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What To Do When Your Academic Advisor Mistreats You

Academic Advisor
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

The first day that my graduate school advisor yelled at me in front of the entire lab I went into the handicap bathroom and cried. Just a little. Like one or two tears.

I was a grown man – a scientist – crying like a toddler because he got yelled at. It was absurd. I remember looking in the mirror and laughing at myself. What a baby. A few minutes later, I brushed it off and returned to the lab and starting working harder. Because that was always the answer in grad school. Just work harder.

I chalked up the whole experience as growing pains. I figured that this is what real life was like and I better put up with it if I wanted to get my PhD, get a good job, and be successful. Besides, I was sure that my advisor would feel bad about it later, apologize, and start treating me better. Wrong. He treated me worse. It was like he owned me now. He’d yell at me, call me names, and play weird games like refusing to give me any guidance on my project and then telling my committee that I refused to listen to him.

Is This Normal?

I thought all of this was normal. Really. I thought all of it was my fault too. As the years went on, I found out that lots of other graduate students had similar experiences. Which made things seem even more normal.

The worst part was that through some kind of loophole in my Department’s Graduate Student Handbook, my mentor was also the chair of my thesis committee. Usually another professor is the chair of your committee so that the graduate student doesn’t get screwed if his advisor doesn’t like him. I was screwed.

During my thesis committee meetings, I’d present my work, answer questions, and then watch my advisor stare at me blankly when I asked him how close I was to graduating. None of the other committee members were able to help much because my advisor was the chair.

It was an awful situation to be in. No support. No guidance. And everyone else was too afraid or too busy to help.

But I got out. With my degree.

And since being out I’ve talked to over seventy other medical students, law students, graduate students and postdocs who have either been through or who are going through something similar with their advisors.

Arrogant Academic Advisor

9 Ways To Deal With A Bad Advisor

If someone above you in academia is treating you like dirt, there are 9 things you can do to make your situation better.

1. Conceal your goals.

As soon as I told my advisor that I wanted to move into industry, he was done with me. He withdrew his support and did everything he could to block me from graduating.

If your academic advisor is treating you like dirt, the worst thing you can do is to tell him or her all about your career aspirations. Especially if those aspirations involve anything other than being exactly like your advisor.

Zip your lips. Don’t give someone who is already against you another target to attack. Save your dreams for people who will support them.

2. Start your own project right now.

My last year of graduate school I started moonlighting as a janitor during the week. I just cleaned up offices. No bathrooms. I also shoveled snow and did landscaping on the weekends. Eventually, I started writing articles for my personal blog. This made things so much better.

The worst part of having to deal with a negative advisor or mentor is that you feel completely powerless. They hold the keys to your future. Which is true, in part. And this makes it seem like you can’t move forward with out them. But you can.

Start making something happen for yourself. Take control. Don’t ask permission. Just do it. Too many students fear getting in trouble for doing anything outside of the classroom or lab. This is ridiculous.

No one is going to arrest you or kick you out of school for having a hobby or a small project on the side. You’re allowed to live. Stop begging for permission to live.

3. Start looking for a job right now.

I’m sure it didn’t make my advisor like me any more but I started looking for jobs during my third year of graduate school. I even took offers as early as my fourth year, with the understanding that I still didn’t technically have my degree.

It’s never too early to start looking for the position of your dreams. Just be honest and tell the various employers you meet with about your situation. Be transparent with them about your hopes to graduate and your career goals. They’ll appreciate your candor.

4. Leverage your strengths. 

I wasn’t one of those scary smart kids in graduate school. Not even close. I didn’t have an extensive knowledge-base or a long line of publications coming into graduate school. I felt guilty and less-than because of this. And my advisor would use these “weaknesses” against me whenever he could. So, I wasted a lot of my time trying to fix my weaknesses.

One day, I got sick of it and decided to forget about my weaknesses and instead, focus on my strengths. I was a good writer and public speaker and I liked running experiments so I just did those things as prolifically as I could. I pumped out a bunch of data and volunteered to speak at as many seminars and conferences as possible. Eventually my strengths started overshadowing my weaknesses instead of the other way around.

5. Keep records.

Every email between you and your advisor is kept on a server at your University. You know this right? You should also know that your advisor is likely saving all the emails that you send him, especially if he doesn’t like you. This what my advisor did. And when things started going sour, he would print out or reference these emails during the mediation meetings that we had with my Department.

The very first thing you should do when your advisor starts treating you like dirt is document it. Back up your emails on an external drive that you own or forward them to a personal email address and keep a daily journal of what happens.

