Leave Me Alone
August 11, 2011 9:54 PM   Subscribe

How can I tell my ex-academic supervisor to leave me alone?

While I was doing my masters degree, I agreed that when it was finished I would work on a paper with him. I never really wanted to, but he was my supervisor at the time, and I couldn't really say no. So I agreed, and thought that I'd cross that bridge when I got to it. Now I've graduated and am teaching casually at the university, with no plans to ever do anymore research, ever.

Having experienced freedom for the first time in ages, I realize now that I'd rather shoot myself then follow through on what I agreed to do, but it's too late now, and he's getting impatient. I didn't want to disappoint him and when I saw him the other day I was too meek to tell him I wanted out and instead I cemented the commitment. Now I'm kicking myself.

There's nothing in it for me except time-wasting boredom on a subject I don't find remotely interesting, working on a paper that will inevitably be rejected (the guy is deluded and thinks there is something worth publishing when there definitely isn't). I don't know where to get the guts to front up and back out of it, and I feel miserable.
posted by moorooka to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How can I tell my ex-academic supervisor to leave me alone?

Odd phrasing for your question, which is actually "how do I back out of a commitment I made?" He's acting perfectly reasonably, since you told him that you would work on the paper with him and he's wondering why you haven't done what you said you'd do.

Just tell him you've changed your mind. Yes, it will take a spine to say that. Adulthood is that way, sometimes we have to tell people things we don't want to tell them.
posted by jayder at 10:01 PM on August 11, 2011 [29 favorites]

Do it via email. Explain that since your talk the other day, you've evaluated your schedule and goals and you realize it just won't be possible.

Apologize respectfully, retain your authority over your decisions in the language you choose, but do it over email.
posted by jbenben at 10:03 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a great blog post (albeit aimed at librarians) that addresses this: How Do You Say No?

The idea is to make it a "positive" no.

"Dear Bob, Thanks so much for your continued interest in my research and your enthusiasm for collaborating. However, after we spoke the other day, I realized that right now I want to take a break from research and focus on other projects. Do keep me in mind for future projects. Signed, Moorooka"

Though maybe re-word that last bit if you're sure you won't want to work with him again.

(Also, slight derail: are you sure you're not just selling yourself short? If this guy is a prof who is publishing regularly, maybe he does have a better sense of what's publishable.)
posted by bluedaisy at 10:15 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

There aren't any hacks to finding the guts to do something; you just have to do it. Tell the guy you are backing out of your research commitment and won't be publishing the paper.

BTW, have you considered the possibility that this will look bad? I understand you don't want to be a researcher, but you still are going to want to be employable in some field in the future.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:17 PM on August 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

There is also the option of making good on the commitment you not only made once, but just reaffirmed. Surely your word must be worth something?
posted by bicyclefish at 10:31 PM on August 11, 2011 [11 favorites]

Either way, you are going to have to be very clear with him about what you decide to do: back out of the commitment (using the excellent advice above) or, as bicyclefish says, make good on the commitment and use it, in future, as a reminder of why not to agree to things you don't want to do just to keep the peace.

If I were in your shoes, I'd do it, because reputations are built (or damaged) on the basis of whether or not people keep their commitments.
posted by impluvium at 10:48 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

The OP agreed to this when the supervisor had considerable power in their relationship. It's really hard to change a dynamic so quickly. And a new paper could be a significant investment of unpaid, personal time. Academics back out of research collaborations often. I'd rather have a co-author back out early than not do it well.

Most importantly, the OP is asking how to do it, not to be shamed by MeFites.

Since it's hard to have these conversations, I do think email is your best bet. Good luck. This is likely a much bigger deal to you than to him.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:58 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Dear (Insert Name Here),

I wanted to follow up with you regarding the paper we discussed last year now that I've had some time to look over our original plan since we spoke on X date. As much as I would like to be able to collaborate on this topic with you, the demands of my new schedule and my new career are such that I do not feel that I can commit to working with you on the project. I recognize that this is inconvenient, and I apologize for not telling you sooner, but up until this point I was doing my best to rework my responsibilities so that a collaboration could occur.

Thank you for your faith in me as a research partner. Hopefully we can work together again in the future.

posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:04 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hah. Totally been there. I tried to convince him that the paper was a doomed effort (without huge amounts of additional work that I would inevitably have to do for free -- no thanks), but he had an answer to every criticism. I tried to drop hints that I was too busy and not invested in seeing this paper done, but they had no effect. Eventually whenever he sent me an email about the paper I responded by saying I am fully committed with other projects at the moment and don't see having time to work on this in the near future. I held that line for months and he eventually gave up.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:06 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

And don't feel guilty by the way. If he really wants a paper done there is nothing stopping him from writing it himself, so he won't be terribly harmed by your backing out. The whole reason you collaborate is because you are invested in the work and will benefit professionally from publishing. If you are doing the entire thing as a favour to him it is a lopsided arrangement, especially for a doomed paper that might have several rounds of revisions (what happens when they come back and say 'redo the analysis!' and you are the only one who knows how, hmm?). It is a shame that you will have to go back on your word, but if the alternative is a disproportionately large sacrifice on your part, it is okay to draw a line to preserve your own well-being.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:13 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If he really wants a paper done there is nothing stopping him from writing it himself, so he won't be terribly harmed by your backing out.

