18

Summary: Supervisor is verbally abusive on a regular basis. He may be trying to sabotage me by delaying the annual report on which my funding depends. Should I quit or stick it out?


Details:

I enrolled in the Mathematics department at a local university in June of last year. Now, I'm not a highly talented person, I'm average at best. So I haven't done any groundbreaking work in the past year, and what makes it worse is that due a problem of mismanagement, most of the time they do not have access to any of the online journals, so it's very difficult to do research work and yet my supervisor demands that I attend every day and stay from 11 am to 5 pm at least.

I managed to come up with a few theories along with proofs and examples. As I have a government-funded fellowship, now it's time to send them the annual progress report and, suddenly, my supervisor says he won't prepare my report unless I have communicated a paper to some journal.

First, he said that to prepare a paper, one must take at least a month to arrange one's findings in a proper order, take care of the minor details, make the best possible presentation etc. and that's understandable.

Then, when he is expected to make the report—that is, last Friday—he suddenly ordered me to get the paper ready by Monday! I just learnt LaTeX so it took some time—two sleepless nights—but I finished anyway. Now comes the decorative parts like Introduction to the paper, sectionwise introduction, abstract, etc. I have never done these things before but I wrote what I could. Now my primary education was in my native language and my English is not really high-quality.

Now starts the problems. I'll give a list:

  1. He yelled at me because my typing is not up to the mark, I made quite a few typing errors. My English is so poor that makes him want to vomit!!!

  2. He wrote a few lines for the introduction while saying I'm insulting him by making him do this.

  3. He should not have accepted me as his scholar since he could tell from my signature(!!) that I was not worth it.

  4. Regarding the typing errors, he questioned the authenticity of the certificates/transcripts of my previous degrees (implying I constituted some sort of fraud to get those).

  5. Not only am I a bad student and a disgrace to his reputation(?), he also finds my mannerisms, the way I talk and dress and behave quite disgusting. This is another reason he regrets accepting my application. What does this even mean?

  6. His good student 'K' wants to work in the field I am working now. Great news. But how did he break it to me? "Have you seen her transcripts from high school? or college? And look at you, you'll never be anywhere close to her. You'll never be like her." I don't know if there is a decent way of saying this but he was screaming like crazy. Why would I even want to be like her?

  7. Brags about how many students he has rejected over the years but he is now 'trapped' with me. When I or anyone else forced him to accept my application is not known to me though.

  8. Keeps threatening to write letters to the authorities so they will terminate my fellowship.

  9. Someone called his cell phone and he said 'I'm stuck with the crazy one' loud enough so I could hear. Another professor from another department came to visit him. He pointed at me and said 'Can this one be deported to your department somehow? I can't handle this anymore, just insufferable.'

  10. Says I'm becoming like his another callous student "Fat J." Right, the teacher has codenamed an overweight student Fat J. Sounds funny? He must have codenamed me too.

  11. I got my master's degree from a top ranked university of this country and the one I'm in now doesn't even come in the first 50. But according to him, that university has a good reputation (God only knows why, because they have no good faculty members and their syllabus and exams are designed so students get high marks). I know nothing, I've learnt nothing, I should be ashamed (of what exactly?) and it's his university that gives a proper education but got only bad reputation; so from now on, he will accept students from his university only. (Who's stopping him anyway?)

  12. He should have invested this time in other fellows instead of wasting it with me, that would get some real work done.

And so on and so on......

Now all of this may not look offensive but his tone and wordings, the degrading language he was using, it was unbelievable from a teacher. It doesn't sound like a teacher is scolding his student but like he has personal issues with me. This has been going on for the last 4 days. He called me in his office and screams these things at me for 2-3 hours in a row. I just keep my head down and listen quietly.

Recap: First of all, he demands me to do a one-month job in 7 days. Then my efforts are not appreciated. If he has so much problem with me, if he wants me gone and appoint his good student K then he can just fire me officially on the grounds of unsatisfactory academic performance. Why is he doing this instead then? Is it possible that he is releasing some personal frustrations on me?

While other professors are giving their fellows' first-year reports consisting details of topics they've studied, seminars, lectures attended without having any papers published/accepted/communicated, my guide is pulling off so much drama. Is he doing this on purpose? This way my annual report gets postponed for an indefinite time period and I lose my fellowship so I have no way but to leave.

And all the work I've had to do on his behalf, from typing his letters, arranging his files, typing the entire syllabus of the department, to writing question papers for 10 different subjects in hand. While he can't even provide with access to any of the international journals.

Questions: In such situation should I give resignation before this abuse takes its toll on my nerves? Or is this typical behaviour of research advisors especially during paper preparation due to stress? Although I'm the one in stress because whatever little work has been done is done entirely by me not one bit by him and then I've to put up with this.

I was starting to like the subject but now just the thought of having to see his face and listen to that voice is keeping me awake at night. Should I quit before he harasses me some more or is it perfectly normal behaviour and I should learn to get used to it?

Pardon me for this very long post about my personal experience. If you can take a little time to go through it, then please give me advice.

