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I am currently facing a challenging situation with my supervisor, which has persisted for a considerable time. I wont go into too much detail but she more or less thinks of PhD students as slave. Never explicitly asking ti work longer but effectivley overloading you so you either work longer or cant keep up. As I value my free time we were always having missunderstanding. Now she asks of me tasks that we both acknowledged were not directly related to my Ph.D. research. However, as a new Ph.D. student was about to start, she wanted to ensure a smooth transition for them, so I was given the responsibility of initiating work on the upcoming tasks and providing guidance to the new student. However, my funding will expire in six months, and I have also one month of vacation time remaining (as per the standard Ph.D. duration in Germany). Consequently, I effectively have five more months to work on my research and complete my thesis. While finishing my Ph.D. within this timeframe is feasible, my supervisor not only expects me to teach the new Ph.D. student but also to focus on publishing three potential first-author papers (2 of whom are with a big name of my field), not directly again but putting deadlines that are only feasible if I work only on these. Following a discussion with a prominent collaborator, we managed to reduce the number of papers to two, as the progress was slow woring on 3 papers at the same time.

In additon, there was a "misunderstanding" when my supervisor removed me from an internal paper that I was working on with another group of our department. After addressing this issue, she explained that my limited time was the reason, and she just wanted to ensure that I finish my thesis on time. Later on, they reconsidered and realized they could not proceed without my involvement in the paper. I decided to cooperate, despite my dissatisfaction with the previous situation. However, I am still excluded from reviewing the draft, and when I expressed interest, I was informed that there was nothing for me to read at that moment (I only communicated with my supervisor on this as she did not allow me to join the meetings due to time). In addition, I was not allowed to attend a conference as there was no funding, I however found funding but was denied again with the explanation now that I dont have time, even though I said I could just go for one day and return.

Regardless, after my supervisor seemingly gave me the green light to focus on my thesis, I began writing while concurrently working on an additional paper. I already have one first-author paper and one co-authored paper to my credit. Initially, I held a separate meeting with both supervisors to discuss the thesis outline. They both agreed with my proposed content, although the second supervisor, whose area of expertise is somewhat unrelated, did not have significant input. Once we reached an agreement, I promptly started writing and eventually shared two chapters of my thesis with them. However, my supervisor, including the second supervisor in cc, told me that I should not prioritize my thesis as previously mentioned, but rather concentrate on the important papers. She stated that she would only review the thesis once she believed I had enough time. In response, I explained that I primarily worked on the thesis during my free time (even though as per the regulations in Germany I can work during working hours on my thesis), as I dedicated a large portionamount of my time to the paper. She then repeated that I did not have enough time, but she would start reviewing the thesis in the following month, as the second supervisor replied to all that she would start reviewing after my answer (and she did, telling me to do few corrections only). Two months passed, and my supervisor deliberately delayed the correction process. To apply pressure, I requested a meeting between the supervisors and myslef, to address the current progress of my dissertation. Surprisingly, she completed the corrections on the day before the meeting. However, during the meeting, she requested the inclusion of calculations that I performed for her, but she told me to switch and collaborate with the big name of my field, which I also did. Initially, she had indicated that these calculations were unnecessary in the meeting of the thesis outline, but now reconsidered and they have to be included, and second supervisor agreed that they should be included. Additionally, she expected me to provide explicit details on the computer simulations I conducted, down to the smallest aspects, I dont want to write a manual. Furthermore, she requested that I share my scripts with the new Ph.D. student. However, I feel uncomfortable sharing this information until I am allowed to submit my thesis, as I perceive my supervisor as unreliable and more concerned about her own career (considering her tenure status). Consequently, I have been stalling, but I cannot continue to do so for five more months. I suspect that my supervisor does not want me to complete my thesis within the remaining duration of my contract. This would enable her to keep me available for assistance even after my contract expires so that the new Ph.D. student can approach me with questions, and she can ensure a smooth progress for the new PhD.

I am somewhat unsure on how to handle this situation, I try to involve as much as possible the second supervisor but the supervisors have a good relationship with each other so I don't think I will get enough support from the second if the first says I am not finished, and I can not submit until my supervisors sign off on it. Are my thoughts valid or am I even in the wrong here, and does anyone have any suggestions how to proceed?

