I work in a lab. This evening, thinking that my advisor had already left for the day, I started telling my peers in the lab that she has a bad attitude about a few things, and she was showing off a lot about her work last summer. Out of nowhere, she walked into the lab and was visibly upset, and I feared that she had heard what I said.

I just finished my masters and had asked my advisor about pursuing a Ph.D. She kind of gave an OK and I am supposed to meet with her tomorrow morning to discuss about it. Although our relationship has been on and off at times, I feel bad because she helped me a lot in past and now she will feel I am an ungrateful jerk.

What will be the best way to approach this issue so that I can minimize the damage to our relationship?

Update: My advisor said she doesn't have funding so she cant take me as a PhD candidate, which I know is load of crap, she has lot of money. As one of the answers advised, I thanked her for her help over the last two years. I am torn, depressed, angry, and tearful. Most advisors help their students find jobs; mine just told me sorry and good luck. Fortunately, another advisor had offered me a position; I had planned to decline, but now taking it seems to be my best option.

  • 38
    I do have to wonder why you want to work with a person that you seem to dislike ? And also, "showing off about her work" can be construed as "excited about research" or even "how to survive as a researcher".
    – Suresh
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 0:59
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    Two things are just about impossible to put back: toothpaste squeezed from the tube, and words uttered from the mouth.
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 2:22
  • 2
    I read all the comments and I still don't understand why you would like to work with somebody with attitude traits witch you "strongly detest" (where the dictionary defines detest as dislike intensely, loathe, despise). I understand the need to not leave the successful prof-student relationship in possible ruins, but maybe you should re-consider either your standard wording-choice, or weather you really like this person and would want to work with her.
    – penelope
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 10:50
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    You made a major mistake, so let this be your lesson that when talking about others, Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut. "If you must speak ill of another, do not speak it, write it in the sand near the water's edge." ~ Napoleon Hill; As a note, even if you are right about a person, you are only right about a person for a time - you never know who that person could later become. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 16:09
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    I revisited this question today just out of curiosity. I see your update. Let this be a lesson about which advice below you shouldn't have followed.
    – Jason C
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 16:25

5 Answers 5


Well... I am not an entirely mentally normal person so take my suggestion with a lot of salt.

The damage is already done, and you probably cannot do too much on her side. Your side, though, can be fixed. If it bothers you enough to make a new account and ask this question, you probably do care, right?

This is how I will approach it:

  1. Before the meeting, prepare a thank you card and/or perhaps some little snacks/gifts (chocolate usually work, as long as she is not diabetic Other choices are small office plants, coupon to a nearby restaurant, etc.)

  2. Go to meet with her and act as if none of these had happened. If she confronts you, apologize and emphasize that the experience made you feel very bad as well. Remember to emphasize the feeling. Depending on the outcome, if she confronts, then talking about PhD project is probably a bad idea. Leave the gifts and thank you card, and tell her that "I fully understand why you are upset, I hope you can give me another chance to talk about this in another time. I'll be outside in the lab if you need to talk to me."

  3. If she does not confront you, then go ahead and talk about the PhD project. Pay attention to it, because it may actually be things you spend a few years on.

  4. When it's all set, regardless of the outcome, give her the thank you card and the gifts. No need to mention your stupid chat. Just say something like "Just my thanks to your constant help through my Masters studies, and I look forward to working with you as a PhD candidate." Or if you're unlucky "Just my thanks to your help through my Masters studies, I learned a lot and I hope these little gifts will make up for all the hard times I caused you."

If she talks to you about the PhD, then she has forgiven you (unless she is a psycho who has decided to torment you.) If she decides not to and withdraws the offer, your thank you gift will also work. Either way, you'll have a chance to express your thanks, and that probably can help you feel better about your mishap.

And please be professional in the future. Badmouthing is a really bad habit.

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    I'm not sure that a gift is necessary. Personally, if this had happened to me (as the advisor) I'd be laughing inside. But I would want to know why the student wants to continue working with me.
    – Suresh
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 1:05
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    I wouldn't recommend this action. To me, it comes off as tacky groveling. If I heard someone badmouthing me in front of their peers, the last thing I'd want is some kind of gift from that person, as though the awkwardness could all be glossed over with a chocolate or a gift card. This might help defuse the situation, but, then again, it could backfire, too.
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 2:14
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    I also would not recommend this action. I have had folks grovel to me and personally I find it insulting and would rather them just get to the point. I would recommend simply going to her with your concerns, clearly and concisely but with an open mind, ready to hear what she has to say as well. If she did overhear your conversation with your peers and chooses to open a discussion about it, then you can talk about it with her. If she did not overhear you or chooses not to discuss it, you have at least done the right thing by going to her directly and treating her with respect.
    – Jason C
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 7:09
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    Do not do this. It comes across as trying to buy your way back into her favour. Also, it is insincere to say "thank you for being awesome" when what you mean is "I'm sorry I was bad." Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 10:47
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    The fact that this was both suggested and accepted is very disappointing. Patronizing, groveling, false gifts and thank yous pave the road to general lack of responsibility, and could easily be the subject of a long rant about larger collective social problems...
    – Jason C
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 15:58

