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I am a female PhD student in the end of my second year, and my supervisor has been acting weird lately. He asks me to run the experiments from my laptop and not from my PC in the lab (it does not affect the test), and he does that when it's 11 or 12 at night. We usually do a voice call to discuss work, but very recently he asked for a video call and it was late at night… and just today he insisted that I work from my room and not from the lab.

I just want to know what you guys think. I don't know if it's a culture difference thing or that I should really be careful. I think it's really weird considering that I've been working with him for two years and he wasn't even nice to me.

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    If it makes you feel uncomfortable then it is not ok. – Maarten Buis Apr 1 '16 at 14:29
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    Does he give any reason? – adipro Apr 1 '16 at 14:32
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    My instinct would be that he's trying to creep on you and that he wants to see what your room looks like, for some insidious reason. I also find it weird that he's expecting you to be working at night after hours, in addition to being in contact with him. – la femme cosmique Apr 1 '16 at 14:40
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    Devil's advocate: If you are used to work late in the lab, he might be worried about you walking around at night (I know I'm worried about my phd students going home from the lab at 4am). Of course, audio calls would be a bit weird, video calls are the big red flag... – Fábio Dias Apr 1 '16 at 17:53
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    Let me address one general possibility associated with your advisor asking you not to come in late at night. (Note that I agree that your particular situation comes across as very strange, and something seems out of order there.) Most schools have legal liability issues associated with employees getting hurt on site. There may be a change in policy which makes it more onerous on the advisor to have you in the lab alone late at night unsupervised. – aeismail Apr 1 '16 at 20:07
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This sets off all kind of red flags. In the absence of an extremely good rationale, this is very strange and entirely unacceptable. I would recommend that you make an appointment with your graduate program director and discuss the situation ASAP. That person will have more background about the situation and more perspective, and can offer you better advice than we can here.

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    Additionally, this will (1) track that you have undertaken due diligence if something does go awry, and (2) raise a warning for the department if another student has a similar complaint (maybe there already have been some). – Mikey Apr 1 '16 at 17:13
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    Making an appointment with the graduate student director before talking to the advisor directly about common issues (lab hours, phone meeting conduct) seems to me like an out of proportion response. – user1717828 Apr 1 '16 at 17:35
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    @user1717828 As a graduate program director, I can assure you that it is not at all an unusual response to situations that make a student feel uncomfortable. I am very glad when students come to me about such issues. Talking with the advisor would be fine as well -- but only if the student feels comfortable doing so. – Corvus Apr 1 '16 at 17:47
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    @user1717828 I think your characterization that these are common issues is way off. Talking about being in in the lab between 7 am and 7 pm is common, talking about working at home after 10 pm is uncommon. Similarly phone calls are common while video calls are not. – StrongBad Apr 1 '16 at 18:22
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    In what country/state is this located in? If you think something will happen, consider recording the video sessions as insurance. Obviously, you have to watch out for wire-tapping laws, hence that's why I was asking you in what jurisdiction you're in. Another thing you can do is to invite a study buddy to your room or have your roommate be present and have your Professor get a glimpse of that person so that he knows there is someone else in the room with you at all times. And in the event that he skypes you when no one is around, you could use an audio recording of your friend talking – Stephan Branczyk Apr 2 '16 at 2:05
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I had a similar experience during my MS. My adviser would call me all the time (multiple times a day even after 10-11 pm) to discuss ideas and check on progress. However, at that time he was an assistant professor and only 7 years older than me (he got his PhD at 28 and was my adviser when he was 31). It was awkward at first but then it turned out that this was his personality! He was and still one of my best friends.

Regarding your case, you said that you are in your 2nd year (I assume that you are with the same adviser?), so if he did not act like this before, chances are that that not it his personality (I'm comparing my case to your case). So, this might rise a flag or two. One can assume the worst (to be safe), but let's consider these couple of scenarios first;

  1. Did/Does he do that with other students (current of former)?
  2. Does he treat you differently?
  3. Is there a deadline to your research that you do not know about? (although you said doing the tests late at night won't change anything).
  4. Are results from your research needed for a second round of a proposal (from an ongoing funding) that need to be reported soon.
  5. What about your adviser, is he an assistant/associate professor who in trying to apply for tenure (maybe need your results asap to write a paper or include it in his portfolio)?

Now, if any of the above (or others) do not apply. I would go with your gut feeling. Try to tell him that you can not work at night or you usually sleep early. Try to avoid video calls when he calls, then call him back with a phone call. Come up with excuses i.e., camera broke, lighting is bad, lag in signal, weak network etc. If he keeps on insisting, then discuss it with him. Hopefully you won't have to, as if he is smart enough, he should know that you are avoiding this type of communication. Remember that you can always discuss this manner with an academic adviser or dept. faculty.

I understand that this is a very delicate situation for you as a student, and hope things work out fine for you.

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    Actually, running things on a laptop is very likely slower than on the PC at work, so it can't be that. – Davidmh Apr 1 '16 at 15:18
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    I agree (for the most part i.e., especially for multi scale FE). If you are running a small macro on excel, then it should not be that much of a difference. To be honest, I was thinking in the lines of using the laptop to access the PC at office and work remotely. – The Guy Apr 1 '16 at 16:00
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    The answer is good, but I would disagree with the part about making excuses, i.e., not telling the truth. Lying and hoping he is smart enough to figure out the truth could work, but does not reflect strength and integrity. – donjuedo Apr 1 '16 at 19:32
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I think there are various possible explanations for his behaviour, from purely innocent (but thoughtless) to really creepy. My advice for you: Do not agonise about it! You cannot look inside his head, but you can take action yourself and gain more control over the situation.

About the PC and working from your room instead of the lab

Ask him why he does not want you to use the lab PC and why you should work from your room. You could introduce that question by telling him you wonder about the changed rule/policy. Does he have a reasonable answer?

  1. Yes > Good, then do so.
  2. No > Then tell him, you see no reason in why not to use this PC in the lab and you will continue using it.

About unwanted video calls

If he wants to video-call you at a time or in a situation you are not comfortable with, just deny it and offer a phone call, a written chat or ask him to delay the video call. There is no need for you to justify! Just say, you prefer another time or a different way of communication now. In contrast to some other posts, I do not recommend making excuses (broken camera or so) and hoping he gets the hint, for several reasons:

  1. Some people are really bad in getting subtle messages. They are not mean or stupid, they just lack this skill. If he belongs to that group, your situation does not change.
  2. You might feel uncomfortable with lying, even if it is a white lie. So, you would exchange one bad feeling with another. (And if he sees you video-chatting with someone else, you will need to explain things - another unwanted situation.)
  3. If he really is creepy, he might realise that his actions affect you and he might enjoy having power over you. That is the opposite of what you would want!

Thus, no excuses, but a polite refusal.

About working and calling late at night

Well, working at night is common within academia. However, make sure you are the one to decide if a night shift is necessary. Furthermore, make sure you get the corresponding rest periods as well.

One final remark

Since you mentioned possible cultural differences, I assume you have a different cultural background than your adviser. If this is the case, you could try to talk to someone from his culture and ask how to bring up the above mentioned issues to him in a way that is both clear and polite in his culture.

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    The advisors behavior is so far from normal that engaging him directly is not needed. The behavior should be brought to the attention of someone higher (e.g., department chair). – StrongBad Apr 1 '16 at 18:56
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    @StrongBad Yes, it not normal or acceptable behaviour, but not necessarily a harassment - there are a hand of weirdos in academia and some of them simply don't realise their inappropriate behaviour. – Arsak Apr 1 '16 at 19:06
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    which is why the department chair, and not the student, needs to tell the advisor that the behavior is inappropriate. – StrongBad Apr 1 '16 at 19:08
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    @StrongBad Why not let first the student tell him, and if he does not change, call higher instances? – Arsak Apr 1 '16 at 19:12
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    @Marzipanherz Why not? Because of the massive power asymmetries that exist between student and advisor. – Corvus Apr 2 '16 at 3:04
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The not wanting you to do stuff in the lab makes me think that he wants there to be no witnesses to your work. I get less of a sexual harassment vibe off of this than I do something else hinkey that he wants to keep secret.

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    I totally get a sexual harassment type vibe from the question, but if it is not sexual harassment, it is definitely something hinkey. – StrongBad Apr 1 '16 at 18:26
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    And the video calls? – cfr Apr 2 '16 at 0:46
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    @cfr, a video call, even late, is probably not sexual harassment. Asking her to work odd hours isn't either. Asking her to keep out of the lab isn't either unless he's trying to hide the video calls themselves because he finds some gratification in seeing her. This really isn't the forum to psychoanalyze the advisor based on the limited information we have. OP should discuss with someone in administration if she feels uncomfortable in this way. If the odd hours are the real bother, then I'd advise talking to university human resources about the employment conditions and best use of resources. – Bill Barth Apr 4 '16 at 14:09
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Relevant Facts:

  • You've worked for your advisor for around two years.

  • He recently asked you telecommute/Skype instead of use a lab PC for a task.

  • You have phone meetings late at night.

I just want to know what you guys think.

My thoughts are if any of these working conditions make you uncomfortable, you simply bring them up to him in person.

The information you've provided gives no basis for the insinuation that he is trying to see after-hours video of you for unscrupulous purposes. If he is a good advisor, after a brief conversation he will modify group conduct to suit you.

  • 1
    This whole thread seems better placed in Workplace than Academia. – user1717828 Apr 1 '16 at 17:36
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    Not really, because academics are weirder :) I wouldn't bat an eye at an mail from a phd student at 3am, nor would he/she at my answer at 3:05am... – Fábio Dias Apr 1 '16 at 17:55
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    @FábioDias as an undergrad, I was once told off by a professor for sending him an email at 3am... – Davidmh Apr 4 '16 at 13:46
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    @Davidmh Then that professor is the outlier. Mostly because e-mail is asynchronous.... Just because you sent it at 3am, doesn't mean he needs to see at 3am... – Fábio Dias Apr 4 '16 at 13:55

protected by StrongBad Apr 1 '16 at 19:38

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