My boyfriend, Mark, is pursuing his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at a prestigious school. He has just finished up his 2nd year and passed his qualifying exam last semester. His adviser is Chinese, and the two other students are Chinese as well.

My boyfriend, being the only American citizen, feels like he is more or less the designated "proof-reader," always writing and editing their papers, presentation, and even their post-doc's papers. On top of that, his adviser is a "paper-pusher" and is more interested in publishing papers than the actual research. There have been instances of "academic fraud" where data plot graphs depicting test results are shown with a perfect straight line. Research papers and perfect results seem to be the most important thing in which his adviser is interested. Mark is very unhappy with the lab group dynamic (it's very difficult being the only American student), and the research.

When Mark first visited the university during his senior year of undergrad, many professors had turned him down (he had a 3.0 GPA, which barely makes the cut-off), except for this adviser. Mark feels indebted to this one advisor who showed faith in Mark. Although nice, the advisor did leave Mark to believe that the research and studies would be focused on Thermal-Fluids and aircraft design. This adviser has a track record with the university being misleading and vague. The research that Mark has been doing for the past 2 years have strayed away further and further from what he actually wants to do.

Now being in graduate school for 2 years, Mark has maintained a 3.9 GPA. He has spoken to another professor about his research. This professor is interested in Mark and has the funding to provide to Mark, but is very concerned about poaching students, even though Mark was the one who approached this professor.

Mark has tried to convey to his current professor that he is unhappy with the research and the lab-group dynamic. He also mentioning about this other professor. Instead of "quitting" oh his current professor, he tried to compromise saying how he can have "co-advisers" still working with his current adviser, but getting funding with the other. He tried to meet in the middle, but instead his current adviser dismissed this idea and avoided the situation.

Mark then talked to the administration: the department head and another person who handles these cases. They agree with him, and come to understand the situation. Like mentioned, this adviser has a track record of being misleading, so they are aware of his intentions. When the four of them met, the adviser was very angry, calling this meeting unprofessional and unnecessary, talking about Mark like he wasn't in the room, and accusing the other professor (who was absent) of poaching. It became apparent during this meeting this adviser is more invested in the research (in fear of losing lab researchers), than Mark's academic future and his studies.

Two days after this meeting, the adviser sends Mark a very long email. It entails a very "guilt trip" paragraph claiming that he wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him (how others turned him down for funding). He also seems to be playing the victim card saying he wished that Mark had talked to him about this. He also mentioned that he had talked to the other professor.

It appears that this is a very manipulating and toxic adviser. What Mark is concerned about is what his current adviser had talked to this new professor about. This new professor is VERY concerned about making it seem like he is poaching Mark away from his adviser. He is concerned that the new professor will back out of all of this, and he will be left going back to his old adviser since he's depending on funding.

What should he do in this specific situation? Any thoughts, suggestions, insight will be helpful.

  • 11
    There's been instances of "academic fraud" Reported ones? You are saying this adviser has a documented history of academic fraud? In my opinion, Mark needs to eject before the crash.
    – Cape Code
    May 18, 2015 at 16:15
  • 2
    @CapeCode "academic fraud" as in manipulating test results to allude to a specified conclusion. The adviser will ask Mark to remove certain test points and change some of the values from their data to show a "perfect trend." Nothing has been recorded, but he has had a track record of being very loose with his words and vague, to get away with other things.
    – Paulina
    May 18, 2015 at 17:18
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    There have been instances of "academic fraud"... this adviser has a track record of being misleading ... a very "guilt trip" paragraphDon't walk. Run. Screw the funding. Just get out.
    – JeffE
    May 19, 2015 at 0:37
  • 6
    Right, that's what I feared. With all the empathy I can have for Mark, the fraud thing is the killer criterion eject, eject!
    – Cape Code
    May 19, 2015 at 10:09
  • 3
    Accusing the OP of racism is a rather serious charge (and for my part, I see no anti-Chinese bias in this post; cultural differences can cause conflict or misunderstanding without either side being at fault). But let us not get into an argument in the comments: if you really see a pattern of racial bias, I recommend you open a discussion on meta so the community as a whole can examine the evidence and recommend next steps.
    – cag51
    Apr 2, 2021 at 0:46

3 Answers 3


The damage has already been done in this situation, and your boyfriend should move on with his future.

Basically, at this point, I don't see any way in which the relationship with his current advisor can be mended. The name calling and guit tripping makes for an impossible working environment. Even if he were to stay, he would have to deal with the cloud of the previous attempt to leave hanging over his head. Therefore, it is in his best interests to find a new advising situation as quickly as possible.

