15

I am in the third year of my four year PhD, which is funded by the department. My supervisor a week and a half ago called a meeting with me, after an email complaining about sending off an updated version of a manuscript to a conference without full approval. During the course of this meeting, when two others were present, he said a lot of things. However in this meeting he stated that I was on a "final warning" to be kicked out of the university (I had not received any previous warnings, and I'm not sure he has the capability to do this) and also his research group. He also said that he was engaging in a 'strategy of intimidation' so that I would be scared to make similar same mistakes in the future. I found this to be very worrying.

Following on from this he was especially nice via email, asking whether I would like to collaborate with a prestigious professor abroad. Indeed, the next day he spent 2 hours helping me prepare this manuscript, along with a postdoc.

This is part of a pattern of behaviour from this gentleman. Two months previously, after he said I shouldn't apply for IRB approval only weeks before, he had stated that I had committed severe ethical violations and that I should scrap the paper that I had worked on for the previous 7 months due to these violations. He also asked me whether I would like to go to jail for these violations.

Apart from this, my publication output has been relatively good. I got into a top journal in my field in my second year as first author.

I am very close to trying to switch supervisors and am just wondering, is this a stupid idea? Am I being overly sensitive? Is this psychological abuse?

Clarifications:

  1. My aim here is not to raise a stink, I would be subtly switching supervisor, not reporting this to anyone, giving vague excuse of differences. I still have a lot of respect for the advisor as a scientist and fear of him.
  2. If not clear enough in the initial question, part of my problem is that I was told not to go through the ethics process, then latterly reprimanded for not applying for ethics and committing unethical research. There may be a point here with regards to ethics in the first place.
  3. I am thankful for some of the more hostile responses here, as they have made me aware of things that I may not have considered . Indeed they have made me aware of how this would be likely to be perceived. It has also made me slightly more cognizant of my own role in this.
  4. I am a native speaker and have copied the quotes verbatim.

One final clarification:

Being asked too many questions here, will leave thread as is and not reply further. Thanks for all replies.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting a comment below this one.
    – cag51
    May 23, 2021 at 21:31

10 Answers 10

20

I am very close to trying to switch supervisors

Since you do not trust your advisor, switch.

Your descriptions show your advisor was dishonest, rude, and made counterproductive remarks. The definition of abuse seems to hinge on what the abuse did to the victim's mental state; making you worried does not seem to fit the definition to me. I'd suggest that instead of asking "Is this psychological abuse?" ask "Is this good supervision?" to which the answer is "No."

9
  • 4
    I do not see any dishonesty and rudeness. Can you explain?
    – Louic
    May 22, 2021 at 10:08
  • 11
    @Louic Declaring 'strategy of intimidation' is probably neither dishonesty nor rudeness in the strict sense of the word. It is worse. It is a threat. May 22, 2021 at 14:05
  • 17
    @CaptainEmacs A threat and a (final) warning are very different. This is not a threat: it is a last chance for OP to correct their mistakes. Very different from "psychological abuse". It is only fair to inform people that they have reached the limit of what is acceptable, and will be fired if it occurs again.
    – Louic
    May 22, 2021 at 18:45
  • 13
    @Louic If what OP reports is correct, explicitly saying "strategy of intimidation", that sounds like a threat, not a warning, sorry. If you really wish to warn somebody, you do not meta-strategize in front of that person. That's something you do in a humorous context (which doesn't fit the bill here), or if you wish to display utter cynicism (which speaks for a ruthless supervisor). Of course, OP may underreport other parts of the occurrences, and that may sway my opinion, but we need more information for that. May 22, 2021 at 22:10
  • 5
    @CaptainEmacs I think the announced "meta strategy" makes perfect sense in this situation that is clearly nowhere near a humorous context: if nothing else has worked in previous conversations, the professor gives a final warning. The professor feels bad about having to resort to this strategy, and therefore explains that they had to do so in the same conversation where they are using it.
    – Louic
    May 24, 2021 at 8:07
52

You write that your advisor said that you "committed severe ethical violations." But you don't say anything about what specifically you did, whether the accusations are true, or how you responded to that accusation. We simply cannot give you good advice without knowing more about these violations. Honestly it sounds like you don't understand what the accusations were, which is extremely worrisome!

