In a nutshell, I hate one of my fellow PhD students. I am sitting in the office with that fellow graduate student who frequently interrupts me when I want to focus on my work. He also often is very insulting to me in front of other fellow graduate students.

I general, I try to be nice and respectful to my fellow students, but I suspect this makes me a perfect target to him. Also he seems very nice to other people, just not to me. I wish I could change the department because its actually a major drawback and affects my whole PhD life, since I currently meet him every day all the time. I frequently miss lunch or some activities of my lab, since I know I couldn't handle his presence. But I don't want that my social life suffers because of him. Do you have any tips on how to overcome this situation successfully?

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    Any chance you could arrange to sit in a different office?
    – ff524
    Apr 14, 2016 at 3:16
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    I know this will sound negative, and I'm not trying to advocate it but can't you treat him the same way he treats you! Maybe he will switch the office or stop being disrespectful!
    – The Guy
    Apr 14, 2016 at 3:29
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    Hate is a very strong word to use in my opinion, especially in Academia.
    – Sathyam
    Apr 14, 2016 at 3:35
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    @Dilworth Depends. Some people are naturally aggressive, and they have infinite resources of energy. Being aggressive back does not work here, they thrive on it; here, letting every issue taper out will bore them. Some people are aggressive as they want to test your boundaries. Here, a firm, resolved, response is the best. Some people are aggressive because they are scared. Here, a disengagement or non-committal relation helps to indicate you do not intend to compete with or against them. Without more information about the case, it is hard to guess whether it's one of these categories. Apr 14, 2016 at 10:15
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    Fighting back, and consistently — [citation needed] "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." — George Bernard Shaw
    – JeffE
    Apr 14, 2016 at 13:54

4 Answers 4


A friend once told me that people take from you exactly what you choose to give them. In other words, this person manages to distract you because you let them. Similarly they manage to annoy you with their rude behaviour because you let their insults get to you. Therefore, I am going to suggest you a nice change of approach, rather than a change of office.

IMHO the best way to tackle distractions is to ignore them. My experience shows that a large pair of noise-cancelling headphones coupled with a focused look that never leaves whatever it is you are doing, work miracles in this case.

Whenever I need to focus and lock myself in the zone, I gear up and ignore everything that happens around me. If people ask me questions, and I actually manage to hear/see them, I tell them, swiftly and politely, that I'll be with them once I finish whatever it is I am doing. Your body language is extremely important while doing so. You want to make sure that you show that you won't be leaving what you are doing to deal with them, because you deem that what you are doing is more important. For example, I don't remove my headphones to answer, and go back to my task straight away. In addition, once you adopt this technique, be democratic and use it with anyone and not just this particular person who distracts you.

Make sure that you show that you are actually focusing on work rather than on leisure. Human psychology 101 suggests that if someone sees that you appear super-concentrated whilst in reality you are browsing social media they will feel allowed to disturb since they will think that you're not actually working. You have the right to not be disturbed whilst you are on a break, however the fact that you are taking a break implicitly says that you are free and can be disturbed.

Interestingly enough, the ignoring technique also works for rude behaviour and insults. Nothing clips one's wings more than instantly getting the feeling that one's behaviour has little or no effect. For your own sake, I'd suggest you begin by ignoring the rude comments that hurt you. This will not be easy at first, but you'll feel the benefits as you get better at it.

Now, nobody should be forced to feel like you do. What you describe is prototypical bullying. Bullying should have no place in life, let alone academia. The steps I would follow would be to begin by talking to this person telling them you would like them to stop with their rude behaviour. Although they might be joking you can't seem to tell whether that is the case, and think that the problem will be solved if they stop whatever it is they are doing.

After talking to them, wait some time. If the behaviour persists then escalate the complaint to your supervisor, the team/department head, or whomever you think has the authority to deal with this. The important thing is that you remain calm and polite during your interactions with your colleagues. Last thing you want is for others to accuse you of being rude.

  • Distance, distance, distance. Given the other person is "nice" to others indicates that they are politically savvy. This makes it particularly challenging to respond or to stay calm and polite, because they know what they are doing. Making clear that one keeps one distance from the person reduces the efficacy of their attacks because it indicates that you are not moving in the same sandbox. Downside is, if not done properly, one may come across as aloof, but frankly, when interacting with a bully, one always has to accept some (hopefully temporary) loss of status. Apr 14, 2016 at 9:53
  • Nice answer, and I especially approve to bullying should not be tolerate and that the complaint should be escalate if there's no change
    – Emilie
    Apr 14, 2016 at 13:05

This is a professional problem, of a type that sadly can floor many students, because they have not been particularly exposed to formal institutional regulatory and political structures. This can be particularly true of older postgrads (in some senses more experienced), because those are the ones who have been most firmly focused on academic work all along.

