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I am a Ph.D. student in the U.S. in my final year.

During my 2nd year, I wasn't very excited with where my project was going, and I had the idea of adding a coadvisor to the mix, whose research I found really interesting (unfortunately, he did not have the funds to support me on his own). My advisor agreed, and we drafted a project of what we would do together to apply for a research grant. The problem was that my advisor had a pet project that he did not want to let go of, and he kept telling me that once that was done, we could move on to do other things. If he had not accepted having a coadvisor, I would not have stayed in his lab beyond my 2nd year.

Fast forward to today, and my advisor essentially managed to string me along with empty promises, and made me spend the entirety of my Ph.D. working on anything except with my coadvisor, or letting me have time to prioritize working individually with him. I realized that there wouldn't be enough time to move on to do other things during my 4th year, but by then it seemed to me that it was too late. I kept hoping that my advisor would realize that this was not what he said we would do, that he could be swayed if I gave him enough work on his projects, or that my coadvisor would eventually fight him if necessary (I can explain why he did not, but I don't want to make this post unnecessarily long, or give too many identifying details).

The point is that I feel deceived. I don't think it's fair for a student to join a lab on the expectation of working on a given project, and that never happening (he's also used harsh language in a few occasions, but I think that is less important than what I just described). If my advisor was in a moment in his career where he couldn't or didn't want to have a coadvisor, then I wish he had been candid about it, and we would have gone in separate ways. I feel he told me what I wanted to hear just so I would keep working on what he wanted, but he had no intention of working with my coadvisor, if he could avoid it. I told my advisor I wasn't happy with this state of affairs, but they did not make any meaningful concessions.

The kicker is that my advisor is not tenured yet, and is undergoing tenure review this year. Shouldn't someone somewhere know that he did this to one of his students before he gets tenure? Should I just accept that I was swindled, take my degree and get out?

I feel tempted to just break with him and defend only with my coadvisor, even though that would cost me a letter of recommendation, but I don't know the extent of how this could come back to haunt me in the future. Even if I don't break with him now, I don't want to have any future relationship with this person. How can I go 'no contact' with an advisor if I decide to stay in academia?

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    What do you want to achieve? You can definitely stop collaborating with your phd supervisor after you complete it without any other strong action, such as trying to prevent him of becoming tenured.
    – The Doctor
    Feb 7 at 9:07
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    You are not alone that you think your advisor is bad. A couple of month after the PhD defense, you might see it differently. phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1725
    – usr1234567
    Feb 8 at 9:34
  • Briefly: What would be the best course of action for you? I understand the frustration of dealing with bad advisors, and it is unfortunately more common than it should, but ultimately you have to be responsible for your well-being moving forward. Be strategic and take some time to think what is the best for you.
    – user347489
    Feb 8 at 20:57
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    "Shouldn't someone somewhere know that he did this to one of his students before he gets tenure?" << Now is the time for selfishness and self-preservation, not for vigilantism. Do what is best for yourself, not what is worse for your advisor.
    – Stef
    Feb 9 at 7:56
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    I should have been more forceful about it, but I did tell my advisor I was unhappy.
    – Asasuser
    Feb 11 at 20:37

5 Answers 5

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“Living well is the best revenge.” - attributed to George Herbert

Before I go on to give potentially cynical-sounding advice, I would like to say that I empathise with your situation. It's not uncommon to come in with strong opinions on what you want to work on, and wind up spending your time on different projects. I understand where you're coming from, and I don't mean to dismiss it or downplay the frustration you feel.

Some points to keep in mind for your upcoming decision:

  • You can't constructively change the past

Whatever you do now, you can't undo not having worked on your preferred project. You might still be able to work on those projects in the future (depending on how many bridges you burn), but there is nothing you can do that will fix the underlying upset.

  • You are at the most stressful time in most supervisor/-ee relationships

While I'm sure there's someone on this site who absolutely adored writing their PhD thesis and just bashed out 200 pages in a week with nary a typo, most students find the experience taxing. Your supervisor is facing down tenure review, which means they're also under a lot of pressure. This is the worst time to commit the unforced error of adding a difficult conflict to both of your plates. Defend your thesis in whatever setup is easiest for you, get drunk on the nicest alcohol your friends buy you, spend at least a week doing absolutely nothing academic and then see if you still feel the same emotional intensity of frustration.

  • Consider the horse trade

As the other commenters have pointed out, academia has a lot of subjectivity, grey areas and horse trading (political bargaining). That doesn't mean that you should never stand up for yourself or your projects, but it does mean that you'll sometimes need to barter and compromise. Taken from your framing, I wouldn't consider your advisor's behaviour fair, but it's also not unethical enough that you'd achieve much of a positive outcome by reporting it. Aside from torching your relationship with your supervisor, you'll show that you're willing to go after someone's lifelong career goals/livelihood over a disagreement on research focus. Ouch! That does not encourage people to work with you in the future. You've payed up (worked on the project you cared less about), now you can cash out in terms of getting solid recommendation letters, a boost to your academic network, and having a senior researcher on your side (like getting nominated for awards).

Or you can never speak to your supervisor again- but whatever you do, make sure you defend and take time to cool down first. You can't make the past "fair", but you can make the choices that will give you an easier time in the future.

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In the pantheon of bad advisors, your example is a pretty mild one.

First, every grad student needs to understand that the advisor/advisee relationship goes both ways: the advisor provides resources, access to his professional network, writing/editing labor, and of course, advice. In exchange, the advisor gets someone to perform experiments, collect data, co-author with, and if everything goes well, a long-term collaborator. No advisor is obligated to indulge a grad student in a project that the advisor does not believe in, and in fact most grad students would benefit from working with an advisor's pet project.

Working on the advisor's pet project the easiest and most direct way to get funding, resources, and attention from the advisor. Of course, somewhere a line exists between being a trainee in independent research, and being a technician, and different advisors will have different ideas of how much rope to give each student. And every grad student will draw their own line between getting guidance and being controlled by the advisor.

Still, on its face, the situation you describe sounds like the normal and expected conflict between an advisor and their advisee.

If you feel that your advisor manipulated and lied to you (I don't see it that way from what you wrote, just sayin' for argument's sake), you have no obligation to speak with them again.

However, I have a bone to pick with this statement:

The kicker is that my advisor is not tenured yet, and is undergoing tenure review this year. Shouldn't someone somewhere know that he did this to one of his students before he gets tenure? Should I just accept that I was swindled, take my degree and get out?

If you want people to take you seriously in your career, you have to learn to tone down your anger. Pointing a grad student to work on a pet project is not swindling -- at worst it is just bad advice, and at best it's an actual good way to help a student get a footing. And for this, you want to damage their career, by messing up their chance to tenure? Do what you want, but this looks worse on you than on your advisor.

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    The "swindling" is not having the student work on the pet project, it's doing so after having given the impression that the student would be able to work on other things. Your patronizing "it's for your own good" attitude blinds you to what could be legitimate grievances. As for the tenure thing, why would it mess up his/her chance for tenure if it's as mild as you say?
    – Andrew
    Feb 8 at 20:51
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    Even though the statement "In the pantheon of bad advisors, your example is a pretty mild one." is very true, let us not minimize the frustration of the OP from the situation their advisor put them in. Ultimately, their adivsor failed them. Edit: I think Andrew is spot-on. This answer is unnecessarily patronizing, the OP deserved better.
    – user347489
    Feb 8 at 20:51
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    @Andrew OP said " I kept hoping that my advisor would realize that this was not what he said we would do and that I was unhappy, or that my coadvisor would eventually fight him if necessary." I think OP should have taken some time to consider communicating with their advisor before feeling they've been swindled. They 1) waited for their advisor to realize they were unhappy, and 2) hoped the coadvisor would speak for them.
    – Roy
    Feb 9 at 3:30
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    This answer offers very pragmatic perspectives on the subject of matter while the comments above complement it well. Agreed that “at worst it is just bad advice, and at best it’s an actual good way to help a student get a footing.” In most relationships, good alignment is rare, taking efforts to find and maintain. Even when all parties involved come in with good intentions and aim for the win-win, a miss in alignment would show up badly in retrospection. We often don’t know what our utility function looks like. Fewer times we know how to communicate it to others, let alone to negotiate. Feb 9 at 20:48
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    An ideal advisor-advisee relationship, in my view, should be mutually empowering rather than “dictating” or “demanding” from either side. As an advisor, offering advice that the advisee needs rather than the advisor wants was supposed to be professionally required. The reality, however, is that this is a very difficult task nowadays and especially when advisors are under lots of other obligations, constrained by time/energy to provide the advice the advisee needs. The problem, in my view, is that yesterday’s protocol does not meet today’s reality. (2/3) Feb 9 at 21:00
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Any useful answer will have to be filtered through the culture of the country you find yourself in, but also of the field and even the department.

Some universities have an ombudsman to which aggrieved students can go. You feel deceived and others might or might not agree with this. If you professor did in fact deceive you then this could have an impact on the decision to give your tenure.

The problem with complaining is that it will destroy your relationship with your advisor. The facts might also be already known to the department committee or to individual members who might or might not have a say on the tenure decision. (In my school, all tenured members of the department have to write a personal letter about any tenure case.) In this case, a complaint will only lead to a more formal procedure. But before you go and make a complaint, put yourself at least in the shoes of your advisor and see whether there is not a more benign interpretation. Thesis advisors have to guide students, which include saying no to "pet-projects", for their own best interest. For example, I would never "allow" one of my students to spend time proving P = NP (unless they can convince me that they have a truly new idea, in which case I would probably not be able to advise them). If you have access to a senior person that you can trust, you might confide to them in the hope of getting better guidance than we can provide long-range.

After the doctorate, it is fairly easy to "ghost" your advisor. Officially, your relationship has ended with the conferral of the degree. Most advisors remain interested and protective of the career of their ex-advisees, especially if they stay in academia, but there is no formal or informal requirement. No contact might be overdoing it, though. Just be non-committal in your answers and you soon will no longer be contacted, unless it is in your interest such as invitation to be on a PC or as a reviewer.

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Navigating the complexities of Ph.D. mentorship, particularly when it involves conflicting interests and broken promises, can be incredibly challenging and disheartening. It sounds like you've been in a difficult situation, trying to balance your academic aspirations with the realities of your advisor's expectations and commitments. Let me share some thoughts based on a similar experience.

Firstly, feeling deceived in a high-stakes academic relationship is not only frustrating but can also deeply impact your professional trajectory and personal well-being. It's clear you entered this arrangement with the hope of expanding your research opportunities, only to find yourself constrained by your primary advisor's priorities. This is a common dilemma in academia, where power dynamics can significantly influence a student's research direction and career opportunities.

Regarding the tenure review of your advisor, it's a complex issue. Tenure reviews often consider a wide range of factors, including research output, teaching, service to the institution, and, importantly, mentorship. If you believe that your experience reflects a pattern of behavior that could affect future students, it might be worth considering a confidential discussion with a trusted faculty member or an ombudsperson at your institution. These conversations can be sensitive, especially given the potential impact on your career and relationships within the academic community. However, universities usually have processes in place to handle such concerns discreetly and professionally.

If you're contemplating breaking away from your primary advisor to work solely with your coadvisor, consider the implications carefully. While it's true that losing a letter of recommendation from your primary advisor could be a setback, the quality and sincerity of your references are also crucial. A strong and supportive letter from your coadvisor and other faculty members who are familiar with your work and character can be highly valuable.

In terms of moving forward and potentially going 'no contact' with your advisor if you stay in academia, it's essential to establish a network of support and mentorship outside of this relationship. Engage with other faculty members, attend conferences, and participate in academic forums to build connections that can offer guidance, support, and opportunities. If you decide to stay in academia, having a broad network can help mitigate the impact of severing ties with your advisor.

Ultimately, the decision to confront these issues directly, seek resolution within your institution, or focus on completing your degree and moving on is deeply personal and depends on your circumstances, goals, and the specific dynamics at play in your department and institution. It's crucial to prioritize your mental health and professional development, seeking support from peers, mentors, and counseling services as needed.

Remember, your worth as a researcher and academic is not defined by this challenging experience. Many have faced similar trials and emerged stronger, more resilient, and successful in their pursuits.

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To answer the actual question that was posed ("to break or not to break with your PhD advisor"): The end of your PhD (i.e. a successful thesis and defense after which you go on with your life, academic or otherwise) is the most natural opportunity for a soft break. You can develop other interests, move in a different direction (which it sounds like given that you wanted to work on something else during your PhD already). All of this can be done in harmony with decades of shallow but civil interactions whenever you do bump in to each other.

There is no written or unwritten rule that states that you need to continue to work together, exchange information or send each other Christmas cards. Like any relationship it can just fizzle out or go through a rough patch and that's OK.

Also: give it time - if you do continue in academia and mature as a scientist, you can almost be certain that there will come a time where you will look back on your advisor and the position they were in with much more kindness than you (understandably) do know.

As for whether what you have gone through deserves reporting, either unofficially or via official complaint structures your institute has in place: I would urge you to carefully reconsider.

Redirect your energy towards something more positive: write the thesis, wrap up, and look at this whole situation (which in hindsight will become and increasingly small albeit impactful time of your life) as an opportunity for personal growth and development: you are developing your own scientific mindset, crafting your own research direction, discovering your likes and dislikes -both in area of investigation and in management style- and are ready to seek out new possibilities to continue working on your topic or in your area of interest. And hopefully, you take along with you the things you have learned from what didn't work this time: The need for crystal clear communication and "managing up". Yes, we all wish our advisors had the skills to be flawless in that sense, but you will have it much easier when you realize that they too are just human.

So look ahead, vouch not to make the same errors as your supervisor should you ever be in a position in power and rest assured that you will make plenty of other mistakes once you are in their shoes.

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