Is it possible to change bad professional reputation?
April 22, 2016 12:03 AM   Subscribe

I had a nightmarish experience during my PhD which is in most part due to my supervisor. I barely made it through and graduated with no publicaitons and shattered self-esteem. Thanks to a lot of luck, I landed a good postdoc position. It's a very narrow field of work though, everyone knows everyone and my PhD experience continues to haunt me...

I had 2 PhD supervisors. The primary one (let’s call him Jack) and the senior more hands off one (let’s call him David). I primarily worked with Jack and had meetings with David twice a year or so. This was my first research experience so I blindly believed what Jack told me. One of the things was that he doesn’t believe in publishing papers during the PhD and that going to conferences was a waste of time. Unknowingly, this was a huge mistake that led me to being far less competitive for postdoc positions and grants. Jack also liked to micromanage and scheduled a lot of meetings I didn’t really need, jumped to answer questions for me during my talks (I literally had to fight with whose voice was louder to be able to say something). He was also telling others how much effort and work supervising me was because I am not capable of independent work. This is in huge contrast to my previous experiences of work/study where I was praised for independence.

I could tell that others in the department perceived me through his comments (including David with whom I had little actual contact with due his extreme busyness and seniority) and I grew increasingly depressed. I started believing that Jack was right and kind of assumed a totally submissive role. It was a downward spiral. Despite all the negatives, Jack was intelligent and had a huge amount of knowledge and expertise in our field. In my last year of PhD though, things went from bad to worse. Jack started an affair with a co-worker and lost all interest in work. I spent a year chasing him to read my chapters. He would not turn up to meetings and ignore my e-mails. I spoke to David who recommended that I be patient for a little longer because Jack is most familiar with my work and we needed his input. I was stuck and extremely close to just quitting. In the end, on David’s advice I had to report Jack to student council, who forced him to meet me every 2 weeks until I submitted. He continued ruining my reputation by telling people that if I was a better student, he would have made an effort. On the surface, I maintained calm and pleasant relationship with Jack. We never had any confrontations.

After I submitted, I started looking for work in other states because I didn’t see any hope for work in that city. I was still convinced that the problem is me and that I really lacked talent and ability. But as luck would have it, I got an offer only 2 months into the job search and packed up, left my family behind and moved for my new job. I was thrilled to get the chance to work in the field I loved with a clean slate. Things were markedly different in the new environment. My superiors constantly complimented my work, I was given space to work on my own, and my ideas were valued and supported. I published number of papers, even won some smaller grants and year in my current supervisor suggested that I apply for academic promotion. I got the promotion.

I saw Jack and David around at conferences. David congratulated me on how well I was doing but Jack made snarky comments about my current supervisor having “low standards”. For some reason, even 2 years later, I still wanted their approval. Which brings me to present.

I drafted a pretty complex paper that I decided to e-mail to Jack and David for their input/opinions. This is the first time I have done something like that. I had some minor correspondence with David about some more generic issues but no contact with Jack. I was actually pretty proud of that paper and I also genuinely wanted their advice (after all they are the experts in the field). Jack responded and basically heavily criticized it. We e-mailed back and forth (with David copied in) where I defended my methods. David stayed out of it. I spoke to someone at my current work about the paper today and I had a horrible realization that Jack was actually right and I was wrong. I was probably too blinded by the desire to prove Jack wrong. Embarrassingly, David read all of it and will probably be convinced that I am truly incompetent.

The other issue is that I would eventually want to move to my old city to be closer to my family. I am worried that I have zero chance of people over there having any respect for me because the burden of bad reputation as a PhD student is too heavy to shift. There is really only one place to work at there if I want to stay in the same field.

Should I e-mail Jack and David and admit that I was actually wrong with my paper methods? Would this only drive more attention to my mistake? Should I just leave it be? They are not co-authors on the paper or anything, I just asked for their opinion and they were free not to even respond.

