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My supervisor got some funding and is hiring new PhD students. Today one of them came to an interview and we told him about the things that we do.

The main problem is that my supervisor is a terrible supervisor. He wants to lead the research project but has no idea on how to work on real implementations. He does not help or even provide feedback although he still is the leading author of all the publications we do. He does not want to spend money on us or on equipment, but expects results as if we were using high-end equipment. He treats us plainly wrong, taking credit for our accomplishments, humiliating us when possible, not helping or leading in any way and not allowing as to grow as researchers.

I know that I could be biased for some personal bad experience but 100% of the students at my research center (both his students and other students) agree with me that he is, by far, the worst possible advisor that there is in our research center.

My question is: should I warn a new coming PhD student about this so that he can take his decision taking this into account, or am I supposed to say nothing because it is not my business?

On one hand, when I was where he is now I would have LOVED if someone told me about this situation, but on the other hand as a PhD student I'm risking a lot by saying this and I don't know if I should get involved.

EDIT: At the end I did it. I called him as it was impossible for me to see him face to face. I basically explained him several facts (not opinions) and my personal view of the situation, trying to be as much understanding and empathic as possible. Luckily he has done research before and understand me very well. He thanked me for the honesty. On one hand I feel that I did the correct thing, but on the other one I think that this situation is a time bomb that could explode at any time... But today I slept like a baby, which I think is a good sign. Thank you all for your answers, they helped me a lot.

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    Seems risky. But why are you sticking around? I hope you have a path to success here. – Buffy Mar 19 at 19:29
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    Related: I am a PhD student and hate it here. How can I warn prospective students during admit weekend without ruining my reputation? . In particular, I think the first answer there, which is basically "state facts not conclusions", applies here as well. – cag51 Mar 19 at 19:50
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    Have you ever watched a friend head into a doomed marriage? Did you try to warn your friend? Didn't work, did it? And you lost a friend in the process. – Bob Brown Mar 20 at 2:35
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    @BobBrown It works when you're still seeing multiple people. It also works if the candidate has experience with bad work environments and a bad boss before, among the reasons is why I strongly believe that grad students should have work experience first. – user71659 Mar 20 at 2:44
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    As your username says, do use an anonimous email account to send this person an email in which you are careful not to reveal any detail that could point to you. To do this, it may be best to reveal only what other people in your research centre or even administrative staff have witnessed and think of this advisor. – user21820 Mar 20 at 5:53
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You should. As you mentioned yourself, you would have loved it if someone had warned you about things before you went, and "do unto others as you would they do unto you" is a good maxim to live by.

Having said that, you should also take steps to protect yourself. Talk to the student in private, and ask for confidentiality. Do it face-to-face or via telephone/Skype if you can; if you must use email, avoid using your institutional email address. You've already acknowledged you might be biased, so tell the student the facts only and don't add anything that you inferred from the facts. For example, instead of "He does not help or even provide feedback", say how many times you meet him or attempt to contact him a week. Describe how those meetings went - what did you say, what did he say, what did you do next? Try not to say "he does not help" as though it's a bad thing: it's actually possible he is expecting you to work independently for various reasons (e.g. you were so good he doesn't think you need close supervision).

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    I'd say face-to-face only. Emails can be forwarded. Any information stored electronically can potentially be exposed. – Granny Aching Mar 20 at 12:15
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    +1 If communication that leaves any kind of trail is used you should absolutely only state facts. Neither draw your own conclusions nor express opinions as fact. – technical_difficulty Mar 20 at 20:11
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You should have to warn any prospective student, if you think you could. Me too, I wished if some one warned me before joining the toxic lab where I have been forced to leave an another student was not allowed to defend after four years, so you are saving their life and wasting years.

Later, after looking for other labs, I found that students are afraid to tell the truth because of the sensitivity of their position, they forwarded me to alumni and others dare to speak up with me and warned me and I am so grateful for them because they saved me from the trap.

Of course, sometimes the student is desperate and need any position as long as it is competitive and hard sometimes to find a slot. I did that although the bad feedback because I was in a desperate need for money and I took decision this is would be a temporary place.

