I am an undergraduate student who has been conducting research with a professor for the past year. Unfortunately, I have been feeling defeated lately because the professor I am working with is extremely callous and patronizing. Every time I interact with them, I walk away feeling like the dumbest person alive. Although we initially got along for a couple of months, things changed after I made a minor mistake. Since then, this professor has been really hard on me. They even threatened to write me a negative recommendation letter for grad school as a result of my mistake. Whenever I ask them questions, they respond in a condescending manner, as if I should already know the answer.

To put it simply, it feels like the professor has thrown me into deep water and refuses to help me stay afloat. I am really tired of being treated this way. Even though I am trying my best to do well, things are starting to feel really heavy. I dread interacting with this professor and sometimes feel like quitting. I don't know why I am writing this, but I guess I am asking for suggestions on how to proceed. Should I confront the professor in a mature manner? Should I tell another professor or someone in a position of power at the school? I am at a loss.


2 Answers 2


wish I could just quit

Can't you? Be very wary of the sunk cost fallacy here. I reckon that eg trying to get a good recommendation letter and some research experience out of this project is ultimately going to be fruitless and a harrowing experience. There are great mentors around, try to find one!

As far as formal complaints are concerned, in most cases you wouldn't be the beneficiary even if things go well (but rather, future generations). An exception is if this is an obligatory research project, and a complaint might lead to you being assigned a different mentor. To see whether this is worthwhile, look into your department's stance on bullying, hostile environments etc. Unless they are very proactive on this issues, a complaint is probably not going to get you anywhere (after all, she is "just" mean).

  • Thank you for the response. I really appreciate it Mar 24, 2023 at 6:17
  1. You have a right to file a formal complaint. To this end, you should document several cases which, in your opinion, reflect her arrogant or unfair attitude.

Before filing, certainly make sure to discuss this issue with your mentor or/and with an ombudsperson at your university.

However, always mind the old rule: pick your battles. Often, it is easier to simply disengage from dealing with an abusive person, and to cut all the ties. I understand that you have invested a lot of time and effort into this collaboration, and it may be difficult to interrupt it. But on the other hand, your health and your psychological condition are more important than your achievements. Your academic or professional success is only second to your health -- please keep that in mind. Always.

  1. I am aware of a situation where a student filed a complaint about a professor simply because the professor was exceptionally tough and demanding in regard to research. His standards and requirements were extraordinarily high. On that occasion, my sympathies were with the professor.

Your situation, however, looks different. If she becomes, as you describe, frustrated when you ask her questions, and if she responds to you as if you should have already known the answer -- then this is a bulletproof indication of her not being qualified to supervise undergrads, no matter how good a scientist she may be.

  1. I cannot help from recalling a wonderful quote from Khalil Gibran:

"I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers."

At the earliest stage of your scientific career, you got an opportunity to discover that in academia, as anywhere, there are people of all sorts. This lesson is bitter but valuable, because it has prepared you for meeting and dealing with (and, when possible, avoiding) such characters in your future life.

This said, try to disengage from that person, if your circumstances permit you to do so, or if you feel that this is damaging to your psychological wellbeing. Put your health first.

  • 1
    Thank you so much for this. It means the world to me. Mar 24, 2023 at 1:54
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    @Elizabeth_555 May I reiterate this: put your health first, success second. I know what I am talking about. For my degree, I paid with my health. It was a bad deal. Mar 24, 2023 at 1:56

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