I am in a math PhD program, and I feel that my long interest in a particular area of mathematics is discouraged here.

I have an interest in an area of mathematics, but the leading person doing the research at the institution which I am going for PhD is not very approachable. I went to office hours for one of the classes I am taking and this person (to me) seemed very stand-offish and was ready to let me go out the door for a simple question regarding the class material. The professor was also very critical of my background and where I got my previous degrees/experiences at after a brief conversation. Thus, the experiences with said individual lead me to feel discouraged and potentially lead me away from my interest in said specialization within math, as they are the leading faculty in this institution doing the type of research I am interested in.

What should I do in this case? Should I just accept things how they are and try a different approach, or is it even worthwhile to try to transfer somewhere else?

  • 1
    Maybe you haven't proven yourself to the professor. Top people tend to have a high minimum. Otherwise, you don't get a look in. As an aside, why base your worth on someone's opinion? There has been countless stories about naysayers. If you listen to them, they will destroy you. Not worth your time. Everyone has something to contribute. Nov 13, 2017 at 8:31
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    Going somewhere else? Personality match is also important for a supervisor-supervisee relationship. Nov 13, 2017 at 9:17
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    How long have you known the professor?(or better... how long have they known you?) Where are you at in your program? Have you completed any of the qualifying exams yet? If you are in a class with the professor, how are you doing in it? Are you acing all your assignments and contributing to classroom discussions, or are you missing points and flying under the radar in class? Feb 20, 2018 at 16:27

4 Answers 4


Another late answer.

In undergrad, there is a maxim that you should "choose your professors as carefully as your classes." I think in hindsight, most graduates agree with this -- we've all had random classes taught by great professors that were meaningful, while great subjects taught by lousy professors were worthless.

How much more crucial, then, is the choice of your PhD advisor! An advisor in the right area but with the wrong personality is a terrible choice. An advisor in a merely acceptable subfield but the right personality is a much better choice.

Ideally, you will (a) find someone at your current school who will make a good advisor even if their research area isn't obviously aligned with your current interests, or (b) find that the professor in question is actually reasonable once you get to know him/her. But, I think transferring out would be preferable to working for an unreasonable person -- I've known multiple people who stayed in grad school for 10+ years, and the common problem was an unreasonable advisor.

  • 1
    An advisor in the wrong subfield but the right personality is a much better choice. - I half agree with this. Working with a friendly advisor on a topic you hate might not be any better. However, I strongly believe that most mathematicians would be happy doing many different kinds of mathematics.
    – Kimball
    Mar 13, 2018 at 15:01
  • Fair point, updated my answer.
    – cag51
    Mar 14, 2018 at 0:47

Sounds pretty similar to a friend who was is nearly finished with his PhD in mathematics. His relationship with his professor eventually became unmanageable, but I believe there are steps you can take to improve your relationship. Try to prove yourself by asking the professor if there is something he needs help working on. Even offering to do a small thing, may go a long way. Either way don't get discouraged, I've heard this story quite a few times, and as long as you don't get too discouraged, you should be fine.

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    The approach you recommend sounds reasonable, but the reality can be very volatile depending on the subject within mathematics, the degree of sophistication of the faculty person, and so on. If a very-young person asked me if they could help me on something, I'd not be offended, etc. (by this point in my life), and would try to take it as a well-intentioned gesture, but it would also signal to me a significant cluelessness about the non-immediateness of the issues I (and many other relatively experienced people) face. In particular, at best, it would not really help develop a positive ... Dec 14, 2017 at 23:42
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    ... relationship, and might really annoy the faculty person, depending on their personality and frame of mind. Dec 14, 2017 at 23:43

I recognize that this response is late, and that I absolutely cannot speak to experiences that are PhD specific, however I am interested as to how OP ultimately handled this, and in the event that the situation is still unresolved or someone else looks to this question for an answer I may be of some assistance.

First of all, is it at all reasonable to abandon your chosen field of study or completely upend your life because someone is "unapproachable?" I hope that anyone who is pursuing a terminal degree would say no. My approach has always been that professors are available to me whether they like it or not, and I have yet to have this belief invalidated. A major commitment associated with a position in academia is teaching and interacting with students, and while it may not always appear this way, this commitment is likely what drew the professor to academia in the first place. One of the most enriching academic relationships I have developed is with a professor who is absolutely the most unnapproachable and stand offish professor within the college. He regularly tells students that the world needs t-shirt salesmen, destroys incorrectly formatted homework in front of the class, and unilaterally refuses to answer any questions related to problem sets to give only a handful of very real reasons he has earned this reputation. However, I have found that well formulated questions can be utterly irresistible to his teaching sensibilities. Additionally, he is absolutely one of the staunchest advocates for student rights that I have encountered. He labors intensively to foster the environment he believes is most beneficial to the students who will actually carry through with their study in the field, whether it is because of him or in spite of him. I can guarantee you that any student who would transfer or quit because of their interactions with him are not the students who he spends time benefiting.

Often times people are not hard to approach because they want to be that way, humans are social creatures. That being said, be selective in the manner that you do approach some people. Some professors are receptive to a student establishing a dialogue through a "simple question" while other professors, like the one in my example and I am inclined the one in your question, believe that a student has more to gain by investigating simple questions on their own, especially considering that you are pursuing a PhD in mathematics. My advice would be not to approach the professor with simple questions, you will gain far more from answering simple questions on your own, after all a very valid problem solving technique is breaking down a complicated question into easier component questions, and recognize that if you absolutely cannot answer a simple question on your own it is because it is really a complicated question that the professor may be more willing to address when posed as such.

Most importantly, I really hope that you DO NOT leave or abandon your chosen field simply because you see someone else as an obstacle. It will never pay off to hurt yourself in an attempt to hurt someone else. If you have a well formulated question ask it and if the professor doesn't like it then fuck him (new to the community I will edit this if the f-word is frowned upon) be persistent enough that he realizes that it will be easier to help you than to belittle you, but recognize that you are being held to a standard which requires you to answer questions on your own if it is in your power to do so, and realize that if you demonstrate to him that you see the value of his time and only make use of it when necessary that he will likely be far more receptive to you requesting his time. Ultimately, there will be people in your life who ARE INTERESTED in making your life worse and actively work to do so. My experience has been that these people do not have PhD's and have not spent their lives making far less money than they could elsewhere educating the next generation, but even if that is not the case, it is past time for you to decide whether or not you will allow them.

  • First of all, is it at all reasonable to abandon your chosen field of study or completely upend your life because someone is "unapproachable?" — No, but it might be reasonable to pursue your chosen field of study somewhere else, with someone else.
    – JeffE
    Mar 13, 2018 at 13:30

My only suggestion might be to first study up on the professor's publications if you haven't already. Then think about where your interests overlap with the professor's. Do you have ideas for extending the professor's research, by chance? Talk with the professor about what projects they are currently working on, and see if there is any chance you can voluntarily help out with them, even just attending meetings to listen in and learn more.

It can backfire. I did what I just suggested at the very beginning of graduate school and my advisor was taken aback, I guess, not thinking that a first year grad student is ready to even start talking about research ideas yet. It ended up delaying my masters because I had to just sit on my hands and wait for an opportunity, but the next year, the department changed their thinking and started encouraging first year grad students to get involved in research projects sooner rather than later.

One other big difference in my case, is that the professor picked me (admitted me), I didn't pick the professor.

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