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In my opinion, yelling and disrespecting should not be the case between supervisor(s) and their grad students regardless of how well or poor the student is doing. Supervisors are usually holding the highest academic degrees and they should be ideal principals for their students. My question is, what to do if a supervisor repeatedly yells (whether personally or sounding as such in the emails). Do we have to accept it and do nothing to keep a nice attitude?

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    Can you give an example of what is being yelled (is it profane, personal insults, normal conversation at a very high volume, etc.)? And what do you mean by "sounding as such in the e-mails"?
    – cag51
    Oct 7 at 0:07
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    That kind of depends on what is the alternative to accepting it, doesn’t it? In a country where supervisors yelling is part of the culture, you may not have a choice but to accept it if you don’t want to emigrate. In a place where yelling is heavily frowned upon and only done by a very small number of supervisors, you will have a lot more choice and consequently more freedom not to “accept” it.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 7 at 1:36
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    Yelling in what context? If they are about kill or injure themselves and/or others in a lab or workshop, yelling might to be appropriate. Can you clarify in your question? Please respond by editing (changing) your question, not here in comments (without "Edit:", "Update:", or similar - the question should appear as if it was written right now). Oct 7 at 9:56
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    Without an example, this question is impossible to answer. For instance, there could be a mismatch between the cultural norms regarding the directness of feedback. Oct 7 at 11:53
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    Yelling (as in raising one's voice and shouting or screaming) in an e-mail isn't possible unless the supervisor IS TYPING LIKE THIS!!! If you're the kind of person that thinks an e-mail that isn't written like that can "sound as such" then I question what else you might interpret as yelling when orally spoken in person, including how you might interpret a stern talking to.
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 7 at 20:07
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It is not acceptable. If this is a one-time occurrence the supervisor (or anybody else doing the yelling) should apologize.

When this happens regularly, the supervisor has an anger management problem. You should report it to the graduate chair.

There is usually some way of resolving this “internally”. In the cases I heard, the unit apologized, the supervisors were given official warning and some were eventually reprimanded (could not take students for some period) after repeated offenses. The students were given support to find alternate supervisors if they so wanted.

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  • Note that OP hints their supervisor many not be actually yelling, but rather using language which seems as though they are yelling, in email messages. You may want to qualify your answer for this case.
    – einpoklum
    Oct 9 at 20:18
  • @einpoklum “ a supervisor repeatedly yells (whether personally…)” does look to me as actually yelling… Oct 9 at 21:26
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Almost never.

An example of an exigent circumstance would be a chemistry professor yelling at grad students who are in imminent danger of harm b/c of improper lab procedure.

If these exigent events happen regularly then the supervisor graduate student relationship is not working and you need to leave.

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    "An example of an exigent circumstance would be..." I am not sure if this is a good reason. Chemistry labs need calm people, especially in difficult situations. In fact, I cannot make up any good reason to yell at people, so generally agree with your answer. Oct 7 at 11:27
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    @Snijderfrey: Maybe in the case of a fire, an active shooter in the vicinity, the rapid approach of a tornado, etc. But I had to really stretch to get these (and they're not supervisor-student specific anyway), so I generally agree with your comment (and by transitivity, with emory's answer). Oct 7 at 12:35
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    If the supervisor notices a student - or actually, anybody - doing something that will result in immediate harm, yelling "STOP" is the only appropriate reaction. Of course, a closely supervised student shouldn't even get to a point where this is necessary. But if you're experimenting with sodium while talking to one student, see something go up in flames at the other end of the lab, and see another student get a bucket of water, you certainly don't want to walk over, tap the student on the shoulder, and calmly ask them what they learned in class about sodium and water. Oct 7 at 13:42
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    @ZeroTheHero You are correct. Basically, the answer is no, advisers should not yell at students. There is a 0.001% chance that the first yell was justified. But the second and third incidents are just plain abuse and should not be tolerated.
    – emory
    Oct 7 at 21:54
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    @Snijderfrey when I read the question, I have no clue what behavior is being described as "yelling." I can read that as anything from full on temper-tantrums to mild rebukes.
    – fectin
    Oct 8 at 17:57
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There are a few definitions of yelling in colloquial American English.

