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This Category: > PhD Advice / Support


Bullying by a supervisor

User: neozelandaise - 19 June 2011 22:17

I'm a New Zealander who currently lives and studies in France. I've been living here for almost 4 years and my time in France has been a giant struggle! I'm doing a PhD and it has not been wonderful. I've spent many months in tears and many more months wondering what the hell I'm doing here. I've seen people for my mental health and spent 3 months during the summer of 2009 on medical leave.

I've been harassed at the university by my supervisor, so much so, that I've questioned my intelligence and been made to feel so small, stupid and that I don't count. I've had things said about me to colleagues working in the same field and I've almost given up on my field of study because of this PhD. I'm filled with anxiety, dread, and I hide in the hallways trying to avoid my supervisor. I've been made to feel so stupid, incompetent, inferior, worthless... And I know its not all his fault. Once the problems arose I probably reacted badly to him. But I'd never been called stupid before, never had I had someone correct my work and write "this is terrible! are you stupid? this is work a child could do?!" "Why don't you work harder? Why do you cry a lot? You can't visit your family in NZ! You must work all summer. I haven't seen you in the lab today, are you here? are you working?" I guess I was always encouraged and when something was wrong they usually said "well, this isn't correct, but have you tried this? or looked at this paper?" Not "NO?!!" The negative comments, attitude etc. just made me feel worse and less interested in doing my work.

I feel like I don't have anyone I can trust in a position of power at uni. Everyone knows what the supervisor is like, yet I've been in this situation for 4 years. I have a terrible PhD because I've had to work out everything myself. I've spent too much time trying to figure out how to do stuff because my supervisor doesn't know how to do anything himself... yet I'm made to look like the useless student who is late and doesn't do any work.

I'm supposed to finish within the next month but I don't feel that I have it in me. I'm just lost and don't know what to do any more.

User: neozelandaise - 19 June 2011 22:29

A few notes:

A PhD in France is 3 years - I've been here 4 and have not been paid for over 9 months.

My supervisor steals my work and uses it for his publications. He actually gave away a big piece of my research to another student.

I've spoken to the heads of my lab about it, they are aware of the problem, acknowledge it and just say hang in there. They wouldn't let me change supervisors.

I used to be an A grade/distinction student

I end up doing all his paper reviews because I have trouble saying no

He has called the embassy in NZ to check if I was actually in the country and told my colleagues that when I was away on sick leave that I was travelling all around Europe

There is another PhD student in the same situation and she'll probably be at 5 years when she is finally finished. A postdoc student quit after 6 months because of his harassment and incompetence. The university took his side and did nothing to help her.

Every meeting with him sets me back. I lost all self esteem and wonder why this is worth it if I have no support from anyone. I don't even have anyone else in my lab doing something similar, when I suggested collaborations he said no. He doesn't have a clue about the research and so it has been overly unrealistic and I'm constantly told how slow I am.

He made me believe when I first arrived that fieldwork expenses should come out of my salary and this was normal in France. When I got better friends in the department they said that this was not normal at all and the supervisor should pay for fieldwork expenses. Of course I didn't keep receipts, I struggled for 2 years to get something like €3000 back, and again the heads of the department didn't want to hear of it.

The doctor told me that there have been complaints filed against him through the medical staff at the university for the last 10 years.

I JUST HATE IT and I have no idea why I've stayed so long!!

User: hot_sauce - 20 June 2011 03:28

======= Date Modified 20 Jun 2011 03:59:48 =======
Hi Neozelandaise,

I don't know if I'm the right person to say this because I'm a fellow doctoral student such as yourself.. The thing we have in common is we're both having supervisor drama but i would think your situation is worse than mine as my guy is somewhat on good terms with me.. But I'll tell you this, during my undergrad days i conducted some small 'academic exercise' work with this wretch of a human being who was as equally or even more abusive than your supervisor.. Thank god the whole thing lasted only two semesters and I was so relieved to leave his supervision.. I was invited to do my masters with a lecturer from my undergrad work lab and he even offered a very attractive stipend.. I flatly turned it down because I did not want to be anywhere near that man..

