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I am in my first semester of my applied math PhD program in the United States. The professor (potential PhD advisor) of the course I am auditing has replied to my question about the schedule for the final project:

I mentioned several times in the chat box in class. Did not you attend or did not you listen?

I had honestly not remembered that this was done and so it is my fault for not listening properly. However, I am interpreting this reply to be quite aggressive or rude. Should I no longer consider this person to possibly be my research advisor? How does one handle such a reply?


Thank you all for your advice and general comments. They have very much helped me.

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    Were you reasonably polite when asking? I can see someone being annoyed otherwise.
    – user53923
    Nov 26 '20 at 11:26
  • 20
    The English is not natural. Is the prof. fluent? Do they have trouble expressing themselves? Have you perceived such rudeness before?
    – Michael E2
    Nov 26 '20 at 13:52
  • 11
    Are you in a different culture than your own? Earlier this year I arrived at a train station in Germany and didn't see my train, I asked and the member of staff about it and he replied that he had already announced it three times (and then gave me written instructions). Point being: potential advisor may not consider their reply rude.
    – gerrit
    Nov 26 '20 at 15:48
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. Existing answers-in-comments have been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Nov 27 '20 at 0:51

11 Answers 11

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He/she is probably very busy, and has repeated the same message probably N times. Also, we all assume students will find the required information by themselves. Nowadays, I find that students simply don't spend the time to look for information. Their first instinct is to simply to message me, and hope that I will solve their problems for them; this is very similar to a kid asking their parents, can you please clean up after me? It is ok if you are 2 year old, but not OK after a certain age.

As for whether the professor should be a supervisor, you should look at whether he/she is successful in supervising students. Yes, he/she may not entertain trivial questions and tell you off, but that may mean you need to work independently and at a high level.

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    @TheoreticalMinimum Definitely depends on the university... At mine, professors were the ones organizing and teaching the class. Big classes might have teaching assistants to help with homework questions and grading, but they didn't know anything about the schedule beyond what was available to the students. (In this case pretty much anyone should have known the answer, but if you had an administrative question where the answer genuinely wasn't known then the TAs weren't going to know it, either.) Nov 26 '20 at 14:11
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    Yes, but RTFM (in real life or online) is never necessary to say (think it and don't say it). It is not constructive. Instead, the response could be "Please see X and come back if you have some questions." (where X could be some (canned) response with sufficient detail or a reference to a (real) FAQ document). Nov 27 '20 at 3:19
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    Regardless of the magnitude of N, this message is inappropriate. Imagine such a response being sent by a boss to an employee. If said information were so easy to find, say on a course webpage, then a boilerplate link to there would be less hostile and quicker to send than the response given. We all have bad days, but being busy is not an excuse for interacting with a student in this way, a degree of professionalism is expected. As to their suitability as a supervisor, I don't think this says much about their approach to mathematical questions, but I'd infer something about their personality
    – Dave
    Nov 27 '20 at 3:48
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    If N is large, that seems indicative of a communication problem on the professor’s end.
    – user76284
    Nov 27 '20 at 4:27
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    Neither the quoted statement nor the question imply that the information is available somewhere else. The RTFM part of this answer is simply conjecture.
    – Celos
    Nov 27 '20 at 12:52
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As an external observer, what strikes me here is:

A) yes, the answer is unnecessarily rude. Everybody can have bad days, but if this person routinely reacts aggressively and loses their temper whenever dealing with perceived "failures" from others, then they seem a poor match as an advisor for you, as they probably would continuously drag you down emotionally.

So the bigger question here is: is this a pattern of behaviour, or is this person usually supportive? Do they encourage other people, or constantly put them down? Basically: are they a bully? Open your eyes and ears and look for further clues. And maybe talk to some of their current or former students.

B) Poor organisation/communication skills. Important information like a schedule shouldn't be communicated through a chat box, or require attendance to a specific event. You would expect it to feature very clearly in some easily accessible reference written material (a web page for the course, and/or the course's introduction slides, etc.)

That's another red flag. Again, does this person seem generally well organised, do they communicate their thoughts clearly, or do they generate an aura of confusion around them, and expect other people to just read their minds? (and blame them when they fail to do so). Again, try and talk to some of their current and former students...

That second point would be the biggest red flag for me. You can grow a thick skin against insensitive comments, but you can't really work around a disorganised advisor who can't communicate.

