I have a colleague (call them "Joe") in my PhD math program who told me that they approached a certain professor (call them "Dr. X") to ask them to be their advisor. Joe seemed very interested and capable to do research with Dr. X. However, Dr. X told Joe that they didn't want to do research with them because they had health issues. Namely, Joe delayed taking the qualifying exams because of a kidney stone surgery (a laser lithotripsy). Despite this, Joe took the qualifying exams and did very well. Dr. X still had a bias against Joe and did not want them in their research group because of their health problems.

Yes, this is an actual story that happened to a friend of mine.

Is there any basis in the professor not wanting to take Joe as their student? Or, are there legality issues? I know an employer cannot discriminate with regards to disabilities or health condition, but does this apply to prospective PhD supervisors?

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    The legal question is a matter of jurisdiction. Which country?
    – Tommi
    Apr 15, 2021 at 10:58
  • @Tommi and Vegeta the Prince of Saiyans re How will anyone know if an employer fires an employee for an illegal reason? actually, given the seeming discrimination of this, would dr x really say the health issues explicitly as the issue? then again there's a comment in the post that says 'It turns out that people dumb enough to fire someone because of their race are occasionally dumb enough to brag about it or make their intentions known.'
    – BCLC
    Apr 16, 2021 at 9:25
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    I understand that the full picture is not relevant to the general question, but I feel the specific case is very off and vague to be the full story. For one, Joe does not have a disability; they simply happened to have a singular surgery once. It would be very odd if Dr.X treated this as an ongoing disability, let alone discriminate against it (whether this is acceptable or not). Secondly, the exact conversation is missing, we have zero information of the exact version of events, or if Joe is misreading the situation and attributing the rejection to discrimination (maliciously or otherwise). Apr 16, 2021 at 11:39
  • @TasosPapastylianou It's unfortunately not at all uncommon for people with chronic or potentially chronic medical problems to be regarded as damaged goods who will fail to be "productive." Every bigot is completely sure that their bigotry is rational, hence the need for antidiscrimination laws. Apr 16, 2021 at 17:12
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    @ElizabethHenning absolutely. I second this point. However I'm also cautioning: we have accepted the "Joe got discriminated" narrative at face value, and thus given eager advice on how to get this apparently villainous Dr.X 'cancelled'. But, while these are entirely appropriate w.r.t. the general question, the specific story sounds very fishy. For all we know, Dr X. is being the victim of a vicious harassment campaign by a disgruntled student who is now trying to find a manipulative angle to get them 'cancelled'. Which we have gladly provided based on zero background. We simply don't know. Apr 17, 2021 at 10:26

6 Answers 6


Unless the PhD is a demanding in-lab work where there is danger to the student or their colleagues via their health condition (which does not sound like it, but we do not know), there is no legal reason for the potential supervisor to reject. As much say the other responses.

Nonetheless, I would be wary of forcing myself on such a supervisor. Unlike a normal job, the supervisor-supervisee dynamics is very different from a normal employment and I do not see anything to be gained from pushing further. Joe could of course start a disciplinary process against this supervisor; the likely two consequences are that:

  1. other supervisors will tread carefully around Joe, even if they have no discriminatory bone in their bodies and even if Joe is clearly perfectly in the right in starting proceedings against that prof. They do not know what else may trigger Joe, so those with cautious personalities probably will try to avoid having to supervise him.

  2. the original supervisor may, if they get slapped with real sanctions (and not just a slap on the wrist), in future hide their discriminatory position without being fully truthful. So, they may end up accepting (and then mistreating) sickly PhD students in the future (there are questions about that on SE).

As much as one would want to punish this supervisor for their position (assuming there is no really good reason for the rejection), I do not think that one would either Joe nor future students of this professor any good to trigger an investigation; short of something that actually could get this prof fired.

I think it is better for students to know what a prof is like ahead of time rather than discover it underway.

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    Yes, significantly, the student "Joe" has discovered that this prospective advisor is a jerk. It is approximately "legal" to be a jerk, but/and it is nearly impossible to "force" a jerk to "be nice" by rules or laws... So, yes, the prospective advisor's behavior was ... inappropriate... (maybe illegal, but that is essentially irrelevant!)... and the only actionable conclusion is for Joe to stay away from that person. Apr 15, 2021 at 19:50
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    @paulgarrett This might be the "practical" approach, but it's also the approach that lets these people get away with breaking the law and damaging lives. It took 50+ years for there to begin to be consequences for sexual harassment because so many victims and enablers were willing to keep quiet. Apr 15, 2021 at 20:16
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    @ElizabethHenning, I agree that such conduct should be reported. I would also assert that I myself would not want to be "mentored" by a person who had behaved that way, even if law compelled them to "apologize", or made them pay a fine. I am not a fan of enabling, but I also do not want to be around people who've shown what they really want/think, whether or not the law compels them to keep silent about it, etc. Apr 15, 2021 at 20:31
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    Elizabeth, surely you are not suggesting that victims of discrimination and harassment have the obligation to retraumatize themselves through official actions. It seems to me that is implying that such a victim need to pay the cost for the bad actions of the supervisor twice.
    – Dawn
    Apr 15, 2021 at 20:34
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    @Dawn You're reading too much into what I said. Of course everyone needs to make their own decisions, but it's nonetheless true that one consequence of not reporting it is letting the behavior continue. Apr 15, 2021 at 20:38

