31

My advisor has become increasingly toxic since the beginning of the pandemic. He makes belittling comments about my competence over small things like typos, shuts down my ideas as "bullshit" (and sometimes comes up with the same ideas "himself" a day later). Frequently skips our scheduled meetings, yet refuses to give comments/feedback on manuscript drafts unless we go through them together. He has been blaming the lack of productivity on my unwillingness to work weekends/late evenings (while he never comes in to work before noon) or on not being "proactive" and competent enough.

Some of my friends have encouraged me to go to the department. Our department seems to have an ok culture, and I feel like if I were to go to the grad chair with my concerns and incidents that I have documented, the department would want to help. However, I am close to graduating, so do not want to switch advisors, so I am not sure the department can do more than give him a mild slap on the hand and tell him to be a better advisor. I'm also terrified of him finding out this way that one of the students has complained about him, I can imagine things getting much worse for us after that. But I wanted to post this in case I'm missing something and there are ways for the department to help us out? My goals would be for my advisor to have more reasonable turnaround times so that I can publish my work faster and graduate and get out, or for the department to allow me to graduate without completing all of the projects in my proposal.

7
  • 12
    Sure, I'm not unsympathetic to the pressures that many profs are under, but I think 1) it is unprofessional to take personal issues or professional 'fires' out on students rather than taking time off or going to therapy. If you had a student who behaved like this to you or to other students, would you still be as sympathetic? and 2) this is directly affecting my graduation timeline and my career and personal goals. I have tried to work towards a constructive solution with him, but this is breaking down, so I am looking at other options.
    – anon_de
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 20:08
  • 17
    @VitaminE: I can't help it but become somewhat sarcastic after reading your comment. This site is full of advice to numerous PhD students that bad phases during a PhD are common, that they need to focus on their work, that they should work hard, that they need to learn to behave professionally... But when a PhD advisor goes rogue, we should simply be empathic about the "fires" they might or might not be fighting all night? Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 21:04
  • 3
    @JochenGlueck there is always two sides to the story. I have students who have not made any progress for many years nor made any effort to help themselves. I have put out fires and had hoped that another 'fire' has been put out but to my horror it has not. This becomes critical when there are other stackholders, e.g., industry partners, on a project or a student is at risk of not graduating. My point is -- understand the cause of the supervisor's behavior and then maybe the student can solve it. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 21:21
  • 5
    @VitaminE: personal issues can excuse some missed meetings or lack of productivity (if the supervisor owns up to the problems this causes their students). Personal issues absolutely do not excuse toxic behaviour, belittling/abusing others, and taking credit for their ideas. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 17:17
  • 1
    @GregMartin Did I say anything about excusing the said behaviors? All I said was that both sides have issues. There are many ways in which these issues manifest themselves. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 21:02

4 Answers 4

18

Given that you are close to graduation, and provided the supervisor isn't standing in your way, your best solution is probably just to struggle through it and ignore the negatives. Assume it is their problem, not yours, as long as your path remains open.

But, the worst case would be for you to complain and the administration to consider it a serious breach and fire the person, leaving you without an advisor.

I agree with the comment that the advisor seems to be under some pressure that they don't know how to deal with and lash out at everything. Try to separate your mental state from that.

At your state of completion, don't try to take responsibility for the woes of the other students. Prioritize finishing.

While the advisors supervisors (head, dean) can advise and discipline the person, it isn't likely to benefit you. They might actually need counseling, but that is not your call.

Another option, open to some students, is to have a chat with another (very) trusted faculty member who might offer advice and/or try to deal with the issue without you being involved. Another faculty member can talk to the head or the dean about issues of concern, where it is more risky for a student.


Let me also warn against making a complaint soon after you finish your degree. While it may seem satisfying, it can come back to haunt you. In your early career job search, especially in academia, you may need the support of your advisor, whether for postdoc or regular positions.

