I was accepted into a PhD program 3.5 years ago. They hired a new faculty member 2 years ago and I was reassigned to this 'new' person since she didn't have any students of her own. She is interpersonally aggressive and hard to 'read.'

Over the last two years she has produced 1 publishable paper, which was rejected by the journal. I've published 2 in that same time. She was assigned 3 classes to teach by the department, and assigned me to TA for all 3, essentially leaving me in charge of all 150 students. The more work I do for her, the angrier she seems to be. The problem, however, started when she gave me inaccurate information about my requirements for graduation. She told me I had to prepare my dissertation prospectus before doing the department's 3rd core exam, which turned out to be incorrect. I wasted months writing, was then told by another faculty I had to rush my (mandatory) exam, which I failed (6 weeks ago). This is the first thing I've ever failed here.

My advisor told me all students fail the 3rd exam in order to build 'character' in them. However university rules state I am now on probation and another failure would mean I am terminated from the department. She also shared that she was a grader on my 3rd exam and had chosen to vote 'fail' rather than 'conditional pass' because "she wanted to see me do it again." There was no constructive feedback, it just seems like bullying. There was zero information on how to re-do the exam or improve. This is high-stakes.

If the department does fail all students as ritual hazing, I believe the department is doing something unethical. If that statement was false, I consider my advisor to be doing something unethical.

I would like to voice my concerns to the university. What person should I approach? Department Chair? Dean of Students? Dean of College? Office of Graduate Studies? A lawyer? I fear retaliation.

  • 6
    What you describe is extremely bizarre. Why were you “assigned” to this advisor? Normally students have some choice in the matter. Have you talked with other students to compare experiences? Is there a “director of graduate studies” that you can ask about requirements and expectations?
    – Thomas
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 6:19
  • 3
    +Thomas My department is bizarre; we only have 3 faculty after our PhD program 'split' in half (11 faculty in the other program). My former advisor retired. It is normal for us to be assigned advisors. Most of our students graduate in 4-8 years. I am currently the most junior student here because we have not been accepting new applicants.
    – Quixy
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 6:29
  • 4
    Yes, this sounds very unpleasant, but, unfortunately, not entirely unrealistic. Which country? This will inform your procedure. In many Anglo-Saxon countries there are ombudspeople to support students, so this would be the first go-to-point there. Prepare to switch programs/unis if you at all can, the department sounds not in a good shape as described (3 faculty, split, retired advisor, graduation times, no new applicants). Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 12:16
  • 6
    This does indeed sound like bullying, or at least rather odd., and the other comments offer good advice. As a word of warning, though, do not try to judge somebody's worth as an academic by how many papers they put out in a short period - opening with this, or indeed trying to show that she's bad in some other way, probably isn't going to do you any favours. Concentrate on the behavior towards you and the effects of that.
    – Flyto
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 12:50
  • 2
    "She demands this semester I try to finish/submit two publications with her." -- This is an unreasonable, parasitic request. To me that settles it: just run.
    – Scientist
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 14:25

1 Answer 1


I believe properly answering your question depends on providing more specific detail, e.g. which is the country. Institutional structure and the corporate culture can be very different between, say, Mexico and China.

I believe you have a broken relationship with your current advisor. I will not attempt to judge a reason for why she did what you describe, or whether your account is precise and complete.

This means you should primarily focus on getting away from this person while trying to find yourself another PhD advisor. Accomplishing this will do most of the "official communication" for you. The department will know there is a problem, and you both will be moving towards a healthier relationship.

So my answer to you is: the person you should talk to is whoever is responsible for shifting advisors in your institution. If you cannot change advisors for whatever reason, then it is the person responsible for smoothly terminating your contract locally so you can get better training elsewhere. The conflict itself becomes self-evident as you move to a better stand.

Good luck!

  • 1
    Thank you for the advice. Should anyone else find themselves in this situation, please know I also am taking the following steps: 1. contacted the college's staff advisor. 2. Officially resigned (signed/submitted) my student employment; 3. Notified the "advocacy outreach," an ombudsman like place to request clarification of my responsibility/rights during the exam and time-line to graduation.
    – Quixy
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 5:04
  • 1
    @Quixotic It is very nice of you to keep others here updated of your experience. Too many colleagues value the PhD degree and duration over the actual experience and skills gained. If it is not working out nor advancing you, moving elsewhere asap is usually the best option. Good luck!
    – Scientist
    Commented Sep 17, 2018 at 14:23

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