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I’m a new PhD student (3 months in) of a niche area, and I now feel like my supervisor (f, 56) has been constantly gaslighting me. English is not my first language and this is a really confusing situation so I will try to explain this as clearly as I can and go through all the events. Apologies in advance for the long post but I feel I must give a full account of her behaviour.

I study in a large and prominent university in my country but this particular department is relatively small which meant that my supervisor was assigned to me and I didn’t choose her. I’m currently her only graduate student and she is unfortunately head of the department.

So my original proposal which took around 6 months to plan and write was accepted some months ago as part of my application. My now-supervisor said that my proposal idea and plan was very strong and that the “whole department agreed” thought so. I was very happy about this. A few months later, after being accepted and just after registering, I received an email from my supervisor about setting up our first meeting and she asked me to send on any “other proposal” that I might have. I was confused about this as I assumed that I would be developing and expanding on the original accepted proposal. I asked her about this in email, and she ignored this part in her reply and only spoke about the time of the meeting which we arranged for the following week.

At the meeting, she asked me how I felt about the topic now and if I was still interested in it. I told her that I was still very interested in it and that I was looking forward to developing it and starting the research. She spoke positively about my topic and said that she didn’t know much about that area but that it had good potential and she gave me a couple of books and recommendations that were relevant to it. Between that meeting and the next (2 weeks later), she sent on a lot of articles about my topic (I’ll call it Topic A) which were really helpful and I formulated a report and discussion plan for our next meeting. A couple of days before the meeting she sent on a very lengthy article relating to a completely different topic (totem poles) and one which wasn’t even very relevant or related to our department’s discipline. She asked me to read it before our next meeting so that we could discuss it. I thought this was a bit strange as it was such a random subject but I read it.

At the next meeting she started talking excitedly and at length about this article and when I was able to get a word in, I said how it was an interesting article but I couldn’t really link it to my own chosen topic. Her face soured at this and looking askance said very sulkily: “I thought we’d moved on from that topic.” I was surprised as nobody had mentioned about changing my topic and I only had positive feedback about it from her so far. She then said in a sour tone: “I thought when I sent you that article that you would change your mind and do totem poles instead.” She never mentioned this beforehand. When i said I wanted to pursue my original proposal she screwed up her nose and said: “I just never saw any potential in it.” She also said that it’s “not a part of our discipline”. This is not true. I respectfully explained how it was accepted, how she previously said it was a strong topic and how it IS relevant to our discipline as it’s even mentioned in our discipline’s ‘manual’ which is the foundation book of our discipline. She then interrupted me and said to take no notice of the discipline manual, as it’s “wrong and prejudiced” and she again spoke over me dismissively and loudly told me to think of another topic and get back to her. I was very taken aback as only last week she spoke of Topic A’s very good potential and she had sent me numerous articles on it. I went away from the meeting dejected, confused and unsure of what to do next.

I later received an email from my supervisor where she said that if I was interested in doing a new topic based on the article she sent me then she could help me as that area (totem poles) was part of an “ongoing interest” for her. I couldn’t see how that topic was even a part of the department’s discipline but I replied and said that if she didn’t think my original topic had potential then I would be willing to compromise with coming up with something that we could both agree on. I came up with a different topic (Topic B, related to her interest as well) and she accepted this and said it was a good idea. So I spent the next number of weeks researching this new area. During this time she sent me on a number of articles including (very strangely) those that related to my ORIGINAL TOPIC (A), the one that she had dismissed so angrily at the last meeting.

At the next meeting, I was just about to start talking about what I had discovered so far about Topic B (that she had agreed to) and she immediately spoke over me before I got a chance to say anything and suggested a DIFFERENT TOPIC altogether. I politely told her that I would be happy to stick with Topic B and reminded her that she had agreed to it, but she spent the entire meeting dismissing it by talking over me loudly about other non-related topics that I could do and she then suggested that I make a “mind map” to come up with a different topic. She then mentioned if I knew the work of a random academic and I said that I had read one of their books once. She said: “Since you read their book you might as well do your thesis on that.” Again I left very confused.

She emailed me soon after and asked me if I would be willing to write a short paper on our discipline’s ‘manual’ as it was such an important part of our discipline (even though she had previously said the manual was “wrong and prejudiced”), while I figured out my thesis topic. She said it might not be relevant to my thesis (she acknowledged again now that B was my thesis) but that it would be a good exercise and that certain parts of it might come in useful in the future. I agreed, wrote up the paper and sent it to her. She replied a few days later, and gave very good feedback on my paper. She said that it was a good start to my thesis and that I can use that paper as the topic and beginning of my thesis. I said to her that she had previously said that this was just a side project and a useful exercise as it wasn’t related to the agreed topic (B). She ignored this, and replied to my email talking in circles only about the manual and didn’t address what I had said. So at the next meeting the next day, she started off with again talking very positively about my review. I asked her (mainly to confirm) if it would be possible to continue work on Topic B, the thesis that we previously agreed on. She said “Of course! You can do whatever topic you want for your thesis.” We agreed that I would narrow down the topic question and come up with a plan.

