My doctoral advisor did something that seems odd to me. I did a bunch of unpaid work for him, with an explicit promise from him (but not in writing because I trusted he would keep the promise) that in exchange he would do one of two mentoring-type things for me, and he has now reneged on his promise.

I want to think he is just unaware of how much time I put in, or has forgotten his promise, or is extremely busy with other commitments, or that maybe my work wasn't up to snuff and his earlier very positive evaluation of the work didn't match what he in fact thought. It may also be the case that the mentoring-type things I want from him would take more commitment from him than he realized he was prepared to offer. I fear that it is a little of some of those things, but also that he is being covertly aggressive (because I feel fairly sure he's been covertly aggressive toward me before).

What would the professors on this site suggest I do? What I want to do is send him an email politely reminding him of our deal and specifying what work I've done to gently nudge him to do his part. (And also to say, hey, if there's some unnamed conflict we need to address, and that's why you're reneging, let's.) Then again, I need him to be on my side so that I can graduate, I don't need him to do what he promised to graduate (although it would really help my scholarly development, hence the unpaid work I did), and I fear this action from me will prompt aggression from him. For example, I'm afraid he'll just say, 'Sure, I'll do what I promised,' and then will hurt me in the process again (since they involve him mentoring, which would involve more work from me and from him). I guess my question is, do I 1) send a polite email, 2) try to set up a friendly phone call, or 3) forget about it and eat a crap-ton of nachos, because that's the only satisfaction I'll really get? I can't switch advisors. Thanks!

  • Hi, please try to formulate a title that sums up your question/problem in one sentence. It will help others gauge what your question is about. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 7:13
  • 2
    Did you agree on a time when he would be giving you the mentoring? Are you sure he is not just waiting for you to ask him? You seem to have a lot of assumption on what he is thinking or what he is doing but in your text I don't see any hint that you actually asked him thus it seems to be all speculations. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 7:15
  • It very much depends how your professor 'reneged'. Did he explicitly say he couldn't do the mentoring you discussed? You also seem to assume he's a rather vindictive person - why do you think that? Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 8:47
  • I think that this is probably too specific to an individual to be answerable on here. But my reaction is "send a polite reminder". From the info given here, there's a very good chance that he's simply forgotten.
    – Flyto
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 10:58
  • I suggest you don't make it confrontational. Don't remind him of his promise. Remind him that you need help and ask for that specifically.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 12:41

3 Answers 3


I would not assume malice or intent when just plain forgetfulness is likely. There are times in academia where all you are thinking about is the "next thing". Finish the revision for this manuscript, proposal deadline due in three days, grant proposal due date coming this Friday, a consulting client is demanding another meeting, classes have started and you still need to organize and revise your course based on feedback from last semester, etc, etc, etc.

In short, the scholar might just have forgotten. If I were in their case, I would probably be a little embarrassed at my own forgetfulness, apologize, and then put a meeting (and reminder) in my outlook calendar.

My suggestion is send a polite email with a reminder. Just a

Hi Dr. So and So,

I worked for you in ____ project. We had discussed setting up a meeting for you helping me with _____. I wanted to see if you had time to meet now? If you are able, I can schedule a call about it.



I think this is a nice little reminder email that is not accusatory and would probably work well.


I wholeheartedly agree with JWH2006 that you should not immediately jump to assuming malice, but instead of forgetfulness the root of the issue could also be a misunderstanding. You don't really provide enough details that this can be judged by us, but often I have seen "verbal agreements" that both sides understood quite differently. For instance, you may have asked for "help with finding a postdoc position" and expected that your advisor would poke his colleagues, sit down with you and prepare your application material, and train you for the interviews, while he thought it just meant writing a nice letter for you. That is, maybe you are in a situation where your advisor thinks they are doing everything they agreed to do, while you see it has them reneging on their promise.

The solution to this problem is similar to what JMH2006 proposed - contact them and ask, very concretely, what kind of help you would like to get. Never go into accusations that they broke their promise (this won't end well, especially if they think they actually did everything they promised to do). Maximally, I would remind them of all the unpaid help you did for them, but more in a "I did a favor for you, can you please do a favor for me now" way, again not in an accusatory way.

If, after that, they still maintain that they can't or won't provide whatever help you feel you have been promised, I suggest the Nacho option. You realistically have no leverage to enforce the deal, and there is no way that pressing the issue will bring you good mentoring (or goodwill for your upcoming thesis defense, for that matter).


I think, you are overthinking. It's perfectly normal to gently remind others of promises they made after doing your own part. He may not know when you need his help or simply forgot it. Anyway, you are the best person to represent your interests, do not wait for others.

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