64

This is a very tough question to ask because there are so many advisors on this forum so I am expecting most inputs from the current grads. This question largely stemmed from a post I read online about picking advisors.

The top recommendation offered on a list of things about picking supervisor is to never pick someone who is nice, friendly and available. Specific examples being "nice associate professor ladies" and "prof emeritus".

This quote caught my attention the most

If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

But this is just one person's opinion. So my question is to what extent does this idea actually hold in academia? Is there any truth to nice profs are less capable than mean profs in producing good students?

  • 99
    Certainly somebody who is not prepared to be honest with you is no good. But seeing students being reduced to tears as a reassurance of this, and almost as a "badge of honour", is very poor, and indicative of the view by some that a PhD is a hazing ritual. Maybe the student is not crying because they are organised, they can take criticism, and the advisor is not abusive in the way they give it? – Flyto Feb 5 '15 at 10:32
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    I disagree with this simple-minded view. Being nice has nothing to do with how well you teach your students. You can be nice and a good professor. In my experience, the exact opposite has been true; previously, the most incompetent teachers I have had have also been complete jerks. But I have better teachers now and they are all very nice, laid-back and still far more knowledgeable and more competent than any other teachers I've ever had. You don't need to be an asshole to teach well. You just need to be a good teacher. Some teachers just don't have it. – RǢF Feb 5 '15 at 13:04
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    For me, the opposite is true. I would probably not take an advisor if I heard about someone crying after a meeting with them. In the past I only took advisors that were nice, friendly and available - and it worked out very well for all parties involved. Of course this might not be a good fit for everyone. – Bitwise Feb 5 '15 at 15:27
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    If you’ve ever cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss. — There, that's better. The opposite of "fierce" is not "nice", but "pushover". – JeffE Feb 5 '15 at 22:36
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    I have worked with some pretty, if not very, mean people over the course of my life. Some were even decidedly immoral. I have never cried. I have gotten angry and put them in their place. You will generally find mean people to be bullies. In fact, there is much information available on the subject of "workplace bullying". There is no reason at all why anyone should be abused by a superior. A mean boss is an indication that they are not as capable or competent as they would have you believe. They are liked by few and people rejoice when they are finally gone. – Inquisitive Feb 6 '15 at 1:48

10 Answers 10

94

That advice from the blog says to avoid an advisor who

1. Is nice, and friendly, and available.

And never gives you the fierce criticism and the tough pushback that forces you to confront your weaknesses, take risks, stop whining, cut the excuses, get over your fears, and make hard decisions about reputation, money, and jobs.

It's the part beginning with "and never" that describes a problematic advisor, not the "nice, friendly, and available" part.

An advisor who is unwilling to criticize a student and share harsh truths when necessary is certainly problematic for many students. But I wouldn't necessarily conflate that with being "nice." For most students, an advisor who is genuinely nice is a good thing.

As for

If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

Doing a PhD is difficult and sometimes discouraging for most people. My advisor is one of the nicest people I know, and I've walked out of his office on one or two occasions and gone off somewhere to cry. Not because he isn't nice, but because what I'm doing is difficult, and sometimes we have to have some very difficult and/or discouraging conversations.

  • 12
    not the "nice, friendly, and available" part — It is reasonable to assume that the author finds the text that she put in bold after the big number 1 to be more significant than the later, smaller, unbolded text. She chose to emphasize "nice, friendly, and available", not "unwilling to be direct and brutally honest". So, no, I don't think OP is taking the advice out of context at all. – JeffE Feb 5 '15 at 22:44
  • @JeffE fair point – ff524 Feb 5 '15 at 22:45
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    @JeffE: the more so as already the 5th paragraph goes:"This is perfect illustration of my thesis in this blog post [...] that the very worst advisor is the nice advisor. Nice serves nobody in the academic career at this point in time. I write below, “If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.” Many have taken exception to this advice, but I stand by it entirely, ..." – cbeleites supports Monica Feb 5 '15 at 23:15
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    I would argue that the author of that post originally used the juxtaposition of nice and spineless as a rhetoric device but has since deluded herself into thinking that they are one and the same. – Lilienthal Feb 6 '15 at 11:03
61

