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I'm a PhD Student in the US and am going to a conference for poster presentation soon. I just realized that my poster will be right next to my former advisor's poster (To be precise, it's his student's poster).

To explain the history with the advisor, I worked with him for about a year. But he was emotionally abusive and unsupportive. I had panic attacks whenever I had a meeting with him. After a year in the program, I quit and applied to another program again. This second program has worked out really well, and I'm very happy with my current advisor.

The separation with the former advisor seemed okay at first (he wasn't upset or angry about my decision at least when I talked about it. He sounded like he understands my decision). But then, after the conversation, he started ignoring me, which means that he wasn't okay at all.

The thing is that I'm now having a panic attack and become very anxious after realizing that my poster is right next to his. It seems unavoidable to run into him at the conference.

I'm really stressed out as this reminds me of all the traumatic events I had gone through. But at the same time, I want to use this opportunity to overcome this anxiety associated with him.

Can anyone give me advice on how I should react when I see him at the conference? How can I react in a professional way? Should I just ignore him? I can say hi to him, but I'm concerned that he will ignore me (This happened previously, and likely to happen again).

Any suggestions or advice will be appreciated!

UPDATE: Thank you all for very helpful suggestions and support! I think it's too late to relocate my poster. But after reading all the comments, I start to think maybe I just misinterpreted his neutral response or indifference as something negative or aggressive. Maybe I was overreacting initially. After reading everyone's comments, thinking about it for a couple of days really helped me reappraise the situation. Thanks all!

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    Given that you’re having panic attacks, I think it would to be much more helpful to discuss this with a therapist than with people on this site. I’m really sorry you had such a difficult experience and this sounds like it’s a very difficult thing to navigate. – Noah Snyder Oct 8 at 19:40
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    Just in case it helps: It sounds like you parted on good terms. Maybe it's reasonable to interpret any "ignoring me" not as malevolent but maybe more of a sign that you have both moved on and are doing your own thing? – user2705196 Oct 8 at 23:05
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    Definitely worthwhile seeking professional help and support. There may not be enough time for therapy to kick in and therefore medications may need to be considered. We can suggest all we want, but once the panick kicks in, it will be an entirely different ballpark when the adrenalin is pumping... – Poidah Oct 8 at 23:26
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    I love how seeking professional help is always the first (and probably best) recommendation. Only issue is that a grad student usually can't afford such help. I wish I could afford it for sure. – user347489 Oct 9 at 8:19
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    Is your advisor presenting his own talk or poster at this conference? If not, then it is likely he will not be attending at all. Usually students present posters by themselves. This might vary by discipline. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 9 at 9:46
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Be natural

Greet him the first time you meet him, shake his hand, say "how's family," or whatever suits the circumstances. For you, what happened is water under the bridge. You've parted ways and you're now under a different advisor. He's got no power over your career. Even if he tries to subtly insult you (which I think he won't, because as you said, he's simply ignoring you since), there is absolutely no reason for you to feel bad about it. If he indeed does so, that would be pathetic of him and you should feel pity about him. Worry about the important stuff and the people that matter to you; not for grown-ups whose behavior is stuck in 6th grade and you've only known for a year or less.

Do NOT ignore him!

Ignoring him will only bring more awkwardness to the situation and more stress to you. Imagine the set-up. You're both going to be in the same place for quite some time (a couple of hours?) and in close proximity; you'll both be standing in front of your poster and there's going to be times where there won't be anyone around asking questions. Actually, there might be moments where he's going to be the only one around. Trying to ignore him will only add more pressure to you ("oh my god, we've just had eye contact! aaaargh!").

Ask for help

Having been through similar situations with my PhD advisor in the past, I agree with Noah's comment that you need to get help to overcome your panic attacks. It doesn't necessarily need to be a therapist; it can be friends, family, trustworthy people you feel comfortable discussing it with. You need to learn to manage such situations because you'll get many of these in your life. To move forward, you need to stand on your feet and handle them, not ignoring them and praying they won't happen, because they will, anyway.