6. Go through the system.

Most academic institutions have been around for a very long time and, as such, they’ve developed an extremely dense and complicated system to keep things running smoothly and to keep the institution from getting sued.

The system is so dense that it can make you feel very alone when things start going bad. You don’t know what to do or who you to turn. The key to improving your situation is to patiently start peeling back each layer of the system. This is what I did. After getting yelled at violently for the third or fourth time I decided to sit down and read through my Department’s Graduate Student Handbook as well as the overall Graduate School Manual.

Buried somewhere in the middle of my Department’s Handbook I found a line that said that all students are to graduate in 5 years or less. Bingo. And, in the overall Manual, I found an entire list of requirements that every advisor had to follow. This list included things like ensuring a safe and comfortable working environment and always supporting each student’s progress. This information was a game-changer and gave me massive leverage during the mediation meetings I had to attend.

7. Go around the system.

Use the system to your advantage but don’t get stuck in it. People above you who are trying to hold you back are also secretly hoping that you’re too brainwashed to go above them. There’s a hierarchy and you should follow it. But this is their rule, not yours.

If an advisor is treating you badly, don’t just tow the line and stick to the chain of command. Instead, go above them. This is what I had to do. I set up meetings with the head of my Department and several different Deans until I was able to get my problem solved.

Don’t be too intimidated to talk to other people. It’s not illegal and you can’t get kicked out for it. The more attention you bring to what’s going on the better.

8. Network with everyone.

Graduate school is a great time to learn how to network. You shouldn’t just be doing experiments and reading papers by yourself in some corner. You should be going to seminars and journal clubs and meet-ups. You should be reaching out to people in industry and people at other Universities. This is especially true if you’re in the middle of a negative situation with your advisor.

If your advisor is treating you like dirt, your first instinct might be to isolate yourself and sulk. You might think that you need to put up walls to protect yourself. This is the worst thing you can do. Isolating yourself just gives your advisor more power over you.

Don’t cut off lines of communication, open them. Increase the number of channels you have to work with. Get louder, not quieter. Expose yourself and what’s going on. Don’t let your advisor’s bad actions stay hidden safely in the dark.

9. Do less, not more. 

Sometimes working harder is the worst thing you can do. Let’s face it, most high-level academics are overachievers. They’ve worked really hard to realize the dream of having an advanced degree and then using their degree to positively impact the world. The problem is that this desire to have an impact – this overachiever mindset – can work against you when you have a bad advisor. After all, who are you really working for?

Don’t work for your own destruction. If your advisor starts treating you like dirt, don’t just work harder and harder in the false hope that he will be nice to you or respect for it. The hard truth is that some advisors will treat you like dirt simply because they think it will make you work harder.

Stop chasing the approval of an advisor who treats you unfairly. And stop being afraid of conflict. You’re not going to lose your position. The only way that you’ll lose it is by doing nothing and letting the system overpower you. Don’t let this happen.

Take the above steps to improve your situation. No one is coming to save you. It’s up to you. But that’s okay. You can handle it. And you deserve better. You deserve to be treated right while pursuing your degree.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Caramel Queenie

    I’m a junior undergrad and I’ll be in College for two extra years because my previous advisor my freshmen year screwed me way over. I made the mistake of sharing my goals and aspirations to be a psychiatrist (I’ve since changed my mind and major) but my math score were poor and I would have to take remedial courses. That didn’t bother me because I’m going to school to improve myself and grades and if that meant graduating a year late, oh well. There was another student in the room being advised by another advisor and she told me very loudly “no, you be a psychiatrist. You can’t with those scores.” Seriously. I was so embarrassed. This was my first advising session during our schools mandatory new student orientation. Best believe I was not motivated to go to this anymore just because I had a crapp advising experience. Anyway, I let her overload me with a bunch of classes I I didn’t need for the first and second semester. Not a single math or science class and she wouldn’t even try to help me get into a math class when I brough it up. So, I transferred because I was tired of the bull. I’m doing much better now and taking th classes I need. Luckily and sadly I met a lot of people on campus that went through the same crappy advising experiences and they too transferred.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for sharing this story Caramel. You’re right, there’s nothing worse than a bad mentor. But, at the same time, there’s nothing better than a good mentor. I hope your future mentorship experiences are better.

  • nlllllovollllln

    There are probably a ton of horror stories out there that go unnoticed. I’m finally finished with my degree after changing labs once, which means I had to work extra hard to finish. My new lab, I wasn’t given a project.. As a parting gift, my first-author paper is being forced into co-first authorship with one of his pets that did no work on it. I was then told to “be an adult” about it. I received less than a handful of authorships on papers that went out, while the favored students received close to a dozen for no real effort.

