I proposed a project about twistor formulations in noncommutative geometry for alternative theories of gravity to a professor to apply for a PhD program in physics in 2019, and though the professor didn't have any publications concerning the theories and techniques in my proposed project, he signed on to agree to supervise me to work on that project. And the PhD program also admitted me.

Then due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, I couldn't arrive at the university until October 2020. However, since my arrival, the professor seemed to always talk to me in a tyrannical or sarcastic tone. He always criticized me, even for trivial matters, often as negatively as he can, and never praised me. In all, he is irrational, surly, capricious and thus very difficult to cope with. Since I feel it is so hard to work in such a negative environment, I took the excuse that I am not sure if I am interested in so mathematics-oriented research he does in noncommutative geometry to resign from him as it’s like he wants to speak like even withdrawing from the supervision agreement is my mistake - he is a person who never admits it’s his fault whenever things don’t go well.

The scenario of our resignation from each other is as follows. He asked me to make a presentation 3 times and was never satisfied with it - every time he kept asking me very basic questions, like what is a vector, tensor, metric, covariant derivative, etc., making me to explain everything from the very beginning, even the conventional notations, and caviled and scorning me throughout the process to run out of time before I could finish my presentation. Then at my request, he let one of his students show me an example of the kind of presentation he expected and gave me a final chance to make a presentation satisfying him. He said if I can’t make such a presentation, I can’t work on mathematical physics. On that day, he went to my office asking me if I was ready to make that presentation, then, as I hesitated, he started to talk with me about PhD studies - he said my progress is too slow to carry out that project in the given PhD period, so it's better that I work on something else, like experimental physics, or just resign the PhD. I felt he completely didn't believe in my ability and held me in so low contempt; I realized his previous criticizing and scorning me was treating me like a clown. I thus felt so sad that I thought I couldn't work with him any further.

After calming down, I thought about the reasons for his treating me that way from my arrival. I think the reason is very likely that he wants to try his best to discourage me from working with him on that project, because he found not only he but also I am not familiar with the theories and techniques in the project, so that to work out results in 4 years may be problematic. I think he is not familiar with the project because he seems to rarely answer my scientific questions in that project - he either said "so what?" or "please focus on basic questions first." On the other hand, he also has no publications about the project.

Then we each wrote a mail to the program’s head to resign from each other in the end of February, 2021. The head seems not to know that professor well in person, so can’t judge it’s whose mistake, and just approved my request to change my supervisor. But he seems not be able to help me with looking for a new supervisor at all - he does not know which researchers in the faculty are engaged with the research topics I hope to work on to suggest them to me - the only thing he does is to threaten me from time to time to kick me out of the doctoral school if I don’t join a research group soon. This constant threat makes me feel uneasy and lack peace of mind.

In the beginning, I thought finding a new supervisor should not be too difficult, but later I found it’s not that easy. I approached several researchers, and though almost all of them invited me to have a talk with them and most of them even spoke in a way like they could be my supervisor in the beginning, none of them was willing to declare to be my supervisor afterwards. The reason is one of the following: they don’t have PhD projects in mind nor can they supervise me on my proposed project with which they don’t have experience; they are going to retire; they already have many students or they think I have no sufficient time to learn their research techniques since I have lost some time since the beginning of my PhD studies; they don’t feel safe to take me because they don’t know me much. I think in general, the situation is that no researcher in the faculty is engaged in topics close to the research I did during my MSc and those who work on topics much different from my MSc research don’t think I have sufficient background knowledge to do their research nor do they think I have sufficient time to learn. Some other PhD student said I just need to find a researcher who can sign to be my supervisor but doesn’t need to really collaborate with me, but I think this is not easy - except for that professor I originally contacted for admission, I have not found any researcher who is willing to sign to be my supervisor to let me work on topics they don’t have experience with.

The program’s head has sent a letter to the director of the doctoral school to suggest to kick me out of the doctoral school with the reason of having no scientific progress. However, the program’s head sent that letter only based on the fact that no researcher signed to be my supervisor. Since resigning from the supervision of that tyrannical professor, I actually have taken multiple courses and studied topics of those researchers I approached in the hope of being able to work with them. It’s just because I wander from topic to topic, I don’t make concrete progress towards my thesis.

I also have been invited to talk with the director, and he said even if I don’t have a supervisor, I can work on my own topic, like how he did something different from his PhD supervisor’s research. But the program’s head didn’t say I can do that in the beginning, so I spent time wandering from topic to topic of different researchers. However, I think even if I really work on my own topic without a supervisor during these months, if I don’t make a publication, and if no researcher in the faculty can understand what I do, how can they judge if I have made scientific progress?

