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The professor I do research with often puts me down for making mistakes and frequently calls me an idiot. I don't know the appropriate way to respond. I cannot just leave, since I still want to go to grad school. But this is severely affecting my mental health, and I have been suicidal recently as a result. I put a lot of effort into trying to be positive and friendly around him, but I'm not sure this has been particularly effective.

The research I do with him is good in a technical sense; we have some solid results and have published at very good conferences together. He has agreed to write me a good letter of recommendation (but actually hasn't written it yet) and I believe him if only because he seems to care strongly about his reputation among his peers and writing me a poor letter would reflect badly on him. I do not know what to do.

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    1) don't take the professor's comment to heart. If you can, just ignore the 'emotions' and focus on constructive comments. Passionate people tend to be passionate about every little thing. 2) remind your professor you are still a student and learning the ropes. Some times we forget that, especially when we are results oriented, and 3) be prepared and pay attention to details. I for example get ticked off if students keep on repeating the same mistakes again and again. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 5:59
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    I cannot just leave, since I still want to go to grad school. — Yes, you can! You can just leave, and you can still go to grad school.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 13:18
  • I especially like @Prof.SantaClaus suggestion #2 here. I once read that it was especially important for new employees to pepper any questions with phrases like, "As you know, this is my first X experience..." to remind people that they were still new after their first month. Apparently it is very easy for supervisors to forget these things and categorize you as "trained" after a ridiculously short time.
    – Dawn
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 2:02

2 Answers 2

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How close are you to graduation? You have basically three paths here:

  1. Stop working with your advisor. Depending on how bad it has gotten, escalating levels of this solution could be trying to get another member of your advisor's group to take over working with you so you have to see him less, to find a new advisor to continue your current work, to take a semester of mental health leave and start over on a new project afterwards, or even to drop out.

  2. Try to make your advisor behave better. You know your advisor best and can better judge what he would be likely to respond to. Maybe if you just told him "Please don't call me an idiot," he would stop. Maybe if you could get the ear of a sympathetic member of your faculty, they could take your advisor aside and tell them to be more gentle. If your university offers counseling, maybe a counselor could help you raise the subject with him and negotiate some rules for how to work together. Maybe you can raise a formal complaint somewhere (dean, ombudsman?). (The last one will probably torpedo your chances of good recommendation letters, but might let you graduate without having to take more abuse.)

  3. Tough it out. If it's only a few more weeks, maybe deciding that you choose to take it just a little bit longer because you think that the rewards (graduation, recommendation letters) are worth it helps you get through it. This also needs a good support network. Talking things through with a therapist or counselor can help distance yourself emotionally from your advisor's comments. Let your friends console you. Seek affirmation from other places: are there any other activities where you are doing well? Classes that you are excelling at? A hobby that produces things you can be proud of?

No matter which option you ultimately choose, I encourage you to at least informally talk to a university counselor and whoever handles complaints to be aware of all your options. For each of the options, what process exists? What are the upsides/downsides? Make a list, and then make a deliberate decision. Sometimes, even just knowing that you could leave and do something else but are actively choosing to stay in your current situation for now because you feel the recommendation letters are worth it makes all the difference.

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If you're in the U.S., get a letter from a doctor or mental health professional and take it to (a) the Students with Disabilities office on campus, and (b) an administrator in your department. The letter should state your diagnosis (diagnoses), mention the suicide attempt and/or ideation, and briefly explain the connection between disrespectful treatment and your stability. Bring along a list of specific changes you need to support your mental health.

Switch advisors as soon as you can. Ask a department administrator for help with this.

Find a supportive therapist or therapy group or support group.

Later on in your life, when you are more stable, you may wish to try to improve a troubled working relationship. For now, though -- distance yourself from this guy, and focus on learning as much as you can from the supportive folks.

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  • I'm not from the US so apologies if I'm completely off-base, but wouldn't the "department graduate advisor" only handle graduate students, not undergrads?
    – nengel
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 5:33
  • @nengel - You're right. I forgot the OP is an undergrad. I'll fix it. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 1:32
  • @aparente001: The first "administrator" should be the undergraduate's advisor or the director of undergraduate studies (or equivalent office)!
    – aeismail
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 2:26

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