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I am in the 5th year of my Ph.D. studies. My Ph.D. supervisor always likes to mentally and verbally abuse me and some of our group members. This time, I really could not take it anymore and I want to share my story here.

I started my Ph.D. program with a slow start and only published my first paper in the 4th year. Got many unlucky rejections and now I have one paper almost finished and one in submission.

I was asked by my supervisor, several times during my 3rd and 4th years in the program, to quit. It was very personal. But I sucked it up and remained in the lab because I am an international student and could not afford to quit after that much effort was put into the program.

I was hoping to graduate this year but something really bothersome happened. During one meeting with him this semester, he questioned my progress and asked me tricky questions like he usually does. I learned over time to keep silent otherwise we will exchange arguments without meaningful discussion. He then told me to my face "Why do you look like a retard?" I was totally stunned and didn't know how to respond. This kind of personal attack is not something new but calling me a retard was a first. I really cannot let it go this time.

I would like to seek some advice. Should I report this to the department? What should I do since I just can't let it go? I feel very bad after this incident.

Background: I am in a good US university with a good CS department.

Update: I graduated and now work in industry!

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  • 36
    Recommend checking our archives, there are many "abusive advisor" questions here, such as this one and this one.
    – cag51
    Apr 11, 2023 at 19:58
  • 5
    Do your supervisor's colleagues know about his behaviour? How do they feel about it?
    – David
    Apr 12, 2023 at 10:01
  • 7
    Does this answer your question? How to deal with an abusive advisor?
    – user438383
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:32
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes.
    – cag51
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:36
  • 1
    How far are you from defending your PhD? The end of the 5th year would be the normal time for that (in the places that I know). If you are finishing this year, do you have any job offers? If not, would you be able to stay for another year? Apr 12, 2023 at 22:59

13 Answers 13

95

Your supervisor has a problem, seriously. He shouldn't be doing this. Don't internalize it. It isn't you, it is him.

Do what you need to do to finish. After you finish and find a position is the time to make a complaint. Making one now will only slow you down.

If there are other faculty that you do trust, you could seek advice from them. It is good to have a faculty advocate in such situations.

Good luck.

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32

I get PhDs are a helluva process, and achievement, so potentially derailing one is a bear of a choice to confront. But I have a question for all these people advising OP to stick their head in the sand and stomach this level of abuse from someone who is supposed to be in a mentor position.... What exactly makes any of you think this person will act fairly when it comes time to review OPs work and assign them their PhD? They could be putting up with this garbage for their work to amount to literally nothing. And what will they have to show for it? Oh yeah, learning how to roll over and say "hit me again Ike, and this time put some stank on it." That is seriously y'all's advice eh? Wow ... Just wow.... Milksops is all I gotta say about that.

OP it is ultimately up to you. However universities usually have a plethora of avenues for resolution. Talk to your student advisor (which you should have already btw), talk to other faculty, talk to the faculty supervisor, hell talk to the dean! Bring all the other students that have had this person disparage them with no provocation. Look up former students and see if they have had similar experiences. Point out to anyone in the higher ups (I forget how the command structure works at proper unis, but make stinks on desks of people that shouldn't have to deal with this. Don't be afraid to jump rungs on the ladder if the one you're at isn't listening) the money, time, and resources wasted, not to mention the mental and emotional stresses experienced by the students exposed to that treatment, will not benefit the universities image should the story of a professor (er whatever that supervisor is) calling their students "retard" get too much traction publicly. I imagine there's a handful of benefactors that would not like to hear what's going on at the school they are dumping money into.

Sure, if you want to wait to drop the bomb, that is entirely your call. In this day and age it's not unusual for young people to avoid the prospect of rocking the boat. But remember, the only thing needed for evil to flourish is for good to do nothing. If there is one thing we need to fear above the tyranny of evil men, it is the indifference of good men. Whatever you do, do not stay silent. Do it tomorrow, do it after you (hopefully) secure your PhD, just do it! To do nothing is being complacent with the abusive nature of this person. Being complacent is endorsing treating others that way. It will directly lead to others also being abused, disparaged, made to feel like lesser beings which no one deserves especially at a university particularly by a member of the faculty.

I understand if you are stressed, I understand if you are afraid of confrontation, I understand if you just want it to go away. All of those feelings are entirely natural, everyone who has ever needed to stand up to mistreatment has felt those feelings and more. But ignoring this behavior before is what lead to you to being treated this way. Embrace the disappointment, dissatisfaction, and anger towards those who fostered this absolute wretch of a human and allowed them to continue verbally attacking students, turn it into motivation to save future students from such treatment at the hands of someone who is supposed to be fostering and inspiring the next generation of educated individuals needed in the world.

