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I'm doing a masters. My thesis supervisor made our relationship a bit more personal and friendly: added me on Facebook, invited me for couple of dinners and we used to hangout sometimes and talk on articles at bars. Now he's for some reason avoiding me, answers emails/messages after couple of days (he used to do it in less than a day tops) and very cold and short. A very big problem is that I'm taking a lot of credits with him this semester (individual research work) and not only I have this fear that he might give me bad grades (he can do that simply by calling my work low quality; there's no objective criteria for the kind of individual course that I'm taking), he might end up not writing me a reference letter for my PhD, which is bad because first, a lot of credits under the name of individual work will remain unexplained, and second, I suppose it's awful that the one that I have worked with a my supervisor doesn't write me a letter.

What should I do?

PS: He's not physically accessible until the end of summer, except that for a 2 days conference that we'll be meeting in a week.

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UPDATE: I messaged him just like @aparente001 had advised me, but shorter (with the question that @cag51 suggested to ask face-to-face). He answered me in a minute a sat up a meeting time for that day's tomorrow (we were supposed to have a meeting before, which didn't happen). Then I realized that he has been only super busy and there's nothing else that plays any role (at least that's what he said). So, asking him worked even before a face-to-face talk. Thank you for your help!

  • What have you done wrong for him to change? Seems like one day fine , the next ... – Solar Mike Jun 2 '18 at 15:26
  • I have no clear idea! Maybe because I have been arrogant in a scientific discussion so something, but again, I'm not sure about it. – user93503 Jun 2 '18 at 15:35
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    I think it might be relevant to know if you had any signals he might have seen you as a romantic prospect... if so, he might be trying to make the relationship more professional! – Dawn Jun 2 '18 at 16:20
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    There is a big step from avoiding you to giving unfair grades. – The Doctor Jun 2 '18 at 16:29
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    There is also the possibility that someone else has "warned him off" as it were and he is now worried about any contact... – Solar Mike Jun 2 '18 at 16:31
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Professors are not always the people who would win a prize at interpersonal relationships.

Professors often have significant stressors in their lives.

So please don't assume this is about you. For example, perhaps the professor will be up for tenure next year and is trying to crank out as much work as humanly possible, despite feeling almost crippling anxiety, and has decided that it's necessary to minimize non-productive interactions so as to maximize the hours in the day available for research.

If you yourself are feeling anxious, unsure whether you are cutting the mustard, then ask. If it's difficult to ask this question in person, then you could send a preview of your question via email, a few days prior to your meeting, to give time to prepare. Here is one way such a question could be broached:

Dear Prof. X,
I am enjoying working hard on my project! But I would also like to find out how I am doing, objectively. Could we check in briefly about this when we meet next week? I am interested to know: What do you think is going well, what areas do you feel I need to improve in, do you have any suggestions for me, to get the most out of my time working with you, are there things you would rather I handle differently? This is the sort of feedback I'm hoping to get when we meet. I think that periodic constructive feedback will help me become an asset to your group.

Be prepared to take notes. Don't argue or defend yourself. Thank the professor for the feedback. Don't get too frustrated if your professor doesn't know how to do this sort of feedback session smoothly. Remember, the main purpose in asking this is so you won't have to rely entirely on your overactive imagination.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. I'll probably do this before I talk to him face-to-face. – user93503 Jun 3 '18 at 10:23
  • @user93503 - I hope you'll post an update. – aparente001 Jun 3 '18 at 20:28
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You should talk to him face-to-face when possible. I would say something like:

I might be overanalyzing this, but I noticed you've been a little distant lately. Have I done anything wrong?

If he says no, you need to leave it at that. He might just have a personal situation (e.g., parent dying), he might be concerned that he was acting too familiar and is now trying to reestablish boundaries, or it might just be nothing. I seriously doubt he would change your grades or fail to recommend you if he tells you flat-out that everything is fine.

  • This sounds like a good plan, although I'm unsure whether I should approach him face-to-face without notifying him, or I should send him an email (as the next responder suggests) and let him know that I'll be willing to talk about him. – user93503 Jun 3 '18 at 9:09
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It feels to me (without any evidence or proof, so I can certainly be wrong) like your supervisor might now regret establishing a relationship that's too personal on the spectrum between personal and professional, and is now trying to establish a relationship in a zone that he feels is more appropriate.

If this is the case, I don't think you have anything to worry about with respect to your grades.

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