12

I am referring to a situation described in a previous question of mine: How to deal with an abusive advisor?

To summarize for those who don't want to read the lengthy story: I had a difficult relationship with my previous Master's advisor, who was psychologically abusive towards me. I was also dealing with (unrelated) clinical depression at the time, which affected my productivity. Eventually I decided to switch to a different advisor in an unrelated field. I am happy with my new advisor, and am being more productive, and the split from the previous advisor was on decent terms (that is, he still had a bad impression of me as a student, but he supported the decision). Due to the previous issues and the switch of field, my degree took twice the "standard" time to finish (4 years instead of 2, although at my university/in my country even the top students often don't finish in 2 years). In addition, my previous advisor's name will appear on my graduate transcript (along with the period of time during which he was my advisor).

In my PhD application (specifically, the "Statement of Purpose") I will probably have no choice but to address this issue. Since there is no option for anonymity, the story is not just about me, it is an "accusation" against him, which means the committee might want to hear his side of the story, in which case it will of course not go in my favour. Also, while he is not very famous, he is friendly and popular with colleagues, so if someone knows him personally they might simply not believe me.

What should I do? Should I actually mention it? For those of you who are a part of admission committees, would something like that be a red flag? Would you investigate further, or take it as a reasonable explanation given positive letters of recommendation from other professors (and current advisor)?

Also, is past depression which caused lack of productivity considered as a red flag?

13

Congratulations on the switch, I'm so glad to hear your update.

There will be an ongoing need to heal from the trauma you underwent. The SOP will be separate from that.

If you are concerned that an admissions committee might raise a red flag for the extra time you spent in your program, you may address that briefly in a cover letter. For example, "You might notice that I spent longer than customary on my degree. That was due to some health issues exacerbated by an uncomfortable advisor fit." That's enough.

You might also alert your new advisor to your concern, so that s/he may choose to consider this when writing letter of recommendation.

  • Thanks! Regarding the second paragraph, I've noticed that many universities don't request a cover letter, and some don't appreciate documents other than what is requested. – Pandora Nov 21 '16 at 14:45
  • How do you know they don't appreciate any extra documents? Do they say something explicit? – aparente001 Nov 21 '16 at 15:02
  • I couldn't actually find the website which stated it explicitly, but many universities have specific requests regarding uploading documents ("upload your SOP here, upload your transcript here" etc.), so there is no room for additional files. Also, when there are hundreds of applications, will the committee actually bother reading my cover letter? – Pandora Nov 21 '16 at 16:27
  • If you're applying to a school that tightly controls what you can upload, it would nevertheless by appropriate to add a cover page/letter to one of the docs you upload, probably the transcript if that's where the effects of the poor fit show up most clearly – MMacD Nov 21 '16 at 18:17
  • You could put a page title on this brief explanation, called, for example, "Explanation of Special Circumstances." – aparente001 Nov 21 '16 at 18:43
10

I would probably take one of two approaches.

To begin with, in my experience it's very hard for a student to complain about about a faculty member and not sound like they're making excuses, which a lot of faculty have an instinctive allergy to. The legitimacy of your complaint has almost no bearing on this, unless the people reading it are familiar with the problems from another source. There's just a perhaps understandable tendency to give other faculty the benefit of the doubt, I think. I would instead either:

  1. Don't mention the other advisor in your SOP at all, or
  2. Mention the other advisor only in the context of your switch to a different field and your health issues

In general, I would suggest simply saying that you struggled with, and then overcame, health issues during your MA work. Don't hide this part; you're far from the only graduate student to struggle with this, and the overcoming of it is an important positive. This way you explain what they'll clearly see, that it took you 4 years instead of 2, while casting it in light of something you surmounted.

If you do choose to mention the other advisor, I suggest leaving out the mention of personality conflicts. The reality is that we often have to overcome personality conflicts in life and work, and the committee likely has no way to empirically judge the truthfulness of your side of the story. If they press you for more information about it, you can mention that your health issues exacerbated some personality conflicts, and you mutually agreed on switching advisors.

