Question from Reader: Difficult Relationship with PhD Advisor

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. 


  1. Yes, I agree. Switching advisors is unfortunately the only solution, even in this seems very inconvenient and stressful at the moment. PS, if you stay, you are in a real danger of (1) damaging your health — this amount of stress you’re in is extremely unhealthy (2) losing the wonderful enthusiasm you currently still have for your research. If you lose your motivation, then your career is over. Everything else matters less, even number of publications, the opinion of big shots in your field etc.. And (3), in my experience — if you have a difficult relationship with your advisor, this will accompany through your career. You will be missing things that people who get a good advisor have — advice, references, collaborations, introduction to a network etc. In the end this will sum up to a disadvantage that is almost impossible to overcome. I haven’t seen anyone succeed in my field without a strong advisor who had their back. Your advisor is not strong. He might be afraid that someone like you, who is still very motivated and probably very good at what you do, will see through him. Besides, even if you manage to get through this PhD somehow, nobody will reward you for suffering through it. They will just see somebody with below-average connections and reference letters, and even if you are very good in all other aspects, you will still end up with a less good next position than what you have had otherwise, and this would be a shame…. and also nobody will give you the years back that you suffered under your idiotic advisor.

  2. I had an almost identical situation. I left the lab as professionally as I could (in my 5th year) and it has been the best decision I could ever have made. The switch period (took 2 months for everything to sort itself out) was awful, truly awful, but worth it. Ended up taking 8 years to finish, but I was happy in my new lab, published well, and landed an awesome postdoc.

    When you decide to leave, everyone will try and tell you that you should “give it another chance”. Bad advice- insulting really. You’ve given this a ton of thought. Get out while you still have your love of science, and find someone who appreciates your talents and will help you grow.

  3. Seconding the commentors as someone who had a truly awful advisor and stayed. Get out as soon as you can. You’re already sufferring with acute anxiety – it won’t get any easier if you stay. I too got to the point where sending emails to my supervisor was enough to have me in tears and litterally unable to check my university email in case there was some horrible reply waiting for me. It was not good. And it didn’t get any better over the years.

    I’ve no advice about changing supervisors/projects but I do know that loving your project will not be enough to sustain you. I loved the science behind what I was doing but the daily grind, the repeated experimental failures and the total lack of support from both my supervisors made it almost impossible to remember why I’d started the PhD in the first place. I came to hate my science and I stopped believing in my own capabilities at all.

    I did finish my PhD but if I had my time over, I would leave at the end of the first year rather than putting hyself through another four years of hell.
    I had to take 6 months off due to stress-induced anxiety and depression. I should have taken even more time off but I couldn’t afford to. After I handed in my thesis it took two months to unwind and gather the courage to look at it again, even though my viva exam was rapidly approaching. After that, it took another two months after the viva to face making the required corrections, when there was a three-month limit on making them!

    When I started my first part-time non-academic job around the time of the viva, I had the most amazing, lovely, supportive line manager, and oh, the difference it made! Actually feeling appreciated and supported at work? utterly amazing! I didn’t dread going to work. I felt useful and capable, and enjoyed being there even though the work was boring at times.

    Also, MMs point about how everyone will convince you to stay. Don’t listen to them. Only you know what is best for you, and you know that this situation is making you desperately unhappy and unwell. There is a saying “better the devil you know than the one you don’t” but it is utter nonsense. Take the risk and do what you can to find another supervisor.

    Everything about my own struggles with the phd process are here, if it helps.

  4. I’m so sorry you’ve landed in this horrible situation. Get out. Get out get out getout. It’s going to suck but it’ll be worth it in the end.

  5. Switch advisors immediately. This is not a sustainable relationship and it is damaging your mental health.

  6. Get out. I have two friends who ended up unable to get their PhDs because of bad advisers whose behavior was frankly less troublesome than what you have described. They both ended up with “all but dissertation” sort of master’s degrees, and have built good careers- but they both SHOULD be PhDs. My friends happen to be men, so their issues were not complicated by the extra issue of sexism and harassment that I pick up in this account.

    This is not salvageable, and staying is just going to waste your time. Find a way to leave, even if you have to abandon the project that you love. You’ll love another project. Don’t waste anymore time with this horrible adviser.

  7. Also, there is nothing wrong with being energetic and excited by your work. Anyone who makes you feel bad for that is just an insecure jerk. Once you get into a better work situation, you can find someone to give you an honest assessment of whether or not you actually talk more than is appropriate and then you can learn how to fix any issue that is actually there. I know this, because I am energetic and excited by my work, and have a tendency to talk a bit more than I should SOMETIMES. I have learned techniques to make sure that I am not talking over people or inhibiting other people, and it is not a problem for me professionally- quite the opposite, really.

