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I am a PhD student and I have been thoroughly searching for future supervisors.

I have been speaking with current PhD students about a certain professor to get to know more about them, and they let me know their experiences as well as the experience of a previous student. Apparently, it seems this previous student had some major problem with the supervisor and left in an ill manner (e.g., as soon as the PhD was finished, they left not teaching the new students after them how to use the equipment they built). The PhD Student I had this conversation with is a respectable one, and I strongly believe they were having a serious conversation with me.

This professor under question so far is a great person, and I am incredibly happy to be working with them soon, and as far as I know and can see, they are attentive, supportive, encouraging and very willing to take suggestions from their team.

This conversation I had with the PhD student worries me slightly and due to the professor’s kindness, it makes me even more anxious to find out the professor’s side of the story, and what they thought about it. However, I am too anxious/embarrassed to bring it up. I have been thinking of having a one-to-one meeting with them and asking them a few questions I could frame as a “mini interview I like to take of future supervisors”:

Have you had any unpleasant experiences with PhD students in the past?

but I was wondering if the academic community on here would have better/more suggestions?

  • Did the student that you talked to actually go in any detail about the "major problem" the student had with the advisor? It might be worth asking them about it. – lighthouse keeper Apr 21 at 7:33
  • There are a lot of words answering this below but the answer is: don't go near it. There's no smoke without fire, no benefit in bringing it up and what you've described is a major red flag. Plenty more supervisors in the sea. – croc7415 Apr 21 at 8:19
  • @croc7415 What makes you confident that the fire burns on the supervisor's side rather than the student's side? – lighthouse keeper Apr 21 at 12:49
  • @lighthouse keeper, a supervisor is very different to a student and if a supervisor allows a situation like this to happen it is much more likely due to a flaw on the supervisor's side. Part of good supervisorship is to professionally manage whatever issues might lead to this situation, e.g. student-supervisor mismatch. It is probably not possible to get to the bottom of it, and to be honest, who cares, just don't go where there is smoke because there are plenty of places where there is no smoke at all. – croc7415 Apr 22 at 9:04
  • @croc7415 I would say the chances are 50:50. For a PhD student, the career drawback of an escalation like that is much greater, so they have an attractive interest in managing the situation to keep it from escalating. Regarding your other point, in the unlikely case that one has another, completely equivalently attractive offer, yes, that would make the decision easier. Otherwise, it might make sense to investigate. – lighthouse keeper Apr 22 at 9:26
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I have been thinking of having a one to one meeting with them and asking them a few questions I could frame as a “mini interview I like to take of future supervisors”: “Have you had any unpleasant experiences with PhD students in the past?” but I was wondering if the academic community on here would have better/more suggestions? Maybe even a view point of a professor?

Ok, don't. You don't like to be lied to your face, and probably your supervisor also doesn't like it. And maybe your supervisor is not stupid and may realize something’s up.

Let's just consider the possibilities (and to be clear, I have seen all of these):

  1. Your supervisor is a psychopath who behave nice as long as it serves them and shit people in the face to get what they want if they can. These are very good liars. On the other hand, they don't care if you recognize them for what they are, they just will adapt the strategy.

  2. Your supervisor is a person who doesn't plan his PhD supervision very well, and sometimes if results are not coming in puts all the blame on the student.

  3. Your supervisor and the previous student just did not get along due to their personalities or their goals not aligning, and the previous student interprets this very much one way.

  4. Your supervisor decided at some point to pressure the student with good intent e.g. to help them, and the student took it personally.

  5. The student somehow messed up and put the blame to the supervisor.

What to do:

  • The most dangerous for your scientific career is 2. Here, check if you have the feeling that your supervisor really tries to generate a good context or if you are working alone and uncoordinated.

  • I would not necessarily care about 1; these are people whom you can bargain with if you have something in your hand, but check how valuable you and your result are and how much depends on you.