To me, my happiness and content with life is worth more than a degree or opportunity to work.. Well, sometimes you have to brawl and hang in there but just how much crap can one take? What I'm trying to say is that you should hang in as much as you can, but if something more pleasant and constructive comes your way, why waste the opportunity?

I sincerely hope things turn out for the better for you, cheers!

User: emmaki - 20 June 2011 08:22

I had a really bad experience with my MBA tutor as well.
He was always saying to me that I was a really bad student, not suitable for postgraduate studies. That my first master was given to my out of pity and that I did not deserve to be called a student.
He was also saying to me that I shouldn't have been allowed to study in UK, as I am a foreigner and I shouldn't have been allowed to study for an MBA because this is a men's field and I am a woman!
Because of him, my graduation was delayed, as he was on holiday from May till September on the Greek islands and he couldn't mark my essays (this was happening every summer for three years, as I was on a PT course). This ended with the university sending me warning emails that I had delayed my essays...
When I was asking him something, he was saying "look for it! This is your job!" But if I knew where to look for, or if I had understood, then I wouldn't have asked in the first place!!!!!!

To cut a long story short...
I didn't do anything against him and that was my biggest mistake. If I had taken the issue further something might have happened. Maybe he wouldn't bully more students....

I can't tell you what to do....I can only sympathise.........

User: dunni73 - 20 June 2011 08:33

I think you need to get out of this situation. No supervisor should be allowed to bully and belittle a student they are supposed to be supporting. Obviously, this is a well known about situation and nothing seems to be done to remedy it by the university. My outsiders perspective would be to determine yourself how much work you have done and whether it is enough to write-up and submit. If you have enough work for a PhD then I would get it written up, submitted and leave asap drawing strength from the fact that you will be leaving his control very soon. Are there any other supervisory figures there who can look over what you have and give advice?

If there is not enough for a PhD thesis, then really you need to decide to either stay and do the extra work (only if this is a realistic option) but limit your contact with your supervisor so allowing yourself to get the work done, or make your complaints known and follow this through (but you are unlikely to get your phD).

User: ady - 20 June 2011 10:08

I agree that if possible wrap up what you have - hopefully it is enough for a PhD - and get away from your really awful situation. Have you had a look at other theses in similar fields? Compare what you have with them and see if you think yours matches quality and content wise. It sounds as if you will have to make the decision to submit, or not, on your own.

If you don't think you have enough for a PhD, you have another decision to make - keep going and hopefully eventually be able to submit as a PhD OR assess your situation and consider if you will be able to remain where you are. Only you can really make such a decision but you're a long, long way from home which I imagine only makes things more difficult.

You have four years work behind you - I really hope you have enough material to be able to submit soon.

Best of luck with what's ahead


User: neozelandaise - 20 June 2011 21:36

Thank you all for your lovely and helpful comments. I've got enough data (I think) and written 5 out of the 7 chapters but I'm struggling with the final chapter - bringing together the hazards and vulnerability data into a risk format and then writing the conclusions. My supervisor arranged with the jury for the defense to take place the 15th September (we submit our manuscript between 1.5-2 months before the defense). But now he is saying that I wont be finished in time, that he will have to change the date with the jury, again etc. He has changed the date with them so many times because my manuscript is not good enough in his eyes. I got from the last email correspondence that the jury was well and truly fed up with all the changes. Other PhD students have had their defense date arranged many months before and work to that, submitting their finished (but not perfect) manuscript even 1 month before the defense (which is frowned upon by the university but it happens). My date has been pushed so many times that I then continue writing to make things better.

