I've been trying to cope with a very abusive and mentally unstable advisor. In a recent clash she has been spewing lies and threats. It has become clearer and clearer that despite the four years of manipulations, borderline extortion, and five publications that I've survived through, I will never receive a degree from this advisor. I have decided to accept a job offer and I want to just close things up at the school in the best possible way. If possible, I'll leave a door open by taking a leave of absence for a year to come back to a different advisor.

How should I go about my next steps? Do I email the Department Chair directly asking for a meeting? I have been warned such an email would probably reach my advisor first. Do I just walk into the student affairs department with a leave of absence form? If I should email someone, who should it be, and what should I write there?

I'm funded by an NSF grant, so should I write them now in conjunction or after I finalize my leave at school?

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    Did you try to have an honest, off the record, conversation with the department head (or similar authority figure, above your advisor) ? The advisor might be a "known problem" and they might help you find a third way. I've seen people in your situation swap advisors against the previous advisor's will (overruled by the dep.'s head) and do the thesis deposit/set up defence inside a week... Extreme case, burned bridges all around, but doable... Mar 24, 2016 at 20:42
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    You may also want to consider whether or not you already have been granted a masters or would be eligible to receive one, if that could be of help to you in the future. It is pretty common in the US to receive at least a masters even if you drop the PhD program itself.
    – BrianH
    Mar 24, 2016 at 21:04
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    Not duplicate but worth taking a look academia.stackexchange.com/questions/55803/…
    – user22080
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:05
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    Also this article. pollux.chem.umn.edu/ProblemAdvisors.html
    – user22080
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:06

3 Answers 3


Five publications? Good God, you deserve a PhD more than me and anybody else I have known. FábioDias is absolutely right. I know of an identical case where the advisor wanted the student to do more work after six years and four publications...and refused to fund him AND wouldn't get him a TAship. He finally, talked to the graduate chair in our department. He was ready to go to the department chair and even the dean of the college...but it didn't come to that. The graduate chair immediately took charge, switched his advisor, emailed his thesis to three other faculty members to judge if his thesis was sufficient. He scheduled a defense. Half of the department (students and faculty) showed up. The abusive advisor was also present because he was kept as part of the committee, he was just not the chair nor the "advisor". He successfully defended and even the abusive advisor passed him.

He defended and left within a month.

You have done a lot of work and invested a lot of time and you definitely deserve your degree if you have so many peer-reviewed publications. I wouldn't recommend taking a leave because only rarely I have seen someone coming back after a break (whatever the reason may be for the leave) and finishing. And as you said, it will have financial complications and NSF wouldn't like it very much. In addition, would you quit your job a year later to come back to school? Or work part time? Start fresh with a new advisor, or continue the same project? Will you spend another four years with the new advisor? I would say that finish this as quickly as possible in your own favor. And how specifically would an email to the department chair reach the advisor first? Does he or his/department's secretary play golf with your advisor?

I would say, without writing anything, just drop by the office of the grad chair. Talk to him first. Tell him everything verbally. You should think very hard before putting anything in writing as in an email. Ask him for help. See what he does. If he takes control, then good. Otherwise just drop by the department chair's office and talk to him. This also avoids the danger of your advisor seeing your email first because there never was an email.

At the very end, I would compose a very careful email and send it to the dean of the college and/or the dean of the graduate school, making sure to CC both the department chair and the grad chair.

These are all different levels of escalation. You should start at the bottom, give them a fair chance and a reasonable amount of time to resolve this in good faith. But if it doesn't work, then don't be afraid to escalate it to the next level and repeat.

If you want to take it even further, there is the division of student affair and conflict resolution which is usually under the chancellor or the vice-chancellor. There is also the ombudsman office. At the very end, I would talk to the legal counsel at your school. In the US, even the hint of a possible litigation can have miraculous effects. The school's counsel will of course look out for the school but they might convince the school/college/department to behave rationally because the bad publicity is not worth a grad student.

I'd say hang in there. Research these offices in your university. Read up on some of these policies. Be reasonable and fair but also firm and assertive. I know you have put up with so much abuse but you have to start at the bottom and move up fighting for what's rightfully yours.