I recently made another attempt of getting a supervisor by approaching a researcher in General Relativity and Astrophysics, the department closest to my MSc research. While my MSc research is about spinor formulations of general relativity, his research is about the application of General Relativity to Astrophysics. He introduced me a project as an extension of one of his papers, and since when he did this, it’s about one week away from the time the director said to kick me out of the doctoral school if the program’s head didn’t say I can stay, he said I have to prove my skills to be able to conduct that research project in one week to talk about collaboration with him. During the first week, I could not think very well due to being sick - I think I was infected a cold in the hostel I stayed - then in the second week I sent him a note showing a result he wants me to show, but he didn’t reply me and when I visited his office next day, I didn't see him. I don’t know what he thinks about what I sent to him and whether he would talk about collaboration with me.

Nevertheless, can they kick me out of the doctoral school because I cannot find a researcher who is willing to sign to be my supervisor after resigning from the original irrational supervisor? Actually I feel I am a victim of being placed under such an irrational supervisor - I have some posttraumatic symptoms after being exposed to his extreme negative criticism - but now it's like they think it's all my mistake and want to kick me out of the doctoral school.

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    Im so sorry for your experience. I think you need to change PhD program
    – looktook
    Nov 9, 2021 at 9:29
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    @looktook I also have the suspicion. Even before I arrived, they had threatened me to kick me out of the Doctoral School if I didn't arrive by certain dates. But it's their Covid-19 travel restriction which forbad me to arrive in early March 2021, when I originally had booked a flight to arrive. I was so worried then, not knowing if I should apply for other PhD programs because I didn't know if and when they would let me arrive. I took the risk by assuming they would soon let me arrive by taking their online courses in my home country, but after I arrived, I still encountered the threat. Nov 9, 2021 at 14:18
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    "What is a vector? What is a tensor?" I'm no professional academic, but I would think that in a presentation to my colleagues in the same field, I wouldn't need to define terms that they could be reasonably expected to know. Heck, I don't do physics math in my field. I still know what a vector is, thanks to my undergraduate physics and linear algebra classes.
    – moonman239
    Nov 9, 2021 at 22:35
  • @moonman239 When he let his student show me an example of the kind of presentation he expects. he didn't ask him any basic questions of this kind. I think if he treats him and me equally, he should ask him what is a group theory (since he gave a presentation about discrete groups) - a theory everybody in our fields knows. I complaint to him about his unequal treatment, then he said it's his way of checking knowledge which I have no choice but to accept. He also talked to his student gently during his presentation while he always talked to me in a tyrannical or scornful tone in my presentation. Nov 9, 2021 at 23:13
  • @SaharaTrekker I see, in that case RUN, however you are immigrant in foreign country, I think it will be really hard.
    – looktook
    Nov 10, 2021 at 10:34

3 Answers 3


The key points about the timeline of your story that I gather are

  • You have 4 years to complete your PhD.
  • You are currently a little more than one year into your PhD.
  • You have not had an advisor for 9 months (February until now, November). During that time, you've had multiple conversations with top people at the school that you need to make progress toward your degree.
  • You started working with a professor a few weeks ago, who gave you one week to complete a task. You finished the task in two weeks.
  • You are now urgently waiting for the professor's response because of the school's deadline to find an advisor is approximately now.

I think you are indeed in serious danger of being asked to leave the program. It sounds like you have been told you were in danger, the steps you needed to take were explained, and through a combination of being very rigid on what you want to work on and not being decisive enough to commit to the opportunities you found, you have not completed those steps.

If you want to resolve the situation, based on what you wrote I think the best chance you have is to make it work with the new GR and Astrophysics advisor. But, professors are busy and you took extra time with the task assigned, without communicating in advance that there might be an issue. So, they may not be inclined to respond immediately. I would wait at least a week before sending a reminder email, otherwise it will come across like you are bugging them. If you need the professor to talk to the head of the school on your behalf, you can try sending them a polite, short email asking if they would be willing to do this for you. If this works, then longer term, talk to them about what their expectations are for progress, and consider being flexible to work on projects in their area of expertise.

However, I just want to be realistic, there is a chance that the situation has already passed the point of no return. The school indeed can ask you to leave if they aren't satisfied you are making progress toward your degree.

