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Sealioned by ex-supervisor


User: glimmerbat - 25 February 2021 13:25

I'm a postdoc currently finishing a paper using data from my PhD. I finished the first draft about a year ago and my ex-supervisor didn't respond for about eight months (I was busy with new project so didn't chase it up). His eventual comments were two lines of text and a Zoom link. We had a call where he told me to drop the paper. I explained what I was trying to do, and he insisted I prove certain basic claims (let's call this iteration A). So I did, then he insisted that I prove something about iteration A (iteration B), and then B (iteration C) and so on. We're now on something like iteration K, with his continued objections now unrelated to my paper.

At some point I said I wouldn't have any more meetings without my second and third ex-supervisors, who are both coauthors. We had one disastrous group call, then he insisted on talking alone. He hinted that I can't defend my work without them, but it feels like an excuse to keep putting me on the spot with these strange objections. His attitude is stressful: he often smirks and his comments have become slightly personal and belittling. I try very hard to assume no ill will, and take all objections seriously, but it's getting ridiculous. He keeps saying I have no evidence of my claims even though I've shown him dozens. He's still provided no written comments on my original paper.

As my ex-second supervisor recently said, if some of his objections were valid then our whole field would cease to exist. The third has started calling it the "pseudoscientific method," in that the objections seem superficially reasonable but never address the initial research question. A postdoc friend called it sealioning, after online trolls.

My PhD project was funded by his grant and my ex-University holds the rights to my data. We have a data agreement which loosely means I can't publish without his permission (my second and third supervisors are elsewhere). I'm not progressing enough on my current postdoc because I've now wasted four months.

I'm going to try to not engage with him until I've written a final draft, then I'll put it in front of him and see what happens. There's a chance he'll still object and I don't know what I'll do then. I'm trying hard to assume that there is no unconscious bias (because of my gender, sexuality etc), but unfortunately I've been in similar situations before that turned very nasty. Just wondering if anyone had any experience of resolving fundamental disagreements like this.

User: rewt - 25 February 2021 13:43

Can you pose an ultimatum and tell him if he doesn't agree with the final version you will remove his name?

If you have not submitted the paper to any journals already, you should be able to publish even without his approval (it is iffy if you have already submitted/presented it somewhere with him as co-author). The university probably owns the rights and not supervisor, and the university will be happy as long as you affiliate with them on the submission.

User: glimmerbat - 25 February 2021 21:25

Thanks rewt, this is a really good idea. I don't want to do that just yet because it would make everything so difficult for everyone, but it is a last resort. We haven't presented or submitted this together, although he's used it in his own presentations (which makes the current situation even stranger). I don't like being unkind so there's a part of me that thinks that if he really doesn't believe / understand my paper I need to invest a lot more time into making the text clearer. If that still doesn't work, then as you say, I may have no other choice.

User: rewt - 26 February 2021 18:32

Hinting at it might makes move faster. You don't need to outright say it but suggest that if he is having issues he can remove his name himself. There is being kind and being taken advantage of. So sometimes you need to stick up for yourself to stop people thinking they can be awkward with repercussions.

User: glimmerbat - 27 February 2021 19:54

Thanks. I really can't understand the energy he has invested into trying to force me to drop this paper. I don't know if he doesn't understand it, or is jealous, or is in another research group doing similar things... but the extent to which he has tried to prove there must be mistakes is really stressful. It would be like filming an event five times and then insisting it must be wrong because of a problem with the camera, then lens, then tripod, then memory card, then atmospheric pressure, then the floorboards that the camera tripod is on, then the building where the experiment is located, then vibrations from the street... it's the sheer extent to which he is refusing to engage with the paper content that I am finding so stressful. He just sent me another email completely ignoring all the boundaries I tried to set in the last one. It's like everything I say turns to white noise the minute that I say it. My concern is that our working relationship has deteriorated so much now that he will try to block publication even if I do submit it. He would be a natural choice for referee if he wasn't listed as a coauthor, so I'd have to say something to the journal. No matter what happens, if he doesn't suddenly change his attitude then I probably won't come out of this unscathed.