  • Number 3 you can address by discussing expectations and goals (35 h peer week, one conference publication vs. 60 h per week, two nature papers) early in the thesis.

  • Number 4 depends on the cultural context, but is maybe not that bad at all. (While my professor probably saved my thesis by pressuring me to finish the thesis, he probably messed up his working relationship with another PHD student by doing exactly the same thing so much that the student essentially dropped out.)

  • Number 5 is irrelevant to you.

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    I would not necessarily care about 1; these are people whom you can bargain with – I strongly disagree. While bargaining with a psychopath may work if you have direct pay-off, in a PhD the main pay-off is the degree at the end. You would have to rely on the psychopath honouring some agreement – which they tend not to do. Also, a PhD supervision comes with an inherent strong power asymmetry; you do not want to give a psychopath that kind of power over you. Finally, it takes a very strong personality not to let all the things they may throw at you get to you. – Wrzlprmft Apr 19 at 9:14
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    Well, you are right, but that is why i wrote "I would not necessarily care". I have seen people making a good career around psychopaths. Untimatly moving people into good positions and having a good working relationship with them serves the psychopath, so as long as they see a value for their personal goals they will push your career. – Sascha Apr 19 at 12:36
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    @Sascha this is a great overview thank you. I think using the term psychopath maybe a bit strong in this case, they really are a great person and all the other PhD students I’ve seen in the lab like them. No one has warned me or subtly discouraged me, and even in any case I would probably stay just because of the good support program amongst the junior and senior PhD students. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:06
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    #1: I just left a narcissist supervisor who was super-kind in the beginning - but once his group was stable, dropped attention to his students and started abuse. I lost 2.5 years and restarting PhD studies now. You cannot trust them to behave nicely for 4-5 years even if they seem to be okay now. Your mental health not worth it! You should be also sure that the others really think that he is nice and good to work with, not just afraid to speak. Please, find people who has graduated (or not graduated but left the lab) and not under ths PI anymore! – aqua Apr 20 at 6:39
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    Also, the thing with #1 is that you probably would have to watch them abuse others who are not that high value to them. In our group, there were people (elder PhD students and postdoc) who were silent while other were treated poorly to "keep peace" and avoid bringing the attention to themselves. If the supervisor is really a narcissits/psychopath, etc. you have to know whether you are willing to put up with abuse (either of you or others in front of you) to achieve your personal goals. – aqua Apr 20 at 6:46
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The most important thing to know is that toxic advisors who have been in academia long enough to have graduated PhD students have learned how to recruit new students. You're being groomed. When the abuse starts, you'll be in deep enough that leaving them would harm your career.

It is difficult and dangerous (career-wise) for PhD students to warn new grad students away from a toxic advisor. If more than one person has done so, this isn't a red flag. This is a core meltdown run-for-your-lives siren.

EDIT: You are free to join this lab or not join this lab as you see fit; you should consider this warning as part of your decision-making, but it is a decision you have to make for yourself. You should keep the warning given to you in the absolute strictest of confidences. Do not tell the advisor. Do not tell other people in the program. If any of this gets back to the advisor, your friend is at very high risk of retaliation, which from an advisor is extremely damaging to their career. Even if you don't tell anyone exactly who warned you (only that you got an anonymous warning), the number of suspects is limited and the advisor will not hold themselves to some hypothetical burden of proof when it comes to retaliation.

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  • I do feel as though the PhD student who first introduced me is very encouraging however and they let me know the history of the lab and what they went through. We are good enough friends that he would definitely warn me of anything he feels is wrong. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:13
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    @Turing101 If this is a personal friend you've known forever, great. If it's someone you've met since starting grad school... well... he has warned you of a thing he feels is wrong. He's just done it so he has plausible deniability if you bring it up to his boss (which you considered doing, so perhaps he was right to be circumspect). If it wasn't a thing to worry about then he probably wouldn't have brought it up at all. – user120011 Apr 19 at 19:14
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    There's not enough evidence in the question to conclude the PI is abusive. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 20 at 12:26
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Apparently, it seems this previous student had some major problem with the supervisor and left in an ill manner

This should be taken as a red flag. It does not necessarily mean this advisor would be a bad fit for you, but it means you should proceed with caution. There are a number of possibilities, which Sascha has listed; these range from the student just didn't fit well with this professor to the professor is abusive and controlling. You need to find out which it is.