  • +1 (not sure why it was -1) Cowardice is not the way to face an abuser! He has no power over her career now, she should just smile and wave, she is superior to all of this. – Joao Carlos Oct 9 at 10:33
  • +1 Don't try to avoid this person (nor to directly seek contact). Act as you meet a former colleague and this will hopefully solve your anxiety problems related to this person once and for all. – Spiros 2 days ago
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Short and hopefully practical advice:

  1. Try to get the conference organizers to re-position your poster or his student's poster. When you give a justification, just tell them he's your former advisor and that you parted on poor terms (you don't need to start explaining what he did or what you did etc.) They are likely to oblige.
  2. If the organizers don't move your poster, consider moving the poster yourself: Very often posters are mounted on mobile boards - move yours someplace else; or just find an empty slot elsewhere and do it.
  3. Ask a friend or a colleague to stand with you near the poster during the poster presentation time slot. While in practice that friend may not need to do something, it definitely helps with the pressure and anxiety to know that someone "has your back" vis-a-vis that advisor guy.
  4. He will likely not spend a lot of time near the poster: It's usually the student who stands near the poster, entertaining passers-by. The advisor might be there for a while but not for long; and while the advisor is there, it'll probably be busy (e.g. poster presentation time slot).
  5. Don't completely-ignore him, but rather mostly-ignore him. If you outright ignore him, that's paradoxically a bit confrontational and may elicit a reaction and interest out of him. Instead, say hello to him, politely, but without engaging in any conversation. If he asks you something trivial (e.g. "Are you presenting this poster?") give a brief answer ("Yes, I am.") without continuing the conversation. If he tries to engage you in a more serious conversation, tell him something like "I'm sorry, but I have to stay focused on my poster right now." When you're standing next to the poster, don't focus your attention on him - but at the same time, don't actively try to avoid seeing him. This should be the most "disarming" behavior, minimizing the chances of a clash or argument.
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I had an abusive PhD supervisor and it was ruining my life for a while. A few years down the track I had a manager who was a bully and also degraded my quality of life. I attended a conference recently knowing the bully was going to be there. I was very anxious about it and was running through different scenarios, from ignoring him, up to and including a punch on the nose! Anyway, I told myself I likely wouldn't bump into him as it's such a big conference.

Of course, I almost immediately did bump into him. I was just my usual polite self and said hello on autopilot. I instantly realised that he was only able to be a bully at the time as he had power over me as my superior in my former company. Here, out in the world, he had no power and he was polite and friendly and we had quite a nice chat.

I then had the satisfaction of watching him struggle through the worst presentation I have ever witnessed, in front of hundreds of peers. It made me see what a pathetic and insecure little person he is, and all my angst and bad feeling evaporated. It made me see my abusive former PhD supervisor in a new light too- as an alcoholic, disliked member of a university department, who is deeply insecure about himself, instead of the terrifying monster that held ultimate power over me that he used to be.

I wanted to share this experience and the message that if someone behaves like an asshole, that's no reflection on you. It's only taken about 40 years for this penny to drop. Don't worry about seeing them, you are the better person and any attempt by them to undermine you in any way, only serves to confirm what you already know, and the great thing is that you are free from them now anyway.

3

Focus on yourself and your actions, not his. If you see him, be polite. Smile and say, "hi, it's nice to see you!", or just simply "hi". Act in a way that makes you proud to be you. The way he decides to react is not up to you. He can choose to be polite and have a conversation. He can choose to ignore you, and be super rude and turn around and walk away. You will know that you behaved well and did your best. That is all that matters in life.

If he's a rude person at heart, people already know that. If they see him be rude to you, they will know it's him and not you. If anyone asks "what was that all about?", say "I don't know, maybe he's having a bad day." Or, be honest and say that you think he might be upset because you changed advisors (but that could open up conversations that are too personal and could harm his reputation.) In any case, don't be preemptively rude yourself "just in case he's rude".

Also, try to not assume reason behind actions. It may be true that "he wasn't okay at all". Or maybe he's a very busy person and decided to put minimal effort into your relationship because you two no longer have anything to do with each other professionally or personally. Of course, you might be right about the "why". Maybe he's not ok, and he's insulted or has his feelings hurt. No matter the case, you should still be pleasant.

Just be the best You that you can be, and these sort of situations will work themselves out and you can be at peace knowing that you did what you could.

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2

Tl;Dr: Relax, you won't encounter them. Probably. So let the stress, you feel now, to influence you only in the case they are actually near your comfort zone.

And have a talk with your current advisor. You are neither The first neither The last one with such issue.


I suppose this is not a first time the conference, you are about to attend, is organised. I also suppose you are not the first PhD. student of your current advisor/ first student in the department.