  8. Maybe I am a curmudgeon, but I have become skeptical about these emails from grad students suffering from terrible horrible advisors. Yes, there are plenty of awful advisors, but there are also plenty of problem grad students. I had to ask one grad student to leave a few years ago, who then went on to tell truly delusional stories about me and my unfair behavior. So…yeah, I’m skeptical.

    I am sure this will be an unpopular opinion, but this student sounds very immature to me and that makes me question her version of the story. Not that it matters much for advice. She obviously needs to leave, for her sake or possibly for her advisor’s sake.

  9. Yes, what everyone else says: get out, get out, get out!

    I agree with everything that’s been said, but two small points:

    1) When you leave your project and lab, yes the cost will be borne by you, and that isn’t fair. Don’t let that stop you, it is still the best thing for you.

    2) Your enthusiasm and dedication to your project is awesome, of course, but it’s also making it hard to make the decision to leave. Here’s a secret: there are probably many projects you would love (with luck, maybe you will land one). And another secret: your PhD project is not going to be your best work if you’re in science for the long haul. I know, I know, it is REALLY hard to see the forest for the trees. But ask any established academic scientist: they would say that when they were a student, they were super focused on their PhD research (as they should have been)… but in hindsight, it’s a small part of their scientific identity. It’s one reason why everyone here is so quick to tell you to get out. You can get where you want to go (career-wise) without this project, and we can all see that, even without the details.

    As to Anon at 3:16:

    Maybe the student is immature, and maybe the advisor is not an unbalanced, sexist maniac. But if this is the first time the student is experiencing this kind of traumatic interaction with a superior (or even another person), I’d say it’s unlikely. Student: do you tend to get along well with others? Or have you had some dramatically negative interactions with co-workers or roommates or supervisors? If the latter, it’s worth discussing these experiences with your therapist to see if there are patterns of your own behavior you should modify–or to confirm that you have good interpersonal skills and that you should have more confidence in your instincts (including your gut anxiety feelings) about your advisor. Talking a lot, by the way, has almost nothing to do with whether you are a considerate, reliable, intelligent person with good people skills.

  10. Do you feel like you can speak in confidence with the other professor you mentioned? If so, they might be a good source for a reference letter etc since they know your work (and being willing to take time out to help you with your presentation suggests they think reasonably highly of you).

  11. “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.”

    This, ALONE, would be reason enough to change advisers or even schools. Even if you got along well in other ways, it wastes a huge amount of time and energy trying to get on the same page. The rest . . . really not okay. Save yourself.

  12. Seconding Dame Eleanor Hull here. That’s a good reason to leave. just focus on those two lines .. “in terms of research…” Make decisions based on just this because the other stuff is a mess and hard to sort out. -dr.s

  13. Is there really a question here, or isn’t it obvious that PS has to leave? My one bit of advice to her is to simply say to others, especially other faculty members, that she and her present advisor were just “not a good fit” and leave it at that. No one is likely gonna wanna hear anything negative about this guy. O.c., if it were another student coming to her for candid advice, then that’s a totally different story….

    And I agree with the advice that she should seek out others, whose opinion she really trusts, in order to determine if there is anything about her behavior that is unprofessional or that she otherwise should work on.

    As for “curmudgeon Anon”: Get over yourself. Boohoo, you had a bad experience with one grad student. Did you have to leave your school or research behind as a result? Or start over on the tenure track? Students have WAY more to lose when these relationships go south, and you should know that!

  14. It seems rather clear that the supervisor is not up to par. However if we truly want to help PS we must consider the possibility that there are also issues she might have to work on. For one the fact that she left her previous Master’s so close to finishing is a huge red flag for me. Finish the darn thing (“if you are going to fall, fall forward”) and collect the diploma.

    I’m known at my institution as “last chance Sup”, so I go over quite a large number of such cases. One encounters everything in the process: from douchebag supervisors, to people who mean well but can supervise worth a damn, to unsupervisable grad students that blame their very helpful supervisors on everything they themselves do wrong.

  15. Ok, I think it is obvious that PS needs to leave this group. And I also think that we have to take her story as being accurate because, well, what other information do you actually have anyway? The relationship has been poisoned to an irreparable degree and the sooner she leaves the sooner she will find a happier research situation doing research she loves in an environment that isn’t poisonous.