4
  • 3
    Thank you for your measured response, My plan is indeed to just finish and put this behind me and in the mean time focus on my own progress and mental health. But I admit at times the lashing out does get to me, and it becomes tempting to do something.
    – anon_de
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 20:53
  • 1
    A talk with another trusted faculty member may also reveal the reason that the supervisor feels under fire. Maybe they are coming up for tenure, maybe they are going through a divorce, who knows. But for the vast majority of possible reasons their is nothing you can do about so this would be more for your own curiosity.
    – quarague
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 6:53
  • 1
    Besides a "trusted faculty member" some universities also have a dedicated Ombudsperson who can be helpful in situations like this. They also can do similar things as the trusted faculty member.
    – blues
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 12:21
  • 4
    My experience was that letters from the PI specifically rapidly became less important as you moved away from academia. A postdoc? Sure. National Lab? Probably. A company in your immediate field? Maybe--but someone on your committee could fill in. A data science job? They don't care AT ALL.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 15:24
5

Do you have any co-supervisors? If so, it may be beneficial for you to start relying more on them for support if you're not getting it from your main supervisor. Direct more of your queries to them, meet up with them if you can't get hold of your main supervisor. If your main supervisor complains, frame your response as sympathetic to their situation. Say something like "I know you are very busy at the moment, so I thought it would help you if I worked out this problem/got feedback on this report with co-supervisor X instead." This puts them in a situation where they're going to sound very ungrateful if they chastise you for trying to help them, so either they have to accept the situation and delegate more control to a co-supervisor, or improve their relationship with you.

3

I experienced a similar situation and here are my hints on how to prepare the ground for an explicit confrontation:

  • Look around for a possible new supervisor. Implicitly. "Dear professor XYZ, I am about to finish my thesis soon and would appreciate your high-level feedback. Would you mind spending one hour with me?" This conversation can help you to get oriented more objectively - where you are right, where your supervisor is right. It might also increase your courage in any possible direction. You will see to what extent the person is willing to help you and if you can trust him/her. You can be more open then and say: "Would you be able to finish supervising my thesis if the situation gets wrong?" This offer might be more attractive to them than you would expect. Yes, it might be a bit risky, but still. They can claim they have supervised one more Ph.D. and it will cost them weeks, not years.

  • Collect evidence about the improper behavior of your supervisor. What are the dates of missed meetings? What are the examples of arrogant communication? Turn the communication with your current supervisor into a written form as much as possible. Be factual and assertive. Use open questions if relevant like: "How can I finish my thesis without having your feedback on Chapter 3?"

One more hint: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B014DUR7L2/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89iQAAxBBaQ .

1

I was in a very similar situation. My advice is to take it on the chin and finish. In a couple semesters this will be behind you. You will never have to speak to this guy again.

Understand this: from the perspective of your department, your professor is an asset. You are a liability. There is no 'slap on the wrist' for him. There is a 'he cant work well with others' FOR YOU. Now, of course your department might be filled with bigger character integrities than mine (I certainly hope this is true), but the black and white is that you are an invited guest and the department is one meeting away from conspiring to get you out the door with not even a 'good luck' to show for it. He is valuable. You are not.

Everyone wants a PhD until its time to PhD. Take a big whiff. This is what it takes. God bless you, sir. You are not alone.

Edit: Here is what you should do. Approach a third party within your discipline. Do not mention you're having problems with your advisor. This third party should be a relatively established respected member of the department. Say something along the lines of, "Please join our regular group meeting as I am approaching graduation and I would greatly appreciate extra eyes and feedback on my work". A group dynamic should help reduced the toxicity. It is imperative they join as an extra observer. Do not mention any personal problems. Do not take no for an answer. Do not attend one on one meetings with your supervisor.

2
  • 4
    This answer is definitely not helpful; indeed, it's a similar type of belittling that the OP reports from their advisor. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 17:19
  • 2
    @GregMartin go ahead and bring your personal problems to the department and see how that turns out for you! I am not the one responsible for creating economic inventive for departments to disavow students whose lives theyve single handedly destroyed. Its exactly your posture that allows this totally inexcusable behavior to have reached epidemic levels of damage in the usa. The department has economic incentive to completely absolve themselves of responsibility. Talk to them if you dont like it. My advice is sound. Make every conversation a group conversation.
    – user198461
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 18:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .