A reader — PhD Student — has recently written to me, asking for advice about the situation with her PhD advisor, which has become very difficult:
I’ll start off with some background about myself. I’m a 25 year old female PhD student. I left just shy of my master’s degree at another university so that I could switch fields and accept an offer for a research assistantship elsewhere. The new school is a tech school, so is mostly engineers and has an overall (including undergrads and business majors) boy to girl ratio of 3:1. I am technically a transfer student as I transferred a couple of my classes over so that I could take less classes here. From the very beginning, I have felt intimidated and nervous around my advisor. I feel like he doesn’t listen to me. He will ask me a question in front of people, and then cut me off mid sentence. I’ve had him call me “high maintenance”, simply for asking what time a luncheon will be held. I’ve also had to deal with him being bros with the guys, but calling me “unprofessional” anytime I try to join the conversation. He’s constantly critiquing my personality and telling me I need to read professional etiquette books. Well, what is my personality? I’m very friendly and can be quite talkative. I’m easily excitable and I love pure academic research.When I first met him, he seemed friendly but he definitely made me nervous. I didn’t think twice about it as I was there for an interview, so it was natural for me to be nervous…but I didn’t get the same feeling with anyone else I met during that visit. He seemed very upset when I asked him for some kind of informal email of my offer so I could have something in writing.I’ve dealt with some severe anxiety, partially due to my interactions with him. In terms of research, the two of us never seem to be on the same page. I always seem to misunderstand him, and have to do things over and over and over again. I’ve also had moments where he specifically tells me to do something…I do it…and then he asks me why I did it, as if I did the wrong thing.Last October he chewed me out (no warning) and told me that the door was open if I wanted to go. I didn’t. He kept saying that I needed to trust him. He was upset that I was still nervous that I was going to regret leaving my other university without finishing my master’s degree. I love what I do and I want to work on this project. I started seeing a counselor, who has helped with my anxiety.
I had an important conference (my university was hosting) that I needed to present at, and I couldn’t seem to get my advisor to give me feedback at my presenations (x2) and poster that I wrote. I ended up having to submit the presentation with him only taking a glance at it, and the poster without him seeing at all due to the deadline for the printing. Well, I finally went into his office to ask for feedback directly, rather than just through email. “Did you see my poster?” I asked. “No,” he shrugged. “I hope it’s good.” I literally then specifically asked him to pull it up on his computer. He was in a very weird sing songy mood and kept insisting that I listen to music with him, telling me it was important, rather than looking at my poster for a conference taking place the following week. I found it quite odd, but tried to brush it off.
I asked another professor to come to our group meeting that Friday… flash forward…that Friday during our group meeting where I scheduled myself to present for a practice run…I was so excited and it a great mood because I finally got some feedback about my project. I’m very passionate about my project and I love presenting, so anything to learn more about the project and improving presenting made me very happy. I took careful notes and was sure to thank those who critiqued me: my lab mates, advisor, and other professor that I invited.
Flash forward again. Tuesday, day of my presentation. During a break from all the presentations, I walked up and started talking to my advisor. Right away, big mistake…I’m a first year student and didn’t realize that he doesn’t like to talk to his students (only network with others) at conferences. He started giving me advice about my presentation, that was at 2 p.m. “Just tell a good story,” he said. It was currently 10 a.m. I was afraid I looked nervous…pale, shaking, sweating…or something…and so I said, “I’m not worried; do I like worried?” He replied, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” And he walked off. I tried to shake it off. I figured maybe he was just upset that I had interrupted his networking. Or maybe that he had somehow misunderstood what I had said.
Well, my presentation went very well and ended up being one of the top ranked presentations. People were very responsive and I felt like things were going great. I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation….with exception of my advisor, who seemed to be avoiding me. It felt odd, but at the same time I just figured he was….networking. He can talk to me anytime, why talk to me at a conference when there are people there he can only see twice a year?
Things seemed good. That night, after dinner, my advisor suggested we go to the local bar. So conference participants went to the bar. After having had a few drinks at the conference, my advisor drove a university vehicle over to the bar, where he proceeded to have a few more drinks and seem quite buzzed. I had a couple of drinks as well, but was driving my own vehicle and have always been quite the heavy weight when it comes to liquor. He joked around with the male students, going so far as to make a joke with one about the student picking his female officemate’s dirty underwear. I tried to fit into the conversation, and I awkwardly mentioned that one of my labmates had initially thought I had a different sexual orientation than I do. Conversation seemed to flow, and everything seemed fine.
The next morning was when I found out that something really was wrong. I volunteered to swing by the hotel were conference participants were staying to make sure there was enough room in the university vehicles for all of them and their luggage. If needed, I could take some of the guests or luggage up to the airport. My advisor almost backed into me, so I honked at him. My car was backed into recently, and I definitely wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. That being said, it was a school vehicle he was driving so I didn’t even know he was driving it. I jokingly told my labmate that he almost backed into me…trying to make light out of the situation….when he actually got out of his vehicle and started yelling at me and cussing. He swore that he had seen me and that he was backing up to make room for my car (makes so much sense right?) and that honking was disrespectful. At first I apologized, not wanting to upset my boss. But the more I thought about it, I’m glad I honked. I did the right thing.