It's sadly common that there are advisors who are abusive bosses, but this is not one of those common situations! Either your advisor is completely disconnected from reality and is making up ethical violations, or you are a serious danger to your research group because you commit bad ethical lapses and don't bother to understand what you did or how to avoid it in the future.

28

It sounds to me like your professor has noticed a pattern of poor decisions on your side, and they cannot handle another one. Professors are human beings, and this one seems to have reached their limit. Whether they are being reasonable or overreacting is hard to judge without knowing all the details of your interactions and collaboration.

But your professor is acting very professionally by not letting their serious warnings affect the way they collaborate with you directly afterwards: being nice and supportive after a serious warning is an excellent way to try and remedy the situation and give you all the possible chances to succeed.

An important question is whether the professor is right or not, and if the stern warnings are reasonable, or an overreaction. Again, this is impossible to tell without having been there and having seen all your past interactions, but to me it sounds like they may indeed have a point in the two cases you describe:

  • It is true (but rare) that people go to jail for violating ethics: the professor is asking you, in no uncertain terms, to take ethics more seriously. Violating ethics is serious academic misconduct and could indeed be a valid reason for being kicked out of a university.

  • submitting an "artefact" (do you mean abstract?) without explicit approval of all co-authors is generally considered very bad from, and depending on the exact circumstances even bordering on academic misconduct (associating your professor's name with ethically questionable research, for example). The professor is telling you clearly that this is not done, and that you should take more care next time.

If you think you can prevent the (serious!) mistakes the professor has warned you about, and they are indeed being nice towards you outside of the warnings you have received, I would recommend trusting your supervisor and learning from your mistakes.

However, I do want to emphasise again that without knowing the details of the interaction between you and your professor, it is hard to judge if a line was crossed during these interactions: you, and possibly your colleagues are the only ones who can judge this. If you have a colleague you trust, and who knows the professor, it may be helpful to ask their opinion on this matter.

21
  • 6
    Can you explain where you see the pattern of poor decisions? Or are you inferring this from the profs behavior? I can only see two instances of differences of opinion. May 22, 2021 at 11:27
  • 22
    downvote, you are making excuses for an abusive person. Would you pursue a "strategy of intimidation" in any of your dealings with any other human? What kind person not only does that but tells the victim to their face that they are doing it knowingly and calculatedly? This is not a hard-done-by kindly professor at the end of their tether, they are a calculating pathological user. To the OP: supervisors that make you feel confident and good about yourself as their "strategy" for "helping" you succeed do exist. You deserve one of those.
    – benxyzzy
    May 22, 2021 at 11:58
  • 6
    @henning--reinstateMonica The question gives two examples of poor decisions. I am inferring that either (1) the professor thinks that these decisions are so poor that they constitute a pattern, or (2) that other, possibly smaller, mistakes have been made that lead the professor to give a "final warning". I also clearly state (3 times) that this is hard to judge without having been there, but these mistakes are serious and I can totally understand that the professor is angry. Furthermore, I see no evidence of abusive behaviour: the risk of losing a job over the given "mistakes" is realistic.
    – Louic
    May 22, 2021 at 12:50
  • 11
    @benxyzzy Would you pursue a "strategy of intimidation" in any of your dealings with any other human? If I had tried a positive strategy and failed, it is not unthinkable that I might say something like, "I have tried many times to use a supportive approach with you, but have failed. So now, regrettably, I have to try intimidation instead. If you (do X) one more time, (you will face consequence Y)." This seems unreasonable in the current climate only because so many people deliberately feign extreme emotional fragility in naked ploys to seek advantage.
    – tbrookside
    May 23, 2021 at 3:52
  • 6
    I can't comment on the academic issues, as it's out of my domain of knowledge, but I cannot imagine ever saying "I will pursue a strategy of intimidation". If the relationship has devolved to that point, better to terminate it than say something like that. Wow. So there may be two issues here, but problems on OP's side don't excuse bad behavior on the part of the professor.
    – bob
    May 24, 2021 at 12:37
6

A more important question is whether or not you can actually switch, and what the consequences, if any, will be for doing so. You say you are in your third year and graduating next year - I interpret as meaning you are graduating spring 2022, which is 1 year away. Does your program even allow switching advisors so late? If you did switch advisors will your current advisor still have to be on your committee, considering you have done a considerable amount of work with them? How will switching advisors impact the letters of recommendations you receive when you are applying for your next position after graduating? More importantly, who would actually be your new potential advisor?