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    +1 This may be pattern. The quoted line just sounds quite harsh. Not paying attention and asking for the schedule via email may be a mistake, as noted above. But as a PhD student you will also make mistakes and discuss them with the supervisor -- is this the kind of reaction you want to deal with in that situation, too?
    – cheersmate
    Nov 26 '20 at 10:25
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    The student didn't "make mistake". Either they were too clueless to understand how their university system works, or they were too idle to do what they were supposed to do.
    – alephzero
    Nov 26 '20 at 16:42
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    "Heed doubts about potential supervisors" is pre-PhD advice #1, wherever the blame lies. Maybe it's on you for just not liking their style; then you're still best off not pursuing them. Personally I see a lot of excusing of academic supervisor behaviour, often for what would be deemed unprofessional (or worse) elsewhere. Often the student got some bad vibes but blamed their own perception and did not want to pass up a career opportunity etc. Great supervisors are definitely out there to be found, but nothing except yourself will protect you from the bad whom the system unfortunately sustains
    – benxyzzy
    Nov 26 '20 at 18:22
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    Sadly, it is far from obvious for many faculty that important information like assignments and deadlines should be communicated asynchronously. OP should have been able to answer their question with a Google search.
    – JeffE
    Nov 26 '20 at 22:48
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    There is a difference between being a bully and being abrasive. Nov 27 '20 at 3:23
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of the course I am auditing

One possibility is that you have (a) an overworked professor, (b) who gets asked little questions like this over & over enough to get annoyed and who (c) appreciates these questions even less from someone who is only auditing the course.

As I understand it (having been out of college for a very long time, but Google'd it to be sure it is still at least basically what it meant 35 years ago), auditing means you are not getting credit for the course. If the professor recognizes that you are only auditing the course, then they may well treat your questions, especially about things like project scheduling, as almost pointless since you don't have to actually do the projects!

Your intention in auditing may be to do everything in the course at a top level, as if you were taking the course for credit. But at least some people audit so they can learn the subject matter without being under any pressure and, therefore, not bother with exams and projects.

If indeed that is the case, I would expect the professor to (time permitting) respond well to a subject-matter question from you, just not to the administrative questions.

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I'm moving this from comment section.

You seem to feel that your only fault was not listening properly, but actually, asking the professor was rude, immature and unprofessional. Did you really think they did not announce the final project schedule because they'd rather reply to an e-mail by every student in the class?

The only acceptable way of asking such a question is (a) make sure the answer is not in available sources: course page/syllabus/chat history search; (b) make sure other students in the class don't know either; (c) make sure it's past the time this info should have been available (d) write a very polite message indicating you went through steps (a)-(c).

If you didn't do that, and especially if your message was not really polite, they were justifiably annoyed. Their reaction to rudeness may have been not ideal, but we are all humans.

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    The definition of rude is "offensively impolite" we don't know how politely the question was worded. Immature, not really, this isn't about maturity, a lot of mature people are inconsiderate of other people's time. Unprofessional, possibly, I'll give you this one, but it is still a rather odd use of the word. I'd go with inconsiderate or selfish over the word choices in this answer. Nov 27 '20 at 22:13
  • @WetlabStudent, to me, politeness is not necessarily about choice of wording - it is possible to be rude even if you mind your Ps and Qs. But I agree "inconsiderate" is a good fit.
    – Kostya_I
    Nov 27 '20 at 22:39
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    @Kostya_I I disagree. We have enough information in OP to discern that the professor decided to promulgate this information in a perishable and ephemeral medium. Class or project schedule information should be in a permanent document of some kind - a syllabus, an email to all students in the class, a .PDF at the class webpage if any, etc. Chat doesn't count. If the professor hadn't been unprofessional about communication, OP wouldn't have had to contact them in the first place.
    – tbrookside
    Nov 28 '20 at 18:11
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The life of a professor, as their career progresses is never getting easier, at least if they are serious about their research. There is a neverending stream of academic chores (grant writing, teaching, faculty meetings, conferences) and in between there is a little time left for research. But progress in research is critical since everything else depends on it.

Needless to say, there is sometimes a bit of frustration, and professors, in their relationships with people, may appear brusque or rude. When you have 45 seconds to respond to a mail, you may write something like:

It's in the chat.
J.

as an answer to a carefully worded and polite question about some missing assignment or syllabus, or whatever one of the students didn't understand. If you have a minute and 45 seconds, you might think that this is your third student who wrote you about this, when everyone else didn't need additional clarification. Given the additional time, you may write more, and you might be rude. Especially rude if your wife is calling you for the third time to remind you her friends are coming to dinner, so you better not be late.

Actually, you may come across as rude when answering to your own friends, whom you actually like. They call you to congratulate you on your birthday, and you cut them short saying you're running late to a class where students are not getting the syllabus, or whatever, because you're too overwhelmed with other things. Again, the other things, may be a million and they all need your time.