There's a grain of truth in this blog post, but generally I wouldn't consider this advise a "truisim", as it is pretty simplified:

  1. Not all students are the same. Some need deadline pressure, some need a "no bullshit" advisor who keeps them down to earth, some mostly need encouragement, and some students really just need an advisor that gets out of their way. Assuming that everybody needs a strict, no-bullshit guy as advisor to become the best researcher (s)he can be does not correlate with my personal experience.
  2. Being "nice" isn't the same as not providing helpful feedback. Giving harsh feedback isn't the same as giving helpful feedback. You don't want an advisor who holds back criticism to spare your feelings, but you certainly also don't want an advisor who puts you down even if your work is good. Most importantly, an advisor that criticises without suggesting ways to improve your work isn't overly helpful.
  3. The job title (associate professor or emeritus) or the gender ("lady professor") have next to nothing to do with whether a professor is more of the supporting or of the tough love type. However, the career phase may be relevant - the pressure to have each student perform is usually much higher for a tenure-track professor than for an emeritus, which may of course influence how they act.
  4. Seeing "unavailability" as a good thing is downright awful advice. I can understand that the line of thinking is that good profs. are necessarily busy, but I am questioning what you as a student profit from a prof. who never has time for you. Better to look for somebody who is good and has time to teach you (yes, those people exist).

If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

I have never cried before, during, or after a meeting, but I have definitely advised fellow students to get the hell out of their research group when they told me that this regularly happens to them.

If you don't believe me just go on ratemyprof dot com and see the comments for profs who are rated at the top and those at the bottom.

Don't infer how PhD student - advisor relationships work based on one-course ratings of undergraduate students. Frankly, undergrads look for pretty different things in their teachers than PhD students in their advisors.

What I suggest you really do is look at the track record of potential advisors. How many students finish? What do they publish during their PhD? What do those that finish do afterwards? This is, I think, the only metric that really counts.

  • 15
    +1, especially for #3. I wish people would police themselves better in this regard. Academia should be a meritocracy, and perpetuating sexist or prestige based prejudices runs directly counter to (my picture of) the ideals of academic research. – dionys Feb 5 '15 at 15:09
  • 2
    @dionys Hear, hear! – Steven Gubkin Feb 5 '15 at 15:13
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    On 4., I think there's a careful balance. I agree that "unavailable" isn't itself good, but you do want an advisor who has a high profile, goes to conferences, etc. So a lot of activities that can make them unavailable can also be ultimately beneficial for the students. – Ben Webster Feb 5 '15 at 20:10
  • 3
    I'm nice AND I've made students cry. One has not much to do with the other, usually. – Dave Kanter Apr 23 '15 at 16:50
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The list that you link to is misleading. I hope we can all agree that students should try to stay away from '5. Steals your ideas' and '4. Is crazy-making inconsistent', but 3,2,1 are contradictory. 3. says to stay away from abusive, negative and undermining advisors, and then 1. turns around and says you should find an advisor who is sort of an asshole to 'prepare you for the REAL assholes' in the world; 2. says stay away from advisors who are never around, and then at the very end of the post we are told to stay away from advisors who do have time for you. 2. also says to stay away from the big guns -- since they are never around -- and then 1. condemns such students as 'wussy'. What is a student (or an advisor) to do!

While I understand what the list is trying to do -- pointing out that advisors who might seem safe, friendly, and comforting might not be the best advisor for you in the long run -- I don't think this has been done particularly well. In particular, students and recent graduates who are in fact nice friendly people will possibly take away from this list that they are 'just not meant to be in academia'; this is utter BS.

(For the last, consider the many advisors that you point out use this site. They are spending their time giving careful insightful advice to strangers on the internet - simply because they are sincere strangers genuinely interested in understanding things about academia. That's pretty nice of them. Look up some of their CVs. They're doing pretty well for themselves.)

