I had two advisors for my master thesis. One, as my first advisor would take the theoretical part to guide me. I have been meeting with my first advisor once every two week and he has been examining each part of the text. During these meetings, he continued to tell me how good I am doing and I should keep writing in this way. There were never real feedback, which could be pointing out my mistakes.

So I developed a full confident in myself and in the work. He offered me that I should consider starting a PhD with him. In short, during the time I have been writing my masters thesis, he gave me all signs that he approves and likes my work.

My presentation took place a week ago, and was pretty much successful in my opinion and in the opinions of other people who came to listen. But at the end of the presentation, I received a totally different attitude from my first advisor. He started to criticize the work in a way he has never done in our meetings.

I was shocked about how my first advisor could not defend me and his own ideas in front of the committee and I am incredibly disappointed. Not only have I lost my belief in him and his judgments but also, I am now doubting my own skill of writing.

I am going to meet my first advisor next week and planning to talk about his twist of judgment and criticism. In this talk, I will question the PhD idea. I'm not sure though, how to put my anger, disappointment in right words, without making him feel that I am attacking to his personality. Also, when I asked him if we can meet earlier than next week, he refused. I have the feeling that he knows what i am going to say and now trying to construct a distance.

I know that trust is a very important issue in between the advisor and the advisee. If we will continue work together, I have to ask him an explanation but as I said, I'm afraid of my own frustration and if I cannot express myself in a right way.

My question is, would it be wise to express my disappointment in him, especially now that we will start to focus on my PhD? On the other hand, I need him to justify his inconsistency, which is quite crucial for me to keep working with him.

  • 7
    First: calm down. Second: please condense this question, you'll get better answers when you cut to the chase quicker.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 29, 2014 at 12:54
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    Was his criticism actual disagreement or just playing the devil's advocate, and making you justify yourself? A defense is the place to, well... defend your work and show that you know what you were doing and why you were doing it.
    – Davidmh
    Sep 29, 2014 at 13:18
  • 27
    It's not your advisor's job to defend you or your work at your defense. It's your defense, which means it's your job to defend your work. On the other hand, it is your advisor's job to make sure you're prepared for the defense before you walk in.
    – JeffE
    Sep 29, 2014 at 13:30
  • 12
    I see. So Advisor 1 did not vote to pass your thesis? That is definitely more serious than playing devil's advocate or asking tough questions for their own sake. Sep 29, 2014 at 17:46
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    I must be missing something. If Advisor 1 didn't sign off on the thesis because he was taking Advisor 2's side, then presumably Advisor 2 also did not sign off on the thesis, either. (I agree with Nate that his is significantly more serious than your original wording suggests.) But then how did you pass the defense?
    – JeffE
    Sep 29, 2014 at 18:13

3 Answers 3


You cannot go after him for asking questions, that's his prerogative. You can choose to work on your PhD with him, or without him. That's what the conversation ought to be about.

Check out Crucial Confrontations:

With a crucial discussions like that, it is always good to give yourself a pep talk and imagine why would a rational being do something like that. Was is really that bad? Were you his first student, and was he nervous? Could he have had some personal issues to deal with? Perhaps he feels embarrassed for his behavior?

That will help you develop compassion and temper your anger (regardless how justifiable it might be). The goal is really to channel your emotions.

Then you are ready to develop a focus for your discussion. You can pose it as the discussion about your concerns about doing PhD with that advisor. Let's face it, you were not going to do PhD with him, there wouldn't be need for the conversation. Ask questions, at this point.

For example, I was surprised with the level of question received during the defense. I was left doubting the quality of my work, and now I am concerned about proceeding with PhD because my work is not as good as I thought it would be. What is your take? That should be enough to start the conversation without accusations.

Keep in mind, they are supposed to ask you hard questions at the defense, it is an exam. It might even be a compliment - he wouldn't have asked you these questions, if he didn't think you can handle them. My advsor holds practice defenses. The labmates and the adviser ask hard questions then. For my defense practice, I was answering questions for an hour! If it wasn't for the practice, these questions would have come at the defense time.

  • 7
    +1 for "they are supposed to ask you hard questions at the defense". You can always tell that a candidate is weak when the questions are clearly meant to make her/him look better.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 29, 2014 at 15:56
  • @afaust: Thank you very much for your response. My defense was quite good. I cannot say that the questions were difficult and my answers were precise. The problem was, his extremely polarized comments at the end. During our meetings within these 6 months, he had told me how well-organized the sections are, it is a very rare ability to connect different ideas as i have been doing. Then at the end of the defense, in front of the committee, he stated that i made both of them (himself and the second advisor) struggle to understand the work.
    – Chloe01
    Sep 29, 2014 at 17:30
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    @afaust: It is as black and white; the first comments were beyond positive, almost flattering, and afterwards a complete different statement. It was his request to be my first advisor, just as it was his decision to meet frequently and examine each step of the work, which is why i never doubted his care/interest. Now i'm so puzzled by his contradictory statements, more than the grade.
    – Chloe01
    Sep 29, 2014 at 17:31
  • @confused I see, it was the comments, not the questions that were the issue. And I understand how that can hurt. Still, you have to make the decision if you want to work with that person again. And the question to ask him was that you were surprised with the comments at the end, which left your doubting your work and ability to proceed with PhD. Was there something that prompted his new awareness of the weak writing that he was not aware before? See what he says.
    – afaust
    Sep 29, 2014 at 19:37
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    @confused I saw you other comments - it seems like a more junior adviser did not want to contradict a more senior one. You have the right to be hurt and outraged. This might be a learning experience for him, though. However, if I were you, I would run away from that adviser. PhD is more involved, with more twists and turns. You need to know that your adviser has your back. If that is the decision, speak with him to inform him that you would be pursuing PhD elsewhere. At that point, there isn't much sense in venting your stream at him. Ask him for letter of reference, leave on a high note.
    – afaust
    Sep 30, 2014 at 19:15

Concurring with the comments above, I would suggest you:

  1. Calm down
  2. Consider (on your own, at first) whether you want to do the PhD with this supervisor given how the defence went (do you feel that the questions were valid and having them asked earlier would have made your research MUCH stronger and hence your PI should have asked them before, or were they more tough questions to show how good a student you really are).
  3. Prepare for a polite but emotionally challenging meeting. DO NOT criticize or in any way express your "disappointment" in your supervisor - ask him why the questions he brought up were not asked during practice runs. Then consider (again) whether you want to commit to a PhD with him/her, depending on the answer.

Most importantly - understand that a Masters (and especially a PhD) is YOUR project, it's not your supervisors job to defend your ideas and results - it's YOURS...

  • 4
    It is also possible that your advisor felt inspired during your talk. You might have had discussions before, but seeing your work as a whole might have inspired an idea and the whole line of questions stem from that. That is actually what you want in the defense. And again, as draining as it is, it is a compliment.
    – afaust
    Sep 29, 2014 at 17:02
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    @dvanic: Thank you for your answer. I'm afraid i could not make it clear within my post, the defense was good and the questions were not difficult or because i internalized the theme so good that i had no problems in answering them. On the contrary, i love to talk about this work and i was enjoying to present it. The problem was his statements at the end, as if, he was not there to approve and guide each step before. He told me on and on that the text is clear enough (each time we met/this would be almost 15 meetings) and right after the defense, he said it is not clear enough.
    – Chloe01
    Sep 29, 2014 at 17:41
  • @confused Perhaps this just meant that when he got to see your work presented he saw things which needed criticism he hadn't noticed before when he was looking at the granular details of your work???
    – dvanic
    Oct 1, 2014 at 14:25
  • @dvanic thats kind of impossible, because they gave me a full grade for the defense.
    – Chloe01
    Oct 3, 2014 at 8:22

I feel you, I had the exact same experience at larger level, at my PhD proposal defense.

I spoke with most of them individually to understand the issue. My advisor and my chair were very supportive before the defense and all of a sudden they acted as if they have never seen it before. No question wise but suggesting totally something different with unreasonable justification. The fact that you are considering a PhD may have contributed to their response or else they wouldn't care much about a master thesis. That is probably because they are trying to shape the direction of your future work to particular area in their mind.

What I found out is that a Lot of office politics were involved in my committee. My advisor and chair didn't like each other much and my chair is more senior so she cared less to what he think nor he were able to stand for me or risk having a conflict with her for some student. On the other hand, the PI who wanted something else were very influential (I didn't know at the beginning since he is from a different department). My chair listen to everything he says and after the meeting her suggestion was as if it was coming out of his mouth.

Observe them carefully so see what work or grants they are heading to and how they interact with each other. Who is more respected and who have more power in the department structure? Once you find out, I think everything will make sense. Bear in mind that your goal at the meeting is to know, not to complain or express emotions.

  • 1
    thank you for your response and understanding. as you have mentioned, i also have came to the conclusion that i was at the middle of a power game in between the members of my faculty. well, the damage is done. what i sincerely would advise to all, be mindful of the combination of the advisors you chose. Do they get along? Are their disciplines paralel? Chose two professors, instead of a doctor and a professor combination. Do not underestimate your own ability, always seek for the opinions of other professors who are wise enough to spare themselves from these ugly power games.
    – Chloe01
    Oct 31, 2014 at 3:16

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