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I am an undergraduate student. Recently, my interest about a particular (difficult) field – somewhere between physics and maths – arose, a field that is only briefly mentioned in some lectures. For that reason I decided to ask the only professor (Professor A) who could know more about it. Professor A also happens to be a professor that is, in polite words, student-unfriendly. I simply asked if he could suggest some books or topics I could read in order to get prepared for a book that had the whole theory of that difficult field I was looking for.

His first reaction was laughter. He said that even he himself has not “touched” this particular field and that no one else in the whole university could. In the meantime, he used several provocative phrases to describe how poorly educated in maths students are for such purposes. It is also known that Professor A generally talks with many students in a bad manner and generally misbehaves. Still, he is a good researcher, and other professors respect him for that (and only that – they know about the misbehaviour).

Anyway, the next thing that happened is that many other professors know about this situation and their behaviour towards me is strange. One of them is a professor I would like to work with (Professor B). I strongly believe that Professor A said something wrong/different about our conversation. Right on the day I talked to Professor A, Professor B cancelled (not postponed) a meeting: I went to the meeting and he had already left the building. I sent an e-mail saying I came but did not find him. I also included maybe we could meet another time. The reply contained: “I am sorry, but I heard from other professors that you have already discussed the topics you wanted to discuss with me.”

Well, something’s not right.

I definitely can’t ask Professor B directly: “what did Professor A say to you?”. Is there anything I could do? Before contacting anyone else, can I do anything to verify what they had talked about? Or what else could I do?

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  • Have you spoken directly to the professor who you are interested in working with?
    – user41783
    Oct 17, 2015 at 1:14
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    Could have been a very unfortunate coincidence - have you tried to reschedule?
    – user41783
    Oct 17, 2015 at 8:41
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    Now could be an opportunity to write another email - the professor is probably busy.
    – user41783
    Oct 17, 2015 at 9:15
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    it really doesn't matter — No, I think it really does matter; it would be very helpful to know what the conversation was about. @NickyR
    – Mad Jack
    Oct 17, 2015 at 19:39
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    “I am sorry, but I heard from other professors that you have already discussed the topics you wanted to discuss with me.” — So Professor B is a jerk, too. Maybe you should move to a different department.
    – JeffE
    Oct 17, 2015 at 19:43

2 Answers 2

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I was going to vote to close because you're an undergraduate, but I checked the fine print and I think we're okay here -- this is a situation which could easily occur to a grad student.

If you still want to talk to the guy who canceled your appointment so rudely, I suppose you could visit his announced office hours and try pretending the whole thing didn't happen

However, if you don't mind being patient, the other approach would be to learn from this experience that your department is a gossip den, and be more circumspect in future; and trust that after some weeks or months, the good guys in your department will realize that you are a serious student worthy of helping. This approach could be called taking the moral high ground and biding your time.

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  • In case I do meet with the professor B within the next days, and something about the issue arises in the conversation, should I continue the discussion or end it politely? Thanks!
    – NickyR
    Oct 17, 2015 at 20:40
  • In such a situation, the thing to do is to state the facts calmly, wait a moment, and if there's no response, just move on. You might want to role-play this with a friend, so it goes more smoothly if this conversation takes place. Oct 17, 2015 at 20:43
  • Even if I do, I believe that in such a situation the things I will say to B will seem pretty aggresive. I feel betrayed because, before that B's behaviour was always polite and friendly.
    – NickyR
    Oct 17, 2015 at 20:54
  • Well, then perhaps that would push you toward option B, taking the moral high ground. Oct 18, 2015 at 1:19
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    "I feel betrayed because, before that B's behaviour was always polite and friendly." I'd suggest at least entertaining the possibility that this may simply be a coincidence that has nothing to do with your conversation with A. B may simply have received some urgent/difficult professional or personal news; think major grant turned down or sudden illness of a loved one. Give it a few days and then reach out again to set up an appointment. Jun 11, 2023 at 18:30
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The phrase mentioned at the beginning of OP's question

It is also known that Professor A generally talks with many students in a bad manner and generally misbehaves. Still, he is a good researcher, and other professors respect him for that (and only that – they know about the misbehaviour).

reminded me of this article:

How bullying becomes a career tool

I want to particularly highlight the following excerpts

People often believe that these scientists are bullies despite being star academics. Their misbehaviours are attributed to an unfortunate decoupling between being a good scientist and being a decent person. However, academics who have experienced bullying often describe patterns that suggest a different explanation entirely: bullying is a means for mediocre scientists to rise to the top.

Abuse of power is not incidental to these men’s “greatness”; it is central to it.”

The hypercompetitive academic environment offers a ‘survival benefit’ for people with personality traits such as boldness, dominance, meanness and disinhibition. These personality traits have been clearly associated with bullying behaviours. This may play out as routinely overstating one’s own achievements but belittling those of colleagues, planting false stories to harm the reputation of colleagues, or publicly ridiculing, insulting or tarnishing the achievements of colleagues.

Although the post is old, there is no concrete solution for the OP (or every student in similar situation) and no action that they can take by themself. But this article highlights that there should be collective action and awareness f what constitutes bullying behaviour, and bystanders should isolate, report, or reprimand bullies in their working environment.

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