  • 15
    That being said, from your description of things, run, don't walk, for the nearest exit. – tonysdg Jun 1 '17 at 21:03
  • 7
    Honestly, this is the kind of story that prevents some of us from ever even attempting a PhD. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 2 '17 at 1:41
  • 8
    What country are you in? In the U.S., it is discrimination (and illegal) to harass a student with a name focused on the person's weight. // Please check in regularly with a department administrator. You need that progress report. But it's okay if it comes from the department, not the advisor. // Once the progress report has been submitted, find another advisor, and perhaps a different department. – aparente001 Jun 2 '17 at 7:53
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    @DanielR.Collins It is very far from the normal PhD experience. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 2 '17 at 11:33
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    @PatriciaShanahan: I don't know, my sample of close friends who got a PhD all described their experience as something like, "You just have to eat crap until your advisor decides to release you from slavery". – Daniel R. Collins Jun 2 '17 at 13:16
15

You should certainly not put up with your advisor's egregiously inappropriate behavior in the long term. The only question is: given that you cannot complete your degree under this horrible advisor, what do you want to do? Unfortunately academia does not reward people who resign immediately under almost any circumstance, so you should only do so if you really are ready to terminate -- or at least, interrupt for a substantial period of time -- your academic plans and career.

If so: yes, this sure sounds like a case where resigning immediately is appropriate. I would also urge you to speak to other faculty members and administrators in the department and the university so they know why you are doing this.

If not: unfortunately you need to bide your time and find a more graceful exit strategy. I would begin by sounding out other faculty members in your department to see if any is willing to take over advising you. (Let me say though that your description makes your entire department sound like a real mess. Still, it would be good if you could stay for long enough to gain admission to a better department.) If not, I would reach out to contacts at your former department(s) to see if you could come back -- not necessarily to get a PhD, but at least to stay in academia while you plan your next move. If you really want to stay in academia and can't find anywhere else to go: this is a very tough situation. I would consider speaking to the department head, graduate coordinator or some other administrative figure -- but someone for which you have reason to believe will be sympathetic -- explain how unbearable your current situation is, and see if they have any ideas. Unfortunately the kind of department/university where a faculty member can behave like your advisor is more likely to be the kind of department/university where other faculty and administrators are unable or unwilling to intervene usefully on behalf of the students.

I'm really sorry for the way you've been treated. It is wholly unacceptable. Good luck.

  • I would definitely suggest working towards a transition to another advisor in the department if at all possible, as suggested here, before quitting altogether (unless you decide not to pursue graduate education). Also note that, OP, if you have represented everything accurately, this is beyond incredibly poor behavior and at some point the people in charge of your department need to be made aware of it. At major US institutions there may also be other resources for you outside of your department, I'm less sure about anywhere else. – Bryan Krause Jun 1 '17 at 22:08
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    My supervisor is the HoD now.And yes, this whole department is meesed up,if only I knew before taking admission.None will say one word against him neither would anybody take over me.The faculty are like one close unit.As it stands now, if I resign now,my academic career is over. I'll have to find some clerical or desk job. But that would be better ,I now think ,than this sort of abuse. – user80631 Jun 1 '17 at 22:11
  • @BryanKrause: I represented things accurately and there is more. He was really nice,kind and helpful in the initial days. I don't know what suddenly happened. He is HoD and all in all of the dept. transition is not possible.I had seen teachers who got angry if fellows made mistakes,one who fired a 'demotivated' fellow in a short notice but this sort of degrading meaningless insults coming from a teacher reminds me of the high school bullies. – user80631 Jun 1 '17 at 22:23
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    if I resign now,my academic career is over -- [citation needed] – JeffE Jun 2 '17 at 12:51
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    @JeffE : Well I can still apply for teaching jobs at schools or colleges,in fact, that's what people here do after Ph.D, but due to current political situations in my country( pardon me for not revealing my country's name), that'll take another 2-3 years to just get appointed. If I could get some research work done by that time that'd be useful otherwise totally wasted time. – user80631 Jun 5 '17 at 11:25
14

This is most definitely not normal, and if people in this department think it is, they are wrong. He may not be happy with you - this happens - but then his criticism has to be specific and constructive, or at least not personal, if he thinks it is unrecoverable.

It may be that he is under pressure himself, possibly through ill planning or other mistakes of his own, and having to handle a supervisee which does not operate at (justifiably or unjustifiably) expected levels of performance puts additional stress on them that they just happen to take out on you.

One indicator for this theory is that they took on a new role - this role may stress them out significantly, so that their self-control has gone. I am making this analysis not to defend or excuse them, but to give you a perspective where this may come from. This may make it easier for you to understand how to proceed; it would be a good idea to transfer to someone else.

All in all, however, you deserve, like anybody else, to be treated with a minimum of modicum and respect, no matter how well you perform, and this is clearly not happening.

TL;DR: it's not you, it's him.

4

I assume that the best is to try to talk to the student ombudsman/representative about this. Most likely the faculty knows about this issue with this person (this is not unheard of in academia), and while they maybe can't change him, they probably can make sure that you can switch advisers without big problems. However, try to go step-by step here in case that they are stubborn.

