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I'm a biology PhD student (25, female). I've recently handed in my thesis after a long struggle but I've not defended yet. In short I've had a really bad experience with my supervisor and my PhD and want to get out of academia altogether but I don't know how. I don't want to quit before my thesis defense but I don't know how I can survive things continuing as they are.

To provide a bit more detail about my situation: I started my PhD straight from my undergrad. I was working on my final year project with my supervisor, she was constructive and helpful despite being strict. I enjoyed working with her. When she told me that my 3rd year project was a pilot for a PhD project and that I should apply, I was delighted. I could continue to work on my research for another three years!

My relationship with my supervisor went well for the first year of my PhD, I was producing results and we were getting ready to publish some of these results in a nature family journal. I think this is when I started having problems. There was a lot of external stuff going on, I was in a terrible flat and loosing sleep, and due to these factors I made a mistake taking down a sample size on one of the drafts (my supervisor insists on at least 5 drafts before anything can be considered finished). It was an easy fix, I just had to check and update some numbers; but my supervisor made it seem like the end of the world. She was so angry I was terrified for days. This was probably when I started to be afraid of her, but I made the fixes, the paper got published and everything seemed to go back to normal. But, I've had problems with self harm in the past and while I thought that part of my life was over, I found myself doing it again. I wasn't really thinking too hard about it, it was just stress and if I could do better I would stop I told myself.

Fast forward about 2 years. The self harm hadn't really stopped, and I was still exhausted but my supervisor was mostly friendly, so although I still panicked when she talked to me I thought things were okay. I briefly considered quitting halfway though my second year, but since I'd come halfway I thought I could make it the rest of the way. I was coming up on my PhD deadline (September), and spoke to my supervisor about whether she thought I'd be able to hand in on time. She told me that it might take an extra month but I'd probably be able to do it. Unfortunately, this was also the point that my supervisor got really busy writing a grant, and kept telling me she was too busy to look at my drafts. Fair enough, I know academics are busy people and that, in her world, my PhD is not the priority. My work slowed down, I felt like I was loosing all motivation. September slipped by, I wasn't going to make the deadline, but, my supervisor said, that's fine, I could hand in at Christmas. In the meantime, my supervisor arranged for me to teach her lectures and do marking so that I could be paid and so that she had more time to work on her grant. She also wanted me to do more data collection so that this time she could get a paper into nature. I asked her if I could prioritize my thesis writing, it was important to me that I handed in, and then I could work more on papers. She reluctantly agreed that this would be fine. Christmas passed, and she still wasn't happy with my thesis, asking for more and more rewrites, even if it meant going round in circles. At this point I was trying desperately to stop self harming, which I have more or less managed, but I was also becoming increasingly suicidal. I couldn't see an end to anything short of that. This was when I finally admitted I was having problems and started trying to speak to the well being services at the university. I have a councilor now, who is helping.

I finally managed to hand in in April, although I'm not confident that any of the work in my thesis is really mine (It feels more like the supervisor has written it). I thought things would get better, I've gotten myself a temporary job working with a conservation organization, lecturing for the students who come out on their expeditions. I also made the decision not to apply for a postdoc with the same supervisor, she'd tried to encourage me to take it, but I cant survive three more years of this. I tried to explain to her that although I thought the project was exciting, my mental health prevented me from committing to a long term post (I did NOT mention that I was terrified of her). Since then, she's been increasingly angry. She's told me in as many words that anyone else would have fired me on the spot and that I should be grateful that I can work on such a great project. She also keeps telling me that its very inconvenient for her that I've got this new job (as it will be taking me into the field and probably out of email contact for two months), and that she wants me to do loads more (unpaid) work for her before I leave.

I desperately want to get out of her sphere of influence, I'm still having suicidal thoughts on a near daily basis and I feel sick at the thought of having to meet with her, as she seems to always be angry right now. I need to defend though, otherwise all of this will not have been worth it. My thesis defense is set for September, although she tells me my examiners are angry because I am out of the country during June and July (although I asked her before I applied for the job whether this would be a problem and she told me no).

Is there any way I can cut contact with her without causing a confrontation or anything like that? I don't know whether I can work with her any longer but I don't want to ruin my chances of successfully passing my defense.

