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I've been experiencing a phenomenon for a couple of months now that I cannot understand. I'm a first year phd student and I'm working on a problem that my advisor has suggested. I've made some progress, but nothing publishable yet. My advisor however says that I shouldn't worry and that I'm making good progress.

There are other students in my peer group with other advisors. Some are in their 2nd year and they are much more successful than me. They have publications, pre-prints, collaborations, they have given many talks etc.

Even though these students are friendly towards me, I have the impression that I'm being considered a "lower class" member of the group by them. I cannot help but notice that when we are discussing about our subject, they are not even looking at me, as if I'm not part of the conversation. Whenever I mention something, I feel like they try to make it clear to me that this is something obvious to them.

I've also noticed that they will very often make negative comments about my advisor (who is a leading expert in our field), they say e.g. that my advisor is extremely strict, that they will keep a grudge against someone if they miss a few seminars, that they are very difficult when it comes to handling funding, or they tell me gossip they've heard about my advisor for petty things that happened many years ago which I don't even know how much truth they contain. I personally have never had a negative experience with my advisor: they have been nothing but kind, understanding and helpful towards me so far, so I don't know what to make of these comments.

I have wondered many times if this behavior towards me is just my impression, since it is only based on minor observations. But still, the outcome of this is that I feel inferior towards these people. I started to doubt my advisor (whom I trust a lot), my potential and even myself because of this situation. I've always believed in myself but lately I find myself comparing to these students and thinking that I will never know as much as they do, progress in my research as they do, get involved in collaborations as they do and give talks as they do. When I first joined this department I felt so motivated and inspired, I felt very confident that such a renowned scientist such as my advisor selected me as their student, but the above situation is affecting my psychology greatly.

Has any of you had any similar experience? Does anyone have any tips or advice in handling such situations?

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    Welcome to Academia.SE! You're in the right place, but our format is strictly Q&A -- can you clarify what the question is?
    – cag51
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 21:23
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    Sorry, but I can't find a "hook" on which to hang an answer. Some places are cliquish, some people don't accept others that are "different" in some way. But your relationship with the advisor is the most important thing.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 21:47
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    If somebody posts an answer saying it's just your imagination, I'll be very disappointed in them. This question may be related academia.stackexchange.com/questions/11765/… Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 21:49
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    I think what you feel is the gang behavior of young adults. Unfortunately it is dominated by alpha-person setting the behavoir for everyone. I have seen such a behavior, and it is very uncomfortable. Yes, so uncomfortable that may become toxic. I have no concrete advise, the other first year student maybe is keeping the safety distance exactly for the impression you have. Ignore them, focus on your work, find a social group outside of these older colleagues. Final (cautionary) note: trust the science of your advisor, not your advisor.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 22:47
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    You say these students are in your “group” but they have other advisors. Do you mean they are others in your PhD program “group” or in your lab “group”?
    – Dawn
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 4:07

4 Answers 4

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This is a difficult situation for anyone; I'm sorry it's happening to you.

First, data is king. You have specific observations about your advisor; if they are good, trust them. Gossip of any kind is not data and it doesn't help anyone. Ever. Period. Furthermore, even if the information were true, people can change over time, so whatever your advisor did 10 years ago (or however long it was) doesn't matter to you now. As far as that stuff goes, try to ignore it the best you can. If you want to stand up for your advisor, you might say something like, "That's not how [he/she] has treated me." However, I think it's best not to start something like that. Focus on work-related topics.

I think it's terrible when students make others feel bad. In most cases, it's because they themselves are insecure. With respect to this situation, I would advise you that it doesn't do you any good to compare yourself to these students who are further along in the program than you. They are taking different classes, working on different problems (likely in different subfields), so it doesn't make any sense to compare their publication records, etc. to yours. It's like comparing apples and smokestacks.

If there are any other first-year students, stick with them. You're likely taking the same courses, the same prelim exams, etc., so if they are friendly, you've found your crowd.

Only you know your heart and only you know your mind. Don't let others make you doubt yourself.

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    Thank you, I needed to hear this.
    – user153196
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 23:46
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    I think when I was an MSc student I spoke to a teacher and said that I knew the answer to a problem on a problem sheet but another student confused me, she said ''Don't let other people confuse you''.
    – Tom
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 18:24
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I'm a scientist, so I think you should believe that your observations about your advisor are the truth, and other people's claims are less reliable.

If your colleagues are engaging in gossiping or stereotyping or rumor spreading, you don't need to address it directly. You're not their supervisor or underling. Instead, lead by example. Behave professionally yourself.

Now, if the behavior worsens and becomes harassment of yourself or others, then you might want to speak to your supervisor, a department chair, an omsbudsperson, or a student union. Who you should contact would depend on who did what and how your university is organized.

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    Thanks for your comments. I guess ignoring this and avoiding this as long as it doesn't become a proper harassment is the best move here.
    – user153196
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 22:07
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There is definitely toxic behaviour there, especially disregarding you and making you feel inferior. They have no right to do that.

However, about the advisor: there are advisors who are very kind to those who are new in a group (kind of grooming), but they become less reliable and kind if they realize that the student is burning out, does not perform always on 120%, not keeping up a good picture of the supervisor, etc. - and they just discard them for the next 'fresh' student whom they support again.

I really hope you are not in this situation (I had been, it was terrible, and I am still in therapy after such a PI). The new students mostly admired him, the leaving/graduating ones were just sitting silently and grumpily, trying to get out ASAP... If that is not the case in your group then great, but look out for such behaviour.

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    When reading the question I was exactly wondering about this scenario. What are the students gaining from bad mouthing the prof? It usually happens when a students throws a blame for their bad progress on their supervisor. I sincerely hope it is not the scenario you are in!
    – tom
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 18:47
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Yes, unfortunately I had this experience.

I think they reached their goal, because you wrote 'they are much more successful than me'. Firstly, don't think like this way.

Of course, nobody has to give you a very friendly working environment, but they don't have any right to make you feel sad, or don't make you think you are in a lower class.

Please, make some prediction about these students. Why are they doing this? E.g., maybe they want to get a postdoc position from the your advisor. Probably, they don't want to have another competitor. I always wonder that if someone is bad, why they are working with him?

Don't let anyone show you as an aggressive person in the group. But, you should talk about everything that hurt you to your advisor, maybe in the lunch time. I did, and now I am very pleasant.

And in my personal experience, I have never seen a successful person who is making someone annoying. Be confident, focus on your studies, never gossip about your advisor, and always stay close to the advisor.

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    I don’t think bringing this to ones advisor is a good idea.
    – Dawn
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 15:25
  • yes, of course it depends, I had a proof in my case.
    – carlos_ser
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 15:30
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    well "talk about everyhing that hurt you to your advisor" may have different meanings, I think one does not need to bring the gossiping to the advisor, but something more nuanced like saying to the advisor "I do not share the camraderie my peer PhDs students share among them, we have different personalities" ... the advisor will understand and will tune the collaboration between OP and the peers. There is even the possibility that the advisor may welcome sending OP for brief periods to other universities abroad, to make up for the missing interactions with peers.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 9:44

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