16

I'm legitimately looking for advice and to try to take control of my life and my job prospects post-graduation, but also feel that I can't portray the challenge of my situation honestly without recognizing that my supervisor really does carry quite a lot of blame here.

If it helps, she is pretty universally recognized as terrible at her job at this point: Everyone I have ever known who has worked with her has had challenges, with several of her former students straight up refusing to work with her ever again, and the chair of my department disclosed to me when I spoke to him about my concerns that she received a zero on her last performance evaluation.

Anyway, I am currently nearing the end of my PhD degree (criminology) and am worried about how a poor history of publishing and working with my supervisor will reflect on me when I look for work after completion.

In short, I have had a very, very challenging time working with my supervisor, who has been extremely negligent throughout the course of my degree and to an extent that I didn't fully grasp the scope of until it was too late for me to change supervisors.

Among other ways in which she's impacted my degree progress, she spent years promising me a data set that she never delivered on (forcing me to completely redesign my study five years into my degree) and waited 18 months on signing paperwork that would see me paid for a policy report I wrote with her, only for that report to never be published.

In nearly every meeting I have tried to have with her, she has made clear to me that she is too overworked and/or in too much emotional distress (she is currently going through a nasty divorce) to have time for me right now, and can I please check in with her later. I won't go on - but it's been quite a lot of this, for several years now.

My department is aware of these issues with my supervisor, but they haven't been able (or, probably, willing) to do much to help me, beyond assisting me in restructuring my committee. I have managed to restructure my research to the point where completing my degree finally feels like a possibility, although my dissertation is pretty bad.

What I am concerned about now is the extent to which my poor experience with my supervisor will impact me while I'm looking for work. I don't have a lot to show for the work I've done with her, as she did not take the necessary steps to see many of our projects through to completion. Combined with the fact that I'll be producing a poor dissertation I don't feel confident publishing, I am worried that this entire experience will give me a fairly worthless PhD degree that I can't sufficiently back up with the skills and experience that I should have earned while in my graduate program.

The truth is, though - I do actually feel that I am a very competent researcher and teacher. I have a lot of experience working independently and "figuring things out on my own" (grant writing, web design, reference management software, statistics software, etc.) due to her negligence. I just worry about not having the output to back any of my claims to be good at these things up when I'm interviewing.

Is it at all acceptable to bring up a bad relationship with a supervisor in a job interview? How much can I expect this to reasonably impact me while job searching, and What are the best ways to compensate for this and sell myself for my abilities? I'm prioritizing work in industry (research and policy-related) over academia, if that changes any answers at all (this experience has burnt me out too much).

2
  • 3
    Can you get reference letters from people who would able to explain the situation? That way the potential job is made aware of the situation by someone with less at stake. It could even be framed showing your resilience to a difficult situation. Nov 11, 2021 at 15:54
  • Are you planning to stay in academia or move to the industry?
    – WoJ
    Nov 13, 2021 at 12:36

7 Answers 7

19

Blaming others is rarely a positive strategy, and it is usually not a good idea for student to criticize their supervisor, or for that matter for supervisors to criticize their students.

The general opinion (at least in physics academia) is that good people find a way to do good work. Possibly the work is not as well received, or as prolific at it could have been, but as a PhD graduate you’re supposed to have demonstrated some research independence. Thus I would stay away from pointing fingers, and instead focus on the quality of your work, how you could improve or expand it if you had greater access to data or resources, and how other future projects that could be realized in a different (and presumably better) environment.

6
  • 36
    If this is advice for a job interview, then I think it is good. But if it is advice for how to cope mentally, or what mindset to adopt, then I don't think it is good. From what OP wrote, it sounds like the supervisor genuinely was very difficult to work with. OP should not blame him or herself! "Good people find a way to do good work" probably has some truth, but it sometimes happens that the supervisor is so bad that anyone would struggle.
    – toby544
    Nov 11, 2021 at 12:07
  • 2
    @toby544 not denying that some will struggle, simply pointing out that bringing up a bad relationship is rarely a good path when one should focus on acquired skills and highlight how past work is good. Nov 11, 2021 at 13:06
  • 36
    "good people will always find a way" seems a bit of a selection bias. The good ones who found a way, the others didn't continue and are lost somewhere. Also, I don't see anything fundamentally wrong in criticism, be it of the supervisor or of the student. But I agree with the point that pointing fingers won't get you anywhere!
    – Mayou36
    Nov 11, 2021 at 15:12
  • @Mayou36 this is a really interesting comment It is true there are (rare in my experience) situations where the burden of a poor supervisor will lead to a situation from which the student cannot recover. I still think this is very rare: most people will struggle at some point in their PhD, irrespective of the relation with the supervisor, but PhDs are sufficiently long-term projects to allows students to still do "good work": even the OP is convinced of that much in their case. Bringing up a bad relationship remains unhelpful IMO: better look ahead and see how things can improve. Nov 11, 2021 at 18:51
  • 3
    This is pretty much the just-world fallacy: 'If you're good enough, things will magically work out for you somehow; and if they don't, then you're not good enough.'
    – anomaly
    Nov 14, 2021 at 17:23
10

When you go for a job interview, they don't really care about your past achievements. They are really trying to judge what you are capable of achieving in the future.

