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I've been in this lab for a year (one year Master's finished and three years to go in PhD in marine ecology) and I thought my PI was great (chill, kind and supportive) despite forgetting absolutely everything, never meeting our deadlines, etc., frequently leaving super early or not showing up for days and almost never being seen in the lab. I'm fine with this but deep down I became convinced that he doesn't care about his job or science that much, sorry. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that by accident he knows that.

A few days before Christmas I'm still coming in and he wanted to have a meeting earlier than usual, I said I might be late because I'd moved back home 2hr drive away. I came in 20 minutes late in the end and very apologetic but he seemed happy with me. I told him that I'm leaving super early to pick up my grandparents who live ages away to drive them home for Christmas, I had to finish an experiment and show him the results but he offered to do that tomorrow afternoon instead. So I left early as I said. A few hours later he sent a nasty angry email that he came back from lunch and I didn't see me in the lab and I was also late that day and I didn't communicate (?), I was also late some other time before this, therefore I have an attitude and the conclusion was that although he is ok with me, no one else would ever tolerate that.

It's very rare if I'm ever late and recently I worked nights and weekends for a month to finish two months' worth of work which had to be done before Christmas and I thought he's meant to be happy with my progress. And I literally emailed and told him about both being late and leaving early, he didn't say anything against that. So this email really shocked me (it didn't sound like him at all) and I expected an apologetic email that he had a hard day, etc. but no. I showed up the next day and he's all happy with me again pretending that nothing happened. At one point I tried to explain something, he suddenly interrupted me with "see- you're just not communicating!"

I don't know how to interpret this but I don't like how he seems to bottle up little grudges and then spill them out in a mean email just before the holidays so that he won't have to deal with me for a few weeks. I know I'm socially inept but I try my best and mean well, his own communication and manners were never exemplar and this projection just scares me. Has anyone gone through this? And how would you respond to such an email?

It is technically possible to change advisors but I've heard it's complicated and my funder may not approve. I'd prefer to avoid that, I feel as if it's fixable I just want to approach this correctly.

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    To people thinking of adding a comment: there are a lot of answers here already. If your comment is for improvement or suggestions for the question that's okay but if you want to write a partial answer please don't, find the answers that you agree with and upvote the ones you find useful.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 23, 2023 at 13:48

9 Answers 9

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You've written that you don't want to switch supervisors, so I will add some advice on "fixing" things, but I want to highlight some things that sounded alarm bells first. In your description, your PI is:

forgetting absolutely everything, never meeting our deadlines etc, frequently leaving super early or not showing up for days [..] I became convinced that he doesn't care about his job or science that much

This does not sound like someone for whom you have professional and scientific respect. Are the pros of working with this specific person outweighing the cons? Moreover,

he sent a nasty angry email [..] therefore I have an attitude and the conclusion was that although he is ok with me, no one else would ever tolerate that.

(bolding mine) This does not sound like appropriate treatment. Even in the hypothetical parallel universe where you flubbed up and didn't communicate your absence properly, this gesture of putting you down while praising themselves for putting up with you(?) is uncalled for.

his own communication and manners were never exemplar and this projection just scares me.

This does not bode well for the next three years. The holidays are approaching, maybe your PI is under a lot of stress- sure, fair enough. But there are going to be plenty of stressful moments in the next few years. When planning to move forward, assume that your supervisor will respond disproportionately to minor issues whenever they are under pressure. It might still be worth it for you to keep working with them; I can't answer that for you. But don't assume that you can fundamentally change their behaviour and working patterns.


Alright, assuming you decide to stay, what can you do?

  • Improve your communication skills

You labeled yourself as "socially inept": if that was referring to something along the lines of neurodivergence, your university might have support services that you can access. They might also have trained people (perhaps more along mental health lines) who you can talk to about how to respond to "nasty email(s)". Does your university offer Soft Skills courses on personal development? Perhaps they've got one on conflict resolution.

  • Optimise communication channels

I don't work in your field, but the experimentalists I do know in mine often have some kind of shared calendar or scheduling system for labs. If your supervisor receives a lot of emails (most do), there might be a better way to arrange this information sharing. In a more calm moment (after the holidays), ask your supervisor explicitly about how they want to be communicated with: emails? messages? meetings, how often?

