DISCLAIMER: the following story does not necessarily correspond to the facts in reality. In particular, it does not necessarily correspond to the author of this post and his/her supervisor.

I joined my advisor's lab as a PhD student. I developed my own new direction for my lab, which is recognized by the community. We have presented papers at the top conference in my area. My advisor had never presented their before.

Professor: little scientific contribution

In the publications we have written together, I have been the first author and can claim 98% of the scientific contributions. The other 2% is for my advisor's very minor suggestions. Most of the time, after the paper is accepted, the finalization process is 100% on me.

When we have other co-authors, my advisor tries to appear to input more and implies that I have been told to do something (for example, "as we discussed earlier"). My advisor often implies to me that the others are unhelpful to my work, and seems to prefer working in isolation with me.

My advisor has recognized my contribution, saying "your work" as in "sorry for talking about your work" in internal meetings. However, my advisor also seemed to insinuate that I am the one being overly protective about my originality, saying on several occasions in a jocular tone "No problem. I can be the first author."

Professor: little scientific discipline

My advisor asked me once to add someone who did not contribute at all as a coauthor. On several occasions, he/she suggested me to submit the same paper to multiple conferences, and to spam low-quality conferences with my publications. Now that he has seen the benefits of my way of quality-thresholding, he started to educate me to have a high standard.

Professor: the good side

My advisor has a pleasant personality, enjoys a good reputation among certain communities in our university, and has encouraged me when I fail. Our working relationship is a really, really patient one, and my advisor can leave me alone for several months without pushing. This is not sarcasm but the biggest help that I was given. I have been able to take a larger-than-usual number of vacation days, and have found that my advisor never crosses the line in communication.

Student: helpless

I have been very exhausted writing papers and am suffering mental problems from having to fight on the frontiers of science with little help. I am just always stressed. I find it difficult to smile or even to concentrate, and have nightmares every few days.

At the graduation stage, my advisor continues to talking about the "next paper", and talks about doing post-docs, without agreeing on my graduation date. He/she intentionally delayed some of these administrative procedures. Frankly I feel too disgusted to continue this "co-authorship".

I feel less confident about complaining to the university, because (1) I do not speak the local language; (2) I find it difficult to be sociable because of my health issues; (3) I am from a third-world country, which could bias people's judgement; (4) I rely on him/her to organizing the defense; and (5) what should I complain about?


Generally, how does a Ph.D. student. who has progressed well, safely and permanently leave an unhelpful and undisciplined professor, to avoid being intentionally delayed in the graduation process, and to roll on with the rest of his/her life?

What are the general limits of a student's rights in the process of getting his/her Ph.D.? Can he/she submit the thesis and demand to defend, without respecting his/her advisor's suggestions to stay longer as a Ph.D. student or a post-doc?

  • What country is this school in? Also, if you are close to done with your degree, you might want to just tough it out. Find another prof you can talk to about the issues, but it sounds like you have some nice publications that should allow you to finish relatively soon. Moving somewhere else might set you back several years.
    – Bill Barth
    May 23, 2015 at 20:45
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    Can you please try to refine this question down to something more answerable and more generalizable? If would help if you could remove a lot of the detail and focus on the particular elements that you think are most important in defining your question.
    – jakebeal
    May 23, 2015 at 21:38
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    If you're so close to finishing, why not finish with this supervisor and get a post doc elsewhere?
    – Rikki
    May 23, 2015 at 22:28
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    Also, check employment law in your country. In the UK you are allowed to terminate an employment contract as long as you give the specified amount of notice (for example 30 days). Being offered a post doc to help pay your living cost should be seen as a benefit, not a hindrance.
    – Rikki
    May 23, 2015 at 22:31
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    I think you're well within your rights to find out your rights. Go speak to the postgraduate administrative office about your situation.
    – Rikki
    May 24, 2015 at 10:22

2 Answers 2


My friend, I would suggest that you start by seeing a medical professional, and the dean of students in your department or university. If it is difficult for you to describe your situation in a conversation, then write a short statement and start the conversation by giving the statement to the person. There are multiple aspects to your situation, but I want to make sure you understand that a university has a responsibility to support its students, and the job of a medical professional is to care for patients. If your university has an office for students with disabilities, you could talk to them as well. I think that your level of distress is making it more difficult for you to deal with your academic stress.

