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I'm currently a master's student in computer science, thinking about applying to PhD programs. As I detailed in this post, I had the audacity to ask my advisor why he hadn't let me work on projects that he allowed other students with equivalent qualifications to work on and instead had me working on a project that, according to one of his co-authors, was not publishable (it was more of an industry thing and they were just going to stick it on the internet somewhere). In response, he fired me from my gave someone else the TA position he had said I would have and now isn't even responding to my emails. (And he refused to answer any of the questions I'd asked him, btw.)

Is it even possible to salvage my chances of getting into a top PhD program after this? He's a famous professor and very well regarded in his field. A letter of recommendation from him would have been CRITICAL in my applications to PhD programs. Now, I not only don't have a publication to my name, but have NOTHING to show for a project I worked three months on. I know that conflicts between advisors and students are typical, but do they typically result in a totally burned bridge without even a LOR? Presumably, my potential bridges with everyone he knows (several professors in other schools) are also burned for me as well!

I suppose I can try to find someone else in the department to do research with, but

  1. this setback has delayed my application by at least a year, and

  2. the only professor in my area who seems nice enough to work with is a very junior professor, and my understanding is that a LOR from a well-known professor is critical. (I've met all the other professors in my school in my chosen specialty and they all come off as complete assholes.)

I am left with a few questions:

  1. Did I just completely blow my chances? If not, how can I possibly get on my feet to be a competitive PhD applicant by next year?

  2. How is it possible to find a nice, supportive advisor?? I had done my due diligence: I talked to several of my advisor's students, and they had nothing but good things to say about him. I'm not sure what other sources I could possibly find. A friend of mine did the same with a different advisor, only for his true colors to come out after several months of working with him as well. Is it really just a roll of the dice, where even if I get into a PhD program, odds are the advisor is going to turn out to be an asshole?

  3. In the future, am I just supposed to keep my mouth shut even if I have reservations about the project I'm working on?

UPDATE: This experience (and a couple others) soured me on academia completely and I ended up going into industry instead. So far so good.

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    You were a Masters student, so having an industry project to show instead of a paper is not a bad thing. Your depiction of the case, unfortunately, sends off a message of entitlement. Your enemy in the present case, as described in your question is not your former advisor. If there were other things not discussed, my opinion may yet shift. – Captain Emacs Sep 28 '17 at 20:18
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    Ok, point taken. It's not easy to get out of such a situation. You can see if you can find some friendly prof somewhere in the faculty - or tone down your expectations about the ranking of the school. There are some less known places with good and interesting research. – Captain Emacs Sep 28 '17 at 20:35
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    a LOR from a well-known professor is critical. — "Well-known" and "junior" are not opposites! In particular, most junior faculty in strong departments are well known, and most senior faculty in weak departments are not. – JeffE Sep 28 '17 at 22:16
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    @CaptainEmacs sends off a message of entitlementI couldn't disagree more strongly. OP is entitled to ask his advisor why he wasn't given more interesting work. Moreover, OP is entitled to an honest and well-considered answer. I find your suggestion that OP is somehow responsible for his advisor's tantrum offensive. – JeffE Sep 28 '17 at 22:23
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    @JeffE I had a bit of a conversation with the OP about that (it is still around). He convinced me that this was not intended this way (see my later response). To me, the original formulation of the question, without the context of prior developments, was ambiguous. Please note that I had qualified my statement on (then) possibly lacking information. – Captain Emacs Sep 28 '17 at 23:15
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(1) If you're in computer science, then even failing to get into a PhD program immediately after finishing your master's degree is not an insurmountable road block. There are even industry projects you can work on to improve your application.

(2) Yes, it is ultimately a roll of the dice. Some advisors are, in fact, just assholes who will ruin your career, and there's no amount of due diligence that will completely remove the chance of finding one. It's horribly unfair that a choice that will determine your career and entire life will depend on making a random die roll, but there's really nothing you can do about it; you have little power as a prospective grad student. (And don't expect much understanding or sympathy here; this board is mostly composed of people who have made that roll, and don't realize the amount of luck involved or that there was a die roll in the first place. The same remark applies to a wide variety of such die rolls in life.)

(3) Few people will say so explicitly, but yes. You have little power in the advsior/student relationship; and as a student (and not even one of his PhD students), you're probably beneath his notice. It is also massively unfair, but see point (2).