This is not strictly true. If he wants to publish a paper based on work that you did as his student, he may well feel that it is inappropriate to do it alone. My guess is that he would be perfectly happy if you back out, as long as you say he is welcome to use your data, or whatever the relevant work is of yours. If you are not planning to continue in academia, it shouldn't matter that your data gets published without your name on it.

Or if it's normal in your field to credit someone as an author who didn't write the paper, but did provide data, then I guess you'd want to ask him to do that. or to acknowledge you in the footnotes or whatever's normal.

The main thing is that he probably devoted a lot of time to supervising you and helping and advising you with this project because it overlapped with his research interests, and he was hoping to be able to get a (joint) publication out of it. He might feel it is wasted time if that is no longer possible. But it doesn't mean you actually have to do any more work.
posted by lollusc at 1:20 AM on August 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Do it via email - and realise that you will have to say no to people in your life.
posted by mleigh at 2:36 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

To reiterate what Lollusc said, if your ex-supervisor wants to use your data, then tell him that it's fine for him to do that (assuming you're in a data-related kind of field). Collecting data is often one of the most time-consuming parts of any project, so perhaps he feels like he has to give you credit for it via being a co-author?

In terms of getting out of the commitment you (unwilling) agreed to (twice!), I would simply e-mail him and 'just say no'. Of course, there are ways of pussy-footing around it and trying to mitigate it, but if he's an academic, he should be used to rejection (!). If I were in your shoes, I'd probably go along the lines of something like:

'Dear Dr X, I really sorry for dragging my heels over our collaborative project, but I'm afraid to say that after reviewing my various commitments, I realised I had overestimated how many obligations I had to other projects. Unfortunately, I really do not have any time available to dedicate to working with you on this and will have to turn down the opportunity to pursue a publication with you. Of course, please feel free to use the data set I collected (and any provisional analyses), but I won't be able to work on this with you in the long-term.

I apologise for any inconvenience caused, and good luck with the publication.

Regards moorooka.'

Of course, if it's going to be a co-authored paper, it can go on your CV and will strengthen any application you make if you decide to stay within academia, even if you don't plan on doing any research in the long-term (which, truth be told, would be odd if you wanted to stay within the university system...). If it's only going to be a couple of months work, I'd be tempted to say 'get your head down and just do it', but if you really have your heart set on not doing it, then you have to be straight with your ex-supervisor and tell him what's what.

Good luck :)
posted by Scottie_Bob at 3:40 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't think anyone who is pointing out that this could make you look bad is trying to shame you, I think they're trying to warn you that you are at risk of looking bad professionally.

I also think that you are being quite unfair to this guy. You make him sound like a stalker and a crank for not getting the hint that when you say "sure I'd love to" twice in a row you actually mean "ew cooties no not if you were the last professor on Earth." Please understand that if he does get a whiff of that attitude from you, or if you just continue to passive-aggressively drag your feet until he figures out from your inaction that you really meant "no" all along, that is what is going to damage your professional reputation. The damage from that is going to be worse than you could possibly create if you actually say "no".

Just follow These Birds of a Feather's script; thank him for the opportunity, apologize for not getting back sooner, and explain that you thought you were going to be able to find the time but that it now looks as though your schedule is much more crowded than you anticipated and you're going to have to decline. You could also tell him that you'll be happy to provide him with whatever data he needs in exchange for a mention in the acknowledgements (or being made 4th author or whatever). It doesn't sound like you want to work with this guy again, so don't say that, but you could end it on a positive note by saying he should feel free to come back to you with any questions that come up in the course of writing the paper. Nthing suggestions to do it by email so you keep the emotion out of it.
posted by tel3path at 5:10 AM on August 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

Your attitude, as others noted, is odd. You want to get out of a commitment, not be left alone.

In academia, people withdraw from publishing commitments all the time with a simple "I'm just too busy to do this in a timely manner." Believe me, there will be someone else in line to co-write that paper for the author credit.

I think there is a deeper issue here. Calling your former adviser "deluded" when he is trying to reach out and help your career means you have really different views of the situation. Drop the attitude and politely withdraw.
posted by spitbull at 5:40 AM on August 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

I 100% agree everything that Scottie_Bob and tel3path are saying. I typed out a long response but realised that I was just going over everything that they had said.
posted by 200burritos at 6:16 AM on August 12, 2011

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