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I'm aware this is similar to questions which have been asked previously (e.g. this question about PhD supervisor requests), however I believe due to the specific nature of the supervisor-student relationship in this case it differs enough to be a valid question in its own right.

Last week I submitted my PhD thesis. One of the chapters was based on work which hasn't been published, and my supervisor has been asking me to work on this now to get this finished off, and I'm not sure if I have an obligation to do so.

On one hand, the work in this chapter is quite interesting and new stuff. My supervisor thinks it could go in quite a highly rated journal. I've put a lot of effort into it, and I think it would make for an interesting paper.

On the other hand, this is a paper which I have been working on for the past three years, without very much feedback from my supervisor. I've sent them about 6-7 drafts, including about 3 full rewrites (I'd write it, they wouldn't read it, and then they'd decide it should go in a different journal with different style, rinse and repeat), but I've only had feedback from them on it once. On another paper, which effectively disproved one of their pet projects (the paper is now published), this supervisor didn't read the paper or provide any feedback for a year while simultaneously belittling me with passive aggressive comments about it. This continued until they finally read the paper, and realised that they were actually wrong.

Where it gets complicated is to do with my thesis. From previous PhD students, I was aware that this supervisor tended to leave giving feedback on theses to the last few days, if at all. I suggested to them that I could finish my thesis early (~3 months before submission), and then work on finishing this project after the thesis was ready. While this did mean that they read my thesis earlier than they had with previous students, they only began to give me feedback 1-2 months before submission (on a draft I sent 4 months prior to submission), which meant that in completing these changes I haven't been left with enough time to finish off the project.

We are the only two authors on the paper (so there's no obligation to other co-authors who have put work in), and my new job is not in academia (so the publication is unlikely to directly aid my own career). They haven't given any feedback on the current draft of the paper, so I do not know how much work would be needed to finish it off.

Ideally I would prefer not to work on it to have a clean break, and in my opinion this paper could have been published had my supervisor actually read it and provided feedback during my PhD. It feels to me that my supervisor has essentially caused me a great deal of stress over the past years by providing very little feedback and effectively leaving me on my own*, just to wait until the end and then expect me to do unpaid work for her once I've left.

Do I have an obligation to continue with this project? Am I at any risk if I say no in terms of my viva/graduation (this is in the UK system)?

Thank you

*In the sense that I enjoy working on my own independently -- I have no problem with that. But then once I've written a paper independently, to then have to wait years to get any feedback on it seems excessive.

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    It sounds like the paper is finished (if you have 7+ drafts and are at the point of rewriting/formatting to target different journals) and it's your advisors indecisiveness and late feedback that is holding the project back. If that's the case, why not just suggest submitting the paper in its current form?
    – sErISaNo
    Jun 30, 2023 at 21:13
  • "and my new job is not in academia (so the publication is unlikely to directly aid my own career)"...I met quite a few people which later in the life decided to try to come back to academia. Because of this, the idea that finishing or not the paper will not impact your career may be wrong. And even in industry, sometime having a paper on a certaintopic can help one move to a different (better) job/company... Because of this, the Question you should be asking yourself is: is the effort needed to finish this project worth the possible (but maybe unlikely) benefits down the road?
    – Nick S
    Jul 2, 2023 at 18:55
  • I don't know for which fields this is true, but I've been in a couple of programs where the modal number of publications is zero because most graduates go into practice as opposed to continuing research. Many publish only their thesis, and most don't even do that. So obligation might depend somewhat on the discipline. Jul 3, 2023 at 3:07

3 Answers 3

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Let's start with the "my supervisor has been asking me to work on this now to get this finished off" and take it from there.

It is clear that this will not benefit you in the long run, given that you are not continuing in academia. Between the lines, it also reads as if you do really care about your work and the science, so you should see this as having an impact on the world all by itself, aside from all the politics and interactions with your supervisor.

If you had continued in academia my answer would have been different, I think, but I think in this case you can be very clear about what you can and cannot do.

If, as you write, your supervisor tends to leave everything to the last minute and you to fend for yourself, then clearly you can take the lead here.

There are two options:

  1. You decide that you are not going to contribute. In that case, leave your data with your supervisor but do them a favor and make sure it's all properly annotated so they can finish the paper without ever having to contact you again, in theory.
  2. You decide that you want to give this one last shot for science sake. Make an overview of work that needs to be done. Indicate what you can and cannot do before and after your contract ends. Set a time frame for yourself (say: no more than 3 or 6 months after you've left the lab). Then have a meeting with your supervisor and agree on an approach and schedule. Stick to your end of the deal and then, if your supervisor is unresponsive and doesn't stick to their promises: drop the project with a clean conscience, knowing that this may someday or never get published.
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Key point here is "your new job is outside academia". If you were still in academia I would say yes, finish it at minimum cost for you, as research would still be part of your job, but as it is very much not your job you have absolutely no obligation

You may evaluate whether you may want to continue having a working relationship with this supervisor in case you want to go back in the future, and in that case definitely publish the paper, but it doesn't look like you do.

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Oh, man I feel for you. It's the most annoying thing to be pushed to write papers and then only receive last minute feedback. And it's just salt to the wound when the feedback is obviously the result of a cursory reading of the paper, e.g. only typos and formatting are noted.

I have no more insights into the mind of your supervisor than you do, but this is what it looks like to me: he wants the paper but does not want to write it. This is typical behavior of chronic procrastinators. If you drag your feet long enough, someone else will pick up your slack and get the job done. It's bad enough when the procrastinator works under you, but the worst when he is your boss. You can't just issue demands and deadlines.

Another possibility, one that happened to me, is that the supervisor has someone new in the group that he wants to pick up the project after you. He might have promised this new person a quick paper by publishing your results since you are not going to continue in academia. So he's just waiting you out, but making disingenuous demands that you finish the paper so that you formally give up.

In either case, the best strategy is to move on. You are under no obligation to finish the papers under the current conditions.

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