scenario, you can ignore her mails as you would do with anyone sending unsolicited mail -- this requires, mentally, a further measure of emotional distancing from your past. I guess this is the difficulty that peaks up at the point of decision.

Your family matter more than all this, I presume.

My two cents.

  • Thanks for the input. I think the worst thing about this is just the lack of compassion from her. I tried to explain I have things going on in my personal life to her previously (my husband is now redundant, we had a close death in the family and my sibling needs frequent childcare for her kids which I'm providing), but she didn't even ask how I was or what was going on. Her suggestion was to focus on working on the paper to help me get past any personal issues. It has always been the case with her, but even when I try to move on I still feel like I'm getting pressured with no consideration.
    – Gerilk
    Sep 24, 2020 at 22:24
  • @Gerilk If you want openings it is better to push doors than walls. I felt like playing around with a sentence of yours: compare "Her suggestion was to focus on working on the paper to help me get past any personal issues" (seemingly exploitative) and "Her suggestion was to focus on working on the personal issue to help me get past any paper issues" (seemingly empathic). The question that arose immediately afterwards is whether you ever asked for some suggestion in the first place. Probably the relationship model between supervisor and student does not fit your stage of life any longer. Sep 25, 2020 at 8:40
  • @Gerilk Also: what about thinking "to focus on working on the paper to help me get past any paper issues" and "to focus on personal issues to help me get past any personal issues"? This is probably an old dilemma with a lingering echo: there you have probably already chosen. Sep 25, 2020 at 8:41

You owe nothing If it were the case that former students “owed” me continuing to work on their papers I would be, in a sense, rich. In my field people often take industry jobs post graduation in which publication isn’t important. All my students want to publish with me after they finish, but the reality is that publication is hard and they don’t have much to gain. You have personal reasons, but everyone does. Having your weekends back is reason enough. So they invariably don’t. I think once you are outside of the academy research and publication just seems much less important. This perhaps explains why she believes it so important for you,as well as for her, that you do it. She hasn’t left and those of us still inside struggle to comprehend the radically different perspective.

I don’t try and make former students publish our work because a) making people do things they don’t want to is mean & b) I can’t. Your supervisor shouldn’t and can’t.

The exception is, of course, those who go on to faculty positions. (Who do it enthusiastically). I now price this in when weighing up taking up a project with a student (at least now ). To be honest the problematic cases in my experience are those that strung me along post graduation - For this reason I think a firm email saying: I wish you all the best with it but I’m afraid I can’t give it any more time.


It's common if not normal for people to publish at least one paper from their doctoral studies. In fact in UK it's a requirement of being awarded (at least in an engineering faculties) a PhD that it be "worthy of publication" in a peer-reviewed journal. As far as I know, "worthiness of publication" was in the opinion of the external examiner, the supervisor and the department research head. That said, most PhD publications I encountered were done after the PhD thesis was "accepted". I don't know if actual publication had to take place before formal award of the doctorate, or if publication had to be done at all. But most candidates I met - natives of UK or foreigners, even those not planning to work in universities - were happy to publish as it was something more to put on their resumés. Use of university facilities, e.g. photographic, computer software, typesetting, etc., was available to those pursuing publication if their new employers did not possess them.

Worst case scenario: Let's say the supervisor really was supportive through the bad times and let's say that you really do owe her morally as well as academically for this. Even so, you have to balance your new situation against the obligation to knock out a paper. You mention your finally having some time to relax, enjoy a less stressful day outside working hours and giving more time to your husband. This is quite in order after the commitment of recent years. A good share of women PhD candidates can drop out after getting a job and/or getting married. Maybe the supervisor fears you will just put off publication indefinitely and her "investment" will show no corresponding publication in her supervisee tally, make her look less productive than her colleagues, etc. But YOU are the one who has to set the work-balance here. I can't see any problem telling the supervisor as much. You shouldn't need anyone else to attend the meeting with the supervisor with you. If she can't accept your need for time and space for a while, then just make the same point to the postgraduate studies dean or the HoD. Leave in a formal letter to the same effect too. Job done.


Tell her to write it and put your name 2nd , or take all the credit with your blessing; and also tell her that you have a life now and do not have time for her endless rewrite demands.

Curious about what field this was in. Sounds like some touchy feely subject as science and math should not be that hard to finish after tweaking one draft.

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