    My advice:
    Pick someone from your own culture – if you’re an American, pick an American. If you’re Indian , your adviser should be Indian. The halls of academia operate nearly above the law because outside observers are hostage to the complexities of research, and will often defer to the ‘authority figure’. There are no real protections for students in this environment, and your adviser is free to discriminate and treat you any way they want to. Yes, this means they’ll lift up your lab mates if they have the right skin color. Grooming and accolades are a big part of being seen as successful in grad school. Right or wrong, people that work less hard, or have their projects handed to them will be more successful than you if they have an adviser putting them on the fast track.

    Pick an adviser that’s young and hungry. Don’t pick an adviser in his 60’s a few years away from retirement. Post-docs should be available to give advice and help you out. If they aren’t willing, that PhD is a POS and don’t be afraid to let them know it. You’re going to suffer with or without their help anyway.

    You’re all in it for the same cause right? Wrong. Most of the people working in these labs are tourists. Post docs are there for as long as their contract runs out, sometimes a year or two. As a grad student, stay away from tourist traps. A supportive environment will be one that has people with roots, dedicated to the health of the lab.

    Getting through the maze is gambling with your future, always bet on yourself and be confident doing it. This is often a competitive, heartless environment and don’t let people take that away from you.

    Unless you’ve got a masters degree and a decent amount of research experience, don’t pick an adviser that doesn’t make it a daily habit to come to lab, check in with students and have a clear plan to move your project forward. It should be completely clear that his success is tied to your success. Without publications, no lab gets funded. Don’t pick a lab that isn’t regularly publishing. An adviser that doesn’t care is a lab in the act of falling apart, no matter how well funded.

    If you’re stuck in a lab that isn’t giving you what you need, get help elsewhere. Do your experiments one at a time, and generate your figure. If you get hung up on some technical aspect, usually this is something easy that can be quickly corrected by someone that’s ran the experiment themselves. Networking will give you power.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Excellent advice NV. Thanks for sharing this and taking the time to add detailed value to this post.

    • ace

      excellent, its really criminal that there are so many students with this problem, with no real recourse!

  • Hidz Azhar

    Thank you very much for writing this and believe it or not, the same situation that happened to you is happening to me. My adviser is the chair to my department and oh yes I do feel hopeless because no matter which way I am reaching out people are ignoring me. Right now they are pending my visa renewal process which is a silent way to block me from continuing my doctorate degree-which I am in the middle of completing it. I am going to work my way through this and I am getting mentally stronger everyday. You are right it is not the end of the world when something like this happen and it is not “normal”. A bad adviser is a bad adviser, regardless. I guess for me is to find a supportive friend or partner that would help with motivations is very crucial. As for me, my family do not even get my struggles and trust me it is hard. However I am glad I have an extremely supportive fiance who never hesitate to hug me when I was down, or give a slight kick to make sure I realized that I have a battle to fight and continue to fight for my own right. I agree, having a back up plan is something very important and I am craving mine now. Thanks for the last highlight on do less not more. Though first I was like Whhhhaaattttt!!! but then, yes I got you. Thanks for sharing and all the best in your journey.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      I’m glad you found this article at the right time Hidz. Feel free to reach out to us as needed. We are here for you. Most importantly, remember your value as a PhD and a person, don’t let others push you down ever.

      • PHDesperate

        Hello:

        I am going through something similar/worse right now. I am not comfortable to share my whole story here as I am meeting with other people at my institution and do not want them to read this here (I know chances are low but the expected value is high). I really appreciate any advice. How can I contact you?

  • Sunflowers

    I started a PhD program with a poor advisor (sexist, tyrant, and money driven). This advisor seemed more concerned about his reputation than actually helping students (he was tenured). The entire department did not have adequate funding for all the students that they accepted and was poorly managed.. About 6 months into it, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to survive 5-6 years through all the mis-management. I started calling around to my contacts, looked for a different program at other universities. I found another program I liked, called the department chair and talked about my goals. Within 2 months, I left my program and started a new program. I finished in just under four years and got a tenure-track position ABD. So, you don’t have to put up with a bad advisor. There are alternatives.

  • WakaGuracha .

