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I’m one year into my PhD program, and I recently drafted my first review article. I’m a native English speaker, and was often applauded for my writing during high school and college. My advisor made mean comments during a group meeting, discussing that my writing is too bad to be published. My Advisor is from Northern Europe and is bad at grammar. I admitted that my academic writing wasn’t top notch and promised to improve. I was never ridiculed in front of people, and I feel it as an insult. I’m looking for ways to improve and finding some comfort! Geography definitely plays a role. My M.S advisor is an Indian, and I had a lot of publications with minimal révisons.

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  • Remind your supervisor that are you a student, and that his/her comments do not help. Some times, a person does not know he/she is a bully until being told so. Having said that some supervisors think that's the only way to squeeze blood out of a mosquito. Aug 15 at 7:06
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    "my writing is too bad to be published" Perhaps your advisor meant to say that your paper is too bad to be published? For example, maybe your review doesn't cover papers that they consider relevant and important. Aug 15 at 7:40
  • I think I would try to bring this up privately with your advisor and say you are happy to address the comments, but would like to discuss them in private and in the future you would like a chance to get feedback before it is discussed in the group meeting. Your advisor is not under an obligation to tell you your writing is good if they know it is substandard, but they don't need to call you out publicly either. I think their response will be revealing as to whether they are a bully or whether they have your best interest at heart
    – Andrew
    Aug 15 at 17:11
  • My advisor was strict and harsh to me in a private circumstance, but never criticized me in front of the public.
    – Frank Cat
    Aug 15 at 22:43
  • A group meeting in an academic context is not really "the public".
    – Ben
    Aug 31 at 5:01
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“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem.” --- Thomas Szasz, Psychiatrist.

Your supervisor's comment sounds like a rather curt observation to me; while it is perhaps somewhat abrupt, in the context of evaluating and instructing a student (and with the limited information you have given about the incident) I would not classify it as rude. In any case, if there are cultural differences between you and your supervisor, that is all the more reason to grant some leeway if you find that your supervisor's assessments of your work are excessively blunt. (Obviously there are cultural differences across countries in terms of the bluntness with which such an observation would be delivered, so if you think this is a factor, make an allowance for it.) Ultimately, if improvement in your discipline comes at the expense of occasional hurt feelings, you will find that that is a worthwhile trade-off in the long-term.

Much of the information you give surrounding this matter suggests that you may be proceeding under some misapprehensions about the standards of a PhD candidature and the appropriate scope of instruction from supervisors. For example, the fact that you were considered to be a good writer at high school/college level does not mean that you write well enough to be published in a scholarly journal. This is not unusual for early PhD candidates, and it is generally reasonable in the context of a PhD candidature that a supervisor would openly state this to you, even in the presence of other students/academics in a meeting. Since you are only one year into your candidature, you are probably not expected to be producing publishable work yet, but you ought to be working on any skills you need to do this. It sounds like you are already working on ways to improve your work, so that is what you need to be doing. Once you have submitted a paper for publication you will have the benefit of referee feedback, and this will give you another opinion on the quality of your writing.

Being under academic supervision necessarily entails regular scrutiny and judgment of the quality of your work. Unless your situation involves repeated instances of unreasonable criticisms (and I see no evidence of that from your post) I recommend that you take this one on the chin and just work on improving your own work.

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I would say that the first step is to work out whether what your advisor said is a mean comment, or is it constructive criticism. In this case I'd say what your advisor is saying falls more under constructive criticism than mean comments.

A key thing to keep in mind is that academic writing is a very different thing to any other kinds of writing you've done. You're trying to very clearly explain a very complex idea to someone else using only written works (and probably some figures/equations). In high school the value of your writing may have been more in its creativity than its clarity. In collage you probably weren't writing too many essays, and when you wrote long prose its goal was to demonstrate understanding of ideas to people who understood those ideas better than you (based on your username I'm guessing chemistry major).

Regarding improvements, one text I would recommend for academic writing is: "the sense of style" by Steven Pinker. This author tries to explain rules rather than just giving you a list of rules to follow. In fact, they argue against a number of commonly believed grammatical rules that aren't followed by the best writers (including sometimes those who advocate for them) and your advisor ignoring them might be part of the reason you believe them to be bad at grammar.

The following is specifically for the original poster and probably doesn't generalise to other cases (it's also probably more of a comment but is much to long for that):

Furthermore, based on your question (which I replicated below), I'd lean towards your advisor being a better writer. While its possible your writing is normally better, issues that I can see in a hastily written question are probably similar to issues that keep reappearing in a complicated review paper that you have written. And therefore have probably led your advisor to their conclusion regarding your writing ability.

Title: How to deal with a PhD advisor who makes mean comments?

First one is that you've coded your question in a way that its informal and implies that we are your friends or family from whom you're hoping to receive sympathy. This is mainly because "mean comments" suggests a younger age than I expect you actually are. You should probably have coded your question to a professional audience by using a more 'adult'/professional sounding version of mean comments, e.g. "How to deal with comments from my advisor that I feel to be overly mean?" or "How to deal with criticism from my advisor that I feel is unwarranted?".

I’m one year into my PhD program, and I recently drafted my first review article. I’m a native English speaker, and was often applauded for my writing during high school and college. My advisor made mean comments during a group meeting, discussing that my writing is too bad to be published. My Advisor is from Northern Europe and is bad at grammar. I admitted that my academic writing wasn’t top notch and promised to improve. I was never ridiculed in front of people, and I feel it as an insult. I’m looking for ways to improve and finding some comfort! Geography definitely plays a role. My M.S advisor is an Indian, and I had a lot of publications with minimal révisons.

On my first read through this I felt like something was wrong but I couldn't put my finger on it, but on a second read through I could find a couple of issues which would probably impact your academic writing.

The first was "révisons" instead of "revisions", I googled your word and I could only find guides to French so I'm guessing you know French as well?

The second was that your sentences lack connectors between them, leaving the idea of each of your sentences floating disconnected from one another. This means I need to provide the connections, fine for simple ideas or ideas I know well, but for new and complex ideas not so much. Here you're pushing the workload onto me to essentially re-perform your research project, rather than accepting the workload to clearly explain it to me through your writing. For example your second and third sentences might be more elegant if you wrote:

" I’m a native English speaker, and was often applauded for my writing during high school and college, though my advisor was critical of me during a group meeting. Specifically by stating that my writing is too bad to be published."

Here I've joined the two new sentences by using a connector 'specifically' so I know that the second sentence above is specifying something from the first sentence (what the advisor was critical of).

Third, you seem to be confusing how to use a few words, for example "discussing" isn't right unless they were discussing your bad writing with you (in which case you need to make clear who they were discussing with). And when you say "Geography definitely plays a role" is suspect you mean "Culture/Background definitely plays a role" since the geography of where they work/have worked isn't influencing their language ability. But their background/culture, which you've mentioned and linked to this sentence, does play a role. Though as a side note to my second comment, the relation of this sentence with the previous sentence is unclear.

Fourth, You seem to switch tenses within a sentence, e.g. "I was never ridiculed in front of people, and I feel it as an insult." switches from past tense to present tense.

Fifth, the sentence "I’m looking for ways to improve and finding some comfort!" is confused. You seem to be saying: I'm - (1) looking for ways to improve, (2) finding some comfort. Instead I think you wanted to say: I'm looking for - (1) ways to improve, (2) some comfort from others.

A number of these things are mentioned in the Steven Pinker book I suggested above which might explain what is wrong better than I have here (and probably give some words you can google for even more info).

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  • These issues seem largely like nit-picking to me, particularly in the context of an SE post. The writing of the OP doesn't seem too bad to me.
    – Ben
    Aug 31 at 5:04

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