Jan was in his last year of graduate school when things turned toxic.
Up to that point, Jan’s studies had been drama-free.
He only had to finish one series of experiments, and write up two manuscripts as first author.
Both of the papers would eventually turn into chapters in his thesis.
Jan’s friend, Nick, had contributed some key data to one of the papers, and would be listed as second author.an was also contributing to one of Nick’s papers as second author.
They’d been friends for 5 years, and Jan was looking forward to a smooth collaboration.
But when Jan reached out to him to complete the manuscript, Nick didn’t seem so enthused.
Jan knew he would graduate in about 9 months, but Nick (who started grad school at the same time) still didn’t get the green light to defend.
At first Nick was simply ignoring Jan’s emails, but then he started to avoid him in the hallways.
Nick also stopped inviting Jan when he went out for coffee with his other friends.
The two were in different groups, and Nick’s supervisor was on Jan’s thesis committee.
This made the situation more complicated, because Jan didn’t feel comfortable talking to Nick’s supervisor.
Jan felt stuck…
Clearly, Nick didn’t want to be his friend anymore and he wasn’t cooperative on the manuscript.
Jan didn’t know how to bring this up with Nick’s supervisor.
What’s worse, the hostility was starting to affect Jan’s motivation.
He didn’t know what to say to Nick, and the academic environment was beginning to feel toxic.
At the next meeting with his own supervisor, Jan told her the whole story.
“How am I supposed to write my thesis when Nick won’t even speak to me?” he pleaded.
His supervisor decided to organize a meeting with both students and both supervisors present.
She warned him that the purpose of this meeting was just to get the information he needed to finish the paper.
He and Nick may not be friends anymore, but they would find a professional way to finish and submit the paper.
At the meeting, Nick stated he had been too busy with his own research to reply to Jan’s emails.
However, he promised to send him the data as soon as he could.
Unfortunately, over the next month both Nick and his supervisor were still slow to respond to Jan’s emails.
Luckily, Jan’s supervisor was also advocating for him.
With persistence from Jan’s supervisor, Nick eventually sent all the data.
You may be wondering how to write your thesis in a toxic environment.
Simply, your thesis has to be your #1 priority at work.
Nick still didn’t invite Jan to coffee in the afternoon, and several of their mutual friends had started excluding him as well.
Jan never found out what caused the hostility from Nick and his supervisor, but he also knew the reason was irrelevant.
As hurtful as it was to be excluded, Jan had managed to solve the problem professionally and finish his thesis.
While he was disappointed in Nick, he also knew that finishing the manuscript despite the toxic environment was a valuable lesson.
In the world of graduate studies, competition runs high, and many grad students find themselves in this position.
It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and hurtful to be ignored and excluded, and you may wonder why people are treating you a certain way.
It is not your responsibility to worry about the feelings of other people.
If they are being unprofessional, it is about them, not you.
They may be feeling frustrated with their own work, or preoccupied with personal problems.
In either event, it is not right for others to treat you with disrespect no matter what.
If you are used to doing everything you can to avoid conflict or please others, this may be hard to accept.
But, if you learn to stand up for yourself, you will actually be doing your colleagues a favor as well.
They will learn to be more self-reliant and take responsibility for their own actions, instead of demanding your time or disrespecting you.
When you learn to be more confident, it is a win-win situation for everyone, and you fill probably finish your thesis faster.
How to Write Your Thesis in a Toxic Academic Environment
It can feel very frustrating to work in an ultra-competitive or toxic environment.
Perhaps, you have felt alone, because you didn’t get the support you needed to make progress on your thesis.
No matter how hostile your environment may seem, you have the right to expect others to treat you professionally.
You don’t have to be a professor emeritus to gain respect from others.
With these five pointers, you can rise above the hostility, and finish your thesis.
1. Identify the problem you want to solve.
In a toxic environment, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by your commitments and feel lost.
If you spend some time identifying exactly what the problem is, it will be easier to get the help you need from others.
Focus on specifics, instead of getting overwhelmed by the volume of your thesis.
Rather than thinking, “No one is helping me and I’ll never graduate,” envision exactly what you need to finish your degree.
Do you need some key information before you submit something?
Is a hostile environment interfering with your ability to complete your research?
