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I am a PhD student working in Europe in the stem field, and I have recently told my supervisor about an unpleasant email (-reply) which I received from his previous PhD student. He is currently working as a postdoc within our research team, but is not located nor in our lab or city. By working within our research team I mean that he works with similar topics/data as we do, and attend some meetings that we also do.

I will briefly summarize the situation and how it lead to his unpleasant reply only to me: After an online meeting with all the three of us (and a few other collaborators), I was given the task to do work which involved reproducing his models he has created but using a newer software which we all agreed on. This task was also emailed by my supervisor to everyone after the meeting ( in the "zoom invitation email"). In the thread I asked for the set of parameters his post doc used for his models, and also some "non-physical/technical parameters" (for example mesh size of simulation). His reply was that some of my requested non-physical/technical parameters should not be necessary, because he stated that working in his software the parameters I requested were not used or worked differently, giving a vague explanation, and really no solution. I then explained that this is independent of software and if I will not be able to have them, it might introduce a source of error when reproducing his models. Continuing in this email thread, he insisted on not giving them to me and that if I need them I should look for them myself in papers explaining the software, following another vague explanation. Reading a little bit I figured out that probably those parameters are "hidden for the user" in his software, while in my software they are not, which he might have not been aware of and might explain why he said they are "unnecessary" (he is not the author of the software, so in the sense it's not his software). He then replied in a separate email only to me, that my progress is going too slow, adding that other team members are disappointed in me, while at the end of his unpleasant email reply he also stated that all he want is to help me. I told him firmly that I don't expect from him interpretations of other people and that such emails are not helpful.

After telling my supervisor the whole story, my supervisor's first reply was that the post doc is a nice and good person. After my supervisor's reply, I added that I would prefer to work on a PhD with as little (communication) friction as possible, and explained ways my supervisor could approach the problem. I felt this addition was necessary because I felt neglected or misheard from his reply.
Maybe after this addition and my disappointment in my face, a moment later he said that he can "go and talk with him". I am not sure what that means and what outcome I was expecting, given that the post doc is currently not located near us so he can't physically visit him, nor that my supervisor never asked for reading the email. I am also not sure what power he has. My perception was that he was/seems not really interested in taking this matter anyway further, and I might have now just made it more difficult for myself. I am very hesitant to ask my supervisor if he has talked with his post doc.

Side note: Same post doc told us after been part of several of our meetings regarding a specific data set, where we all discuss each other's research, that he wants to publish his work, as a single author paper to boost his career (while not rejecting himself from being a co-author on my and other people's papers). During the meeting on which the post doc announced it, my supervisor didn't say anything against him. His current advisor, and my co-supervisor present at the meeting, supported his decision, based on the reason that he has trouble finding a position. Despite my supervisor's approaches which I don't agree with, I find the post doc troublesome. Very recently I have found out that he got a new position and will start doing research in our lab.

Was it necessary of me to ask about the parameters, with everyone on the thread? Was it really necessary telling my supervisor about this? Is there anything I can do to improve the situation? I might be able to avoid future work with him.

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  • "Was it necessary of me to ask about the parameters, with everyone on the thread?" It may not have been "necessary" but at first sight it doesn't look wrong either. However it is hard to tell without knowing the details regarding the software. Reading your question it may be that all you did was perfectly reasonable, but it also may be that you misunderstood certain details that you were expected to understand, for more or less good reasons, and we can't know this. Jun 9, 2023 at 0:29
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    Also regarding talking to the supervisor, as far as I see it, it may depend on what exactly you said, what tone of your voice etc., maybe also on previous experiences with your supervisor. I can imagine this being raised in more or less constructive and helpful ways. Jun 9, 2023 at 0:32

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On the trigger of this situation:

I was given the task to do work which involved reproducing his models he has created but using a newer software which we all agreed on.

This can be misunderstood. These are the two contrasting point of view I see, please do not take it personally, I am not trying to find who is right or wrong, just to understand why they are behaving so, given your version of the facts.

So:

  • you seem to think you just need to update the input files/parameters for the new version of code and that you need support from the previous PhD, to obtain the same results;

  • previous PhD thinks the new version can be considered a complete new software, because they would have to learn to use it and they have no beenfit in that, they are happy with the old version. On top of that they have nothing to do with you running a completely new model, if you obtain the same results it will be time lost to repeat old calculations, if you obtain different results it will be even more time lost to check whether your results or their old results have something wrong;

In the eyes of the PostDoc this means you have to figure out everything, to build a satisfactory model and then compare it with old results, because he published both the model and the results, so it is up to you to reproduce them.

In their eyes you came with some request about parameters XYZ, that they did not know quickly or they do feel that it is relevant. To be very specific with your request, a model should be mesh independent, this means that the results may depend on the mesh, but this means the mesh is inadequate, with or without comparing with a previous model. Get a model that provides stable results, independently of the numerics or of the meshing, then you can compare with old results.

Yes, numerics and meshing choices are dependent on the input parameters, that means the task you have been given is mostly a learning task (for you, define the model so the results are independent of your choices) and a confirmation task for the group (old software results are well reproduced with the new software).

So this work will most likely bring zero direct new insights. For the previous PhD looking for new positions this is especially troublesome, because they already published on the topic, a reproduction of previous results is in this sense futile.

To reply to your final questions:

Was it necessary of me to ask about the parameters, with everyone on the thread?

Probably not, either you asked to everyone, so to no one specifically, probably most of the people in the thread ignore the technical details of the model, or you wanted to show the others that you are asking the previous PhD about technical stuff, which is something you are expected to do on your own and there is no "proof" required, in the general thread it was enough to state "I will get in touch with previousPhD for technical details".

Was it really necessary telling my supervisor about this?

It is a good sign you trust your supervisor to tell things that bother you. Said this, you state "I am very hesitant to ask my supervisor if he has talked with his post doc." and rightly so: your supervisor may or may not come back to you regarding this matter, they will decide their best moment to do so. Focus on yourself, not on the others.

Is there anything I can do to improve the situation?

Especially when you reproduce someone else work, you should have minimum contact with them, to avoid biases & co. And try to put yourself in someone else shoes (as much as you can)

I might be able to avoid future work with him.

We do not always have the luxus to choose with whom we work, we may regret stopping working with someone just because of personal/emotional disagreement.

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