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What is the academic approach when your supervisor goes off-topic? In other words, what is the academic reaction for a PhD student when his supervisor starts attacking the student's religion?

I must say the fact that I'm an international student coming from a different culture. I looked over his publications/current students and everything seemed to be fine. He even interviewed me for admission and everything went fine.
When I started my degree and first met him, I thought we would discuss research oriented projects but surprisingly the meeting took another direction when he started discussing with me my religion beliefs and how do I view the world!

Discuting this was the start. In several subsequent occasions, he started to tell me what he sees good to me and why my culture is a bad one .

Right after the interview, I was thinking about withdrawing from the program and finding another supervisor in another school (Yes I answered him in an honest and polite way what I belief).

I have nothing against him and he is a very kind professor but I feel I'm not comfortable in his environment. Now, I'm planning to go somewhere else. If it counts, I pay my tuition fees and he pays me nothing.

The question is: What to do when your supervisor goes off-topic and discuss your personal issues? Not only this but also send you several emails about it.

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Don't walk. Run. –  JeffE Nov 21 '12 at 1:24
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There is a big difference between "discuss" and "attack". –  StrongBad Nov 21 '12 at 12:50
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I agree with @DanielE.Shub that the field you are in could be relevant to the discussion. For example, if your field is in geology or even computer science the discussions about religion (young earth creationism, intelligent design, etc.) might be relevant. –  Joel Reyes Noche Nov 22 '12 at 0:23
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@JoelReyesNoche: Computer science? Really??? –  JeffE Nov 22 '12 at 3:46
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Sometimes ethics and religion get mixed. I had a graduate student tell me that I was wrong to implicate students in a case of plagiarism, because as brothers of the same religion, they had an obligation to help each other. I didn't want it to become an issue of religion, so I simply reminded him that he was a student at a university whose policy about plagiarism was clear. I also questioned his interpretation of "helping"... but it was never a question of judging a religion or culture. –  Fuhrmanator Nov 22 '12 at 16:53
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7 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

No matter what the advisor's beliefs are, it's not OK to discuss a student's differing beliefs AND criticize them. It's the criticism that takes this from honest exchange of views into a more dangerous territory: your advisor is in a power relationship with you by definition and it's impossible to have a discussion "as equals" while this relationship is active.

If you think that the relationship and his continuing advising would be beneficial to your career, then you might try to have a chat with him where you indicate that these topics need to stay out of bounds. And I'd erect a high bar for "beneficial".

But if your assessment of value does not cross that high bar, then I'd follow JeffE's advice and run.

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In my ming criticizing a personal belief is ALWAYS inappropriate. When that personal belief influences ones research, it is no longer "personal" and needs to be treated as a research bias. –  StrongBad Nov 23 '12 at 10:30
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There are different parts in your question:

  • In general, I don't think it's a problem that your advisor wants to discuss "religion beliefs and how do [you] view the world". After all, academia is a place where you can meet people coming from different places, and a nice part of it is to exchange and discuss about cultural differences.

  • If you're not comfortable discussing this topic, then you should tell directly your advisor. If he ignores it and/or attack you on it, then, as JeffE said: don't walk, run.

  • On a completely different topic, if he's never available for you, and doesn't even answer your emails, then, don't walk, run. But that's unrelated to going off-topic at your first interview.

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Yes indeed no issue in discussing cultural differences and even sometimes joking about it :) –  seteropere Nov 21 '12 at 18:23
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@seteropere: Well, in that case, you might want to edit your question so that you make clear there has been an attack during the "discussion". –  Charles Morisset Nov 21 '12 at 18:26
    
I have edited the question.. Thanks –  seteropere Nov 21 '12 at 18:33
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For some scientists religion is hard to mix with science. Science is based on hard facts and on rational thought. Religion on the other hand deals with beliefs which might be impossible to prove. In a scientific environment you can expect to have these kinds of discussions, try to not take remarks too personal and just calmly explain what you believe. If people are respectful the discussion will end with you and the other agreeing to disagree. If you have the feeling your prospective supervisor is not going to stop and will continue to make this a point of discussion, this could be a negative point and play a role in your choice. As an additional test to see what your potential supervisor will do after you are hired is to just confront him with your reservations. If he responds well, you can take that as a postive sign, if not, that confirms that you might not want to work there.

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very informative answer; Liked your thought about science and religion.. thanks Paul –  seteropere Nov 22 '12 at 19:36
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+1 for suggesting the direct confrontation, and basing the decision on the reaction. –  Fuhrmanator Nov 22 '12 at 20:35
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Actually, if such dicussions take place (without attacks) I think it is a very good sign of an open atmosphere. –  cbeleites Nov 23 '12 at 20:02
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I can tell you as a personal experience that if you do not feel comfortable, and feel you have no future doing research there, you go before is too late.

