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I just started my Ph.D. in fall 2015 in a very good, high-ranking school in the United States. However, my advisor and I were not able to work together and I did not like her way of advising, since she uses negative reinforcement. She was harsh, annoying, and trying to get into my personal life. I do not have a co-supervisor.

I started to think about changing school because of her and I applied to different schools but for some reasons I think she got in the middle, because the schools I applied to have raised many questions about why am I transferring! On one occasion, before I applied, I found an advisor and I told him my situation and he agreed to take me (not in writing, though), but then suddenly I received a rejection letter from the school.

I am not sure what to do, I like studying and I like working in research, but my advisor make me sick. She destroy my positive side and now she is in the middle between me and other schools. Hence, I told her that I am not working for her anymore. What should I do in this situation.

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    There's a few things that don't make sense here. At least in America you don't have a Ph.D. adviser right when you start your Ph.D. You need to pass exams first. In this case why not just get a new adviser? If you're in Europe where you immediately start with an adviser, why didn't you talk beforehand? If you did why was she okay then but not now? Also "harsh, annoying, and trying to get into my personal life" is very vague and subjective. It's totally normal for a professor to criticize your work, that's their job. It's common to be a little weird. – user41631 Dec 12 '15 at 7:04
  • It's even common to want to know you. A lot of my professors are friends on Facebook, etc. – user41631 Dec 12 '15 at 7:04
  • If you give some background such as your location (the state, not the individual university) and make your question more focussed than “what should I do?”, this may turn into a good question for this site, but right now it is far too fuzzy. – Wrzlprmft Dec 12 '15 at 7:39
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    @acid19 Even in the US, when PhD students get their advisors varies significantly across different departments and different (sub)fields. – JeffE Dec 12 '15 at 16:29
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    Thanks for your comment @avid19 . Yes the school is in the US, and its shocking to start working with an adviser during the first semester. I thought I should work on the courses first and when I pass the exam I will start working on my research! But things are different here for some reasons. She asked me to work for her with no benifiet for me, she did not even let me take research credits for that, and she did not offer me a GA position.. – Mome Dec 12 '15 at 23:53
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To be perfectly honest, if a student came to me wanting to transfer, with the complaints you have stated above, I would want to hear the other side of the story.

Yes, there are bad advisors out there, and sometimes personality clashes just happen. This can be a reason for switching to a different advisor. However, there are several things that would cause me to be concerned here.

  • You are giving up on the program very quickly.
  • You seem to be immediately going to the option of changing institutions, rather than the more common approach of changing advisors within the institution. Why is this? Does it mean people closer to the situation don't agree with your take on it?
  • You have lots of very bad things to say about your advisor, yet few specific complaints. What are the actual inappropriate things that your advisor did?
    • Many of the complaints seem to be about style: "negative reinforcement", "harsh". It can be quite hard to work with someone whose style doesn't match yours. However, in all but the most extreme situations, this is something you should learn to work around, rather grounds for refusing to work with the person.
    • Many of the complaints are attacks, without any substance: "[she] makes me sick", "[she] destroyed my positive side".
    • The one concrete complaint you have, that the advisor is "trying to get into my personal life", is potentially a serious breach of professionalism. But again, without specifics, the merit of your complaint is hard to judge. Has she crossed a line, or are you misreading an attempt to be friendly (e.g. chatting about non-work subjects)?
  • Your initial stance is to 100% blame her for the situation, but after further discussion in the comments you admitted that you were not fully prepared for the program.

I'm not saying that you are wrong. Maybe you are right and the advisor is just terrible. Terrible advisors do exist--but people who wrongly blame others for their situation also do exist. Someone who doesn't know you is not just going to take your side of the story at face value. They will also want to find out more about the situation.

The new institution contacting your current institution and current advisor would almost certainly be part of any transfer during a PhD program. This doesn't imply that your advisor wrongly inserted herself in the middle of the situation. It is normal. If there was a sudden switch from verbally agreeing to accept you, to your application being declined, this may well explain it.

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Doing a PhD is not just a meeting of trained minds over an academic problem, it is a meeting of two personalities. Sometimes the relationship falters on this count. What you're experiencing is not uncommon.

Like any relationship, it takes time to learn about the other person. You stated in fall, but you've already decided to quit, telling your advisor you won't work with her. That was perhaps a little hasty. It might be possible to patch things up, perhaps with a mediator. This way you could express the difficulties you're facing with your advisor's style. Getting into your private life is almost always unacceptable, for instance, and you could express this.

Whether you choose to attempt a reconciliation or to move on, you need to have in your mind a clear expression of the reasons why you couldn't work with this advisor, and they should be specific, concrete and clear. Because the questions you are now getting from other schools are completely reasonable and you have to answer them. Just telling a potential new advisor that you just didn't get along with your old advisor, is going to raise alarm bells. Why then should the relationship be any different between you and the new advisor, especially when things don't go right at times with the research?

I'd be careful about claiming your old advisor is getting between you and new advisors without definite proof. The sort of questions you are facing are probably the ones I'd be asking you in the circumstances. In the case you mentioned in your comment, I think you are justified for asking for a reason for the sudden reversal.

  • You made a resonable comment and I totally appriciate it, I am not saying that I am totally perfect, I have made mistakes and I did not prepare much for the phd program, to be honest I though it would be more like my masters program. However, I told the new adviser the reason I am changing schools, and I told him exactley what type of advising I am looking for, and he agreed to take me, but then things did not go the way we agreed to happen! – Mome Dec 12 '15 at 1:55
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    @Mome I told the new adviser "what type of advising I am looking for". And then you wonder why he did not take you. You are just a student with a BSc degree that has already a fallout with a previous advisor in only 6 months. This is a huge red flag. Why do you think you have any kind of leverage in negotiating? – Alexandros Dec 12 '15 at 9:10
  • wow @Mome your situation sound similar to mine, but usually, head of program or department are responsible for helping you in this case – SSimon Dec 12 '15 at 11:51
  • Thank you for your comment alexandros, but I am sponsered student and my sponser asked me to work on particular subject, and what I meant by type of advising I am looking for is the type of advising on the research subject, so I told him I was asked to work on research A just to make sure that he did not pull me out of it or try to change my mind about the research subject – Mome Dec 12 '15 at 23:48

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