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I am currently doing my master's under the supervision of an assistant professor. He's brilliant, professional and an amazing mentor. He is supportive but at the same time knows when and how to be tough on me enough to challenge me intellectually and push me to get out of my comfort zone. For all these reasons, he would be the perfect supervisor for my Ph.D. The only problem is that he doesn't work on the same topic as me (and doesn't really have much experience with it either) and seeing that it's a new and tricky topic, I need someone experienced in this particular area.

I spoke to him several times about my plans for my Ph.D. and mentioned that I planned on applying to several major universities and that I was looking for supervisors working on my field of interest. He would keep bringing up the Ph.D. programme at his departement and would tell me that I could work with him and also someone else from another university (co-supervision). I said it could be a good idea, but of course, I was still considering the Ph.D. programmes at other universities (which, I think is normal, I'm only keeping my options open). Of course, he knew that I could enroll in better programmes elsewhere, but he still asked me to stay, more than once (which is flattering since I respect and admire him). The Phd programme he's suggesting is the best option for me ONLY in terms of funding, because it has a special offer for foreign students paying extra fees (which he also knows...).

Now, I recently had a meeting with him and I mentioned that I wanted to do an internship in one of the universities I'm interested in. He said "It's a good idea and if you like the experience, you can decide to stay there for a Ph.D.". That was one hell of a slap in my face... He basically told me "Hey, I changed my mind, you're not a worthwhile student, finish your master's, then you're out". So at the end of our meeting, I decided to be honest and asked "okay, so if I understand correctly, you no longer want me to stay here for my Ph.D.?", to which he answered "No, I do. But I want you to explore your options. I don't want you to stay just because you think it's your only option but because you believe it's the RIGHT option for you."

So now I'm confused. Does he want me to stay or does he want to get rid of me?

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    Why not ask? It is a big decision for you but not for him so I think you read way too much into the story. – Peter Jansson Sep 10 '13 at 6:50
  • Thank you for your reply. I actually asked, as I said. But of course, I don't expect him to express his real thoughts. For the first time in my life, I don't know what would be best for me... – Alice Liddell Sep 10 '13 at 6:56
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As Peter said in his comment, ask him.

However, having said that, and based on what you have said, it is very clear that he is not 'kicking you out' at all - on the contrary, he is demonstrating a very positive and constructive approach - by telling you that you have to pursue what is best for you.

Having said that, you need to consider a key question:

  • What is/are your goal(s) after you complete your research?

The professor is, as you say not an expert in the field you are interested in, and what he is suggesting is that, as this is the case then the internship may lead to opportunities that are more in line for your plans.

He is also seemingly suggesting is to pursue the internship and then decide where and what you want to study for your PhD.

Ultimately, the decision is yours to make - he is helping you to help yourself in this regards.

But, a piece of advice, do not assume to know the intentions of anyone - take his advice on face value and in the spirit that it has been given.

  • Thank you, all you said makes sense. But why change his mind now? He really wanted me to stay before, and now he's saying I should "consider my options". I appreciate his advice, sure, but I don't understand the sudden change of approach... Sometimes, with people who speak only in code, all you can do is try to read between the lines. – Alice Liddell Sep 10 '13 at 7:17
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    @AliceLiddell I would definitely take his advice as him looking out for what is best for you and your academic career. – user7130 Sep 10 '13 at 7:21
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    Thank you very much. Then that's how I shall take it. And that's what makes him such a great mentor. – Alice Liddell Sep 10 '13 at 7:26
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One of the biggest temptations for many advisors is to hold on to a productive student or postdoc a little bit longer than is necessary just to reap the benefits of a productive worker. Against the personal gains of the advisor need to be set the goals of doing what is in the best interests of the student.

That means that a good advisor will try to make sure that the student can explore all of her options. I'm sure that he would be more than willing to keep you around, if he's mentioned co-supervision. But if you really want to go elsewhere, then he really doesn't want to be seen as trying to strong-arm you into staying. That could build feelings of resentfulness that could poison your future working relationship.

Now, on the other hand, if you complete this internship, and then decide that the project with this advisor is still the route you want, then you have done your due diligence—which is what a good advisor would want you to do in any case!

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    Thank you very much for you reply. I think you're right in your interpretation as well, it fits his profile. He really is a good advisor... – Alice Liddell Sep 10 '13 at 22:14
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Your supervisor just wants to make sure you make the right decision. Therefore, it might seem wiser to stay where you are now with him (plus another co-supervisor) if you know you get on well than go to another (even more prestigious) university where you might not find people you really want to work with (although they are in the field you are interested in). On the other hand, internship gives you the opportunity to meet faculty of different university and see how you can get on which is just as important as academic qualities of your new supervisor. Your current supervisor sees that as a great option for you to see where you want to do your Ph.D.

I think this is not such an uncommon thing in academia. Although it would help your current supervisor if you stayed (you can teach some classes, more research gets done in his group etc.), he can also see you as a possible future collaborator. From this point of view, it is important for him that you get the best from your Ph.D. even if it means leaving your current university.

I myself was in a similar situation a while back. Although my supervisor would like me to stay for Ph.D. he knew that there are universities and research groups where I can learn more and he did all he could to help me choose the one that would suit me best.

  • Thank you very much for your answer. You put your finger on the heart of the dilemma here: stay with an excellent supervisor (but in a university that isn't so known) or go to a top-ranked university (even if I know I will never find anyone like him elsewhere)? At any rate, I believe that the internship will give me a clearer view of things, as you said. – Alice Liddell Sep 10 '13 at 22:17
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"It's a good idea and if you like the experience, you can decide to stay there for a Ph.D."

Just adding my two cents because this sounds like a quote of mine! If you are a great student it is more important for me that you have a chance to find a great environment to develop into a fully fledged researcher, than that you keep working with me. Of course I would be super happy if the two things coincide, but if you find and test a place which looks great, then I would not insist any further. This should not be interpreted as a rejection, but as an approval! And I feel that, communication skills aside, this is a pretty common point of view, unless you are dealing with a very jugglery person.

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This in an ancient question, and there are many answers that give good advice. But for posterity, I don't see any that answer the actual question, so I'll try to do that.

The question was:

So now I'm confused. Does he want me to stay or does he want to get rid of me?

OP also tells us:

I...asked "So if I understand correctly, you no longer want me to stay here for my Ph.D.?", to which he answered "No, I do. But I want you to...stay...because you believe it's the RIGHT option..."

Given that, it is perfectly clear that the professor wants OP to stay. I don't understand the suggestions that OP should ask him -- they already asked him and got an unequivocal response. As others have pointed out, the professor is clearly (and admirably) trying to walk the difficult line between attempting to retain a good student and helping the student to make the best choice for their career.

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