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A bit of background: I am a graduate student working towards my Masters in physics. During this summer I signed up for some classes that are somewhat outside my main focus of study. For instance, biophysics; evolutionary physics and so on. The topics were very interestingly handled and I learned a lot. They were, however, not so big on the credit hour scale - just 2 CH each.

Fast forward to last week; I was discussing about my progress in the course with my advisor and I mentioned these classes that I took. I pointed out my interest in the subject and asked him if it would be a good idea to switch to those topics for my PhD research in the future. The conversation took an odd turn as he started to exhibit some strange aversion towards my suggestion. He got upset and all of a sudden started to talk to me about evolution. He didn't let me talk at all. To summarize what he said "I don't believe in evolution (he said this with air quotes), and I believe that God made us all. You should've consulted me before you registered for those classes. I have to ask you Renae, do you believe in evolution (air quotes again)?" He paused for a while. "Yes sir, I am afraid I do." I replied. "Well, that's that," he said, and soon the meeting came to a halt.

Now, the reason behind this question is this: On Friday morning, I got an email from him stating that he won't be able to add me to his research team this semester because all the positions were already filled. The email was brief and did not give any further (useful) information.

D'oh! I immediately gave him a call and asked about this, and he gave me the same answer as he did in his email. I haven't registered for any other classes this semester, and now it's probably too late to do so. I don't know if I could report this. His reasoning might be valid. May be his team is filled up at the moment, nevertheless I am stuck for this semester. If I report him, my chances for getting a reasonable letter of recommendation will be zero. I can't contact anybody else about this either. All my other professors are close friends with him and will surely rat me out. However, it also makes me worried that my advisor holds a completely different scientific view than I do.

  1. Is it reasonable to be concerned about my advisor holding a completely different scientific view?
  2. Should I report this to the authorities?
  3. Will this affect my future studies?
  4. Is it ok to continue in his research team, if he gives me another chance?

UPDATE -- (8th of September, Tuesday)

Sorry about the late update. I was in a bit of panic mode after this incident, and I hope you would understand. Let me answer some of the new questions and concerns that were raised in the comments. I am originally from Australia, but I am in a US university (south). I did not have any sort of argument or dispute with my advisor regarding this issue on that day, I assure you. Neither am I keeping anything out of the light here, as someone has suggested (why would I?).

Anyway, I did not go to the other professor. Instead, I talked to a friend of mine in the department who has a friend working in his team. According to her, the team only has 3 students at the moment, and it is not the usual maximum. Most other professors have more than 5 students at a time including post-doc, masters, honors and a few undergrads. I am still not sure if there's a correlation between the incidents, but I am considering alternatives. Meanwhile, I haven't told this to anyone else, not even to my friend. The minimum credit hour requirement (9CH) is the main issue now. I have to be registered for at least 9 CH per semester. By the looks of things, it seems like I'll be buying tickets back to Australia quite soon.

UPDATE -- (13th of November, Friday)

I quit grad school, and I am back in Australia. I can't believe two months have passed already.

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    Perhaps the professor of the evolutionary physics course would be a useful person to talk to here. – ff524 Sep 6 '15 at 4:17
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    I assume you're at a public US research institution, and I must say that, if this is truly his reason for not letting you join the group, that's shocking. Certainly there's no way, in academia of all places and in physics, at that, that he has managed to avoid working with people who accept evolution. – user28375028 Sep 6 '15 at 5:10
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    Deciding whether or not to hire someone based on their religion (or lack thereof) is illegal in the United States, it's a protected class - you're not even legally allowed to ask the question in an interview. I'm not sure if this extends to picking grad students, but even if it doesn't, I imagine your university guidelines have something to say about it. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Sep 6 '15 at 5:38
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    I don't really have anything useful to suggest, but seriously, this is dumbfounding. I've certainly encountered a fair share of professors who held one prejudice or another (like christianity, atheism, vegetarianism, or avoiding sugar), but I can't imagine a situation in which they would outright dismiss someone because he did not share said prejudice. As long as it has nothing to do with the science (nor does it seriously interfere with everyday cooperation, like very bad hygiene), who cares? – tomasz Sep 7 '15 at 1:51
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    If I report him, my chances for getting a reasonable letter of recommendation will be zero. — Even if you don't report him, your chances of getting a reasonable letter of recommendation are zero. – JeffE Sep 8 '15 at 14:44
103

Well, this is clearly not a match made in heaven. (Sorry, I really didn't intend this as a pun.) What a shame, you had really bad luck.

