I have had it with my advisor's unethical behavior, demanding people to be removed from papers, removing my cosupervisor without telling me and insinuating that he has "appointed a new one".

What is the best way to break up with him? The PhD school already has a procedure in place, but do you advise I speak with him before I start this process? Do I tell him the very truth for why I don't want him anymore or simply state some other reasons and stroke his ego anyway?

UPDATE: He wouldn't meet with me, so I didn't even have a chance to be hesitant about speaking with him. He suggested a third supervisor other than the one I had chosen, and I respectfully declined.

  • 23
    do you advise I speak with him before I start this process?No. Do not explain; do not apologize; do not engage. Just get out.
    – JeffE
    Nov 11, 2017 at 19:49
  • 19
    You don't employ the advisor, so you don't fire them either. Nov 11, 2017 at 20:41
  • 2
    @PeterK. I disagree. I have the vice-dean backing me up on this. He has ensured me he will not allow me to not change.
    – User293727
    Nov 12, 2017 at 9:20
  • 1
    @JeffE, I'd love to, but I find that a little rude... There is a hearing process after I begin the procedure in which he gives comments to my application, and then I have the right to reply. I have to engage with him at some point, formally or informally. I'm only hoping that speaking with him beforehand might mean he won't turn malicious.
    – User293727
    Nov 12, 2017 at 9:20
  • 2
    Firing your boss, like a boss...
    – polfosol
    Nov 12, 2017 at 11:49

4 Answers 4


If you are having trouble with your advisor, I think you should talk to your department's director of graduate studies (or the equivalent). At most universities (at least all the ones I have been at), there is someone whose job it is to handle paperwork and the such. They are also there to act as a kind of ombudsman, helping students handle disagreements with advisors.

I've had this role before, and I view myself as squarely on the side of the student. I can fight advisors on their behalf. I've done all of the things you are asking for: navigating committee changes, telling an advisor they are no longer a students' advisor, etc.

I think it is important to document such behavior on the part of the advisor. Even if your breakup with the advisor goes poorly, an official record of such behavior might make the department think twice about allowing such a pattern to continue.

  • I assume this is different from the actual ombudsman role, right? Because some departments have a designated ombudsman.
    – user541686
    Nov 12, 2017 at 0:10
  • 2
    Records are very important.
    – aeismail
    Nov 12, 2017 at 0:18
  • 1
    OP talked to their Vice-Dean. ...OP has 3 questions over 3 days that are really strongly related.
    – jpmc26
    Nov 12, 2017 at 11:56
  • I've got a lot of things in writing (his emails) which I'm including in my application.
    – User293727
    Nov 12, 2017 at 15:53
  • 1
    @jpmc26, I wish I didn't have to. :(
    – User293727
    Nov 12, 2017 at 15:53

I recommend that you break your problem into two parts. First, how do you obtain a new PhD advisor? And second, should you complain formally, or informally, about the behavior of your current advisor? If possible, completely decouple these problems. Solve the first one first. And then decide how you would like to address the second.

Follow the rules of your university to obtain a new PhD advisor. Even if those rules require you to explain your actions, they cannot force you to fully disclose all your reasons. I would not disclose any reasons that your current advisor might perceive as personal attacks during this process. You will feel better about your situation at your university after you have a new advisor. And you can take your time to address the second problem.

The second problem is much trickier. I recommend that you start by documenting your experience of his bad behavior in considerable detail. Include all facts that support your negative experience, especially hard evidence like emails, conversations you had with third parties, etc. Write and think like a lawyer. In your mind, evaluate the strength of your documentation from the perspective of an impartial Dean at your school.

I encourage you to NOT think of complaining as an opportunity for you to vent about how badly you've been treated. Rather, think about whether you can help the university.

There are probably multiple ways you could complain about his unethical behavior. You could talk to him privately. I would only do this if you think he would be receptive to your feedback, which would be unusual. Other ways you could complain likely include a subset of these: file a formal complaint with your institution's ombudsperson; talk informally with your department's chair; file a complaint through the graduate school, either a PhD student affairs department or a Dean. Your institution may have other mechanisms. I'll use the term 'go public' to include any of these that are not limited to the advisor himself.

Note that you can talk to university administrators in the abstract to evaluate your options. That is, you can meet with them and say you've observed certain disturbing behavior in a faculty person, and ask how they recommend that you proceed, without disclosing the identity of the faculty person.

With regard about whether to proceed, weigh the plusses and minuses. It's likely that your advisor has behaved similarly in multiple situations. The situation might be analogous to recent public disclosures of inappropriate sexual behavior in entertainment and other industries.

The positive outcome that you might achieve is to protect other students from similar behavior in the future. You might also help validate negative experiences of your advisor's other advisees. The negative outcome is that you will be seen as an outlier, and the school's power structure will coalesce around your advisor.

Before you complain publicly, whether formally, informally or both, I recommend that you assess these tradeoffs by talking privately and face to face (or by phone) with people who are or have been closely associated with your advisor. Are they familiar with similar previous behavior? Did the student complain? What happened? Are there people of integrity and power who would support you? Are there other students ready to go public concurrently with you or who you think might quickly follow you?

Morally, I encourage you to go public. But practically, I would encourage you to go public only if you think the benefits outweigh the risks. It might be a difficult choice.

Finally, remember that you're under no time pressure to go public.

  • Thank you, this is incredibly useful. Could you please clarify what is meant by "going public"?
    – User293727
    Nov 12, 2017 at 19:09
  • 1
    You're welcome, Fanciful, and I'm very glad to hear that. I've clarified 'go public' in edits above, culminating in the sentence "I'll use the term 'go public' to include any of these that are not limited to the advisor himself."
    – Arthur
    Nov 12, 2017 at 21:37

Despite your disgust with your advisor, you have to ask yourself - do you really want to burn bridges? Your advisor is most probably much more renowned figure in your department and in your discipline. I would advice to make the breakup as civil as possible, as to not backfire on your future career.

  • 3
    I want to do it as amicably as possible, but staying with him is no longer an option. He has openly lied to me and is openly hindering my progress in my project. I'm just not sure if speaking with him before I start the process is the less hurtful option for him.
    – User293727
    Nov 11, 2017 at 15:46
  • 15
    Based on the behavior OP describes in this and previous questions: Yes. He really wants to burn bridges.
    – JeffE
    Nov 11, 2017 at 19:48

While I have no sympathy for your advisor, you need to learn how the procedures go in your deparment/faculty/university.

I know of a case where the procedure to change supervisor required the signature of the previous supervisor, and due to the strained relation the supervisor didn't want to sign. I don't know how hard the student fought, but the fact is that he never finished his Ph.D.

Bottom line is, you need to get people on your side (graduate coordinator, department head, etc.) if you plan to "burn bridges" and you want to make it work.

  • I suppose it helps that our entire center is currently being evaluated by external consultants for the well-being of the employees based on complaints against him (which didn't come from me).
    – User293727
    Nov 12, 2017 at 9:28
  • Absolutely. Talk to your head. Nov 12, 2017 at 16:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .