What would be a good way to overcome bad experiences with a professor in my department, who is not my main advisor, but from whom I would like to get advice regularly?

During the first year of my PhD, I worked with the Professor in a class on a project that I didn't perform well on (because I was not very interested in that particular project + I didn't feel very confident on the topic by that time). Our relationship has cooled down since, and he was even debating whether or not to put me as a co-author on the paper that came out of the project with multiple students. (the authoring-issue is not part of this question; I mention it to describe the status of our relationship)

Now in my second year of my PhD, I realize that it would be quite valuable to have his advice on other projects that I work on, potentially even as a co-advisor, but I fear I messed up the relationship too badly.

What would be a good approach to overcome the bad/non-existing relationship? Or would that be a waste of time and I'd rather look for someone else, which could potentially even mean I need to change the focus of my PhD?

  • 2
    Can you maybe say a little about the nature of the relationship before it "cooled down"? That seems like it could be a pretty important factor in providing answers.
    – Ian_Fin
    Sep 6, 2016 at 14:25
  • 22
    Are you sure the relationship needs fixing? Maybe he debated giving you authorship because your contribution was, in fact, debatable. If you want his advice, I would just ask for his advice.
    – user37208
    Sep 6, 2016 at 14:57

6 Answers 6


My general impression is that professors quite like giving advice (it's almost a job requirement...) but are incredibly busy. I would thus suggest you do not try to change 'your relationship' but focus on the task at hand, i.e. directly but politely ask whether your professor would be available to give you some advice.

Of course there is the possibility that your relationship is so bad that your professor will not even consider meeting with you. In that case I would not try to change his/her mind. Just treat it as a lost cause and move on.

In the more likely scenario of you managing to schedule a meeting it's important you are prepared and respectful of his/her time clearly signaling to your professor that his/her advice will be not be wasted. If you are clueless about your questions that will quickly signal to your professor that s/he is wasting her time. If however you seem genuinely interested and it looks like you are indeed benefiting from the advice I wouldn't be surprised if your relationship improves significantly and could even develop into something more formal like that of a co-advisor.

Either way: simply ask that you would like some advice, ideally explaining what makes his/her advice valuable to you. You'll find out how to proceed after that. Good luck!

  • 1
    +1 Good advice to focus on the task — after all, talk is cheap. You show by your current work and the quality of your questions that your attitude has changed. If the Prof mentions the prior poor performance, you can still honestly admit that you did bad work and show that you work hard to do better this time. Sep 7, 2016 at 14:09
  1. Request to meet with the professor. Make it very clear in the email/phone call/carrier pigeon note that you are looking to apologize for previous poor behavior/performance and want to make amends. He is busy, and he does not sound like the type to suffer fools; your emailing him is already making him suffer this fool (you) again, you need to clearly make him understand that you are apologizing.

  2. When you meet, apologize. A good apology has three parts: (1) I'm sorry I screwed up. (2) I recognize that the screwup was my fault. (3) I won't do it again. You should offer all three.

    If there was a good reason for poor past performance (personal illness, family situation, etc.), you can try to explain past behavior, but ONLY in the context of "...but that's no longer an issue so now I can be better." If you can't state that it won't be an issue don't bring it up. However, you will have to offer some form of "and here's why I'll be better this time around," because otherwise he has no real reason to take you on again.

  3. Discuss your current request and ask whether he would be willing to help. Don't be upset if he says no or tells you that "he'll get back to you", which means no. Be polite and thank him for his time.

