Guest Post: Publishing without supervisors

Today’s guest post is by The Blundering Ecologist, a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in Canada. In addition to research, she is passionate about asking uncomfortable questions and learning the rules so that she can break them properly. 

I can’t do this.

That was my only thought when my class professor told me on the first day of classes I had to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors on all the work I submitted to his class. I anxiously took notes until class was over. Loitering in the hall, I waited until all the other students had left so that I could ask for his advice. Why was I supposed to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors when they have not significantly contributed to my work?

“For my dissertation my PI was just like that. The whole four years I struggled alone and the last thing I wanted to do was put his name on my work. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to publish alone. It was just easier to put his name on it.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I mean, if I was you, and I had the [expletive] to do it I would go back and publish without him… Put him in the acknowledgements. That would really show his co-workers what kind of researcher he was.”

“But, for now?”

“For now, put their names on your work and keep your head down. He has complete control over your M.Sc. and the headache isn’t worth it… at least, not yet. Don’t make things difficult for yourself.”

One of my supervisors was an urban geographer (primary M.Sc. supervisor) at my university and the other an ornithologist (secondary M.Sc. supervisor) at a university in another city. My M.Sc. work was in Ecology and on mammals. My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.

Twelve months later…

That professor’s words never left my mind. As I quickly moved through my degree at a pace that surpassed my labmates and colleagues, I constantly grappled with that notion: gift-authorship.

Was I prepared to allow my primary M.Sc. supervisor to be listed as a co-author on work he did not significantly contribute to? Could I live with my decision to list him? On the other hand: could I stand up on my own? Was I strong enough to take a stand and make such a controversial statement about my ethics as a researcher? My gut was much more clear about what I needed to do. I was going to publish my thesis without my M.Sc. supervisors. But, on what grounds? Google was only so helpful. Turns out this is a very discipline specific issue which made it hard to pin-point how to handle matters in my situation. In Ecology and Biology, it is common for junior scientists to list their supervisors as co-authors on their thesis. It is socially expected. It is a given. Usually students and supervisors have this discussion early on in their degree, however this was never something I knew I should bring up, nor was it ever mentioned by my primary M.Sc. supervisor. The closest he got to mentioning authorship was when he asked me to list him as an author on a class project that I submitted to a professor on a topic unrelated to my M.Sc. work. After seeing my face, he recanted and said that he supposed he would need to read it first, however my class professor should be a co-author seeing as she taught me the material. (Yes, you read that right.)

Point was: I needed guidelines and I needed them fast.

I ended up finding a dozen different opinions on authorship from my field published in both official (journals) and unofficial capacities (blogs, newspapers, web forums). The consensus was clear: academia needs more honesty in not just publication preparation (data handling, results, etc.), but also authorship lists. The informal channels cautioned: students, be warned: you will be swimming against the current. If you burn a bridge, you better have a boat waiting.

There I was, match in hand, about to burn a very large bridge. My actions, to me, were justified. The journal I wanted to submit my work to had very clear authorship guidelines that I planned to follow to a T…

Paraphrasing, authorship should be based on:

  1. Significant contributions to conception and design, acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for paper; AND
  2. Writing and revising it critically; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. Accountable for all aspects of the paper.

Caveats followed: Everyone who meets the four points should be listed as authors and anyone who doesn’t meet all four points should be in the acknowledgements. Using this outline, solely obtaining funding, collecting data, or providing general supervision does not qualify someone for authorship. Especially important: all authors should be able to take public responsibly for the work and therefore have sufficient knowledge about the paper.

Pen to paper, I sat down and wrote out every single volunteer, employee, friend, parent, and colleague that helped me write my thesis – from start (funding) to finish (thesis). The list was long, but two things stood out:

  1. My friends, labmates, and colleagues helped me more than I realized. (One former labmate actually qualified to be a co-author due to her extensive participation in all aspects of my thesis.)
  2. My M.Sc. supervisors contributed very little to my thesis.

So, there I was, faced with a reality I could not walk away from. It would be me and my labmate publishing my thesis “solo”. Her response, “I thought you would never ask.” Then, as if an afterthought, “Is that even allowed? This might sound ridiculous, but is it even legal?” I got where she was coming from: would I lose my degree for doing this? Would I be kicked out of my M.Sc.? Stopped from doing Doctoral work? Dramatically (albeit justifiably), I wondered, would my career be “over”?

Those were tough questions that I didn’t have the answers to. None of the documents I read explained just what could or would happen to me if I published without my M.Sc. supervisors. Unsure where to begin, my first stop was the Ombudsperson office. She explained that she, frankly, had no idea. From there, I went to the Thesis Office, asked for a confidential meeting and put forward the question to my Department’s representative. She didn’t know either. She suggested I speak to my Department’s Graduate Program Director. His response was least helpful, “You don’t have to, but it would be nice.” “Nice” as if I were simply doing someone a favour, rather than allowing my primary M.Sc. supervisor to gain credit for work that his involvement (or rather, lack thereof) did not warrant. I explained my fear of my primary M.Sc. supervisor mishandling my results (based on a heated discussion I had with him over coffee where he asked me to omit information and change how my results would be presented to our funding board so that he could continue to get funding even though my results did not support the claims he wanted me to make). Again, the Director’s response was noncommittal as I repeated, “Am I allowed to publish my thesis without X as a co-author?” Leaving his office I was vaguely aware that no one really knew what a student had to do. All I knew was that I would be breaking a “rule” that didn’t exist in writing and there would be consequences. At that point, I went ahead and submitted my paper to my top choice journal. By the time I got to my defense, revisions were invited.

Two hurdles remained:

  1. My secondary M.Sc. supervisor was much more supportive and I respected him as a scientist, researcher, and colleague. Based on conversations with him, I knew he didn’t feel he qualified as a co-author for my thesis, but I felt I owed him the same honesty and respect that he gave me.
  2. The funding board had strict guidelines about publishing work funded by them and they needed to know my thesis would be published very soon and not in the traditional way they may have been expecting.

With my labmate, we decided to tackle problem #2 first. In a heavily proofread email, I explained that I am about to publish my thesis in a top journal in my field. I then explained why my primary M.Sc. supervisor (one of two people who got funding for my work – the second being a man I never met or spoke to) wasn’t a co-author on it. I explained I wrote a very generous and considerate acknowledgements section clearly (and painfully) outlining in what ways every single person who has contributed to my work contributed. Then, I explained my fears, which for anyone who knew my primary M.Sc. supervisor intimately, was well aware they were warranted: “I have yet to inform my [primary M.Sc.] supervisor of this decision as he controls my future and can make my life very difficult by taking away my funding or preventing me from graduating.” I asked that my decision be confidential as my primary M.Sc. supervisor could considerably modify my future. The person who handled publication related matters was understanding and assured me not to worry. Problem “solved”.

Problem #1 I didn’t have to face until three months after I defended my M.Sc. thesis. The publication was about to be released and I felt it was time to inform my secondary M.Sc. supervisor of my decision as he was beginning to offer his services in helping me get my thesis publication ready, if I so desired. I held my breath, and then sent him a painstakingly honest email that was well overdue.

I explained things from my perspective as follows: “I was a very independent student from the start; I often forged ahead and made decisions based on my knowledge of the circumstances. There was no denying that my work benefitted from [my secondary M.Sc. supervisor’s] input, however I did not find [my primary M.Sc. supervisor’s] contributions to be marginally more than the minimum required from a M.Sc. supervisor (namely, acquisition of funding).”

I continued: “From the very beginning, my work was statistically sound and my writing was clear. However, for that to occur I had to repeatedly ignore and overlook all of [my primary M.Sc. supervisor’s] comments concerning my work. At every junction I have had to challenge his judgement and his seniority, which quickly left me to make decisions without consulting him at all. Putting it bluntly, my work is solid despite [my primary M.Sc. supervisor]. My frustrations in having a [primary M.Sc.] supervisor so unknowledgeable about the biology, statistics, and the writing process required for a scientific paper in this field left me deeply concerned for my reputation as a scientist moving forward. I do not want his name professionally attached to my work in any way. Including [my primary M.Sc. supervisor] as a co-author would give him free reign to manipulate the results to suit his agenda. We have had many arguments where I have had to firmly put my foot down in response to him suggesting I could stretch the data to say something it did not, or worse, misrepresent the data to the [funding agency] (so he could obtain more funding). I refused and my being so disagreeable caused considerable friction in our relationship. I cannot allow [my primary M.Sc. supervisor] to get credit for work that he does not understand, cannot properly present, and has no right to call his own by simply having hired me. Obtaining funding is not justification enough to warrant co-authorship. Such practices do not promote better science.”

