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I'm a 3rd year PhD student in Australia. My primary supervisor did a little supervising during my candidature but now complains that I have not done enough work. He gave one of my aims (which I worked on) to a master's student and I had to finish master's student work as well. My other supervisors don't know that I'm working on the master students' work as well. My primary supervisor asked me not to mention it to my other supervisors. In my supervisory meetings, he is the first to criticize my work. I'm so fed up with my project. I want to finish the project as soon as possible but I'm scared that he will drag my Ph.D. for another 2 years. Please help me how to deal with him.

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    What is your relationship with your other supervisors? Do you trust any of them enough to bring this up with them? I think it is important, that they are kept up-to-date with what you are doing. The primary supervisor wanting you to stay silent sounds worrying...
    – Squirrel
    Dec 19, 2023 at 12:25
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    I think your question can be broken down to two main issues: 1) how to communicate to your primary supervisor that you plan to finish your PhD soon and want to set a clear goal on how to achieve that; 2) how should you deal with multiple supervisors, especially when one of them is putting you in a difficult situation, such as asking you to hide that you are working on a task he assigned to you. I edited the title to match 2, but I think you should make another question for 1. This is an important question that many people struggles with during the phd.
    – The Doctor
    Dec 19, 2023 at 13:44
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    Your supervisor seems to be exploiting you. He is asking you to support Master's work because he is doing a favor to that student for some reason at your expense. I understand that you are under pressure and for the sake of completing the PhD you are doing things under compulsion. But in life you should never do anything under compulsion, it ends bad and impacts you as a person. Standing up for yourself is a key part of learning. Do you have a PhD research committee which oversees everything? I suggest you change your supervisor to an honest person. I have gone through similar situation.
    – kosmos
    Dec 19, 2023 at 20:28
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    A supervisor/advisor asking you to hide their (and your) actions from other supervisors/committee members is a HUGE red flag. There are already two good answers that say what I would have. I add only this: Start documenting everything.
    – Anonymous
    Dec 19, 2023 at 23:28

3 Answers 3

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There seems to be something wrong if your main supervisor doesn't want you to bring up this issue with others. I think you probably need to counter that in some way. Perhaps a private conversation with the department head or one of the other supervisors would be appropriate. But it might also be risky.

I wonder, too, if you are so valuable to the main supervisor that they just don't want you to finish early so that you can contribute more to their program. This, too, is unethical.

However, speaking to another puts you at risk. Make sure that anyone you speak with understands that and has some way to counter it.

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In a well-functioning supervisory arrangement there would be no need to keep secrets about your work allocation from some of your supervisors at the behest of others. This circumstance suggests that your primary supervisor is not acting appropriately in your supervision. This is something you should escalate to the Graduate Coordinator and/or the relevant Head of Department. Although I would not presume to suggest it, if there is indeed a risk that disclosure of basic facts of your work allocation to others is "risky" insofar as it might lead to retaliation (as the other answer here suggests) then that is also a sign of serious dysfunction and all the more reason to speak to the Graduate Coordinator and/or the relevant Head of Department. Making a bad judgment in your work allocation is not necessarily so bad a thing for a supervisor to do (we all make errors) but as the saying goes, "It's the cover-up that kills you".

If it were me, I would first speak to the Head of Department and disclose these problems and then I would talk to my primary supervisor and let him know that I have done so, and that I do not feel comfortable keeping information from the other supervisors on my panel. I would let him know that I am interested in having a productive and friendly supervisory relationship, and to that end that I would be happy to have a conversation about what additional work is required from me. However, I would also politely but firmly ask that he refrain from telling me to withhold information from my other supervisors in the future.

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  • Why not star the other way round: Start talking to the first supervisor and then the Head of Department?
    – usr1234567
    Dec 21, 2023 at 8:41
  • In this circumstance I would suggest starting with the escalation to Head of Dept. Supervisor has already taken action to try to cover up problems in candidature from others so an initial conversation with supervisor might backfire.
    – Ben
    Dec 21, 2023 at 10:48
  • @Ben as an australian PhD student, I can tell you that, unless your co-supervisors are totally unavailable, then they should be who you go to first. The head of department may never be appropriate, depending on the university’s policy—they may prefer you to speak to the graduate research coordinator for the school, who look after the PhD students. Dec 23, 2023 at 6:33
  • @isolatedmatrix: I don't agree with you that the HoD is never appropriate, or even inappropriate in this circumstance. I can think of nothing in any university policy that would preclude a HoD from having an interest in an academic in Dept asking his PhD student to withhold relevant work information from co-supervisors. That seems like a big problem to me (and possibly even an ethics breach), and one that could reasonably be drawn to attention of HoD. If I were HoD in such a Dept, I would certainly want to know about this.
    – Ben
    Dec 23, 2023 at 6:59
  • @Ben Let me rephrase: it may never be appropriate to go straight to the HoD before you have seen the graduate research coordinator, or spoken to the graduate research school. The policies I’m referring to are more about who is above whom in the food chain, if that makes sense (i.e., if x doesn’t resolve it, go to y, if y doesn’t resolve it, go to z, etc.). You also have to think of the politics involved. What if the supervisor is friends with the HoD? what if the supervisor brings in lots of money? Happened to a friend of mine, when he went to the HoD. Best to go through proper channels Dec 23, 2023 at 7:05
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The very fact that your supervisor wants you to keep this quiet means he knows he’s doing something dodgy.

If you are afraid of bringing this up with your primary supervisor (as in, specifically tell him that it’s not right for him to expect you to complete someone else’s work, and it’s completely inappropriate to take one of your projects—which, I assume, was part of your original research proposal—to give to someone else), I would first speak to your co-supervisors, or your school’s/department’s graduate research coordinator. That is one of the reasons you have them. The head of department is not responsible for candidature or supervision directly.

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