  • 3
    I think it is not clear whether an apology is needed; It may be that the professor got disinterested, and focused his time and attention elsewhere. Sep 7, 2016 at 1:08
  • 1
    @VolkerSiegel - I was just going off the in the question, "I worked... on a project that I didn't perform well on..."
    – eykanal
    Sep 7, 2016 at 3:00
  • Yes, actually I do think your answer may apply. It's more about whether "I worked... on a project that I didn't perform well on..." implies that the that the professor did noticed or conclude his work work was "not well". He may just have stopped paying attention, without doing the mental work of building a negative judgment. Sep 7, 2016 at 19:34

I would advise you to just knock that professor's office door when you feel the need to meet him. Sending him an email to ask for an appointment could give him the opportunity to delay the appointment or to just answer you he is very busy for the next two to six months. When I feel the need to meet a professor of my department I just go and knock his office door. Generally, professors will listen me first, and if they are not available at the moment to talk to me, they give me an appointment. That is, I believe the best way to proceed.

I believe it will be scary for a professor to consent being a regular adviser to you while not being your official advisor. He may be scary to accept the title of regular consultant or advisor you want to honor him, thinking that your official advisor could apprehend that as a challenge or a competition to to him.

  • 1
    Foot-in-the-door strategy is good to force bureaucrats to sign the damn form, not if you're seeking academic guidance. I'd recommend visiting the person during scheduled office hours or organizing a meeting per email.
    – Cape Code
    Sep 6, 2016 at 16:59
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    @CapeCode: "I'd recommend visiting the person during scheduled office hours or organizing a meeting per email." vs. "knock that professor's office door when you feel the need to meet him" - depending on the professor, these two can be roughly equivalent. Sep 6, 2016 at 17:49

Invite him to lunch. You pay. Apologize for your poor past performance. Ask for a fresh start.

For me, the simple offer to buy lunch works well when I have a strained relationship I'd like to fix or a new one I'd like to form. I've been doing it for years in business and I do it now in academia. I've bought a couple lunches this year alone for colleagues (other faculty) and I'll buy more next year. What I find is that if I make the offer, "Could I buy you lunch?", I instantly find out if a strained relationship is salvageable. And if it's a new relationship, it's just a nice way to start it.

Can a student really offer to buy lunch for an instructor? Well, sure. Why not. Speaking as an instructor, whether I actually let you pay is, of course, another matter.

Added: A good point was raised in the comments about possible COI. Speaking personally as faculty, if I felt that accepting the free lunch might raise COI or other ethical issues but I wanted to show my appreciation for the gesture, this is no problem at all. I would say thank you but politely decline and then negotiate an alternative, e.g., meeting in my office. But a lot depends on the lunch. If the choices on campus are Subway and the food truck, either seems fine to me. And anyway, I can always pay for my own when we actually get to the register.

  • 20
    Is it common for PhD students to buy professors lunch? If those two are of different sexes this might lead to misunderstandings.
    – Alexandros
    Sep 6, 2016 at 14:56
  • 2
    Faculty have clear ethical obligations not to misunderstand these things and to remain professional. Sep 6, 2016 at 15:20
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    As academic setting - A student taking or offering a faculty member 'lunch' (or other gifts, etc) would make most everyone quite uncomfortable in most US university/departments. (more than seems implied in this answer).
    – Carol
    Sep 6, 2016 at 16:12
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    Why would someone apologize for previous poor performance? Also offering to buy lunch is poor advice, it brings a strictly professional request on a terrain that would be much too familiar for many professors not to find it awkward.
    – Cape Code
    Sep 6, 2016 at 16:56
  • 19
    Students inviting a faculty member for lunch is a highly unusual thing [in the US,UK, Germany]. I'd not recommend that at all. Sep 6, 2016 at 17:48

I would approach an "intermediary," that is, another professor who knows you reasonably well, and who also knows the professor reasonably well. Explain the situation and "apologize" in the strongest terms to this third party, and ask for advice. The third party may advise you that it is a "lost cause," but more likely, will set up the meeting for you. The professor may ignore you, but is not likely to ignore his colleague.

If the second professor is able to set up a meeting or another channel of communication, that's your "second chance." Make the most of it.


Be honest with him. Tell him exactly what you told us in the question.

Admittedly it will be difficult to do this - being honest, open and vulnerable is a difficult thing to do, especially if you are not used to it.

He will appreciate your honesty and you will discover the fulfillment that comes from authentically expressing yourself.

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