There are research-first professors and there are professors who put teaching in the first place. The first usually get to teach the graduate students, exactly because they tend to skimp on niceties. The second (at least in US universities) get to teach undergraduates, and they are usually nicer, and teach better.

Unfortunately, when you chose an academic adviser, you choose from the first category. Some are rude, some are just exasperated that deadlines are approaching and their postdocs/students aren't making progress. What I'm trying to say is that your perception of their email should not be the basis for your choice of an adviser.

Some others advised to check their publication record, talk to their students, and see where the group alumni continued their careers. If the atmosphere in the group is not good (too competitive environment, abusive behavior, etc.) that's a much more serious red flag than a seemingly rude email. As a general rule, look at what that guy is doing, rather than judge what they say. Think about this. Your post makes you appear entitled. But, I don't know you, and it's very possible you've only dealt with very nice teachers up to this point. "Nice" is what I was when I was teaching introductory classes. "Nice" doubles your workload, without necessarily providing significant extra value to your students.

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Personally that would make me think twice about having them as an advisor. Sure it would have been good for you to see their answer in the chat, but as a grad student you are committing ~5 years of your life to help them in research as you become a full fledged math PhD - that's a big deal and they need to have some level of respect for you that I don't think their response is displaying. Grad school is hard and you're going to hit a lot of bumps along the way and need your advisor to have your back. If this is how they responded to a mildly annoying question, how will they react when you mess up an experiment (or whatever it is you math folks do ;) ).

I'm an electrical engineering grad student and I've certainly made my fair share of small mistakes and my advisor has been very supportive. When I worked as a professional for a year before starting my PhD program I got the same level of respect and support I'm getting now. In short, what they sent seems unprofessional to me and like they have a very authoritative view of the advisor/student relationship.

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You need to find the right advisor for You

This not only means learning about how the advisor behaves but also about how you react emotionally and academically to different advisor styles.

I mentioned several times in the chat box in class. Did not you attend or did not you listen?

There are people for which this type of comment will get under their skin, it will fester in their brain, and take time away from their research. It will fester well beyond what the advisor intended, leading to feelings of self-doubt (does my advisor still like me?), rather than the student noting the error for future improvements, and moving on. This isn't a "bad" or "wrong" way to react, it just is who a lot of us are. If this is you, and I would guess it is, based on the fact that you spent all this time to ask a question about it - it does suggest that a highly critical and judgmental advisor would not be a good fit for your learning style. Advisors sit on a spectrum, they can be critical (some students respond well to blunt corrections) or encouraging (some students respond better to pointing out what's right, and inferring what's wrong), hands-on (some like lots of support, but some might find it controlling) or hands-off (some don't like the lack of support, but some might find the freedom exhilarating), etc.

It's possible this advisor just had a bad day, but learn from past students what this advisor is like, and take your feelings now, as a clue to how you might react to him in the future when you screw up some aspect of your research (and you will, we all do, it's how to recover from these mistakes that define our dissertations). So pick an advisor that is going to breed success, make you productive, and not cause you too much stress.

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I'm going to be just as brusque as your professor.

Did you attempt to obtain this information from one of the many other sources that I would assume exist for a student to know the schedule for their class' final project? For instance, class materials and web sites, the class chat log, or other students.

If you didn't, you're showing disrespect for your professor's time. You're a PhD candidate, not a middle-schooler. By now in your life, you should be expected to have initiative, resourcefulness, and above all, consideration for other people's time in what is effectively your workplace.

If I'm honest with you, then yes, I do think you should consider this person as an advisor. As someone who is not willing to coddle his students, he may be able to break you of some lingering bad habits, so long as you're willing to consider his feedback as tough love, rather than just being needlessly rude.

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    Its pretty clear from the original post and comments that this info was unavailable from anything besides a temporary chat on zoom/or equivalent. The chat isn't even shown by default in zoom and there is no easy way to access it after the lecture is over unless the professor specifically instructed the class how to do this. I put the blame here on the professor for not having this info on a more permanent resource such as a syllabus or course website. Nov 29 '20 at 2:09
  • @WetlabStudent On the contrary, it is not at all clear that this information was unavailable elsewhere. I don't know where you're seeing that, but I checked to be sure before I wrote this answer and it wasn't (and still isn't) stated that the information was unavailable elsewhere.
    – Aiken Drum
    Dec 1 '20 at 23:01
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I think there is an opportunity here for you to learn something about the environment you are considering to go into. Your question shows that you are not completely aware of the academic life and the environment you may end up spending significant time in. I strongly recommend to make good use of this opportunity before you consider starting a PhD.

What situation is your potential advisor in that would trigger such a response?