You will be afraid, you will be scared, you will feel small and a loss of worth and unimportant. Most importantly.....you WILL be doing the right thing. Never loose sight of that. You're not alone. There are people who will help (try reddit, both the academia, and legal advice subs). You only need to seek them out.

My final bit of advice is to always keep this in your mind: no matter which avenue you choose, You CAN do this. And I believe in you. Now, go carpe that diem BY THE THROAT!!!

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    This is an international student. Their visa will probably depend on them staying on the programme and finishing. Their supervisor will know this. Unless they have an ally among faculty they might be on the first flight back when the shit hits the fan. Apr 12, 2023 at 15:54
  • 1
    A visceral response at last.
    – Trunk
    Apr 12, 2023 at 19:11
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    I would say that the other advice is coming from some considered game theory. Fighting back openly comes with some chance of vindication and is likely the best outcome for other students, but comes at a huge risk to OP. This sort of thing comes up a lot, where targets of abuse or sexual assault are blamed for not "doing enough" to confront their abuser: it's not really fair to the victims/survivors because there is great personal risk in doing so, and they haven't volunteered to be martyrs.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 12, 2023 at 19:12
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    On an abstract level, this is the ethically and morally correct course of action. However, it requires great strength from the victim. If the victim has that strength then great! But we should never just assume that anyone has unlimited pools of strength available to them. And in particular, victims of things they didn't choose being strong should never be the final solution to anything. Apr 13, 2023 at 13:36
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    I removed one "aside" that was not relevant to the answer (and likely violates our CoC). To be clear: this is not a suggestion, this is a moderation action that should not be reverted. If you have concerns, please post on Academia Meta (rather than this comment chain).
    – cag51
    Apr 14, 2023 at 0:08
32

Don't do anything.

Finishing your Ph.D. is more important than reporting your supervisor's behavior.

Just finish your Ph.D. and get the heck out of that university and never come back.

Even though I am writing it very easily, I am also wondering what I would have done in such a case! I feel extremely lucky that I have a very polite and cooperative supervisor.


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Would you really give this same advice to someone with an abusive spouse, parent, or manager? --- It really depends. In the case of a spouse, I would suggest getting a divorce and that won't affect anyone's career. In the case of parents, leave home and that won't affect someone's livelihood either. Dealing with an abusive manager and an abusive Ph.D. advisor is almost similar - the career is affected. So, yeah, it depends.

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    This is honestly the reason why I didn't pursue a career in academia and I'm glad i didn't. I just can't fathom how a slight plagiarism accusation can ruin your career forever even if it was unintentional at the time but it's apparently ok to mentally abuse students because "it's too risky to report him, better to just ignore it". I'm not saying any of those things should be acceptable, it just seems to me that there is a big mentality of "It's ok to sacrifice your mental health" and "the end justifies the means, professors shouldn't ever be confronted" that's really off-putting sometimes...
    – John Doe
    Apr 12, 2023 at 9:52
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    The same things happen in private industry no less than in academia. It's just considered noteworthy when academics do it because society still holds onto stereotypes of the ivory tower sage. Getting on the wrong side of a supervisor or making a minor mistake can destroy your career in private (and public) industry just the same. "It's too risky to report the C#O/director/manager/HR/supervisor, better to just ignore it".
    – Nij
    Apr 12, 2023 at 11:19
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    @Nij I rarely, if ever, see someone say to just ignore an abusive manager in industry. Reporting someone may be somewhat viable (but still risky) if they don't have too much power in the company (and more so if there's an option of working under a different manager). But the usual recommendation is to find another job. The problem with academia is that you typically can't just find another university, so you may be stuck between a rock and a hard place of accepting abuse or significantly damaging your academic career.
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 12, 2023 at 14:18
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    This is absolutely the most depressing answer. It's abhorrent that this is the culture of academia; be silent, don't take action against your abusers, and perhaps they will let you graduate.
    – academiaTA
    Apr 13, 2023 at 0:18
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    @NotThatGuy Degrees are also usually timeboxed. If you just stick it out for another n years, you'll have your degree and then you'll be free. In industry, why would you stick around? There's no magic milestone you aim to reach before leaving. You're always going to switch companies eventually (unless you're close to retirement) so there's no difference between switching ASAP vs switching in n years. Apr 13, 2023 at 1:33
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I think you should report them to someone higher up or someone who is in charge of the welfare and wellbeing of PhD students (or someone in HR if necessary). Universities have recently started to realise that wellbeing of students is important so if you make it known to someone that you are not happy, they will probably have to do something about it.

