I'm almost at the end of my Ph.D., writing down the thesis and having the disputation.

Well, my Ph.D. took me about 5 years. My main background is Engineering, but I changed my research domain to Computer Science during my master study. So, my supervisor had a mindset at the beginning that I'm an engineer, but I can survive the Ph.D. project. The first year went fine, I published a paper. I did another in the second year, and I like my Ph.D. topic. During the first year, I noticed that she doesn't have any specific idea regarding how to proceed the Ph.D. work. I wasn't expecting her to instruct me in details but I was expecting some better abstract insight from her regarding my Ph.D. project.

Starting from then I tried to do my best using the literature and my own ideas. But I wasn't getting any feedback from her regarding my work, and how it looks in the general perspective of the field. I tried some top-tier conferences for which I got some rejections but at least I obtained some feedbacks regarding my work, that I was expecting to get from my supervisor in the first place.

Regarding reading my papers, sometimes she didn't have the time due to the closeness of the deadlines (which is a valid excuse), but even when she had the time, she was reading my paper with hesitations and biases. I was feeling a strong hatred in her destructive comments without providing hints and guides how to revise it. Even sometimes I felt being offended as she was criticizing my non-mathematical background and how my work does not feet to this field. Also, even if she was reading my work, she was so careless in doing it especially to find the important facts in the work which led to the rejection as all the reviewers noticed that easily!! Worst than that, she never dares to discuss why my work was rejection and how to revise it, or how to answer the reviewers wisely! For instance, I had a good chance at a top-tier conference but I failed the rebuttal phase while she just ignored my request to guide me through it.

During the 4th year, it was clear to me that I have a total ignorance from her, like if I'm not a part of her group anymore. She answers one out of every 5 emails from me after a second request! But I see her being different from others and spending a lot of time for them having chit-chats and unplanned long conversations and MORE ATTENTION and care about their works. In some occasions, I was proposing MS thesis topics to her and she was ignoring them and not even talking about them or giving any feedback. I was noticing MS students are assigned to her more favorite PhDs students even though my work was closer to those topics. I noticed she had opportunities of having involving me in collaborations with others people of her network, but she never mentioned that to me. During our colloquiums, she was treating/ignoring my questions/comments as stupid ones, and each time I had to send her a long email to precisely show her my point was worth considering. and more and more...

Well, I'm the international student of her group, and once she clearly states that she does not like international students as they are not good. But I was surprised by that expectation as her group does not have any considerable contribution in any top conference in the field (maybe only 1)! They are normal Ph.D. students doing normal research. I know I am not an MIT or Stanford student, but based on the external peer-feedbacks I received from other experts in my field, I do not see any reliable basis to be treated that way! At least i deserved having feedback if i was doing something wrong!

Anyway, in the end I managed to supervise my Ph.D. work totally by myself and do my PhD project the best i could, and i think my achievements are good enough for the PhD level.
But my concern is what she might do in my defense day. A professor with that kind of biased mind against a student can act like a monster in a defense session.

Also, I aim to continue in academia at least as a post-doc for now. But, I'm afraid how she might react when being asked as the reference regarding my Ph.D. work. So i'm afraid she can ruin my career future if she wants!

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    That's a lot of background, but what is your question exactly? The titular question? How she is likely to react? How to proceed? – Anyon Nov 30 '18 at 14:16

People can only influence your life within their political sphere and based on their willingness to do it.

That means you'll feel no effects as long as you stay off your supervisor's sphere, specially if you give her no personal reason to actively persecute you. Academics typically overestimate the power of others, especially of PIs.

I've had a bad PhD supervisor who's quite influential within his sphere. I finished everything as diplomatically as possible but still through a bumpy relationship : never submissive, we've had our spats. I moved elsewhere to a series of postdocs increasingly far away. I always find opportunities & funding and design projects by myself. Never had any issues with my ex-PhD adviser that I aware of. The defense was smooth as I knew everything about my project and the committee was a friendly one. Usually it looks quite bad for an adviser to attack own students in their final defense. Guess who provided a nice LoR to my latest position?

People only have as much power as we give them. Keep your cool.

  • Yes, I really like to get out of her network as she never tried to be supportive! But i do not want to sacrifice my Ph.D. for it! – Bob Nov 30 '18 at 13:10
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    There's always a sideways move. You will be surprised to find out academics in the same field just a few states away and abroad probably know little of or never heard your advisor's name. Plus, your PhD is surely worth more than the specific objective. The world is always bigger than we think. – Scientist Nov 30 '18 at 13:15

I don't think that your advisor will stop you from getting your PhD. If she wanted to - she would have done so by now (simply cut you loose). Advisors have a vested interest in having their students successfully graduate, as they are a factor in promotion and tenure decisions. She may not be your most ardent supporter during the thesis defense, but any obvious act of sabotage would not be well received by your committee, and would make her look bad.

It sounds like your background and your advisor's expectations were mismatched from the get-go. Your advisor can absolutely hurt your career if you do not manage things carefully. She will be the first point of contact to anyone who considers you for a postdoc position, and getting an unenthusiastic reference letter from an advisor will significantly affect any decision about you a future host may make (all things being equal, most people would rather take the person with good references than the person without them).

There are mitigating circumstances that may come into play. Do any of the following apply to you?

  1. You published as main author in top-tier venues.
  2. You have allies that would vouch for you and write glowing reference letters in your advisor's stead.
  3. You have some useful, unique skills that differentiate you from your peer group.

If none of these apply then I'm very sorry, but it is extremely unlikely that anyone will take you on as a postdoc, and I would explore options outside academia if I were you.

I would also be careful throwing the word discrimination around: I'm operating on very limited information, but from the way you describe it, a lot of the issues are because your advisor believed you had insufficient background and gave up on you rather early. I am not trying to discount your own perception of events here, just highlighting that ethnicity-based discrimination is a serious accusation and that you should think carefully about whether it applies in your case. Is there another local student from an engineering background who is treated better than you? Are there other international students whom this advisor treats well?

While hindsight is always 20/20, I think that it will be useful to note (perhaps to future users browsing SE) that there are a lot of telltale signs in your story that your relation with your advisor was broken rather early on, and perhaps the best thing to have done was to look for another advisor.

I'm sorry you're in this situation, and best of luck in the future!

  • Thank you. Really good points. Well, she is not discriminative regarding my ethnicity and I never meant that! In fact, she is nice and normal in our informal communications, but I clearly see how she ignores me when it comes to working and collaboration. Yes, I saw her negative attitude towards students with engineering backgrounds. I have one top-tier conference paper and I'm trying to have another one if (i manage without her help)! And I know 1-2 post-doc researchers how were collaborating with me, but I do not know any other Prof. to ask for a reference (besides my MS study professors)! – Bob Nov 30 '18 at 19:34
  • perhaps you can consider removing the word discriminatory from your question then. Would uncaring or dismissive be more appropriate? – Spark Dec 1 '18 at 0:53
  • @YairZick The word "discriminating" just means to differentiate, which this supervisor seems to be doing based on OP's perspective, you inferred ethnic discrimination purely due to modern political circumstances. OP's use of language is accurate and there is no mention of the supervisor's name, so your suggestion seems more like censorship of language based on wrong notions. – Makogan Dec 5 '18 at 21:22
  • There’s dictionary meaning and there’s accepted use. I’d argue that it’s an important thing to highlight. If a student goes to the dean and says that their supervisor is acting in a discriminatory manner there’ll be a very different reaction than if they say that they’re being mistreated or treated unfairly. Your personal experience may be different and that’s fine! – Spark Dec 6 '18 at 2:28

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