If you had another 3 or even 2 years before graduation, switching advisors should be pretty easy. When you only have 1 year left? Your priority right now should be to wrap up your dissertation research and prepare your applications for the coming hiring cycle.

You should consider that you will only have to endure this situation for 1 more year before you will move on to something bigger and better. Just putting some distance between you and your advisor could be a feasible solution.

12
  • 3
    Enduring bad behavior is often the same as enabling it. May 22, 2021 at 11:13
  • 5
    @AnonymousPhysicist It is cheaper to expect others to pay the price for standing up to principles. May 22, 2021 at 14:07
  • 1
    I am not sure that OP has as much time to finish their PhD. If the supervisor has kicked in his new strategy now, he has OP in the crosshairs and can be easily triggered. May 22, 2021 at 14:08
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist I do not so much like the word "enabling", because I would say that the word "enabling" implies a real choice. (I do not consider choices here that amount to self-destruction). May 23, 2021 at 13:56
  • 1
    Another important question is, even if possible, would another advisor pick up the student? May 25, 2021 at 23:58
6
+50

Before dealing with your professor, who did cross a line by stating he'd be using intimidation as a tool, you must ask and answer (to the best of your ability) how honest are you with yourself?

Most professors don't take this approach unless there were prior incidents which indicate that you have ignored earlier problems and corrective feedback. It is always possible you have a professor that is a horrible person; but, it is far, FAR, more likely that you have a professor that has formed an idea that you are not manageable. This idea might be supported by facts; but, even if it isn't, you need to provide evidence through your actions that you can work with him.

Your work in a lab under his name is not independent because everything you do carries his name on it, whether your or he likes it or not. If you present something with a flaw in it, it will reflect on his lab long after you've graduated or dropped out. You must understand his point of view, or you will not be able to work with him. You submitted work to a conference without review, work that is expected to require some review because you're not an experienced, independently vetted, professor.

Maybe the work was excellent; but, there's a high chance that extra sets of eyes could have improved upon it. Odds are the work wasn't that great, and you may know that, as you decided it couldn't stand up to review and submitted it without his review or knowledge.

So yes, you can use his wording to point out he's crossing a line; but, these investigations don't stop at what you submit. They will see if you have "unclean hands" or in lay terms, "if you threw the first punch." I doubt you would have enough of a stand to overturn that he should discipline you, and by your going public, there's a great chance that the discipline will have to be converted from "your prof being very angry with you" to real consequences (academic probation, reassignment to a different PI who has been warned of your prior conduct, likely resetting your research efforts to day one, and possibly dismissal from the school).

Play carefully, because every brilliant move is less brilliant when you don't consider the obvious responses which lead to you losing more than you would ever gain. When you come to your decision on how to proceed, again ask yourself, "how honest are you with yourself" because you'll be inclined (as we all are) to think you're playing out a master move when in result you're just giving away every opportunity to win.

4

The situation you describe is an uncomfortable one, and for what it's worth, I am sorry that you are going through it. I tolerated similar behavior during my master's degree and tried to be more proactive during my doctorate.

The first thing that stuck me was your advisor having others present while reprimanding you. "Praise in public, punish in private." In my opinion, what they did was wrong. Perhaps they were having a bad day, but unless your advisor specifically apologized for having done that, they may feel that it's acceptable behavior. His admission that he was engaging in a form of intimidation is evidence that they think it is acceptable, and that statement, word for word, is something your should write down and share with anyone with whom you raise your concern. Intimidation is bad, openly admitting to doing it because they think they are allowed: people have lost tenure for that.

Now, all of the above assumes you were at fault in the first place, and it doesn't seem to me like you did anything wrong at all. You mention that you were being given a "final warning." I would take a moment and go back to the other times you advisor had "warned" you and see if there is any common thread among them. I'm not defending your advisor here, I'm suggesting that you may want to have this information handy for the next part. Collect up emails, notes from meetings, etc. as your evidence to show this pattern of behavior in black and white.

