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I am a PhD student. In the past I have met with an assistant professor for some general advice about my research, both times he has made off the cuff comments on my lack of competence as a researcher and overall career suitability in academia. During my continuation, he made further comments in this area. I prepared for 3 weeks solid for my continuation (or transfer or confirmation, in my case, it's like the defense of the first paper) and it went terribly. I can take constructive criticism and I welcome it, so as to better my paper. However, his behaviour I feel is inappropriate, as the focus should be my paper, and not my personal qualities.

I am not sure what to do, if I should even do anything at all. In general, I consider my PhD progress to be very good, and my supervisor as far as I know shares the same sentiment.

I'm cautious to respond to the assistant professor, because he tells me I am being defensive, but then I am cautious of being too silent because he tells me I am not contributing enough.

I have not spoken to my supervisor since my continuation or told him about my past encounters with this professor. Do I express my disappointment and confusion in our next meeting, or do I just leave it? I am lost on what to do, and I feel very deflated now.

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Do you need to take any course taught by him? Do you absolutely need him in your committee? Can you try to keep distance from him? I mean, why do you care about his comments that much? – scaaahu Mar 22 at 12:34
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What is your exact relationship with this professor? If you just went to him for advice and he doesn't have any constructive advice to offer, the best course of action would probably be to simply ignore him. If you somehow depend on him and his opinion (e.g., he is a thesis examiner), that's a different problem. – Roland Mar 22 at 12:35
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@Roland from what I read the "continuation" seems to be an official step in the PhD at that university...This is unclear though. What is a continuation? – Emilie Mar 22 at 12:52
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@Kelly: Please edit the question to clarify what the continuation is. Otherwise people have to read the comments in order to understand the question. – Ben Crowell Mar 22 at 14:45
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I still don't understand what a "continuation" is. Why would a first paper need a defense? Isn't that what referee reports are for? – JeffE Mar 22 at 19:54
up vote 69 down vote accepted

He may be competing with your supervisor. He may not like your general topic. He may not like you. Or, he really believes what he says. Or he wants to test you. You don't know.

You have to live with people who confuse what's going on with prejudice- or agenda-coloured "truth". Practically all successful researchers have encountered such put-downs.

Schechtman (later Nobel winner) got a "Introduction to Crystallography" book put on his table when he first reported that he got a 5-fold symmetry, hence quasicrystals, in his experiment. Feynman got put-down big time initially by Oppenheimer and was only saved by Dyson's aggressive intervention.

You think your progress is good? Your supervisor does, too? That's enough for you to go on, then. This guy may be a big shot, but for you, it doesn't count. Big shots are usually right when they think something is cool/great. They can be awfully wrong when they think something is not good. Trust your instincts.

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In fact, the famous Linus Pauling (Nobel laureate) was extremely critical of Schechtman's work before it became widely-accepted, and said "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists." – Bitwise Mar 22 at 12:58
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He may be competing with your supervisor - reminds me with this PhD Movie 2 scene – Orion Mar 22 at 13:00
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Thank you! I appreciate your advice! I think you're right, I guess I have let him get into my head, and have second guessed everything. – Kelly Mar 22 at 13:33
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@Kelly Every time I have seen this happening around me (with friends, colleagues, stories from my advisor) it has always been political. This professor and your professor are probably on opposite "political teams" within the department. So making life difficult for the "other" students is one way. Once we actually saw this erupting into a fiasco at a student's master's defense where the other guy showed up and started asking difficult questions to harass the student because he hated the advisor. The chair had to stand up, take charge, and almost threw him out of the room. Ridiculous! – Fixed Point Mar 22 at 22:25
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@ChrisK We should have a "tweet this" plugin for these great punchlines. – Mindwin Mar 23 at 13:26

Captain Emacs already gave a great answer, I'd like to address this point specifically:

I'm cautious to answer back to the professor, because he tells me I am being defensive, but then I am cautious of being too silent, because he tells me I am not contributing enough.

I suggest the following strategy:

  • If he criticizes you personally: Ignore it.

  • If he criticizes your work: Answer back, but use questions. Don't defend your work, try to find out why we criticizes it and what alternatives he suggests. If he is right, you get valuable feedback. If he is wrong (and others are present, like at your continuation), he will make himself look bad rather than you.

Example: "And you call yourself a scientist? This section is rubbish."

  • Bad answer: (Get angry) "Of course I am a scientist! And this section is great because..."
  • Good answer: (Take out a pen and paper to take notes) "Why do you think it is rubbish? How can it be improved?"

I have not spoken to my supervisor since my continuation or told him about my past encounters with this professor. Do I express my disappointment and confusion in our next meeting, or do I just leave it?

Sure, mention it! Your advisor's job is not only to help you write a great thesis, but also to help you find your way in academia and guide you through the process.

