I am at the very end of my PhD, and my PhD advisor has been repeatedly inappropriate and overstepped boundaries that would probably fall into "mandated reporter" territory, if I were to tell anyone. I do not say this lightly, but I literally feel traumatized by the majority of my PhD experience. I also worry my professor might be mentally or medically suffering, and they might need serious help. tldr; I am confused about whether I should tell anyone at my university about my advisor's behavior or just walk away, as soon as I can graduate.

tw: Substance abuse and sexual harassment (?)

While intoxicated, my professor told me in detail about their sexual history (including detailed description of specific sex acts), while I was at a work event with them, which has made me incredibly uncomfortable (I tried to change the subject and then walked away). It was completely unsolicited and off-topic. I really hope they don't remember telling me these things, but I feel very disturbed. It didn't seem like they were propositioning me, but more of uninhibited exhibitionism.

My advisor also pressures people in the lab to drink at lab events (while they themselves get intoxicated: entire bottles of wine or several bottles of beer/hard liquor) and to do unsafe things ("don't wear a seat-belt" while on group trips, insisting on driving after several drinks, and telling us we have to tell white lies to cover for them when they break university policy). I have tried to change the lab culture around this, by always bringing and offering non-alcoholic drinks and other distractions.

My advisor has also pressured us (PhD students/postdocs) to stay overnight at their house or share a hotel room with them at conferences, for various reasons. I sincerely don't think they have gone so far as to ever assault anyone, but I am the only student of theirs that has not staid overnight at their house, which I feel caused a social divide and stigma towards me. It is super awkward, at best, to share sleeping arrangements with a drunk advisor (sometimes, they are an angry drunk).

There have been other major behaviors that would be too identifying to describe, but they are very abnormal, threatening, controlling, and/or point to mental instability or some kind of illness that seriously impairs judgement. I have experienced extreme stress in response to these cycles of instability, and it has taken a toll on my mental and physical health.

My plan has always been to graduate as fast as I can, try to have the "best" relationship I possibly can with my advisor, move on, and forget all of this. I feel ashamed, because I wish I listened to my gut and switched labs, the first time my advisor used threatening language towards me and/or behaved in ways that made me feel very uncomfortable, years ago. I have a next job lined up, and I'm just waiting for my advisor to give any final edits on my complete thesis and sign-off. This last part has been a huge struggle and has been dragging on for a very long time. The thesis is in good shape (it is "ready to submit to journals" according to my committee), but it still needs to be published as several separate manuscripts (which requires extended collaboration with my advisor).

I am worried if I talk to someone at my university about these concerns, it will be career ending for me (I will not be able to get a letter for any future fellowship or job applications from my PhD advisor, which will "raise a red flag," and my papers will be in jeopardy). My advisor has tenure, so I don't know if it would even have any proactive or mediating outcome.

I recently learned, however, that another student has also been experiencing extremely similar verbal/emotional abuse as I have, and I am especially wondering if I should say something to someone. This other student is extremely emotionally distressed and worried about their professional and financial future. I also feel worried about the several more junior students in the lab that I will leave behind.

Does anyone have any advice/experience in such a situation?

  • Who should I talk to, if anyone: Should I talk to an ombudsman? Should I talk to my department head, but only share a selection of these issues (leaving out things that could fall into mandated reporter territory, ie sex and otherwise; things I didn't write about here, but are worse)? Or should I tell someone everything? I tried talking to my thesis committee, but they stopped me and told me there were mandated reporters (so I decided not to proceed in asking for their advice).
  • When should I talk to someone? After the ink dries on my graduation papers? After my publications are accepted? After I get my first non-trainee job offer? What should I do if their behavior gets worse in the meantime?
  • Is there any way my career can recover, if I am transparent about my experiences to someone who is a mandated reporter? I am not so naive to think "reporting" my concerns would actually change anything or make my situation better: it would be throwing myself under the bus, to potentially generate awareness or encourage this advisor to get help, if I'm lucky.
  • What special care can/should I take, if I worry this behavior might be driven by substance abuse or some other untreated medical issue?

Thank you to anyone who read all the way through, this hot mess. I really appreciate it.

  • 13
    What country are you in? Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 16:15
  • How much do you trust your department to “take care” of the current advisees if this advisor needs to be put on leave for a time?
    – Dawn
    Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 16:50
  • 1
    Also, have you connected with lab members (especially the person who is struggling) about their preferences for your actions?
    – Dawn
    Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 16:51
  • Let me ask another question. What would you feel if you don’t report it and the behaviour continues and becomes worse with other/new students? Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 19:30
  • Thanks for the comments. The other student who is struggling has more to lose than me (their immigration status & future job uncertainty) and less of a social safety net than me (financially), so while they are beside themself with the abuse, they feel like they have to put on a smile and keep a low profile. I wouldn't drag them into this more than they wanted. To answer the other question, no I don't really trust my department to handle this at all or support the other students. There aren't other PIs in the department that could easily advise these students without changing topics. Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 13:55

4 Answers 4


Most universities have an anonymous tip line. Use that and let someone else come to you to ask questions. This way, you're not the one who tipped the university off (i.e., nobody will know that you did), only the one who answered questions in the same way as hopefully some of your colleagues will. Be specific and detailed in your initial, anonymous report to make sure the university cannot just dismiss it as "he said she said".