His reactions were mixed. True to his character, my secondary M.Sc. supervisor was supportive in that he himself generally made decisions that went against the grain, however he did not feel like “others” (my hitherto unnamed primary M.Sc. supervisor) would so readily agree. He expressed concern that I withheld this from both of them and that this could have serious repercussions for my future as a young scientist.

His concerns were warranted. However, my primary M.Sc. supervisor never contacted me. Former labmates told me about the smear campaign occurring in their meetings with my primary M.Sc. supervisor. They explained he would denounce my thesis and spend large parts of their meetings discussing how he felt my work was very poor and my thesis did not warrant my graduating at the top of my class.

Then things went quiet.

This did not help settle my nerves. I knew him (my primary M.Sc. supervisor) and I knew to always expect the unexpected.

Three more months had passed post-publication and I was sitting with my mother checking my email after a “long” (read: four weekday) absence from internet. Mostly work related emails and then there was one for a faculty member who served on my M.Sc. thesis committee, someone I considered a mentor. I was on the other side of the country, but that email still found its way to me. My M.Sc. committee member explained that he had learnt about the paper I published “without authorization”. He explained his disappointment in me and expressed that he felt there were no grounds for such action. The label he used was “scientific misconduct”. He felt that our relationship was a mere sham – a ruse. Yet, in the same paragraph he wished me well and hoped my actions did not prove disastrous for my career and reputation. The message was clear: my primary M.Sc. supervisor was still upset. I had burned a bridge.

And, here I am now. Seven months post M.Sc. defense. Some hopeful higher level summer jobs fell through. I can’t shake the feeling that it may be due in part to potential employers in my field reaching out to my old M.Sc. supervisors, but I will never know. (I did receive three summer job offers one month later.)

My M.Sc. defense is a distant, but haunting memory. I am about to start my Ph.D. at a different university – just about as far away as I could get from my old university – and I still hold my breath anytime new emails arrive in my M.Sc. inbox.

Of course I can’t have my primary M.Sc. supervisor provide me with letters of recommendation anymore. It’s an obvious consequence of my actions. But, that suggests I needed a letter from him to begin with. As with the publication issue, I quickly realized my primary M.Sc. supervisor would not be a suitable a reference for my future job or graduate applications. Similar to other female students in the lab, we all avoided being openly affiliated with him. He did not hide how he felt about women in the sciences from his female M.Sc. students in the privacy of his office and I could not risk giving him the opportunity to express how ill suited he felt women were for fieldwork and intellectual challenges. However, I still needed letters for my job and Ph.D. applications. I had planned for that. From the moment I realized I couldn’t rely on my primary M.Sc. supervisor to be an advocate for me and my abilities, I worked diligently on making connections with other professors, colleagues, and coworkers. I stayed active in the volunteer community throughout my M.Sc. degree, I collaborated with people outside of the lab I worked in, and I gained respect and made relationships in a less traditional way.

I did burn a bridge, but I had a boat waiting. This boat (other connections, relationships, future careers) has helped me continue to progress forward in my career. Collaborators still agree to work with me and I am not proving to be the pariah my primary M.Sc. supervisor is making me out to be. The only catch, as of now, is that it appears I am now only working with like minded people. So, I can’t say anyone will be giving me a gift-authorship anytime soon. But, that I can live with.

Maybe I would have handled matters differently under other circumstances, but that theory cannot be tested. What I do know is that I do not believe such practices (gift authorship) promote better science. The best I can, and continue to, hope for is that people respect my decision as it was not made lightly, nor is it a highly socially acceptable one either.

23 thoughts on “Guest Post: Publishing without supervisors

  1. This seems more like a supervisor issue that happens to include obvious authorship questions. If a supervisor does their job, there’s no question they belong as an author on most papers. I have never, ever heard of listing multiple authors on a paper submitted to a class; that is bizarre.

    This gets funkier in field biology as going to someone’s field site is generally considered required to list them as a co-author too.

