Regardless of what PhD students have heard, thesis supervision is a long and convoluted tale of exploitation

When retelling the story at meetings or parties, I often throw in a few twists and white lies. Especially if the discussion meanders towards nostalgic reminiscing of long-ago career turning points or comparisons of departed students, the latter category usually involving extremes; the good, the bad, the weird. 

Anyway, the main white lie in this case is that I had forgotten all about the paper when the peer reviews came back. True, it took almost a year. But not a week went by where I didn’t think about it. Almost three years of work had gone into piecing it together; so long that, as is often the case in these troubled times of diseased scientific publication, we had more review articles published on the topic than hard data.

So, I was looking very much forward to a response, any response. Even outright rejection was, I lied to myself, better than the paper not being in the exact remit of one journal, another not being able to procure reviewers, a third not getting answers from the ones it had procured; and all three taking an inordinately long time to arrive at quite simple and straightforward resolutions I didn’t particularly appreciate. This was, I knew, the main problem with a multidisciplinary research project. Everybody likes the notion as a buzzword with good intentions, but all retreat to their respective disciplinary trenches as soon as possible. And it is from those trenches that comments and reviews, not to mention journals, are born. 

The reviews of the other two papers I had been able to power through and address. Not only was my own disciplinary training appropriate, but the reviewer comments had been extremely useful and, above all, understandable; even when they were outside of what I knew, they weren’t outside of what I could easily learn. Or, to be honest, bluff my way across when it was absolutely clear we had no good answer for a specific query. I tended to ignore the instances where editors and reviewers had done the equivalent of condescendingly patting a paper and its authors on the head, as if it were a child with no business attending that prestigious school or taking that advanced course, but who had, by some miraculous circumstance, obtained a passing grade. When published it would count the same, regardless of what sort of charitable gesture the journal thought it was providing to amateurs poking around in their disciplinary domain.

This paper I knew from the start would be a different animal. The others were close enough to my own training that I could acknowledge (or at least convince myself) that the warranted criticisms were indeed warranted (and mostly answerable), while the unwarranted comments were biased by closed disciplinary thought, made by colleagues refusing to see the merits of cross-border talks (thus also answerable, if not as purposefully). In this case I knew we might have strayed, because we had used theoretical frameworks and methodologies that were more foreign (to us) than most. While, as far as we could tell, the paper was solid, the conclusions seemed at the same time very clear, but also too good to be true. A sort of personified Impostor Syndrome, which had hovered vaguely above the other papers, was waiting just outside the door for this one, ready to barge in. And so, it did.

In short, the theoretical framework was deemed unfocused by reviewers, at least some of the methodologies and statistical analyses were off, and thus our beloved conclusions were indeed considered too good to be true. Still, there was hope; although the kid had clearly flunked the exam, there was a remedial test on the horizon. All that was needed was to fix the issues. But that, I quickly realized, was beyond my expertise. Not that I couldn’t recognize the inadequacy of some controls, a few flaws in experimental design, or the leaps of faith we shouldn’t have made. The problem was addressing all this in a convincing fashion. Even though some of the problems had been the obvious result of COVID-19 restraints, and it was a minor miracle that we had any data at all, not only did the reviewers seem unimpressed (it’s interesting how quickly we forget, and demand normality after a crisis), but the problems went beyond this easy, pandemic-driven pleading for mercy.

A multidisciplinary project has the same issues as any other project. Namely, that funding runs out, and people move on. The difference is that, while a disciplinary lab regularly replaces members with the same general skill set, and is able to pick up unfinished business, in this case very specific knowledge had been lost. The sociologist left academia, the psychologist was now involved in too many other things, the journalist was wrapped up in lucrative consulting jobs, the epidemiologist had been recruited by the WHO; that sort of thing. If they replied at all to my pleading emails it was in polite refusal – too much water under the bridge, too little time, no added value. And finding alternatives was not an option, it had taken long enough for this particular multidisciplinary team to live up to the word “team”. 

There was hope, however. In the form of the outstanding PhD student whose project this had been, the person who had talked extensively to all those people, sponging off their disciplines for her thesis. And who, more importantly, was the first author on the paper. Clearly, that should work. Except for what I tell all my students.

Regardless of what they may have heard wherever these things are heard, thesis supervision is a long and convoluted tale of exploitation. Forget for a moment mentoring, friendship, leading by example, providing resources, establishing collaborations, helping shape ideas and navigate various structures set in their ways. All this may be true (I don’t add that the exact opposite may also be true, it’s too much in one setting), but the relationship can be best characterized by that one word. Exploitation. That word usually drowns out at least some of the auditorium noise in graduate seminars about career development, even makes a few aspiring scientists look up from their phones. It is, I continue, a reality that is best approached head-on and dealt with, rather than hidden behind the usual unicorns and rainbows, especially in a country that only invests in science at the easier bottom levels. What we have to strive for is actually two main things. One: that there must always be a timetable to any type of training; it can’t go on forever, in essence holding people hostage. Two: that this exploitation has to be <i>mutual</i>.

In keeping with this (not at all universal) view, I try to make sure all my students are aware of what career steps they can take after graduation, offer recommendations for a variety of positions, encourage all sorts of soft skills training and mobility, and plan for them to finish their work and graduate on time, unless an agreement can be reached and there is money available to pay for a salary extension. This particular student had done stellar work in a challenging multidisciplinary project, presented an excellent thesis on time, and helped submit the other papers before leaving. What more could I have asked for? Well, contribute towards answering the queries from moody reviewers whose field I did not totally grasp suddenly came to mind… But surely this was in her own interest, right? A paper in a good journal is always a CV booster in any circumstance, right? There was no way this could be construed as non-mutual exploitation, right?

I should have realized that it all that depends, of course, on perspective.

The first unhopeful sign was my email bouncing back from the generic account she had used after her institutional email was cancelled. In her original admission file I found another email address, tried it. No reply. Until I did something I swore I’d never, ever do: send a somewhat desperate WhatsApp call for attention. And, mercifully, a reply came.

She was doing fine, in a wonderful new job that kept her very busy and had nothing to do with academia. While she had appreciated my efforts on the previous papers, she was now “miles away” from the research, even though it might have helped her reach her current employment heights. It seemed as if that part of her life had turned into a distant childhood memory, and, from her tone, not a particularly fond one at this stage of her career (these things shift, I told myself).

“I don’t see why you should keep milking this already-milked cow,” she stated bluntly –  rather unfairly I thought, to both me and to cows everywhere. The fact that she had left that particular path did not mean it was not a path worth taking (these things shift, I told myself). But, at the very end, she seemed more positive. 

“I’ll look at the reviews, but can’t promise anything. You have to realize that this is pretty low on my priority to-do list, boss.”

Well, I thought, can’t blame her for following my career advice to the letter. 

And at least she still called me “boss”.

(c) João Ramalho-Santos. The author dedicates this story to Mireia Alemany-Pagès

About the author

João Ramalho-Santos is a Professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and a regular contributor to He conducts research in reproductive biology at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Coimbra, Portugal. His fiction has been published in Nature.