To find out, you can get at least a second and third opinion on this advisor from some of their other past students. Also, see if you can find if they have a history of students leaving their group early (note that such students may not always be listed on the professor's webpage, or if they are, they may be listed as Master's even though they entered as PhD students).

This professor under question so far is a great person, and I am incredibly happy to be working with them soon, and as far as I know and can see, they are attentive, supportive, encouraging and very willing to take suggestions from their team.

You may be right about your assessment, but keep in mind that many bad advisors behave this way to prospective students, but once you are in their group for a year or two, things change completely. Don't assume the worst, but do make sure you are right in your assessment. Signing up with a bad advisor and no "plan B" if things go badly is a sure way to have your PhD end in disaster.

I have been thinking of having a one to one meeting with them and asking them a few questions I could frame as a “mini interview I like to take of future supervisors”: “Have you had any unpleasant experiences with PhD students in the past?” but I was wondering if the academic community on here would have better/more suggestions?

This is probably not a good idea for two reasons:

  • First, the professor will see through it and find it rude;

  • And second, the professor would never be willing to admit if they were in the wrong. If the student left due to the advisor's poor behavior, the advisor would likely not see it that way and would believe that it was all the student's fault.

Instead, I would recommend you set up more meetings with the professor's past students, and talk to trusted individuals about the situation (such as a mentor at your undergraduate institution).

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    I agree, It would definitely be a good idea to look at a history of this. The other students seem to be happy enough, and they even go drinking with the supervisor occasionally. I don’t like the idea of being sneaky with my interview that is definitely not how I intended it, I just don’t feel comfortable enough addressing the issue upfront with them, I’m just not that familiar with them yet. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:15
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    Good answer, except I disagree with "First, the professor will see through it and find it rude;" – Anonymous Physicist Apr 20 at 12:28
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Interview other PhD students instead of the supervisor.

Maybe this one dropout had a personality conflict with the supervisor, or some other axe to grind; it happens even to reasonable supervisors; ask the ones that are still with him, in private.

Don't interview the prospective supervisor in the manner suggested. Even a nice one will find that disrespectful - your prospective supervisor has passed many more tests/interviews than you at their stage in the career and will find this presumptuous. Whether or not they are individually qualified for supervising/managing PhD students, their institution and colleagues have found them so, it is not upon you to reexamine that, at least not directly. From your prospective supervisor's side, such a question from a student is a red flag and signals entitlement, even if you do not intend it.

It is perfectly legitimate to ask about their supervision style, though, e.g. hours, output expected, supervision intensity (i.e. hands-off, micromanagement or other) and similar.

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    I wholly agree with you on this. I think I will do just that. They seem happy but I am comfortable enough that I do not mind asking them further. I definitely do not intend to be disrespectful and due to many answers discouraging me from the mini interview I will not be doing this at all. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:27
  • "Even a nice one will find that disrespectful" Wrong. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 20 at 12:29
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Not only students, also professors can have had bad experiences. Especially if they are nice, they are likely to have been burnt several times, and they will be more guarded with a new one and with perceived entitlement. So, unless you give more explanation why you think it's wrong, it's not really a useful comment. – Captain Emacs Apr 20 at 13:30
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I have been thinking of having a one to one meeting with them and asking them a few questions I could frame as a “mini interview I like to take of future supervisors”: “Have you had any unpleasant experiences with PhD students in the past?”