Any other advice on this general situation would be greatly appreciated.
posted by sockiety to Human Relations (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Stay away from Jack and from David. Do not deal with them any further beyond being polite at conferences. Try to mimic David here. Be gracious and kind but also do not really engage.

I would also suggest thinking a bit about your personal investment in your work. Academia is brutal. And it's easy to get wrapped up in shaping your identity around it and vice versa. But it's important to try to step away from that as much as possible. Results are not emotional. Articles and manuscripts are not emotional. If can be challenging but it is necessary to build the skill of being emotionally distant from our work, our findings, and their reception.

And when we encounter people who demonstrate that they cannot do that, we should walk away. Walk away from Jack, and work on becoming more emotionally detached from how your work is received.

And find other colleagues to send your drafts to. Work on building new scholarly relationships, not on maintaining old ones that are broken.

Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 12:19 AM on April 22, 2016 [45 favorites]

Hi! I was you! My PhD was traumatic, mostly due to a poor relationship with my advisor. I didn't publish any of my phd work and i felt like huge failure. I'm now 7 years post PhD and a successful and happy scientist. Some tips- stop communicating with Jack and David. For real. No more emails. They are no longer your supervisors and you definitely don't want them as collaborators. You do not need their approval or their feedback, even if a part of you still wants it. You can take the cooments about your current paper on board without further communication, other than an acknowledgement for critical feedback when it gets published. You're in a supportive environment now - focus on your current and future research and being as productive as you can. Don't discuss your PhD experience with colleagues. Just be professional and have a great post-doc. The best revenge is living well- and publishing in top journals :)

Also, I think you could move back to your old city (if it has more than one university) but probably not your old institute, and definitely not your old department. Look for an environment in which you can thrive, not be stifled and plagued with self-doubt.
posted by emd3737 at 12:29 AM on April 22, 2016 [31 favorites]

"Right" and "wrong" in paper writing is always a matter of negotiating, and ultimately realizing what's actually better or worse, or right and wrong. In and of itself, that has nothing to do with incompetence on your part, nor is it necessarily a bad or embarrassing thing that Jack or anyone else happened to be right in this case.

The classy thing for you to do is to write them a _short_ email, to thank Jack for engaging and helping, and for informing them that you made changes in the way he suggested. Then move on, and learn to establish and inhabit your own professional mental space.

Look, it's done all the time. This has nothing to do with a bad professional reputation. Someone writes a BOOK, for Pete's sake, and then an editor comes back and wants a different book. MASSIVE changes are made. At the end of the day (month) it's still the author's name on the sleeve.

As you've left Jack's and David's institution, just try to concentrate on your own path, fulfil your own expectations. If you think you need their professional advice, because they're authorities in your field, fine, ask them, and take their advice. But don't keep secretly wishing that they give you validation as a person. Don't linger in the past and the wrongs you've experienced. Refresh your own outlook on your profession and your reputation will follow suit.

I am letting former fellow students and other friends from my own generation read my papers before publication. The feedback I get is more varied and less "change all this and all that-y" than what I got from (otherwise respected) professors, ultimately more helpful.
posted by Namlit at 1:05 AM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

I worked for a true nightmare person for 3 years who was also a top professional in our very small field. After she did something to me that was mean & insane I cut off contact with her. I have never been happier.

You do not need this person, as much as it may seem like you do.

Also, chances are if your field is really that small, other people have probably also had similar experiences with this person & once you're out from under his spell you'll probably start hearing about them.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 1:34 AM on April 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

I would look into finding an academic mentor if you don't have one already. Someone friendly and experienced, not necessarily an expert in your field, but with experience in academic career development, networking, publishing, etc. My supervisor was very hands off and having someone to provide additional guidance was useful during my PhD and then in giving me someone who could take the support role that a good supervisor should have done/do. I got a new mentor when I got a lecturing position and that was also helpful for both advice and support.
posted by biffa at 1:49 AM on April 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Nthing stay away from Jack and from David. David didn't do a thing for you and Jack actively undermined you. If anybody's undermined you at work they are not on your side.

