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Recently, morale in the lab that I work in has been dropping. I don't want to speak for everyone in the lab (there's >10 grad students and >5 postdocs/research faculty), but at least 3 or 4 of the other graduate students and 1 or 2 of the postdocs I've talked with have given me similar opinions.

The general reason I've gotten from everyone is that my adviser -- the head of the lab -- seems to be more and more focused on bringing in as many dollars as possible and growing the size of the lab. I think I can safely say that we're all grateful for his hard work in ensuring our continued support -- funding issues are non-existent -- but as they say, money doesn't always buy happiness. We hold meetings where research is discussed and decisions are made, only for my adviser to come back a few days later and change the decision unilaterally. Several of my grad students have intimated to me that our adviser is (seemingly out of nowhere) threatening to pull their funding if they don't switch projects or publish in short order. And finding time to meet with our adviser is harder and harder -- he's frequently out of town meeting with sponsors, and when we do arrange time he's feeling rushed.

I don't want to pin the blame on him -- like I said, we appreciate the hard work he puts into getting funding for us all -- but it's starting to affect morale I think. I'm not sure how to best tell my adviser -- or even if I should inform my adviser -- about this, and I'd appreciate any advice the Academia S.E. community has.

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    Do you have a secondary advisor? I've often seen the situation where the formal supervisor was busy keeping finding money to keep all the postdoc contracts renewed whereas the daily supervisior was taken care of by a less senior academic. – gerrit Oct 26 '16 at 18:27
  • @gerrit - I mean, I spend most of my time working with one of the postdocs, so I consider her to be my "secondary adviser"...but to directly answer your question, no -- the main adviser is the head honcho in charge of everything/everyone. – tonysdg Oct 26 '16 at 18:30
  • Does your program have a faculty member dedicated to managing the students? For example, we had the graduate program director who addressed student concerns. He would often interact with other faculty on behalf of the student in order to resolve certain issues. – Hobbes Oct 26 '16 at 18:38
  • @Hobbes - We have do have departmental staff that we call "academic advisers" who are there to help students with class schedules, degree requirements, etc. There is a graduate program director, but he's really just a faculty member with extra responsibilities. And reputation-wise, I'm not sure he's someone I would want to get involved... I've never really heard "positive" stories (for students OR faculty) where he's involved. There's supposedly an ombudsperson at the university-level I could talk to, but that position is in flux recently (they're searching for a new one). – tonysdg Oct 26 '16 at 18:42
  • When you have a meeting without the advisor and make a decision, do ask his opinions before the meeting and do you notify him of what has happened afterwards? – Patricia Shanahan Oct 26 '16 at 23:10
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You do it in exactly the same way as you raise most problems with most bosses:

You start by briefly celebrating something successful.

You go on to quickly point out one or more of their objectives that aren't being realised or won't be realised.

You concisely describe how the problem (in this case low morale) is causing that. You don't put blame on people. You just describe how the problem leads to the objectives not being met.

Then you succinctly give them some realistic, usable options to address the problem.

It will really help your case if you can demonstrate that you are aware of some of the pressures and conflicting demands on them.

And do have supporting evidence available to back up your statements, if required. Don't deploy it unless challenged - the goal is to keep things concise and focused.

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    Or, Plan B: when in the office alone, post signs up saying "The beatings will continue until morale improves", and find a new job. – EnergyNumbers Oct 26 '16 at 19:05
  • Hmm... think if I posted one of those signs outside my adviser's office, he'd get the idea? – tonysdg Oct 26 '16 at 21:06
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    @tonysdg Yeah. One possibility is, he gets it. The other, he has a good chance of becoming paranoid. That's just what you need to improve morale. – Captain Emacs Oct 27 '16 at 0:50
  • @CaptainEmacs: Just a bit of gallows humor, I promise... I'd never do something so rude. I have a lot of respect for the man, regardless of the group's morale. – tonysdg Oct 27 '16 at 3:07
  • Talk about beating around the bush, not daring to say what you mean outright. It's an intelligent, grown man we're talking about, not a small child whose feelings you don't want to hurt. He should be able to take, "Hey, listen, some of us are feeling like blablabla because blablabla, and it is affecting our work. It would really help if blablabla." – Yoda Oct 27 '16 at 16:43
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Great question! My group is also getting crowded, though morale isn't that low, so I've thought through stuff like this recently myself.

The following may or may not apply to you, but I think they may help you as you decide how to proceed:

  • Is your advisor approachable? Do you feel comfortable talking openly and honestly with them? Do you have any fear of retaliation?
  • If you have a general "graduate student advisor" (usually somebody appointed to be a general-purpose advisor to all graduate students in the dept.), you should definitely consider talking to them. You may want to request before meeting with them that your discussion with them be kept anonymous and confidential.
  • Does your institution have one or more designated ombudsman? These people are trained to handle conflicts between individuals and others and will do it confidentially. This is their job, and they'll likely be able to point you to other resources as well.
  • Consider talking to other grads in your program, especially those who have been around longer. They'll likely have good advice, and may even know some of your advisor's history (e.g. whether your advisor has a history of treating students this way).
  • Does your grad program have a "student body" you could mention this to? If the grad student body as a whole complains to the department (e.g. dept. chair) on behalf of your lab, then it will likely receive more attention and it would be more anonymized than if it were "you vs. your advisor".
  • You may want to collect some of what he says in writing for evidence later, in case evidence becomes necessary.

If you do bring it up to your advisor personally, here are a few suggestions:

  • Begin on a positive note. For example, make sure he knows how much you all appreciate his support.
  • Make sure you have the consent of your peers before you tell him that they're upset.
  • Bring it up as information rather than as a complaint.
  • I would avoid bringing it up in a research group meeting, as it would put him on the spot and may make him feel cornered and/or defensive.
  • If possible, have a few suggestions for how he could proceed. (You could brainstorm this with your peers ahead of time.)
  • You could suggest that, because this involves other people, he could address it in a meeting with those affected, either an individual or a a group meeting -- his choice.
  • If you suspect that your advisor will get upset, you can always bring a brave labmate with you for moral support.

Your advisor ought to be grateful for the knowledge if he wasn't already aware of it. If he is mature and wise, he should know not to get mad at you for being the messenger.

Here's a link with some other suggestions.

Good luck!

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It sounds as though your advisor is not functioning very well, at least not right now, so I do not recommend anything remotely like a confrontation. That could destabilize him further.

I understood from your comment that the graduate program director wouldn't be a good person to talk to. I suggest:

(a) verify this by going in to talk to the grad program director about something more minor, to get a feel for his administrative style, listening skills, etc.

(b) if you confirm that he's the wrong person to bring this to, then choose a different department administrator. It's okay if it's a mismatch in terms of the person's official role. Mainly you want to find someone that has the right human and administrative qualities -- and I think you have a good sense about that.

(c) if you're still not finding someone, consider a senior faculty member who has some influence in the department, and who cares about the department. A former administrator, for example.

Once you've selected the person to talk to, it would be best if three or more members of the group went to the meeting together.

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