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    Hmm, this is quite a long and involved question, and I understand that this is a challenging situation for you. To make it a bit easier to parse and thus elicit more responses, I would recommend providing a brief summary of the most important points near the top, and leave the text below for context.
    – J.Galt
    Jun 12, 2023 at 15:39
  • Is your dissertation cumulative (i.e., comprised of different manusripts) or a monograph? If it is cumulative, are the remaining papers supposed to be chapters of your dissertation?
    – J.Galt
    Jun 12, 2023 at 15:52
  • Also, please may you try and make the title into a specific question? Thank you.
    – user438383
    Jun 12, 2023 at 15:57
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    @J.Galt it is not cumulative, but one of the chapters of my thesis is related to the potential papers.
    – Tasos
    Jun 12, 2023 at 15:59

1 Answer 1

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The end period of a PhD can be the most stressful of the entire process, so you have my sympathies as you navigate this difficult period. This is quite a complex situation with a few different actors, so let me comment on some points that stood out to me:

  • As I understand it, both you and your supervisors agree that the remaining time is short and seem to be aligned in a wish for you to finish on time. That's a good thing. Your main disagreement seems to lie in how your time is apportioned.

  • Providing enough information to reproduce your numerical results is extremely important, however annoying the process of recording your workflow may be. This request of your supervisors is reasonable. If you make your scripts and models openly available, you can often keep the in-text description of the workflow to a minimum and refer to the files in the Appendix for additional details.

  • Artificially stalling progress by withholding your code is not a good idea. It is quite a passive-aggressive way of forcing a conflict resolution, which is generally unproductive, and neither power dynamics nor time are on your side. And everything else aside, it makes the new PhD student an innocent casualty in your conflict with your supervisor.

  • As I perceive it from your description, the actions of your supervisor do not seem to be outright hostile or malicious, nor overly unreasonable. I also had an escalating conflict with my PhD supervisor, and his motivations turned out to be much more understandable once we talked it out. Perhaps a similar scenario applies here? In your case: the fact that your supervisor took a long time to correct your first thesis draft is of course not ideal, but unfortunately not that uncommon in academia. Many professors are very busy, too, and often triage their to-do lists by immediacy - and your end-date was at least eight months off by the time you submitted your draft.

  • If one of your thesis chapters relates to one of the unfinished papers, your supervisors' request to prioritize the unfinished paper might not be malicious, but simply be intended to streamline the process: it is more efficient to work on and polish a single paper (especially if it involves other co-authors), then transfer this progress to the thesis, than to polish two similar manuscripts in parallel.

My advice: request another meeting with your supervisors, stating your concerns about finishing on time and the need to structure the remaining tasks. No supervisor should take umbrage at the desire of their PhD students to structure their task. Explicitly schedule how you will use your remaining time (e.g., 30% thesis writing, 20% work on paper 1, 10% PhD student support; alternatively: next two weeks only paper 1, two weeks after that only PhD student support, last three months only thesis writing). Be realistic about the time estimates, and be open if you think a task cannot be finished in the remaining time. Insist that your supervisors make time for the tasks that require their collaboration. Make it clear that you want to enter your next career step promptly after the end of your current contract. Once scheduled, record your time investment for each task and stick to it, even if it means you can't finish an unimportant (i.e., non-thesis-related) task in time. German employment law is on your side, and even if your supervisors might not see it this way, your university's HR and legal department definitely will.

Get the resulting schedule in writing - if you don't want to ask your professors to sign something, send them a summary of the agreed schedule via email afterwards. If you and your supervisors can't agree on a time allotment for your thesis wrap-up, escalate to the university's ombudsperson. If your supervisors try to renege on the schedule, just point to the agreed-upon plan (or the unchallenged email), and otherwise escalate to the ombudsperson as a last resort. My last tip: go into the meeting with a neutral expectation, and give your supervisors the benefit of the doubt. Speaking from my own experience, conflicts between supervisors and PhD students are often just a failure to communicate in time.

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  • Thank you for you advice and letting me see another perspective of the demands of the supervisor. In theory we already agreed to a 50% paper 50% thesis division of my time with the first supervisor, with her even proposing it, but she now wants me to prioritise other tasks now i.e. help the other student. I have send her this also as an e-mail after she proposed it, and the mail remains unchallenged.
    – Tasos
    Jun 12, 2023 at 17:41

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