Definition 1: Screaming with anger. This is never ok in a professional relationship; and if it happens regularly, it is a sign of a toxic work environment. This is not a good advisor.

Definition 2: Criticism. For example, if you do a presentation and the advisor has a lot of professional criticism, this is a good thing. The point of graduate school is to learn, and to have an advisor who wants you to improve is important. This sort of constructive "yelling" is a sign of a good advisor, uncomfortable as it is to have your flaws pointed out.

We all must use wisdom to distinguish between these two situations.

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    Upvoted. I (German) have often been criticized by my partner (U.S. American) for yelling at her when all I did was informing her of my opinion in a calm and clear manner ;-). Apart from a different perception of tone and a different idea of appropriate behavior there is also a different perception of criticism as such: Some cultures almost always view even the most fact-oriented criticism as personal shame and are very concerned with issues like losing or saving face. Oct 7 at 13:34
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    American English speaker—I’ve honestly never heard the second meaning used. It might be regional? Oct 7 at 17:33
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    @JoshuaGrossoReinstateCMs I've seen it...but in that context it was siblings claiming they were being yelled at based on sterness and content of the parents' words rather than the actual act of raising one's voice.
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 7 at 17:52
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    @DKNguyen Exactly.
    – axsvl77
    Oct 7 at 18:03
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    @DKNguyen Ohhh, I realize what it means now. Thanks! Oct 7 at 20:01
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No, it shouldn't be accepted, unless the student has done some serious damage. But that would probably be a rare event.

Solution 1. Find a better advisor (advised)

Solution 2. Yell back (not advised)

Solution 3. Complain to a higher authority (conditionally advised)

Solution 4. If the benefits of working with this idiot advisor outweigh the pain, force yourself to ignore it. (conditionally advised)


Long term. Don't do that when you have an independent career. They are not a good role model.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Oct 8 at 19:31
  • You left out the option of having a serious talk with the advisor/supervisor about the yelling. Intentional?
    – einpoklum
    Oct 9 at 20:20
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In addition to other good answers...

Let's think calmly about this: in what possible circumstances should any person tolerate abusive behavior?

Ok, well, hopefully, as few as possible.

(Yes, yelling is obviously abusive, if there were any doubt. Duh.)

But, yeah, sometimes a person is stuck in a situation, and for various reasons puts up with abuse.

The point is not whether or not it's abusive to yell (in any sense), because it is. The only remaining operational issue is whether an abused person has sufficient reason to tolerate it for a while, to some better end.

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It should not be acceptable, but unless it is really extreme and continuous, I think it's wise to live with it. Some people have anger management problems or a tendency to yell when they are not actually that upset. That's who they are. I see no advantage to being the person who can't handle that.

You don't have to spend that much time with your advisor and you don't have to interact with them forever. If it's that much of a problem, seeking a different advisor is an alternative. If you confront your advisor or complain to HR or whatever, you may stop the yelling, but you will also close certain doors needlessly.

My first boss swore and yelled all the time. At first it was stressful but I decided to just live with it and respond to his requests as if they were given politely. After a year, all the yelling and swearing stopped. It turned out he had been going through a contentious divorce at the time and had been continuously at the end of his rope. We have now worked together very productively for years and I consider him one of my best friends and certainly my closest colleague. Frankly, I think he feels bad about how he was and respects me for having done good work and always been professional despite his faults. If I had gone to HR or confronted him, things would likely not have worked out as well.

Rude or loud people are a fact of life. Being the person who spends a lot of energy trying to change them is frequently not the best use of your time and social capital. This is especially true if you would like to preserve a relationship with the person in question.

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  • Very much disagree. I would disagree even in normal circumstances (anger management can indeed be a problem, but the person who cannot manage their anger is still responsible for their actions). I disagree even more in a relationship with a power differential, where the actions of the person in power impact others even more than usual. Oct 9 at 0:47
  • If you want to use your energy and social capital trying to change people, rather than trying to build your career, I'm not going to say "no." However, I don't think it's good advice to give others. You can't really change people and causing problems at work while trying to do so will not generally help you in your career or life. A supervisor who uses all caps or raises his or her voice is hardly a hill worth dying on.
    – farnsy
    Oct 9 at 4:31

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