To sum up, there is no ideal place, however, based on the OP’s description this is a terrible supervisor, I cannot find any positive lights for any prospective student to work under him/her.

So, I you think you are capable you can say this information is confidential and tell the truth, or if you feel that you embarrassed to say forward the student to alumni that had witnessed the experience. I stress this telling the truth is important, it is like marrying the wrong man or woman.

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I don't have PhD, because I bailed out after completing requirements for MS.

If I go back to school, I would definitely want to know who is helpful and who is not. So I would say it is the right thing to do to warn the student.

However, be careful, because some professors can be very vindictive, and can cause serious damage to your academic career, so:

  • talk to that student face to face
  • no electronic communication of any kind
  • no written communication either
  • try to find an opportunity where nobody can see you talking to this student
  • keep it short and factual - absolutely no venting
  • think in advance what to say, so you can be as brief as possible
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First, to disqualify my opinion, I did not go through a Ph.D. program. I am far from being an Academic. I have helped friends with their Ph.D. research and had things been different I would have loved to spend years in the Academic lab. Instead, I've spent my time in corporate offices doing commercial product development.

Second, warning someone off is a bad thing -- especially for you. There are very few circumstances under which you can save someone else trouble, and avoid trouble yourself. The candidates you are talking to are anxious to have a slot -- almost any slot. Your warning won't put them off if they are otherwise interested, or desperate, and you will have marked yourself as someone they have material to use against later.

Third, don't start a palace revolt and rebel against the person in charge unless you are certain that you can bring them down, and that you benefit from the change. The new person can be worse, or the lab can be disbanded, or someone new can be appointed who just doesn't understand your work. No problem, right? Just start over. Big setback. Or, worse, you don't depose the leader. Be ready for the purge.

If you have unassailable evidence of sexual exploitation or severe financial malfeasance you might stand a chance. Micromanagement, gruff temper, credit-stealing, incompetence, surly disposition, bad advice, or absentee guidance -- you don't stand a chance. The institution probably already knows and yet he remains in place. You are unlikely to be the agent of change you would like to be and still preserve the work you are doing and the progress you have made.

Your best bet is to get out. Ideally, you get out by finishing, accepting the degree, and finding a wonderful postdoc situation. If the PI's reputation is so negative, they may drag you down even after you are finished with them. Not ideal, but perhaps better, is you find a lab where you can thrive and move there. Network with others. Reach out where other's have shown interest. You will be better losing some time and having the right, enriching experience.

Summarizing, I suggest that you do not attempt to dissuade the candidate from joining the lab. Not in a selfish sense, but with a sense of self-preservation, watch out for yourself and your best interests.

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    Not sure I agree. For your point #2, students often have multiple, ~equal offers, and would appreciate the warning. The part about "marking yourself as someone they have material to use against later" seems particularly far-fetched -- it's not Hunger Games. For #3, it is possible to quietly give advice (or better yet, state facts) without trying to "take down" a professor (which I agree would be hard). – cag51 Mar 20 at 0:20
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    I feel this is horrifically bad advice. Having a corporate paycheck, you would never know how it is to be stuck after year 8 with absolutely no degree to show, little experience desirable to employers, no savings or heavy undergrad debt, and no friends around you. Unlike a job, a grad student whose stuck in a bad situation has very little out, and it's well known this leads to mental health issues. It's something you haven't seen from a stable corporate environment. – user71659 Mar 20 at 2:42
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    Good candidates have multiple slots. Candidates may also be accepted by the school and have multiple advisor options. My lab's had an offer acceptance rate of about 40% in the last 5 years. I had 3 offers going into grad school and 3 for a postdoc. – user71659 Mar 20 at 2:49
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    I don’t agree with this answer at all. – Monkia Mar 20 at 8:53
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    It is interesting how strongly others disagree with this position. I can only assume that academic humans are fundamentally different from high- tech startup humans. One may not be 8 years in with no degree, but one can be years in with invested stock options, no money to exercise, and nowhere to go. I have had my attempt to help someone be used against me (#2). For #3, in the long term, nothing is quiet, and everything you say is eventually heard exact where it will hurt you the most. Sounds paranoid, is a bit hyperbolic, but is true. – cmm Mar 20 at 12:36
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As others say, state the facts not conclusions. However, this is easier said than done, because every time you think about the fact your emotions will show up and cloud your mind, so what's left is only the conclusions, and all the facts are unable to be recalled.