You will be asked about previous work, but your results are less important than demonstrating the skills that will be necessary for the job. They will probably prefer to hear that you had to work independently, rather than being spoon-feed by a supervisor.

An interviewer may ask about how you dealt with problems. They want to hear that you showed initiative and perseverance, and didn't just give up or wait for someone else to solve it. You can also talk about what you should have done, with the benefit of hindsight.

You may also be asked questions that sound like direct criticism. If so, they do want to hear the reasons why, but they also want to discover how you handle criticism. Don't be defensive and blame everything on other people, talk about what you've learnt and what you'd do differently next time.

With a bit of preparation, you should be able to portray yourself as a stronger candidate because of your experience of adversity.

2
  • +100 very important points.
    – Dendrobium
    Nov 12, 2021 at 13:23
  • 3
    "When you go for a job interview, they don't really care about your past achievements. They are really trying to judge what you are capable of achieving in the future." 🙄 It's easy to say than done, so most HR consider past achievements and extrapolate to the future.
    – magallanes
    Nov 12, 2021 at 14:28
9

Your best bet, when moving from academia to industry, is to demonstrate transferable skills. No one (outside of academia) really gives a toss about how many publications have your name on it.

Whining about your supervisor won't impress any recruiters (no matter how justified your grievances may well be!). Everyone has to deal with rubbish bosses/colleagues from time to time.

What you need to do is (without sounding bitter/nasty) highlight how you managed to deal with a challenging situation: how you developed greater autonomy, how you adapted your strategy to changing circumstances, how you had to think out of the box to find extra resources, etc.

Make sure you play the ball, not the player. Be factual about the challenges you faced, without rubbishing your supervisor as a person. Be magnanimous, and focus on the positives, e.g. how you did manage to finish your PhD in the end.

Good luck, and don't look back. Focus on where you want to go from where you are.

6

To put it short, removing the elephant in the room, you think you are a good researcher and teacher, you learned all the tools to do research, but your research is not good enough?

You are on very solid ground, unfortunately the project(s) you were following did not go anywhere. But you can always present proof of the work done, you can say (and write in your CV) that you wrote that policy report: it is not published, but clearly it is under final internal review just before submission, or at least this is the stage you left it.

But there is one thing that you can work on, and it transpires from your question, you are worried somehow to be judged. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of your feelings towards your advisor, where you think that there is a lot to be judged (and acording to the background you describe you are right, unfortunately) but stop it from dominating your thought.

For example, you say you do not feel confident about publishing your results. Clearly, low-impact results will not land you a publication in an high-impact journal, but the results are only 10% of science. 90% of science is how you got to the results, and that's where you can prove yourself.

Think about this: if the research is good/interesting, it will be read independently from your marketing or the evaluation on your person (horrible advisors and horrible academic got plenty of citations ... independently from their moral status). If your publication is "bad"/uninteresting, it will not be read. The peer reviewer will not judge you, future reader of the published publication will not judge you. The publication will be simply ignored.

But you can still prove you published some research, and you can prove you did all you could do to make it correctly.

2
  • 3
    And almost all research is barely read anyway. Nov 12, 2021 at 0:03
  • 1
    @curiousdannii You are an optimist :D !
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 12, 2021 at 7:30
5

As an opening observation, while it is a great shame to have had a poor experience with your supervisor, and the lack of progress that this entails, at the end of the day, it is only 3-5 years of your life and career, and you can certainly recover from that. So I would start by looking at this as a situation where you had a setback, but that is just a small part of what is hopefully a long career.

As to how to approach this in a job interview, you are right to seek assistance because it is something that is fraught with danger. On the one hand, it is certainly acceptable to disclose setbacks and difficulties that you have overcome. However, your interview panel will not be in a position to assess whether your diagnosis of your former supervisor is accurate, so it raises the "red flag" of a person who assigns blame to their previous supervisor in circumstances where it is unclear whether that blame is warranted. Irrespective of whether you decide to raise this issue, in the circumstances you have outlined, I would strongly recommend that you seek a written reference from the chair of your department, particularly since this person can attest to the fact that your supervisor did not assist you properly during your candidature. You should also consider listing the chair as a reference in your application. This will allow the interview panel to hear about your circumstances from a senior academic in your field, who can attest to the difficulties you have overcome.