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    This is the right answer. Be reasonable and fair but also firm and assertive.
    – user21820
    Mar 25, 2016 at 2:57
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    Definitely +1. Leave of absence has such a high probability of meaning not coming back. With that much work, I think any reasonable professor would happily take on the student so they could finish out their PhD.
    – Cliff AB
    Mar 25, 2016 at 3:33
  • Thank you very much for the well thought answer. Another professor explained to me I'd lose all the research I have done and I can expect another 2-2.5 years before I get 3 new publications in his field. I regret not switching out a couple of years ago or a year ago but I was afraid that my name would be removed from the publications still in progress and leave with my word against hers that 'I haven't done much'. Not to mention I was truly obsessed with my project for which I got the NSF grant for but she was not going to let me take it with me.
    – codekitty
    Mar 29, 2016 at 16:04
  • I scheduled a meeting for tomorrow morning with the Chair but I have no idea how to present this. The Chair does not know me and I'm afraid I may seem to defensive or problematic. I don't know how to tell my story. My only hope is that she knows enough of about my advisor's past clashes. My advisor has had legal battles with two past subordinates (post doc and research assistant), and many other regular clashes that resulted in people being kicked out, but all of these altercations came up in another department since she has a double appointment.
    – codekitty
    Mar 29, 2016 at 16:04
  • @codekitty: without getting too personal, just state exactly what the issue is. "It seems that my advisor and I are unable to work in a functional manner with each other. I am still interested in pursuing a PhD (of course, given that you are) and I would like to talk about my options for continuing work with a different advisor".
    – Cliff AB
    Mar 29, 2016 at 23:50

If you're in good standing with faculty overall, a leave of absence justified with a desire to temporarily join an exciting industry option might quite possibly be granted. Justifying it with "personality clash" strikes me as poisonous, so don't do that - at least not in a public request. You say you plan on coming back to another adviser; but it doesn't sound as if you've worked on finding one.

I don't think you've thought this through: you leave for a year, with only a vague idea of coming back to "someone else" who you must believe you'll find while not even on location. If you don't have one, or several mentors behind you (other than your adviser) who you know have always been very fond and supportive of you, you'll have to explain to some other faculty, while away, why you don't want to come back to your old adviser. A person neutral in the matter will naturally want to hear the other side of the story, and talk to your old adviser who is likely to have similarly ambiguous feelings about you. This is anyway the right approach for faculty as the new adviser will not want to act behind the back of a colleague. This has only some remote hope of working out if the new adviser does like you a lot, and it's certainly made harder by - apparently - planning on tackling this while working in industry.

This is to say that - in my opinion, and absent a powerful other ally among faculty very fond of you - you should first switch to another adviser; then consider if you still want a leave of absence, and see if this is cool with your new mentor. If either the former or the latter don't work out, you should accept the very real possibility that your temporary leave will mean the end of your Ph.D.

  • Thank you for your reply. I'm actually not set on coming back in a year. Reading through answers answered in this general topic, most people chime in that you should leave a door open and that you got nothing to lose by 'leave of absence' so that is why I'd prefer to file that form instead of another (termination?). My main concern though is who to email and what in order to update my status. I'm also concerned leaving mid-semester may have financial implications (will I be charged for the partial semester if my nsf grant pulls back?)
    – codekitty
    Mar 24, 2016 at 18:46
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    @codekitty: given that grants are involved, I'm not the right person to ask about this aspect (we were all funded by our school, so approved leaves of absence, after your qualifying, were granted whenever the opportunity arose). Procedurally, I'd line up a meeting with both your adviser (first), and the chair, in which you focus on how awesome you think the opportunity is, while re-affirming your basic commitment to and excitement about their program (true or not). As you say you want to keep the door open, I'd still think about what I write in my answer. Mar 24, 2016 at 18:54
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    @codekitty: I really am not sure that "you got nothing to lose by 'leave of absence'". I've heard from many people that the difference between taking a leave of absence and formally leaving the program is the formality and that's it. As a point of reference, someone in my program took a leave of absence. When they decided to return, their advisor stated "you can come back when you publish a paper". They responded with "how am I supposed to get a publication without being in grad school?" to which the advisor responded "not my problem". So I wouldn't take it too lightly.
    – Cliff AB
    Mar 25, 2016 at 0:14
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    @CliffAB: that sounds like a horrible advisor to me. Mar 25, 2016 at 3:19
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    @MartinArgerami: without pointing fingers, I don't think it needs to be said that the student and advisor had a very bad relation. But as it sounds like the OP has a similarly negative relation with their advisor, the anecdote seems quite relevant.
    – Cliff AB
    Mar 25, 2016 at 3:30

Four years is a lot of time to just throw out, and 5 publications seems like you should (at least) be close to having enough completed for a Ph.D. Could you switch advisors to someone who would count your past work? Does she have any previous students you can talk to about what they did? Are there faculty with whom you are on good terms who could give honest advice? If what you say is true, you might not be the only one who has noticed this behavior.

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    This seems like it's asking more questions than it's answering. Perhaps it should have been written as a comment?
    – cat
    Mar 24, 2016 at 20:44
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    An astute observer may find some answers in these questions.
    – Lev Reyzin
    Mar 24, 2016 at 22:33
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    Asking the right questions is often the essential part of a good answer. (I think this is a good answer.) Mar 25, 2016 at 1:56

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