  • Thanks @aeismail ! Though the big concern is finding the new adviser. He is dependent on funding, and that new professor is very hesitant to "student-poaching". Definitely agree that the damage is already done.
    – Paulina
    May 18, 2015 at 14:52
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    @Paulina I would be very hesitant to label the situation student-poaching. Mark needs to tell his current advisor directly and without any ambiguity that it was his decision to leave due to their incompatibility, and that he had begun approaching other staff members about changing advisor. If Mark's current advisor won't accept this, the advisor is just digging an even deeper hole for himself.
    – Moriarty
    May 18, 2015 at 15:53
  • @Moriarty Yes, I agree, I wouldn't label the situation as student-poaching since Mark is the one approaching other faculty. The issue is that there seems to be a large disconnect in communication between him and his current adviser. He's rejecting that idea (very delusional) and believes that Dr. A (the professor that Mark approached) is poaching him. Dr. A is also concerned how it may appear as well. Thanks again for your input!
    – Paulina
    May 18, 2015 at 17:11
  • 3
    @Paulina how is the current advisor viewed amongst the other faculty? If it's widely known that he is not a "good" member of the department (to put it concisely!), any slander will probably be treated with great suspicion.
    – Moriarty
    May 18, 2015 at 18:02

I agree that he needs to move on. Perhaps Mark could approach the administrators who were at the meeting, and ask them to talk with the potential adviser about Mark's need to change advisers ASAP. The meeting may have helped convince them of that need.

  • Yes, he's been more or less still in contact with the administrators during this process. They are very useful tools during this process (moderating meetings, giving him advice). It's still tough though since his current adviser is being very difficult not taking it well (calling their meeting "unprofessional and unnecessary" and accusing the potential new adviser a student-poacher.
    – Paulina
    May 18, 2015 at 17:21
  • 3
    I am specifically suggesting that the administrators could reassure Dr. A that he will not be generally viewed as a student-poacher, but as someone who is providing a constructive solution to a difficult problem. I am sure calling a meeting they held "unprofessional" has not helped the current adviser's political standing. May 18, 2015 at 17:32
  • 1
    I agree with what's been said.... Keep in mind that Dr. A and Crappy Current Advisor are colleagues in the same department. We don't know what previous history they may have had with each other. One way or the other, you have to recognize this is an awkward position for Dr A. Just as CCA has been laying a guilt trip on Mark, he probably plays these games with colleagues as well, and Dr A may feel embarrassed for his colleague, or may want to avoid unpleasant conflict. Bottom line, say good-bye to Dr A; check in regularly with Dr. A and administration. Yes, it's a bit of a gamble, but May 19, 2015 at 4:14
  • clearly Mark can't stay with CCA -- he's already burned a significant part of the bridge. The thing to do now is to find ways to minimize the impact on the relationship between CCA and Dr A. Good luck to Mark! What you can do, Paulina, is help Mark concentrate on other things while he's waiting for formal acceptance from Dr A. Don't bring up this topic unless Mark does.... He's fortunate to have you there to support him! May 19, 2015 at 4:17
  • Oh dear, there's a mistake in the first part of my comment, and of course I can't edit it any more. Partial re-do: Bottom line, say good-bye to CCA; check in regularly with Dr. A and administration. Yes, it's a bit of a gamble, but -- May 20, 2015 at 12:32

Mark already talked to the department chair and the graduate chair (though he might be called differently). He needs to continue this conversation urgently. He should also invite them to solve the problem instead of asking them to support his solution (even if in the end, they amount to the same). I would advise to ask the chair to find a new advisor, which could be Professor A. This way, the idea of poaching is out of the room and it is made clearer that the initiative came from Mark, who felt stuck with his current advisor.

Graduate students switch advisors and its hard for the previous advisor, as the previous advisor has invested time and money in him. Switching advisors is not a frequent, but a sufficiently common occurrence.

Mark as a graduate student has no real power (other than just leaving the program) and a reasonably functioning department will offer some protection. (I am towards the end of a lifetime in academia and in general, departments do want to protect their students. Some departments are of course dysfunctional or toxic, and some situations are not handled with the care they deserve, but it is true as a general statement. Departments are measured also by graduation rate and by the success of their students.)

Besides, the relationship between old advisor and Mark has reached a point where it makes no sense for Mark to continue with his current advisor, even if Mark would have to move to another school or look for a different career path. As a professor with graduate students, I would be foolish to insist on keeping a student who wants to leave.

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