Re: `nice' professors, the author of the list seems to be think that someone who is 'nice' must also be incapable of telling their students hard truths when needed. This is false. The author also seems to think that if an advisor has a lot of time for their students they are a bad advisor. This is also false. The author seems convinced that an advisor must make you cry to be a good advisor. Oh, for crying out loud!

Advisors, like all else in life, are not one size fits all. When choosing advisors, it's important not just to try and understand their advising style, but also to understand your own learning style. And to do so honestly. Ask yourself how you work. What motivates you? What keeps you going on the bad days? In short, what sort of advisor do you need to succeed?

For me, my biggest barrier was my self-confidence. I had plenty of previous success, but I just didn't see it, or discounted it easily as luck. I realized I needed someone whose judgment I could count on, who I could trust to tell me when I was screwing up, and so when they didn't say such a thing, I could infer that I wasn't. I needed someone who believed that I could succeed, and so on the bad days, they kept me going. This advisor turned out to be someone who remembered my birthday, and who gave me tons of support in every which way, but this did not detract from the fact that he would tell me when I was wrong - and I often was. Graduate school made me cry on occasion. It was challenging and progress was rarely quantifiable (see my previous question here), but my advisor was the type of person you go to when you need to cry, who helped you deal with the many issues of graduate school, as opposed to being one of the issues themselves. Am I successful? Well, I graduated with my PhD (in mathematics) last May in 5 years with 5 papers with two more on the way and am currently a postdoc in a pretty good place for me. Empirically speaking, I've been doing well so far, although who knows what the future holds.

On the other hand, perhaps you are truly independent. Can you get by with minimal supervision? Are you truly a superlative researcher already and all you need is a problem to work on and someone to eventually sign a thesis (such individuals do exist) ? Can you say this with complete conviction with much evidence to back you up? Then most likely you will succeed with any advisor whatsoever. Find the person who looks best on paper that is willing to take you and go nuts.

Others work best when being constantly challenged. There probably are individuals who would thrive with an intense advisor who pushes them constantly and think of them purely as a publication-producing machine. Again, this depends on you. Personally, I would say No Thank You, but that's just me.

It is worth noting that a particular faculty member might also employ different advising strategies for different students. They too understand that not all students are the same, that some need well-defined parameters and boundaries, while others need freedom to explore, and so on. On the other hand, students do need to manage their advisors somewhat as well (this at least is something that is mentioned in the original list that was linked to on the question). If you know that your advisor is a rambler, make sure to bring a list of questions you want to ask them to every meeting (I used to do that, because my advisor and I were both talkers). If you are worried that your advisor changes their mind very often (see 4. on the list), make sure to send written summaries of your meetings to your advisor. If you need deadlines to get yourself to do things, but your advisor does not set them for you, ask them! Advisors are not mind-readers. If they won't set deadlines, set them for yourselves.

Advising is a two-way street. Each person has a role to play. In my experience students get to choose their advisors much more so than advisors get to choose their students (although I accept that my experience may be non-standard). Figure out which advisor is best for you. This is possibly different from the advisor who is best for your roommate, your siblings, and the rest of your cohort in graduate school. And when you have an advisor, figure out how to make that relationship work for you. In the end, while the advisor has a huge role in a student's success, there is only so much an advisor can do, and ultimately, it is all about the student.


For what it's worth in the comments to the link posted by the OP, in response to a comment to her original post (from 2012), the author writes

This was an early post, one of my first (possibly my very first–i have to check!) written when I had basically a nonexistent readership. I would not write “nice always loses” now because I’m much more aware of the degree to which people read this blog as “truth.” Indeed, I am somewhat more careful with nuance now, although yes, hyperbole remains part of my schtick, in blogging and in life, as my friends and family know all too well.

Of course, she did choose to repost it 2 years later without rewriting it in any way, so take the author's comment as you will.

