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Summary: Yesterday, my advisor told me that he wants me to change labs through because I said something "inappropriate" that made the lab unstable. He is a really famous professor and his citation is within world top 100 in our field. I don't want to lose the opportunity to cooperate with him. I have enrolled. He has no right to make me leave. But if he is unhappy, he could make me not able to graduate three years later.

Question: What should I do? Should I leave as he asked?

Details: At first, I was unsure what he meant by "inappropriate". He didn't specify, and I have only been here for like two months and only know 3 or 4 people. Maybe I said some gossip, but I mean no harm and I never offended him. I don't even remember what I said.

My guess is that since my grade is not good enough, the university didn't give me the scholarship that it had promised when I was admitted. I had used my own money for enrollment and then waited to be refunded when the scholarship came through. I am not the only one, and apparently everyone is afraid that their scholarship will also be canceled. The lab is expanding so fast but the funding is not catching up. And the professors in the scholarship committee are unhappy since he recruited like a dozen PhDs at once.

It seems that the professor blames me for telling the others that my scholarship was canceled, which caused the panic. My family is wealthy enough that I can self-fund, but that doesn't help if I am being forced out of the lab. This seems very unfair.

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    Voting to reopen. This is an interesting question now that it has been updated with more info. My impression is that talking about your salary is perfectly fine in academia, but apparently some answerers here are disagreeing -- this alone makes the question worth discussing. – darij grinberg Mar 23 '19 at 2:46
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    I don’t think it’s possible for us to give advice when we have no idea what the professor’s reason was. The update has some speculation, but I’m skeptical that that’s the real reason and there’s no evidence given that that’s the real reason. It’d be a weird use of the word “inappropriate.” Much more likely that OP said something inappropriate to another student that made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the lab. – Noah Snyder Mar 24 '19 at 14:07
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    Please do not completely change your question after answers have been given. Your question was asked under specific assumptions and how to react to a situation given specific information, and this is what the answers are referring to. If you gained new information about the situation that completely changes your question or potential answers, please ask a new question. Link both questions to each other to clarify that they are different or provide an update for the insatiably curious, respectively. I rolled back your question to what it was when the last answer was posted. – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 '19 at 8:29
  • Answers in comments and discussions about hindsight information (see the above comment) have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 '19 at 8:31
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+100

It sounds like a lost cause- get out of that situation ASAP.

Even if you manage to stay in his lab and also to graduate (and he might graduate you early just to be rid of you), the real worry is that he'd write you a bad letter of recommendation when you apply for a job after your degree.

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    I do agree with the answer! May be the OP is blamed and I am so sorry, I know how the situation looks like, even if he is famous or the lab it doesnot matter, the only thing is having a quite nice supervisor, and based on this story there is something missing and this isnot not enough reason to kick you out of the lab, I also do recommend to cut ties completely with him, I dont think he is a nice supervisor. – user103209 Mar 26 '19 at 11:01
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    The genius guy is trying to leave this lab as he thinks this lab is not good enough. He is just a master student but already published three top venues. He is the top of the top. I guess this might be a reason. I am just a normal one with almost the worst background in the lab. Kicking me out won't cost anything but losing him would be a huge loss. I guess the advisor thinks my words and I would be the sign that the lab is not good enough, which makes him want to leave. – hidemyname Mar 26 '19 at 12:02
  • It is just like a bully. He doesn't even know me but discriminates my background. And I can't do anything about it as I myself left the evidence for him to attack me. – hidemyname Mar 26 '19 at 12:05
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    deathlee, you can always do better, dont underestimate from yourself, dont compare yourself to others, maybe you are still young and there is alot to learn one of them sometimes dont trust all people and keep some words for yourself. I dont know why you persist that leaving this supervisor is a big loss for you, imagine if you stay and he didnot let you to graduate or even write bad recommendation letter. I think it is good to recognize early that even if the supervisor is famous and hostile like that it is better to leave for another place. Dont worry about those numbers and citation. – user103209 Mar 26 '19 at 12:40
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    Only focus on finding a nice, understandable, and knowledgeable supervisor. Remember, dont speak so much, take your precaution while speaking, and focus on doing good research and then you can be successful. I know it is hard and I can feel your pain so much, but please do think what could be the consequences if you stay under his supervision. The behavior doesnot change and he seems have a grudge towards you although he didnot even give you a capacity to justify what happened, he just cared that he would like to prove he is innocent, which is funny. No one knows where the good should be. – user103209 Mar 26 '19 at 12:44
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There are many plausible reasons why the professor may not want to reveal what exactly you said was inappropriate; most likely the professor doesn't want to inadvertently reveal the identity of the person who accused you of inappropriate behavior in order to avoid retaliation or further confrontations.