I just can't understand why he is doing this. Anyway, sorry for ranting...

User: BugsBunny - 27 February 2021 20:04

It could be that he's just flexing his ego as he no longer supervises you now. At least your ex-2nd-supervisor is supportive.

User: fakename - 04 March 2021 14:57

Quote From glimmerbat:
Thanks. I really can't understand the energy he has invested into trying to force me to drop this paper. I don't know if he doesn't understand it, or is jealous, or is in another research group doing similar things... but the extent to which he has tried to prove there must be mistakes is really stressful. It would be like filming an event five times and then insisting it must be wrong because of a problem with the camera, then lens, then tripod, then memory card, then atmospheric pressure, then the floorboards that the camera tripod is on, then the building where the experiment is located, then vibrations from the street... it's the sheer extent to which he is refusing to engage with the paper content that I am finding so stressful. He just sent me another email completely ignoring all the boundaries I tried to set in the last one. It's like everything I say turns to white noise the minute that I say it. My concern is that our working relationship has deteriorated so much now that he will try to block publication even if I do submit it. He would be a natural choice for referee if he wasn't listed as a coauthor, so I'd have to say something to the journal. No matter what happens, if he doesn't suddenly change his attitude then I probably won't come out of this unscathed.

I just can't understand why he is doing this. Anyway, sorry for ranting...

Can you document all the conversations you have with him and talk to the graduate school or the ethics committee about it? Documentation might also help when you end up submitting the paper without your advisor's name and he has problem with it.

In my own experiences. my previous chair of committee stepped down because we didn't work well together and she passed me on to another advisor who she thought was a better fit, and it was. And she initiated it through the graduate school and communication with this advisor. I imagine you can do the same thing.

Anyway, I understand that you're pretty traumatized at this stage and doing anything more might be too much for you. I'm sorry you had a PhD terrible experience, I don't understand why these terrible advisors exist. We need to mark their doors with something so other students know not to work for them in the future (just a silly thought).

User: glimmerbat - 08 March 2021 16:46

Thanks BugsBunny and fakename!

This is still going on and of course it's extremely stressful. I may indeed have to go to my former ethics committee and check the situation if I take his name off the paper. I now believe 100% that he is obstructing the paper for personal reasons, though I wouldn't like to guess what those reasons are.

I am shocked at how difficult it is to make progress in this situation. No matter how much I believe in this paper it has become very difficult to sit down and keep working on it when I know there is so much resistance no matter what I do. I'm sure I saw some cartoon as a child where old scientists kept insisting someone was wrong no matter what evidence was put in front of them. I wouldn't mind so much if he was engaging with my responses to his objections but he just ignores them and invents a new reason why I must be wrong. It is such a waste of time and effort and he is being so smug about it. If some of these objections were valid I never would have got my PhD. Nobody in my field would have.

By contrast, my postdoc supervisor went through a list of half a dozen of my project ideas and was extremely positive and enthusiastic towards all of them, offering tons of support in developing them. It would be so easy to drop this paper and do something else, except I know perfectly well that's what my ex-supervisor wants.

User: BugsBunny - 08 March 2021 17:46

Can you somehow convince him that publishing this work will be of some benefit to him?

User: glimmerbat - 08 March 2021 19:17

Quote From BugsBunny:
Can you somehow convince him that publishing this work will be of some benefit to him?

It should be obvious that it would... it's a major contribution that could have a wide impact. My other supervisors already explained to him what a big impact it could have. He has spent his career trying to come up with groundbreaking ideas, but most of them have failed. I don't like trying to guess what other people are thinking, but he could simply be jealous. I know tons of people who think they are far too logical to experience emotions, so whenever they do they label it as some objective external truth. There is nobody on earth more obstinate than petty people who think they are wise.

(Sorry, I'm clearly getting annoyed with him now... I should try to take a break.)

User: rewt - 09 March 2021 10:51

glimmerbat, the more you describe your supervisor the ever more stubborn he sounds.

I would just give up on him and press the nuclear button, ie publish without him.





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