In most cases, discrimination on the basis of disability or illness is wrong and in many places it is also illegal. This applies in places where PhD students are considered employees and in places where they are not.

However, there are certain exceptions. If the disability makes it impossible or unreasonably costly for the student to conduct their duties, discrimination might be permitted. If the student has a health problem that makes the research unsafe, then discrimination might be mandatory.

  • This is certainly an answer. I don't think the site can do well without touching ethics or morality aspects. Which I do just as a comment. From what OP describes, the potential supervisor gave me a bad impression.
    – Alchimista
    Apr 15, 2021 at 9:01
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    @Alchimista and Anonymous Physicist re How will anyone know if an employer fires an employee for an illegal reason? actually, given the seeming discrimination of this, would dr x really say the health issues explicitly as the issue? then again there's a comment in the post that says 'It turns out that people dumb enough to fire someone because of their race are occasionally dumb enough to brag about it or make their intentions known.'
    – BCLC
    Apr 16, 2021 at 9:25
  • Good answer and +1, but when you say “discrimination might be permitted” and “discrimination might be mandatory”, you are using the word discrimination in a slightly incorrect sense. The dictionary defines discrimination as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” So it’s not that discrimination “might be permitted/mandatory” but rather that rejecting a student under the circumstances you are referring to would not count as discrimination as it would not “unjust or prejudicial”.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 20, 2021 at 15:12

First of all, in the US it is unambiguously illegal to discriminate against a student with a disability, including a medical disability, as long as the student is able to meet academic standards with reasonable accommodation (such as delaying quals a few months). It is also illegal to discriminate against a student who had medical problems in the past on the grounds that those medical problems might recur in the future. So there's that.

Unfortunately, US caselaw allows extraordinary discretion about academic decisions, especially by graduate programs, making it almost impossible for a student to win this battle. So unless the university is 100% behind the student on this issue--which is a fool's bet--Joe can expect to have his academic reputation viciously trashed so that Dr. X can justify his illegal decision with impunity.

However, it's a good idea for Joe to keep detailed records of his own and at least report the situation to the disability services office and any equal opportunity/equity and inclusion office. It would be nice if we were living in a world where schools can't get away with this crap, but we don't. The only way this will change if the people who are victimized by it speak up.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once, but you can use the chat as long as you wish keeping a respectful tone. Apr 18, 2021 at 20:52

I'm somewhat surprised by the number of people trying to see this as a legal problem only. Don't forget that an advisor/advisee relationship is very special. Taking a PhD student under your wings is not entirely unlike adopting a child (if only temporarily), and rejecting an interested PhD student is sometimes the responsible thing to do, when there are warning signs flashing.

I don't think it is a wide spread practice that potential advisors have the obligation to take anyone meeting certain qualifications. In fact, I rather think the opposite is true.

  • A potential advisor can reject such a request for very personal reasons. May be they have interacted with this grad student earlier and didn't like what they saw? May be they have work for just one grad student, and already have their eyes on someone else who they think could do a better job, and now came up with a lame excuse. May be Dr X recently lost a loved one to kidney problems, and cannot bear meeting with a living reminder daily?
  • Another plausible scenario is that may be Dr X heard about Joe being late to take his quals, and therefore was predisposed negatively? When hearing about the true reason for the delay, they were simply unable to do a mental U-turn, and blurted out something that made them look like an ass. Not nice, definitely. But the kind of s**t that can easily happen, when you are put on the spot and need to justify the decision to decline a particular grad student.

We simply did not hear the whole story.

This is math, meaning that the PhD students don't often get to work with teams. If there is an advisor/advisee chemistry problem, a rejection will save both Dr X and Joe a lof of pain further down the road.

