I am a PhD student with a very difficult colleague - someone I thought was just socially inept, and rude. I was always friendly, giving her the benefit of the doubt, even though she offended me and others on a constant basis with her privileged, superiority complex. On paper, she looks brilliant - she has had many educational opportunities that my parents couldn't afford - something that has made her unbelievably unaware of experiences not her own.

After many derogatory and humiliating comments, I eventually started ignoring her quite a bit - she would never respond to my hellos, would interrupt me in class, laugh when I didn't know a scholar she brought up, etc. It was taking energy to be kind and outgoing to her. Her demeaning behavior was obvious to many, but because she is my classmate, I see her the most. After seeking guidance from mental health professionals, I decided to no longer be upset by her, but also not entertain her behavior. I blocked her out as much as I could, while trying to maintain professionalism.

Granted, there may have been a few times when I questioned her in class - asking for clarification or further explanations into her method of thinking. As PhD students, I am under the impression that we should be able to defend our research, and my professors never said anything to me about the questions I asked.

However, very recently a few professors approached me about "tension" between us. They informed me that this girl has complained about me to them. She apparently has discussed me often, even going as far to say that I "trigger" her. I am shocked. I have never said anything to my professors about her, even though she has offended me several times. I am friends with almost everyone in the program, while she has isolated herself.

I now am feeling extremely insecure, and painted in a very negative light. Professors are suggesting that I meet with her, and show her my "softer" side - I'm from the East coast, we can get a bit...intense. They are encouraging me to reach out to her and comfort her. However, I have been kind to her from the beginning, only recently trying to ignore her toxic attitude. I'm not sure what to do, or how to go about this.


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    If she's some kind of sociopath, then every morsel you give her is just ammunition to use against you. Don't do it. Commented May 22, 2018 at 3:03
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    Why do the profs think it's their business telling you to be nice to her? Is that normal in your academic culture? Commented May 22, 2018 at 5:58
  • 3
    What country are you in? Commented May 22, 2018 at 6:31
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    "Unfortunately, we do not have the best rapport and, after a number of incidents, I decided to keep a certain distance, which I hoped could be maintained. I am sorry that she inconvenienced you with this inconsequential personality mismatch. However, please understand that, after my experiences, I'd rather continue to keep my distance." - and, of course, do so, unless you absolutely have to interact with her, and then only minimally. Commented May 22, 2018 at 14:00
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    @allo It should mean that, but in recent years "x triggered me" seems to have become synonymous with "x made me angry or upset" with some people.
    – Flyto
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 14:02

3 Answers 3


A campus is a complex social environment that not everyone can adapt to, which is why most campuses have a free, confidential consultation office regarding harassment and personal issues. I'd recommend discussing this with that office before trying to engage with this troublesome student directly.

It sounds like you have gone out of your way to avoid confronting this student, and you don't want professors to know about your negative feelings towards her. When you consult a third party, there is no need to cover up such details. Let the campus staff specifically know that

  1. This person was making you feel uncomfortable.
  2. You tried your best to avoid conflict by disengaging with her.
  3. She is now complaining about you to professors, even though you are no longer communicating with her.

The professors apparently don't understand the full story with this student. It is wrong for them to ask you to confront her directly.


In graduate school, there are a bunch of unreasonable and entitled people. This is not uncommon. However, as far as politics and the person who is expected to go to bat for you: talk to your advisor. Your advisor will be the one representing you at faculty meetings, and has likely spent a long time navigating the politics of the department and college at large. His/her expertise in this is exactly what you need to tap into for appropriate direction. That said, I would say ignore her completely and totally. Word gets around in graduate school, and if you are nonconfrontational and she is witnessed consistently doing the opposite, people will see the emperor's clothes. As far as formally complaining, I would treat that delicately. If she is sound academically and her parents have a lot of resources it can end up being a headache for your department. Even if every professor sides with you, they still don't want to fill out paperwork on you two or be a character witness to the college itself. I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying speak to your advisor candidly.


The suggestion to talk to some HR part of your university seems like the best first option.

But if it is not helping enough: tell the professor who tried to mediate that you disagree with the version that the other student has made out, and that you would only talk to the other student about it if someone else is with you in that conversation so that it wont further any miscommunication.

This way you may add your side as well if it continues to be a thing, and the professor gets the option to also just agree that it is not something worth their time if they feel that such a conversation is too much of a hassle.

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