    But let me redirect things a bit: does this constitute a failure of advising that warrants disciplinary action against the advisor? The facts, to me, suggest yes. Students never come fully mature as scientists and it is an advisor’s job to provide direction to help them reach their potential in a professional manner; there are very few failings I can think of a student having that warrant this kind of behavior from a research advisor.

  16. >> And I also think that we have to take her story as being accurate

    I disagree. We can suggest she asks for independent third parties for comments that might help her improve.

  17. C–it almost sounds like she didn’t have an option in terms of finishing the master’s degree, almost like she had to leave to take this research assistantship before she could finish. And, it doesn’t really matter in the long run considering she was able to transfer her courses in.

  18. For those of you who think she’s making it up…
    1. Such a bizarre story; how could she?
    2. What would she have to gain by making it up? She clearly doesn’t want to leave the research group or switch projects.
    3. Yes, there are two sides to every story. But it does sound like she’s making an honest effort to try to remedy the situation and seek out counseling..hence why would she have emailed the author of this blog to begin with?

  19. >> For those of you who think she’s making it up…

    And that boys and girls is why you need to ask the other side of the story. No one here is claiming “she’s making it up”.

    Yes, she’s making an honest effort to remedy the situation and part of this is to ask others if there are things on her side she needs to work on as well. The answer could well be no, but it is worth asking, particularly given the prior that she failed out of her previous Masters.

  20. Run, do not walk. It does not actually matter *right now* whether this situation exists simply because your advisor is a sexist asshole and you just happened to be born with the wrong set of genitalia, or whether you have work to do yourself in order to interact well with other people and succeed in grad school (par for the course). This is an abusive relationship. For the sake of your health and your future, get the hell out of that lab.

  21. I agree with C
    Also, she needs to bring in the details of why she left her previous masters degree attempt so close to finishing. It is relevant to the conversation and needed to give her the best advice. Especially because it was a similar situation as to what is now occurring.

    Anony, there most definitely are two sides to stories… there are also many ways to interpret situations that you end up in. What I mean by that, is if you misinterpret what someone’s intentions are, you are going to have a difficult time interacting effectively with them.
    It would definitely be helpful to hear from others that know/have this particular adviser.

  22. Curmudgeon anon here. I agree with everyone that she needs to leave. But I am amazed that you all take all of this email at face value. I’m not saying she is making it up, but rather that she might lack the perspective and maturity to interpret and describe these interactions accurately. Some of them sound very serious, but a lot sound like typical clueless grad student grumbling. The fact that the trivial (zomg he recommended a professional etiquette book) is mixed up with the grave (harassment and lying about research) indicates a problem with perspective.

    C is much more diplomatic than I: maybe there are some issues she needs to work on. And she should do her best to work on them, because she might run out of second chances. She left her first masters program without finishing, and she’s leaving a Ph.D. program that isn’t a good fit. Let’s be honest: most prospective PIs will see a red flag.

    I strongly recommend mentor-mentee contracts. There are some excellent ones available through the University of Wisconsin research mentoring website that emphasize rights and responsibilities of both the mentor and mentee.

  23. >>>> And I also think that we have to take her story as being accurate

    >>I disagree. We can suggest she asks for independent third parties for comments that might help her improve.

    Everyone has room to improve, both as advisor and advisee, and we should all have multiple mentors we can go to to help us do that. That would be great advice for her new group or if she stayed in this group. But the story tells you how she *feels* about her advisor. She is an expert in how *she* is feeling (intimidated, anxious, etc.), and I don’t think that it is our place to decide if her feelings are appropriate given the situation since we don’t have enough information to do that anyway.

    That’s just my two-cents I guess.

  24. @C: “particularly given the prior that she failed out of her previous Masters”

    Choosing to leave a Master’s program is not the same thing as “failing” out of it. No one has said anything of the sort! Why are you trying to rewrite history in this particularly uncharitable way? Do you really think you’re being helpful with that?

    @AnonDNA: “Especially because it was a similar situation as to what is now occurring.”

    Where is your evidence for this? Again, no one has said anything of the sort. As for the details of why she left her previous program, no, she doesn’t have to share that with you. And we don’t have to know that in order to see that she needs to leave her present situation.

    @Curmudgeon Anon: If my advisor had recommended a “professional etiquette book” to me, I wouldn’t have considered that “trivial.” Can you even think of such a book? Funny, because I’ve always thought that one of the things that grad students should learn from their advisors is precisely professional etiquette. The fact that he’s punting on that doesn’t say anything good about him.