As a grad student, you are considered an adult and a professional. What matters here is not whether you intended to cause harm, but whether your behavior caused harm. As we grow up the world tends to become less forgiving of our mistakes, and the professor has every right to remove someone from their group to maintain a healthy working environment. Although it is also possible that whatever offensive thing you said was simply the last straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. Either way, you should reflect on your behavior and tendencies and learn from the mistake. If there are mitigating factors (e.g., being a foreign student, mental health problems, etc.), ask the professor nicely to reconsider... but don't expect anything. Ultimately a successful grad school career depends to a large degree your relationship with your advisor. If the relationship is so broken that your professor is trying to kick you out without any prior warnings (I assume), then there is no point in forcing the matter, no matter how famous the professor is.

Also some assumptions in your question is unwarranted... Why do you think the professor has planted "spies" among the students? More likely the professor learned of the matter because someone reported you. I think you over-estimate how much the professors care about the everyday activity of their students.

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  • I want to emphasize that, based on the small amount of information you've given, and assuming you are in the US, my read on the situation is that your behavior did not offend the professor personally but rather offended some other student in the lab. – Alexander Woo Mar 22 '19 at 4:42
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    @AlexanderWoo It doesn't seem a reasonable assumption that a question tagged australia describes events that took place in the US (but the read remains the same, I think). – Michael Homer Mar 22 '19 at 5:39
  • Seems a little ridiculous that he isn't even informed of what it was or who made the complaint. What's to stop personal grievances from being used to get someone ousted if you can't defend yourself? – some_guy632 Mar 22 '19 at 6:02
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    @some_guy632 This would matter if OP denies having said it and claims it to be a lie. But OP admits they have talked (a bit too much) and it has had an effect on people - if the prof just learned that this happened, it really doesn't matter who reported it. – Captain Emacs Mar 22 '19 at 13:22
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The revelations arising from your colleague's discoveries raise several causes for concern, which may lead your supervisor to believe that your application was misleading, made in bad faith, or even fraudulent. The issues as I see them (writing from a UK perspective) are as follows.

Not one, but two references from "friends"

It is possible that a reference/recommendation from a "friend" may be deemed inappropriate, especially a family friend. Having two references/recommendations from friends is even more problematic, even if it were permissible (because it would make me wonder why you are struggling to find anyone else to vouch for you professionally). If permissible, you should declare that the referee is a "friend" (and the reference/recommendation should also declare this). If the referee is a close friend, failure to declare the fact might be deemed fraudulent.

Might the reference/recommendation have exaggerated the extent to which the referee knew the subject?

"we reached out to my parents' friend and also got a strong recommendation"

"reached out" implies (to my British-English ears) that your "parents' friend" was not very familiar with your work, but wrote a strong reference/recommendation as a personal favour. To be honest, he/she should not have written the reference/recommendation in such circumstances, or he/she should have made it clear that he/she had never worked with you professionally. A reference/recommendation should make clear the capacity in which the subject is known to the referee, and not mislead by omission. Although it is the referee's responsibility to get this right, a lapse will, rightly or wrongly, still undermine the subject's credibility.

Irresponsible attitude that may perpetuate nepotism (or perceptions thereof, and thus incite self-fulfilling prophecies)

"My friend and my parents' friend both gave me a strong recommendation to my advisor. And of course, I excelled in the interview. So the connection is very important."

...And of course, people who go into academia with this attitude that "the connection is very important" will only perpetuate nepotism in the future (especially if/when the time comes for them to make hiring/admissions decisions). This comment is irresponsible not only because it impugns your supervisor's capacity to select candidates on merit, but, more generally, because it might discourage people without friends well established in the same academic discipline from applying. In case anybody reading this is thinking of applying for a PhD studentship, I would like to reiterate that you do NOT need to already have friends or family connections in the same academic discipline.