    And well…I work in a SE Asian country and you basically have to include a local collaborator on all papers, no matter what. yes, they are instrumental in getting you research access, but the rest? yeah….sometimes nothing

  2. I feel for you, I really do. I, too, at times felt like the contributions of “certain people” (I will leave it at that) on my papers from my PhD was not warranted. However, for me not to have listed them would have had drastically bad consequences. In my field, if your MS or PhD supervisors are not providing letters of reference, it raises eyebrows. It is something that *most definitely* needs to be explained. And folks in the field will call these people up anyway. Even if you supply plenty of other names/letters.

    What students need to realize is that often, your supervisor is a totally different person with his colleagues. So those colleagues will not only be predisposed to side with him (because he is a colleague), they will honestly not recognize the person or behavior you object to. Folks, in general, are not the least bit interested in hearing about how your relationship with your supervisor soured, or that he was never really a good supervisor to you. Because there are all of these other students profusely thanking him in their theses….

    In short, I respect your decision and wish you the best of luck, but I cannot, in general, advise other students to follow in your footsteps.

  3. So, as an advisor in a related field, I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s really important to have clear communication throughout the process of a thesis. For most projects, the advisor doesn’t do any work, but is still mentoring, guiding, giving feedback on writing, etc. Including them in that case is not gift authorship, it’s just a reflection of your efforts as a member of their lab, under their supervision.

    Your experience sounds very…off? to me. It’s unclear why you were so independent (this is really unusual for a master’s student in particular). Was your advisor AWOL? Or is that just your preferred style? I’ve had issues with students who were much more independent than they should have been, and made poor choices as a consequence. It’s unclear from reading this whether you were abandoned as a student, or went awol. “Acquiring funding” is not trivial, especially if your advisor wrote a proposal and came up with the concept for your project. That intellectual work is important, too. Again, not clear from this post, though.

    I would also add that there should be conversations about authorship early and often. For my students, I tell them right away that I will contribute to the development of their thesis, that I will mentor them (we have weekly or biweekly meetings as well as a weekly lab meeting), train them, make sure they have access to space and resources, and contribute to the revision of the work (it’s important that they do the bulk of the writing, because that’s how they learn). For side projects that don’t involve me, I may not necessarily be involved as a co-author. But for projects in my lab? Absolutely, and I don’t think that’s gift authorship by any definition, including the ones listed here.

    • I agree with a lot of this – although am sure it’s hard to give sufficient detail while keeping everything anonymous. But one of my concerns with ‘acquiring funding’ for authorship is – does that always mean that every co-PI listed on a grant app that I was partially funded by gets to be an author on every paper I write from my diss? This is the case on my project, and I hate it. The majority haven’t even read drafts of the papers. It’s one thing to say my advisor is mentoring me and gets to be an author on all my dissertation work to reflect that, I get that. It seems like another to suggest that every person who helps acquire the funding is doing sufficient mentoring/idea contribution (big grants have lots of aspects and ideally the student is also contributing their own ideas/direction to the project). So all in all, I’m not sure I agree with the guest post but I think it’s an important conversation to be having (because even when authorship conversations happen early and often, it’s one-sided — PIs are essentially telling grads how it will be, it’s not a dialogue)

      • It’s tricky, because “acquiring funding” isn’t just a matter of going to the funding store and picking out a basket of money. There is a lot of intellectual development that goes into writing a grant, and that can be a substantial contribution to a project even if someone wasn’t directly involved with collecting the data or running the analyses.

        Having said that, everyone who wants to be a co-author has got to be at least involved in revisions on a paper. I’ve had senior authors do this to greater or lesser extents. But I’ve also involved undergraduates as co-authors who did very little writing or revising of the manuscript but whose honors thesis involved more than just button-pushing. And I think including them was right, and ethical, and a good mentoring practice.

        • “It’s tricky, because “acquiring funding” isn’t just a matter of going to the funding store and picking out a basket of money.”

          Wow, this is incredibly condescending! A lot of grad students are involved in the proposal writing process to various degrees. Some have even written entire proposals from top to bottom.