EDIT: I want to say thanks to everyone for their thoughtful replies on here. Its been a few months now and my situation is substantially better. I can happily report that I did in fact pass my viva, and was awarded my PhD in September. My relationship with my supervisor is not much better, but therapy has been helping enormously with my depression and anxiety. I have also ended up making the decision to leave academia, and have had a productive summer working as a teacher with a conservation organization overseas, and have been offered a job with a conservation organization here in the UK. I still interact with my supervisor as she is keen to publish work from my PhD, but I am much less emotionally affected by her threats and criticisms these days. Given my situation, the advice I'd like to offer to anyone else reading this post is that things can get better, but it is rarely possible to cope with issues like stress, anxiety and depression alone. Seeking help is NOT weakness, it really can help, and you don't need to be afraid of judgement from a professional, they only want to help you. My problem with my supervisor left me feeling extremely isolated, I didn't think I could tell anyone without making the situation worse, but getting help is the most important thing.

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    I'm so sorry that you're in this awful situation. I sincerely hope that you are getting professional help for your mental health issues. Your mental and emotional health are worth far more than your PhD. Do you have other faculty mentors besides your advisor that you can discuss your situation with? – JeffE May 23 '17 at 11:38
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    She says "the examiners are angry"? No, she is angry. She clearly tries to manipulate you and make it look as if all is your mistake. We do not know enough about her for more judgement, but clearly she is a highly unempathetic person; furthermore, she is trying to squeeze you like a lemon before you leave. She does not care about you and you do not have to feel obliged to her. I take it she is not one of your examiners, correct? In which case, she may try to influence them, but she does not really make the decision - which is good. As for "others would have fired you", how would she know? – Captain Emacs May 23 '17 at 12:00
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    Above is a comment as it does not directly answer your question. So, an addendum: is it an option to keep low profile until your examination? If so, try to do so. Stay under the radar and get over the exam, and then, do not continue working for her. Do not be tempted by coaxing or threats. Until now, the situation is not your fault - I repeat: not your fault. You couldn't know that it would devolve as it did. But, if you continue to work for her after the PhD, it is your decision. It is ok for now to indicate that you might continue with her, to soothe her. But do not actually do it. – Captain Emacs May 23 '17 at 12:13
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    I dont feel I can talk to anyone else in the department in case it gets back to my supervisor. — Does your university have an ombudsman? What about faculty outside your department? — I dont know what the norm is — Ask your graduate director, or other students in your department, or even Academia StackExchange! – JeffE May 23 '17 at 15:34
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    @K.Grayson I'm very sorry you're going through this, just a thought, unless this is not your name, might be worth using a nickname or something similar to protect your anonymity. – Nobilis May 24 '17 at 8:24
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You have handed in your thesis, which is very good and a very reasonable point to stop working with your supervisor, especially if she's not paying you anymore.

At this point, it is only the thesis defense, and usually it is hard to get this wrong. You should realize that you defending your PhD successfully is almost as relevant for your supervisor as it is for you.

In my opinion the best time to stop working on this project is right now. Look for something else (which you already seem to have), concentrate on new projects, and tell your supervisor that you want to continue with your career / life after having handed in your thesis. You have already communicated that you don't want to work with her on the long-term, so is clear that you are going to look for other long-term opportunities.

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I have worked in a group for two years where I also had problems with my supervisor, these were partly due to me, partly due to him, but in anycase our co-operation did not work very well, so I left and found myself another supervisor for my PhD studies. My relationship to my previous professor even got better, because I believe, I was relieved of my stress in my relationship with him. This kind of personality conflicts are very common in any kind of environment, where you need to deliver consistently...

But after reading your post I got the impression that your problem is a lot more of a personal problem. I think it is not only due to the character of your supervisor or how she treats you. Many people have problems with their bosses but your reaction is a bit outside of the usual range of reactions. It seems you have a hard time with stressed situations and these are unfortunately situations which you cannot avoid in life from time to time. It also seems that you show these rather certain behavioral or psychological patterns in these situations. You also mention these patterns are not showing themselves only with regard to your current situation but are recurrent. These give me the impression that your perception/interpretation of the outer world is somehow pushing you into this hole of destructive state of mind.

