When good supervisors go bad…

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There are a lot of bad PhD stories out there. Stories of never-ending PhDs, of unprofessional supervisors, of labs exploding. But I think I might top them all… or at least a good many of them.

I had a great supervisor. The perfect combination of thesis-related support, professional development, collegial co-worker and friendly laughs. In the face of my peers’ stories of unresponsive, out-of-touch or exploitative supervisors, I used to smile smugly to myself. I’d done my homework, I was onto a winner.

Until I wasn’t.

This is a story of a good supervisor gone bad. But, more importantly for anyone who is in the early stages of a PhD, this is a story of the mistakes I made along the way that contributed to a bad situation.

I came to my PhD after working on a wide range of research projects. I’d seen first hand how important a good supervisor is, and I was going to find the perfect candidate. I practically conducted interviews for the job…

I take that back. I did interview for the job.

I settled on someone who was less experienced that I was originally seeking. She had supervised PhD students before, but never as a principal supervisor. But she knew first hand what it takes to survive in a sector characterised by dwindling funds and few permanent positions.

She was concerned about my professional welfare beyond the thesis, insisting on 12 month plans that covered publications, conferences, papers, presentations, and networking activities, accompanied by five year plans covering postdocs and post-post-docs (is that a thing?). I thought she was great, so great I also took a job with her, and then followed her to another research institution when she moved jobs.

And she was great. She was great for three whole years. Until ensuring that I “had three papers under review at all times”, “had at least two conference presentations a year”, “was involved in a range of professional committees”, as well as working two research assistant roles, applying for numerous awards, running a granted-funded project and doing a fulltime PhD took its toll.

Stress does terrible things to the body.

I got sick. Not just a little run down or out of sorts. I got ‘your life may never be the same again’ kind of sick.

Not surprisingly, things began to slip. I got kicked off a committee for missing too many meetings, I couldn’t find the energy to revise my papers, and the thesis chapters I was turning out were starting to become subpar.

In response, my good supervisor was less than supportive. I won’t go into all the details. Let’s just say that what started as tough love evolved into bullying, abuse, manipulation and lying and, finally, the blocking of my submission.

Over the course of eight months, my great supervisor had become an unrecognisable master of psychological abuse. We were engaged in a war of attrition, a war that took me to the edge of my psychological and physical wellbeing – beyond any place I thought I could go, or perhaps more importantly, beyond what I would have thought I could survive. This sounds dramatic I know, but read the literature of narcissistic personality disorder and you’ll get the picture.

But, you see, I had made myself vulnerable to this abuse. I’d isolated myself. I had two other supervisors but, because my principal supervisor seemed so fantastic, I never built relationships with them – seeing them once a year at best.

As I mentioned before, I also followed my supervisor to another institution. This meant that I was physically isolated from the department in which I was enrolled as a student, and which had responsibility and a duty of care towards me. I stopped going to seminars, chatting to students in the hall, sitting on University committees or doing extra bits of work for other staff members. I stopped being visible.

This was a critical error. Firstly, there were no witnesses to what was occurring. Secondly, because I wasn’t witnessing other student-supervisor relationships or chatting to people informally, I lost perspective of what a normal and acceptable supervisory relationship looks like. And thirdly, people lost touch with how I was doing – windows of opportunity for someone to lend a hand before the situation escalated were missed.

Finally, when I did seek assistance at the University, I was anxious that I was perceived as the problem. My supervisor was a colleague and collaborator of the various staff I sought support and assistance from. I was a PhD student no one had seen in two years. Looking back, I’d say only half the people I sought help from really believed me.

In the end, one of my other supervisors intervened and recommended my thesis be submitted. It passed with no changes.

Yup, no changes.

And my supervisor?

My bad supervisor turned good overnight.

So, what have I learned from all of this?

  • Set your own limits. Don’t let someone else push you to take on more than you should.
  • Work out what your goals and aspirations are. Don’t let someone else project theirs onto you.
  • Build relationships with all of your supervisors. Make all of them accountable and responsible for your progress and wellbeing.
  • Keep in contact with people in your department (staff members and students). This is important not just so you have someone to turn to, but so they know what’s normal for you and can help you realise something is amiss before you find yourself engaged in all out psychological warfare.
  • Document. Let me say that again. Document. When things finally got bad enough that others got involved, I had a history of missed meetings, strings of emails and inappropriate feedback that I was able to produce to support my claims.
  • Smooth it over. I don’t plan to work with my supervisor again. Hell, I don’t plan to talk to my supervisor again. But I did sit down and (very awkwardly) patch things over after my thesis had passed. Academia is a small world and I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve thanked my lucky stars for having “cleared the air” (no matter how tokenistic these efforts might actually be).
  • Thanks Anonymous! Glad to hear it all worked out, despite the difficulties. I think these are great tips. Has anyone else had to patch up a relationship gone bad after it was all over? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments section.

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