          Also, as you are no doubt aware, proposals are not contracts. Meaning that once you get the money, an independent student could take the project in a very different direction. So for authorship, the question of intellectual contribution is key — the money is meaningless without this. But I’m not surprised at your attitude. Many PIs purchase authorship in just this way. And students really have no recourse, unless they are willing to risk serious damage to their careers.

          • I’m sorry that came across as condescending (by the way, I’m a co-founder of this blog. Hi!). I wasn’t trying to belittle the OP, but rather to clear up what seemed like some misconceptions. My point was two-fold. First, Getting money isn’t a service, it’s an intellectual enterprise. I don’t know how the OP was funded, but if was a proposal, they definitely did the work of the first criterion.

            Secondly, proposals are contracts, typically speaking. There are expectations that there will be deliverables, on the subject of the proposal. Maybe we’re talking about two different things, but if I get an NSF proposal and fund a student, while they can do some side projects, there is absolutely an expectation that they conduct the work promised in the proposal. If not, it jeopardizes the funding. NSF requires progress reports for exactly this reason. Maybe your circumstance is different, but I’ve spent hundreds of hours on proposal writing. Intellectual contribution can come at many stages, including the proposal stage and during the mentoring process. If a PI gets a grant in the way I described above, and mentors a student who does the work, that is not purchasing authorship.

            I’m sorry that you think my disagreement is a sign of being biased, but I was a student not very long ago. And yes, my perspective is different, because I have seen both sides of the situation with in the last few years, but that doesn’t make me wrong. Students are often in untenable situation because of hostile mentors, and we’ve featured posts about toxic advisers on this blog in the past. I encourage you not to necessarily dismiss the perspectives of others just because they are PI’s. Lots of people have bad experiences with mentors (including many of us blog authors who are also PIs), but that doesn’t invalidate our perspectives outright.

      • I agree with Acclimatrix, this question of funding and authorship is important.

        “My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.”

        What the situation was here is unclear. But for the record: if an investigator writes a competitive project grant, which requires specific objectives, planned and detailed experiments, justification and usually preliminary data… any later experimental work arising from that funding performed by others should absolutely include the grant-writing investigator as author. Not because s/he provided the money but because s/he played a critical intellectual role in the project.

        • I too agree with Acclimatrix. And, also, I like the phrase “dude project.” Not sure if that was a typo, but I am envisioning what a dude project would look like, and my mental image is hilarious.

  4. Something I’ve been saying for a long time, and it applies here: “Don’t burn your bridges behind you. You may find out later that you’re going around in circles.” If you want to stand on principles and feel you’re justified- great. (Not knowing all details of your situation and all sides of your story). But keep in mind that you never know how your career may go, and you may unexpectedly come back around to needing your M.S. supervisor’s approval/assent on something. Is it worth the price? Only you can decide that. [For whatever it’s worth, my own doctoral dissertation included a mix of papers in which I was the sole author, I was the lead author and my mentor/advisor was co-author, and which my mentor was lead author and I was the second author (of many).]

  5. I don’t think that what you did was “misconduct” at all. But I do have to agree with previous commenters on many points. If your advisor was absent and/or refused to give you direction and/or continuously gave you inappropriate direction (situations I have witnessed with PIs and students), then you have reason to not want to be associated with them. However, not including the person who obtained funding for your work on documents produced from that work – whether the PI ‘understands’ the work or not – seems to be an extreme reaction. I’m not saying it’s an undeserved response (it certainly sounds like you had lots of issues to contend with)…but realize that it’s very far from the norm.

    Did you consider that you could publish in your top journal, with the terrible advisor’s name included, and the fact that you are serving as corresponding author would allow you to negate any editorial changes they suggested? It is, after all, your article… the editor of the journal likely does not have time to chase down individual authors, and would solely be in contact with you for edits. You don’t have to include your coauthors’ changes in the final document. Especially if they want you to compromise data. If terrible advisor doesn’t like the way you presented the data, and asks to have their name removed from the document, then you kindly acquiesce and remove their name. Since you are confident and sure of your data, if you were approached by other co-authors suggesting that you compromise, you have sufficient reason to refuse.

    And yes, other commenters… I know terrible advisor could be friends with an editor for the selected journal. Publishing standards dictate that they must still deal with the corresponding author for editorial submissions. If editor and terrible advisor are ‘bffs’, then for your own sanity, choose a different journal.