  • Joe can (should?) talk with the Director of Graduate Studies at the department (if such a resource exists). They know the local circumstances and can give advice. I don't think a DGS would do much, but if similar stories about Dr X pile up, then there may be something actionable, and the DGS will have the means to do something about it. The DGS is not likely to gossip and tell that Dr X has a reputation of being a difficult person to work with (other grad students are there for such things), but it is their job to listen.
  • If Dr X discards talent left and right, they are shooting themselves in the foot, and may have difficulties recruiting in the future.
  • Similarly, if Joe goes public, he has to live with the consequences. Bad advice IMHO.

Joe should just continue shopping for an advisor unless he already has done so.

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    Excellent points made. The supervisor was not smart in giving illness as a reason (which makes it sound explicitly like a discriminatory decision), other reasons may well be in the background. Apr 18, 2021 at 13:57
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    @ElizabethHenning I admire your ability to divine, without hearing Dr X's part of the story, that they are guilty of all forms of discrimination. Have you, personally, ever had a grad student wannabe who says they love all the research you, comes to your office daily, asking whether you are already willing to accept them as a protegé? In spite of the fact that at a seminar the same eager beaver totally failed to show any kind of initiative, and didn't seem to grasp the material that was offered to them. One who failed to follow simple instructions? Apr 18, 2021 at 20:33
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    Mind you, Dr X may be an ass, but we only have Joe's story that the health problem was the key to the rejection. Apr 18, 2021 at 20:38
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    Fine, @ElizabethHenning. My advice to Joe is not to burn his boats by pressing the matter extensively. You seem too eager to assume that a DGS would fail to handle this impartially. Joe can also consult someone from Graduate Student Union or whatnot. Apr 18, 2021 at 20:40
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    @JyrkiLahtonen If this is an illegal discrimination issue--as the OP's story seems to indicate--then it's a university matter, not a department matter. Disability services or EEO/DEI offices are much better equipped to handle it properly. And no, I personally wouldn't trust the DGS. Apr 18, 2021 at 20:45

This appears to be more of a moral problem than anything else. I'm also assuming that Joe doesn't want to work with that supervisor, and now has another supervisor who he's working happily with.

With this in mind, if Joe wants the university to do something about this, I would suggest the formal process is probably not going to be effective. As other answers have said, all universities have a strong track record of concealing anything raised formally, even up to cases of assault and rape.

A better alternative might be to contact the student newspaper. It'll escalate the issue locally on campus and get attention for the problem, which will put pressure on the department to be seen to do something about it. It doesn't cost anything for Joe, unlike lawyering up. Of course Joe would be well advised to give his supervisor a heads up though, in case this will result in problems there.


Depends on the country. In the UK that is illegal discrimination under the 2010 equalities act, unless there is some reason the health condition makes it dangerous or impossible to do an essential task, e.g. a blind taxi driver or a deaf call center worker, where reasonable adjustments have been made, e.g. flexible hours or a desk that doesn't require them to walk up lots of stairs to get to it. It is as illegal as telling someone they will not work with them because they are black or female. I believe that is the case under similar laws in most of Europe and north America.

As others have said, the supervisor is obviously an arsehole and isn't worth working with. You need to inform the university, I would go to head of department first, if they don't take it seriously then go to academic registrar or equivalent. If they don't respond properly then the university are complicit in illegal discrimination then an email to the national regulator is in order.

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    I don't think the UK framework applies to the situation described in the question (where a student has been admitted to a "PhD program" but not allocated a supervisor, and a system which involves qualifying exams). Furthermore, as someone who has been part of the PhD admissions process in my UK department, I also don't think the 2010 equalities act applies, unless the student has already been admitted to work with Supervisor X who then doesn't perform their duties
    – Yemon Choi
    Apr 18, 2021 at 12:58
  • Furthermore, given that the OP is probably based in North America given the details in their question, your presumption of "national regulator" is way off base. Regardless of any moral/ethical failings that may or may not have been demonstrated by this supervisor, the advice in your final paragraph simply won't work.
    – Yemon Choi
    Apr 18, 2021 at 13:03
  • In the UK whether you are allocated a supervisor prior to enrollment depends how the department runs/PhD is funded. OP could be part of a CDT or any part-taught programs for which there are exams before the research component. Research PhD's in the UK do not technically require you to be allocated a supervisor prior to enrollment, some who continued straight from their undergrad at my university took a couple of courses before confirming a supervisor. See: warwick.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/apply/research/… Apr 19, 2021 at 8:50
  • The 2010 act does apply, I had to read it very carefully when I was at uni: legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents Apr 19, 2021 at 8:53
  • fine *national regulator or equivalent people who are not part of the university, but hold the university to account in some respect. The state, the department for education, whoever. They might not have real power, but there will be someone. Apr 19, 2021 at 8:54

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