You are probably right that there is a price you will pay, if only that your adviser can no longer write letters of recommendation if they are removed from their position. You can mitigate this by making your report only after you have found a different position. On the other hand, you gain peace of mind that the next generation of students does not have to go through what you have gone through.

  • 3
    Actually, I've never heard of an anonymous tip line for a university, but agree that an anonymous message is appropriate in this situation.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 18:10
  • 2
    @Buffy Every respectable university has ways to report things anonymously. If you're concerned about someone's wellbeing, here's the website at my university (note no name of reporter is required): cm.maxient.com/… For the case in question, the Title IX page is better suited: cm.maxient.com/… Again, no name required. Both of these pages are run through a service external to our university, presumably to provide for better anonymity. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 20:01
  • Regardless of where you report, if the description is serious enough, one can probably presume that the report will eventually be forwarded to the right person. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 20:03
  • I really appreciate this suggestion (and all suggestions) but even if I were to report this anonymously, there are only a finite number of people in the lab, and I'm sure my advisor would deduce that it was me (the person who is graduating & has a job lined up elsewhere, compared the more junior students who need to stick around, or the other graduating student who still needs to find a job). Thank you though Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 13:47
  • @throwaway_4obviousreasons Maybe. An anonymous report provides you with plausible deniability. In the end, however twisted that is, there is no good way for you to report the issue without paying some kind of price, for example by not getting letters of recommendation. That can be addressed if you talk to your adviser in your next job about the issue, and they can mention why you don't have a letter from your old adviser in their own letters. Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 15:40

Short term concern:

I will not be able to get a letter for any future fellowship or job applications from my PhD advisor, which will "raise a red flag,"

you stated as well that

I have a next job lined up

So who cares about the reference letter from your advisor.

Let's build a worst-case scenario. You do nothing, no one does nothing. You get your reference letters, you build your career, your advisor keep on behaving then 10 years down the road someone reports your advisor and you are then put in the spotlight "look, he/she was referenced by them and he/she build a career" ... good luck with pushing your me too connections then to save your face.

Ok, back to reality, you are a lab PhD under immense pressure (even with the best advisor, because productivity increased 5000 times in the past 50 years, in research as well, but PhDs are still pushed to perform the same breakthrough science like if they were the lucky 0.01% of the population, while now they are the 1% and growing).

Unfortunately many labs groups have a "collegial" style, and this plus the practical attitude required to "get s**t done" make people forgetting they are humans and behave like animals, because if the time of the people has to be dictated by the machinery/lab equipment, they will start as well behaving like machines and not like humans.

Ok, enough with philosophy.

If you do not know to whom you should address your concerns, you are already in trouble: it means the institution is not pro-active in preventing such behaviours, so whatever you will do, it will almost for sure retort against you. You mention "university policy", is there an anonymous way of reporting? Since your advisor is tenured, they will not go full power against him, but after they collect enough anonymous reports, they will start doing something (something ultra mild, like writing them "please adhere to the rules" ... but that is not your duty, although it is something you can escalate)

You should speak with the students representatives, without specifically naming the advisor, but being transparent about their acts, or you can speak with the department head, asking to have a private chat. Then you can speak with the head, mentioning your advisor had some erratically behavior that made you very uncomfortable. However, you do not need to be precise on the behavior, at first. But you can open the discussion. The remarks I can leave are

  • yes, you have to do something for the next students;
  • yes you may professionally suffer in the process (you already suffered a lot at the private level, this is just a small drop, not suffering at the professional level or even benefitting from your advisor at the professional will not make up for the personal suffering you had, unless you are ready to have personal disorders in the medium-long term...)
  • no, things will not change in the short term, so you have to best assess your way out from this group, consider that you should not have any relations with them after your graduation.

In short, you have to decide how much more personal pain you are ready to accept to benefit professionaly from this relation. Professionally speaking, having a PhD in STEM is a sure thing to get a job. Without your advisor support you will not get the profesorship at Cornell, but if the single reference letter from your advisor is so important, it means you do not have so good contacts so you will not become the next big shot (sorry being blunt).

Good luck, you have all my sympathy and probably the sympathy of many people in the lab, although you feel the stigma ... animals move in herds.