I think this feels like a safer approach than offering up an excuse unsolicited. Especially when coupled with successful graduate work post-switch and a presumably positive LOR from your new advisor.

Regardless, glad you were able to improve your situation and be successful!

6

I went through something similar. Like the other answers you've received so far imply, the key is avoid saying anything negative. I would go further than the last answers and suggest that you don't even mention the health problems. Instead just treat it as a previous research experience and then you moved on to do the next thing. Here's how I did it:

During my first year as an M.A. student in Dr. XXXX’s laboratory, I tested the influence of AAA on BBB. One goal of this research was to test whether CCC. As part of that work we quantified predictions of competing hypotheses by instantiating them in a computational model. We found that DDD.

During this time I developed managerial and technical research skills. I learned how to write IRB proposals and prepare study protocol. I was responsible for managing a team of undergraduates and blah blah blah.

Subsequently, I joined Dr. YYYY’s laboratory and carried out my master’s thesis under his supervision. I continued pursuing my interest in QQQ, this time in the VVV domain, by examining ZZZ. ....

I didn't bring up the fact that Dr. XXXX was awful, and I didn't address the fact that my master's took longer than outlined by the program. I just discussed the things that the reader cares about, which are:

  1. Can this person write well?
  2. What research skills do they have?

(Not in this paragraph, but they also want to know:

  1. Why does this person want to come here?
  2. Does this person want to work with me? Do they mention my name?)

In other words, minimize the drama. Do not let it become a story with accusations and his side/your side. Avoid all of that. You worked in a lab; then you discovered your research interests were better aligned with a different lab and so you pursued that. This is your story. It’s about the science/scholarship and not about anything personal or any difficulties you had with Prof. Jerkface McGee.

I don’t mean to sound insensitive, I get that the drama you went through was a big deal. It feels gigantic, and you feel like you’re wearing a Scarlett letter. I assure you, that is hardly the case. This happens more often than you may think, and plenty of very successful people have dealt with this same issue. The key is to move on. Your career goals are more important than some unsupportive advisor you worked with along the way. I encourage you to completely take on this new narrative about that experience. Not everyone, not even most people, will have the straightforward A to B to C path that you seem to have imagined or expected of yourself. It takes time to know what specialization you want to pursue for your career and, for you, changing labs was part of figuring that out.

If it does come up during interviews you should discuss it to the extent that the research wasn’t a good fit for you and so you switched labs. Yes professors might sense that there is more to the story, but IMHO they will respect you more for not going there, for focusing on the work, and for doing what you had to do so that you could pursue the line of work that makes you happy.

Finally, I will mention that if you REALLY think there is something more that needs to be addressed, I highly recommend that you are not the one to address it. You focus on being a rockstar, staying positive, loving your work, and being excited about the future. What you can do is have a letter writer address it for you. Hopefully someone who is writing you a letter of recommendation is someone you trust enough to talk to about this. Discuss it with them.

I hope you will find this answer helpful. While I do not serve on any admissions committees, I am a 2nd year Ph.D. student at a top ranked R1 institution. I applied to 10 schools and received 5 interviews and 5 offers. I did not mention any difficulties I had with Prof. Jerkface McGee (nor did it ever come up).

Best of luck!

  • 1
    Great answer. There's nothing like advice from someone who's been in a similar boat. – aparente001 Nov 22 '16 at 4:06
  • I like Subsequently, I joined ... so much that I wish I could give this answer +10. – scaaahu Nov 22 '16 at 6:37
  • Thank you! And just to clarify, the reason I felt I should address it is only because I was afraid the long study period would be a red flag, or that the committee would wonder why I didn't ask for a letter of recommendation from this person I've worked with for 3 years. – Pandora Nov 22 '16 at 7:34
  • @Pandora If you have 3 great letters of rec, then it is very unlikely that anyone would notice. – kindredChords Nov 22 '16 at 9:15

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