  • 8
    The later comment by the blog author is very telling. "Schtick" seems like an appropriate word: the author is using this blog as promotional material for certain expensive professional services, and it seems as though this kind of soi-disant "no-nonsense" viewpoint is an important part of her brand image. I guess it is difficult to charge several hundred dollars an hour to tell people that the world is complicated and different things work for different people. – potentially dense Feb 6 '15 at 11:40
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    For what it's worth, let me add that my advisor was very nice, friendly, and available, and gave me "criticism and pushback" precisely when it was necessary. – potentially dense Feb 6 '15 at 11:42
19

Other people have already said essentially the same thing, but if I record it as an answer people can vote accordingly, so:

If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

It is just silly to take this as a piece of advice. The "cry test" makes no sense, because when exposed to identical circumstances, different people may or may not cry (and when two different people cry in response to the same thing, the meaning of it may be profoundly different). Look, not everyone cries on the job, period. The one time I can remember tearing up in a professional context is when I got a telephone call from a colleague of mine telling me that his department was going to offer a(n excllent) job to my (excellent) PhD student, just in time for me to look his (well, certainly very nice!) parents in the eye on graduation day. In other words: tears of joy and relief, not tears of "someone was not nice to me". I have had five PhD students, and the number of them who have cried before, during or after an appointment with me is....I have no idea. (During: zero.) In order to guess the answer I would have to try to probe the emotional architecture of these adult professionals with whom I have an adult, professional relationship...so I won't.

To say it in a slightly different way: the nice/mean thing is some fingerpaint approximation to what students should actually be taking into account. I am, for my weight class, a relatively ambitious and demanding thesis advisor. I think most students would describe me as "professionally intense". But I am most certainly "nice" to my students...in fact, nicer than you might expect from watching my interactions on this site. I view being nice to students as part of my job. I have never yelled at a student, not once. Earlier today I returned my cable box, and I got heated with the woman there in a way that I absolutely never would with a student. (And it turned out that she was right, I was wrong, and I went back in to apologize.) This is not really about me at all: the point is that nice/mean is a poor approximation to what one is really looking for an advisor, and an advisor who was actually not nice would be a terrible person to work with professionally. So please don't choose "mean" people to work with....obviously.

  • Similarly, I always felt reassured talking to my advisors. It was my own internal narrative that brought on the tears. – Fomite Jan 8 '17 at 6:00
6

I don't see how nice and friendly exclude being being open and honest. Note that "nice" and "friendly" are primarily emotional wheras honest criticism deals with a factual level. To me the problem with the opinion of the blog post is that the factual level is unnecessarily and unduely mixed with the emotional level, and in particular - in my opinion - aiming at the wrong emotions.


IMHO difficulties should be treated in an profesional and appropriate way. Which IMHO is rather factual.

If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

(I should say that crying students are extremely rare over here and would generally be considered a rather alarming sign.)

What is amiss here IMHO is that while emotions are a good indicator of how well the emotional level is or isn't, they are no (good) indicator for the factual level. Suggesting to seeingly choose an advisor whom you expect to treat you in a way that makes you cry is not only nonsense but seriously bad advise. You'll head for an emotional trap without having any kind indication that this would help with the factual level of critique.
You may tolerate a certain lack of professionalism on the emotional level iff you know that the factual judgment is extremely good. But this is an implication, a logical one-way. If a supervisor not able or willing to handle things professionally on the emotional level, why should one trust them to deliver a fair judgment on the factual level? 

  • I hold that a symptom of great character is that great people make/help/let the people around them grow (as opposed to: break them as in "make cry").
  • There will be enough situations to excercise your frustration tolerance also with a nice and friendly supervisor.

  • If you decide to play with danger, fair enough. But IMHO doing this in a thesis situation is not the most intelligent choice: theses are exam situations where you are expected to show top performance. That is, performance in your subject area, not as a dompteur of difficult supervisors.


