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This question was actually asked previously, but it went on hold. So I simplified to make it visible, as I need a quick advise.

I am an international graduate student, currently working in a lab for 2 months now. I would like to know how to deal with an advisor who keeps changing his mind unexpectedly. His decisions are erratic and sometimes are completely contrasting.

For instance, he appreciates my work ethic and that I did better than X, and complains about my poor progress and lack of research experience the next day. He would again come and apologize. He says that he doesn't have time and patience to train new students, as his research is fast-paced.

He also said he would give a thesis topic to work on one day and then asked me to come up with my own later. He promised on funding my masters first and now he keeps asking me why he has to fund, when I didn't show enough progress.

He knows that I am new to his field before accepting me, he also knows my financial condition pretty well.

I worked during this summer for 2 months now. I traveled 3 hours a day to go to lab and bore my own expenses. After all my work, now few weeks before the semester to begin, he decides to test me whether I am fit for this group or not. He gave me a week time to prepare a whole course.

I don't understand his opinions. I was preparing to come up with a research topic and suddenly his decision to test me worries me. Why didn't he decide to test me before hiring? Why now, after coming to a mutual understanding about funding?

How to tackle this situation? As an international student, it is nearly impossible for me to arrange my tuition fee now, as I thought I am getting funded.

How to tackle this situation if he rejects to fund now? How to deal with such advisor even if I continue?

A week later, after the "test he intended to conduct,

I first decided to prepare well, before taking any decision. So, I met him today. I prepared as much as I could. I did have some doubts, where I couldn't understand, nor find relevant information. Before asking anything, He gave a publication and 10 minutes time to understand it. I was able to read half of it. He took the paper back and opened a page in my notes which I prepared during my preparation for today. He saw where I marked as "doubt" and said, "if this is a doubt, then I am sure you have no idea of what all this is." Then he flipped a page and stopped at an equation and asked me to explain what it is all about (Unfortunately, I didn't understand some of it's parameters) and how they calculate those parameters in the lab. I tried explaining in my words. He was not at all happy because I didn't use proper scientific jargon. He didn't ask anything else. He just spoke to me for half an hour, about how ignorant I was to not know it. I asked him to go through remaining notes. He said, he wouldn't bother even if I understood everything else, because I wasn't able to interpret that particular concept. Now, I started feeling very nervous and stupid. But I answered many of his questions, but fumbled for others. He said he might back off at any moment about funding, if I didn't come up with a feasible research project. He kept on insulting me in front of someone else, comparing. I was very worried that he didn't even ask what all I learnt. When I told him in which research area I would like to work, he said I chose a good topic, but I am not good enough to do that. What would be a good solution, if I don't have another option but continue working with him or quit education. Also, I am not understanding if this is my mistake or his impatience.

As a student, I need to learn well and justify from my side. Am I not able to do it? Am I over-ambitious? Do all professors test students like this before giving an opportunity? Most of my friends are doing research without prior experience and none of them faced a situation like this. They were allotted projects by their advisors, and the phd's and postdocs train them. Another student in this group is also trying to come up with a thesis topic. But the professor never conducted any test nor expressed his dissatisfaction in front of others. In fact he used to appreciate me that I was better than this student. Why did he transform suddenly, after promising about funding? He recently got funding, as told by he himself. Is he trying to back off? He is saying that I am cornering him to such a situation, because he once said that he would fund. How is that cornering? He accepted to fund, right?

Now I was giving one last chance, to decide a research topic. This transformation from offering a phd position, to thesis with funding and now no funding and no thesis,it is bothering me and I am freaking out right now with frustration. I am scared to talk to any one about this, as I am not able to figure out if this is my mistake or his.