From what you have said, I am not sure even if she heard you. All you need to do for now is to STOP this attitude. You will never find a perfect supervisor... Yes, you can talk with a friend about how difficult your life is with this supervisor. But this should be out of the lab and avoid -- as much as you can -- other students with the same supervisor.

  • Show her that you value her research and expertise (in case you don't value her research, then find another supervisor).

  • Do not talk about anything happened unless she started the talk.

I completely disagree with @Penguin_Knight on the gift thing. Being so nice in a typical meeting indicates something weird is happening. Do not do it. (I believe this is a cultural thing some people may see it really good others will think about it in a very bad context.)


If you have an issue with your advisor you should approach her about it in private, calmly, clearly, and with an open mind and an idea of what you want. If you choose to speak to others without approaching her then you cannot be surprised at unexpected consequences.

As for the current situation; if your advisor definitely heard you, then apologizing to her in person, privately, would be the honorable course of action. Of course, if there's a chance she did not hear you, this would not turn out well for you.

So, I recommend that you simply approach her with your concerns as you originally should have (and do it soon, because if she did hear you, the longer you wait the more permanent the damage may become). Also make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the conversation ahead of time. This is a reasonable approach whether she heard you or not. If she didn't hear you, then this brings your concerns to light in a mature manner. If she did hear you, this opens up the potential for a conversation about the incident. If she chooses not to mention it, at least you approached her with your concerns and gave her an opportunity to legitimately hear where you were coming from.

Also, whether she heard you or not, don't simply pretend that this situation didn't happen; go into it with the mindset of "yes, it did happen, and that means it's time to have a real conversation about the issues that have been bothering me before the tension gets even worse".

Do not grovel, this only shows that you do not feel comfortable with your ability to handle confrontation, and raises many red flags (too many to list) and defenses (even subconsciously) to the person you are groveling to (one of the worst cases being that the recipient takes it as "I can't believe you think I'm so foolish as to fall for your grovelling" and thus fails to reciprocate any respect).

Do not be close-minded or have a "putting your foot down" or "shoot first ask questions later" attitude, this will normally put somebody on the defensive immediately and kill most chances of progress. Be calm, clear, and treat her with the same amount of decency and respect that you would expect from anybody else -- even if you strongly disagree with her behavior. Going into these kinds of things with a clear head (and a clear goal) will also help give you confidence that can keep you from getting on the defensive and closing doors / burning bridges.

And most importantly, do not forget that you may not get what you want out of this conversation; but at least you will end up doing your best to be reasonable and work with the situation. The relationship may not be perfect, but it is there and it is up to you to make the best of it.


I completely agree with Jason C's answer. If you are sure that your advisor has heard you, then a sincere apology would work best. Something similar happened with me long ago, and I scheduled a meeting with the offended colleague early next morning, before anyone else was in the office. My apology was sincere and she immediately understood that I had no problem with her on a personal level, just that I had a problem with her working style. She did make an effort to change her style as she realized it was inconveniencing me. We had a fabulous relationship afterwards and never mentioned that incident again. But I definitely learnt a lesson: when you have a problem, discuss it with the person concerned and not with anyone else.


I disagree with some of the comments above saying that you made a mistake. If you sincerely and objectively believe that she is really bad, then not complaining is making a mistake; though you could probably do better in choosing the venue of submitting your complaint.

To answer your question, you must go deep into yourself and ask yourself what do you really want.

On surface, I have two contradictory things:

A) You want to do a PhD with her;

B) You think she is an incompetent advisor and explicitly talk about it.

You need to ask yourself:

  1. Is she so bad that she deserves your negative comments in open public?
  2. If (1) is true, then, is she the best advisor you can find?
  3. If (2) is true, then, do you actually want to do a PhD?

Of course, everything comes with a reason. You might have some good reasons that you want to make a public complaint. Find the true reason, and honestly communicate with your advisor. If your advisor understand you, then no damage is last.

Do not fabricate some fake reasons or explanations and hoping she can understand you. Do not pretend to be nice just to get she advising your PhD. Follow your true heart.

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