    This post is very good. Some people are just hostile to some people like these advisors. My story is like this … I thought I have got an opprotunity to study PhD at first when I came from a developing country. But later I realized that my advisor has a problem that every student feels mistreated by her. She has a habit of mistreating even worse those students from developong countries. It is surprising that she herself was from developing country. She has no history of advising more than 1 student. As soon as I came, i heard that one student from developing country left her. Other students told me he was active and enthiusiastic when he first came. I felt sorry for him but I thought may be I could do better. I was wrong! After three months she started to show off her hostile behavior. She even freighten me at times, if I dont deliver it within few tight days, she would write a letter to authorities to deport me. At first I was shaky, but now I dont care. I will contact another advisor or leave for my country.

  • selvavm

    Hey. U r article is good and I am also suffering because of my supervisor. My supervisor doesn’t listen to what I say and say Donno if I ask any doubt ( both technical and internal policies). But when I go and meet with other professor for clearing a doubt he scolds me for not going through him. I need him for a later part of my thesis and so I don’t want to piss him off. I also thought of solving this issue with department head but I am afraid they will support him only. I am so broken and donno what to do

    • ace

      ;( i feel your pain

  • Karen Willie

    Wish I had read this two years ago. I got out, too, but without the degree. I went into my doctoral program naively believing that my professors and mentors had my best interests at heart. Most did, but unfortunately, not the most powerful person–my adviser and committee chair. Who, yes, like in your case, was one and the same person. I had straight A’s, passed the comps, fulfilled the requirements of my two-year assistantship, collected the data for my dissertation study, and then walked. I had internalized all the abuse and felt I had no future in academia, which is where I wanted to be. I have moved on and life is good, but it was all a painful experience. People like your adviser, and mine, need to be forced to face their behavior. Thank you for standing up to yours. Wish I had done the same.

    • ace

      for me my solution is to apply for any overseas fellowship I can get and not come back, just finish my degree over there, I hope I can get it!

  • Gill

    I don’t have a similar problem owing to the fact that I have yet to embark on a PhD, however I am disabled and the nature of my disability is hampering my ability to search for literature and moreover, it is hampering my ability to look for a suitable placement – I absolutely and most definitely need a supportive supervisor. Are there any tips you can give me that will help me to overcome such issues? (my limitations come from dislocating/subluxing joints – including my fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders; assistive technologies that I was issued with have not broken down barriers), any advice will be warmly welcomed.

  • Viking_Pirate

    Hi, I have a similar problem but it was luck that this happened at the first half year and I quitted one month ago. I would like to call this guy as an ah, cutting my funding to support him to hire a postdoc instead, but as you mentioned in your blog, I kept all the records I have and sued him, eventually, I won and I quitted. I just wanted to warn him this was a big mistake he made in his academic career.

  • Against Hypocrisy

    If your PhD advisor mistreats you, make sure to graduate and get a job in industry making more money than him. Following, let him know, very clearly, that you are richer and happier than he will ever be. After that register his email in every existent porn site and pay for a specialized prank company to send a box full of horse shit to his office with no possibility of return. Enjoy!

  • rdvelvet02

    what does it mean when your adviser says they think they are “a terrible adviser for you”? My adviser just said that to me and I have a committee meeting in ~1wk! I know we have had our differences over the last year — basically there was a project that my PI wanted me to do and I said I didn’t want to because it was a distraction from my thesis work (which was already set to include 2 publications). My PI then told me “too bad”. Meanwhile my PI tried recruiting a post-doc in the lab to help with the project. the Post-doc also didn’t want to be apart of it (basically we both think the hypothesis is wrong, interesting and really cool, but wrong). As of now, the hypothesis is rarely mentioned and I’m not asked about where the project stands at all. It’s awkward. Meanwhile I’m pushing on my other 2 projects and I think they are going well. My PI is trying to work on communicating better with me so we decide on things together rather than them just telling me what to do. But then today they said the above statement. I’m not sure if I should do anything or not about this?

  • dom che

    I graduated this spring with a MS degree from the Electrical and Computer Engineering department from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. However, I joined the department as a PhD student! I must tell you that the ECE department at SIU Carbondale is worse than hell. It is dominated by few narcissistic people from Greece who don’t care about anything other than their fat paychecks(over 100K). These professors are extremely abusive to graduate students and see them as their potential competitor. They treat PhD students as their slaves and punish them by delaying their graduation. You will see 6/7 year PhD students in the ECE Dept. Presently PhD dropout rate is over 90% in the ECE Dept. I know PhD students who worked for over 6 years and left without the degree. DO NOT JOIN.