For me, the hinge of this problem seems to be, ‘He seems very nice to other people, just not to me.’ That statement stands out especially because it means that the situation therefore involves bullying and harassment (succinctly defined on this UK site). You are being singled-out for ill-treatment, by someone who is not simply ‘like that’ to everyone. It seems that that person is quite immature, deriving satisfaction from such behaviour, and is also consciously selective in where to apply it.

The mature, professional solution will not be to fight back. That would simply resolve into immaturity on your part as well, and will not teach either you or the bully anything useful. Most likely, the bully would smoothly ridicule your behaviour, and use it as licence to continue his own. Pointless, and also unprofessional on your own part: do not go down that route. You can learn something much more useful for the future, by exploring the resources that I am sure already exist for you.

In a strange way, this situation is not all bad. Of course it is horrible for you to experience, but it also means that the problem is well defined. In this day and age, I would bet quite a lot that your university will already have a policy in place concerning bullying and harassment, with established procedures for reporting and controlling such behaviour.

Others here have suggested various ways of more or less taking this conflict on, on its own terms, and trying to win it. I think that that would be the worst possible thing to do. That would amount to you approving the bully’s behaviour as acceptable in your culture. In doing so, you would become as unprofessional and immature as he is. You would also waste a great deal of time and energy, while achieving absolutely zero.

You need to end the conflict, not take part in it. As has also been said, the bully has infinite energy: he likes doing this. As we say in the UK, he is trying to get the rise out of you. If you respond on his terms, he will just keep doing it.

What he cannot fight is you being calm and professional.

I would say that your first stop should be talking to your Ph.D supervisor, if you have a confident and trusting relationship. They should be able to point you at the University’s policy on bullying and harassment, which will clearly tell you how to proceed within the University’s existing framework (politely negotiating, collecting evidence, building a case). Also, it would be sensible to alert your supervisor to any undue influences that might be negatively affecting your work. This probably won’t be the first time they have seen some kind of friction, and it definitely won’t be the last.

If you don’t feel that comfortable (yet) with your supervisor, then that is fine. The University almost certainly has some kind of confidential Counselling service[s] for students and/or staff (you might count as both), which would be able to guide you towards the same formal resources, and discuss how to use them. If it offers no such dedicated service, then the University must have some kind of health centre, which could set you on the same path.

Another route could involve directly approaching the University’s HR office. They will probably be the guardians of the institution’s policy on respectful professional conduct, and will have an interest in seeing it applied consistently across the institution. There is a good chance that this is where you will end up anyway, if you start off with your supervisor or a counsellor... but I would recommend calmly and quietly going through those steps first. Those people are there for a reason. Both you and the University can benefit from making full use of their knowledge.

In any case, the likely first suggestion would be politely to make your colleague clearly aware that he is distressing you, telling him why, and asking him to stop. Of course that is a stressful step to take, in itself. The up-side of that is that occurs within a framework (the broader policy) that will provide routes for you if he responds unsympathetically or even aggressively.

More likely, the bully (immature as he seems to be) would seek to continue targeting you in ever-more-obscure ways. The great thing about that would be that by that stage he is on record as the aggressor. It is up to him to show that he is taking the University and its policies seriously. He might even argue angrily that you are being oversensitive and thus damaging his work, but by that stage the point is that he still has to be the one to show that he is taking steps to make things better. He has to grow up a bit and start really being professional, otherwise he will just keep getting warnings, drift into the University’s disciplinary system, and eventually get thrown out.

By the sound of it, he might not last long as a research student anyway. In the UK, the term ‘tosser’ would quickly be applied to someone who was that concerned to satisfy his own ego problems by spending time and energy picking on someone else, rather than excelling in his own work and collaborating with others.

Basically, keep calm and explore formal routes. They will exist.

  • @J.J Certainly not my intention! I happen to be taking OP's words purely at face value, and recommending in any case that the most appropriate and professional approach would be to address this through channels that undoubtedly already exist. There are lots of reasons for not taking a personally confrontational approach, including the possibilities of the co-worker actually being as bad as OP suggests... or of him not really being that bad after all Apr 15, 2016 at 18:12
  • Everything that @Captain Cranium says applies in the US. Universities have a lot of administrative overhead and policies in place (whether is is an ombudsmen office, or human resources, or other offices on campus) that are set up to work with these problems. If in the US, check the university webpages, student bylaws or codes of conduct, etc for names of the offices and procedures.
    – Carol
    May 30, 2016 at 18:51

First and most importantly, if you feel you're in the best department for you, then don't try changing departments. Something like this will not be the last time you experience it -- I guarantee it. It's a fact of life. Learn how to deal with it.

My answer seems to have gotten downvoted and criticized a bit, but honestly, in your best interests, I refuse to sugarcoat the answer for you, and I stand by what I have to say to you.

Here are some things I can think of:

1) Tell your advisor immediately. "Hate" is a strong word to describe your current feelings. Your advisor has surely dealt with these types of situations before.