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    This is not a complete answer to all your questions, but a possible fix if the funding scenario fails and if you should still continue to stick around would be to ask the PI boldly to talk to the department and fetch you a TA position for a course that you would be comfortable TAing for. This has a lot of variability factors of course - there should be an open TA position, you should have enough time to do it and all that but I'm an international student as well and I know how hard it is financially if funding doesn't come through at the last moment. – Sudarsan Jul 17 '15 at 20:51
  • True Sudarsan, but unfortunately, my department doesn't offer TA positions. And my advisor in particular, does not deal courses regularly. – maggie Jul 17 '15 at 20:54
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    Don't walk. Run. – Mad Jack Jul 17 '15 at 21:37
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In addition to the good advice already offered:

  • Are there any more advanced students who have known this professor longer than you have? It could be helpful to ask them how to interpret his contradictory, confusing behavior. This could help you figure out where this ambiguity is coming from -- a disorganized brain? anxiety and compulsiveness? his own funding problems (i.e. maybe he is finding himself overbooked)? a fundamental incompatibility between the two of you? communication problems? There's one other possibility which I must mention -- but you won't want to say this out loud unless you're sure -- sexism?

  • Have you spoken with the graduate advisor in your department? I recommend you make an appointment to speak with him or her as soon as possible. Lay out the contradictions in a calm tone of voice, letting the situation do the heavy lifting -- avoid expressive language, bitterness, tears, etc., if possible. Say you would like some advice. If no advice is offered in that appointment, give your email address and phone number, and ask if you can check in in a couple of days, to let him or her know how things are evolving. This is a way of hinting that you are hoping s/he will work some magic in the background for you in the meantime. If possible, bring a couple of hard copies of emails from the professor with you, to leave with the administrator. Ideally you would have the original offer/agreement, and some contradictory work orders to show. (You don't have to go over them together in the appointment.)

Hopefully the department will knock some sense into the guy, or better yet, help you find a more sane source of funding.


Maggie, this is not normal. You must go and talk to a department or university administrator as soon as possible. Please give the administrator a copy of what you have written here. If you know someone you could bring with you, that would be good, to help you remain calm, and to make sure you don't leave anything important out.

Your studies are important, but your sanity and self-respect are more important. Please don't allow this nut to try to do any more damage to your self-esteem.

Please respond.

  • Finally, the professor ditched me by not even allowing me into is lab. He asked me to send a research proposal before he left for vacation. When I emailed him with all my plan of action, he didn't respond. I followed up with another email and phone. He didn't respond. Instead, he told one of the students in lab to not to allow me into any other activities. I went to department chair and explained what all happened. The professor didn't bother to respond even then. He gave a check to my department chair to pay me for what I worked during summer and disappeared. – maggie Sep 8 '15 at 7:20
  • Now, I am paying my own tuition through installments. I was given an hourly paid teaching aide position which will cover my regular expenses like rent and groceries. I was completely devastated for the fact that he didn't even respond to me nor did he told me before hand. Knowing my financial crisis, I couldn't imagine how he did that. I had no choice but take a break but with my department chair's help, I was able to get at least some money form that professor and a job. – maggie Sep 8 '15 at 7:25
  • @maggie - Thanks for the update, very sorry to hear he turned out to be such a jerk. You had very bad luck. I'm glad the department chair got you partial restitution. – aparente001 Sep 16 '15 at 1:27
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Given that you are finding the ground underneath your feet to be unexpectedly shaky, the only thing I can think for you to do is to explore other terrain. Your advisor is pointedly not committing to you, so unilaterally committing to him is not a safe bet.

In general, people have a quite strong tendency to want to "keep a bad thing going". Here's an idea: maybe try to relish the prospect of making a lot of positive changes. E.g. if you're international than you probably don't have deep roots in the area, so you really don't have to live three hours from where you work, do you? A random move would probably fix that problem. And so forth.

Once you've put some other plans in motion, it may be worth revisiting the issue of whether you really want to keep working with Prof. Erratic, if you can. If you do, be honest with him: he is not acting like he wants to keep you around. Does he? If so, how can you make it work? A bunch of arbitrary tests sounds like a leadup to a dismissal rather than part of a positive plan.

Good luck.

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