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    Then I'm not interested in getting a PhD. If I have to kiss someone's ass, I'd rather be paid 6 figures while doing so. – user124384 Sep 30 '17 at 7:43
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    Well, the upside is that if it does work out, it's the perfect job: You get to work on legitimately challenging, original research (which is impossible outside academia in some fields, such as mathematics), have the time and support to do so, and get to pursue your own goals and research interest. The downside is that getting there comes down to a matter of luck (although I'm sure most people here would insist that you can avoid the dice through sheer force of will--- and if it doesn't work out, then you must not be talented enough or want it enough). – anomaly Sep 30 '17 at 13:55
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    +100 for "don't expect much sympathy or understanding here"...so true!! – user111388 Aug 8 at 5:50
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    While I generally agree with this answer (and upvoted it), this community is also filled with people who have seen their fair share of unreasonable students, so I think many of the senior members here take a somewhat balanced view on a situation that they only know one side of. (and, philosophically speaking, Stack Exchange is not and is not trying to be a place to get comfort, it's a place to get actionable recommendations) – xLeitix Aug 8 at 7:25
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    That said, I agree and have always agreed that we, as a group, often forget about survivor bias. – xLeitix Aug 8 at 7:26
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It looks that your relations with this professor are coming to an end, and you can't rely on his future support. That's a shame; however, there's still a plenty of fish in a water, and hopefully enough time to get some.

  1. Why don't you focus on establishing some contacts with another professor or lecturer in your university? Maybe someone slightly less senior and/or less famous, but still sufficiently established so that their LOR would matter? You probably attend classes of other professors, perhaps doing some sort of projects with some of them? Could it be expanded into a collaboration resulting in a publication or a research report?

    Are there other TA/RA positions advertised? Or maybe someone is seeking an hourly-payed students to collect some data for their experiment? A professor is running a Math Society or a club?

  2. You probably did your homework studying this professor really well, but sometimes the relations simply does not work out. Maybe he is not a very good person; maybe you could've been a little bit more delicate (or cautious) with the language you chose to make your inquires. Maybe you should've waited until the contract is signed before hinting your unhappiness with the arrangements. It is impossible to say at the moment; and there are more urgent matters pressing. The understanding will eventually come.

  3. Many people adopt the strategy of "keeping your mouth shut" and are successful in academia. Many did not, and they are successful, too. Academia is diverse, and in parts it is still a place where academics are allowed to be weird and insubordinate as long as they deliver outstanding research and excellent teaching. But the flip side is of course that sometimes someone else is behaving inappropriately led by his/her ego, or a sense of entitlement, or simply as a result of heavy sleep deprivation, and you occasionally become a collateral damage. It is important to remember that we all are people and try to treat others in the same way you would like to be treated yourself.

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If you are a student in the US, consider reaching out to your institution's ombuds services. They are usually an informal and neutral third party that can arbitrate disputes such as this. Although I can't elaborate on the terms of your termination (what does your contract say, are you at will?), knowing of this avenue of resolution may serve you well.

  • "Fired" was a quick, dramatic way of describing it. The full story is that I hadn't signed my contract yet. He had told me that he'd chosen me to TA for him, and then after our discussion occurred, I discovered that he had given the position to someone else without telling me. Regardless, though, talking to an ombudsman is a great idea, thanks. – user124384 Sep 29 '17 at 7:04
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    Fired =/= not hired. Since you never signed the contract, I presume he never signed, and HR never signed, I can reasonably presume that you were never an employee (TA) in any capacity. – Frank FYC Sep 29 '17 at 7:24
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    Your presumption is incorrect. – user124384 Sep 29 '17 at 14:36
  • Being promised a job =/= does not mean you will actually get it. The employment contract is not valid unless all parties pertaining to it sign in agreement. – Frank FYC Sep 29 '17 at 23:55
  • I never said anything about what my assumptions were. I simply reported what happened. – user124384 Sep 30 '17 at 7:41
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Some profs lord their power over their students as they have the student future in their hands. This gives them a sense of God"ish" power and when its questioned, some profs act out. The result can be something like this. Even asking fair questions of them, can drive them in to a passive/aggressive rage. They may not raise their voice, but you'll know you've stepped in it when they don't reply to your emails and won't respond about your thesis.

Sadly, the best course of action may be to simply play the game and go throw yourself on the mercy of Mr. God and appeal to his vanity/ego. With such folks, that is usually their softest spot. :)

Todd

  • Thanks, this echoes what a professor friend of mine had to say about the incident. I'm unable to appeal to his ego, however, if he won't respond to my emails. I already sent an apology, with no answer. I've thought about going to his office, but that seems like a bad idea under the circumstances. – user124384 Sep 29 '17 at 5:45

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