I started a PhD program in the US in August. My supervisor didn't respond to numerous emails, copied to department staff, for a month. Finally, I got some rather hostile responses -- all caps, abusive language, etc. After that, we had a meeting that was just bullying, condescension and harassment for an hour - they said I was not communicating with them! On top of this, they completely changed the research direction we discussed that prompted me to apply in the first place. None of this is in person, all remote.

The harassment was so bad, I have never experienced anything like it. I want to leave. Flew off the handle accusing me of doing things I did not even do, that were frankly immature, unprofessional and demeaning. Should I file a complaint and leave or just leave or ask for another supervisor? Also there is a disability related issue here which was not allowed to be addressed, and is required by legislation. Needed permission to take a course in my research field from them as grad chair directly related to research and flew off the handle accusing me of not wanting to do any work or complete research properly. Talked to me in dehumanizing way, like I was a child. My current supervisor is also the grad chair as said - so it complicates things.

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    One thing to consider is getting your terms straight. There is rude/mean/verbally abusive behavior vs bullying/harassment. Bullying/harassment usually is over a long period of time (repeated over weeks etc.) and so you really can’t apply this to the meeting you had.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 4:08
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    True, but there were a series of unwelcome emails from them before our meeting with all capitals, that were humiliating, demeaning, and bullying. Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 4:19
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    Something is pinging in my brain that this isn't as one sided as presented here. Perhaps you have induced an angry response by your own prior actions. I would guess you are on shaky ground regardless.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 12:48
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    You write, "My supervisor didn't respond to numerous emails, copied to department staff..." Did you start out copying "staff" or with email messages addresses only to your supervisor?
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 14:59
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    Sure, I need him to inform him about something that required his input as grad chair. Sent 7 emails to him, copying grad admin on each. Even called grad admin multiple times to contact them. They chose not to contact him, said to waiting for email response that never came - we are remote from home. Deadline for adding courses was coming. I was concerned that he was sick, or ill , as no response came. They had to make decision on a course I was to take as I required their permission - was directly related to field of research. Asked school to contact him. Took great offense to this. Commented Oct 24, 2021 at 3:05

3 Answers 3


Should I file a complaint and leave or just leave or ask for another supervisor

This depends on your goal.

If you are seeking to let your supervisor know that you are unhappy with them, there may be better ways to do that than making an official complaint (though that would certainly accomplish your goal too). Direct communication would be a start.

If what the supervisor did was way out of bounds and a punishable offense by the university (something the university would recognize as cause for reprimand, ex. sexual harassment), then I would recommend going on record and making a formal complaint. This might help figure students avoid this problem as well.

If you are just looking to improve your situation, I’d recommend leaving without filing a complaint. Your situation could perhaps be the result of communication issues or a particularly bad time for the professor. It would be better to avoid burning bridges if possible.


It is not at all clear what happened between the two of you. I can't infer from your post if it was harassment, or just your perception. Some people are just naturally grumpy, aggressive and difficult to deal with. They might have been quite annoyed when you asked the school to check on them.

If it's harassment, the easiest is to change advisers. The other option is to transfer somewhere else to do your PhD. You could also leave and not get a PhD at all, assuming you were not to keen on getting one, in the first place. If it's something serious, it might be worth bringing it up to the university officials, but don't expect swift justice. They're going to get away with it, unless there were previous complaints, especially of the kind that can't be ignored.

Regarding the research direction change, depends on whom you work with. Some people seem to change the direction every few months, just because they found some interesting new papers or talked to some new collaborators. It happened to me, to, more than once, and it was costly in terms of productivity. It's a risk when you do supervised research. But, it is your responsibility, more than theirs, to keep your research focused enough to be able to publish and graduate.


First, faculty should not verbally abuse grad students. However, they should have every right to strongly criticize them in a direct way. On that note, I think there is a back layer that should be acknowledged here. While it was not polite for your supervisor to ignore your emails, it is also not unusual for a first year student to be largely unsupervised in the US context. In general, first year is for focusing on classes, and a supervisor may not even be assigned until the second year. If you contacted the university about them, they likely are losing face with their supervisors. They have at least some right to be mad, and depending on the email chain involved, they may be correct that you overstepped. Keep this in mind when formulating next steps. You may actually want to send the emails to a trusted older grad student to see if the faculty is actually in the wrong here on anything besides tone.

Based on your comments - you sent your supervisor 7 emails about class choice? This seems extreme. You were told by the admin to be patient/wait. Then you went above your supervisor’s head to contact administration? This seems like you trying to force your timeline on your supervisor and getting a variety of others to do so as well. This is a different type of harassment—worth considering.

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    I notice that this all seems to have happened between August and October. That seems like a very short time period for things to go so far South.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 19:34

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