I am a math PhD student considering changing universities. I have suspicions that my supervisor has not been very honest with me since I told him that I considered changing universities (and therefore supervisors) because of shift in interests. He got angry with me, told me that it would bring bad reputation to the research group and that I can't just leave after 1 year.

In a conversation I mentioned a university, in which there is a professor, call him professor M, whose work interests me. My supervisor said that professor M is the only one in his field in the university (apparently with the intent of discouraging me from trying to apply to that university). I looked up the website of professor M's research group, which seems to tell a different story (plenty of PhD students, at least one post doc). I found this a bit suspicious. Moreover I recently realized that my supervisor has coathored an article with an emeritus professor, who is in the university, who has worked on the same field, although not part of the research group of M. The "research group" in my university is not that active itself.

When I told him that I want to consider alternatives he told me that the doctoral programme is collecting information about PhD students (which was true), and that he needed to know whether I was part of the group or not. He gave me 3 days to decide whether to stay or leave the doctoral program. I asked the coordinator of the program about this, and he told me that the list in question changes all the time and that it is not nearly as serious matter as my supervisor claimed. It should be noted that my supervisor is notoriously bad at bureucratic/adminstrative university matters.

I suppose in all the above cases it is possible that the explanation is something less malicious, such as ignorance or misunderstanding. In any case I am not in good terms with my supervisor and I don't think we trust each other very much.

The dilemma is that the funding is good and secured, and that the alternatives are abroad (and uncertain).

Could the situation be worth fixing? Should I run for my life? Is there a risk that if I try to change universities he will refuse to write a recommendation letter or write a mild one (he supervised my Master's thesis)?

  • 9
    One question: Is your current supervisor rather junior (e.g., assistant professor) or rather senior (e.g., full professor)? Junior people are very afraid of not getting tenure, and may for this reason take things such as the information collection of research group membership more seriously than anyone else does in the department - without any bad intent. This also applies to leaving after one year if you are funded by some research project grant.
    – DCTLib
    Jan 20, 2015 at 8:49
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    By the way, the comments about M being the only one in this area at the university may not be dishonest. Your advisor may have meant M is the only active faculty member in this area (i.e., not counting grad students, postdocs, or emeritus faculty). That's misleading if your question is "who could I talk with?" but appropriate if it's "who could be my new advisor?" Jan 20, 2015 at 9:34
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    This sounds a bit like an Here's my situation, any comments? type of question, which are not particularly suited to the SE format (meta.academia.stackexchange.com/a/1205/10094). You may want to rephrase your question to make clearer which concrete, generalisable question you have. Particularly, I am not sure how the title matches the body of your question (the "lying" part doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the actual question, which is more about whether or not you should transfer).
    – xLeitix
    Jan 20, 2015 at 9:49
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    I find it a bit strange that you are leaving yourself with "suspicions" about whether Professor M is the only one (i.e., professor) in his research area at the university in question. Surely you can independently confirm or deny this: you just have to look farther than the webpage of Professor M's group. Jan 20, 2015 at 13:03
  • DCTLib: The supervisor is older (has worked in the university for at least a decade, maybe even close to two). He is not a professor. Funding is provided by the department.
    – Parsifal
    Jan 20, 2015 at 17:39

3 Answers 3


Faculty are human beings. We might be given only one slot a year for a doctoral student to work with us and we thus invest (or we feel we invest) an incredible amount of time into the students in our lab. We aren't paid extra for this, which perhaps exacerbates the feeling of ownership.

While I don't know you or your advisor, I would find it easy to believe that his feelings were hurt by your desire to shift PhD programs. You are basically taking his investment in you (which you may feel is minimal, but he may feel is considerable) and throwing it in the trash.

Managing people's feelings are part of being a professional academic. You might as well practice being good at it. Some day you'll be on the other end of the equation -- being told by a student that you had high hopes for that they no longer value working with you and that they want to move to a different program altogether. It's all part of the karmic cycle of being faculty.

Now, with that preamble out of the way. You need to let your advisor know that your shifting programs isn't seen as any rejection at all of his lab or his style of mentoring you, etc. etc. (even if part of this might be true); but rather that you are seeking something different at the other program. It's the stereotypical "It's not you, it's me" form of a break up.

  • I think your last paragraph misses the point a bit. If he is definitely going to leave, fixing the relationship with his supervisor isn't a big problem (although it would be polite and more satisfying to leave on good terms). The problems is whether to leave, and how to fix the relationship if he doesn't.
    – jwg
    Jan 21, 2015 at 11:40

Besides, @Robokaren's excellent answer, I find some problematic things on your question.

He told me ...that he needed to know whether I was part of the group or not.

This is a very just demand on his part. So the real question is, do you actually want to leave or not? In any job (including your PHD) or in any relationship, your colleagues, supervisors (jobs) or your friends, partners (relationship) must know if they can count on you or not. It is unfair to actually make him wait until you make up your mind.

I also do not know, what did you expect from your advisor when you told him you wanted to go elsewhere. He gave you his advice (the fact that only one professor / faculty member works there on your preferable research area) and suggested that you should stay in your current university. That means he thinks highly of you which is always a good thing. And how did you react? You believed that he lied to you, because you saw on the other university's website there is a postdoc who is working there with your "dream" professor. If this is your definition of lie, you are sadly wrong. Also, the fact that he later asked you if you would finally stay or not, is probably an indication that he will not stand in your way (by not providing a reference letter) of you leaving.

Either way, as @JeffE would probably say, the relationship with your advisor is broken (at least from your side, since it is obvious you do not trust the guy anymore). So, I do not think in a little while you will really have any other real choice but to leave. In any case, make a decision and make it fast, before burning any more bridges with your current advisor.

  • 2
    Thanks for the critical comment (I mean this sincerely). Can you elaborate on this: "In any job... supervisors... must know if they can count on you or not". Do you mean count on me to produce a PhD thesis at the end of three years or so? If so isn't this a long term project? The decision affects the rest of my life, hence I found the time limit disproportional.
    – Parsifal
    Jan 20, 2015 at 17:51
  • It is still your life and you can do what you want with it, so you can always either leave or stay. Still, whatever you do, you must tell your supervisor your final decision ASAP, so he can plan accordingly.
    – Alexandros
    Jan 20, 2015 at 18:02

I don't trust your advisor either, but I also, like you, realize the importance of stable funding. I would try to get along with the advisor. Much of this might be related to the advisor's ego if it's a big one. Talk of leaving could have resulted in a nice big bruise.

Keep in mind as well that bosses are always in an adversarial relationship with their "employees". It's the nature of the beast in the workplace.

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    This is nonsense. Faculty are definitely NOT "always in an adversarial relationship" with their students. In any decently run lab, the professor wins when the students succeed and vice versa -- and most people in academia are acutely aware of this.
    – Corvus
    Jan 20, 2015 at 22:32
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    @Corvus - I flagged you for offensiveness. I didn't say "faculty" and I didn't say "students" and I didn't say "academia". I thought you would be able to realize I'm making an analogy. Jan 20, 2015 at 22:38
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    Unless you work in a boiler room / sweatshop, bosses and employees are generally not in an adversarial relationship. (Of course, you need to watch your back, as anywhere in life.) It's especially important that your advisor - advisee relationship be not adversarial.
    – mxmxmx
    Jan 20, 2015 at 23:37
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    Flagged for offensiveness??? But this is nonsense. The student in question jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on misunderstanding the adviser's words, and you start spewing vitriol against anyone in a managerial position. I have a cordial, collegial relationship with my adviser, as do many other grad students.
    – user4512
    Jan 21, 2015 at 7:56
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    In bosses are always in an adversarial relationship with their "employees", the word "always" is nonsense. First, this site is Academia, the issues are not the same as industry. Second, I am an industry retiree. I got along very well with a few of my bosses. The word "always" is indeed non-sense.
    – Nobody
    Jan 23, 2015 at 3:15

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