I like this approach. You are being proactive and also giving the professor a chance to be honest and tell their own side of the story. The difficulty is, you don't know whether they are actually being honest when they answer you. It would be good to ask other students in the department their opinion -- students who have not been supervised by or worked with that professor. They might be able to give you a more objective, outsider's viewpoint.

The other answers all say that a single student's complaint about a supervisor is a red flag against that professor, you should run away, etc. I don't think this is a helpful reaction and nor is it true. I have known a fair number of PhD students who complain about their supervisor at great length, and often those complaints have little or no foundation, or are really complaints about research or PhD life that every student has at one point or another, regardless of supervisor.

Furthermore, the actual issue, "as soon as the PhD was finished, they left, not teaching the new students after them how to use the equipment they built" doesn't seem like a big problem to me. Maybe the student had to start a new job straight after finishing? If the PhD is complete, they're not obligated to help the new students anymore. It would be polite and helpful yes, but not mandatory. I would not regard this behaviour as a red flag against the professor.

However, if you suspect the problems ran deeper, try and find out (discreetly, again by talking to other students) what the cause of the ill-feeling between student and professor was. It could be something like the professor was very hands-off and never had regular meetings with the student. You must weigh up this negative against the positives you list -- how important is it to you to have regular meetings?

Of course, it's perfectly possible the problem was caused by something much worse: academic dishonesty, plagiarism, harassment, bullying etc. These are true red flags. No matter how nice someone seems, steer clear if these problems are attached to their name.

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    Red flags are things that should be noted as they indicate underlying danger; they are not the dangerous thing themselves. An open manhole isn't a red flag, it's just a super dangerous thing to walk towards. The red flags are all the warnings you ignored before you fell in. – user120011 Apr 18 at 17:20
  • "as soon as the PhD was finished, they left, not teaching the new students after them how to use the equipment they built" doesn't seem like a big problem to me – Well, at the very least it is bad management. There is no point in new students spending unnecessary time on reïnventing the wheel. – Wrzlprmft Apr 19 at 9:20
  • @Wrzlprmft exactly! I thought that was really unfair, a good year of the PhD was spent unnecessarily I think. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:22
  • Yes a true academic dishonesty such as plagiarism or harassment is certainly a red flag, but this is also highly unlikely, this professor is very very well established with a large team, and many other professors and assistants, it would not be overlooked. The PhD students are certainly happy enough that it makes me think the student themselves had personal issues which made them disagreeable. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:25
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First of all, complex situations such as you describe are almost certainly not black and white. Instead, it is safe to assume that mistakes were made on both sides. At the very least the loss of relevant knowledge is almost certainly imperfect management on the professor’s side. On the other hand, no professor is flawless, so you have to assess how bad things are.

In my opinion, if anything, bring up the isuse with the professor explicitly¹, stating your legitimate concerns as a reason for your inquiry. The most likely outcomes are:

  • The professor freaks out about this.

  • The professor puts all the blame on the former student. As elaborated above this is unlikely and even then any good supervisor will at least try to seek mistakes they made. Therefore, in this case, you can assume that the supervisor is lying or not capable of seeing or admitting their own mistakes.

  • The professor admits that they made mistakes in that relationship, but they do not care.

  • The professor regrets their mistakes and says they learnt from them. (Mind that that this does mean that they have to take the entire blame.)

Only in the last case, consider to continue working with them, and even then mind the details, whether you think they were honest, etc.

Some caveats:

  • When addressing this issue, you should make it very clear why you are doing this and that you do not want to dig into things more than necessary, in particular you do not want to invade the former student’s privacy.

  • Only do this when you can be sure that you are not leaving any trail to the PhD student who informed you.

  • This does not work at all in strongly hierarchical or indirect cultures where addressing such an issue already is an insult. Also, beware that I come from a notoriously direct culture and thus am biased towards directness.

  • The professor may not share any details about the situation out of respect for the former student’s privacy or not wanting to badmouth somebody behind their backs. This is not a bad sign.