  • Luisho

    Just discovered this post. Not a post-grad student (and never will pursue it after my horrible undergrad experience), but these things also happen in undergrad. In my university in engineering professors seem free to whatever they want short of sexual harassment. I saw and experienced a lot of unfair situations, from professors not following protocol to just playing favoritism. It was horrible because nobody dared to do anything since they didn’t want to burn any bridges (going into graduare school has become way too popular in engineering) or just end up disliked on top of the poor protocol following.

    My worst experience was in a group project I was stuck with someone who simply was not helping me, he was being lazy and not doing enough of the work. In the end I finished what I could by myself and the professor was not pleased, he gave us an incomplete and I told him simply that I did my part and should not be punished for my partner’s lack of interest. Long story short it didn’t work out and I ended up getting plagiarized since his solution was having each of us turn in individual work. I ended up basically having to do new work while my former partner finally did the part he had not done in time for himself and used my work as well (we had a Google Drive folder) . It was professor approved plagiarism as he didn’t do anything about it despite mh protests. I couldn’t do much without dwelling in hours of bureaucracy since the professor was the department head.

    It sucks seeing other people had similar experiences, but at least makes me feel like I wasn’t alone.

  • Pollsak

    Those might be the best and the most suitable thing that a person should be doing especially if they already feel to be mistreated by their academic adviser but they still wanted to become successful in their career in the end.

  • Honey

    I am in the 5th yr of grad school. Left with one more semester to graduate, I have managed to find a full time position in a reputed publishing company. However my mentor thinks I should have waited for 6 months and then started applying to jobs! Because of his damaging attitude there are grad students close to their 8th year still stuck in school. Yet he says I shouldn’t take the offer. My program hasn’t been supportive either. Being on a student visa, I need to have a form signed by the mentor to start employment. I am very disappointed. I wish there would be a group where we can all help each other.

  • Ivan Jimenez

    My experiences tells me and other students-workers facing difficulty with professors that think they “know-it all”, or “because I have a Ph.D, I’m smarter and better trained than you” actually knows very little about your future works.

    What I am saying is to BE ASSERTIVE OR EVEN AGGRESSIVE! These people are mainly jaded by the very fact they are not paid enough–really, is getting paid over $100,000 not enough to sustain you and your wife and your children? They are also sexually frustrated, overworking for stupid reasons or to meet a quota by the universities or to complete the fundings from federal grants used in their research assignments and publication and conferences speaking.

    I cannot stressed enough for students, especially those still in undergraduate and definitely pursuing Masters, Professional, and Ph.D,/ M.D, STAND UP FOR YOURSELVES and show them that you are not a toddler, so they need to respect you and help you navigate the trenches of your experimentations or you will seek out another important advisor. Better yet, threaten them by going to speak with the Deans of Academic Affairs without telling them anything after they have hold out on their promises to support you and then begin to belittle you and your intelligence and even your family–this man, I punched his nose after I completed my dual Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering & Business Administration: Marketing. Got arrested, but school security knew of them A-Holes though, so I was released after promising I wouldn’t hit him again.

    • ace

      Cheers for your courage!

  • dd

    Mistreatment by faculty is a global problem .matters are worse for female students. Thanks for sharing

  • Atul Kakrana

    So I am not alone !!!

  • ace

    good advice, I unfortunately have a similar situation also I’m the only one in the lab not Chinese, I really want to think that it doesn’t make a difference but it does, if theres any scut work to do I get asked to do it, organizing files, numbering references. anything meaningless, but stuff like doing experiments, or using any instruments I dont get a shot no matter how many times I ask. After trying like hell to be an eager beaver in the lab last semester, my solution is to find out the times when my adviser will not be present and only come at those times, that way I wont be interrupted by meaninglessness or shoved off an instrument.

  • Aqilah Haji Abas

    Good advice!
    No support and guidance can be very frustrating. All i do is crying all the time. Feel so helpless 🙁

  • Paritra Mandal

    Isaiah ..you are such an inspiration and every word you have written works because I was in a similar situation and I did get louder not quieter. They tell you to mould this way or that way but one should really learn to network. I have done all of what you mentioned but not after reading your post, but before it and intuitively so. I just did not give up and eventually I was victorious.
    Hence I can attest, every worday of yours is true. Kudos to you for having fought a hard battle. Congratulations. 🙂

  • Cristina Arroyo

    I’m having a very tough time with my advisor, and found that the Department head will ultimately support his staff and faculty over the student. The university, however, has a student union and Ombudsman, who will help you and have your interests at heart–that’s their job!

  • Elmira Birang

    As a master student a lot of things are against me, they treat me exactly like a dirt. But all these experiences guide me to realize that I have to pursue my goals (doing a PhD) in another country.