  • Thank you for taking the time to answer this. I appreciate the frankness (and humor at times) of your answer. Part of my anxiety with speaking up is that I had previously hoped to go for a tenure track job in academia. I am very fortunate that my CV is very strong & I have others that can write strong letters for me, but I realize it will be a red mark to not have a letter from my PhD PI. Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 13:50
  • @throwaway_4obviousreasons Not having a reference letter from your PhD advisor is much less of a red mark than you think. But, be read to justify its absence during the interview (if you feel the need or if brought up). How? however you prefer, from the neutral "I could not reach my advisor, they are getting drunk at a conference and workshop for the previous and next 2 weeks" (which is not far from reality) to the defensive "I feel my advisor tried to cross the boundary with me, from a professional to a personal level, I am not sure they can give an objective ref"(not sure, it's tricky)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 15:37
  • 1
    It is not uncommon for problems on this scale to be known in the discipline. People remember when you get drunk too often on conferences, especially if you behave inappropriately.if that is the case than you don't need to explain anything. Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 17:57

You have lots of options here, so you will just have to figure out which option is best for you. Also, in relation to potential career damage, it is primarily your advisor who is in danger of serious career damage, not you. From what you have described it sounds like your supervisor has a problem with alcohol and has bad judgment in relation to some social matters (especially while inebriated). Your best course of action depends on a number of factors relating to your view of your supervisor and your preferred approach.

Option 1: Report the problems to the university

One option here is to report these problems to the university and let the university work things out using its usual disciplinary policies. Since there are multiple students witnessing these behaviours it should be possible to establish those behaviours with evidence, and this is likely to lead to some kind of requirements being imposed on this academic. The consequences will depend on the university and their approach; it might lead to termination, or it might lead to some lesser response like a period of detoxification and some requirements for reforms in his work behaviour. In any case, once you report the issues and provide relevant statements, the university will do the rest.

If you were to take this approach, it might negatively affect your ability to get a letter of recommendation from your supervisor (or it might not, depending on his attitude). Even if this were to occur, it is likely that the university could provide you with some reasonable alternative, such as a letter of recommendation from another academic or the Dean of the Department. (For example, the Dean might supply you with a form letter stating that your supervisor was removed for disciplinary reasons and this has led you to be unable to get a letter of recommendation from that supervisor through no fault of your own.) The university will feel some responsibility here since it has placed you under the supervision of someone who is not behaving himself, so it should not be difficult to get something that can act as a reasonable substitute for a letter of recommendation.

As to any other possible career damage to you, I think that is unlikely. If you can get some alternative to a letter of recommendation from your supervisor (e.g., a letter from the Dean) then this ought to function perfectly adequately.

(Also, I'm not sure there is any such thing as a "mandated reporter" for sexual harassment unless you are a minor. Sexual harassment against other adults is something that can be reported, but I'm not aware of anyone having an onus to report on behalf of another adult.)

Option 2: Write your advisor a letter

It sounds like you still sympathise with your advisor despite the problems you've described. It also sounds like you want to do something, but don't like the idea of reporting the behaviour to the university. In view of that, one option you have is to wait until you've graduated your program and then write your advisor a personal letter setting out your thoughts on the problems you've raised.

To maximise the chances of this being received in a postive spirit, you could frame this as a thank-you letter where you thank him for his work supervising you and set out both the good and bad points relating to his supervision. When you get to the bad points, raise the problems you are concerned about and tell him that these detracted from the quality of supervision and made you uncomfortable. You should note that you have observed that he appears to have problems with alcohol and you think this has caused him to display some bad judgment in some cases. You might also mention that you had considered reporting these issues to the university, but you have decided to just talk to him about it instead.

I may be naive, and I can't really say how a person would react to this type of feedback, but I would think that there is a pretty good chance that a supervisor hearing about these problems would be pretty embarrassed and want to reform their behaviour (and probably also cut down on the drinking). You mentioned that your supervisor asks students to cover for him with the university, so he's aware that he's doing the wrong thing. He might be labouring under the illusion that his behaviours are okay with the students, and your letter could break that illusion.

Option 3: Do nothing

You are at the end of your PhD program now and you have obviously already put up with this behaviour for a substantial amount of time. Therefore one reasonable option you have is just to finish out your program and go on with your career elsewhere, without ever resolving things with your supervisor. This has the advantage of being an easy course-of-action, but it also has the disadvantage that it doesn't fix anything for other students who come in to be supervised by this supervisor later on.

  • 1
    Thank you for laying this all out and taking the time to write this out. It is indeed a very hard decision to make. Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 13:48
  • 1
    If you decide to act on this, I'm sure the forum would be interested in an update on what you did and how it worked out (preserving relevant anonymity).
    – Ben
    Commented Nov 29, 2022 at 2:27

Im in a similar situation and talked to the responsible person, after years of gathering courage/self gaslighting. The name of the person u have to talk is „ombudsperson“. I created an alias and wont gibe information unless the uni does something, also because he would guess it was me. You got this.

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