My advice would be: please seek professional psychological help. Psychology is not the most exact science but there is a lot of accumulated information in that discipline, which can be of help to you. It can help you to transform your perception of the facts and see light where you have seen only dark before, see hope in the future, whereas you feel deep in a dark well with no light reaching you and no ladder to go up. It can help you break those destructive thinking patterns. Communicate more with friends, family whoever you have around you. other people have gone through similar situations, I can guarantee that. I also took therapy for multiple years in my life and also during the time I was working with my previous supervisor. From my experience it definitely helps. Also I don't know how much the university councilor can help you, I would rather ask the councilor to give you the contact of a proper therapist since your problems seem to be transcending the usual student-supervisor conflicts. You do not continue playing basketball with a broken leg, so first keep your mind healthy to be able to use it for science.

I believe if you seek professional help and come to a more peaceful state of mind most of these problems you have mentioned above will be solved automatically, or will not seem to be problems at all.

In regard to the comment by JeffE: I see your point, but I know also from my own experience, when you are so deep in a dark skate of mind, your interpretation of other peoples attitude gets also also compromised. I think the "problematic, abusive boss" is something more or less common in the todays world (of course, I am not trying to normalize it or saying it should be like that), but I found some of the phrases by the OP much more alarming, such as: "self harm", "increasingly suicidal", "I desperately want to...", "I was terrified for days". I believe these and the recurrent self-destructive state of mind is the more alarming pattern than the pattern of abusive supervisor. From my experience, first thing to do is to come back to a healthy state of mind, where you can judge the situation unbiased and take the right actions based on these healthy judgements.

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    While I strongly agree with your advice to seek professional help, this answer seems unreasonably dismissive of OP's advisor's abuse. The situation OP describes is not just "cooperation not working very well". – JeffE May 23 '17 at 15:34
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    @user73885 It is clear that one's own perception colours the interaction, but there are some of the supervisor's sentences that raise red flags; and they sound plausible. Of course, if two highly sensitive people get into a negative feedback cycle, bad things can happen which are not - strictly - one side's fault. Nonetheless, the current case sounds more like the supervisor needs to be kept as much at a distance as possible. – Captain Emacs May 23 '17 at 16:00
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I sincerely hope that you feel better. I understand your situation, as I was under similar pressure to finish my PhD. I didn't go as far as becoming suicidal, but I cried at home fearing that this situation would never end, or I'd never get my PhD after all these years. Sorry!

There are multiple points to make here, and I hope this helps:

  1. Failing you is most likely not an option to your supervisor. Why? They won't fail you after having you work for them for years. It's like saying "hey look, we had that student who worked with us for a few years and his work published a few papers, but eventually we found out he's a horrible student". Do you hear how ridiculous this sounds? It'll harm them a lot, and I suspect they would even have to answer to a higher authority on that if they fail you. It's good that you submitted a thesis, because that's your way out.

  2. Shit happens. I feel that you're incapable of handling mistakes and/or pressure. Although this may sometimes look as a motivation to make things perfect, you have to understand that shit happens, and people are not robots. They get angry, and they are not necessarily nice enough to apologize. So, learn to own your mistakes and even more importantly, learn to move on. Seriously this is very important for any serious job in the future. The stress curve never goes down with age!

  3. I'm glad you're consulting a professional regarding your suicidal thoughts because that's not something I think you can handle on your own, and it's important to know that.

  4. Since you handed your thesis, now is the time to stop working for your supervisor, especially if you're not paid. However, I would like to recommend that you start to think about doing more friendly confrontation without panicking with her. If you're thinking that all the people in your career are going to be nice and friendly, you got that all wrong. Almost in every workplace, there's the professional awkward person who does what he does very well, but is socially unpleasant, and you have to learn how to handle such relationships.

Good luck!

  • I doubt it would "harm them a lot", but I also agree that the supervisor has little reason (assuming basic sanity) to fail her student, and it's certainly not in her interest to do so. And I think "would even have to answer to a higher authority on that if they fail you" is unreasonably optimistic wrt how academia works. Insofar as there is a "higher authority" goes, they won't care. – Faheem Mitha May 24 '17 at 10:12
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    @Faheem too optimistic is a good description to what I said. But a professor failing such a student will definitely get bad reputation for it, unless it's the only time he does it. The guy published nature papers! That's kind of a big deal!! What kind of professor fails a nature publishing PhD? That would be very peculiar and will not help the supervisor in any way. – The Quantum Physicist May 24 '17 at 10:28
  • The poster said "nature family journal". Is that the same as Nature? – Faheem Mitha May 24 '17 at 21:06
  • @Faheem That's close enough. The whole nature family is quite demanding and not easy to get into. – The Quantum Physicist May 24 '17 at 21:13
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Giving answer for people in your position is hard. I would suggest firstly tak with some psychologist since I think you need to talk about it and ventilate it out. Then you need to think about your priorities. And you have full right to be astute. I would say to her that you will continue working with her but later would change my mind. The only negative can be future impact on your reputation since you are dealing with manipulative person.

