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I’ve recently been having some concerns about my relationship with my advisor. This is my third year in his lab, and I’ve noticed that something about his behavior towards me seems off, and I am hoping for some outside perspective as to what’s going on. Here is a list of things I have found troubling:

  1. In my first year, he told me to apply for the NSF fellowship. He told me he would help me with my application, but he never did, although I asked for his help several times. He didn’t even read what I had written until 2 hours before the submission deadline. This alone doesn’t bother me; I get that he’s busy. But later I come to find out that he spent extensive time helping another student, who isn’t even one of his students, and she ended up winning the fellowship. I did not win the fellowship, and as a result I basically wasted the next year working for funding from an external source and making no progress on my PhD.

  2. I took a class from him, and the class involved a substantial project. There was an end-of-class presentation, which everyone in my lab attended. Everyone in my lab and even the TA told me that my group’s project was head-and-shoulders above everyone else’s (and I truly did slave over this project). But when grades were assigned, my team was ranked 3rd out of 6 teams. My labmates were upset on my behalf over this, and even the TA was upset and said this wasn’t fair.

  3. This one is the most upsetting to me. I’m in the process of taking my preliminary exam. I have been really stressing about this, and have had very little meeting time with my advisor to discuss it (side note: he had canceled countless weekly meetings with me, but he somehow finds time to meet with two students who aren’t in our lab for an hour each week without canceling). I submitted my written exam this past Monday. I gave my advisor 5 days to read it before submitting. He never finished reading it. Again, I get that he’s busy, and this was over the Thanksgiving holiday, so I understand not having a lot of time. What bothered me was that when I went to his office to pick up the edits he had done, I saw him meeting with a student who isn’t even his student and talking with them about applying to different PhD programs. I understand wanting to help other students out, but shouldn’t my prelim be the priority here?

What’s perplexing about all of this is that he is very nice to talk to. He seems very pleasant and caring, but then stuff like this happens, and I find myself really upset with him. I should note that he does not treat everyone in the lab the same way. There is one other student in the lab who gets the same treatment as me (we jokingly call ourselves the unwanted stepchildren of the lab), but the other students seem to have ample meeting time and attention from him.

What I am wondering is:

  1. Are my concerns valid?

  2. What should I do about it?

Thanks in advance!

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    I would recommend asking these questions of your department's graduate director, if that is someone whom you trust. – academic Dec 6 '19 at 20:47
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It is certainly valid for you to feel you are not getting enough supervision, but I don't think it is productive to make that assessment by comparing yourself to other students. That will only lead to frustration.

On the specific issue of the preliminary exam, it's possible that he was confident that you would pass and therefore had a low priority on reading it because he did not realise you were anxious about it. I would actually be pretty annoyed if someone gave me a substantial document to comment on five days before it was due and those five days were essentially when I was not supposed to be working. In the future, I suggest you agree a date with him as to when to provide a draft. If he agreed that date, then it's fine, but it would be better to provide a partial draft by an appropriate date rather than a complete draft when it's too late to do anything about it.

To me the most important issue is the ongoing cancelling of the weekly meeting. That has two consequences - it means you aren't getting as much support as you think you need, but also you see it as happening to you more than other students which increases your frustration. That is what you could focus on. One approach is to send an email that notes the meetings are regularly getting cancelled (it would be best to give specific numbers) and suggesting that perhaps you could find a different time that would be more reliable.

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    Thank you for your reply. For the record, I did meet with him specifically to discuss the timeline of when he could read my prelim by. He told me he would prefer to wait for the complete draft rather than start with a partial, and we agreed on the timeline of when I would get it to him, and he assured me that he could read it over the holiday. Thank you for your other comments, though. I was not sure if it was a good idea to compare his treatment of me to his treatment of other students, so I appreciate the feedback. – user7938030 Dec 6 '19 at 18:38

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