Now, about your academic situation. Your advisor is not everything you would have liked to have as an advisor. But please try to focus on the positives about him and your relationship for now, and postpone processing the negatives until later. Supporting your parents is your top priority right now, and you will start to feel better when you are able to begin helping them. Wanting to care for elderly, infirm parents is a basic human drive.

Here is a proposed text for when you go see the dean of students. If necessary, you can have this translated to the local language.

I am giving you a written statement about my situation because it is difficult for me to begin a conversation about my problem.

My parents are alone and in poor health, and I feel an urgent need to finish my PhD and leave [name of city or country where you are] to go care for them.

This worry is making me so distressed that life has become very difficult for me here.

I believe that I am ready to graduate, having completed my PhD research and published several papers about my work. I don't know how to convince my advisor that it is time for him to schedule my defense.

Is there someone in the university who can help me communicate my situation to my advisor? I am finding it increasingly difficult to carry on ordinary conversations because of the high level of distress I feel.

This is a simplification of everything that's going on with you at present -- but that's okay.

For the medical professional, you can also list your symptoms, for example: thoughts of suicide, frequent nightmares, difficulty concentrating, difficulty smiling or talking to people -- and anything else that may be going on.

For these conversations, you must set aside the feelings of despair, while you are having the conversation. It should be as though you were there negotiating for a friend or acquaintance, not about yourself. Make sure that you don't get discouraged if the first person you speak with does nothing to help you -- just try someone else.

If you need to show your statement to a receptionist or secretary, that's okay. You owe it to your parents to get the help you need.

  • I see the lightness of humanity from your actions and words. I cannot risk my degree to complain unless it is extremely necessary. It is vital not only to myself. I am in the shadow for too long and I don't trust someone in the university will just play the role of justice. I am saving every penny for my family and I do not have money for the psychologist. I don't trust them either. My parents are too poor to take any bad news. I have stopped talking to them. I am in a dead lock and starting to write another paper. I am communicating to no one except the people here. Please, let my post live.
    – anonymous
    May 26, 2015 at 18:37
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    @anonymous, you don't need to make a complaint, you only need to ask for help with communicating. You are in a tunnel that makes communication more difficult. - - - At this point, I am not suggesting that you see a psychologist for treatment; and in fact, I think it might be better to start with a simple MD, such as a family practitioner or internist. - - - Just go show the text to someone, as though you were reporting about someone else's problem (not your own). May 27, 2015 at 4:33

The short answer is: Graduate and look for your next lab/job.

Of course, due to the circumstances this is challenging. From my own experience, your situation is not at all uncommon to emerge during a PhD. Feeling like your supervisor takes credit, when all the work is done by you, feeling neglected in terms of supervision. I'd say this rings a bell with many, many PhD students out there. It seems like situations like this are just part of growing up in the academic sense.

On the other hand, you sound like you have already been quite successful on the scientific side, with some high-profile output. Your publications in first-tier locations should help you get you a postdoc relatively easily (in case you want to stay in academia, that is).

Moreover, your supervisor seems willing to give you more financial support. If he keeps talking about the "next paper", this means that he approves of your work. After all, he benefits a lot from it, too. You have some leverage there.

My suggestion is: graduate and get out of there. To do so, you need a plan. You need to 1) get clear picture of what will go into your thesis, and set up a concrete schedule for writing it, 2) make up your mind what kind of career you want to pursue (academia, industry, something else), 3) start networking for your next job NOW. 1) is definitely the highest priority, but 2 and 3 shouldn't be neglected either.

Once you made up your mind, talk to your supervisor about how and when you're planning to graduate, and how much financial support you need to complete. I'm sure he will be supportive of your plans.

  • 1
    Thank you for the suggestions. They are really really helpful. I am not sure whether this is "not uncommon": an adviser violated scientific ethics by jailing the real contributer, putting his/her name in without contributions, and trying to cover it up. I fear very much that if I complain, the officer may say the same, "it is not uncommon", and then convert the problem to my side.
    – anonymous
    May 26, 2015 at 11:47

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