Jack seems to have trained you to seek his approval so he can keep undermining you. Who knows if his comments on your paper are valid or not; that's not even important now. What's important is that you're still seeking his approval. Stop playing into his hands.

You need to be more of a cold-blooded assassin about this.

Doesn't your current department circulate papers internally before submission? If not, might be a good idea to suggest that you start doing that.
posted by tel3path at 4:13 AM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Jack and David aren't great men. They are a couple of Dudes who are big noises in a building, in a city in a state. That's it. They can be 100% irrelevant in your life starting right now.

Thank them both for their input. Then never deal with them again, except to nod at them in passing.

Jack's not really all that great is he? He advised you poorly and makes you feel like shit every time you deal with him. I suggest to you that Jack is a TERRIBLE academic. He might know his subject well, but destroying the self-confidence of your students, being an ass and being a shit-heel of a person....these aren't recommendations for anything.

In the grand scheme of things, Jack is a douche-bag, and he really has NO impact on your life going forward. His input into your life has ended.

Jack didn't keep you from getting a post-doc position. Jack didn't keep you from earning a promotion. Jack hasn't kept you from publishing. Jack hasn't kept you from winning grants.

Remember what Kissinger said, "Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small."

Just keep doing a great job where you are, your future is NOT in the hands of one, very small person.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:21 AM on April 22, 2016 [35 favorites]

Should I e-mail Jack and David and admit that I was actually wrong with my paper methods

yes, absolutely. everyone makes mistakes. if you recognise it and move on, no-one cares (in fact, you will be respected for it). just keep hammering away.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:41 AM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

No. Jack and David are not peer reviewers. Let your peer reviewers, the ones a journal assigns to your manuscript, determine whether your methods section is sufficient. You can always ask a trusted colleague to look over a draft but these people aren't trusted. Putting an email "admitting" a "mistake" out there in the hands of someone who is actively vindictive is not a good idea. Academics is politics. A politician would not send what amounts to an apology email in this situation, and you shouldn't either.
posted by sockermom at 5:17 AM on April 22, 2016 [26 favorites]

I think it depends on how you phrase the email. If you can frame it as a breezy "thanks for your input, I found this exchange really helpful in crystallising my ideas! See you at next conference xxx", then fine to send. If you find yourself getting defensive or self-abasing or anything like that, then no. Don't apologise for being wrong, or for "not listening" or for bothering them or defending your ideas. Don't try to explain your thought processes or previous emails or anything. Act like the previous email exchange was a really fun, robust exchange of ideas for you, and not the bullying shitstorm it actually was. Isn't it great to get constructive feedback! Yay for them!

And god no, never go back to work for them. I have seen consultants return to units where they spent years as juniors, and they are never accepted as full consultants. They are always treated like pipsqueaks even when they've been there for years. And these are people who are well-liked. They just can't escape everyone's memory of them as young and inexperienced.
posted by tinkletown at 5:28 AM on April 22, 2016 [19 favorites]

I've worked closely with PhD students and their supervisors for the last 10 years. Doing a PhD is almost always traumatic (and I'm not going to get one), Jack's colleagues know exactly what he's like and you aren't assumed to be like him. David is diplomatic and you shoukd follow his lead - don't discuss unless necessary. You're okay. You didn't get your job from luck, you earned it. Be polite. Do your work and let it speak for yourself. Identify appropriate mentors and when they give you advice, thank them whether you take it or not, because rightfully, that is your decision, and do not argue the point.
posted by b33j at 5:37 AM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

I spent a long time in academia before my current job, and if I heard a prof say anything like "if s/he had been a better student, I would have been more engaged," I would know exactly where the problem lay, and it wouldn't be with the student. Rest assured most people listening to Jack would come to the same conclusion.