The original supervisor on my PhD (who was also Head of Research) was being very rude to me, including in front of other people. I went to the guy who was in charge of well-being of PhD students, I complained that that my supervisor was being rude to me and asked to change supervisor. I know that you are right at the end of the PhD but you should still report him (this is just my opinion). If you don't challenge it, he will continue to do it to other people for his entire career. It's important to make someone else in a position of authority know that this is going on, as they won't know if you don't tell them.

These people deserve to be reported. It doesn't matter that the supervisor didn't like it, I just found alternative references to get to my postdoc. You can use the examiners for your PhD thesis, other collaborators or other people in the department. Why would you want to use them as a reference if they call you a ''retard'' to your face anyway? What do you think their reference letter is going to look like?

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You'd have to check the local laws, but personally I would begin to record conversations regardless. Some places allow recording conversations and phone calls if it is for personal use. In that sense, recording meetings to make sure you catch all the suggestions is plausible deniability.

You don't have to report and share the recordings at any time if you don't want to. But when you're getting it all on tape, you won't be worried about him escalating this abuse. You'll be looking forward to gathering more and more evidence.

Moreover, recordings would give you leverage in worst case scenarios such as him not letting you pass for his personal reasons.

With this approach you can both continue working on your PhD without drawing attention and report it only if he intentionally fails you. You'd be able to show a pattern of behaviour if needed. It would be very silly of him to take his sadistic games to that extent, but he'll only have himself to blame for the consequences.

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    Actually recording might be tricky, but, at the very least, writing a time-stamped contemporaneous account of the incident is a good call. And other incidents going forward. Heck, even recent past incidents that you think you can recall accurately.
    – Dawn
    Apr 12, 2023 at 13:40
  • Very good point, Dawn. I agree recording is tricky (I would add that using a second, old smartphone for this purpose would help, if available), but recording these past incidents in written format is very important too. Not only because we do forget details if only to keep calm, but also it can be a mental release, helping to move on with the goals. And an email one sends to themselves will provide the timestamp needed with little hassle.
    – vspmis
    Apr 13, 2023 at 6:06
6

This isn't the answer you or anyone wants to hear, but I'm offering it has a matter of perspective. Lots of people give up on their PhDs for a wide variety of reasons. Everyone understands how difficult they are. But, there are a lot of companies who would be happy to hire anyone with any kind of CS degree, and sponsor them.

Despite how it feels right now, you've already had amazing academic success. You should be very proud of everything you've already accomplished. The reality is that you may be blocked from getting your PhD, and it might be time to pivot. There's nothing wrong with that.

Regardless of whether you choose to fight for your PhD by plowing forward, or by reporting your supervisor, you should think about backup plans as well. Simply knowing you have other options will likely reduce the stress and pressure, and make your remaining time easier.

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  • @WilliamMartens Thanks!
    – roymo
    Apr 17, 2023 at 1:37
3

Where I am doing my PhD, there's a special spokesperson at the graduate office that is specialized in exactly those things, maybe something smilar exists where you are?

Also, I disagree with people saying push it through, especially if your supervisor has a direct say in your final grade! Then I suggest you definitely speak up before you finish your PhD!

2

Since your supervisor is not supportive of your efforts, find another supervisor ASAP. It's pretty much the only way out if you want to obtain a Ph.D. A supportive, trustful supervisor is a must. In retrospect, I think this is what you should have done long time ago.

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    Finding another advisor in the same department is not easy. Often, professors would rather sacrifice an expendable graduate student than to damage the relationship with a colleague whose existence they will have to endure until they retire. Finding another advisor in another university requires letters of recommendation. Of course, the strongest letter of recommendation would be from the abusive advisor himself. Apr 13, 2023 at 7:21
  • Of course, the strongest letter of recommendation would be from the abusive advisor himself. Unless OP relieves him. In which case the strongest LoR will be that of the new supervisor.
    – Trunk
    Apr 13, 2023 at 12:12
  • @Trunk Finding a new advisor without a strong LoR may be hard. It depends on how many professors one has impressed in the past Apr 13, 2023 at 12:17
  • A new PhD advisor ? Or a postdoc advisor ? if the former, it will be guided (directed really) by the HoD if it happens at all. If the latter, OP will be applying too a whole new university where they don't have to care at all about what either the starting supervisor or the finishing supervisor thinks: they will make up their own mind - they always do anyhow. As for this "relations with colleague". In seeing inter-academic relations across 6 departments I would be more inclined to call it non-relations by comparison with what happens outside academia. Academics are employed by a university.
    – Trunk
    Apr 13, 2023 at 14:49
1

You must finish. You say you have nearly two papers that's good you're ready to finish.

