I am a PhD student in the social sciences and I already have a first advisor.

A few years ago, eyeing the possibility of a PhD, I had informally asked a professor of mine if she would be possibly interested/have the capacity to be my advisor. I had already worked with her and liked the collaboration very much. She is very competent on the data analysis techniques I will use, knows my specific subfield really well, and has a good network. She has invited me twice to discuss my project ideas informally in her team meetings with her other PhD and postdocs, despite me not being an official member of the team. All in all, she has been really encouraging and supportive.

However, she has some ongoing conflicts with different members of the department (I do not know exactly why, who initiated them, etc.). I am not sure about the relationship between her and my first advisor. For sure, the first thing I will do is talk with my first advisor about it. I would like to avoid any forms of conflict in my committee. Also, the techniques she is an expert on might have a relatively minor/subordinate role in the whole architecture of the dissertation.

In case my first advisor expresses preferences for other professors, how should I deal with turning down her offer to supervise my work? Have I behaved unethically by expressing interest, profiting from her feedback, and now having to retract, and if yes, how can I make up for it?

I would especially like to further the collaboration in the future, even if it is not in the form of advisor-PhD student role. I am thinking about telling her that my first advisors suggested other co-advisors and that the project will use, for the most part, a different methodology, so other advisors might be a better fit. I am also thinking of asking her if we can further collaborate and suggest co-authoring a paper about that specific subsection of the PhD dissertation. However, I will also have to ask my first advisor if she agrees to that.

Do you have any thoughts on how to approach this situation and how to best communicate with this professor?

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    Aug 26, 2022 at 16:30

2 Answers 2


You seem to know her fairly well; enough for a serious conversation. I suggest that you initiate one with her, first, rather than your formal advisor. Some departments can be very political with several factions. I'm guessing that you suspect that but don't have details. She will know about that better than you.

Tell her you have a current advisor and would also enjoy working with her as well. Ask if there are any issues around that concept that you might not be aware of. She will probably give you enough information, though not in detail to guide you now. If she suggests that it would be a bad idea, don't press it, but you can say you hope for a future opportunity to work with her.

You can also mention the other faculty members suggested by your formal advisor.

There is nothing wrong with any of that.

I suspect that she has a pretty good idea about how a formal relationship would work out.

You may wind up suggesting her participation to your current advisor or not, depending on what you learn. But don't get caught up in squabbles, whether rational or not, that might be surging around the department. Nothing good will come of it.

Also, if your advisor was assigned to you and you aren't happy with the choice, don't be shy about requesting a change. You don't hint at that, but it happens. Failure to speak up for yourself can set you back years.

I was a student in a very political department. There were people that wouldn't talk to other people or work with them. It mostly didn't affect students but there was a lot of sniping.

Note: "Political" just means factions. It needn't be about "politics" as in elections. Some of it can be racist and such.


It is fairly common that students change advisors or switch groups. For the professor running the group this is often not good news, since they might have invested time and resources on the students. However, professors are supposed to be adults and accept decisions of others that they do not like. You have not even yet established a formal relationship with your professor, so she is expected to be fine with your decision of not having her supervise your thesis.

It is fairly common for graduate students to collaborate with professors that are not their supervisors, though of course if this collaboration is to the detriment of their thesis then the advisor is supposed to intervene. Thus, some collaboration with her would be acceptable in academia.

Usually, professors should not "steal" other professor's student, meaning actively pursue them in order to leave a group or an advisor. As a student you can prevent the impression of stealing by being more open with your advisor and potential collaborators.

Finally, she might not be interested in working with you if you do not look for her as an advisor, since she might be spending a lot of effort on you without getting much back in return.

Overall, exploring opportunities for having someone as an advisor and trying out the relationship does not oblige you for the future. It would be nice if you can get up the courage to talk to her directly and thank her for what she did for you. You can ask her then directly what are the possibilities for a smaller project together, if that is what you desire. In principle, graduate students are to be protected by conflicts among the faculty, but this rule is not often kept.

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