The fact that you have done well despite his active sabotage makes me think you are probably very talented, and he is threatened and envious. Get on with your life and leave this old fart--and his enabler, David--in the dust where they belong.

On the specific question of your paper, I'd suggest sending a short e-mail along the lines of "thanks for your feedback and your willingness to discuss. In the end, I have incorporated a number of your suggestions and believe they have strengthened the draft considerably." (Of course, only do this if you think their points are correct.) Then get on with finding your professional tribe, and never engage with these two beyond pleasantries again.
posted by rpfields at 7:44 AM on April 22, 2016 [16 favorites]

Great advice above. As far as moving back to your old city, I think it depends a lot on the context. If there are multiple universities there, I think you have as good a shot as you would moving to any city (though, be aware, the academic job market is brutal -- it is really hard to move to ANY specific city, no matter how good you are or what connections you have). My experience has been that professors from institutions in the same city may know each other and network, but not to the point of someone intentionally torpedoing the job application of an applicant at another university (unless, perhaps, there had been something truly crazy like fraudulent research or something on that level). I think going back to your old university is probably a long shot -- both because most universities don't hire their own PhDs, at least not until you've gotten some solid experience at another institution, and also because why would you want to work with these assholes again??
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:47 AM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anyway, you don't have a "bad professional reputation". One of your ex-supervisors actively tried to prevent you from succeeding. He has apparently convinced you that he's the big cheese and professional success depends on his approval, but demonstrably, it doesn't any more.
posted by tel3path at 10:03 AM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Jack is a passive-aggressive asshole, and every second you spend engaging with him is bad for your mental health. Send a brief email to him thanking him for his feedback on your paper, and then plan on never speaking to him again. Say hi to David at conferences if you must, but don't do anything more than a lukewarm wave across the room to Jack.

You're succeeding without him. He's not crucial to your work or your life by any stretch of the imagination. If moving home would involve getting back in his clutches, don't do it. Your mental health is most important here.
posted by delight at 10:23 AM on April 22, 2016

FWIW I have a friend who is currently finishing a grueling PhD with an emotionally abusive supervisor. The communication dynamic with her supervisor sounds a lot like yours (he consistently implied that she did not work hard enough, was not committed enough, if only she was more devoted, etc. while she outperformed the PhD expectations, earned awards at conferences, and will be finishing with four publications). In my friend's case, there was another grad student who gave his will to this supervisor, and at the end of it he is on anti-depressants and going through divorce proceedings (to the supervisor's satisfaction, as this supervisor wholeheartedly believes you have to sacrifice everything you have in your personal life to prove you're worthy of a PhD). Watching my friend's PhD story unfold has completely cured me of believing academia is somehow a better world than where I find myself presently (what's the roof over your head worth if your social environment makes you want to kill yourself everyday, right? Some people happen to live in poverty when they have those experiences leading to depression and suicidal ideation, and some people live in middle- or high-class environments that lead them to the same conclusions via the most consistent tones of their social experiences). IMO shitty PhD supervisors need to be shitty so their grad students will keep working for free for them (which is what happened in my friend's case, until she couldn't take the poverty and impacts on her family anymore).

So here's what my friend learned from her experience and it's something you can take with a grain of salt: if you have parents whose parenting style was to withhold praise and neglect to meaningfully reward, your supervisor may be unwittingly working your attachment buttons and that may be part of why your brain feels compelled to keep going to him for more (non)approval. I don't know if you're a therapy person with this stuff, but I know some counseling helped my friend to understand the pattern she kept repeating (it was like the violence in relationships wheel, with the explosion and honeymoon phases; he kept putting her down, she would try harder, her efforts would pay off and she would achieve, he would ignore, put down her work, point out all what she hadn't done, she would cry it out, try stand up for herself, asked for more respect in their dialogue, and get treated worse... to be honest, I don't there if was ever a honeymoon component for her, because it had slid into sheer ongoing emotional abuse by the last couple years, yet she needed counseling to finally just stop engaging for her own well-being). In both cases (yours and my friends) the 'high' academic caliber background of these supervisors did not result in them being better people who can be trusted to be responsible with the power society entrusts them to have over others. (dude, seriously, your supervisor was too busy wetting his dick to be professionally available to you? COME ON NOW! WTF?!)