2) You sound passive-aggressive and are suppressing your anger. Why do that to yourself? That is harmful to you. Just tell this person directly what is bothering you, but in the nicest way possible. It'll be good experience for you to learn how to resolve conflicts, and you'll grow from this experience. An email would be a good choice to go with.

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    This answer says "just deal with it" without giving any useful advice on how to actually deal with it: what is the best way to bring up the issue so as to avoid getting confrontational, avoid negative repercussions, avoid being seen as "too sensitive" by peers, etc. Also, there's a difference between "passive aggressive" and "avoids engaging with people who aren't likely to change, because it's pointless."
    – ff524
    Apr 14, 2016 at 3:22
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    I think I am actually active-agressive, and yes I am suppressing my anger at the moment, because I don't want this conflict to get out of my hand. I agree its a conflict I have to resolve, but how? Maybe switching the office will do it already (which I am definitely planning to do after this semester)... Apr 14, 2016 at 3:27
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    Yes, switching offices would be huge. Also, if you feel you need to tell this person directly, I'd suggest email, with minimal accusations, but just tell him or her what's bothering you. Good luck @user2212461 :-)
    – User001
    Apr 14, 2016 at 3:30
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    Also, I don't think escalating as a first step is a good idea. Since they are both PhD students, there is no power imbalance, and it may be easier to resolve the less fuzz you make. By keeping it between the people involved you may avoid bruised egos.
    – Davidmh
    Apr 14, 2016 at 11:29
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    @User001 There was some indication in one of the comments that the word "hate" was rhetorical rather than with full implication. If move to a different room will help, that's not "hate". Apr 14, 2016 at 13:41

I will try not to repeat previous answers. As much as I can think of it they are generally two ways of dealing with it: direct/ open approach and other is subtly one. I couldn't say what is better approach it just depends on you.

1) Direct approach (e.g. @User001's answer)

It is usually more for people who are very direct and these people usually don't have issues with saying to others (even to someone who they don't prefer) what is on their mind. They won't wait too much, and one day they will just come to you and say: "Houston, we have a problem".

2) More subtly/ indirect approach

Well, usually we think about how not to make a fuss. We want to make things as smoothly as we can. We don't want to bother our colleagues or supervisors and we think that we need to deal it by ourselves. Sometimes that is not good way of thinking, sometimes it is okay, it just depends. I think in your case you may try to solve the issue by yourself if you prefer like that.

Anyway, firstly, issues in social interaction usually can't be solved in short period (it can be if you want to change your department or something like that but I wouldn't prefer that as my first solution). Generally, you need a time and "strong nerves" and don't forget that this is your way of learning how to deal with this kind of people.

  • What is the reason of your colleague's behavior? Knowing that part may help you to find the way how to deal with the situation.
  • You may ignore his inappropriate behavior but in that case you should be aware that you may see a burst in his behavior and then after decrease in the behavior (see this or this. This article is about child's inappropriate behavior but you will see you may apply this in more social interaction than that).
  • Try to use irony/ sarcasm for everything he says. Do it with a style (e.g. lovely smile on your face). Play with him, try not to show him that he irritates you. Think of it as a spoiled child (and you may even show that a little bit). I sometimes do that, more as a play. E.g. "Oh for sure you are right, luckily I have you" / "What would we all do without you?" / "Of course I don't understand anything" etc. ( Very important- in your nonverbal behavior people need to conclude that you are sarcastic otherwise you may do even worse thing).
  • When he interrupts you, again do what you would do with boring child. Don't show you are angry, be as much polite (and ironic) as you can be. "My dear fellow can you wait for second?" / "Oh I am sorry to see that you are so bored but I can't help you in this moment" etc. And/ or just pretend that you don't hear him (headset).

Shortly, I would say you have tough situation. Think carefully if you can manage it or not. If you can't you may change a department. That student makes your life miserable. I had kind of similar situation, I broke up with my partner and seeing him all the time in my Faculty was terrible. In that time it was too much for me so when I had the first opportunity to temporarily go abroad I did that (for a six months). I felt as a new person and now I am glad that I had issue which I had. After I came back, I mostly ignored him and I really tried not to show that I care for anything he do. When I needed I was ironic, I learnt not to take him serious and I was really working on my nonverbal behavior. Two years after, you wouldn't believe but we are fine (okay, we don't see each other very often but I wouldn't mind to even work with him on a project).

  • Careful: some people do not get sarcasm. They take it for serious and this can backfire (you mention that, but the danger needs emphasising). There is non-inverting sarcasm (i.e. sarcasm that does not, if taken literally, make you look bad). Generally, sarcasm is unadvisable if you are uninterested in escalation. The reason is that bullies will subsequently see themselves put in the situation where they wanted to put you and will be much more vociferous about that than you'd ever be. You may end up on the defensive for looking like you are the bully. Apr 15, 2016 at 0:45

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