This is indicated right from this question. Instead of providing the facts the main impression left in my mind after reading your question is "he is terrible". There is a paragraph describing how terrible he is, but then again it is all conclusions, not facts.

I find the Socratic questioning useful for this. By assuming that you have an ignorant mindset, you can take the perspective of a naïve person, who is curious and opened to everything about him, and can ask non-judgmental questions. By answering those questions, you can now provide the prospective students with facts, not conclusions. For example, here are some of my questions to you:

  • He wants to lead the research project but has no idea on how to work on real implementations.

    → What do you mean by "have no idea"? What are the implementations you talking about?

  • He does not help or even provide feedback although he still is the leading author of all the publications we do.

    → What kind of help that you expect him to do? How many papers is he the leading author?

  • He does not want to spend money on us or on equipment, but expects results as if we were using high-end equipment.

    → Can you compare the results you have and the results of the high-end equipment?

  • He treats us plainly wrong, taking credit for our accomplishments, humiliating us when possible, not helping or leading in any way and not allowing as to grow as researchers.

    → What are some examples of this?

Write the answer to a note, but don't send it yet. Leave it there for a couple days, until you have finally remove all your conclusions. After that, you may even send it to your department if needed. Or if you want to change his behavior, you can wait for the right moment and mention one of these points fleetingly, as if it's not a big important point. Hopefully he will be embarrassed.

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Actually, you probably don't have that much to lose.

You are probably thinking that if your supervisor was to ever hear or read about your warning the candidates, s/he would prevent you to finish your PhD and/or to get a job. In most cases, this is attributing him/her much more power that s/he actually has.

You may not be well aware of that yet, but your statement that

100% of the students at my research center (both his students and other students) agree with me that he is, by far, the worst possible advisor that there is in our research center

holds true for researchers of your research center, your university and most researchers who have worked with him/her. Need proof ? The students you are mentioning will likely become researchers, and so have the ones before…

So s/he can't get in your way to get a job (unless you really want a job in this very research center, in which case politics will interfere…).

As for preventing you to finish your PhD, if things go that bad you should be able to seek conciliation into your university or school, which may eventually find you another supervisor.

Really, the worst that can happen is that s/he makes your life at the lab a nightmare — but then the previous sentence still applies.

And remember that all of this assumes that your supervisor finds out your warning, which is not very likely.

Still, is warning the candidates useful ?

Some first-hand experience : before I started my PhD, my Master internship advisor advised me to inquire about the PhD advisor before accepting any offer. However people were very reluctant to say anything about them, or were being quite suspicious about such an inquiry. Fortunately, by insisting I finally managed to get a few facts about how bad the advisor of the PhD I was about to choose was. I eventually decided to go for it anyway, because the quality of the supervisor is not the single criteria a candidate has to take into account (actually I barely worked with her, exactly as someone told me). But all in all, I was able to make my choice fully informed.

On the other hand, nobody warned my wife about the terrible environment she was about to join. She ended up leaving her PhD unfinished, having lost 6 years of her professional life and tearing down her self-esteem, and eventually going into depression. I'm not sure if she encountered anyone who could have warned her about this very toxic environment before signing, but I would find it criminal to not having done so.

Such labs and/or advisors feed upon unwarned students. Don't let them live.

Delegate – advice for prospective students

If you don't feel like giving your own opinion, you can still give them useful advice to find it by themselves before signing anything.

Actually, I think prospective students should inquire not only with the prospective supervisor's entourage, but also with students of other departments in the same lab, who will be more free to speak – not necessarily asking directly about the prospective supervisor, but e.g. asking for "supervisors to avoid", and preferably in a informal situation with several students (keeping in mind that such a situation is also more prone to gossip).

So you could get along with something like

I don't feel at ease speaking about my team or my direct supervisor, but it might be a good idea to ask students from other teams, their external look may be very insightful for you.

And you can even recommend a friend of yours who knows your opinion very well…

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