  • Boundaries

You can't "fix" this particular incident, or your supervisor's general attitudes. In general, you're also not going to win arguments with people about their behavioural patterns- you're going to have to deal with issues when they come up, in a consistent way. What you can practice is to decide for yourself what you will let slide (probably this email) and what crosses a line for you personally. Similar things apply to working late/weekends. Plan ahead how you're going to respond, and then (most importantly) go through with it. E.g. if they make a comment about how only they can tolerate you, have a prepared response like "That was a really hurtful thing to say, please don't speak to me like that." Because at this point the conversation is no longer about professional feedback: it's an insult. Sometimes people overstep in the heat of the moment: this gives them a chance to back down. If you asking to be spoken to in a respectful manner results in more rage? Time for an ombudsperson.

  • Document everything, and sincerely consider talking to an ombudsperson

Keep all the emails; if there's a verbal incident, write it down. If your university offers some form of mediation, that's also something to look into.

tl;dr You can't fundamentally fix anything, but you can be proactive in improving communication, getting support from your university and pushing back whenever your PI behaves inappropriately.

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    I think this answer is helpful at general workplace too. Especially, having a prepared sentence ready in repeat adverse situations - meaning having a mental framework to fall back when it emotion runs high and it is difficult to think logically. Dec 23, 2023 at 23:38
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Consider, at least, that this is a person under a lot of stress, perhaps for things you have no way of knowing about. You might be able to speak, informally, with someone else who might be able to confirm that.

A mental health issue might be another possibility, say, an inability to juggle a lot of short term memory items (not a diagnosis, just making uninformed guesses). But, a department head or other faculty member might help you understand.

My suggestion for action, however, is to let it slide off for a while later to see if it is a short term issue or something more serious. You can't put it off forever, though.

Also consider, perhaps, that the more important question is whether you are on track to graduation or if this is negatively affecting your chances, not just making you feel bad. In that case, you may need to find a different path.

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    In theory your answer sounds great, but when I think back about my own PhD, one of the main reasons it went so terribly bad is because I let things slide too long before realising my supervisor did in fact not have a "short term issue".
    – Stef
    Dec 22, 2023 at 12:08
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    I think ''letting things slide'' is not the way forward in this situation. I tried this before and the problem just got worse until I actually did something about it and reported my supervisor to someone higher up who was in charge of well-being of PhD students. You can let these things go a few times but then you do have to actually do something about it.
    – Tom
    Dec 23, 2023 at 16:03
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    The answer is good and could be improved by including suggestion to document everything. This is almost obvious, and other answers have that, too, but it would make it more self-contained. Dec 24, 2023 at 17:53
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    @Tom that is a valid concern - I know a student who tolerated an unstable and useless supervisor for the first few months of PhD until he decided to change his supervisor, the first thing his review panel said was "why didn't you tell anyone earlier?" (but they were supportive and he did move to a different lab). Perhaps it pays off to have a casual chat with a member of the review panel, at least to make them aware but hopefully to get good advice, especially if they were on the panel of the previous student(s) from your lab and know your supervisor from other student's perspective. Dec 27, 2023 at 13:01
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You are shocked. And rightly so.

We know only your side of the story. And I think you are honest and clear about what you do. There starts to be a gap between what you do and how it is perceived by your supervisor. In fact (and rightly so), you have some doubt about your own ("I know I'm socially inept but I try my best and mean well") ... which is right and fine, for a normal human being.

The other side of the story is not known, and unfortunately it does not need to be known. There is what you do, what your supervisor does, how you perceive what you do and how you perceive what your supervior does ... and there is what your supervisor perceives about what you do (not enough, never) and how they perceive what they do (they are the bright star that were negated the luck of getting professorship at Imperial, but they still managed to get a position at UoA because of their brightness).

Unfortunately, there is a literature on bad human traits that facilitate success (success to be considered as = reaching apical positions) in various contexts, either industry or academia (see here for a non-peer reviewed start on narcisism and ego being a proxy for success).

You see the behavior of your PI and then you think they are flexible and easy going. Your observations are right, your assumptions are wrong.