There is no need to keep this a secret from the other professors. It is very unlikely that they are clones of this guy, even if they do have a friendship with him.

Yes, you do need to talk to the dean of graduate studies in your department and let him or her know what happened.

I don't think that particular research team would be a healthy place for you. The guy behaved badly. You need an advisor you can trust to act like a mensch.

In terms of the effect on your future studies -- I can't say. If you can find another advisor you want to work with at your current institution, great; otherwise, you might want to go elsewhere.

By the way, do you mind my asking, why aren't you in a PhD program? In physics it seems a bit unusual to be in a Master's only program.

(Just so you know, what he did was illegal in the U.S. I'm sure the dean of graduate studies in your department will know that, and I'm not going to suggest you mention it; but I wanted you to know, so you will see this clearly as THE PROFESSOR'S problem, not yours.)

-- Edited to add: for some info about the illegality of this sort of thing, in the U.S., see the U.S. Department of Justice's intro page: http://www.justice.gov/crt/combating-religious-discrimination-and-protecting-religious-freedom-20

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. If your name is aparente001 and you want to clarify something about this post in a way that is visible to future readers, please do so in an edit to your post, not in a comment. Anyone (reader or writer of this post) who wants to discuss it should do so in chat. – ff524 Sep 9 '15 at 6:30
  • Suggestion: denote that the legality hinges on whether the institution is private and has expectations outlining this specific belief. If, for example, this was a religious institution and explicitly prohibited that belief as core to their religious beliefs, it's allowed. Otherwise what you noted may or may not apply for other reasons. – Physics-Compute Sep 11 '18 at 17:21
81

This is a startling story. Bottom line: any physics department in which the chair makes a point of "not believing in 'evolution'" and takes a student's "belief in evolution" as relevant to her studies is almost certainly a physics department that any student is better off away from.

Scientists are not in the position of "believing" or "disbelieving" scientific theories. That has nothing to do with the scientific method whatsoever, and anyone who thinks that personal beliefs are relevant to scientific work doesn't really know what science is. When the chair of the physics department doesn't know what science is and thinks there are "bad classes" within his own department or university: the rot lies too close to the core. Try a different apple.

I think the real question is how to prepare a graceful exit strategy. Unless this is the physics department of Freddy Krueger's dreams, there are going to be a lot of other faculty who will be absolutely horrified to learn that the chair feels this way. (In fact, their problems are probably worse than yours...) You should contact faculty that you have a good relationship with and tell them this. I think there is little doubt that some of them will talk to the chair about it, and if his views are as extreme and sincere as you've suggested, I suspect he will have trouble denying it with the convincing vigor that any other scientist would muster. Whoever taught you evolutionary physics is a good place to start. If other faculty members can corroborate your story, then they will be impressively sympathetic, and should help you land safely somewhere else.

But is it possible that your advisor the department chair will be able to convincingly deny that the conversation ever took place? Unforunately, yes: he could be the evil genius of physics department chairs. (I suppose it's even possible that the whole "I hate evolution" story was just a front for him to mess with you. If so: yikes. Just get out.) In my opinion trying to seek restitution through formal university proceedings is not worth your time or effort: sometimes you just have to know you're in the right and move on to dealings with better people. If you leave without being believed, make sure that you make it safely to the next stage of your life and career, and as soon as that happens, keep telling your story. See if you can interest the university press in a physics chair who dropped you for believing in evolution. Send an anonymous email to all the faculty and the students. Or whatever you come up with. The point of doing this is that something happened to you that should never have happened, and even some weird rumor that the department chair is anti-evolution will go a long way to ensuring that he will keep his anti-evolution talk to himself in the future.

Good luck. For the love of Darwin, good luck.


Added: A few people seem to be taking issue with the first few sentences of the second paragraph of my answer. The question was not about the philosophy and practice of science, so my answer did not dilate on that either. So I said some things about science which are true (in the sense that they are very largely agreed upon, not necessarily in some grand epistemological sense) and didn't pause to explain or defend them. But perhaps it will help to say a little bit more:

  • I did not mean that scientists have true knowledge rather than religious belief. This is doubly wrong: on the one hand probably the majority of scientists do have religious belief, and on the other hand very few grownups who are knowledgeable about science think it is "true knowledge" in any platonic sense. True knowledge is probably one of the idealized goals of science, but what science actually is a highly codified (even gamelike in the sharpness of its rules) method which has a proud history of being the best practical substitute for the absence of true knowledge or certainty.

  • Science is also a profession and a social group, with clearly defined rules. Of course what is valuable and good is highly determined by subjective, contingent realities within the group. But the group operates vigilantly under a better-than-all-the-alternatives set of rules which result in a continual updating, refinement and improvement of its collective paradigms and views. Individual beliefs are not part of the game of science. I don't mean that individual scientists don't have their own beliefs (about science, about reality, all kinds of beliefs...) but rather that the profession of science places no premium whatsoever on these individual beliefs. If I am working on perfecting the prevalent, widely believed aether theory and you tell me about the Michelson-Morley experiment, I don't have to like it but as a scientist I am compelled to respond to it, and if it falsifies my theory then sooner or later I have to admit that. I can't say "Your experiment is fine for you, but as for me I don't believe it. What I believe is..." That is precisely what science is not: there is no professional currency in individual belief (on the contrary, such expressions will be viewed very negatively if they are taken seriously).

  • Beliefs of various kinds probably do play a role in motivating individual scientists; they certainly play a role in what scientists choose to work on. But that's the way humans do everything. A working scientist will all too often grow to believe something because of the favorable consequences for her professional life if she can be the one to show that belief is correct. Pascal gave an argument why we should believe in God which was remarkable in that it did not argue that God exists but only that it is beneficial to us to believe it! (I think this argument is very psychologically insightful.) But again, the key part of being a scientist is that you can be a roiling bundle of hopes, dreams and self-serving beliefs -- just like everyone else -- but you can't play these cards in the game of science. To think that you can -- i.e., to think that the scientific community is going to let you play one of those cards without pushing back with extreme negativity -- is indeed very strange. You either don't know what science is, or you don't want the science department of which you are the chair to be players in the scientific game.

  • Also part of being a scientist by the way is realizing that in order to make an expert contribution you have to be rather specialized in what you truly know and care about. Most scientists -- and in fact academics of all kinds -- have studied a small number of things deeply enough to come to respect the effort and know what true expertise means. Amazingly enough, we can have opinions and beliefs on things that we know virtually nothing about. But most academics that I know learn to discount their opinions and beliefs when they fall far enough outside of their expertise. So I find it really weird to watch TV pundits declaim passionately about global warming. My feeling is that this is a very complicated issue with a literature which is vast, recent, and almost wholly unread by me. The scientists who are studying it are in quite good agreement, but maybe next year they'll find something really different and tell a different story. I am going to let them handle it. Why would I, a non-scientist, want to share my personal opinion on global warming with the world? What value does that opinion have?

  • Evolution is at the other extreme. Yes, it's "just a theory" (a maddening phrase, to be sure, but not wrong: what else could it be?). But as scientific theories go, it is about as old, venerable and confirmed as it gets. What kind of scientific experiment could we even conceive that could call this theory into major question? So a scientist speaking out against evolution is, as I said, startling. Have some respect for the game you've chosen to play.

