I am a third-year PhD student in mathematics from a very reputed institute in my country. I have one problem to share and discuss that is related with my guide. He is a senior professor in our department. The day I joined that institute he gave me one research problem and asked me to study about that and present. I did as much as I can and presented. In return, instead of appreciation I was being scolded for small mistakes. And it has continued for the last two years. Seniors say it is his way of working. I have lost my happiness. Sometime I cry for joining this course. My prof is not impressed with my good academic record and my hard work.

Second thing that worries me is that he is not much aware of my research problem. I feel like I know much more than him. He has no paper on that topic, although he has a good number of papers in other topics. I never got help from him in solving research papers. I have to study papers on my own and then have to present to him. And again for small mistake I have to suffer his taunts. I am scared whether I would be able to finish my degree in such an environment or not? Is this normal? Does every PhD student suffer such mental trauma?

I need advice. Thanks.

  • 8
    Find someone else to guide you. This relationship is destined for problems.
    – user107
    Commented Jul 2, 2012 at 10:07
  • 15
    Knowing more than your advisor is fairly normal. By the time you get your phd you are supposed to have made a meaningful contribution to your field. You will be the world's expert on a very tiny specific thing. No one on the planet will know more than you do about this very specific thing, and it's up to you to solve the problems you encounter.
    – drxzcl
    Commented Jul 2, 2012 at 16:52
  • 19
    If he criticizes you for small mistakes, this probably means he can't find any big ones. Take it as praise. Don't think "oh I made a lot of small mistakes". Think "Yeah, I more or less nailed it"
    – user12889
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 1:20
  • 3
    @user12889 Given the second paragraph in the question, it's more likely he's criticizing the only thing he actually knows enough to criticize, just so he can feel like he's contributing...
    – Izkata
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 1:23
  • 3
    @lzkata Not necessarily. As others pointed out, as a PhD sutdent you often know much more than your supervisor on a topic. Especially in your 3rd year. As a senior academic he is likely to have a lot of experience in reviewing work (for journals, conferences, phd theses) in areas where he only has moderate knowledge about. If he is good generally as an academic he will be able to spot serious flaws in his students' work.
    – user12889
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 1:29

5 Answers 5


Every PhD student suffers mental trauma. You say your advisor "scolds" and "taunts" you. I think of scolding and taunting as personal attacks, and hence unacceptable. That said, your English makes me unsure if he is attacking you or your work. Attacking someones work is a common occurrence in academia. We tend to get one sentence notifications about our successes and pages and pages of feedback about our failures. Even the best researchers fail more often then they succeed. The key thing to remember is that, in general, it is not personal. You need to identify if your advisor is attacking you or your work.

You say your advisor "is not impressed with my good academic record and my hard work". Successful academics tend not to be impressed by academic records and hard work since it is par for the course. This doesn't mean they do not respect you. The best way to find out what your advisor thinks about you is to ask. Ask what you are doing well and what you can work on. Also say that you are feeling unsure of yourself and looking for reassurance. Some advisors will give you reassurance and a shoulder to cry on, others will simply tell you that you are not failing. Not failing is another word for a major success.

  • 10
    @srijan feedback like "you are not serious and not working hard" are personal attacks and should not be tolerated.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 4, 2012 at 8:39
  • 3
    @sirjan The adviser has more power over you than you do over him and power corrupts. This affects some people more than others and some fields more than other.
    – mac389
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 14:29
  • 3
    @StrongBad Now things are cool as I have published some good papers. :)
    – Srijan
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 23:24
  • 2
    "Not serious" is personal. "Not working hard" is not personal and completely normal and legitimate for an advisor, assuming indeed the student does not work hard.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 18:39
  • 3
    "Successful academics tend not to be impressed by academic records and hard work since it is par for the course." - I must disagree, there are very academically successful professors who recognize hard work and openly state they are very impressed while there are others (likewise successful) who do not flinch at the most impressive results yet tend to emotionally destroy their students upon the slightest lack of progress. I think it comes down to personality. Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 14:53

Here are some of the less severe options that you can try out first:

  • Research the whereabouts of his former students. How many of them graduated, and if so, what was the quality of their work (publication venues/citations etc) and where are they now? Contact them individually, and talk to them about how they resolved this situation.
  • Try talking to him, privately at first, in a pleasant, non-accusatory manner. Tell him that you tend to find his method of working rather discouraging, and ask for ways in which both of you can improve your working relation

If nothing else works, consider changing your adviser. As your institute is a reputed one, its almost sure to have a formal procedure which can be initiated by the student to change one's adviser. Before doing that, look around the department and find out, albeit discretely, if there are openings in other groups doing similar kind of work - after all, if no-one is ready to take you in the same dept., you may have to look at other institutions entirely!

Most importantly, do NOT give up on your research/look to find faults with yourself without any valid reason - a lot of researchers have faced similar issues with their advisers at first, and they have successfully either worked out all issues or simply changed to a more suitable adviser down the line!

  • 1
    Now things are cool as I have published some good papers. :) Thanks for the support :)
    – Srijan
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 23:24

What you describe, unfortunately, somewhat of a common problem in academia, particularly with senior faculty. My advisor and I had a somewhat similar relationship, but he was far less harsh than what you describe.

The following isn't a solution, but just a few points to think about as you consider your options:

  • It is almost certain that you will not be able to chance your professor's attitude. He's been managing his lab like this for years, and this is his way of doing things. I would strongly suggest speaking to other students about him before approaching him directly; I would venture a guess that talking to him about this issue and your feelings on the matter have a good likelihood do you more harm than good, as he likely will not care and will only think the worse of you for it.

  • You should have a research committee; speak to one of the members of your committee about your concerns. Personally, almost all of the useful advice I received during my PhD work was from a committee member, both in terms of direction and in terms of actual research work.

  • You can switch labs whenever you want. Yes, it will set you back a few years, but that may be a necessary cost. Always keep that in mind; you're not bound to him by any means.

  • On the other hand, sticking it out may be worthwhile, as you'll have a good name behind your PhD, and this is a personality type you will likely come across again in academia (and elsewhere). It's definitely worth getting to know how to deal with this type of individual.

Do realize that his critique of your research doesn't mean it's bad by any stretch, it just means that he's focusing on your mistakes. To get more positive feedback, try joining other journal clubs and lab meetings around the university, and present your ideas there; most would be happy to have you, and would give you useful feedback.


I came across your post as I was looking for information on the same subject - too much pressure from my supervisor.

First of all it's good to know I'm not alone... and the comments from all the others really helped.

One thing that helps me is to think that in the end, it's not my supervisor who's going to evaluate me. I'm going to present my thesis to a jury,not to him. He'll probably won't even have any word to say in my final presentation. He's suppose to be a help to get me through, not the person who will judge me.

So try to keep your eyes on the goal instead of making all this efforth to adapting to your supervisor and ending up writing and researching as if him was the one I have to impress. He's not.

Good luck:)

  • 9
    +1 "it's good to know I'm not alone..." It has been said that every PhD student feels like quitting at one point or another during grad school, and I presume many of these feelings come from advisor stress. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 15:14
  • 3
    I'm going to present my thesis to a jury, not to him. — Well, yes and no. Your advisor has a very strong interest in your not presenting a substandard thesis to the jury. A good advisor will work with you to make sure your thesis is strong. A bad advisor will simply declare anything you do to be substandard and (attempt to) block your defense.
    – JeffE
    Commented Feb 21, 2013 at 0:06

You can either keep him and find other secondary supervisors to help you out with your research. Alternatively you can find a new supervisor but I guess you're nearing the end of your PhD so this has to be taken into consideration. I'm sry to hear about your ordeal though.

  • Thank you for your response. Your guess is right. T hanks for your concern. :)
    – Srijan
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 12:28
  • 2
    You're most welcome, hope it all goes well.
    – John_dydx
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 12:49

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