Furthermore, if you choose to raise this issue at all, I would refrain from giving any long or detailed explanation of the circumstances. Even your exposition in this question is TL;DR --- most people will gloss over it and just understand that you had difficulties with your supervisor. An interview panel will not be able to assess the merits of your viewpoint, so you are better off just saying in general terms that you had some delays and difficulties in your PhD candidature and you exhibited the perseverance to overcome them (and get the chair of your department to act as a reference to back this up). In terms of compensating for this, it generally helps if you are able to exhibit a sympathetic view of your supervisor, notwithstanding your difficulties. This might entail recognition of the difficulties and competing priorities that your supervisor was acting under, and showing an understanding that you were just one of many job-tasks that your supervisor had to deal with. If you can demonstrate that you are sympathetic and thankful to your supervisor, notwithstanding her deficiencies, it will go a long way towards showing that you are the kind of person who can understand the challenges that your managers will face in assisting you during your career, in circumstances where they have a number of roles and tasks.

Finally, notwithstanding that you had a bad time with your supervisor, I recommend that you try to adopt a gracious and positive attitude towards her for whatever work she undertook in supervising you. Professional academic jobs can be difficult, and not everyone is good at their job, but people generally try their best. Thank your supervisor for the time she devoted to your candidature even if she made a mess of it. If she is receiving bad performance reviews (as you say in your question) then she is probably under a lot of stress, and some thanks for her effort (even if the results were poor) may go a long way to helping her cope with difficulties in her career. And who knows, you might be a struggling academic yourself one day, and you might also want that kind of charitable attitude from your own students!

3
  • "Even your exposition in this question is TL;DR --- most people will gloss over it and just understand that you had difficulties with your supervisor." I don't agree at all. I thought the exposition in the question was clear and not too long, and even a person skim-reading it would realize that the supervisor did not do his or her job properly.
    – toby544
    Nov 11, 2021 at 20:04
  • 1
    I don't think the person reading it will necessarily conclude this, since they know they are only reading one side of the story. In such cases people tend to take these stories with a grain of salt, since they know they are not also hearing the description/explanation on the other side.
    – Ben
    Nov 11, 2021 at 20:58
  • I was talking about this particular case, not such cases in general
    – toby544
    Nov 15, 2021 at 14:07
4

The strategy for getting back on track will depend on whether you are going for a job in industry or academia. You say at the end:

I'm prioritizing work in industry (research and policy-related) over academia, if that changes any answers at all (this experience has burnt me out too much).

This implies to me that your goal was academia, but you are now thinking about industry mostly because of this bad experience. You should at least try to look for academic jobs, and not assume that you wouldn't be competitive. This also probably varies from field to field, but I would not necessarily assume that industry is a better place to be if you are feeling burned out! If you're feeling burned out, concentrate on getting yourself in a good place to apply for jobs, regardless of which path you take.

The best thing you can do for any job is document your experience and accomplishments. If you have experience teaching, make sure to put together a teaching portfolio for possible academic applications. Line up references. If your chair or department helped restructure your committee, make sure that you get letters of recommendation from your other committee members. If you learned particular methods make sure that you can talk about them intelligently and talk about how you applied them in your dissertation. This is concrete evidence of your capability. I didn't publish a chapter from my dissertation until a couple of years after completing my PhD, but I was still able to talk about the methods and research in job interviews.

Applying to Industry Jobs

Getting back on track for an industry job probably will not be as difficult as you think. In most industries, having the credential and strong references is the most important thing. (Obviously, the credential implies specific knowledge and training.) Having publications is probably helpful, but you can also say (and intend) to prepare chapters for publication.

Applying to Academic Jobs

If you intend to apply for academic jobs, there are still a few things you can do.

  1. Even if you have no publications yet, that doesn't mean you never will. Start trying to turn your dissertation into journal articles. Put these anticipated articles on your CV as "in preparation".
  2. You say you have gotten good at grant writing. Does this mean you have grant awards? This goes on your CV. A history of grant awards is well-regarded.
  3. You have experience teaching. Apply to teaching positions. You will have the resources of a university, can continue to network, and work on getting new research underway while you work on #1 (getting your old research in publishable form).
  4. As already mentioned, get letters of recommendation from your committee members other than the problematic supervisor.

Good luck!

0

I work in industry. Our recruiters often instruct candidates to use the STAR approach to answer behavior questions. For example:

  • Situation: Did research on criminology. Did not get the promised dataset.
  • Task: analyze Hannibal Lecter's behavior.
  • Action: collected different data to unblock yourself; met Hannibal in prison.
  • Result: publish papers.

Just state facts, don't blame anyone.

You must log in to answer this question.

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