There were several awkward encounters the next day, and I just tried to avoid him. After the conference was over, I thought that I would be able to avoid him and just let things die, but he scheduled a one-on-one meeting for the next day.
At this meeting, he proceeded to tell me how horrible I am at networking, because I scare people and that I talk too much. (I know I talk a lot, but I figure that some people don’t so it balances out). My talkative, excitable nature has been a life long battle, and I feel like we all have our quirks. He did apologize for yelling at me after I honked at him, but maintains that I shouldn’t have honked, as honking is “disrespectful” and he saw my vehicle. He told me that my interactions with people are inappropriate (despite his comment about picking up female’s dirty underwear). (And I should just mention I was just trying to follow his lead). He told me that during my practice run of my presentation, I had seemed unreceptive and ungrateful to his feedback (despite my constant begging for feedback) and that the other professor who had come had felt the same way (despite me specifically inviting him for that reason…his feedback). He told me he feels like he can’t mentor me, and that he avoids me because he feels I cause drama in the workplace.
Lastly, he told me that I need to make an effort to cover up more, and pointed to his chest. I was wearing a shirt that’s collar line went up to my collar bone. He told me he had a hard time looking at me in the face because of the way I dress. Despite the fact we have no dress code, and that I wasn’t dressed badly anyway.
I didn’t know what to do. I just took everything he said and apologized for him feeling that way about me and told him I would work on things. I was shaken that day, but fine until I cried myself to sleep that night. I have felt worked up and intimidated by this man since I started last year. I love what I do, and I’m not going to change projects on his account. Right now, I’m seeing an intern as my counselor is out of town. She recently found out about a support group in the diversity office for grad students with issues with their advisors. She hinted that I should make formal complaint against him, but I definitely fear retaliation and I know that no good will come of the complaint. He’s tenured, and things haven’t gotten bad enough that anybody would do anything. And, as it’s a small department that I’m in, he would even know an anonymous complaint was me. I also feel like any complain that I make would burn the “bridge” (if there is one) between the two of us, and it would mean that I would have to switch advisors and projects. I am also tired of trying to talk to my labmates, who at one second seem to support me, but the next tell me that I’ll find his advice will help me in the long run, even if it’s hard to hear.
I spoke with the other professor who I invited to our group meeting and specifically told him thank you for taking an hour out of his day to listen to my presentation. I told him his feedback meant a lot to me, and that I was glad that he gave me some good advice for the presentation. He didn’t seem to think I was unresponsive to his feedback or anything.
It’s now been a month since this all broke out. I’ve tried to push it aside. I’ve tried to make a lot of changes so that I could work with this man. I’ve started wearing turtlenecks on days that I know that I am going to see him. I avoid him as much as possible because I don’t feel like being intimidated and chewed out further. Because he finds me unmentorable, unreceptive, and ungrateful despite me trying to get his feedback and communicate with him, I’m so nervous to talk to him at all.
I was gone for the past couple of weeks at a workshop at another university, 600 miles away. My time at the workshop was really what showed me that I need to come up with some way to report this situation. I had the opportunity for networking and was able to get close to another couple of girls within my field. At first I noticed how different their experiences seemed with their advisors than mine. I barely even mentioned mine, and right away these two girls told me that what was going on wasn’t right. I hadn’t even mentioned anything close to everything that was going on, nor specific details. I was shocked at how they reacted knowing so little of what was going on. I was really careful not to bad talk him as everyone seems to think he’s such a great guy…and I don’t want to be gossiping.
My breaking point started coming when I needed to compose a couple of emails to my advisor. I realize I was so shaken that I kept having to ask friends to proofread my emails to him. I was going to bed, sick to my stomach because I figured I was probably going to get chewed out. I had an abstract due only two weeks in the future. As I wasn’t on campus, I had to take care of things via email. I started to realize that I felt like I was playing a cat and mouse game. I was trying so hard to every little thing my advisor wanted. Since he chewed me out and called me unreceptive to his feedback…I’ve felt like he’s wanted me to blindly do everything he asks…make every single change to my abstract without even questioning it…I’m trying to get my PhD…doctor of philosophy…not blindly do everything this man says. Then, to make matters worse, some of the changes he finally made to my abstract involved lying about the research we’ve done. It wasn’t a huge lie, but one I wasn’t comfortable with.
I understand that he has a PhD in my field. I understand that he knows (or should) more than me about the research. But I’m trying to learn. I’m not trying to dispute him.
And now that I’m back from the workshop, I realize I can’t do this anymore. This anxiety I’m dealing with is gonna break me. I can’t do this for four years. So, I need to figure out what I can do about the situation.
… any advice you can give me is much appreciated.
A PhD Student (PS)
In a nutshell, my advice (given to PS over email) is to get out of there (I will chime in more later, in the comments). The dynamics between PS and her advisor has elements ranging from poor communication and personal incompatibility, to downright sexism and inappropriate behavior, including verbal abuse. (N.B. Honestly, when someone throws a fit because you want them to provide some sort of tangible proof that they indeed gave you an offer, that’s a huge reg flag and you should run away as fast as you can.) The situation is damaging her health and well-being, and she needs to get out.
What say you, blogosphere? Please give advice to PS.