  25. I hope people realize that one of the reasons that grad students often stay in situations that they shouldn’t is *precisely* because they are afraid that a failed relationship with an advisor will be seen as entirely their fault and a “red flag” for them.

  26. Curmudgeon–Simply stating that her advisor recommended professional etiquette books to her isn’t grumbling. For all you know she went to the library that day to check some out.

    anonG–you are 100% right it doesn’t necessarily mean she failed out.

  27. Anytime your adviser tells you:

    “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.”

    This particular problem is on HIM, not her. If you are talking about red flags. This is an abusive relationship.

    I have been in the workforce long enough to have seen and heard some crazy s**t. I actually witnessed a similar situation at my former place of employment. Unlucky for the abusive party she had a freakout in front of witnesses. I mean, she actually frightened me, and I wasn’t even her target. She stormed into the office at the beginning of her shift and accused our supervisor (her boss!) of forgetting to schedule an appointment, and when he informed her happily that he had actually bumped up the appointment and the job was completed she freaked out even more and accused him of trying to make her look like an idiot. Crazytown! My husband’s former boss was on meth. METH! She was a VP at a bank! So yeah, this does not sound fantastical to me.

  28. >>”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.”

    Does not say she failed out.

  29. AnonDNA–
    >>Also, she needs to bring in the details of why she left her previous masters degree attempt so close to finishing. It is relevant to the conversation and needed to give her the best advice. Especially because it was a similar situation as to what is now occurring.

    If she brought in the details of that, you would only continue to say that it was only her version of the story, so how is it even relevant?

  30. AnonG: I don’t have evidence of that. I misread the article.

    Anony: Are you misreading what I wrote? My interpretation of what you are getting at is that you think I am discounting her version of the story and that I don’t believe her. What I’m actually getting at is if that was a similar event, perhaps there is something that she may have some control of that she can change to prevent this from happening again. You can’t expect to change other people but if there is anything to be learned, to change yourself for the better, you should take that opportunity with the hopes of preventing it from repeating.
    Also, more data leads to better advice.

  31. >> Choosing to leave a Master’s program is not the same thing as “failing” out of it.

    Not completing a task when you are so close to the finish line is a failure in my book, barring truly exceptional circumstances. I realize this is subjective. To others this might look like a good thing in her CV. Not to me, I’m sorry to say.

  32. C, I imagine you’re an entirely perfect person and you’ve never switched career directions or ever had an unfortunate or traumatic experience in your life. You are quite lucky.

  33. I just googled “professional etiquette for scientists” and got dozens of good articles and blog posts, including a gem of a post by FSP in the CHE from a few years back. I wish FSP and XYK were around when I was a grad student — it would have saved me a lot of grief. And why shouldn’t an advisor direct their students to other resources? Wtf is wrong with that? Maybe it’s a subject he is not comfortable with, or maybe he thinks the student will receive it better from an impartial party.

    As an example…if I had a new student who referred to her fellow students as “boys and girls,” well, the first few times I would ignore it. Then I would probably politely point out that it is unprofessional. And if she kept it up? Yeah, I’d point her to some professional etiquette resources.

    Now I’ll sit back and wait for the pile-on for objecting to boys and girls….

  34. Oh dear Curmudgeon…really?

    This is ridiculous. Beyond ridiculously. I’m sorry, but I’m done giving you fuel for your fire.

    Just FYI, there are plenty of less serious blogs, not full of people genuinely looking for a safe place for discussion in regards to academia and grad school. Why don’t you try trolling them instead?

    I wish you the best, and I seriously hope you will come to terms with the reason behind why you desire to degrade people so much.

    Done with this blog. Bye.

  35. @Curmudgeon: “Wtf is wrong with that? Maybe it’s a subject he is not comfortable with, or maybe he thinks the student will receive it better from an impartial party.”

    Oh sure, there’s nothing I respect more than a prof who tells his student to go look it up on the internet. Clearly if this is a subject that he’s uncomfortable with, then fobbing it off like that is totally acceptable. Because what’s paramount here is the advisor’s comfort, not the student’s betterment.

    What you should be googling are books on advising instead!

  36. I have been sort of following on the phone due to travel.

    Thanks everyone for chiming in! Let’s avoid the pile-ons and stay on topic.

    I have to admit, when I first read the letter, I had some of the same reaction as a few readers above (e.g., Curmodgeon or C), dissecting the anecdotes, trying to assign blame, and definitely recalling some less than pleasant situations with some difficult students.