Do not try to leave your institute and do not complain at least for now. You need to show your supervisor you've got what it takes to finish.

Once you have your PhD you are then on the same level as him. In other words you can take on research working on your own or supervise others. Then this is your chance not to be like him towards others and for as long as you work you can make a positive difference to others something your supervisor seems to have lost touch with.

If this bothers you somewhere down the road you can raise this politely but firmly with your PhD complete.

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I think that you need to open up to a medical professional downtown and not to the campus doctors/counsellors as so many of these are useless when it comes to challenging professors or pressurizing parents. Besides the university will likely want to keep a lid on the whole thing as it would be bad for their public image. And counsellors are ever conscious of the fact that they are employees of the university at the end of the day.

For you, this is a mental health matter at this stage. Beforehand it was just a supervisory issue that grew and grew. It's strange this professor didn't simply opt out of supervising you if he sincerely never rated you much. It must be the same old cuteness of these types - he could keep his "reputation" if he provoked you into walking off rather than risk losing it if he unilaterally stopped supervising you.

Talk to people outside the college to find a good local psychologist. Having a few recordings of your supervisor's insulting remarks would be helpful here.

Going to your Head of Department with the support of a local psychologist is a lot better than going alone. Also bring a trusted other person to act as a witness to what the Head says - in case he tries to wriggle out of it later. Be prepared for the Head insisting on your professor being present while you make the complaint and giving him the right of reply. And if the Head starts to talk the issue to death, be ready to leave immediately.

Your PhD is something you worked hard to achieve. It's worth trying to keep it while there is any chance to save it. But it's never worth taking such abuse from a professor - and not least by omission from other PhDs who witness this in group sessions.

You have to be prepared to throw this overpriced "pearl" back into the sea when it threatens the things that really matter in life.

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  • Broadly speaking, the idea of roping in a medical profession downtown is worth exploring. Quick one: Would this 'And if the Head starts to talk the issue to death, be ready to leave immediately', means leave the meeting immediately or leave the PhD immediately. OP is at the tail end and an international student. Apr 13, 2023 at 13:09
  • Leaving the meeting, of course. We're trying to save his 5 years work for him here, aren't we ? Even if the HoD doesn't approve of the insulting professor's actions he will be slow to address the one problem he doesn't want: a subordinate abusing their position. Picture the scene: HoD comfortable on his chair, complainant + witness + med pro standing there . . . I find that people sitting on chairs tend to waffle up solutions that leave them comfortable on their chairs. Any inclination towards this and complainant must depart to escalate the complaint to university management.
    – Trunk
    Apr 13, 2023 at 14:44
  • Broadly speaking, getting mental health support is critical. However, folks familiar with the university are more likely to be familiar with the specific problems faced by the OP. At my PhD institution, dealing with stress caused by advisors was a special expertise of our campus mental health professionals.
    – Dawn
    Apr 13, 2023 at 15:44
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    Mental health professionals don't usually have a role in challenging professors. I cannot imagine under any circumstances a psychologist accompanying a patient to a meeting with their head of department.
    – Dawn
    Apr 13, 2023 at 16:46
  • Mental health professionals fearing that a simple note from them (even with their phone number attached in case of any doubt by the HoD) delivered by the afflicted student to the HoD may be "mislaid" or ignored may well choose to make a brief personal visit. Having the student with them is the simplest way to prevent HoD deniability of their visit and notification. The visit will be perforce brief and to the point. I think speaking of dealing with stress caused by advisors may well get ambiguated to a student not able to cut it academically in the convenience of university administration.
    – Trunk
    Apr 13, 2023 at 20:58
0

Along with the already good advice to finish your Ph.D first and then report them to the campus afterwards, you should find them on a Professor Rating Site and give them a review (Also after you finish your PH.D).

Include details such as how they were rude to other students and how they were rude to you specifically - but do not name yourself or any of the other students who took his class.