Disclaimer: I've never cried before, during or after a meeting with a supervisor. I get angry instead. Which isn't better for the factual critique anyways.

  • The emotionally harsher encounters I've had were with people who had no problem in telling me that I did wrong - but where the "wrongs" were arbitrary to me. Arbitrary ranging from
    • arbitraty as in the most plausible explanation I have is that everyone had lots of external pressure so emotions spilled over
      (in other words: if there was a factual level, I completely missed it),
    • to situations where I perfectly agree that the supervisor has the right to ask what they asked (factual level) - but where I also insist that this does not constitute the right to get mad (emotionally) instead of calmly stating the factual requirement.
      In other words: situations where I put in the effort to sort out how far I accept the critique - and where unreasonable requests (here: correctly guessing non-standard expected behaviour) start which could only be delivered under the cover of emotional pressure as there were no convincing factual arguments.

Some more anecdata:

  • I've seen (and also comforted) students who did cry after meeting a supervisor/professor - but so far it was never an encounter with someone whom I'd consider a good and thoroughly professional supervisor.

  • I've met professors who were talking about other professors as "too nice" - though in every single instance the ones commenting were professors which I had already marked on my personal blacklist of people I'll be wary of or had even been warned about.


there are profs who are more on the intense, no nonsense side, and then there are the profs who are more easy going.

Personally, some of the most intense research "sprints" that I had took place under an easy going supervisor. And I tend to think that this is no accident.

go on ratemyprof dot com and see the comments for profs who are rated at the top and those at the bottom.

Another contradicting point of anecdata. Poll for the most favourite (school) teacher. Bets were on the funny and easy-going sports teacher who also had the "easy subject" bias in favor. But it turned out to be the very demanding, but thoroughly clear, honest and fair maths teacher. Sports teacher "only" made the 2nd place.
Teachers who pretended (tried?) to be "nice and friendly" at the expense of fairness were clearly despised.

This coincides quite well with what I hear from students now (with an additional keen judgment of who knows what they're talking about and who doesn't).

  • 4
    When you mean a one-way implication, it is a good idea to write "if" with just one "f". Otherwise all the mathematicians get confused. – Tobias Kildetoft Feb 6 '15 at 7:45
6

In my experience as a physics PhD student finishing his work, a nice advisor isn't necessarily a bad advisor. Quite the contrary, IMO, you must feel comfortable with your advisor because if you are going to go through hell (and you will, have no doubts about that), you better go with a leader that you like and respect.

My advisor is a nice person and treats you with respect and is fairly understanding of the problems that will arise during your work and I still have high-stress-related health problems. So, don't worry about not having hardships, you will get plenty.

What you need is an advisor that is honest with your results, have a down-to-earth approach and keeps in mind that you have a deadline. An honest advisor will tell you that what you are doing is wrong. That is important. There should also be room for flexibility so you can develop your ideas.

Finally, if you are supposed to graduate in 3-4 years and you have people from that group graduating in 5-6 years, that is not a good sign. Life does not end after the PhD degree, after all: it is just the beginning of your career.

I haven't finished so I can't say whether I will be a high-quality or low-quality student, but the other students who have graduated under him are doing very well (everyone who wanted to continue in academia got postdoc positions. The one that didn't continue went to the private sector for a ton of money).

About crying, as others pointed out, it depends on each individual. Allowing myself to be more judgmental, the one who said/wrote that quote simply has a liking for the dramatic.

Nice, friendly and available? Nice and friendly is useful to keep your sanity (the physical, emotional and mental stress is bad enough even with a nice and friendly advisor like mine), and also useful when you need to ask questions. But available is important since you will need to get advice time to time, even if you are very independent. As someone else pointed out, if you are independent, you will need less "advisor-time", but it is still necessary. If you are extremely dependent... you shouldn't really be doing a PhD (After all, it is a title acknowledging the ability to do "independent research").

3

I have read all the five items and I honestly believe four out of five of them are very much misleading.