Is there one specific person who is holding you back, by either distracting you or withholding important information?
When you’re identifying what needs to be solved, remember to keep the focus on how to write your thesis.
You may not be able to fix a friendship but you can still find a way to get what you need from that person to finish your degree.
Once you identify and write down the specific problem(s) you need to solve in order to finish your thesis, you will feel more liberated to take the necessary action.
2. Determine how others can help you.
Particularly when you’re dealing with someone uncooperative, you need to have your requests already mapped out.
If you can’t identify specifically what you need from someone else, it’s easier for them to ignore you.
Have your requests ready before you talk to someone.
Always start your meeting on a friendly tone, but be specific about what information you need, and by when.
If you can tell them exactly what you need from them asking for something concrete will enable others to give you a concrete response.
Keep in mind that everyone is busy.
If they don’t send you what you need in time, it does not mean that they are purposefully withholding information.
If it is getting close to the time you need the information by, send others kind reminders.
The more specific you are about what you need from them, the easier it will be for them to help you.
3. Assume that others will behave professionally, even if they are not friendly.
Even if you don’t get along with a peer on a personal level, remember that they’re there for the same reason you are: to finish their degree.
Often, they’re stressed by the same academic pressures that you are, and may also be struggling to overcome a toxic academic environment.
Thesis supervisors are also burdened by many the responsibilities and they may not always be friendly or patient with you.
You don’t have to see eye-to-eye, but approach everyone with professionalism, and let them know you expect the same.
Even in a toxic atmosphere, most people have good intentions.
Something that might seem malicious from your perspective is often just a result of bad communication.
While academics are very intelligent, they are usually not trained in project management skills and this can lead to misunderstandings.
For the most part, give your peers the benefit of the doubt.
Assume they are trying to succeed just like you are, and that you’ll be able to resolve conflicts with professionalism.
The more you focus on the problem you are trying to solve, instead of your feelings around the problem, the easier it will be for others to support you.
This will make it easier when conflicts arise, and help all parties involved to leave their emotions out of it.
4. Don’t worry about hurting other people’s feelings.
This might sound like it contradicts the previous point, but it really doesn’t.
You can be professional and assertive at the same time.
What does this mean?
It doesn’t mean intentionally hurting someone’s feelings, but it does mean that you have a right to put your own needs before someone else’s.
Allow yourself to say no to extra commitments that won’t help you in the long run, or to steer clear of collaborations that will sap you of energy.
Similarly, if someone hasn’t fulfilled their commitments to you find a way to talk to them about it.
Like in Jan’s situation, a good thesis supervisor could help you facilitate conflicts with others if necessary.
If your thesis supervisor is the one asking you to do extra work that is unrelated to your thesis, it may be harder to say “No.”
But you can always negotiate, and keep in mind that your thesis supervisors may not have a good sense of how long things take.
They may not have done research for a while, and it can be helpful if you let them know how long it takes to do everything.
This will help you explain why it may not be feasible for you to take on additional projects.
Regardless of your thesis supervisor’s personality, you can resolve most conflicts if you communicate your ideas assertively.
The most important element of assertiveness is to listen to your thesis advisor’s viewpoint, and discuss options for mutually beneficial solutions
Keep the focus on your work, not your feelings, and discuss how you can solve the problem together.
5. Follow up periodically (and politely) with others.
This ties in with being assertive.
All graduate students and professors have dozens of things demanding their attention.
Unless you’re persistent, your requests can slip through the cracks.
If someone else is failing to fulfill their end of a collaboration, and you’ve spoken to them about it, expect to give regular (but polite) reminders.
Don’t escalate the situation, but check in periodically to let them know that your request won’t disappear on its own.
Finishing your thesis requires help, no matter how hard you work or how well you manage your own deadlines.
One major difference between the students who graduate on time, and the students who don’t, is that the former hold others to their deadlines.
So if someone isn’t following through on something they agreed to, don’t be afraid to remind them.
While it can be frustrating to write your thesis in an ultra-competitive or toxic environment, this experience will help you to excel in your future career.
At the workplace, these strategies will help you to communicate with confidence earn respect from your supervisor.
If you package your challenges into learning opportunities for your career, you will become the proactive person that all employers are eager to hire.
When it comes to collaborating with others, what is the biggest challenge you are facing?
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