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We are in a moderate sized group (approx. 10 PhD and 4 postdocs) with a single professor as everyone's supervisor, who is well respected in our field. In our field it is normal that the supervisor is co author on all papers unless it was an external side project / collaboration and so the majority of papers coming out the group require his final say.

The issue we have is the length of time to get feedback and hence publish, as an example there are several group members waiting on feedback of papers for over 1 year. A particular issue is he constantly breaks his self imposed deadlines, he will say he will give feedback by Friday,then Wednesday, then Friday etc for months at a time. Recently he has taken to playing us off against each other, he says he'll read A's after he's done B's but when A asks B, B has heard nothing. From the group's point of view he is more interested in taking more students / new projects and the delays we experience are his choice.

This is hitting tipping point in our group, there is a lot of discontent and everyone is talking to each other so it's a downward spiral about who has it worse each week, PhD students are missing getting their theses handed in and postdocs are saying the delays are significantly affecting thier career prospects. One recently said if their academic career is over and they have no need for a reference they'll report him for misconduct on their way out.

To clarify this is a top 5 UK institution.

Sorry for the lengthy background, my questions are:

1 Is it considered misconduct / unethical to delay publications through such long delays to feedback?

2 What are the techniques to encourage feedback in a timely manner?

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  • Perhaps speak to him, and suggest a better working model. I know of a top researcher who has the following model: he/she gets post-docs to first provide feedback, and he only needs to look at almost final draft from PhD students. He/she mainly deals with post-docs.
    – VitaminE
    Dec 23, 2021 at 20:53

3 Answers 3

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My diagnosis is that he is overworked. The solution would be to drop half of you and send you to other advisors. I doubt that he is just lazy if he is "well respected" in the field. I doubt that this is an uncommon situation at high level universities with top advisors and active students.

It isn't unethical if he is being diligent even if he is "late" in giving you feedback. There are only so many hours in the day and he is entitled to a life.

I see two possibilities for moving forward.

The first is to seek feedback among yourselves. You have a dozen people who are at least somewhat familiar with your work. You may not be able to get final approval but if you all put less pressure on the prof he may be able to respond in a more timely manner.

The second is to only ask his advice/permission on vital things and then only by extracting the essential in what you need advice/permission on. If you send one page requests rather than 30 page current versions of a paper it is easier on everyone.

One technique I used with students for review of subsequent versions of work was to have them also send the earlier version as well as highlight changes in the latest. It can be very easy to provide feedback. I used paper, so no paging or technology beyond a pen was needed for feedback.

So, work more among yourselves and reduce the load on the prof.

Complaining isn't going to get you anywhere.


I also suggest you look at student outcomes after graduation. Do his students wind up with a career? The market is harsh now, of course, but if his students get placed as well or better than can be otherwise expected, then it might be worth the short term pain.

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  • I use the same technique, it works wonders for speeding up reviewing. Oct 23, 2021 at 16:14
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    It would be "unethical" (in the sense of not meeting legitimate expectations) for a supervisor to accept more PhD students than she/he can handle. Not being able to communicate honestly about what students/collaborators can expect when is also unprofessional.
    – henning
    Oct 23, 2021 at 16:42
  • @henning would if be "unethical" for a supervisor to accept a number of PhD students they can handle, only to subsequently be tasked with unexpected time-consuming departmental duties? We do not know the situation that this particular supervisor is in, nor the path that took them there, so I would prefer to withhold judgment.
    – user116675
    Oct 23, 2021 at 16:45
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    @Wetenschaap hence the subjunctive. Then again, OP says the supervisor "constantly" misses giving promised feedback, which suggests whatever keeps getting in the way at this point can hardly be "unexpected" anymore. I think 10 PhD students is a lot, by the way.
    – henning
    Oct 23, 2021 at 16:52
  • @henning I'm completely with you on these matters. The supervisor may simply be in denial, believing themselves to be competent to fix the situation in the future (against mounting evidence).
    – user116675
    Oct 23, 2021 at 17:01
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Misconduct implies a deliberate action. I don't think that is likely; what would he have to gain? Instead, it sounds like he has too much to do. That is no fun for you, but also no fun for him. So he does not have to be the enemy. Solving this issue would make work more enjoyable for all. This is obviously a very delicate discussion: not many bosses would react well to subordinates telling them how to do their work. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is the way the world works.

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This sounds like my previous lab. It is an unfortunate situation. Unethical, in my opinion, to take on that many students in the first place, but as others above have said, their behaviour is more of a matter of burnout rather than malice.

When I was a PhD student in this situation, things that helped me get the most out of my PI were:

  • Giving PI bite-sized chunks to review instead of larger tasks;
  • Being specific and concise about what you want feedback on. Have a request email read like a Buzzfeed article rather than a novel. Make it easy for them.
  • Being a bit bold and saying "I think this is the way to address X. If I don't hear from you by next Friday, I'll assume you agree and will do that method going forward...". It is small effort for them to stop you from going off-course, and if you take this pro-active approach, it is less work for them.
  • Being verbally grateful for the help I did receive. Understandably, many students were very frustrated with their lack of feedback, and were underwhelmed with the level of feedback even when it was received. This attitude can encourage a positive feedback loop where both parties are frustrated.

Hope this helps. Good luck.

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