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    Don't scientists "believe" and "disbelieve" in theories all the time? Science is rooted in belief. Even mathematics, supposedly the most rigorous of the sciences, is based on the "belief" that many of its assumptions/axioms are true (incompleteness theorems?). Although I'll assume that you're talking more along the lines of "blind faith", I think it's dishonest to say that science is not about belief, i.e. having confidence that something is true. Science is at its core does not give us absolute certainty and thus only grants us varying degrees of belief. – Anonymous Sep 9 '15 at 0:10
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    @Anonymous: Science is not about personal beliefs, and it is certainly not about beliefs in extra-scientific entities like God (it is not antagonistic to it but rather orthogonal). Science is not even directly about what is true or false but only about what is confirmable or falsifiable. Similarly beliefs about mathematical axioms are at best private and personal and do not belong in mathematical work. But it would be a more accurate sociological description to say that 99% of all working mathematicians don't know and don't care about axioms and consistency...at least not professionally. – Pete L. Clark Sep 9 '15 at 1:49
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    "Science is at its core does not give us absolute certainty" Yes, of course. (I did not mean to imply that absence of belief meant certainty!) "and thus only grants us varying degrees of belief". I would replace the last word with "confidence". Your use of "belief" here is not the same as mine. "I believe that God made us all" is a fine thing for a scientist to believe -- probably the majority of scientists who have lived on Earth have believed this -- but it is not a scientific statement, so bringing it up in a discussion in opposition to a scientific theory is a terrible mistake. – Pete L. Clark Sep 9 '15 at 1:59
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    @Anonymous: I wasn't able to follow your comment; what I said does not lead to the response you suggest. Again I think you are using the term "belief" for something like "scientific hypothesis" or "scientific theory", which is not at all what I intend. And I see no contradiction with what I said about mathematics. The comments section of this answer is really not the place for a discussion on the philosophy of science or mathematics. If you are interested in learning more about the latter, please feel free to contact me privately, using your real name. – Pete L. Clark Sep 9 '15 at 2:27
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    I find even the moderate amount of pushback I'm getting disheartening. I see an increasing trend in American society -- which I would be happy to laugh at as dopey if it weren't so insidious -- that an individual's personal belief or disbelief in a scientific theory has some public importance or value. Let's take a less thoroughly confirmed theory than evolution: global warming. People are often asked whether they believe in it. But if I have not read, engaged and analyzed the scientific literature on global warming -- and I haven't -- who cares whether I personally believe it or not? – Pete L. Clark Sep 10 '15 at 6:34
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IMHO, you should feel lucky about knowing that the rapport with you and this person is incompatible at such an early stage. Occurrence of such an event at a much later time may have caused devastating results.

Is seems like @aparente001's procedure seems appropriate. Also take notice to @Dan's advice; reacting too vigorously may spoil you career within the campus (unless you have plans for a different institution). But all solutions suggest you to move to another advisor -- one who might be more in sync with your ideals, or at least one who won't enforce his ideals.

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I really sympathize with your situation. This is the kind of case that gives academia a bad name and highlights the inherent power imbalance between professors and students. Academia has devised all kinds of tricks and checks and balances to mitigate this imbalance and the conflicts it leads to, but unfortunately the system still leaves plenty of room for these types of abuses, and no one has a magic bullet to prevent them or necessarily even to address them when they occur.

About your questions, I'll answer the easy ones first:

1) The bigger reason to be concerned is that your professor is a bigot who abuses his authority, not so much that he has a different scientific view than yours. If he were a devout creationist but did not act vindictively against people not sharing his views, and could work with you in a professional manner on a topic that was unrelated to the conflict in your worldviews, I would say there would be no cause for concern and you could be perfectly happy working with him. Alas, that is not the case.

4) I agree with @aparente001's answer that given what happened, you should make every effort to find a different advisor to work with. You should accept an option to work with this person only as a last resort. The way he behaved is unacceptable and would be a big warning sign that even if you tried to work with him, something is very likely to go wrong and lead to further disappointment and heartache.

2) and 3) These are really tough questions. If you can substantiate that the conversation you had with the professor took place in the way you described it, and if you can show a connection between that conversation and the email you received, then the professor has indeed behaved unethically and illegally (in the U.S.) and you have every cause to report him. Those are big if's however; he may very well deny that he acted the way you say he did, or admit to the conversation but find a plausible explanation for not offering you a place on his group unrelated to the conversation. (Indeed, to be fair I must leave him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he might even be telling the truth. I wasn't there and don't know what happened.) You may end up being dragged into a costly and time-consuming dispute that could have a seriously negative effect on your career, mental health and finances. The possibility that this battle will hurt your future studies and/or career is very real unfortunately. Or you may end up winning, and gain - what? Agreement from the professor to work with you, when we already kind of see that's not a good idea? An apology? Financial compensation? You need to ask yourself what you hope to achieve by filing a complaint, and how likely you are to achieve it, and what cost you are willing to pay as a result. Only you can answer those questions I'm afraid. Note that I am not a lawyer; you may want to consult a lawyer regarding your legal case for a religious discrimination lawsuit or complaint.