The constant doubting of my supervisor has a really bad affect on me. I try not to let him get to me but he does. He spoke with me on Wednesday saying I wont be finished. I was doing so well too and as a consequence of this meeting I spent the next 4 days either in bed or at my computer staring into space! The manner in which he speaks to me is really condescending which really impacts on my already low self-esteem after 4 years of telling me how useless I am. I made a really great digital elevation model which is so much more detailed that previous models (and it is so easy to recognise this from the manuscript figures), yet he said it was not any better than the one they'd used in previous studies. It took me 2 years to make this model after 4 months of fieldwork and so many problems processing the data because he had no idea how to do it and there wasn't anyone in my laboratory who could guide me. I re-processed my data numerous times just to get a model that looks ok... its just all these little comments which have made me doubt myself. Then I feel guilty because no one appears to support me, so perhaps its my fault. My doctor recommended I see a counsellor once I'm in an english speaking country to get the past 4 years off my chest.

User: neozelandaise - 20 June 2011 21:40

I spoke to the secretary of our department today after she asked if I was ok - apparently I looked sick. When I explained what had been happening she was shocked. She said that the supervisor often spoke about how useless the other PhD student was and also that the postdoc he had (who left after 6 months) was a trouble maker. She said that there were a number of official reports being gathered at the moment against our laboratory as a whole because there was a real bullying culture here. She said that she'd had a lot of problems herself with other staff members and gave me numbers of people at the university to put a report in to.

I've booked my flight and I'll be leaving next week for my new life in the UK. I'll try and get as much done as possible and hopefully finish my PhD in a couple of weeks. I do need to get it done I think but I'm just too fragile right at the moment to finish everything before I leave. I have a wonderful support system in the UK and I think this will make the world of difference. I just want this chapter of my life to end so I can move on.

Thank you once again and best of luck with your studies!

User: Doodles - 21 June 2011 00:05

Good luck for the last part - you've made it this far in tough circumstances which sound familiar so you can do it!  It's really tough not having the support network you need as it's hard enough to do a PhD without having supervisor problems!  

As for the dept that seems to be a common practice of brushing problems with difficult supervisors under the carpet so everybody knows about it but nobody does anything about it! That's one of the unfortunate problems with academia in that it protects its own so unless you make a formal complaint nothing is done!  It's really a catch 22 situation as it depends on how much clout and influence they have as if they are a big fish in a small pond (dept) you are in trouble! It depends on their reputation as well as they may make trouble for you if you stay on in academia.  But if they are a small/medium fish in a large pond they'll have less influence and won't be able to get away with such behaviour so easily!

As for your supervisor belittling you I think it show his sense of insecurity that he takes it out on others especially students who are an easy target as a lot of PhD students are just overwhelmed by it all and have their own insecurities to deal with! Doing a PhD is a very emotional experience like being on a rollercoaster and constantly under pressure to perform, keep up with all the work, get results, deal with problems often with data collection or analysis!  At least you know that you're not alone not that this really helps but it is somewhat comforting to know that it's not through anything you've done!  He just has an impossible personality and a lack of social skills to get along and work with!

Just think how satisfying it'll all be when you finish and show him that you managed to get it all on your own! Not so "stupid!"  And then if he doesn't help don't put his name on the publications as I suspect that is what he really cares about which will be a real thorny issue!  

I am glad you've made the decision to leave - it'll be so much easier if you don't have to be around him and his negativity which is enough to wear even the most confident and optimistic person down! Remember you are a survivor and have the battle scars to show for it! It becomes less painful as time wears on and to put a positive spin on it - nothing will be as hard again and you'll know how to deal with such people in the future!  I think as PhD students you feel less able to deal with such issues particularly as your future is wrapped up in the PhD so we often don't want to jeopardise it!

Good luck - you can do it and I hope you get the support you need to finish it!  Good luck with your move to the UK. It'll be a good change of scenery and away from the source of the pressure which has been making you miserable! (up)

User: Mackem_Beefy - 22 June 2011 13:20

I've been watching this as I was bullied during post-doc. You're getting out once your PhD finishes and that's good to here.

It's interesting to note they are gathering reports against the lab (and I assume the supervisor), so hopefully not too many people will be subject to this for much longer. It's difficult to get academia to act on this normally as they tend to close ranks, to avoid damage to reputation. For that reason, I never took action against my problem characters and just decided to try to get on with my life (a woman had lost an action against one of them a year earlier and that influenced my actions strongly). However, it looks like this person may actually be dealt with and his reign of 'terror' may be brought to an end.

