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I am an EE Ph.D. student at an R1 university in the US.

Over the last six months or so, I have been seeing some passive-aggressive behavior directed toward me. I am usually very patient, and I have learned to often ignore his unpleasantness either by saying to myself that he is under a lot of pressure or by thinking that this is all in my mind.

But lately, it is becoming more apparent that it is certainly directed only at me in the group. Here are some incidents that have reinforced that:

  1. Three students (including me) get papers accepted to a conference. We all put in identical cost estimates for the conference (because we are all presenting over the same days in the same location). He says that the estimates sent by the other two are fine, but to me, he sends an email saying that my estimates are steep.

  2. During a group meeting, one student presents a single plot, the other presents nothing, and I present a detailed presentation of my progress over the last week where I discovered something potentially groundbreaking. My collaborators at another university are visibly excited by these results. I did not include an equation in the slides (because it is a fundamental equation that we refer to all the time and is well known in our group at this point). He points this out, says something snarky about my slides to a professor sitting next to him, and then asks that professor if he was even able to follow my presentation. That person chuckles uncomfortably and says he'd rather not comment. I am not a terrible presenter. Not to brag: but I have won a national debate competition in my undergrad program. I can speak well.

  3. Two students (including me) in my lab have finished enough research for an MS and moved on to new projects. The other one is taking one course this semester. On the other hand, I am taking a class, TAing a graduate course for my advisor, and mentoring two new Ph.D. students in our lab. Yet, he keeps asking me about my progress on my MS thesis but never asks the other student the same.

At this point, even the other students and a postdoc have asked me if I have noticed that my advisor is being unusually harsh with me. My collaborators and mentors mentioned that I am doing a good job. I am also on track to publish multiple papers in high-impact journals and have published two papers over the last six months.

I simply don't understand why this is happening. I am perplexed. Has anyone seen this kind of behavior before? Do you know why this was happening? And what can I do to address this? I have many more years of my Ph.D. left.

Edit: To answer a question posted in the comment section, I must note that as far as I know, nothing official has changed in the last 6 months. More than 6 months ago, I was not producing high-quality research (I had been in the program for barely a year at the time) and I was attributing his passive-aggressiveness to my lack of publishable results. After I started producing good results and high impact work, it started bothering me that I was still being treated needlessly harshly. I will also note that I have mentioned to him about some personal issues due to which I had developed some mental health issues and a bit of a drinking problem. I thanked him for his patience while I dealt with the problem. But now I have begun to think that my mental health issues may have been significantly exacerbated because of how he made me feel like I am worthless. However, thankfully, I have almost completely dealt with my personal issues and I am working efficiently and cheerfully :) (except for one teeny little problem that this question is about haha).

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  • I am sorry that you are in this situation, but it is hard to explain why it has been happening to you as you did not mention what happened before that 6-month period.
    – Neuchâtel
    Sep 25, 2022 at 0:03
  • Thanks for the question! I have amended my question at the end to include some possibly relevant information.
    – Paddy
    Sep 25, 2022 at 2:09
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    I don't know any explanation but I think this is a sign that you should try to get a new advisor, if possible.
    – cgb5436
    Sep 25, 2022 at 2:59

1 Answer 1

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There are two possibilities:

(1) Your view of the world is warped and you are overreacting / misinterpreting.

(2) Your advisor hates you or thinks that you are too difficult to handle.

The truth might be a linear combination of both.

If you can go to another faculty member that knows you well and is frank enough to tell the truth, you might find out in which direction the truth lays. I can think of innocent explanations for the behavior of your advisor and I can also see them as very troublesome. But I know neither you nor your advisor. A therapist might also be helpful, not because you are sick, but because this situation has the potential to get worse. Your university might have some help there. According to your explanation, you are dealing with a very difficult individual or at least a very difficult relationship. Asking a forum is not going to get you the right answer.

I would recommend looking for another advisor. Certainly you now longer trust your advisor and will not be able to take criticism from your advisor. Even if your advisor would suddenly become a saint and behave like one, your advisor will not be able to challenge you constructively.

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