So I spent the next while doing what she asked, and I told her that I would have it to her by a certain date. She said “No rush! Take more time.” So I took an extra few days to work on it and when I had it written out fully, I sent it to her. Even though this plan was based on Topic B that she had agreed to and acknowledged as my thesis theme, she replied and said that she was disappointed that I gone back to my original topic (Topic A, even though this topic was nothing like my original), and she gave a lengthy explanation as to why I should now concentrate on a thesis based on the discipline’s manual instead. She said that I should also do another review of the discipline manual but this time I should invert it and rearrange the entire book in terms of chapters and content, and that I should rewrite the entire discipline’s manual. She said that I should also incorporate totem poles into the work somehow. She also said that I am delaying my own research by not being able to decide on a topic (even though she is the one who keeps dismissing and changing topics and a few days before she had told me to take my time). She said that I may just be confused due to the still very early stage of my PhD.

I am at my wit’s end right now. When I try to speak or ask her to clarify something, she will either interrupt and talk over me or talk in circles about something that has nothing to do with what I asked or the topic that we agreed on. In emails, she will also avoid my questions and will reply with a lengthy explanation about a completely different subject. Some other potential red flags that also occurred:

  1. One was that our first meeting (and all since) was more like a lecture: she interrupted and spoke over me and she got irritated and snappy when I asked questions.

  2. At the first meeting I asked about the progress review and she said it would be at least 6 months away. About 3 weeks into the PhD, she emailed me to tell me that the university’s policy on progress reviews meant that it would unfortunately be 2 months after the start date. I asked her for more information about this and she ignored my question. At the next meeting I asked her again and she said dismissively: “We’ll worry about that when it comes around in 6 months.” She then spoke over me again and changed the subject loudly and avoided eye contact. It was clear she didn’t want to talk about it.

  3. The second topic (B) that we agreed on is also slightly related to another discipline (which she suggested) so I asked her if I should start research work on literature in that discipline also. If the topic is also related to another discipline it’s only natural to read around that discipline too but I wanted confirmation as she’s been so confusing. She replied, irritated: “NO! NO! NO!”, and sarcastically said: “Why? Do you have a degree in that subject too??” Even though her totem poles article was also from another discipline. I later asked if it would be possible to incorporate a comparative element into the thesis, as she had previously mentioned that a comparative aspect would be very interesting. She replied angrily: “Why? What would be the point??” The next day she very confusingly sent me articles relating to the idea about the comparative study.

  4. When I was accepted into the programme, I noticed there was a female co-supervisor named on the acceptance letter. When my main supervisor emailed me after I registered, she mentioned that her husband (also in the department) would be my new co-supervisor now but that he wouldn’t be taking an active role. So because of this, I’ve never met him.

  5. She also recently asked me to set up a file share so that she could send me a large digital book. I did this and emailed her back to let her know it was set up. She replied (on the same day): “What is set up and why? I don’t understand ”. I reminded her of her earlier email and request and she replied: “I may look into this at some stage and send you something later but you have enough now for the moment.” Later that day, she sent me on the book through the file share.

  6. She also added me to an undergraduate module on Moodle so that I could view some of the literature that she uploaded. She emailed me later that same day and told me that she would be removing me from the module as the literature is “private”. The literature consists only of old and public domain books. At our next meeting, she asked me if I had downloaded the literature because she would recommend that I read it.

It really feels like she is gaslighting and being manipulative trying to get me to work on a topic that interests her the most, by being deliberately confusing and dismissing something that she will later praise if it suits her own idea (like the manual). She is extremely passive aggressive and contradicts herself constantly, talks in riddles and she will say things like: “It’s not important for you to narrow the topic but instead you should concentrate on narrowing the topic.” There is also another academic whose book she told me to use as a template for my previous plan. I did this and she then said that this academic’s book was “weak” and that I shouldn’t have followed it. I think she said this because there was no way I could include the totem poles idea into this format so again, manipulative I feel.

I’m also considering that she may have other issues going on as she seems like a somewhat unstable person, in general. In our meetings, she will talk very energetically about anything that comes into her head. For example, something will remind her of a cartoon she saw and she will then talk in length about it and all the characters and plot. She also talks about herself and her own work a lot even though it has nothing to do with the discussion and she gets excited if I mention a journal that she has published in, where she will then excitedly talk about her publication and then afterwards forget what she was previously talking about. She has also lied a couple of times about new theories related to our discipline that she supposedly came up with, and I discovered that this wasn’t true when reading older books related to our discipline that she recommended and which contained the ideas. Even though our meetings are supposed to be an hour in length, she will sometimes talk for 6 hours about trivial and unhelpful things like cartoons or her family and she will then say how she didn’t realize the time. She will also often email me drafts of articles or books that she’s working on (not related to my own work) and tell me how she’s the most innovative writer in our entire field.

As she is the head of the department and I’ve never had contact with any co-supervisor, I’m feeling really lost and confused about who to turn to about all this. I’m struggling to make any progress or plan right now because every topic idea (which is initially agreed on) is then later shot down in a manipulative and dishonest way before I have a chance to discuss my research and progress on it, and any questions are ignored, so knowing and expecting this, my motivation and inspiration are now really low. I’m just at such a loss as to what to do and I feel like I’m going crazy.

Any thoughts on what she’s actually doing, and any advice on what I should do next?

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    This question is nearly 3000 words long. I think you need to distil it down to something much more focussed if you want to get good answers here.
    – avid
    Aug 3, 2023 at 13:08
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    Better yet, please also give us TL;DR.
    – Nobody
    Aug 3, 2023 at 13:11
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    Having read the 3000 words: Unless you can find another supervisor (even if unofficially - are there any other PhD students who you could work with ?) I think you will have to cut your losses and leave. If people like her are allowed to rise to the top, there is something off in the department, so I wouldn't get my hopes up in being able to resolve this. For what it's worth, I don't think my (nominal) supervisor ever read my thesis and I graduated despite him, but I was in a very large & collaborative field, so it was easy to find other people who were interested in my work. Aug 3, 2023 at 15:56
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    Could your supervisor be suffering from dementia? Constantly forgetting what she's spoken with you about, having difficulty concentrating on the intended subject and mood swings are all potential signs.
    – Showsni
    Aug 3, 2023 at 15:57
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    Is there a postgraduate programme coordinator that is further up the chain/more centralised that you can talk to? This is something you need to be talking to someone in a dedicated postgrad student support position about, outside the department. That there seems to be a system of a secondary supervisor to avoid the issues you are having, but that role has been completely neutralised, you should be talking to someone at the university level to ensure you have someone "on your side" if matters deteriorate. Sep 11, 2023 at 4:40

3 Answers 3

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This person seems entirely unhinged and won't do you any good. Their behavior will most likely get worse as time goes on.

Trying to decode intents or motivations from someone like this is entirely a waste of time. It may even damage your own mental health.

In my opinion, you should get out or transfer to another supervisor or program as soon as possible. (Disclosure: I have not been in a PhD program with a thesis component.)

As a minimal first step, you should contact either of the previously listed co-supervisor(s) and speak with them about the situation.

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My (possibly biased) estimation is this: Although your supervisor is not fully professional and maybe not even competent in effective academic research, the problem you have is lack of personal chemistry. The same behavior your supervisor exhibits could have been described positively by another person with a different personality or preferences from yours.

Basically, it seems she's improvising to find a thesis subject that would interest both of you, while you seem to prefer rigidity, accuracy and expect precise almost legally-bidding relationship with you supervisor.

For that reason you have two options:

  1. Change supervisor or drop out.
  2. Adapt and start to cooperate with the supervisor as much as you can to complete the thesis.

Here is an example of judgments about your supervisor that are based on subjective personal preferences, that helped me form my assessment of the situation:

"She also talks about herself and her own work a lot even though it has nothing to do with the discussion and she gets excited if I mention a journal that she has published in, where she will then excitedly talk about her publication and then afterwards forget what she was previously talking about."

I don't see what is objectively wrong with such behavior. You assume that a free discussion has a fixed "subject" from which she cannot diverge. And I don't see why that is so.

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  • I might phrase this a bit differently, to say that it doesn't matter whether "your supervisor is not fully professional and maybe not even competent", and that a lack of personal chemistry/lack of agreement between mentorship style and desired mentorship style is sufficient reason to seek a different advisor. Probably best to set aside entirely the competence of the supervisor, because it could very well be that OP's own communication is lacking and their account here is misleading. It doesn't matter, though, because they do not need to indict and convict their supervisor of anything.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:24
  • I think this would agree better with the sentiment in the rest of your answer, following the comma.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:26
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I'm sorry, but I didn't read the whole text. Nevertheless, I made some hypothesis which is as follows. Your supervisor just wants you to change the subject. She doesn't say it directly, but subliminally and uses various manipulative techniques towards you.

There are several ways to solve it, but we cannot declare here that it will work as it should. One solution is to change supervisors or the workplace.

The second solution is to submit to the trainer's will and change the topic. It is possible that you will then have peace for a certain period of time before another pressure comes that will be against your will. You will then have nothing else to do but submit and so on. In principle, it's about submitting to the trainer's will and telling yourself if what you have is enough for you, or if you want more. If you want more, you have to learn to operate two systems. So you will need to have two faces for her and for the academic community.

The third solution is to try assertive techniques. That is e.g. show that you understand the trainer, but at the same time stand up for yourself. Don't get dragged into an argument or a bad mood. If you do not know assertiveness, I recommend that you take a course. There are many assertive techniques. Assertiveness is built on accepting responsibility for oneself and the ability to understand the other party. Unfortunately, manipulators don't like people who can't be manipulated and are even more annoyed by people who control assertiveness. So this solution may either succeed or the trainer might get rid of you.

Of course, you may also try the combination of methods two and three.

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