RE: Should I e-mail Jack and David and admit that I was actually wrong with my paper methods?

No, because I'm not convinced you see yourself, your value, or the quality of your work clearly when you are engaging with them. rpfields has a great token reply you can give them without further denigrating your dignity. However do consider therapy or counseling. Therapy might help you recognize the blinders you have on when you believe you're going to fail but succeed anyway because you're not seeing the situation for what it is. Believing you won't get any job or the promotion, then getting the job and promotion by simply going through the motions is clear evidence to me you've got some serious cognitive distortions worth working through. Think about talking it out in the therapeutic or counseling environment, so that you don't have to keep re-playing this (unless you want to...). Good luck.
posted by human ecologist at 11:28 AM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Good heavens. When you ask someone for comments on a paper, and they give them to you, the appropriate response is, "Thank you very much for your insights and time, I am so grateful for your investment in this paper and your contributions," not a debate. You were unprofessional, whether Jack was right or wrong. You will make it worse if you grovel, though, so just say, "I have come around to your perspective, thank you so much for listening to me think it through. Thank you for your insights and time, I am so etc."
You aren't obliged to take anyone's advice about a paper except your coauthors, not even peer reviewers' or editors' - you can shop it around if you're really determined you have the right perspective - but you must be polite about accepting commentary, *particularly when you've asked for it*, even when the comments are wrong and the tone is dismissive or rude. Jack did you a solid. He gave you his time and opinion when he was no longer obligated to do so. Cultivating an appropriate detachment about critique will do more to salvage your professional career than any amount of networking, crucial though networking is. And for God's sake, when you submit the thing, remember to thank Jack and David "for their input to this paper in its earliest stages" in the Acknowledgements.
posted by gingerest at 3:36 PM on April 22, 2016

Jack did you a solid. He gave you his time and opinion when he was no longer obligated to do so.

Not at all.

Before and after his obligations ended, the time he was required to give was never given; his opinions have consistently been a reflection of his own insecurities - he needs to humiliate you in order to feel good about himself. His exceptional behavior also include saying your employer must have low standards to hire you.

He did such a poor job of advising you that he convinced you that being less than perfect in your work is cause for shame. (It is not. It is a chance to better your work. A good adviser would make sure you knew that first thing.)

What he did, and continues to do to you, is a semi-liquid. And it is smelly. Nowhere near a solid.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 8:11 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

It sounds to me as though you'd like some closure, as though now that you're achieving things like publications you'd like your abusive supervisor to admit that his methods and the way he treated you were wrong because you are good at what you do. You'd like him to say something validating about your success, maybe even apologize.

You are not going to get that, because that is not how abusers do things. It sucks not to get that. Closure is great, validation is wonderful (especially when it's deserved, and in your case it clearly is), and an apology would be nice. But if your supervisor were capable of this, that capability would have showed up at some point in the years-- years!-- that you worked underneath him. He hasn't changed now, and he's not going to change.

This experience sucked and he wasn't what you needed or deserved. You deserved way better! But you cannot get it from him. Closure will not happen here. It's time to move on. I firmly recommend going no-contact, and if you move back to the city, do not work at that institution or spend time there. The longer you are out of contact, the more likely it is that when you run into these people at a conference in ten years their opinions of you will no longer matter to you-- or to anybody else.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 8:43 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

You know those brightly colored poisonous frog? This too is nature's way of telling you to stay the hell away from these people. You defeated them by getting your PhD now go do important stuff and use this experience as a lesson on how to not treat students if you ever supervise them.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:02 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

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