The one thing I'll add is that it may be worth telling about what happened to the department chair or graduate program chair, without filing a complaint. Stick to a purely factual description of what happened and leave them to draw their own conclusions. It may help them deal with the person if a similar situation arises in the future, or perhaps you will discover that you are not the first person he did this to and this will bolster your case. However, even this step carries some risks so please consider very carefully whether you want to have this discussion. If you have reasonable financial means, consider even seeing a lawyer just to have a short consultation and know about your rights and options available to you.

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    Speak to a different admin then. One nice thing about PhD programs (at least in the US--based on your quandary, I'm assuming this situation can only happen here) is there are usually multiple professors in admin roles. Usually there's a chair, a director of graduate studies, maybe a director of admissions, etc. Talk to one of them instead. To hold those positions, they generally have been around a bit and thus may be able to offer advice – marcman Sep 6 '15 at 5:14
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    Also, I have to disagree with @DanRomik's deathly spiral theory. Most issues like this can get resolved in pretty mundane ways. Avoid immediately jumping to worst-case scenarios and claiming ethics violations and the like. The easiest way to put this in the past is to circumvent the issue, not blow it up further. Speak to the dean, go through the proper channels, and so on and it will probably work out. It'll just be a pain in the ass. – marcman Sep 6 '15 at 5:19
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    @aparente001 I don't think failing to write a positive letter of recommendation would be construed as 'retaliation,' though it certainly is a very possible (and likely) outcome of filing a complaint against the professor. Also, asking him to step down without any actual evidence that his not hiring the student is related to the incident in question is indeed unreasonable. – reirab Sep 6 '15 at 5:34
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    @aparente001, you may be right; I was speaking in generalities and know nothing about OCR. However, I'm actually familiar with a case of a colleague trying to undo some harm done to him by his department. His efforts have in fact been costly and time consuming, and that's what I had in mind when I wrote those words. And I agree with you the risk of direct, blatant retaliation is small; but there are more indirect, vague ways in which OP's career or course of studies could be harmed if she starts waging this kind of battle. I advise at least some measure of caution prior to taking any action. – Dan Romik Sep 6 '15 at 5:54
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    @aparente001 I do not think any department in the US can safely remove this professor from a position (including chairmanship) lightly. The professor can then turn around and sue the university, claiming that his email to the student was unrelated to the creationism thing and alleging that he (the professor) was removed from his position for his own religious beliefs. It's not a straightforward matter. – ff524 Sep 6 '15 at 6:17
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Console yourself that you are in good company - the best in fact. Darwin himself had to put up with this sort of nonsense from the moment of publishing his greatest work until the day he died. Secondly thank your lucky stars you don't appear to be studying in a society where your ideas would be so unacceptable that you would be martyred for them.

You have had a lucky escape from someone who is so convinced of their own rightness that it surely spreads to all aspects of their life. Any new ideas that you might have had that were not already part of this person's orthodoxy would be quickly stamped on. People who live in the past are often motivated by fear. Fear of losing face or fear of having their precious beliefs shattered. Fear exerts a stronger force than any other emotion in all but the greatest of heroes.

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    Secondly thank your lucky stars you weren't born in a time or society where your ideas would be so unacceptable that you would be martyred for them. — Being that this is a site accessed from all over the world, I'd use caution here. – Mad Jack Sep 7 '15 at 23:21
  • @MadJack - I see that you have some support for your comment. Maybe I have misunderstood what it is about. Could you perhaps be more explicit? Thanks. – chasly from UK Sep 8 '15 at 19:36
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    I think he is pointing out that such "times and societies" exist in our world in the present day, and that you were making an assumption here about when/where the OP was born which was potentially incorrect. – wim Sep 9 '15 at 12:01
  • @wim - Good points. I've amended my answer. – chasly from UK Sep 9 '15 at 12:35
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It's quite amazing how quick people are to jump on the "sounds illegal" bandwagon. It's not, for reasons which I will explain, and the other experienced users here are fully familiar with.

There's a huge difference between "I'm focused on the research we discussed when you became my advisor -- and by the way I have an opinion about evolution vs creation" and "I spent my summer classes on evolutionary physics, which I didn't tell you about and are outside the focus area we discussed, and I'm now choosing to make that my topic". Absolutely HUGE.