  6. Agree with aclimatrix

    It sounds like the supervisor obtained funding and provided infrastructure. But then was not given a chance to contribute to the paper, which was written and submitted for publication in secret. If so, that’s troubling and unethical.

  7. I’m a little surprised by some of the pushback here; in my Ethical Conduct of Research course, it was repeatedly emphasized that we needed to have HIGH standards for adding authors to papers. It seems particularly counterproductive to me to include someone as an author who apparently fundamentally disagrees with the analysis of the data and the conclusions drawn!

    Clearly the OP put a lot of thought into this decision, and it wasn’t made lightly. I think it took a lot of guts to not just fight the PI for maintaining the integrity of the data, but to also say “Giving credit for this work isn’t right, even if it’s typical”. I admire the hell out of their fortitude!

  8. This is a long comment but this post is troubling on a number of levels. First it’s awful that the author had such a terrible advising experience that pushed her to this and grad programs need to address these situations and not put students in this position. Second, it’s a terrible example of what to do in this situation.

    It sounds like you had a terrible adviser and some bizarre behaviour in the program as a whole (co-authors on class assignments?!) but I’m also pretty disturbed that you published this without them as an author and without discussing that before submitting the paper. If you had gone to your adviser and said “this is the manuscript I want to submit and if you feel you can’t agree with what I’ve done I think we should discuss me publishing this on my own” then I think you would have done the right thing. As it stands it sounds like you were in a very difficult position but your response was honestly kind of sneaky and juvenile. I would certainly advise graduate students to be very careful in following this example. There may be cases where this is warranted but it should be after some discussion with everyone involved. If the first mentor was simply unreasonable (which it sounds like he was) then these discussions should have initially been with the second mentor and then included the first as well and if need be the departmental chair and/or someone from the grad school.

    There are high standards for authorship, yours included. Taking an idea someone else had and obtained the funding for and publishing it without them could be considered a form of intellectual property theft. Seriously. Again, “just obtaining funding” (a phrase that makes me want to scream because it implies it’s a trivial matter instead of one of the hardest tasks a PI does, trust me I would so much rather be in the field but I write grants to support students), does not alone constitute sufficient involvement for publication. However if that funding is based on developing the idea for a project (even if it was in collaboration with the agency funding it) it certainly fulfills the first requirement for authorship “Significant contributions to conception and design” and if you came in to do this already funded project then you actually didn’t contribute to the first part, the conception of the study. Additionally, it sounds like he did provide feedback throughout the process. You didn’t agree with that feedback but if it was there this is element #2 in the authorship criteria. You didn’t give him a chance to do #3 and #4 of those authorship criteria. Given this I think it’s a stretch to say that including him would have been ‘guest authorship’. At the very least authorship should be openly discussed for every paper.

    Also I had to respond to the first comment which said: “This gets funkier in field biology as going to someone’s field site is generally considered required to list them as a co-author too.” I don’t agree at all and I’m a field biologist. Do you never collaborate with theoreticians or statistical ecologists? I actually have been to the field site of every paper I am on but this is because I am usually running the field component of the research. This is not a criteria for my co-authors unless it’s appropriate for their contribution to the paper. I don’t sit next to the theoreticians while they run simulations, they don’t need to visit the field site just to have done so. This requirement would also impose a barrier for many people who can make valuable contributions but can’t be in the field (e.g. those who have disabilities that would affect their safety in the field which can include the older researchers and people with permanent disabilities as well as the very pregnant, injured collaborators, etc). I just worry that this comment echoes one of the issues I have with the original post by minimizing the multiple ways people can make contributions to a project and what that means for authorship on papers.

    • I meant that if student A goes to B’s field site and does research, B is by convention a co-author in my experience. It’s fine when say, you’reat your advisor’s site, and they’re mentoring you, but it’s not a clear thing in other cases.