Do not expect that they perceive you as a good worker ... how could they: they are not so often in the lab! In fact the one time you are not there, they were there and they got angry at you.

Do not expect that they have the same standards for students/PhDs/coworkers as they have for themselves, quite on the contrary!

They rarely show up, they are late at meeting, they are hands off ... but they expect you to work as a slave in the lab.

Nothing new, there was even a question here in Academia:SE that I cannot find about a similar advisor in the UK (maybe they are the same person? you hope so ... I am pessimistic and I recognize this as a common albeit not dominant trait in the academic-succesful people. And that other question was about engineering something).

Unfortunately, there is no way to make them realize how profoundly bad is this way of thinking, holding other people to a much different standard than themselves (in short: narcisisim). Only a sudden health problem, or a big scandal at the university may make them reconsider their behavior. And you are just a PhD, you have no leverage to make them change their attitude.

The good apsect of the whole story is that this random act of expressing latent grudges and conflicts tell you one (big) thing, i.e. how really is your supervisor. Forget about the chill, kind and supportive face, they are the narcisistic person that for a stupid things spit out such a malignant email. Be glad that you did not yet discover the unempathic peer that goes hand in hand with a narcisistic person.Can you imagine if you had a "bigger" problem (think it big, post-natal depression, cancer, loss of relevant family member) and you had to face such a mail? Exactly, at least now you know you likely cannot count on them to be supportive when you are really in rough seas.

In short and to survive the situation: ignore the tone of their emails and communications, focus on what you do, find a collaboration in another university/research centre, colaborate with other academics in your dept/uni (other as "other personalities" ... they are less likely to be on the same page of your supervisor, even the well-knonw grumpy person may be a better person ... at least they are coherent) and ... re-assess your situation in 1-2 years.

Final note: please remember that abandoning a PhD is no stain on your CV, you will learn and you already learned a ton of things and how to perform research. Additionally, if you finish a PhD you have a marginally high chance of getting an academic position (let's say %5) vs a 0%. And academia on its own counts for less than 10% of the open, relevant working positions in the world. So if everything goes south and you are forced to completely abandon your PhD because contingent boundary conditions ... it may look like the end of the world, but it is not a big deal. Not even if your goal is to become a succesful (empathic and different from your supervisor) academic.

Good luck!

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    If this is a case of narcissism, doing the nasty stuff by email is likely to be a deliberate choice: keep the target sweet by being nice in person where nothing's recorded, while building a paper trail of nasty emails for when you need to show someone else how incompetent the target is. Dec 22, 2023 at 9:18
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Reading your post is very concerning. Based on what you've said I am concerned for you and your supervisor. Others have provided some very good advice. I'd like to add that you should bring this to the attention of someone within your institution. At my institution (Australia) we have various levels of potions with different degrees of responsibility regarding Higher Research Degree programs and the candidates within them. These include Research Degree Coordinators, Prof. Leads in Research Education, Deans of Research, Exec Deans. These people can be invaluable in helping sort out such matters. Ultimately, you should have institutional support services in place and my advice is to access them. I sincerely wish you all the best.

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Hang in there and wait until a bit later to broach this

Based on what you've written, my guess would be that your supervisor is dealing with some exogenous source of stress/grief that has led to a mood change. These things happen from time to time when dealing with colleagues in professional settings. In particular, when a person lashes out in some way but then is sweet-as-pie the next time you see them, and acts like nothing happened, that is a fairly strong sign of exogenous circumstances that are causing them stress.

What you've described here is one bad experience in an otherwise good candidature (albeit a short one so far). Consequently, my advice would be to hang in there for now and see if you can restore your previous good dynamic with this supervisor. Try to jump through the hoops he sets you and show that you are committed and compliant with his instructions. Don't worry too much about his email for now --- if he was acting happy with you the next day, and pretending like it didn't happen, that is a sign that he probably thinks he overreacted but does not wish to apologise or discuss the matter further. Later on, when calm is restored and all parties are feeling better, you might then decide you want to broach the topic and tell your supervisor that you were surprised by his email and see if he is willing to discuss and resolve what happened.