Having said all this, your supervisor is acting irresponsibly in asking you to leave in the manner you describe. If your conduct is deemed so inappropriate as to make your position untenable, he/she should initiate formal disciplinary action. It is possible that your supervisor does engage in nepotism (the fact that he/she had dinner with your parents is slightly incriminating… then again, that happened after you were admitted), and, now that the rumour is abroad, is hoping to get rid of you quietly to avoid getting into trouble himself/herself.

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  • I've looked through the update history of the question, and while your answer might have applied at some point before the OP edited the clarifying information, but currently the question states all his reference-givers knew and worked with him in an academic, professional setting. Similarly, while having "friend" and "connections are important" in the same sentence might be misleading, having good academic connections (i.e. good relations with your former supervisors) is, indeed, important; applying for a PhD without a referee is a big negative on your application. – penelope Mar 27 '19 at 13:43
  • +1 Finally. @penelope Yes having professional connectionsis important, but it is equally important to separate those from personal connections. The advisor’s apparent overreactions suggests to me that there may some truth to the accusations of nepotism; if the advisor was confident that OP was admitted on merit—and in particular, that the admission decision would withstand scrutiny from a neutral third party—the appropriate reaction would be to dress down the disparaging student, not to fire OP. – JeffE Mar 27 '19 at 18:49
  • @deathlee The fact that your interview went well is comforting, but not a defense. You got the interview invitation on the strength of your other application materials, including the questionable letter(s). Other applicants might have done just as well at the interview, but didn’t have the same personal connections, and so were not invited. – JeffE Mar 27 '19 at 18:56
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    @deathlee In short, I suspect you made an honest mistake (not “cheating”), but your advisor made a bigger one, and now he’s blaming you for being exposed. It’s not your fault, but unfortunately there’s nothing you can do. Stop talking about the situation, find recommendations without personal connections, and move on. – JeffE Mar 27 '19 at 19:01
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They say that "loose tongues sink ships".

That the situation on the whole is ticklish is not your fault. But talking in a sensitive situation is like smoking in a powder keg factory and throwing the match into a corner.

You may - inadvertently, I am sure - have created a situation where the whole lab of your prof, which is already in a precarious situation, is in even more serious threat to "blow up" and taking parts of the whole department with it.

What's more worrying in your attempts to fix it is that you "don't think it's [your] fault" and say that "[you] just told other people the truth". In sensitive situations, there is rarely the truth, but only approximations thereof. By talking or gossiping, you create the truth, and probably one that neither the prof (and no one else, possibly not even you) wanted.

Your best bet is to go to the prof, ask for forgiveness and explain that you were too inexperienced to understand that your indiscreet talk was totally inappropriate, without ifs and buts. Do not find excuses, do not try to give reasons. Ask to be given one second chance, promising not to gossip in the future.

Do not try to rationalise, do not try to state that you still do not see your mistake. If you still believe it was not a mistake to spread around what you call "the truth", better leave the group right away and start afresh.

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    +1, be humble or be gone. – Buffy Mar 22 '19 at 13:16
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    @deathlee "Next time I face the same situation..." - don't talk. Once you are repeatedly asked, you can mention that you are self-funded. That does not mean that you have "no problem" - for all people know, your parents may have sold their house to finance your studies. But, better still, do not make a major story out of your situation. – Captain Emacs Mar 22 '19 at 14:55
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    @Buffy really? Since when is keeping your mouth shut out of fear a trait you want in up-and-coming scholars? – some_guy632 Mar 23 '19 at 21:06
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    @some_guy632 Not every trait is equally desirable in every situation. Absolute honesty is not necessarily a good trait in a social outing ("you are really fat today!"/"Do you know that Jack cheats on his wife?"). The fact that honesty is a virtue in some situations does not absolve you from identifying in which situation this is the case and where it is not. Maybe the department is scrambling to keep finances and people together and you just made the job significantly harder for them? Who do you think would your "honesty" have helped? Whose situation would it improve? This question is crucial. – Captain Emacs Mar 23 '19 at 21:44
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    @some_guy632 With OP's update, most of my response became irrelevant - but the one point about being careful with what one is saying, even if it is "merely the truth", stands. In fact, it drives the point home with a vengeance. With sufficient bad will (as in this case by the OP's colleague) even the truth can be made to serve the lie. – Captain Emacs Mar 26 '19 at 0:34

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