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I am approaching the end of my PhD. My relationship with my supervisor has been really complicated: I get on very well with her personally, but in terms of supervision/research it's a struggle. I didn't get any help in terms of feedback or the direction of my thesis, she barely knows about my topic and she doesn't even pretend to care about my research. When she comments on my papers it is always to comment on the form (spelling, syntax), not on the substance. She largely funds other PhDs or Masters students whereas I wasn't treated the same way. I basically rely on competitive funding. It's great on the CV, but the lack of support from her is a problem. She provides opportunities for networking and collaboration on papers for other phds. In my case, I never received anything like that. All students have co-supervision. This is crucial in my field in terms of funding (to fund experiments, field trips, for instance). In my case she always refused co-supervision. This is my biggest regret as PhD student. I feel very isolated as a researcher, despite being very involved in her lab. I have missed one our lab meeting in years and she's complaining about this one meeting occasionally. Others are skipping meetings quire regularly without any comments from her.

Today I offered her to be a co-author on a paper with another researcher. It took me a while to ask her because of the constant rejections from her. This paper has clearly potential for a great contribution. She said no, again. The reason is that she is busy. The problem is that she collaborates with everybody but me, sometimes on random paper. Due to the constant rejection, I am now unable to solicit collaborations with other researchers. I tell myself that there must be a reason why I am so isolated, why she rejects my ideas, she is not involved in my PhD That this is probably my fault. My self-esteem is at an all-time low. Yet I publish quite well on my own. I got the best academic position among her students, by far. Everyone in the department thinks we get along very well. I can't say anything, or complain. I want to tell her what I think but I can only rely on her for letters of recommendation due to the lack of collaboration during grad school and no co-supervision. The worst part of this mess is that I really like her as a person. I don't want to be a problem for her by making drama at the end of the phd, but this situation is mentally draining.

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    As written this is more of a list of grievances than a question. I'd advise to clarify (and shorten). Apr 17, 2023 at 20:37
  • There may be rather rational explanations for much of the things listed. She may not know suitable co-supervisors for your topic, as she apparently is not a strong expert for it (which doesn't mean she "rejects" your ideas). Not sure why she became your supervisor in the first place, was this clear from the start? "Others are skipping meetings quite regularly without any comments from her." You may not know whether they get comments. Was her role clear for the paper you suggested her co-authorship? Maybe she feels that she can't contribute that much so that she wouldn't deserve co-authorship? Apr 18, 2023 at 15:07
  • An indication about your field of research might help, especially because publication practices vary widely across disciplines. In experimental physics, it would be exceptional to publish a paper without the advisor as coauthor. A student’s first draft would also be very likely to contain glaring errors, big enough to be detectable even by a non-expert advisor. (I assume "soc-scientist" means sociology but "lab meeting" sounds very STEM-y to me.)
    – KFK
    Apr 18, 2023 at 15:28

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Maybe this is a bit of a frame challenge, but I suspect that she doesn't co-author your papers mostly because you are doing fine. Generally, as a supervisor, taking a step back and letting students work on their research alone is a sign of trust, not a criticism*. That is, I doubt she rejects your ideas because she doesn't like them, but rather because other students need her help more (and if she is closer in topic to other students she might also feel that she can help those students more). It's similar for competitive funding - if you can get funding on your own, her money is better spent on students who cannot (with the side effect for you that acquiring your own competitive funding is good for your CV as well as a good learning opportunity).

Of course, feeling isolated is a big problem. However, maybe what you need are more and better collaborations with other people. I think this is the conversation you should have with your supervisor - how can she help you set up more collaborations (not necessarily with her, just with somebody)?

Edit: that said, if you have a good working relationship with your supervisor, bringing up how you feel is always a good idea. It can be hard for us to assess how happy people are with their current supervision, and it's certainly possible that she simply does not realise that you are unhappy. Just be open to other fixes she might propose (e.g., finding other collaborators). And it may also be good to raise that she seems to have much higher expectations on you regarding things like attendance of lab meetings than for other students - these things sometimes happen unconsciously, and if she is aware of it she can work on it.

* Ok, it can be a sign of criticism. If a project is going really, really poorly a supervisor may also take a step back because they consider the project effectively unsalvageable (or because they have made the learning experience that the student doesn't listen to them anyway). A halfway ethical supervisor will have multiple serious conversations with the student before that point, though.

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I'm sorry to hear that this is mentally draining. But it'll be over soon. Especially since you like her as a person, just leave it at that. You may try and matter-of-factly ask her if she wants a more central role in your research or if she's likes it the way it is now but don't spin it into too much of a thing, especially if she doesn't show any awareness of it. It might also be a topic she's not as good at or keen on. Even when you change advisors for your postdoc, you might want to collaborate with your former advisor in the future and it doesn't pay to burn bridges, especially since the gain for future PhD students would be minimal and your personal gain will only be release (which feels good for a day). In my experience, advisors do not change.

Several labs at my institute had issues, we all came together and talked and tried to formulate guidelines for a better flow of communication between PIs, postdocs and phd students. In the end, when we talked to all the PIs, the PIs who were problematic didn't listen, brushed everyone off as being "thin skinned and just not tough enough", while the ones who are great and supportive PIs tried to help everyone and actually listened.

In your case, showing collaboration on papers beyond your supervisor/lab is amazing for the CV, as is the acquisition of third-party funding. In my lab we are not allowed to collaborate with outside labs on the lab's time unless our PIs are also involved, so the opposite of your problem.

If you are considering staying on as a postdoc, you can really have an honest talk with your advisor about your role and her involvement. That is something that you can do better once the pressure of finishing a PhD is not on you anymore.

Good luck!

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I find your post similar to my situation… but I am in my 2nd year of my PhD and not finishing yet.

You can talk with someone trusted at the department or faculty. Maybe some representative of PhD students to highlight the situation.

I am really sorry that this happened to you. Please don't sabotage yourself and do not make this situation be responsible for your self-esteem and mental health.

What I can advise you and what I also do (not to be very stressed in any situation) is to switch off emotions and be an observer of a problem. I usually remain emotionless even if the situation is stressful because I kind of switch off my emotional state. It does not influence me on any level.

It would be good to finish your PhD as it is now, not making any drama. You are about to end your PhD journey soon - maybe it's better to remain as it is but try to search for scientific opportunities on your own. Do you want to stay at the department when you finish your PhD? Maybe it would be good to leave academia after you graduate…

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I was in basically the same position during my phd. My supervisor completely ignored me and had no interest in working with me. Talking to him about research was always frustrating; he didn't show any interest and was never helpful, sometimes he was even actively hindering me.

All the while, other students worked with him. In hindsight, I was as good as any of them. The frustrating part therefore is that the favoritism seems arbitrary.

Looking back, I should have said something halfway through my PhD, when it mattered. Nowadays, there is no point anymore. If it won't help you, just keep quiet. If your supervisor is not actively working against you, no point in saying anything.

My life really improved when I realized that talking to my supervisor was, at best, useless. So I just stopped talking about research with him altogether. I suggest you do the same.

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