And the next part, is to approach your department's graduate program head; the person who oversees the overall progress of graduate students in your department to ensure they are making progress, and to be the first person to get involved in any advisor-student disputes. A short email requesting a meeting to discuss the most recent reprimand, and then going over prior times to establish a pattern of behavior on the part of your advisor. From there you can show that this was not a one time thing, that your advisor is handling things inappropriately, and that it is adversely affecting you ability to move smoothly through your doctoral program. Say those words, because that point falls clearly within their purview.

The times when you advisor seems to have tried to make up for their behavior with nice emails and kind behavior after the fact is akin to other types of abuse. It's not ok, because all your advisor is doing is covering their backside. It's also a sign of guilt on their part, because they know they are being abusive and hoping they can wallpaper over the damage with niceties. Don't fall for it.

After you've spoken with your grad program head, it's time to reach out to the department head, and repeat everything you discussed with the head of the grad program.

When you meet with the department head, in addition to everything you bring to the prior meeting, come with the suggestion of at least one other advisor that you would be comfortable switch to. If you can have an off-the-record conversation with a prospective advisor asking if they could take you on as a student, that will help clear the way. You department head will appreciate your boiling everything down to them making a decision, rather than asking them find a solution. Department heads, are executives, and the job of an executive is to make a decision. Give them one or more well-thought out options for them to choose from. Otherwise, you risk them saying "I'll look into this, andget back to you," which may never happen.

Hopefully by this point, you'll have more than enough evidence to show a pattern of unacceptable behavior on your advisor's part, and a path to graduation by having an alternate advisor identified. As long as you are being moved to another advisor, your advisor's behavior is not your problem, let the department head deal with it. Your only responsibility is to provide any evidence you've collected from your experiences.

If none of this works, some universities have a Graduate College, whose job it is to oversee all graduate programs across the campus, covering all departments. There should a Dean, or many Deans whose job it is to address issues like these when the department can't or won't take care of their own issues internally. If it comes to this, make sure you've also collected emails and notes from conversations with your grad program head, and department head to show that you've gone through the proper channels.

It's a not a fun process. I've been through a form of it, but I am nonetheless glad that I did. I stood up for myself and in the end graduated. There was no retribution from anyone, I was able to find employment without issue, and can tell you with confidence that your own moral compass is something worth listening to in times like these.

8
  • 6
    "Intimidation is bad" - I agree. "it doesn't seem to me like you did anything wrong at all" - emphatically not clear: OP says that they submitted an artefact without approval by other authors, and mentions irregularity on ethics approval. Maybe the infringements are minor, but the scope is wide and the latter can cost the PI their grants or more. So, while a fair advice to an innocent OP, the situation may be more involved than it seems. May 24, 2021 at 8:50
  • 8
    You state "...having others present while reprimanding you. 'Praise in public, punish in private.' In my opinion, what they did was wrong." My response: The post contains one side of the story. I actually think the presence of witnesses contradicts the narrative being given by OP. At my institution it is common to ask witnesses, such as the department chair or student liaison, to be present for a student/faculty meeting where a serious infraction will be discussed. Those witnesses are there to protect the faculty member from potential charges of abusive behavior.
    – pjs
    May 24, 2021 at 15:23
  • 2
    @iwantmyphd While every post on SE presents their side of the story, we're certainly justified to note inconsistencies or consider and discuss alternate explanations based on our own life experiences. If the faculty member overstepped, there are witnesses. If the wording was not as stated by OP, again, there are witnesses.
    – pjs
    May 24, 2021 at 16:43
  • 3
    @iwantmyphd The tactic of punishing in public typically (I don't know about this case) only comes after punish in private fails. The hope is that after a few private reprimands, a public one will help prepare the team for what is likely to follow (or at least make them aware of the issues, so they are not surprised). I think the Prof's language he used was bad; but, if the evidence supports the same course of action, the same outcome would be proscribed regardless of the language.
    – Edwin Buck
    May 25, 2021 at 14:22
  • 4
    The "other people" make this feel like an intervention to me. May 26, 2021 at 0:00
3

he had stated that I had committed severe ethical violations and that I should scrap the paper that I had worked on for the previous 7 months due to these violations

If this is accurate, it really seems to me like you've been accused of Research Misconduct, and this is a big deal. I could be very wrong, but you're not providing any form of clarification, so this answer relies on this assumption.

