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I am currently pursuing a master's degree and I am one of two students working on one project. This project takes a team science approach to answering a question, which normally one would find invaluable. However, this dynamic has proven to be more of a strain than a benefit. Rather than a healthy partnership, this feels like a competition and I am constantly walking on eggshells around this other person. In theory, we have two separate theses with differing questions and paths, but it is not turning out that way in practice at all. Sometimes she asks questions about topics related to my thesis in her committee meetings (without asking me about it) and she has creative input over parts of the project I am working on while I am excluded from other facets of the work. It is to the point where the faculty see us as a unit. Presentations I have made for class have been skipped over because this other person did a similar things and work I do is often dismissed by partners. It makes me feel like I am not worth the time, to be honest.

Furthermore, due to unfortunate circumstances beyond anyone's control, I was the only out of the two of us capable of doing field work and other tasks this past summer (during a pandemic to boot). This put a huge strain on me in general. I am starting to feel like this other student is getting a free pass (is this feeling even justified?!) They present the work others have done at meetings and get acknowledgements for it. It seems highly inequitable, but all of this is disguised under 'team science'.

Trying to accomodate this other person is putting a huge strain on my mental health. I feel like I can't do anything right, have no creative liberty or ownership, but also no guidance at the same time.

I have not brought up all of these things with my advisor. I don't want to be the one to cause drama, but I am at the end of my rope. I have thought about leaving the program multiple times over the last few months. So with that in mind, some questions:

  1. Am I being overly sensitive? Is this a normal part of graduate studies?

  2. Should I just let this all go and move on enough to get that diploma in hand and call this a wash? How can I deal with the mental load?

  3. Are there any helpful resources for dealing with this kind of thing?

Thank you so much!

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    I think asking your supervisor for a dedicated timeslot alone is probably in place. Develop a script of what you want to say and request and focus on realistic things. Is it credit? More input? All this assumes that you brought up some points with your "partner" before, without results. So, that would be a precondition to such a meeting. Don't make it a drama, concentrate on the factuals. You have a right for your work to be presented and for you to get credit on your work. Aren't you properly credited? If so, that's a point to bring up in that meeting. Factual, not emotional. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 2:24

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Is this a normal part of graduate studies?

No. Good research management would clearly delineate each person's responsibilities and assign appropriate credit.

However, nothing is normal this year.

Should I just let this all go and move on enough to get that diploma in hand?

The purpose of a masters degree is for you to learn. Focus on that. You are not in a competition with other students.

How can I deal with the mental load?

Consult a licensed mental health professional if you feel distressed.

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    The auto-button to suggest to talk to a mental health professional which I regularly see on SE is not really helpful here. There is a real (not internal) reason why OP is stressed and that needs addressing. I didn't downvote, because there are some useful aspects in the answer. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 2:22
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    @CaptainEmacs It is highly inappropriate to suggest that "internal" reasons for being stressed are not real reasons. That's like suggesting cancer is not a real reason to be sick if it is not caused by an infection. Furthermore, if someone is struggling with mental health for external reasons, or even due to a cause which is no longer present, they can still benefit from expert treatment. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 3:12
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    I do not always disagree with that advice, but I find that the suggestion is made far too lightly at SE so it feels like a generic cop-out for a problem that needs a specific solution. For a drastic example: When somebody is drowning, they need to be removed from the water first, before finding out whether water is in the lungs. OP has an acute problem, and fixing that is what they need. Before advising treatment, remove the cause. Otherwise, "learning to meditate" and "get a 'don't care' attitude" is probably equally or perhaps even more valid advice. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 7:49
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    @CaptainEmacs First, if you assume someone is having a mental health crisis because of the behavior of an academic colleague (may or may not be the case here), then I would strongly recommend consulting with a mental health professional before severing ties with the colleague because the mental health professional might have advice on how to protect ones self during the process of severing ties. This is quite different from drowning. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 10:55
  • Second, people experiencing mental health crises cannot be expected to be able to figure out the cause of the crisis accurately. Hypothetically, they won't know if they are being mistreated or if they are delusional. A mental health professional can work that out and advise accordingly. That is also not like drowning. Mental health professionals do provide acute care and in some cases they do remove root causes. Equating mental health care with "attitude" change is wrong and harmful. That's like suggesting someone who is drowning needs an attitude change when they need a lifeguard. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 10:55
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TL;DR

Start by talking to your advisor. Especially if you feel like you are past the point where you can talk to your colleague.

Resolving conflict professionally is the exact opposite of "causing drama".


I think there are some good points in Anonymus Physicist answer, and I will repeat the first bit of his answer here:

Good research management would clearly delineate each person's responsibilities and assign appropriate credit.

What I want to add to this point, however, is that many academics never set out to do management, they set out to do research. Research management becomes a necessary part of the job; academics got training in research, very little in management.

I would say that an important characteristic of a good adviser is that they want to facilitate a good research atmosphere. So even if your advisor is not the best in research management, keep in mind that they might not have gotten an opportunity to learn to do it well yet.

Ideally, you would first try and resolve this with your colleague. But that might not be possible (any more, in this situation, or for any other number of reasons).

I also notice that you are using (my preferred) term advisor rather than supervisor: it implies that person is somebody that can give you professional advice (from experience) rather than supervise (your day-to-day research activities). Go ask your for advice from your advisor.

The reason you give for not talking to your advisor until now is:

I don't want to be the one to cause drama, but I am at the end of my rope.

You seem to have a conflicting situation with your colleague and peer, which is clearly impacting both your research/study performance, and your mental health. If you already feel that you are past the point where you can try and resolve it directly with the other student, the advisor should help mediate the situation.

A lot of (at least research and academic) interviews nowadays include some variation of the question "How do you deal with conflict?" It should not come as a surprise that "I keep it all in until I can't take it any more." is almost equally as bad as "I shout at the other person until they submit."

A good way to deal with conflict is to be objective and constructive. When you go have that conversation, bring in specific points and propose solutions:

  • When you do presentations in class, she always goes first because her name comes first alphabetically (or whatever), and since she introduces the topic most of the discussion happens following her presentation.

    Would it be possible to reverse the order of presentations (e.g. alternate between alphabetical and reverse alphabetical)?

  • Because of circumstances (hopefully, your advisor knows this reason), you took up the brunt of what was supposed to be joint field work last summer/semester. This left you with comparatively less time to focus on the research itself.

    Is she able to do some analysis, sample sorting, sample labelling, or other work that might benefit both your projects. Ideally, something on the data that you collected. Real team science -- everybody benefits.

  • You do not have the same opportunities as your colleague to get additional information about the project, and have creative input over it's direction (as you are not invited to the same meetings).

    Could you both get invited to the same meetings? Alternate between who presents your project? Or have organised discussions (with or without your advisor) where you share what you learned that might be of interest to both your project. You may also use these meetings to decide on the respective directions you want to explore next, to avoid overlap.

  • The advisor might ask you whether you brought this up with the other student. Ideally, you would have. But, if you haven't, you should offer a good professional reason as to why you didn't.

    Perhaps you have tried initiating discussions about your project more generally with her previously, which has not been successful? Perhaps this is why you feel you can not communicate efficiently with her, and are asking your adviser to help facilitate a conversation? Perhaps you actually want to try to talk to her first, but you would appreciate some advice on how to do it professionally first?

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