I am advising an outstanding graduate student who is currently doing a summer internship with a government agency. He is also applying for a permanent job with the same agency, for which I was quite proud to recommend him strongly. That said, his prospective employer has been the subject of recent news reports which have led me to oppose its work.

I will certainly not renege on my duties as an advisor. But I don't have a good poker face, and I'm afraid that my changed attitude will be all too clear. What would be the kindest course of action? To share my thoughts once and once only, or to keep my mouth shut?

  • 12
    When in doubt, be honest.
    – JeffE
    Aug 10, 2013 at 23:30
  • 14
    You advise, he decides.
    – earthling
    Aug 11, 2013 at 3:24
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    @user774025 There's a big difference between forcing one's views on someone else and giving one's opinion/advice. I would be very upset if my advisor didn't advise me.
    – Steve P.
    Aug 11, 2013 at 16:27
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    I second "be honest". Who knows, maybe recent news reports have changed your student's opinion as well, and he wants to turn down the job but thinks you'll be disappointed.
    – user6782
    Aug 11, 2013 at 17:14
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    @user774025 - I don't think that's actually a supportable claim, that an agency's value is always "just opinion"--unless you also mean that it is "just opinion" that people should not be imprisoned, killed, etc. on a whim or out of bigotry or whatever. Agencies tend to have good and bad aspects, and there's usually some room for disagreement about which is which. But there have been some, in some countries, where the positives are very hard to find indeed, and many more where the negatives outweigh the positives. Maybe "opinion" is true in this case, but not in general.
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 12, 2013 at 16:31

3 Answers 3


I don’t really understand what part of your “support” your question is about. In short: is the problem how to support him personally (in your discussions with him, in your work relations in general), or how to support his PhD work, or how to support his job application?

For his PhD work, I hope you are able to prevent outside circumstances from impacting negatively your work. As an advisor, this probably happens at some point with any student… and any coworker, really.

For his job application, you don't need to state to support his future job, just to say he would be excellent at it. Just to give an example, stating that “Dr. Martin has all the skills necessary to excel in numerical simulations of deep offshore oil drilling” doesn't require you have to state “I strongly support offshore drilling”, nor does it imply it. Moreover, most recommendations are done in written.

Finally, regarding overall personal support throughout his graduate studies: that's a bit harder, but you truly have to put it past you, and it may not be easy. The best approach is clearly to be upfront with him: discuss it, preferably in an informal manner (i.e. don't make it a big deal). Points that seem important to mention:

  1. I have strong feelings about your future employer, and I think it is best that I am frank with you about it.
  2. It shouldn't change our work relationship, and I don't expect it to. I continue to support you wholeheartedly.
  3. If you think you notice a negative impact in the future, please come and discuss it with me, we'll work it out.

But honestly, it's not a nice situation to be in. I'm a bit surprised as to how what could gather so much distrust from you that you cannot simply separate it from your work.

  • 8
    About the last paragraph, I'm gonna venture a wild guess: NSA ;). If that is the case, I think the supervisors opinion on a basically political matter should not influence the student future... It only matters what the student believe in...
    – Nick S
    Aug 10, 2013 at 21:19
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    @NickS It only matters what the student believes in - keep in mind that one's beliefs change as one gains new information. It is our job as educators to give new information.
    – earthling
    Aug 11, 2013 at 3:23
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    @NickS I second to earthling. I am over 60 years old. My belief in that matter (as most people here, I think I know what OP is talking about) changed three times since my college days.
    – Nobody
    Aug 11, 2013 at 10:10
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    @NickS - I completely disagree. This will degenerate into an example of Godwin's Law pretty quickly without care, but many of the worst abuses in history arise out of a culture of not calling people on less-than-admirable behavior. McCarthyism was at the time a "basically political matter", as was the internment of Japanese Americans (both in the U.S.). The NSA (or other agencies) have a much better shot at being and staying positive and non-abusive if the people going in have felt the concerns and pressure of those outside. Concerned advisors should influence (but not determine).
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 11, 2013 at 18:17
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    @NickS - Sure, agencies can be unfairly blamed and advisors can be wrong. Using that as an excuse to engage less is foolish, though, as history shows. You want a more robust dialog, more sharing of opinions, not less.
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 12, 2013 at 16:23

If your student is very talented perhaps you could help him to find a better position than the one with the government. If you know what your student cares about then find a better use for his skills and propose it to him.

If that doesn't work you could always have a heart-to-heart talk with him to help him to see your concerns.

I believe it is our job to educate our students on more than simply module content (should teach critical thinking, proper citation formats, etc.). I would not recommend cramming your value structure down his throat but I think giving him your ethical perspective to think about is quite reasonable.


In my opinion it is a tough situation, and no answer cannot be complete without knowing more details about the situation.

Before deciding there are few things for you to consider. As earthling said, we should typically educate our students on more than just academical things, but you should also keep in mind that when it comes to many government agencies, opinions vary a lot. Is not necessarily that our opinion about one agency is the right one.

What matters most is your student's goals. If he really likes the position, and it fits his goals for the future, that should matter more than your personal views [there are few exceptions to this rule, if the agency contradicts the basic morale codes of everyone and everything, again it really depends on particulars of the situation].

Last but not least, I should point to you that your student worked there for few months, his inside knowledge about the agency is most probably much more accurate than what you found out in the news. Since he applies for a permanent job there, I would guess that he enjoyed the experience, and he didn't find anything wrong with its work.

As you are the only one to know the specific details of the situation, you should try to find the answers alone, we can try to guide you towards it but don't value too much the very general answers we can give, they might not apply to this situation.

In my opinion there are few things you should ask yourself, answering those will tell you what to do:

  • What does the student really wants?
  • Is this a good opportunity for the student or not?
  • Do you think the student can get a better position? Note that better should be "better" in his opinion, not yours?
  • Is this agency really bad, or just your opinion? How much can you trust the news you heard about this agency?
  • What does your student thinks about these news?
  • 3
    “Is this agency really bad, or just your opinion?” — duh? How can an agency being “good” or “bad” not be a matter of opinion?
    – F'x
    Aug 11, 2013 at 14:59
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    @NickS - Agencies essentially never contradict the "basic morale codes of everyone and everything" (moral?) because the people there would refuse to do the work. But it's not hard to develop an internal set of morals that isn't consistent with those on the outside. This sort of groupthink is an extremely strong trait of humans (see, for instance, our susceptibility to cults). To keep a subgroup grounded, you need to set your threshold to be much lower than "everyone and everything".
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 11, 2013 at 18:23

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