What is too late? You may realize you've wasted 2-3 years and achieved nothing, or you may realize the research you are doing is not really of interest to you.

Since you are just starting, I do think is intelligent to seriously assess whether staying there is worth your time.

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Try a general approach to Conflict Management called DAN.

  • Describe the situation to your supervisor, trying to be as objective as possible. Tell him that you came to his lab to do research, and that you didn't expect him to make comments on your religion.

  • Assert your feelings, explaining that you feel uncomfortable when he talks about your religion, and that it makes it more difficult for you to work.

  • Name what you want him to do, telling him that you would like him to stop talking about your religion, and concentrate only on the research aspects of your work.

It is possible that your boss is testing you, to see if you are able to react in a negative situation. In any case, see this conflict as an opportunity. If you are able to solve the problem, you will become stronger, and your supervisor will learn to respect you.

So, go to your supervisor and remember the three points: Describe, Assert, and Name. Don't let him speak before you finished all of them. Good luck, and be strong :-)

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I think this is a great answer and conflict management skills are important for so many things. That said, I disagree with "Don't let him speak before you finished all of them." While later on in the process things might get to that point, initially such an aggressive approach might escalate the problem. –  StrongBad Nov 23 '12 at 11:53
    
This must be done very quickly, like 5 minutes or less. Let him listen for 5 minutes, then start the discussion. If you let him interrupt, the risk is to not get to the third point, "Name what you want", which is the most important of the three points. –  dalloliogm Nov 23 '12 at 12:53
    
But often the DESCRIBE stage is enough to make someone adjust their behavior. A simple, "I prefer not to talk about my personal beliefs" might make the problem go away. –  StrongBad Nov 23 '12 at 13:03
    
well, it may be, but why would you like to be less efficient? If you don't explain how you feel, the other person will not empathize with you, and will be more difficult to convince. If you don't explain what you want, the other person may take a solution that you don't like. –  dalloliogm Nov 23 '12 at 13:21
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In general I agree with the "run away" advice (the more so, as I don't really understand how the student can perceive a professor at the same time as being nice and attacking cultural/religious roots that are are deeply integrated in the personality, i.e. perceiving a personal attack), however, there are IMHO some points to consider (also to maybe avoid ending up with similar problems again)

  • There is a possiblity that a particular religion conflicts with certain notions of science or creates a conflict of interest. See e.g. Fuhrmanator's comment at the question.

  • Or religious notions of one person that are not even necessarily integral parts of the religion. E.g. how will someone cope with doing statistical anayses that try to judge whether an observation occured accidentatlly when (s)he personally and firmly believes everything is predestined?

  • There can also be cultural difficulties. A famous one:

    Chinese students in particular often struggle to adjust to Western notions of plagiarism as deference to expert opinion is a deeply routed cultural norm in Chinese society. Indeed, referencing sources has been seen [in Chinese society/culture] as disrespectful to both reader and 'expert' as it presupposes that the source is not widely known and that the audience is unable to recognize source material.

    source See also e.g. here (lots more papers on these topics).

I think nowadays international student's offices or international student groups know which points can be critical and can name them. This means that the student can ask himself whether these are an issue and how to deal with them. That would in turn allow the student to have a very informed position and tell the (or: a future/prospective) prof that he/she is aware of these points, considered them carefully and they are no problem because...
Or also that (s)he will e.g. not conduct animal studies for ethical reasons (I think there are usually either a) enough alternatives of doing research and b) if there aren't I think the question is why the student did apply for a position that is not compatible with his/her personal ethics in the first place).

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Welcome to academia in the U.S.

What most posters here are avoiding mentioning is that what you are describing is pretty common in some departments (Philosophy, Religious Studies, Biology, Cosmology, and most others ending with -ology or "Studies"), and pretty uncommon in others (Physics, Chemistry, Engineering, Mathematics, Linguistics).

Also, on some campuses it is more common than on others.

You should discuss it with other PhD candidates in your department on your campus, just to find out how common it is there. Only then can you know whether it's a good idea to "make it an issue." If it is common, making it an issue will almost never improve your situation, and you should either learn to tolerate and minimize it, or else find another place. If it is not common, you have a chance that making an issue of it might improve the situation, but even then, I suggest trying a gentle approach first, since if it works, the results are better.

Personally, I found that never responding with a judgement of my own about their practice or lack of practice (which certainly seemed silly to me), and as much humor as I could muster, over (a fairly short) time greatly reduced the frequency of obnoxious comments. If you are consistently "classy", most people will sooner or later realize they are being low-class, and at least moderate their behavior.

With humor, be very sure to avoid being even slightly nasty. Keep it in good taste. Never joke about the other person's religion, no matter how harmless the joke is. Never.

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