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I'm considering a PhD and asked a professor at my university. I suggested a topic to him that he accepted. I applied and he offered me a position but I didn't accept yet.

Later he changed my project's topic to one that suits his interest. I said I would like to do the original topic that I got accepted with. Then I asked more about the project and it turns out he works in collaboration with another university. They divided the work up between themselves, but what the other university researchers is a lot closer to my personal interest than what he works on.

I asked my professor their contact details, so that I could ask them if I could work with the other university. He explicitly prohibited me from talking to them. He told me I would give bad reputation to him if I contacted them.

I am extremely confused as to why he prevents me talking to people. Even a simply inquiry email is not allowed. So I contacted the other university anyway. They told me that they would be happy to see me but they don't want to poach students from their colleagues.

I keep asking my professor if I could do my original topic with the other university that works on that exact topic that I'd like to do. But he keeps telling me that I either do his topic or I should do my PhD somewhere else.

I am utterly confused now and have no idea what is going on. Can someone please explain?

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I'm not clear on your question. What's going on seems simple: your potential advisor feels some ownership of the ideas he suggested, or of you as a student he has found. When he suggested the topic, he was offering you the opportunity to work with him, and he did not intend to offer the topic to you to work on with someone else, even a collaborator of his. Whether this is reasonable depends on what is common in your field. In math in the US, this would be unusual. In other contexts, it may not be so strange. –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 18 '12 at 20:38
It's hard to say, and probably only your professor could give a definitive answer. There may be no good reason. It sounds like you have tried to discuss it with him, without getting a satisfactory answer, and have approached the other group, but they are not willing to do anything without his permission. At this point, it's not clear to me that there's anything you can do except to move on to other options. (Even if this other group agreed to work with you, the same issue might cause trouble again in the future.) –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 19 '12 at 5:13
The idea behind poaching is that it's rude to try to compete with your colleagues or collaborators for a student. This is an important social rule, because it's much harder to work with people if you are afraid they will try to take advantage of this relationship to attract students away from you. You are right that it doesn't really apply here, because you are not yet his student. But your professor seems to be offended by the idea anyway (perhaps he is easily offended), and his collaborators do not want to make him unhappy. This may be unfair, but you probably can't do anything about it. –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 19 '12 at 5:26
He might be insecure, or really need students, or feel very competitive and hate losing, or have a complicated relationship with these collaborators, or feel an unfair sense of ownership (that you are his discovery), or any number of other possibilities. Ultimately, I doubt you will ever get a satisfactory answer. You might learn more from talking with your professor, but there might not be any good reason. I wouldn't worry too much about this. You've learned a valuable lesson, that this professor is difficult to deal with and perhaps unfair, so now I'd focus on finding another advisor. –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 19 '12 at 6:00
My experience is that this kind of things are extremely frequent in academia. The only thing I can tell you is welcome, have a seat, and enjoy the show if you like pain. But in this case, I'd say get the hell out of there. –  Stefano Borini Apr 20 '12 at 18:42
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4 Answers

up vote 27 down vote accepted

There are several possibilities for this behaviour.

  • You're good, he knows that, and the collaboration with the other research group is more formal than you may know (maybe they are in the same funded project because it was the only way to be funded, while the two groups may be in competition). In this case, he doesn't want you to go “behind enemy lines”.

  • You're not the one he was looking for, he recently discovered that. He is very close with the other group and he don't know how to tell you that you are not a good fit for his group and relatives. So instead, he changed what he said in order to make it unacceptable for you, hoping that you will leave, and that you will also not go to the other group.

  • He's not reliable, he had a weird idea of what is a student.

By the way, except if you are a recognized genius, this is unlikely that the other team will accept you if they are close to your current advisor and want to stay that way.

In all three cases, only one option: run far away.

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I agree. get the hell out of it. –  Stefano Borini Apr 20 '12 at 18:41
I agree. Just run.. –  Farticle Pilter Aug 18 '13 at 13:23
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This is a red flag. Find someone else to work with.

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Easy to say, hard to do. If you start eliminating possible advisors every time something looks weird, you'll end up with no PhD. The flag should be almost black (or very strong red) to stop working with somebody you're already in a relationship with. –  Ran G. Apr 20 '12 at 3:49
I agree with @nibot. Forbidding your student to talk to another researcher about their own ideas because it will make you look bad is not "something looks weird". –  JeffE Apr 20 '12 at 5:42
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Your situation isn't quite clear. Are you deciding whether or not to accept a position, or have you already accepted and are trying to switch projects?

In the former case, if you're getting that kind of pushback from your advisor, then he probably is not going to be the kind of advisor you'll really want to work for in the long run. In which case, you should look for someone else to advise you (in other words, pick "somewhere else.")

On the other hand, if you're already employed by the advisor, your choices are more limited. It sounds lie you're writing from somewhere in the European system (otherwise, you'd be talking about applying to a different department, rather than another research group). The problem is exactly what the other group told you—they can't be seen as poaching a colleague's student. That's a major social faux pas, and would probably make their collaboration impossible to continue in the long run. Therefore, again, you probably won't get to work on the project you want, because you won't be able to move over to the other group.

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What I'm asking is why he is prohibiting me talking to people. He offered me a position, but I haven't accepted yet. I have the feeling he is sabotaging me, and thinks that because he offered me a position, he owns me. Actually he didn't even offer me a position formally, only verbally. I don't understanding poaching, as I am noone's item and I am not owned be anyone else. Is this how this goes in the academic world? –  siamii Apr 19 '12 at 4:51
There is no logical (or even legal) reason for him to prevent you from contacting people. If that's the way in which he chooses to operate, this is a "red flag." I would never work for an advisor who wants you to work in his group without consulting anyone. It's a sign of an advisor on a power trip—or worse, someone who's terrified of being "scooped," and therefore cuts his students off from the rest of the research world as a result. If I were you, I would avoid accepting this position if it were at all possible. –  aeismail Apr 19 '12 at 7:38
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I don't really see why you are concerned at all! When you apply for PhD admissions, you have can always suggest who you want to work with, based on their and your research interests (you have to like them and they have to like you). I guess my question is how did you get paired up with him in first place and why?

You make it sound like you are stuck with him, but you aren't. Now if he hired you to be on his project (remember this is his project/funding), you are to work for him and do it the way that makes him look good, (he has expectations to meet too and he wants to do a good job and look good to his superiors/sponsors). If you aren't interested in his project (and it clearly looks like you are not), don't west your time or his staying on his team. Approach your program and request to be teamed up with a different adviser and provide your reasons.

I hope you understand that, in most cases in research based universities, you don't get a PhD admission offer unless at least one of the professors in the department you apply to is interested in your research topic. Now it would be unfair of you for a professor to hire you (recommend you for admission) so you can be in his team and then expect him to let you work for someone else. While he doesn't own you, he also feels that you would be an asset to his team upon your admission into the program, otherwise he could've recommended a different candidate whose interest matches his research/project.

The bottom line is however, you should get out there. Approach your department Dean's office and request to be teamed up with a different adviser and explain your reasons. Keep in mind however that in most cases at PhD level, a professor will only agree to work with you/serve as your advisor if he feels that he is familiar with your research interest and that you will be of a great asset to his team. hope that helps. Remember that your tuition weaver and other monetary benefits (monthly stipend, medical insurance, etc) you receive while you are pursuing your PhD studies is covered by the money that is allocated to his project. So it is important that have interest in the work/project he has for you and you are confident you would succeed doing it.

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