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I graduated last year with a Master’s degree in history at a top institution in my field and received a very good grade for my dissertation.

Unfortunately, my relationship with my advisor was not very good. He is known to have a particular personality but in the beginning, he was very nice to me and willing to supervise me although he was not a specialist in my field (he chose a co-supervisor from a different university and told me he would have no issue to supervise such a topic). However, as time pass, he became less and less supportive and told me negative things. It culminated at the end of the year telling me I should not waste 5 to 6 years of my life doing a PhD. After that meeting, I started becoming really depressed despite my +3.9 GPA. I didn’t talk about this incident with someone else because I was afraid of the consequences. He also told me that since he was not a specialist of my topic, he couldn’t pursue with me in PhD (while he told me no problem for my MA) and that supposedly, my field of research would not interest my university for a scholarship.

However, in my university, it is hard to switch advisor between MA and PhD. So I sent him a few emails (4 in 3 months) at the beginning of the academic year to ask him if we could met in person to discuss different PhD topics ideas despite what he told me. He responded and told me to send him my ideas, but never agreed to meet me in person while he supervised me for two years. I changed my research ideas frequently because he told me the research I love the most would not be of interest for the department.

I thus though he was really not interested in supervising me anymore since he didn’t want to meet me in person. So I went to my co-supervisor to explain her what happened. She told me she agreed to continue supervising me with another person she knows at my home institution but I should first make sure my first advisor was not interested in me anymore. She told me to write an email saying I understood he was not interested anymore and that I wanted to let him know I would contact his colleague if I don’t get an answer before the holidays.

So I sent him an email, copy my co-supervisor. And then, he copy / pasted part of my emails with my different choices of topics to show how confuse I am. He was very annoyed and even sent the email with a delivery receipt. I responded to this email saying I was sorry if i hurt him, it was not meant to, I just wanted to get a quick answer to contact someone else (I gave the other professor’s name) if he was not interested. Then, he responded with my co-supervisor in copy telling me that I needed to take a few years off and come back with my own 10 pages research proposal that he could read.

I really don’t know what to do in this situation. I applied to a PhD abroad but my personal circumstances changed and it would be much better for me to stay in my home country. My co-supervisor wrote a recommendation letter for the PhD abroad but since I am not sure to accept the position if I get in, I am afraid she would not take it well (she doesn't know the colleague personally, but she is in the same field). I also gave my advisor the name of the Professor I wanted to contact so I am afraid he told him bad things about me.

Do you think that my former-advisor could destroy my will to do a PhD at my home institution? (He is on the committee to attribute the scholarship).

Do you think someone else would be afraid to take me as a PhD student now?

Do you think my co-supervisor will not be willing to take me as a PhD student again if I decline the offer abroad for which she recommended me or to recommend me for another program?


Update: I reached out to my former MA advisor to ask him if he had other colleagues to recommend me for PhD supervision (I got sick these last months) and he responded to me, copy my co-advisor and copy the head of my department saying he told me multiple times to do that by myself (which is not true) and wishing me "the best". I did not respond since I don't want to create new issues with him. Should I do something though? Why did he puts in copy the head of department?

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  • To answer this question, we would need to know about the specifics of the personalities and political situation in your department. As such, it is not a good fit for this website.
    – Arno
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 12:14
  • Thank you for your answer, I imagine it is difficult to answer such questions. But do you think my former advisor behavior was professional? Is copy / pasting emails and refusing to see a former student who seeks advice common in academia?
    – Cnp
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 12:46
  • I don't know your situation, I think if you near to finish your master, finish without changing advisor. And have a confidential talk with authorities, and tell them your concerns. Then if he will not give a letter you can carry this problem to the student office etc. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 22:53
  • Welcome to Academia.SE. You may want to edit your question -- a good rule of thumb is that your question should be such that someone else might have the same question in future. We can't really give personalized advice when we only have your account of what happened. Also, there is not much point in looking back and deciding whether your advisor acted improperly; better to look only toward the future and your remaining options.
    – cag51
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 5:43

2 Answers 2

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There are two aspects here that you need to deal with. The first is your mental state and I suggest that you talk to a professional counsellor about it. You are being treated unfairly and might need help to recognize and deal with that.

Secondly is the larger(?) issue of your future. Your best option is probably at a different university, whether in your home country or elsewhere. Spend some effort on the external/abroad option to try to see what is possible to overcome the issue holding you back.

But if all else fails, work with the co-supervisor and others so that you can avoid the one treating you badly. Let other professors who support you speak for you to administration if necessary. A faculty member undermining a student in emails to others is unethical. I smell some jealousy, actually, from what you write.


Personal note: I had a somewhat similar experience at a younger age. Based on a standardized test in secondary school, I was told that I probably had the ability to succeed in a two year (junior) college, but would likely be frustrated (a failure) if I tried to reach higher. I was pretty angry about that, and later earned a PhD in mathematics. I hope they don't tell kids things like that anymore.

There is no reason for you to accept, or even consider, statements that you aren't able or worthy to succeed. Get mad. Prosper.

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  • Thank you a lot for your answer. You really understood well my situation. Some friends also told me that my advisor was probably jealous. My issue here is that my co-supervisor is not that nice with me because I am working in the same field than her and she doesn't want a new competitor to enter it. She accepted to recommend me for the PhD abroad because it's not exactly in the same field of my master's. I would like to continue working on the topics I love the most, either in my home country or abroad but my two advisors are really powerful and have connections. I don't know what to do.
    – Cnp
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 14:42
  • If you get a degree in a somewhat related topic to the one you most want to study, then there will be a lot of opportunity later to return to it. Think long term. You may need to compromise somewhat to get there. But only somewhat.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 14:58
  • You are right. It is better to pursue in a related field rather than not pursuing in research at all. Thank you a lot for your advice, it is really helpful.
    – Cnp
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 15:04
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From your description, it seems clear to me that your former supervisor is not interested in supervising you for a PhD candidature at this stage of your development and does not think you are ready for this. Indeed, he has explicitly told you that he thinks you should take a few years outside before pursuing this. He might be right or wrong about this advice, but you should give it due thought and decide whether you want to pursue a PhD candidature at this time or do some other work for a few years first. There are plenty of people who work outside the universities for a while and then come back to do a PhD candidature later, so there is nothing wrong with going down this route.

Assuming you decide to keep pursuing an offer of PhD candidature now, I recommend you take a broader approach and apply to other universities and other sets of supervisors within your own university. You say that your Masters degree came with a good grade and was from a top institution, so that should stand you in good stead for applications to other universities. Moreover, you can now proceed with discussing a candidature with this other co-supervisor, since your former supervisor is clearly not interested.

As to the interpersonal issues you raise, don't stress about these --- they are the types of peccadilloes and miscommunications that happen sporadically in professional work. You don't need read receipts for these kinds of matters and some people take these badly, so I'd avoid these in future unless you have good reason to use them. I see no reason that your supervisor would try to destroy your attempts at candidature, nor any reason that other academics would be afraid to supervise you. Your supervisor might not give you a strong recommendation if he thinks you are unready for a PhD candidature, but he should still be able to comment on your work in your Masters program, where you evidently did well.

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  • Thank you for your answer, it is very helpful too. Yes my PhD advisor is clearly not interested and I do not think it would be a good thing for me to work with someone who treats me like that. Concerning his supposed attempt to destroy a future candidacy, as I wrote, he has a very particular personality (some people know about it, but I also know that he is very different in public and in private), that is why I am concerned and now, there is written proofs of a "clash" between me and him (even though I was just asking for advice and telling him I would contact an other professor).
    – Cnp
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 10:10

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