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How do you deal with the constant flow negativity from an advisor? Examples:

  1. How worthless I am, how I am the worst student he ever had. Absolutely good for nothing.

  2. Whatever I am doing is meaningless, trivial, or pointless.

  3. I never did/can-do anything correct.

  4. I just don't have the potential, and there is just no scope for growth. Maybe in some other universe, I might have excelled, but not in this one.

  5. The fact that I chose the wrong career; instead, I should do something more simple and enjoy life for a change.

  6. I should just quit my program.

  7. He won't embarrass himself by writing a letter for me in the future.

What do you do when you start to believe in all of his statements, and they start to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Especially how worthless I am...

  • Are these quotations, or your paraphrases? – Aaron Brick Feb 5 at 5:08
  • 2 and 7 paraphrases, rest quotations. – JustAnotherSomeone Feb 5 at 9:05
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    Change your advisor as soon as possible and expose his name publicly – SSimon Feb 5 at 16:02
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    Don’t walk. Run. – knzhou Feb 5 at 17:33
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    Are you an undergraduate or graduate student? Doctoral advisor or other, here? – Buffy Feb 5 at 20:32
7

I can't judge whether the advisor is making a correct evaluation and being a jerk about it, or just being a jerk.

But, at a minimum, you need a different advisor. It should be someone who has some faith in you and encourages your best work. Staying where you are, under this advisor, is unlikely to result in success.

But you have to evaluate your own position and whether any of the statements have any validity. If they have some, then what can you do to improve the situation? If they have some validity, then what is the cause of it? Lack of preparation? Poor work process? Undiagnosed illness? There are lots of possibilities.

In the worst case, you may need to abandon your program, at least for a while, but no one here has the perspective to recommend that.

And, not that it helps, perhaps your advisor just doesn't belong in any advising situation. You probably have little chance of fixing that problem.

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    I would also go as far to say that your professor is participating in active workplace harassment and could require academic discipline. Because, here’s the thing, if he’s verbally abusing you and he’s your supervisor, there’s reason to believe that he would have acted this way towards others. There’s a huge difference between constructive criticism, “tough love”, and outright verbal abuse and harassment. I would take this conduct up with the Department Chair or somebody above that. You shouldn’t tolerate behaviour like that no matter who it comes from. – GrayLiterature Feb 5 at 15:27
  • @GrayLiterature: Sure, but don't expect the department chair or similar figure to side with a PhD student or a professor, or even to care about them. – anomaly Feb 5 at 17:07
  • @anomaly I would not assume, but these systems are in place for a reason and can at least be pursued. It's always worth exhausting the institutional options available. It sounds like OP can gather evidence, and once evidence is in front of somebody, it becomes a lot harder to dismiss an accusation of abuse. – GrayLiterature Feb 5 at 19:43
  • @GrayLiterature: Maybe, but trying to exercise those institutional options would come with a cost to both the OP and their eventual career, and my own experiences with an abusive advisor suggest that it would be a waste of time. If the OP does want to try, I hope things go better for them. – anomaly Feb 5 at 20:29
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Firstly, on behalf of university academics, I'm very sorry you are being subjected to that kind of talk about your performance. What you are describing is not constructive criticism, and it is not a good way to give feedback to a student (even if their work is actually terrible). It sounds like your advisor is acting out of frustration, and has lost the perspective necessary to give constructive assessment and advice in the way he should. Thus, at a minimum, you should find yourself a new advisor who can give constructive criticism on your work. If you have trouble finding someone else to supervise you, you should speak to the Graduate Program Coordinator (and then possibly the Head of Department, if necessary) about the criticism you have been receiving, and ask to have someone else allocated to you. Aside from any deficiency in your own work, that kind of interaction shows a deficiency in the supervisory abilities of your supervisor.

Now, while the feedback you are getting is certainly not how it should be framed, it is nonetheless indicative that your work is not of sufficient quality at the moment. You should grit your teeth and take that feedback on board, and rationally assess its factual validity, setting aside the rude aspects of the way it was delivered. You will need to assess whether or not you have the skills to continue your program effectively under another supervisor, or whether you need to do some bridging work first. It would benefit you to get a second opinion on this from another academic in your area if possible, to identify any present deficiencies in your work. I certainly disagree with the view that "there is no scope for growth" in your work --- that is essentially antithetic to the very notion that education is possible.

My advice in this situation would be to speak to your supervisor and Department Head to start the process of finding another supervisor, and see if you can get a second opinion on where you stand in your program, (e.g., are you behind, and if so, how much), the quality of your work, and how you can go about developing your skills to complete your program. Higher-degree candidature has periodic formal performance reviews, so you will also be able to get some feedback at your next review, but you should not wait until then to act. After considering how you are travelling, relative to requirements to complete your program, you will be able to make a decision about whether you should continue or not.

Finally, try not to let this kind of feedback negatively affect your own assessment of your own quality as a person, or shatter your confidence. A person is not at all "worthless" or "good for nothing" merely because they are struggling ---or even totally unable--- to complete a higher-degree candidature at university. Higher degree candidature is difficult, and it takes a lot of time and skill-development. It is not suitable for everyone, and even for those that manage to do it, they always start off from a place of incompetence and progress gradually towards competence. (That is the whole reason we have education programs over years and years.) We all start off learning to colour with crayons at pre-school, and it is a long and arduous journey through to the upper-echelons of tertiary education.

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    I suppose it depends on the school but usually I would think you would talk to the chair/director of the graduate program not the department head. Although you might end up speaking to the department head later. – Trevor Gunn Feb 18 at 16:40
  • Well spotted --- I have amended the answer to suggest that the student talk to the Graduate Program Coordinator in the first instance. – Ben Feb 18 at 21:08
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This is not right! I don't see any underlying support in the advisor's attitude. Don't be afraid to take whatever action necessary to get yourself into a situation where your personal skills are given the opportunity to develop. It's your life and it's short. You can excel when you find the right way for yourself. Have some courage to not fit into anyone else's box. You are unique.

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