The critical point here is that the PhD advisor-advisee relationship is quite unlike any other employment relationship. You have proposed to make this topic your research direction for a PhD, a career in which you and your advisor are expected to publish together. A faculty member is entirely within his rights to refuse to attach his name to an argument which he doesn't find convincing, and your advisor is being upfront with you that he will not pursue topics in your new direction. Very few people have any influence over the research area a tenured professor chooses to pursue, let alone the ability to command him to change/expand it, and you are not his funding agency.

It would be a completely different matter if you have found a professor who is willing to be your PhD supervisor in evolutionary physics, and the department chair was interfering with that arrangement on the basis of your beliefs. But nothing you have said suggests this is happening here.

Now, it seems that you think that employment in his research group, doing work unrelated to the topic of dispute, should be unaffected. But step back and consider what you've expressed to him: You've chosen a research field which has zero overlap with his interests, and probably got defensive about it during your conversation, which he perceives as an indication that you are no longer considering other topics. So the chance you will end up as his advisee for a doctorate is indistinguishable from zero, and any training you receive in his lab is a complete waste. He's much better off spending that slot on someone who is considering collaborating with him for a longer period of time... and lo and behold, that's exactly what he tells you he has done.

Let him do research in the area of physics that interests him, and fill his lab with students who are pursuing the same area long-term. Wish him the best with that, promise to send him a copy of your completed PhD dissertation someday, express confidence that he will read it with an open mind and better understand your interest in evolutionary physics.

Then find yourself a research group that provides you with the background you need for your future studies. If he really is just asserting his right to direct his own research, as it sounds like, he may even help you find one. Especially if you thank him for all he's taught you about (other area of physics) and mention that you know he isn't interested in your new area, but you're unsure how to find a position better aligned with your new direction and could really use a little help from him in that regard.

Or, if you would be interested in using the time you'd set aside for research for a heavier course load, but the add deadline has officially passed a few days ago, that's almost certainly something within his power as department chair to instantly solve.

Be respectful of his focus on one of the many areas of physics that doesn't overlap heavily with biology, and I suspect you'll find him both reasonable and helpful in getting you placed.

Bottom-line: You've announced a change in your research topic; it should not be surprising to anyone that that necessitates finding a new advisor and a new lab. The timing is unfortunate, but you've suspected you were interested in this new area for an entire term -- things would probably have gone much more smoothly if you'd mentioned that you wanted to take those classes to explore a new direction, and had a conversation about what your options would be when the fall came and you had to choose between the two.

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    Downvoted. — You've announced a change in your research topicThis is not an accurate summary of events. OP described a set of classes that they took, and then asked her advisor about the possibility of changing research topics. Asking about a possible change is not the same as announcing a change. The advisor's objections were not based on intellectual fit, but rather on a religious opinion that is at best irrelevant to OP's suitability for a PhD-level research in physics. – JeffE Sep 8 '15 at 14:45
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    I also firmly agree with JeffE's comment and find this answer distressing in the extent to which it adjusts the facts of the case (and completely omits the worst parts) in order to reach its conclusion. Speaking as an advisor of PhD students, in my opinion it is dangerously irresponsible to suggest that a student in one degree program who asks about an interest in a future degree program to be construed as being no longer interested or suitable to work with their current advisor. Students should be encouraged to have interests and entertain other avenues, not punished for it. – Pete L. Clark Sep 8 '15 at 15:53
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    @BenVoigt it's not wrong to say that the student has pursued a new topic — Yeah, actually, it is. Taking a class is not the same as pursuing a new research topic. But even if OP had started actually doing research on a new topic, that would not be sufficient grounds for summary dismissal. As Pete Clark says: Students should be encouraged to have interests and entertain other avenues, not punished for it. – JeffE Sep 8 '15 at 16:04
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    @Ben: "He didn't let me talk at all." strikes me as a fairly obvious repudiation of your 'guess' that the adviser sought assurance. I find the continued fairly eloquent misrepresentation of the original question (for the transparent reason and agenda) troubling, saddening, and likely a hint of what someone in OP's situation might face if pursuing any investigation (in the extraordinarily religious US at least), – gnometorule Sep 8 '15 at 20:10
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    @BenVoigt If I suggest my advisor a new research topic, the worst case scenario I expect is "no, that is useless", not "you are fired" (of a sort). – Davidmh Sep 9 '15 at 14:51

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