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Downvoted. Engaging the abuser is really not a good strategy for dealing with abuse. Better to walk away, cut off all contact with the abuser, and get help from someone you trust. – JeffE Mar 22 at 19:59
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@JeffE: Sure. At the risk of sounding defensive (no pun intended): My answer was written under the impression that cutting off all contact is not an option (or incurs too high a cost). In addition, I do believe that being able to deal with difficult employees/customers/colleagues/superiors is a valuable skill which can be learned/trained and greatly enhances your career options. That said, I'd also keep contact with this person to the minimum required. – Heinzi Mar 22 at 20:52
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I agree that one should minimise contact, but sometimes this is not possible, e.g. in an examination or a work situation. Certainly OP, as a student, cannot simply ignore a professor in the same social context who is ostentatiously giving statements disguised as "objective" (which are, of course, not objective at all, but can be extremely difficult to counter). Keeping nerves, confidence and good manners is therefore paramount to prevail in the long-term; Heinzi gives a workable suggestion, although myself I prefer a tad sharper tack, riposting with something outside the prof's expertise. – Captain Emacs Mar 22 at 23:10
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+1 for "If he criticizes you personally: Ignore it.". I would also add, "cut out all the small talk because small talk often reveals personal information and is food for future personal criticism; make your relationship a purely professional one". – Earthliŋ Mar 23 at 13:28
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Never ignore a personal criticism. When it comes to us humans, perception is reality. If you appear that you're coming off as a slacker, even if you're not doing anything wrong, you should try to find out why you come off that way to them and strongly consider doing something about it. If someone discretely tells you your fly is down at a party, you discretely zip it up. If someone grabs the mic and goes "Heinzi's fly is down, everyone point and laugh!!!!" are you still going to leave it down? Just because someone is a jerk in pointing something out doesn't necessarily mean their wrong. – corsiKa Mar 23 at 15:45

Kelly, if you have had a chance to meet with your supervisor since you asked this question, you may not need any further advice.

I'm male, so maybe not qualified to speak to this topic. You call yourself Kelly, which where I am (geographically) is usually but not exclusively female. A male professor is criticizing you personally and telling you that you are not suitable for academia, so it's even more likely that you are female. If I've guessed right on that, then since I see you also used a male pronoun for your supervisor, you should discuss this with women on the faculty in your department.

My other comments are gender neutral.

I'm worried because you said you prepared for three weeks and the exam went badly. If that's just because an assistant professor asked inappropriate questions, that doesn't reflect badly on you. But your supervisor is supposed to intervene for you if something inappropriate happens in an exam, and it sounds like he didn't. If the rudeness was coming from an assistant professor, then your supervisor should be at least of equal rank and it isn't obvious what power dynamic would keep him silent when you were being mistreated.

If the exam did go badly, your supervisor should bring it up without prompting, I think, but I wouldn't count on it. I think you need to know if your supervisor thinks it went badly, and if he shares your view on why it went badly. If you agree that this one assistant professor is the problem, then you supervisor should agree to keep him off your committee in the future, and all is good.

You say you view your PhD progress as very good and "as far as you know" your supervisor shares the same sentiment. I wish you were more confident in that. Maybe you and your supervisor need to agree on milestones and deadlines to reach the milestones so you can judge that you are making good progress.

It's 99.9% likely the other professor is wrong in his assessment of you. But you're probably not the next Feynman or the next Marie Curie, because they wouldn't need to ask the question you've asked. They succeeded no matter what anyone else said. The rest of us might be suitable for academia but still slip through the cracks without support from mentors and colleagues. In your question I see red flags that say your supervisor isn't supporting you.

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What the heck? After being oh-so-careful not to gender-judge ("Kelly"...female name), you say, with a straight face, and to applause of 2 upvoters "A male professor is criticizing you personally and telling you that you are not suitable for academia, so it's even more likely that you are female." Seriously bigoted, dude (which, where I'm from, can refer to a man or woman); I find this self-satisfied statement insulting. It's good that you estimated the precise likelihood of the other professor being wrong ("99.9%") though. Big downvote. – gnometorule Mar 29 at 7:41
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@gnometorule As sexism is sadly quite common in academia, particularly in STEM disciplines, it's not entirely improbable, that this personal criticism is a demonstration of that, though I wouldn't up the probability in such strong terms as "even more likely". – LLlAMnYP Mar 29 at 10:58
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"In your question I see red flags that say your supervisor isn't supporting you." +1 – Dikran Marsupial Mar 29 at 12:54
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@gnometorule Re:editing in assistant, Captain Emacs mentioned in the comments under the OP, that the fact that he's an "assistant" may be particularly relevant to the question, prompting the editing. – LLlAMnYP Mar 29 at 15:21
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Hanlon's razor is useful in situations like this, or at least more mildly worded versions of it, i.e. assume the meaning that casts the writer in the best light consistent with what was written, rather than assuming the worst. Of course that doesn't mean you shouldn't point out that it is ambiguously worded and needs clarification, it certainly is. – Dikran Marsupial Mar 29 at 15:25

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