    But then I stopped myself, because:

    1. The student does not have to be 100% perfect mature angelic student unicorn in order to have a legitimate problem with the advisor. The student has the right to just be herself, which is a young person in her 20’s, with all the professional and personal growth ahead of her, just as we all did.

    2. The student knows how she feels, and she feels anxious, ill, and uncomfortable. That is not how one should feel around advisor. To do science, you have to be relaxed enough and feel supported enough to be able to brainstorm and comfortable being wrong. Critique has to be part of the interaction, but it has to be about the work and it has to be aimed at growth and improvement; dismissing one’s whole personality as unsuitable is simply abusive.

    3. The advisor does not have to be 100% pure evil to be a bad advisor overall, or even just a very bad advisor for some students. One student’s great advisor can truly be another student’s monster; that’s why what other students in the group think may or may not be necessarily relevant.

    I have the example of my PhD advisor, who had a reputation as difficult (for years after graduated people asked me how I had survived, like it’s a major feat). However, I got along great with him, after I figured how to work around some quirks. He was very supportive and gave me a lot of freedom in my research. But there was a fellow graduate student (male) who had a very traumatic experience with the same advisor; they were rubbing each other the wrong way, there was a lot of yelling, there were some cruel jokes; the advisor offered the student to leave multiple times. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I just thought of my advisor as lacking in tact, and I didn’t know until years later how deeply traumatized my group mate had been by the whole experience.

    4. Even if one thinks that PS is not the world’s most perfect student, there is plenty here to really point that the advisor is seriously failing at his job: you don’t berate a student for wanting an offer in writing, you don’t tell the student to cover up like she is responsible for where you look; dishonesty in reporting research; I personally also think getting shitfaced with graduate students is totally unprofessional (my advisor would sometimes do it and make an ass of himself, I always thought it was very tacky).

    5. The advisor is supposed to be the grownup in this situation, and had the power differential on his side. But, based on what PS wrote, it seems like this is a difficult situation for him as well (offering her to leave, etc.) and he too would likely benefit from them parting ways. Even without point 4, I think the two of them have multiple serious incompatibilities and issues with communication.

    6. We all project our experiences onto the stories of others. That’s natural. Certain anecdotes ring different bells for different people, and it’s good to be aware of what these anecdotes bring up in us. I don’t think anyone originally joined this conversation in ill faith, so let’s just focus on PS.

    I think everyone agrees that this is just a very bad advising situation, and PS should leave with as much professionalism as she can muster, to take care of her health first and foremost. Then, from a position of safety and relative calm, she should probably seek advice from peers and councilors and new mentors, people with whom she is comfortable and whom she trusts, about the things that she can work on herself (as per Cloud’s comment) and how to effectively manage the rest of her career.

  37. 1. Aside from being best for your sanity, switching quickly will be a better career move than staying and trying to make it work – there’s a strong correlation between publication productivity and the quality of the relationship between student and advisor.
    2. Publicly, make it about how awesome the science is in the new position and how there wasn’t a perfect ‘fit’ in the old position. Don’t emphasize what went wrong too much, regardless of who’s right, because we live in a world where things are always judged to be the fault of whoever stands lower on the social totem pole. Complaints, no matter how vaild they are, should remain as part of the healing process undertaken while in safe spaces. I’m not saying that this is what’s right and just – I’m saying that this is what’s best for your science career.
    3. if it’s possible to remotely finish the master’s, perhaps while working as a research assistant in another lab, it might be a good idea. The value of the master’s varies between fields and subfields, so I don’t have a strong opinion there – it’s just something to consider. Did the current advisor pressure you to abandon the unfinished Master’s? I had a potential postdoc supervisor who pressured me into starting when I said I wasn’t ready yet and hadn’t finished my phd. The advice to look for a postdoc job a year in advance of graduating doesn’t always work out. Ultimately, I wouldn’t have the phd I have today if I hadn’t been willing to settle for pissing off mr. you-owe-me-100-hrs-a-week-and-should-have-been-available-to-start-a-few-months-after-contacting-me. I had to choose between finally defending and burning the bridge with that potential postdoc.
    4. I can assure you from over here on the other side of the fence where the grass really is green that truly awesome supervisors do exist. Keep that in mind during the transition, which will probably be bumpy, but worth it.

  38. she’s only been with the advisor one year- run, don’t walk. I had to leave my grad advisor in my 6th year…it’s harder to go the longer you wait

  39. Doesn not matter if that’s your second bad ride with a masters degree. You are probably very qualified .GET OUT to a good professional lab. You are good enough to work in the best in your field. Do not stay with the low level professor. He is not a star in his field yet and he just exploits you.

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