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What Every Target of Workplace Bullying Needs to Know

Working With An Unsupportive Supervisor - Part One

by Timo


A supervisor was retired in a small research group. The retired professor continued to guide the postgraduate studies under the power of the new supervisor. After some years, the supervising altered more and more unsupportive for academic work. This delayed the studies and made the cooperation with research partners difficult. The supervisor forbade the retired professor to have relations with companies, which limited his possibilities to guide students and purchase financing.
I was workplace bullied during my PhD defense. In order to avoid such problems, I suggest that the power of the retired professor, the actual supervisor, should be expanded. I also highlight the importance of academic freedom for successful studies.


I made my PhD thesis together with another PhD student and a licentiate student. A retired professor guided our work. Our new supervisor was an old postgraduate student of the retired professor. His participation to our projects was only partial and mainly focused on personal management. As a consequence, the retired professor and I led our small group and purchased the financing for the studies. The supervisor had made a consult agreement with the retired professor for advice and handling of the projects.

This way of organizing the studies was successful in the beginning. The group made progress and spent plenty of time in creating new research contacts as our main financier had wished. Also the supervisor was enthusiastic and interested about our work. He helped us in modernizing the laboratory instrumentation.

A change in atmosphere

The new supervisor had managed to gather plenty of project financing. It appeared that he started to see our co-operation as a threat for his own studies. Providing samples to our partners was limited. When I asked, why he did not allow to purchase samples to our partners, while similar samples were provided to other partners, he answered that our partners were “not buddies of his”. He also explained that this was a way to prevent research competition.

One of our partner groups was in a big trouble, since they had not produced any meaningful results for over two years. The students asked my help. I understood the difficult situation and made a plan that had a good synergy for my studies and would have produced the needed results quickly. A very conventional sample was required for the experiments. The supervisor forbade purchasing it. We, therefore, had to abandon the plan and made another with much higher risks. The risks of the new plan realized and the partner group remained without any results. The postgraduate studies of the partner group cancelled and the group members suffered mental injuries caused by unsuccessful research.

Although we had collected substantial amount of financing, the supervisor was reluctant to cover the expenses (like travelling costs) of the retired professor. While my colleague from our group was finalizing his PhD, the supervisor accused the retired professor of “information leakage”. He had shown my colleagues PhD plan to an international research partner. The supervisor ended his consult agreement and told me that the retired professor was not allowed to have contacts with companies. The decision was poorly justified. After all, the retired professor had 40 years’ experience in handling company relations. The plan was already nearly 100 % public and the rest were to be published within months. Discussing about it was in line with the long-range policy agreed with the companies. Naturally, the retired professor was shocked of, de facto, being kicked out from the laboratory by his own student. The decision made our guidance and possibilities to purchase funding difficult. Ever since, the retired professor concentrated to make science in another laboratory in another country.

The supervisors’ incomplete presence affected his competence to evaluate the studies. A big project ended after three years. The supervisor thought that the project had been lousy and decided to dumb the results to a wastebasket. In the opinion of mine, an international evaluator of the project and the other professors, the results were, however, rather good and thus being a suitable for a licentiate´s thesis. The licentiate student had to start her studies from the very beginning.

Workplace bullying during PhD defense

The PhD defense and post-doctoral party was very important for me. After all, I was to become a doctor in second generation. During my studies I witnessed several solemn post-doctoral parties. I was very impressed about the extreme pride of the Custos, when they told about the brand new thesis and doctors. The university guidelines emphasize the nature of the post-doctoral party as “coronation”.

My PhD manuscript was a few months late due to the difficulties in writing articles from my scattered results. In addition, two of my last articles were rejected in the beginning of September. Because of the unexpected drawbacks the retired professor recommended adjourning the defense to the next year. The head of department denied, however, this from budget reasons. Thus, I was forced to send a rather unfinished thesis for pre-reviewing.

The supervisor reacted to the problems partly in an abusive manner. In a private meeting he laughed to me derisively about the timetable of the thesis.

In the beginning of November, the supervisor decided that my defense date would be in the middle of December. The thesis would be accepted in an extra meeting by the head of department, since the last conventional meeting would be few days before.

In order to complete my studies, I needed to write a report from my last experiments. The supervisor called and asked about it. I answered that I would first make the corrections proposed by my pre-reviewers to the thesis and then finalize the report.

Something was wrong in my answer. The supervisor started to bemoan loudly. The phone conversation was impossible to continue. Next day he sent me an e-mail informing that all my studies were accepted.

Three days later the supervisor called again. He told with an impolite voice that arranging an extra meeting with the head of the department would be "artificial". Thus, the defense would be arranged 5 days earlier than already agreed. No apologies were presented. My wife became angry, since this surprise move messed up the efforts to find the place for the post-doctoral party. Only two weeks was left to find a new place for the party and to invite guests to the new place. I had already informed my relatives about the defense date. It was only good luck that no one needed to retract airplane tickets. Arranging an extra meeting would certainly not had caused any trouble for the head of the department, who was aware about the late timetable.

PhD thesis to be defended must be public 10 days before the defense; I had put the thesis on press roughly 14 days prior it.

One (!) day before the compulsory dead-line my supervisor called. He shouted to the phone to take the manuscript out of press in the middle of printing. The reason was the minimal corrections (few typographical errors etc.) that had arrived to my last article. Demanding these corrections was not accordance with the practices of the university. It is enough that the article has a permission to be published. The press became upset. I made the small corrections and send the thesis again to the pressing queue. My PhD ceremony was not far from cancellation due to the episode.

My big day dawned. I defended my thesis successfully. Also Opponent was satisfied. My family, wife, doctor-father, who paid the post-doctoral party and the workplace were witnessing. Despite of the tight timetable, my wife had managed to book an elegant place for traditional post-doctoral party.

The supervisor (Custos) tried to hide his antipathies during the ceremony. He made, anyhow, several sarcastic comments about me such as: "Jee, is he really going to follow the rules" (the procedure of dissertation was discussed together with Opponent). He also carefully avoided saying anything positive about my thesis and presented only negative critics. This was in contrast with his earlier views that had been very favorable for the thesis. Custos became angry, when I mentioned about the corrections made. ln his speech at the post-doctoral party Custos brought up positive aspects, such as my capability to supply money to the laboratory, but what it came to the thesis itself, he quoted and paralleled the words of the head of the department (apparently, he was not willing to say anything positive from his side personally). The speech included a sarcastic remark about the work timetable.

During the post-doctoral party, while the supervisor was not around, the retired professor recommended me to change workplace into another laboratory.

Continued... Part Two

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