  • If things go awry, this may have repercussions beyond you having to seek another PhD advisor. For example that professor may be part of your committee.

  • There is no perfect supervisor. Consider how good your alternatives are. For example, the professor may consider it a red flag against you that you address this issue at all. While I don’t think they should, this may be their only flaw and they may still be the best possible choice as a supervisor.


¹ And not with a decoy question along the lines of: “What is your greatest weakness?”.

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  • It would be the best to discuss things explicitly and directly, and if I was comfortable enough with the supervisor I would have done so long ago. I will be returning to the institution in the summer to begin another project and I have been considering this route when I have worked with them longer. However I will leave a trail as there is only one other student that works with me directly. I don’t believe there is any strong heir archical structure as far as I know. Yes there’s no perfect supervisor :) – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:36
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    However I will leave a trail as there is only one other student that works with me directly. – But you have talked to other members of the group and they would know about this, right? – Wrzlprmft Apr 19 at 19:18
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I suggest that you let it go. You have made your own assessment. Knowing the details of the older case as little real value other than as a story.

Some people don't get along. Some people don't get along with anyone. Some students have a hard time for various reasons and try to deflect blame away from themselves. Some professors, likewise, may react poorly with some student. It happens.

Some students have unrealistic expectations of advisors. Some advisors have unrealistic expectations of students. Either will cause friction.

But you aren't, and don't need to be a judge of either the other student or the professor. Raising the issue with the professor isn't likely to do you any good. And if they are truly bad, the last place you will learn that is in a conversation with them.

But if you had more than one such conversation with different previous students and most say the same thing, then it would be best to find someone else.

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  • I like this approach and it probably makes me the most comfortable, but I feel as though I am being too carefree and naive especially when it comes to a big ‘career move’ for me. I have a lot of anxiety and it’s recommended that I let go of things, which I am doing a lot lately, but as I said, I can’t in this case without logically/rationally assessing the situation and then feeling comfortable with my decision. – Turing101 Apr 19 at 18:31
  • If you have the opportunity to get another local opinion, do so. A current student would be good. Even if it is from someone with a different advisor. But the final paragraph of Captain Emacs answer is useful. But don't raise the issue of the (possibly) disgruntled student. – Buffy Apr 19 at 18:36
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    Could you not contact folks who have gotten their PHD from this prof? Google is amazing, after all. – historystamp Apr 19 at 20:00
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I felt the other answers did not effectively address this part of the question:

have been thinking of having a one-to-one meeting with them and asking them a few questions I could frame as a “mini interview I like to take of future supervisors”:

Yes, you should do this. You should interview several potential supervisors to find out what they are like. Usually, the way this works is that supervisors interview prospective students. When they are done, they give the student a chance to ask questions.

Anyone who thinks it is insulting for a prospective student (or any prospective employee) to interview a future supervisor is way out of touch. All decent supervisors should be aware that there are bad supervisors out there, and any sensible prospective student or employee will want to try and detect them. When the student questions the supervisor, it is also an opportunity for the student to demonstrate genuine interest in, and knowledge of, the research.

Your specific question could be better worded. For example, "How do you handle interpersonal conflicts?"

I concur with the answers suggesting that you ask former students for guidance.

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  • As I said in my response, it is perfectly ok to ask about the advisor's management style, allocation style of authorship etc. Asking "How do you handle interpersonal conflicts" sounds very patronising, though, coming from the candidate. Even as PhD candidate I would be also worried about the supervisor asking the student the same question. This relation is one of trust and since no 3rd person is - a priori - involved, this question raises some red flags. Maybe it will become standard in the future, like prenups, but, like prenups, it does not mean that this is a desirable development. – Captain Emacs Apr 20 at 14:11
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Choosing a supervisor is THE most important thing you will do during your PhD. If there are ANY questions / doubts whatsoever about the supervisor, you should look elsewhere. A fallout of this kind with a student is a MAJOR red flag. Choose someone else.

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