It has been 4.5 years since I joined as a PhD student.

  • My supervisor asks me to draft almost all of his important emails. He will begin by briefing me the issue, and ask me to draft the email in a document and sent to him. He would ask me to do this even when I am busy doing experiments. Many times I have to leave the experiment in the middle to draft his emails.

  • He has asked me to correct PhD thesis of three of my seniors. I was asked to correct the thesis for language and technical content. These assignments put me months behind my planned schedule. I guess correcting a thesis for one of the senior would have given me a learning opportunity on how to write a good thesis, editing, formatting, etc. Three theses are, in my opinion, too much. I don't know why he never assigns such works to other students in the research group.

  • One day he shared some experimental results of another PhD student (who is a junior to me) and asked me to perform statistical analysis on the results and draft a research manuscript. It took me days to complete the analysis and write the manuscript from the scratch. When it was finally ready for submission, I requested him to keep the author sequence as: my junior (first author), me (second author), supervisor (third author). On hearing this he became extremely furious (he keeps himself as the second author in all the research papers), and indirectly warned me that he won't be taking interest in supervising my research. Fearing that my work progress could go haywire, I apologized profusely and I had to literally 'beg' him to forgive me. I made the request for the author sequence because I have seen that professors usually keep the names of students earlier in the author sequence before their own.

  • I have been devoting 1.5 hours every weekday (Mon to Fri) to tutor his daughter in high-school Mathematics. That takes a precious amount of my time which I'd have instead spent on my research. I politely expressed that this work takes a lot of my time, but he still asked me to continue. I had no choice but to continue.

What I would like to ask here is am I being exploited/abused, or is this what a PhD student is 'normally' expected to do? How is the PhD student and supervisor relationship ideally supposed to be? Since the PhD degree is extremely important for my career, I have been doing everything he has asked. But I don't really want to be a supervisor like him in the future when I will be supervising students working with me. Please share some advice.

Update: The region is South-East Asia.

  • 2
    How much longer do you have? Did his past students succeed in their career? This will inform your further action, independently of the ethically questionable behaviour of your supervisor. Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 9:39
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please review this before posting another comment.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 0:08
  • 25
    This bullshit is one of the main reasons I dropped from academia. It is saddening when a corporate manager has more respect towards your work than your academic supervisor.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 19:21
  • 11
    "I have been devoting 1.5 hours every weekday (Mon to Fri) to tutor his daughter in high-school Mathematics." - I sincerely hope he is paying you for your time. This is in no way part of your requirements as a PhD student...
    – Math1000
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 20:00
  • "tutor his daughter in high-school Mathematics" This is in-your-face abuse of power.
    – Null_Space
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 21:14

4 Answers 4


Obviously, as other answers indicate, yes, your supervisor is exploiting you - plain and simple. But here's a suggestion regarding what you should do about it:

  1. Collect evidence on how you've been exploited/abused:

    • Emails
    • Letters
    • Written documents indicating what you are required to do, but also what you're doing (e.g. if your supervisor's daughter writes you some note)
    • Screenshots of text message exchanges in which you're given instructions / requests to perform these activities or which otherwise acknowledge them.
    • Maybe some audio recordings - if you're discreet about it and if that is legal in the state you're in - of your supervisor making inappropriate demands/requests.

    The idea is not to have lots and lots of these, but enough to be able to establish it is actually happening in case he denies it; also, a few choice pieces of evidence you can use to illustrate to people how serious this is when you're talking to them, if it's necessary. Recordings are "just in case", not-use-unless-absolutely-necessary type of evidence though.

  2. I don't know what the organizational situation is in SE Asian universities, but consult - discreetly initially - with:

    • Your junior researchers' union representative - if you're unionized.
    • Your graduate student union - if you at least have a union as students rather than employees.
    • Colleagues you can trust and who can attest to your supervisor's behavior
    • (more risky) members of faculty you can trust; they may be biased against you acting against a Professor, but on the other hand may have effective suggestions for you.

    Avoid discussing this matter with people you think would just rat you out to your supervisor.

  3. Based on the advice you got, do one or more of the following:

    • Lodge a disciplinary complaint against him, or have your union do so in your stead.
    • (If you're not yet close to concluding your research,) Demand a change of supervisors (better if you have an alternative one lined up) due to abuse.
    • Have your union threaten your supervisor with action against him if he doesn't change his attitude towards you - disciplinary, legal, public-relations, or other collective disruption.
    • Get a story in the press (in-university or out-of-university).
    • Talk to the head of the department/faculty about the situation - preferably not alone but accompanied by supporting-witness colleagues and/or your union representative.

Note: Some of these actions are potentially dangerous, especially if you don't have some colleagues who would speak in your favor, and if your supervisor can get other grad students to deny your claims. So - I'm not recommending anything specific; it depends on the circumstances, the advice you get and the support you have. That being said you should do something, because just laying low and getting your doctoral work done with will mean that your supervisor will find some other poor PhD candidate to lord over.

  • 4
    Colleagues may - even if they are not biased - be unwilling to act against the supervisor. If the university has no official and working mechanism to handle unfair supervisors, this advice is dangerous for OP's career. This statement should be made clear at the very top of the response. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 7:41
  • @CaptainEmacs: Items 1 and 2 are not dangerous; and I did explain some actions in item 3 are potentially dangerous. But I'll beef it up a bit.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 8:41
  • 2
    Some of the suggestions here could also happen after the defense, when the risks are much lower. And we are back to finding out if the defense is likely to happen soon, or if some change (new advisor?) is necessary for that. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 8:46
  • @MarcGlisse: Not really. After the defense, OP is essentially no longer around. But good point regarding the change of supervisors.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 10:09
  • 2
    For audio recordings I would be more worried about legality, not just discreetness. Make sure you're not committing a felony (or equivalent/similar in your jurisdiction) before doing that...
    – user541686
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 3:09

Yes you are.

Point 4 is downright abuse of power. You are not in any way obliged to provide free tuition to your advisor’s child! If your institution has reasonable management, you reporting this would result in severe disciplinary action (I think I would have my tenure clock pushed and have something on my record for something like this). Even if you were paid to do it I’d feel weird about having my students tutoring my kids. Depending on where you are on the planet, not getting paid for tutoring is illegal. Your advisor would be in serious legal trouble if you are in, say, the US or Europe.

Drafting emails seems like an odd practice. It’s abusing power to some extent but if the emails are relevant to your work it might be construed as acceptable by some department heads. That said, you’re a student, not a personal assistant, seems like a waste of your time.

You should not be reading and correcting others' work with no credit, this is the advisor’s job. I would be upset if I were the one of the students who didn’t get their advisor’s feedback!

Being an ass about authorship is another bad sign, though in itself may not be too bad. Disagreements about authorship do occur, though the response you describe seems wildly disproportionate. Getting students to the point where they have to 'beg' for your forgiveness is never okay. His job as an advisor is to educate, teach and advise - you are not his pawn or slave.

Taken together, what you’re describing is a toxic and abusive relationship.

What you can do depends on where you are in the world and your department. Most reasonable universities have ombudspersons or student support centers whose job is to help people in your situation. If no such thing exists you can try to approach your department head or dean.

You need to have clear-cut evidence. Emails, records of your visits to tutor the advisor’s kids, written proof that you corrected the thesis of others (say, an email exchange, files sent to you with request for correction, or any other acknowledgement) etc.

I’m sorry you’re in this situation, hope you get things settled. The tone of your post does not make it sound like you are in severe emotional distress, but of course it's impossible to tell. Make sure you get emotional support through what is undoubtedly a rough experience. You do not deserve this, and you should not feel like this is normal.

  • "written acknowledgement that you corrected the thesis of others" A copy of the corrections should be sufficient. Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 7:45
  • That's what I mean - some written proof, even a thank you email, should be enough.
    – Spark
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 8:21
  • Why not web-archive your works so to claim your copyright ownership? That will teach supervisor not to show favouritism to the mediocre students by abetting them in plagiarism.
    – user92331
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 12:53
  • 10
    That really won’t work. Putting up preliminary work with others involved online can easily backfire with them accusing you of misconduct. Plus pissing off one’s advisor seldom ends well.
    – Spark
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 12:58
  • 2
    OP has stated in the chat/comments below his question that they ARE getting paid for the tutoring. ~ "He pays a very petty amount and that too irregularly (generally after a gap of 2-3 months). I am not at all interested in tutoring, just following the 'orders'."
    – Jesse
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 6:51

Yes, definitely he is using you. Let's break it down one by one.

Point 1: Drafting professors' email is a thing that many Ph.D. students do occasionally. But requiring the student to stop doing the experiment in favor of drafting a personal email is not something a good supervisor does.

Point 2: Can be a legit point. Although doing it all the time is tiresome and time-consuming, the professor can get some benefit of doubt there.

Point 3: It's saddening to even hear that. If you help write a scientific paper (even partially), your name should be in it. Let alone professionalism, this is common courtesy. Your professor is not doing that, and is instead getting furious with you which is much worse than being unprofessional.

Point 4: It's not your job at all. He is abusing you. If you do it happily in your spare time, that's another matter.

And yes, by any yardstick, he is using you.

  • 31
    I have never heard of a phd students drafting emails for their advisor. Seems terribly inefficient.
    – user9482
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 10:35
  • 12
    Point 1: No, drafting professors' email is not a thing that many PhD students do, ever. It sounds like you are in a region where such things happen, but it is simply not right, unless the email is actually part of a collaboration of some sort.
    – user21820
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 16:08
  • @user21820: Here is a fun fact for you. Let alone email drafting, I saw some of my known PHP students helping the professor in doing grocery marketing on a regular basis. And if you are interested where I am from, I am from South Asia. Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 5:36
  • It is not a fun fact. It is a disgusting fact. There are also some countries where cheating is the norm, but that doesn't make cheating ethical. I have nothing more to say here.
    – user21820
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 8:01
  • @user21820: I know that my friend and believe me, the student who does that doesn't like that either. But, it's unfortunate that they have to do those just to keep the professor happy(or, in other words, not to make the professor furious or unhappy about the student, like mentioned in the question) so that they can get their degree without any unnecessary hassle. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 6:02

Depending on where you are and who is your supervisor, his behaviour may or may not be acceptable. In most of modern Asia, it is probably OK. In EU and US, it will be considered abuse in any relation between dependent parties, not only in academia.

Regarding the tuition to your advisor’s child: see, for example, Hippocratic Oath. How exactly this arrangement appeared in your case?

  • 13
    Could you please explain how does the Hippocratic Oath fit here? Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 19:19
  • 4
    Excerpt: ... to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture; ...
    – fraxinus
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 20:11
  • 9
    I have seen professors using PhD students as their personal assistants in Asia (China, Korea, Japan) but never to that level. I am sure it is abusive behavior in Asia too
    – Taladris
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 0:34
  • 1
    @fraxinus ok, that's a quote from the Hippocratic oath, sure. Is OP a Physician?
    – Patrice
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 13:53
  • 6
    The Hippocratic oath is only relevant to medical professionals, and we have no reason to think it applies to the OP. More importantly, even if the OP were a medical student, they are still a student so wouldn't have taken the oath yet. In addition, the oath is not really relevant these days and has mostly been replaced by various modern versions. Finally, the quote you mention would be relevant to teaching medicine not tutoring a child in mathematics!
    – terdon
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 16:05

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