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I am an assistant professor in an engineering field, and my wife is a PhD student in a physics-related field. We live in an eastern European country and work in different institutes. I am quite happy with my colleagues and boss, and I really enjoy working with them. They are very friendly, and we come along pretty well.

My wife, however, has some serious issues with her supervisor, and honestly, I have no idea how I should get involved and the handle the situation. Her supervisor is a (around 40 years old) guy who is willing to get habilitation. Since he does not have enough publications, recently he has been trying hard to have some papers published.

Two years ago, he published his first paper with my wife, and he put himself as the first author. This was understandable, because, as my wife told me, he had the major contribution. Without disclosing it to my wife, he then continued working on the topic, which is supposed to be my wife's PhD dissertation, and published a single-author paper. He thanked my wife in the acknowledgment, as a way to keep her silent. My wife was totally mad about this and even asked the guy to remove her from the acknowledgment, but he refused and justified his action.

This year, my wife worked pretty hard on a paper, and when the first draft of the paper was ready, she sent it to him to work on it and supply his contribution. He did so, but also put his name as the first author. Therefore, they had a big argument, and he rationalized this by saying that his contribution is more important, he has devoted his familty-time to this. and he needs to be the first author because he has to get habilitation, etc.

So, my question is: how I should handle this situation? She is very frustrated now and this is seriously influencing our life. Since she is in her last year of PhD, I don't want her to take a wrong action and jeopardize her PhD. On the other hand, this guy has to know that he is not allowed to abuse others to compensate his years without publication.

Clarification 1: My wife has not asked me to handle the situation, neither I have no intention of making a direct interference.

Clarification 2: Habilitation is a high scientific degree (before professorship) in some European countries that allows one to be the supervisor of a PhD candidate.

Clarification 3: The question is not "how to make my wife feels better?" rather "how, as a spouse, advise her to do the right thing in this difficult situation?"

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 2, 2022 at 16:41

5 Answers 5

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Clarification 1: My wife has not asked me to handle the situation, neither I have no intention of making a direct interference.

Well, there you go. Do not get involved.

Feel free to support your wife in personal ways, as you would for any issue that a partner is going through.

But this is not your concern to place yourself in. It’s not even clear what you believe “handling this situation” looks like from your position as an outside, uninvolved third party.

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    Thanks for the answer. Actually, if I knew what "handling the situation" should look like, I wouldn't posting this here.
    – KratosMath
    Nov 29, 2022 at 14:57
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    Examples: do household things that your wife normally takes charge of, propose activities your wife likes to do even if they aren't your favorite, listen and let her vent and validate what she says/feels without questioning or judgment or debate, use words of encouragement and support that remind her of her value as a scientist and human, give a gift of something that will make her feel special (particularly something that takes effort/thought to obtain besides just money). None of this is at all specific to academia.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 29, 2022 at 14:58
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    You should know your wife and the acts of kindness and support that she would value more than us random strangers on the internet, but Bryan’s list is a fine, generic start. The point of my answer is that this is the only way you should handle the situation. You should not place yourself in between her and her advisor/institution, not as her husband and not as an outside assistant professor. Neither would be appropriate.
    – Eric
    Nov 29, 2022 at 15:13
  • I think it would not be wildly out of line to mention to her (once and gently even so), that this is not at all customary and she should talk to a trusted colleague in her department.
    – Matt
    Dec 2, 2022 at 16:00
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Firstly, I see no reason why your wife should not deal with this issue directly, rather than acting through her husband. When a student has a problem with their supervisor there are actions they can take, either through direct discussion or by elevating disputes to the Head of School. Having an aggrieved spouse come in to "handle the situation" is unusual and it begs the question of what exactly your role in that process would be. (It sounds faintly menacing, but maybe I'm reading more into it than is intended.)

Now to the substance of the problem. As a general rule, disagreements over authorship can be lessened substantially by negotiating authorship arrangements prior to commencing research. In cases where there are repeated disputes over authorship there should be some prior agreement made for future work or your wife should seek to change supervisors --- she should certainly avoid sharing any more research with him without a prior agreement on authorship of that research. If your description is accurate then it does indeed sound like this academic is using irrelevant issues to claim greater authorship than is warranted (i.e., his need for habilitation, his family time, etc.). This sounds like it could arguably amount to an abuse of the supervisory process. Since your wife has not had any success discussing this directly with her supervisor, she could raise this with the Head of School and seek a resolution there. She could ask to have an independent senior academic review the existing authorship dispute(s) and offer a binding resolution, and she could also ask to have a process put in place for future work, to ensure that she is not "gazumped" in her research project by her own supervisor.

In regard to your own involvement, I recommend that you encourage your wife to take actions on these matters directly. At most you might be included as a "support person" in relevant meetings, and you could give her advice and help behind the scenes, but it would be unusual to involve yourself beyond that. Professionals operating in academia are expected to be able to manage workplace disputes like adults, without calling parents/spouses to act for them.

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    If his direct involvement sounds possibly menacing to others here, it may sound menacing to others there. That seems like a door that it is not wise to open. Nov 30, 2022 at 6:45
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There is one option which is that your wife can change supervisors. Even changing to another institution.

The reasons can be many and I have seen it done by several friends. One moved country, institution and supervisor. The new supervisor was really helpful.

While it may not be easy for your wife, it may well cause many more issues for her current supervisor.

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    to OP's question: how I should handle this situation? ... here there is a little hint at the two bodies' problem, get ready before the problem is ready and baked for the two you :/
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 29, 2022 at 14:46
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I am going to say

  1. Invest some time on the issue together 2.remain calm, even when she is not.
  2. Make sure she is comfortable with you showing up to her education department since I doubt you would want him over your house.
  3. Answer any questions that he might have about the situation fair and moderate any changes that may have happened since their last talk
  4. Have him and her notice that the situation bothers you and it a issue at home.
  5. Trust that the issue will remain identified as a problem not as a here and now issue.
  6. Exchange any information that may be handled by your prospective as a directive doctor
  7. Don't yell or make a issue out of hand and keep your inside voice at all times.
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Clarification 3: The question is not "how to make my wife feels better?" rather "how, as a spouse, advise her to do the right thing in this difficult situation?"

Please define the right thing. Or better, let your wife define the right thing to do.

What do you know?

You are a male and you are already assistant professor. It should be clear to you how difficult is getting "up" there, how much support you need and how powerful is statistic.

Given all these premises, the right thing to do is doing nothing(*), apart from giving her unconditional support. Even if tomorrow they say "screw the PhD, I take a job as a gardener 30 km from the city".

(*) disclaimer, ethics may vary, so take what I say with a pinch of salt...

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    I made a minor edit; let us avoid assumptions and incendiary remarks.
    – cag51
    Nov 30, 2022 at 3:20
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    @cag51 thanks, I just wanted to remark that the laws in a certain country are just the formal consolidation of ethics in that country, leading to absurd (in my humble and arrogant opinion) definitions such as cbsnews.com/news/uae-wife-beating-ok-just-dont-leave-any-marks Demography of power in academia is relevant, OP does not define themselves but they are probably in the lucky top subgroup: medium.com/the-faculty/white-academia-do-better-fa96cede1fc5 (I do not agree with the wordings, but with the underlying message)
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 30, 2022 at 9:38
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    Why does everything have to be made about sexism or racism? The fact that OP is male is totally irrelevant to the question.
    – wimi
    Nov 30, 2022 at 17:08
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    I agree that they are probably a male, but do you have any reason to think that they cannot be female, for instance? Just having a wife isn't determinative.
    – Obie 2.0
    Nov 30, 2022 at 23:59

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