Research misconduct is a big deal; a potential career ender for you, as the offender, and for your supervisor, if they knowingly let any findings involved with the misconduct out the door.

This would certainly take a supervisor way out of their comfort zone. Protecting their career may be their first impulse. There is a strong possibility that there has been discussion of this situation with your chair and your Dean. If not, there probably should have been.

The meeting with "others" strikes me as an intervention to attempt to correct your behavior, or perhaps your advisor wanted witnesses around to confirm the details of the meeting. Of course, it would help if you could share who the "others" are, but I understand your reticence.

So, if you did commit research misconduct, I think your adviser's actions, in which he finds a way to prevent further misconduct and provide you with interesting educational opportunities ending with you getting a degree, while possibly not perfect, might be acceptable (people don't tend to have much practice responding to such situations). I would certainly believe him when he says this is your last chance. Also, if you did commit misconduct, your realistic choices might be limited, as it is unlikely another supervisor would pick you up.

Again, I could be entirely wrong here, because you won't share details, but this is my "between the lines" read on your situation. Only you can gauge how close your actions come to misconduct.

0

I feel your boss is far from the best boss, but could not tell whether good or not for your research career.

Based on your record (the first author on the top journal), your future can be promising. Of course, although it depends on the field you are, you might be able to find a good place to continue your research after recieving phD.

So, I feel two points look important: Will your boss give you phD; After getting phD how will the relationship between you and your boss last. I guess you can see old members of your lab to get information about this points.

If it is possible for you to receive phD and, afterwords, get a position for another PI, staying current place is worthwhile. Unless so, switching a supervisor might be good choice.

In any case, a stable state of mind is very important in research. Your boss seemed to be having a negative impact on your mental state, maybe in the short term. If you feel this way, I suggest you use a school counselor where your privacy is protected.

0

Usually a good practice with dealing problems that could endanger a project, intellectual property, etc, is the use of rules (you should be given those rules from the start or at the first violation) and escalation (there should not be no radical step or measure at the first violation), eg., 1 warning + informations (what was done, the consequences, the reasons for which is it wrong), 2 warning + light measure(s) , 3 fire + measure(s).

If your supervisor is not mentionning the rules of the lab/university at the first warning, or is lying about them, or is acting or communicating inconsistently (eg., different messages depending on present witnesses), or is involving hidden or implicit pieces of information including personnal judgements/comments/features (ethny, gender, appearence, behavior etc) or blurry consequences, or is using some sort of surprise (when you know the rules, there should not be any surprise at all), or is invoking some subtexts or surprising and strong moods. Then it is psychological abuse (sometimes named moral abuse).

The ideal communication in case of problem should be at all times extremely clear for the present and the future (predictable), written, objective, with escalations and as cold as possible (without any kind of mood, affect, surprise).

If there is psychological abuse, I recommend to document everything (and try and document everything (voice record, email/chat copy) from the first suspect communication), and refer this to the chief of doctoral school to request piece of advice for your next steps and report the case.

The same way, you are subject to rules, warning, explanations and escalation, your supervisor is also subject to them for the problem involved. If there is no possible or desired resolution (you may feel permanently uneasy to finish you PhD), then indeed do switch your supervisor, again with the recommendations of your doctoral school's chief.

1
  • 9
    I think the use of bold formatting for emphasis in this answer is distracting and does not help in highlighting the important points, which are otherwise reasonable. May 23, 2021 at 6:17
-4

TL;DR. Get out, get out, get out! If you can... I don't what field you're in. Changing supervisors may not be feasible. Is there a suitable alternative supervisor whom you could work with? Fair or not, these are statements that need to be considered before making a definitive move.

That said, I am very sorry for this horrible, abusive situation you are in. It is not fair on you.


Intimidatory behaviour is not acceptable. There are arguments as to whether parents should be allowed to discipline their children like that---I am not commenting on this---but certainly a supervisor should not behaviour like this towards a student. Trying to scare you with "go to jail comments"---disgusting.