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    I am not very rigid on what I want to work on. Though in the beginning, I did hope to work on something closely related to my MSc research or the project I proposed to that original supervisor, later I have opened my mind to accept other topics and explored some new topics some researchers introduced to me. I just thought if I cannot work on some fascinating topic, I can just work on a topic which interests me though not fascinating me, like working for a job, and leaving working on fascinating topics in the future or my free time. But I just haven't found a supervisor for that. Nov 9, 2021 at 18:02
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    @SaharaTrekker That's good to hear. I think if things can work out with the GR and Astrophysics advisor, that sounds like a very good option. Unfortunately budgets are tight, there are more students than positions, the pandemic has made everything more complicated... so there are definitely factors outside of your control that can make finding a new advisor very difficult. Just be prepared in case things do not go the way you are hoping, because it seems like it is a possibility and you have to look out for yourself. But, I hope things do work out.
    – Andrew
    Nov 9, 2021 at 18:17
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    This is not the first researcher who works with me. Another researcher introduced me a very interesting project about topological matter in August, He acted like he can be my supervisor, including clarifying my related questions, referring me to related papers, encouraging me to take his related course. He also said if that project is too complicated for me, he will think another for me. But he kept not replying my email if he will supervise me until 2 months - the longest pending - after I first met him, when I emailed him for the same question - he seems not to feel safe to be my supervisor. Nov 9, 2021 at 18:32
  • Before the researcher I first met in August, I also worked with another researcher in June. He asked me what topics I am the most interested in and introduced me his paper the most related to them. He suggested me to read it and said given him some days he would think a project related to it for me. But several days later, I couldn't reach him. And after I found him some weeks later, he has taken a new student and have totally 4 students, thus feeling not having sufficient time to supervise me. Besides the two researchers I spent the longest time, there are still others. Nov 9, 2021 at 18:46

A professor to supervise a student's research project is the most important relationship in a doctoral program. I don't see a feasible way forward without one. The whole point oh a PhD is to receive training in research; minus an advisor, a student isn't receiving training in anything.

Different programs are likely to handle this situation a bit differently, but I think it would be treating the student most honestly and fairly to ask them to withdraw if there is no suitable supervisor. It's almost certainly not possible to graduate without a supervisor. PhD transfers are rare, but some interim relationship might be possible with the goal of having the student move to another institution.

From a student's perspective, I'd recommend reconsidering how specific their research interests are to see whether they could indeed pursue a slightly different direction under an available supervisor.

  • The whole point oh a PhD is to receive training in research; minus an advisor, a student isn't receiving training in anything → I would not be that categorical. My main supervisor was fantastic and we had an extraordinary relationship but the training he gave me was minimal. He helped enormously navigating the muddy waters of academia (as I put it elsewhere) but I learned much more by talking to people, reading good papers, and having the time to think.
    – WoJ
    Nov 11, 2021 at 8:36

Can one be kicked out of Doctoral School because of not being able to find a supervisor?

This depends on the rules of the school / university and the university law of the country. Since they have (apparently multiple times) actively threatened to dismiss you I think you should operate under the assumption that, yes, they have the option to dismiss you. If, and under what specific circumstances, they are willing to act on this option is anyone's guess, of course. Some schools are quick to dismiss students, others basically never do it. That said, if kicking out students is a somewhat common practice at your school, then "not finding an alternative supervisor after a conflict with your original supervisor" seems like as good a reason for dismissal as any other. I doubt that the school has an obligation to arrange a replacement for you, and if you can't find a supervisor then dismissal from the program is the only real alternative course of action I can think of.

However, the other question is whether there is even much point with you continuing this PhD program in the first place. You already lost 1/4 of your research time and it looks like nobody in the department is willing or able to work with you on the kind of research you are interested in. Maybe you would be better served using your remaining time in this doctoral program to looking for alternatives (in industry or in a different PhD school)?

  • The problem is that there is not sufficient time to do so many things at the same time. I spent the whole last semester focusing on taking multiple courses to get adequate ECTS to continue besides studying research topics of multiple researchers. If I know they would kick me out now, I should have spent time applying for other PhD programs in this country or other countries instead of taking these courses and studying the topics of those researchers I approached for supervision. It really takes time to get admission to a PhD program. Nov 9, 2021 at 13:56
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    @SaharaTrekker I completely believe you. I have just made the experience that we all tend to spend too much time and energy trying to fix problems that cannot be fixed, for no other reason than because we have already spent so much time and energy on this problem before (see also: sunk cost fallacy). Sometimes things aren't going our way and it's better to look forward than to continue beating a dead horse (I know it's easy enough for me to say, but much harder to do!).
    – xLeitix
    Nov 9, 2021 at 15:33

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