Here are my opinions about those five items:

5. Steals your work.

True, but too obvious to state. This is not only true for advisors but for all mankind. And I assume that someone with an average intelligence would intuitively aviod any kind of person who steals.

4. Is crazy-making inconsistent.

I think science itslef is crazy-making inconsistent. On the contrary, if someone is obsessive about one path of action, then how can he or she improve any scientific study?

Suppose that John works on subject A and conducted experiments titled E1. The advisor might say that the experiments are inconsistent and throw them out and conduct E2 type of experiments. However, after one week, another related subject B may be included into the publication and E1 type of experiments would right-to-the-point to settle the relationship between A and B.

Guess what, "How could you write this chapter about B without mentioning E1 type of experiments??"

3. Is abusive, negative and undermining.

If the student is either lazy or ignoring the comments from advisor, then the advisor must be negative and undermining. What is the role of an advisor if his/her advises are ignored or undermined?

The writer also mentioned about the advisor backing off. Well, this must be a huge loss for the advisor!!

2. Is never around.

No one on the surface of the earth has the right to judge a professor's working hours but the employer. Moreover, calling an advisor bad just because of his/her adacemic activities is nothing but pure ignorance. Or it might be envy, I don't know.

1. Is nice, and friendly, and available.

This is the funniest claim I have ever come across. By the same reasoning, a good medical doctor should always reprehend the patient, the best teacher never smiles.

We, of course, should always remember that once a person's mood is set, then by no means it can change. Therefore, if one is nice, he/she is nice forever. Otherwise, we are dealing with an intense person.

Summary

I do not think the goodness of an advisor can be measured.

The writer is

  1. Holier than thou. It can be clearly understood when you read the writer's vita

I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head.

  1. Despises a lot of professors.

tl;dr

In my opinion, you should nevermind the corresponding blog post.

3
  1. Is nice, and friendly, and available.

And never gives you the fierce criticism and the tough pushback that forces you to confront your weaknesses, take risks, stop whining, cut the excuses, get over your fears, and make hard decisions about reputation, money, and jobs.

As ff524 has pointed out there is an expanded context to the question of "nice", but I think the author of this blog, wrongly, has associated nice, friendly and available with a number of other traits. I have been mentored by "nice" professors, who were friendly, available, cared about me as a person, etc. On the other hand, these were also people who looked at my papers and said "This part doesn't make any sense...", pushed me to submit several papers to better venues than I thought they deserved, and taught me that until it's published, it doesn't count.

Similarly, I'd seen people with "fierce", "tough" advisors who have done very little in terms of productivity, because they're too busy being torn down to build anything.

the nice associate professor ladies (and the occasional man) in the department, the ones who remember their birthdays and sometimes bring in homemade bread.

I have had a mentor who remembered birthdays, had people over to her house for lab dinner, etc. She was also an academic badass. For that matter, "the nice associate professor ladies" both described a number of very formidable scientists in my departments, and are people who have thrived in a setting that is not always friendly to women. There might be a reason for that.

If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

I have never had an advisor make me cry. I have occasionally cried in the course of my career, or had a minor breakdown, but it's never been because my advisors weren't being nice.

Do not attach yourself to someone “nice.” Attach yourself to someone “intense.”

False dichotomy is false.

They might not be all warm and fuzzy, but they’ll have you prepped to deal with the REAL assholes who are always circling out there, waiting to pounce.

One of the things I was taught by the warm and fuzzy types was how to be both nurturing and to fend off the assholes.

Nice loses in academia. Not because you need to be mean, but because you need to be fierce.

Again, nice and fierce are not necessarily mutually contradictory. Generally, I found this whole section pretty off-putting - it fosters an absurd image of academic machismo that I think we could all stand to get away from, and shores up the same excuses many people use to be abusive to their students and junior colleagues. Which somewhat undermines #3 on their list.

  • just want to add that being nice is a social strategy, it doesn't say anything about the person's character. (idea from Gavin de Becker, "the Gift of Fear") – PandaPants Apr 14 '18 at 8:02
2
+100

I haven't read enough about what other people answered to your question, but I really cannot help to share my story with you now.

I think it really depends on what you want, and your attitude. I switched adviser in my third year of my PhD, from a professor who was "very nice" to someone who everyone gossiped about how pushy he is. You might think I'm crazy, but right now I am very happy with my decision.

The adviser I was working with was unbelievably nice to me when we first started working together. She never got mad and always sent me some interesting article, and told me to "take your time and learn slowly." Well, I thought I the luckiest PhD student I could've ever imagined, but then everything changed when one day for some reason she just flipped out. She called me on the phone and insulted me saying I'm useless, work so slow, not productive, and very "spoiled". She said she put in so much effort in me but received nothing. She said she kept trying to "be nice" to me, and I just took it for granted. I was extremely shock, since no one ever in my life insulted me that way, not to even expect it would be from someone who treated me so nicely before.

After about a week of thinking I decided to switch adviser, and of course, she completely lost it. She said I used her, and she felt very betrayed (it sounds crazy but I'm really not making things up...) My new adviser felt very awkward and was still trying to be polite with her, but she kind of insulted him back... He didn't bother to fight with her and started working on research very intensively with me right away. He never tell me to take my time, instead he is very demanding, and keeps coming in the office to check my progress. But he is reasonable. Because I work hard, he never gets disappointed at me even I cannot meet the deadlines we target. I am very happy with him right now, even though I know a lot of students left him because he is so demanding.

On the other hand, the professor I worked with before stole my work. She took my work, which I proposed and worked on it for almost 2 years, and sent to some journalist and published news. In the article, her name was mentioned everywhere, while my name was just mentioned as a "programmer", when the truth is I proposed the idea, collected all the data, did all the analysis and wrote all the words for our papers. At the same time, she was telling everyone that she "fired" me, and she's gonna sign some ridiculous paper on preventing me from doing anything slightly related to what I worked on before. I've never disrespected a person so much in my life before. Who cares how successful she is in academia and how she puts on a show to trick people into thinking she's a nice person.

I know my case is a bit extreme... But what I want to tell you is, don't judge by how "nice" an adviser is. Those things are not real. An adviser that you can really work closely with, and communicate with, is the most important. They can be the harshest people in the world, but as long as they are reasonable and thinking good for you, they're good choices. Sorry for the super long story, just don't want anyone to repeat my horrible past.

  • this post and answer are from a long time ago, but in case people are still reading this particular thread, the "extreme" scenario also happened to me in my past postdoc (being shouted at, having foul language used on me, saying that I betrayed him, etc etc). I went to university Ombudsman, and was told that such behaviors should not be tolerated and should be reported but I just didn't have mental energy to deal with it, esp. he's so chummy with some students. I still have ptsd from it. I really hope one day we can have an equivalent of the #metoo movement but about academic bullying – PandaPants Apr 14 '18 at 7:59
1

I can tell you a few things from my own experience doing independent studies and summer/winter research projects as an undergrad in computer engineering (with aspirations of continuing to grad school, though I decided not to in the end).

1) You need a professor who will push to and motivate you to work and be productive. Not mean, but firm. Since you often have your own hours it's very easy to slack off and procrastinate, so it's helpful to have someone who's making sure that you're producing. Especially if you hit a snag, some helpful suggestions can ease you over the hump and you'll start being productive again.

2) They need to give you constructive advice, which often needs to be focused. This can include what do do or how to do it. It must be specific enough for you to understand what they want, not just a vague "look into this". One of my best professors would mention ideas and topics, and say stuff like "figure out how to do x, then see if you can y", and each step was helpful in either improving my skills or deepening my understanding. He didn't give answers or spoon feed anything, and demanded good work. But his guidance and direction was focused and thorough enough to allow me to rise to the challenge and produce the quality work he expected. Other professors who were "nicer" in the sense that they accepted less may have been easier but didn't push me to accomplish as much.

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