I worked with someone who treated me extremely badly during my PhD---although it sounds nothing like as bad as your case! Sometimes we had disagreements about whether to look into certain questions; he wanted to investigate something, but I didn't. This is fine by itself, but he explicitly told me that his time was more valuable so I should investigate it and get back to him. The fact that I didn't want to didn't matter. He told me that he's the senior collaborator so I should do it. Incidentally, he was a postdoc when we started and had just got a permanent position when we finished.

I won't go into further details regarding his behaviour---it's not relevant to your question. I should have tried harder to end the collaboration earlier, in hindsight. I really regret this. His behaviour made my life miserable for months and months. I'm done with the collaboration with him now and I am so much happier! I've found lots of other people to collaborate with who are not toxic and treat me with respect.

This person wasn't my supervisor, but rather a collaborator. My supervisor went "supervision-AFK" with me about 1.5yrs, so I was working with other people therein. I'm in maths, so choosing with whom I work is relatively easy. I didn't even have the option of working with my supervisor for half my PhD, as I said. Changing supervisors is more of a big step than changing collaborators. I don't know exactly what field you're in, so I don't know how easy it would be to just not work with your supervisor but work with others instead? Not a perfect solution, but perhaps better than your current scenario.

Unfortunately, there's very little accountability in academia. People who hold power have little to no training in utilising, not abusing, this power. You can report this, but I highly doubt you have proof that he said these things---after all, who gathers proof of all interactions? I don't. It can also negatively affect people's perception of you. Lots of people will have had only positive interactions with this guy---not all toxic people are toxic all the time---and will try to defend his behaviour. Just look at other answers here. Imagine the response from his peers?

One answer suggests that you intentionally didn't get his review on your work because you thought it wouldn't hold up to his critique. Quite where the answerer got this information, I have no idea. You say it was an updated manuscrip without full approval. There was no indication in your question that you were intentionally. His behaviour is abusive, regardless of your mistakes.

In a fair world, you would report this person, their behaviour would be investigated and they would go on some type of supervisor-training programme. Alas, in a fair world...

20
  • 3
    To be fair to the other responders, while in isolation, I would have full sympathy for OP, there are a number of iffy issues, such as submission of an artefact [or abstract?] without approval by coauthors and some inconsistency concerning ethics approval. We do not know whether the supervisor gaslighted them or this was a misunderstanding, but there are things that absolutely cannot be done without such an ethics approval and a 3rd year PhD student will know that (even if the supervisor said something else). Your response takes the absolute position that OP is perfectly in the right. Perhaps. May 26, 2021 at 0:48
  • 5
    There is a whole spectrum of academic misconduct, and, unless OP clarifies, there may be the possibility (I am not saying this is the case) that OP's cavalier attitude might have endangered the legitimacy of the whole group; university may have initiated an investigation against the supervisor, possibly suspending them, freezing or disbanding the group, possibly forcing retractions of papers? Something like that can scare the world even out of a tenured prof. OP does not mention any issues from previous years, only of this last sequence of events. This may indicate something triggered this. May 26, 2021 at 0:53
  • 3
    'Trying to scare you with "go to jail comments"---disgusting' Would you still think it disgusting if OP really had committed a crime that typically carries a jail sentence? And if the supervisor felt that he'd been railroaded into helping OP cover up that crime and was understandably resentful about that? Either possibility is wholly consistent with what we've been told in the question. May 26, 2021 at 12:02
  • 3
    @user24601 OP has made it fairly clear despite the opacity of their question that they've made ethical mistakes. This answer downplays those mistakes, implying it's okay to submit things without other authors' approval or IRB. I think you've completely misunderstood what OP's advisor meant about their "strategy of intimidation" and are imagining something like what you experienced instead. It's completely unclear that any abuse has taken place, especially if the "strategy of intimidation" is to state the potential consequences for what has transpired: nothing unethical or abusive about that.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 26, 2021 at 14:43
  • 3
    "His behaviour is abusive, regardless of your mistakes". IRB or equivalent is approval for human subjects research; research without this approval is illegal. OPs own description of the strategy is that it involved informing of consequences, and that OP's advisor hoped that awareness of these consequences would prevent them from future violations.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 26, 2021 at 15:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .