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I had a rocky relationship with my Ph.D. supervisor. He has a my-way-or-the-highway style of supervision and was a relentless micromanager, so much so that I feel I "own" very few of the ideas that went into my thesis. I had several research hypotheses, which I developed with one of my master's supervisors, but he managed to steer me away from them via a combination of manipulation (“Why Don’t You?… Yes, But…”, "Great Idea! But it'll be better if [insert his idea]", "I never said...") and demoralization (80% of his feedback drifted into personal attacks rather than addressing technical matters). He also had very little respect for deadlines and lacked overall transparency. This experience wasn't exclusive to me. Several of his previous students filed complaints and most of them relate negative opinions about his supervision (Why didn't I do more to change the situation? In short: I lacked the confidence to do so at the beginning of the Ph.D., and, by the time I had the confidence, I was so far that I decided I would see it through, deliver the thesis, and move on).

My Ph.D. and PostDoc supervisors met when they did their respective postdocs in the same lab. They work on similar topics, respect each others' scientific opinions, and collaborate from time to time. I'd say they are "professional friends"; i.e., they share an amicable relationship in the academic realm while their personal lives remain personal. Logically, given this context, my Ph.D. supervisor played a gatekeeper role in my landing of the postdoc (and, even if we had a rocky relationship, getting the postdoc means he was willing to recommend me).

My current relationship with my PostDoc supervisor is much more even and respectful.

However, a few months into my PostDoc, it is starting to look as if my Ph.D. supervisor is too eager to get himself on board my project, something I do not want. Since my PostDoc and Ph.D. supervisor have worked together in the past, his involvement may be normal to some extent, and there is a part of me that would be ok having his input as long as it constitutes an opinion and I am the one "owning" the project. The problem is that, since a few communications, my Ph.D. supervisor has started to write overmuch asking for updates and giving unsolicited suggestions/orders of analyses, some of which I am not interested in performing. As a safety check, I discussed the analyses with my PostDoc supervisor and he agreed they do not fit into the project (I did not reveal it was my Ph.D. supervisor who proposed them and my PostDoc supervisor was clearly not informed about my Ph.D. supervisor's communication). He's even started to bypass my postdoc supervisor when communicating with me.

In one of his most recent emails, he unequivocally implied I "owe him" my current position and that he expects something in return - to have a say in the project and co-authorship, I suppose. I still haven't reported this to my PostDoc supervisor, because I am uncertain about the best way to do it.

Finally, it must be noted that my Postdoc supervisor is at a better-ranked university, has more funding, and, overall, has achieved a more prominent profile than my Ph.D. supervisor. The PostDoc is part of a "high-profile" project in the field. This could explain my Ph.D. supervisor's eagerness to get himself on board with the current project.

Given that my two supervisors are friends, but also given the difficult personality of my Ph.D. supervisor, what would be the best way to address that I want my Ph.D. supervisor to have less input in my PostDoc project? I want to navigate this situation as diplomatically as possible, as I fear my Ph.D. supervisor could retaliate in some manner.

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  • How much scientific/research grant interest has your current advisor in getting involved with your past advisor? If it is small, you are overplaying the importance of your past PhD advisor in your landing the postdoc position: they may have had good words for you, because you did a good job.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 4:38

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The past is past, let it go.

You do not need anymore your PhD advisor, but it looks like they need you to get involved in the current activity of your PostDoc advisor.

Additionally, the two advisors may have met during their PostDoc, but from that they followed different routes.

Sure, your current PostDoc may have asked to your PhD advisor "Hey, how is biomath doing?" but you are inferring too much:

Logically, given this context, my Ph.D. supervisor played a gatekeeper role in my landing of the postdoc

A PostDoc is a contract to perform some research, is not a volunteering activity nor an exchange of favours between old Postdoc pals. You could possiblly be a trading card only if your current postdoc advisor is strongly interested in working together with your former PhD advisor. It does not seem the case.

Have a nice but empty and passive reply to your PhD advisor mail along the lines "Interesting suggestion, I will consider it" and always cc your current PostDoc advisor.

Do not let your old advisor drag you down. Now you are peers, they deserve a peer treatment.

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