You might be right that your supervisor is the type of person who bottles up little grudges and then explodes when they reach some critical magnitude. Alternatively, he could just be a man dealing with some source of exogenous stress/grief that you are not aware of. In either case, you can make a holistic assessment of who good he has been to work with over the course of your candidature and use this to decide if you want to continue to work with him or seek an alternative supervisor.

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    Or it may be a personality issue. Or the supervisor may make accumulative mistakes themselves which then spill over and lead them to project on the OP. Somehow, the scenario feels like that latter one. Dec 24, 2023 at 17:55
  • Thank you very much for your answer. My first thought was exactly as you described - that he's going through some tough times with his family etc. But if that were true he'd normally mention that he's been particularly stressed and apologise afterwards. Lashing out due to stress and deciding not to apologise afterwards is pretty dire communication and attitude on his side, and on top of that he says that I'm the one who refuses to communicate which is not true. I don't want to know about his personal issues but the problem is that if he cared he would have handled this in a more mature way. Dec 27, 2023 at 16:36
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Focus on finding solutions and improving communication moving forward.


Set Boundaries

Clearly communicate your availability and workload. Discuss expectations for communication and deadlines collaboratively. If needed, propose specific communication methods like scheduled meetings or progress reports.

Consider Resources

Seek support from trusted colleagues, mentors, or academic advisors. Utilize campus resources like student counseling or ombuds offices for confidential guidance. Explore avenues for switching PIs if the situation remains untenable.

Document Interactions

Maintain a record of key communications and agreements with your PI for future reference.


Remember, you deserve a supportive and respectful work environment. Don't hesitate to advocate for yourself and seek solutions, while acknowledging the possibility of miscommunication.

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No guarantees that this applies, but it may be helpful.
About 16 years ago I got a 'dream' design and consulting job as a result of winning a design competition. I designed electronics in NZ, communicated with US client and Canadian industrial experts in Canada and factory in China and went to China numerous time for factory visits, visiting suppliers etc.

I 1st met the client in person on my first China factory visit. Prior to that he had been affable and delighted at my proposals. By midday on the first day I felt like going back to NZ. I wasn't going to, but ... . It rapidly got better from then on.

Over the next + years I became used to a very familiar pattern. We usually got on very well. But: The client would switch between 3 modes:

  • Normal bright enthusiastic intelligent push-his-product business man. Happy with my performance and designs.
  • Super hyper enthused we can do anything, the sky's the limit, go go go ... Ecstatically happy with my performance and designs.
  • Deep depressive despair, the people we are about to meet are going to steal my ideas, why did you do that, you are not working as you should, why are you going to Xian (like he said I should 8 hours before, as he said I'd done all that he wanted and there was no need to stay.), get back and talk to the factory ..., the design changes I approved yesterday cost too much and I'm scrapping them. ... . Throw in suicidal in the last mode.

A real roller coaster. Very interesting. Lots of fun. I NEVER knew what the next session was going to bring.

A psychiatrist friend said it sounded like "short cycle manic depressive" See Bipolar Disorder. He noted that dealing with such people was diabolical :-).

He was a nice guy, usually. I liked him. I wish for his sake that he wasn't as he was.

Your man does not sound exactly the same BUT there may be enough similarities to be useful. Or not.

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If this is a single or a very rare occurence, just move on.

We are pretty much short on ideal persons to work with (others are forced to work with us, so it is somewhat fair, isn't it?). People do have bad days (or weeks, or months, unfortunately).

They may have failed to receive or read your email or they may be just feeling bad for unrelated reasons.

It is a thing when a person consistently fails to control their mood-induced behavior. This is pretty much a show-stopper.

But for a single occurence in an otherwise productive cooperation - come on, allow them to be a human.

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I have exactly same story!

Its very pity that "serious" people behave like that, like offended and trying to get rid of you. Unfortunately, sometimes we are covered with just bad people. Thus, no reason to spend time on them. I recommend these solution:

  • find another advisor
  • find third-party solution officially staying with current
  • work solo

Bonus tip: always use official communication channels (like university email) with archiving all messages. Never speak about late/early but write and then just mention during meetings. This helps in conflicts and really cools down harassment level from your super.

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