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Well, let's go through this step by step. I read in a comment that you are in the UK, but I will pretend you're in the U.S. since that's the country I know best. You may have to adjust some of what I'm going to say, to account for the difference of country.

First, please see a doctor immediately. If you can't get an appointment for the same day, go to a hospital. (Take along plenty of interesting activities with you, and a meal, in case you find yourself having to wait several hours to be seen.) You can print out the question as you wrote it here, and just hand it to the doctor, if you find it difficult to initiate a conversation verbally about the self-harming behavior and the suicidal thoughts you've experienced. If you're up to it, you could optionally edit it down to a brief introduction, or do some highlighting of the parts that the doctor needs to know to get started working with you.

Let me explain. It can be helpful to be followed by an MD, even if you don't start medications, and even if you are in treatment with a psychologist or other sort of therapist.

If medication is prescribed, ask plenty of questions about what side effects to watch for, how long it takes to see improvement, and under what circumstances you should discontinue the medication, or seek immediate medical attention. Keep a symptom log, to share with the provider when you go back for med checks.

Second, inform some department administrator (or even a secretary) that you are taking some time off due to health problems, and ask them to inform your supervisor. Initially you can be vague and leave it at that. You can ask the doctor's office, clinic or hospital, or a friend or relative, to do this for you, and it is even possible for a voicemail to be left while the office is closed.

Once your health is stabilized sufficiently, then you can go on to the next part.

In this part, you apply to the appropriate university office as a student with a disability. In the U.S. this would be the "Office of Students with Disabilities" or a similar name. Documentation needs to be submitted. You may need to get some evaluations done.

The process of getting at least some sort of provisional diagnosis, and documentation to satisfy your university, may slow down your graduation date, but I would encourage you to think of Aesop's tortoise that won the race by not hurrying.

Once you're officially recognized as a student with a disability, the disabilities office can explain to your department and your supervisor what supports you will need, going forward.

I would like to explain what it means for a student with a disability to be able to utilize a university's educational services without discrimination. It's taken me a few years to start to really understand this. It means that you and the university need to figure out what supports will level the playing field for you, so that you can get the same meaningful benefit from your education as a non-disabled student can do without special supports. This isn't rigorous legal language (which varies from country to country anyway) -- it's just an attempt to get the concept across.

In your case, since conversations with your advisor tend to aggravate the feelings that increase your chances of self-harm and/or suicide, it may be helpful for those conversations to be mediated, in other words, for a neutral third party to be present during those conversations. I have found, through direct observation, that this support can be surprisingly helpful, both in reducing the student's fears and anxiety, and also in reining in the educator's behavior.

You have years ahead of you for figuring out whether there are some patterns in your perceptions and reactions that may have contributed to the situation you find yourself in currently with your supervisor. And for figuring out what qualities, weaknesses of character, errors in judgment, stressors, etc., in your supervisor's life may have contributed to things developing the way they did. But for now, I recommend just postponing all those questions. There is no need to point any fingers or attribute any blame anywhere at this time. At this time, you and the university simply need to find a set-up that will permit you to continue your studies without feeling unsafe.

It may turn out that the best way of supporting you for your final phase of your studies is for a different supervisor to be assigned. I wouldn't recommend starting out with this as a hard and fast request. If the appropriate people at your university see your current supervisor behaving badly, after the office of students with disabilities gets involved, I don't think you'll have to make a request. There are certain requirements on professors, and if your supervisor can't honor them, you can expect the university to protect you one way or another.

Note that retaliation is not only morally wrong, it is also illegal in the U.S.; I would be very much surprised to find out otherwise in the U.K. context. So I think you can set your mind at ease on that score.

If you can find a support group, that could be helpful for you. Also, I would expect there will be a suicide and crisis prevention hotline that you'll be able to call for moral support, or just to say, "I'm having a difficult day," or "Today is a bit better."

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