Therefore there is some history to get the information from. So relax, calm down and DON'T PANIC! (written in large friendly letters)

Ask your older schoolmates, ask postdocs. You can ask your advisor. The question is: How are the posters and other contributions organized? There is high chance the professor won't be there at all and even higher chance they will be somewhere else most of the time. Usually, there is one person per contribution discount for academia, others have to pay full price. You can ask for a list of presenters and look for the professor.

From my personal expirience my advisor was never attending the conference I was attending, although he was one of the authors of the poster/oral presentation. The department head did not interfere with their PhD. students' presentations unless they were caught passing by and namely asked. In the only case a professor had a poster presentation I've witnessed (because I had my poster next to their) I saw them two times during the poster session. The longer one was when we discussed our papers for couple of minutes. In the rest, they were watching the other posters. "My" department also applied the policy that the PhD student has poster for their first conference (to see how conferences work) and oral presentations for the others. - You can see how are the presentations evaluated.

Don't take it badly but they are more likely to look for something more important than mocking you. You are no more their pet and you have no obligation towards them. Besides basic ethics, obviously.

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I'm really stressed out as this reminds me of all the traumatic events I had gone through. But at the same time, I want to use this opportunity to overcome this anxiety associated with him.

Are you having profesional help and are you sure you want and able to manage this without affecting your performance in the conference? Your desire to overcome is reasonable and probably is the right thing to do. However, overcoming emotional trauma or stress triggers might require gradual work and most likely professional help. I just worry you might end up worse than you are right now.

Can anyone give me advice on how I should react when I see him at the conference? How can I react in a professional way? Should I just ignore him? I can say hi to him, but I'm concerned that he will ignore me (This happened previously, and likely to happen again).

The answers you will recieve here most likely cover the professional aspects of this interaction. I guess anything in the range of "smile and wave" to "small talk and questions about poster" would be approperiate. But again, I really believe it is up to you and a medical professional to decide to which extend you are comfortable and emotionaly ready.

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This doesn’t answer your explicit question, but have you considered sending an email to the conference organizers asking for your poster to be reassigned to a different part of the poster presentation area so that it’s not right next to the former adviser’s poster? This could go a long way towards minimizing the possibility of trouble, and will probably make it easier for you to handle the task you have set yourself of overcoming the anxiety you have related to meeting him at the conference, while leaving you some wiggle room to maneuver in case that turns out to be more difficult than you expected.

The email doesn’t have to go into details, just say this is a person you’ve had some conflict with in the past and you would prefer for your poster not to be close to theirs. If I were an organizer I’d be more than happy to accommodate such a request.

Good luck, I hope things go smoothly and that you’re able to focus on sharing your work with others and having fun.

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    From what I understand OP, if fact, does not want to avoid the former advisor. OP rather prefers to "overcome" his/her issues. – Boaty Mcboatface Oct 8 at 18:40
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    @BoatyMcboatface the two goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But good point, I edited my answer. – Dan Romik Oct 8 at 18:55
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    @BoatyMcboatface: The best way of overcoming something is by tackling what you can handle. One can't learn to swim by jumping straight into the deep. – user21820 Oct 9 at 10:13
  • @user21820 hence the answer I wrote. – Boaty Mcboatface Oct 9 at 12:05
  • @BoatyMcboatface: I did see your answer. I commented only in response to the clear implication in your comment that avoiding the advisor is necessarily exclusive of overcoming the fear issue. – user21820 Oct 9 at 14:06
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Ignoring him and refusing to respond to any uncomfortable advances or comments might be best.

You don't owe him anything, especially the satisfaction of making you feel uncomfortable. Focus on your poster and on interacting with those who are interested in it. Do what you should do anyway and make some professional contacts at the session.

There is no need to do anything more than if the next position over was by someone unknown to you and whose work you aren't interested in.

You have just as much right to your space as anyone else. Dominate that space and try to let the rest go. With practice such uncomfortable encounters, that may occur from time to time with others, will become easier to manage.

And by "dominate that space" my intention is beyond the confines of a poster location.


There is an outside chance that the conference leadership would respond positively to a request to be moved. "I'd be more comfortable elsewhere" is all you need for an answer if asked why.

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    Specially given that the adviser has ignored them before. This is about two human beings extending courtesies to each other. If he already failed to do this there's no reason for you to do it from now on. Also +1 for requesting to be moved. – user347489 Oct 9 at 7:10
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    This answer is inappropriate given the severity of the situation. The last part is good, but better stated by Dan. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 9 at 9:44

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