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After my M.Sc, I got involved in working on a project on relativistic astrophysics. The professor was a relatively good name in the field. Initially, he gave me papers, books to read, problems to solve, and programs to write. In theoretical relativistic astrophysics, even to start any work, students have to learn a lot of math, general relativity, and hydrodynamics beyond M.Sc.

However, when it came to start working on the actual problem, he started to deter that. His mother died and he took a leave of one month and told me to wait. After returning he started avoiding me for no reason, telling me to meet then ditching at the last moment. By that time I lost one year, and now it was clear that he wasn't interested in me anymore. I wanted to do PhD applications and asked for his recommendations at least. Even though he initially agreed but didn't give any or even reply to my emails/calls anymore. I had worked so hard and learned most of the things on my own from different books without much help from him, always did all assignments provided by him before time, and even helped him with insights with his research works which were very novel (he published some of it with his name and other students).

I lost so much time and was so depressed about this. How should I address this in my graduate school applications? I need to account for the time somehow.

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  • 53
    I see disinterest and negligence, but no bullying here. Jan 19 at 18:16
  • 26
    @manupaul that is indeed bad attitude, fro negligence to malice, but not bullying. Using the right words it's important in this context, as otherwise you just sound like an angry student and not a victim. Jan 20 at 18:02
  • 4
    Based on the description in the post, it doesn't seem like bullying. It seems like a very sad unfortunate situation. Clearly you were affected by it, it sucks for you too, and for him. Sorry it happened to you.
    – neuronet
    Jan 21 at 16:25
  • 7
    The way it impacted you mentally can be discussed with your therapist. In academic applications, don't mention it; state the facts if asked.
    – Therac
    Jan 22 at 0:24
  • 2
    To be clear, I think everyone here is very sorry that you experienced what was certainly bad behavior by this professor, and everyone can agree that it has left you in a bad spot. It might feel like people are minimizing your experience, but I don't think that's what they intend. There's some quibbling over word choice and advice to keep it to yourself. I think that's out of concern for how things will work out moving forward, and not intended to diminish your negative experiences. While I agree with most of them, I just want to say I'm sorry this happened to you, and I hope things get better.
    – Mike
    Jan 24 at 3:58

5 Answers 5

48

No, you should focus on why you're going to be a great person to take on as a PhD student.

If you characterize a past advisor as bullying you in the story you describe where it seems like their mental health was impacted by the death of a parent you will not appear to be a good student to take on.

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  • Thank you for your response. I am not talking about writing this as the whole application but I am unsure about justifying the time loss as the professor will not give any recommendations. Just one more thing, he was finely working with his other students and he started this behavior even before his mother died or even ill. He was totally cold to me for no reason after death.
    – manu paul
    Jan 19 at 17:39
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    @manupaul None of that will help you in your application. PhD admissions, job applications, even friendships and romantic relationships are not about making the world "fair" or making up for what went wrong in the past through charity. If you learned anything about doing research along the way, then those are useful skills you can apply to your next position. If you didn't learn anything about doing research it doesn't matter if that's because your advisor preferred to work with other people or that you didn't do anything in the first place.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 19 at 20:46
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    Probably you should have moved on sooner; the next best time to move on is now.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 19 at 20:47
  • +1 @BryanKrause Also known as the "First law of holes: when you are in one, stop digging", or "Don't throw good money after bad money"
    – Cheery
    Jan 23 at 21:52
25

You should avoid going into these details. If you tell the story as you did above, the reviewer will immediately see (at least) two possibilities:

  1. You were an awesome student who did everything you could have done and got shafted by a professor that reneged on his commitment, or
  2. The professor had good reason to pull back from his work with you, for reasons that you don't realize or are intentionally not disclosing.

From a distance, it will be very hard to tell which of these is the case, and the tie goes to the professor.

Instead, you should focus on your achievements. Try to declare victory: you spent a year learning things, you contributed some ideas to a research paper, etc. To the extent that you have to address the more negative aspects (e.g., missing recommendation letter, a lack of publications), you should be very tactful -- and certainly avoid the word "bullying." For example: "I initially agreed to work with Dr. X during [time period], but unfortunately he encountered some personal and professional challenges and was effectively unable to advise me. Nonetheless, I used this time to...."

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  • 1
    Thank you for your input. I used "bullying " to tell the story. I am aware that I can't frame statements like that. I also thought to cater to the words you mentioned, but concerned about whether professors buy that learning stuff, since I don't have anything to show for its authenticity.
    – manu paul
    Jan 19 at 19:14
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    You are right to be concerned about this. But, I do not see what other option you have.
    – cag51
    Jan 21 at 19:07
12

If you mention it, keep it abstract and professional.

It's understandable that you want to justify what happened in your previous position, and there are many reasons to bring it up:

  • You may be asked why no publications came out of this time.
  • You may feel uncomfortable not mentioning such an impactful episode.
  • If you have a friendly (potential) supervisor, it may be good to let them know at some point that you've had some bad experiences with poor supervision.

This last one may sound risky, but I've been in this position (as a supervisor) and I'm very happy that the candidate told us, so we could take it into account in the way we evaluated them and after hiring, supervised them.

However, when you tell people, the tone is very important. It's unfair, perhaps, but it's very easy to come off as childish, or having misread the situation. Before you know it, you can give people the idea that you've needy, socially unintelligent or bad at reading social cues. This may be the furthest thing from the truth, but if you're being very defensive in the way you tell the story, it's very easy to come across this way.

The key is to mention it as abstractly and as professionally as possible. It's up to your new boss/supervisor to decide how much of the story they want to know. Start with something like

I worked hard, and learned a lot, but ultimately the working relationship was not productive.

or perhaps

After a while, I felt that the working relationship wasn't healthy, so I made the decision to leave. This was difficult, since I don't like to quit, but I decided it was for the best.

If the interviewer wants to know more, they can ask. In that case, make sure to to stick to the following points.

  • Show that you're reluctant to judge your old supervisor, but that practically, you needed to make a decision.
  • Show that you are capable of seeing things from their side, but ultimately you needed to choose a practical course of action.
  • If you really need to go into details focus on some very clear examples, that are hard to interpret any other way.
  • Show that you hold no grudges, and you're ready to make a fresh start.

Fundamentally, these situations happen because one party lacked emotional intelligence. Almost always, somebody created the drama, and the interviewer, once they learn about the situation needs to see that that wasn't you, and that you're very ready for a fresh start.

Finally, remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. You've experienced a bad working relationship once, so you know something about what to look out for. Make sure you check the working environment, if you can and talk to people other than the interviewers, so that you don't fall into the same trap twice.

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    Wow, that's a great perspective. Thank you for taking the time for such a long answer. Yes, I intend to show no grudges, and I was looking for proper advice to deal with it. Yours fit it properly. For Physics nowadays it's so hard to find great working environments with knowledgeable professors.
    – manu paul
    Jan 21 at 23:34
  • @manupaul " For Physics nowadays it's so hard to find great working environments with knowledgeable professors. " nowadays = for the past 120 years. By the way, even working with Feynman was also quite a bad environment, were you to be a woman ... (see here for some thinkings thebaffler.com/outbursts/… )
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 23 at 10:05
  • Yes, I know the story, unfortunately, that's true. I have interacted with top professors and exchanged some ideas about certain topics. I called those understanding problematic, as I understood from reading, those professors didn't take that very well. Now a few months ago those established results were proven false by either some other theorist or in experiments. Most professors want robots as students, not the students who actually read and understand the materials.
    – manu paul
    Jan 23 at 10:21
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Nope. All you would have to do is to mention why you're a good candidate and highlight how your previous research experience helped you and got you into a position to learn how to do research independently which is one of the main outcomes of a PhD.

Focus on the right reasons. The professors would want to see why you are the best candidate for your work and experience.

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  • 3
    This is the right answer. If I see excuses, I am seeing a reason to pick someone else.
    – neuronet
    Jan 21 at 16:26
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    Yes I agree, thanks.I am just concerned about what to say about the time gap as I don't have anything to show for it
    – manu paul
    Jan 21 at 23:05
  • @manu paul. You can mention you had to take a gap year to focus on personal stuff in case it's asked.
    – keinerhier
    Feb 7 at 21:33
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After returning he started avoiding me for no reason

I'm no psychologist, armchair or otherwise, but just mind that withdrawal from social interactions can arise when dealing with grief. We don't know what impact the loss of his mother had on him.

As an anecdote, one of my children had a private music teacher who lost his mother. He was overwhelmed with grief and couldn't teach my child after that. Even though we were friends, he couldn't even deal with just seeing us "for fun". The past reminded him too much of the loss, in some way. You could characterize that teacher's behavior as "avoiding us for no reason" - except we did acknowledge that the reason was staring us in the face. We still long after that teacher, he was awesome, and it was heartbreaking to see him suffer.

Anecdote is not data, but it looks to me suspiciously similar in some ways to what you're dealing with. I'm not excusing anything, just hinting that people go through grief in a wide variety of ways, and there's no valid single expectation of how it'll go for someone. People also have a variety of "bonding strengths" with various members of their family. To one person a loss of a parent may be not a big deal (at least outwardly), for another it may well be the worst tragedy they had in life so far - and anything in between.

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  • 8\ujThe professor was stalling me from the beginning, I was doing my part.I asked him about not giving time in early stages. He kept on gaslighting me, saying that he would give time and I should stay. After the death ,he still worked with his other students. At last he told me that I shouldn't have put all of my eggs in ow basket. i do///////;'9
    – manu paul
    Jan 23 at 20:49

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