Once clear and the PhD is awarded, you might at this stage wish to add to one of these reports. However, you may just wish to put the episode behind you as others don't like to rock to boat in a new job whilst dealing with debris from the old. People prefer to handle things in different ways I guess.

Either way, I know how you feel (there were times I was in tears) and wish you the best of luck sorting yourself out for the future. I managed to see out the contract (important for my CV), however, I was soo glad to be away from that place.

Chin up, it gets better from here on in!!! (up). You'll soon be out of this person's way.

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)

User: neozelandaise - 26 June 2011 23:34

Thank you so much for your replies.

I think my friends here in France are sick of hearing me whining and just say "get on with it, you can do it etc." There have been so many students who started after me finish and people in the department are constantly asking me when I'll finish. I have absolutely no confidence in myself and in my work. I just received a revised chapter from my supervisor that is COVERED in writing and saying things like "I would've expected you to do this better", "you should have done this" - it doesn't help to have these comments in the 13th hour. He should have said what was expected 3 years ago.

The thing is that I made an excellent digital model which showed so much detail in one area, he said I would have expected a better detailed model of the whole region (I spent 2 years making it). The reason there is so much detail in the one area is because I spent 4 months GPSing it! The rest of the region I had to use whatever publically available data which is of lower resolution. He did buy some data but I told him he wouldn't work before he got it because it wasn't a good pair (you need two satellite images). He then said in the corrections, why didn't you use the data I bought.

After reading the corrections I burst into tears, went home and watched a movie and drank wine. It just seems that every time I give him something that it comes back covered in pen with a HUGE number of corrections... yet he keeps asking me where all my chapters are. I spent ages working on chapters because I have no confidence in what I am doing! And then when I think it is good enough it comes back with "this is wrong" "why did you do this" "you should have done this". I also have to write a report for the people who gave me money and he constantly reminds me of this, threatening legal action on their part against me because I've broken the contract... but how am I supposed to do this too? I can't do ten million things at once. And then he sent me an email on Thursday asking for a copy of report that has nothing to do with my PhD, I didn't send it, he then emailed again on Friday. I replied to search on google because I didn't have it.

What really gets to me is that he constantly puts down my work, and is giving away my subject to other students to do! He has also taken my draft article, added to it and put me as the 3rd author! He gave away my digital model to another student for him to do some modelling on, the exact same modelling I've done in my PhD!! And when I tell the head of the PhD students, my supervisor just weasels his way out and I get told just to get on with my work. GRRRR!!

The other thing I'm worried about is I've been in contact with the jury since March to say that I'd like them to be my examiners - the expected dates have changed so much because I've been delayed a lot. The supervisor has been in email contact with them since and he forwarded me the last email when the examiner wrote that the latest changes "are inconvenient, but so be it". Supervisor emailed examiner at 12pm and then re-emailed at 4pm when he hadn't heard from him! I'm scared that the jury will have a negative view of me before they even read the manuscript. I've got one person that I trust on the jury and who knows the background, but the others I don't know well. Two of them are very kind but I don't trust my supervisor - I'm scared he has been bad-mouthing me. Although I guess if I fail, its not good for him either.

Anyway, I'm leaving France on Thursday and I hope a change in environment will help me out. On a positive note, I had a job interview on Friday which went very very well :). There was no vacancy but they wanted to meet me after I contacted them. We spoke for 2 hours about the company, what opportunities they have coming up and about my work experience. I walked away feeling like it went really well. The guy was going to speak with

User: PKDIndia - 28 May 2014 22:09

I had been doing my thesis in India and I have not received any stipend or payment and now my supervisor is asking for money to write on behalf of me for my thesis approval for which he has absolutely no contribution except saying a few good things when I meet him. How should I avoid paying money as I am unemployed and dont know how to pay my rent and then pay money