Any person in an academic setting (that is not a permanently employed technical staff) has one main objective: to publish high-ranking papers. This will add to their track record. And basically everything in their work life depends on this track record. Their finance, the finance of their groups, the size of their groups, their position in the decision making processes at their institution, the reputation among their peers, the chance of invitation to high-ranking conferences, promotions and job opportunities, everything. All other factors in academics rate way lower than this single factor.

How does one achieve a high track record?

There are cases where academics build a high track record by pure luck, by making a great discovery that leads to one or more highly cited papers. There are also cases where academics are such bright minds that with little work, they can make such relevant contributions to their field that they can build a strong track record. But for most people, building a good track record involves an immense amount of very hard work. And in modern times, even all the hard work may not be sufficient for an individual to achieve really high ranking publications. In many fields its nowadays more common that larger groups of people need to work together to make significant contributions.

Mind you that in addition to their research, most academics need to spend time with teaching, reviewing papers, following new contributions in their field, attending conferences, organizing conferences, administrative work, etc.

How does this relate to you?

Since you have been surprised by the answer of your potential supervisor, it shows that you are not expecting the "normality" academic life. You are seeing the great adventure that a PhD poses for you, and very well so. But take a chance to look behind the curtain: What does your PhD mean for your advisor and their group?

Any academic group leader is well advised to enrich their group with people that add to the track record of the group. Everyone in the group depends on it, with their academic career. There is no second place for publishing late - either you are the first, or you missed your chance. So everyone must try to constantly give their best to achieve this. All academic life is built around this competition.

With your mistake, you showed that you did not do your research about the course in time and self-dependent. Before starting a PhD I strongly suggest to re-consider if you are prepared for the academic life. Its an environment where there are no second places. If you're not willing and prepared to constantly and tirelessly give your best, or if you are brilliant or lucky, it can be a very hard life.

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If a superior replies to me like that I would first try to determine wrong doing on my part, if you are in the wrong the best course of action is first an apology and second a written commitment from you to do better next time. If your investigation shows no wrongdoing on your part, very briefly explain that back and express your regret that a miscommunication has occurred and also express how moving forward you will endeavour to try and minimise these incidents as you understand his/her time is precious and in short supply. If you still get a negative response this person is probably not for you. In short, treat this like a test for them

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Do not take the professor as a supervisor.

The constructive way to deal with irritating circumstances is to go ahead, not to waste time on recrimination and attribution of blame for the past.

Why did they spend time on complaining and belittling you when it could have been spent on answering the question and mentioning neutrally the normal sources of information that has been missed?

You may have acted inappropriately as some answers suggest, or the prof may have been overworked, busy and stressed, as others argue, but the incident reveals this person’s personality as recriminatory and backward-looking when pressured. Avoid them.

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  • "Why did they spend time on complaining and belittling" - The person said: "Why did you not read the chat? This is where I posted your requested information several times and told you about it. If you want to become successful, pay attention to important information, for ducks sake." And the prof is right. Don't cuddle students but remind them to pay attention to important things, when they obviously did not. If they miss some important lab security information, this could become quite dangerous for everyone. Nov 28 '20 at 11:39
  • @stupidstudent To ask "did you not listen?" is belittling. I omits the simple possibility that the student did not hear for some reason (poor hearing, noise nearby). It unjustifiably assumes incompetence and is simply rude. It would have been polite to give the information and say where the information is normally found.
    – Anton
    Nov 28 '20 at 12:21
  • If you attend an university (online) course, you should be in a quite place where you can hear well. Even if you failed to hear it once, it was "mentioned several times in the chat box in class". If you have problems to hear something important, which was mentioned several times, you should get some hearing aid. If you have no hearing impairments, it is a good idea of a prof to tell the student, to pay attention to imporant informations. Nov 28 '20 at 20:29
  • @stupidstudent "Should"? Who are you to judge what should or should not be? It is a mistake to be condemnatory in this way; what is the point? There is no excuse for a professor's being rude, for putting down and for being querulous with a student. A professor is in a position of power and influence and must treat their students with respect and consideration. In my university, such behaviour would be condemned and, if the student complained, their complaint would probably be upheld because a simple request for information had been met by rudeness without even answering the student's need.
    – Anton
    Nov 28 '20 at 21:41
  • ' "Should"? Who are you to judge what should [...] be ' - I think it is a mistake to make universities adult daycare centers. Yes, a learning environment should be a quite place, so you can concentrate and listen your tutor. And you should pay attention the tutor, so you will notice important information, which is repeated several times. If you can't make sure both conditions are fulfilled, you will not pass university. And this is a good thing, because people who miss important parts of lectures, should not become doctors or engineers. A good teacher makes this clear to its students. Nov 29 '20 at 0:19

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