It may not help resolve anything for you, but for the especially wary college student it could help them identify a bad professor and avoid taking his courses, which would also mean less power for him in his academic position.

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The highest rated answers say do nothing, suck it up, finish your PhD, and then launch a complaint.

I have to say, I understand that impulse. But really, you should report your professor. His behavior is inexcusable. If he were outside of academia, he would have lost his job by now for creating a hostile work environment for subordinates. Yes, this may slow you down, but your professor is a bully! You really should stand up for yourself. Give him a big middle finger by launching complaints against him with anybody in the university that will listen. Seriously, consider legal action, especially if he retaliates against your complaint in any way shape or form.

You've published a paper, you have two more in the works. You are smart enough. The next time that you speak with your advisor, let him know that you will NOT be treated like this any longer. Tell him that he needs to stop, and then document that this conversation took place. This is for evidentiary reasons. On no uncertain terms, you need to tell him that he is creating a hostile work environment for you and all of the other students in the lab. Stand up to him. Let him know that you are also launching formal complaints into his behavior as well. Say nothing about progress on your thesis, say nothing about progress on anything going on in the lab. This meeting is about putting him on notice that YOU believe that he is violating employment laws. That seems extreme, but what you need to do, following this conversation, is to launch all sorts of complaints. Complain to the department administration, to the university administration, the labor relations board in your state, hell talk to a lawyer and/or threaten a discrimination suit based on your status as a foreigner, that will make the administration sit up and pay attention really quick. Bring down hell on your advisor not advisable for finishing your degree, but you basically need to figuratively give this dude a black eye.

Don't let people like this get away with what they are doing. Because they will do it again and again an again.

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    Repeating my comment on another answer: "I would say that the other advice is coming from some considered game theory. Fighting back openly comes with some chance of vindication and is likely the best outcome for other students, but comes at a huge risk to OP. This sort of thing comes up a lot, where targets of abuse or sexual assault are blamed for not "doing enough" to confront their abuser: it's not really fair to the victims/survivors because there is great personal risk in doing so, and they haven't volunteered to be martyrs."
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 14, 2023 at 19:01
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    It's easy for you on the internet to say "go confront them", because you don't experience any consequences for doing so. On one hand, I totally support someone in OP's position if they go that route. On the other hand, no one else should compel them to do so. Definitely talk to a lawyer before attempting any legal action, but 1) OP may not even be considered an employee by the law, and 2) the legal system is about getting relief, not punishing others. It's necessary to show harm that the legal system recognizes, being called "retard" is not going to get you anything in court.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 14, 2023 at 19:04
  • Somewhat, respectfully disagree. Like I said, I completely understand the impetus to suck it up, and OP certainly could. But really, advisor IS creating a hostile work environment, and odds are that the OP is an employee given recent rulings around graduate students, especially if OP is getting paid as an RA. Any retaliation would not be looked at kindly by the courts. Fear is real, but there is a real cost for doing nothing which should be recognized as well.
    – Ryan
    Apr 14, 2023 at 21:38
  • That being said. I'm certainly not blaming the OP for not doing something. Just saying, that it isn't right to allow someone on the high side of a power differential to continue abusing those on the low side. It isn't right, and the OP does have options. To me it seems like everyone is telling the OP there isn't anything that they can do. They have to ACCEPT being a victim in this situation. That isn't true either. I feel like it is such an insult to the OP who has done nothing wrong, and is obviously very intelligent. OP has options and can fight, if they choose to do so.
    – Ryan
    Apr 14, 2023 at 22:00
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    No, it definitely isn't right, but OP isn't the person in the position to change the system. Can you point to examples of a legal case where a court has ordered an institution to grant a PhD to a student whose advisor did not agree? Certainly it's inappropriate for an advisor to use the language they did, but if they had conveyed the same information as "I do not think your intellectual achievements qualify you for the degree", well, that's the main determining factor by whether a student graduates or not, and that's what they're going to say in court, fair or not.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 14, 2023 at 22:08
-6

I disagree with everyone in here. Don't let that get into your soul and mind. You decide how to react and what to learn form this. There are jerks everywhere, but some jerks are useful. They make you strong!! Pause and think this person has good intentions wanted you to communicate something. Concentrate in the message in the letter not the color of the paper. Have friends, walk with them. Grab a beer. Send love and kisses to your family. Have a great rest and then come back and kick ass!!

Good luck!

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