Don't bet on legal paths since that will take long and give the faculty all of the incentive to deny the problem.

1

I'm in academia and have worked with many students from many departments, and, sadly, have heard of these types of inexcusable behaviors before. To the degree that you've described only maybe 1-2 in 20 years. However, my response is always the same because, as Daniel Collins said above, "You just have to eat crap until your advisor decides to release you from slavery". The only thing that differs is the amount a crap & the years of servitude, Lol. That sounds like 4-5th year students. :)

That's extreme, of course, but there's a lot of truth in it. No matter what your technical/legal rights are (many mentioned above), I've never even heard of anyone using them (obviously, this doesn't mean that many people haven't). The main reason is that the unstated "contract" between a student & advisor is that they basically treat you however they want, but they will help you get published and hook you up with good jobs/postdocs, etc. Most of the time, the advisor honors this "contract."

Since yours is not honoring this contract, you could file a complaint, etc. Before doing that though, I'd consider some important questions:

  • How big of a name is he in the field? That is, how far does his power (contacts) reach? If he's big enough (and you think he'll honor your "contract" in the end), I'd think long & hard before taking any official steps.

  • Will anyone else in the dept. be willing and ABLE to advise you (i.e., how specified is your research? Is he the only one who knows enough about your research interest?)?

  • If no one CAN be your advisor, are you willing to change your research topic to fit with another prof's?

  • If you decide to leave the math dept., where else could you go? What other depts. would allow you to research your current (or similar) topic? What other profs have the knowledge & interests that fit with yours? Would they be able to give you funding?

  • Would you be happy studying something besides math?

  • Would it be better to change universities altogether?

This is too long, sorry, but I'd strongly caution you to have something set (acceptance, funding) before saying/doing anything that your advisor might hear about because he sounds like the type of vindictive psycho that would go all out to punish you. And if you're in the US on a student visa, you can't count on having time to get something going before you're out of status.

Remember that many students make similar changes; it can be done. Just be cautious & smart about how you do it. Good luck!

  • 3
    You just have to eat crap until your advisor decides to release you from slavery ... the unstated "contract" between a student & advisor is that they basically treat you however they want -- No no no no a thousand times no. Graduate students are not slaves. A faculty position doesn't magically grant anyone the right to be emotionally abusive. "Hooking you up" with a good job/postdoc does not excuse subhuman behavior. Life is too short to negotiate with bullies. Just get out. – JeffE Jun 8 '17 at 12:56
0

First off, if you are a woman and the adviser is a man, then you're in a problem that is only recently being revealed as more prevalent (your post and language suggests that you're a man, but I wanted to get that question out of the way, because it would lead to the simplest stereotype of the problem).

Record these interactions if he shouts at you or insults you. There are plenty of cellphone apps that can record audio; just set your phone to record before you walk into their office, shove the phone in your pocket (upside-down, so the microphone points upward to get a better recording), and make sure it save it afterwards. You probably won't ever need to show someone the recording, but it helps to know that you have it. And you can show someone the recording in a private and off-the-record way, in a way that lets them understand what you deal with.

Your task is to look for another adviser. If there are conferences that you can go to, then maybe you can do so, even if it's only to observe, network, or ask researchers some questions about their work. If anyone asks about your situation, you can honestly explain it as "my adviser is currently overburdened and cannot work with advisees like either of us anticipated." That doesn't really blame him, and it will probably sound nice and reasonable to anyone else.

Also, as you need some editing help, feel free to message me and send me a few paragraphs of intro, conclusion, or the less knowledge-intensive stuff. Poor english in research papers is one of my pet peeves, but it only bugs me in published papers; this editing and review process is the period when it can be fixed, and I'm happy to help improve the clarity of the literature. I can help you rewrite a few paragraphs towards english fluency (no credit or acknowledgement requested, and you shouldn't thank "that guy on StackExchange" anyway). If the advisor still complains about those, that will help you affirm that the adviser has some personal issue, and it's not your fault. And I can give you a 2nd opinion on the readability of your english, which many native english authors are bad at. I am a harsh reader and editor, but I'm like that because I have ADHD and I need a paper to be clear and well-presented so that I can follow it. Crazy grammar leads me astray and it takes me three times as long to read a poorly written paper than a well written one. I don't see any glaring errors in your post, but your post is written conversationally rather than academically. (I've not published anything yet myself; as I'm still working on that research, so I would only say I'm qualified to edit by virtue of being a native english speaker and pedantic). As the subject is my personal pet peeve, if I was an adviser then I would have the student work with another student who may not be as experienced but who is fluent in english and a serious student. Both students would benefit from that, and the junior student could get some acknowledgement or credit if they put in a lot of time or helped over several drafts. That's what the younger grad students are for. And no matter what, if I were the adviser I'd always personally double-check the first few sentences of the abstract, intro, conclusion, and whichever section starts the real content of the paper. Those are the fluffiest and most academically boring parts, but they are the parts that will set the reader's first impression.

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