  9. I must say I also agree with Acclimatrix and J. I don’t see too much of a gift authorship in there.
    But I’m also wondering how this all got started. Perhaps some lessons are to be found there. I tell graduating students who are off to grad school that they should take great care with choosing an advisor. Projects can be changed, advisors not (well, it’s a lot harder, especially if things turn sour). I tell them to talk to the other students and keep their eyes and ears open about which advisors are good to work for *and* with, and which ones to better avoid. I leave it at that because they have to make their own choices in the end and it’s not my job to tell then with who they can/want to connect. But my experience is that they all value my input of clearly making them aware of what the consequences are of a) choosing a cool project at the expense of a ‘controversial’ advisor (meant not in scientific way) over b) a solid advisor with good track record but perhaps a less exciting (initial) project. Ideally, one gets the best of both worlds but it is often really tricky to figure this out.
    You say that other women researchers in your group also had issues with your advisor. What that sort of info withheld from you when you signed up? Did you chat with other group members? How was the project described to you? I’d be interested to hear if, in retrospect, you were given any indications of a red flag.
    Again, teaching especially undergrads in a 5 min ‘unsolicited advice’ conversation what to look out for can really make a difference. Because my hope as a mentor is to avoid such horrendous experiences in the first place as much as possible. So I sincerely hope you’ll find a better advisor for your PhD but it will likely require some research on your part as well.

    • I agree. There are definitely so many red flags and issues to unpack in this post, and definitely some warning signs of bad behavior on the advisor’s part, and poor communication.

      In the end, authorship aside, it’s a good thing these students aren’t working together, and the broader issues of what to do in a toxic relationship are important to discuss.

    • you can absolutely change advisors, I did that very late in the game as I had an abusive advisor. It took the help of my department and deans, but it can be done. Data belong to the university not the advisor or you, so they can help negotiate your finishing and publishing

  10. I am surprised at how strongly I am siding with the primary advisor/PI given that I have only read the author’s side of the story (and having been in a somewhat similar situation myself when I was a grad student).

    I heartily agree with all of the red flags already raised by other commenters (i.e., funding is never just “handed” to anyone, the ethical issues of the intentional exclusion of the primary advisor/PI from the work at all stages, etc.).

    My advice to grad students reading this post: do not follow this author’s footsteps! Instead, when you find that you and your primary advisor have irreconcilable differences, get a new advisor and a new project. Indeed I am kind of shocked that this was not recommended by anyone the author talked to. (Again, perhaps raising red flags about the program and all people involved.)

    Yes, it will be difficult (e.g., finding new support, possibly having to become self-supporting, increasing your time to completion, etc.), but it is the ethical thing to do. I had to do exactly this mid-way into my PhD, and now 16 years later I would make the same decision again. It is cleaner, more fair to everyone, and will not burn bridges (it might singe them a bit, but only temporarily). Grad students change advisors for a variety of reasons (and there’s no need for you to get into the details with anyone), and future supervisors/employers rarely question it.

    • Um, having changed advisors myself: unless you do it very early, you will definitely be asked about it. Most certainly by future supervisors, etc. I get asked all the time, and have developed a professional, limited information, bland answer. And you absolutely might burn bridges, but some bridges need to go.

  11. Did you contact your supervisors prior students? It seems that is the first step any student should make before deciding to commit for two years and potential headaches for any degree. That part is your responsibility, so I agree that there were many red flags and though I admire you making such a difficult decision, there was no reason for you to painstakingly carry out the full two years of your degree when there were other solutions to your problem which could have resolved it much sooner. Unless of course you continued just to make a point, that you will go against the grain if you have to. Problem is, you didn’t have to.

  12. Chiming in again, now on the topic of changing advisors. I just had a student complete a MS project with me after changing advisors late last fall. Yes, it was a rushed project.Yes, it could have been a thousand times better. No, I did not ask the details of why she left her initial project and I didn’t know her before the department head brought her to my office. She had an incredibly understanding committee, and still has a good professional relationship with her previous advisor (as do I). She was lucky, and I remind her of that often.

    We are a fairly intuitive species, scientists. We get gut feelings and chase the reason. Why then, do we not chase those same gut feelings when they caution us about working with a particular person? It took a bit for one of my own advisors to show their true colors, but within a few months of working with them, it became clear that they were bitter, controlling, angry, and jealous of anyone in the department who was perceived as having something they themselves did not (i.e., many students, large grants, friendly collaborating PIs, etc). I was in the extremely fortunate situation of having co-advisors, and so did not have to rely on this person exclusively for advice. It sounds as though secondary advisor could have served this role in this situation, had they been given the opportunity to do so.

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