I am a third year PhD student in an area of theoretical CS that would like advice for a difficult situation with my advisor.

My advisor is not involved in my research projects at all. In particular, I have come up with all of my paper ideas, and have executed the papers alone. However, she always insists on adding her name as a co-author. This has started to increasingly bother me, as I work very hard (alone) on my research and believe I should get credit for that. In addition, she is a bully and treats me quite badly, so it makes it even harder for me to benefit her in this way.

For my most recent paper, I brought up how I didn't believe she was meeting the IEEE 1 or ACM 2 guidelines for authorship, and told her that I believed I should be sole author on my paper. She agreed that she shouldn't be an author, although she was visibly angry. She said that I was a "weirdo" for doing this, and said that everybody already knows that advisors take credit for their student's work and that publishing with your advisor is the same as publishing alone. But most importantly, she told me that she would not approve my proposal/dissertation if I did not add her name to several more top-tier papers because then I "have no ties to the university" since I am not working with a professor, and therefore cannot receive my PhD.

Obviously, I need a new advisor. However, there is really no one in my department in my research area. Switching research areas or departments are not options. So the remaining options are the following:

(1) Add her name to several more papers. I do not like this idea because it is unethical, and there is no guarantee that anything is even gained in this option. She could simply refuse to recommend me in the end after I got her a bunch of papers.

(2) Ignore her threats, and force my way to finishing my PhD while publishing single author papers. I do not believe she could stop me from graduating since I already have a decent publication record, and presumably will continue getting my work out. I have a fellowship, so she can't control my funding. Clearly, I will not have a letter of recommendation in this case. On the other hand, I will have a bunch of single author papers.

(3) Try to convince a professor in an unrelated research area to be my advisor, emphasizing that I am independent and can do my work alone. There are a few theory professors in my dept, although they are totally different areas. I have no idea the chance of this working out.

(4) Go to the department chair and tell him the whole story, ask what to do.

What do you think I should do?

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    $\begingroup$ I think this question would be a better fit for academia.stackexchange.com . $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ Threats like "would not approve my proposal/dissertation if I did not add her name to several more top-tier papers" are unacceptable. Since you have your own funding, you should move supervisors. Supervisors have two core roles: provide funding (if needed), and provide technical help (if needed). Both don't apply in your case. Hence, there is no particular problem with changing supervisors, especially with a 3rd year PhD who's capable of researching and publishing independently. (This is deal for a supervisor, no need to babysit the student, no worries about graduating.) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ Since your supervisor threatens you, she's probably gotten away with this in the past and might do so in the future. So to be on the safe side, "just in case", I'd document your supervisor's lack of help. Write your paperers using e.g. GitHub, and commit your progress frequently, like several times per hour. This way there is an official, independently verifiable, trail of who wrote what in your papers. In addition, meticulously document your supervision sessions, document what you did, what the supervisor should have done, what the supervisor didn't do. Document any threats. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ "everybody already knows that advisors take credit for their student's work and that publishing with your advisor is the same as publishing alone." That's a plain lie from your advisor. Most advisors are helpful and provide important support for coming up with the results of a paper, even when they do not participate to the writeup. In fact, my own advisor had even encouraged me to publish papers without him before finishing my PhD, to make it clear that I'm able to work by myself and that I'm not just being carried by his (great) guidance. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ This question on academia might also be helpful: When should a supervisor be an author? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 8:52

4 Answers 4


As a department chair, I can say you aren't alone. These situations come up all too often.

Please do reach out to your department chair, graduate program director or grad student ombudsperson if your institution has one. We want to know when our faculty are behaving badly and often we can help.


You should switch advisors. Since you are independently writing papers and have a track record, it should be possible to find a fair-minded theory advisor in a different technical area who is willing to do the administrative aspects of handling a PhD thesis. Your department chair should also help in this matter.


Unfortunately, there is little you can do -- a PhD adviser exercises a great deal of control over the students' careers. I think at this point, you're better off placating her and adding her as a co-author. When you get your degree, avoid whenever possible requesting recommendation letters from her.

A major piece of advice I offer all beginning graduate students (which is too late for you) is to ask around before choosing an adviser. Ask former and current students especially, but also faculty (delicately) -- to the degree they're willing to be honest with you. Faculty members rarely comment on each other, but in extreme cases they will (I've gotten pointers from faculty members to avoid certain people). Yours sounds like an extreme case, and I imagine you're not the only one who's experienced this adviser's unethical behavior. Do a service to the community -- if students ask about her, honestly share your experience!

Also, consider speaking with your director of graduate studies, who will have more information and may be able to offer better advice.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't quite upvote this due to the recommendation of placating her by adding her as a coauthor. The fact that she's actually threatening to not sign off on the OP's dissertation unless she's given coauthor credit on unrelated papers is sufficiently unethical that there's an obligation to bring this to the attention of someone who can do something about it. But I strongly agree with every other part of this answer. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that my advice to placate the adviser is unfair, but I still think it's the most pragmatic suggestion, given how little I know about the specifics. My main concern is about the OP's academic future, which can be harmed by scandals -- especially if the adviser wields a lot of power around the department. $\endgroup$
    – Aryeh
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 19:29

I am going to make some guesses and give an advice that might seem contradictory to what others have said. Apologies if I am mistaken in my guesses. My intention is to help you overcome not just this issue but learn from it to be more successful.

I would guess your adviser is relatively young in her career. Probably not tenured yet. The behavior is not good, but I would suggest trying a bit to understand where she is coming from. Also I would guess she had other students that are not disappointed like you. So it is not a problem about her, it is a problem about you and her.

Senior people who have already established themselves in the community don't worry about things a junior prof has to worry about. Specially people who have had exceptionally good advisers. From her perspective, she has given you admission to work with her, she is paying you from her research grant (you will learn hopefully in future that getting money for research is not easy and believe me writing grant applications is time consuming and few enjoy doing), and she does so to conduct research and publish papers and advance in her career. As people become more senior, their role in research can change: it is not a good allocation of resources to expect a senior researcher do the same work as a student. Lots of senior researchers do so and try to contribute to all aspects of research, out of courtesy and generosity, out of love for the research and their students, and out of research culture pressure. These doesn't change the fact that it is not a good allocation of resources, it would be better if they had time to advices 10 junior researchers instead of 5.

This seems like a broken student-adviser relation. You probably picked her as your adviser because you thought she would be the person in the department that would be most helpful to you in what you want to do. She chose you, despite what senior people have said above, most likely because she thought you would be a good researcher and she can advance her research agenda with you. She probably feels as disappointed as you are.

Doesn't she really contribute anything to your research? Note that it is a common pitfall of junior researchers to think they did all the work while workout their adviser they must likely wouldn't be able to achieve the results themselves.

My advice to you would be to ask her to contribute more to the problems, in thinking about them, proposing ideas, reading related work, writing, etc. and see if she is willing to do so. If not, then you have no need for her, get a new adviser. You claim that you are doing the work mostly by yourself, yes, then the adviser shouldn't matter much. If she says yes, if I were you I would use the opportunity and try to work out the situation, paying attention to what she wants, and expressing politely how it makes you feel when she doesn't contribute. Don't try to exclude her from what you do. But explain to her that to prove your Independence as a researcher you need to sometimes publish papers alone. And know this: when you apply for a position you will need people to write letters of recommendation, and in those letters they would explain your role in the research you have jointly done.

Keep in mind, for almost everyone except true genius, and be honest with yourself, their career success depends a lot more on being able to work happily work other researchers than one or two relatively small results. What you will need to get a for position is not just good research but also very good references. Departments won't give you a job because you have good results but because they think you would be a positive addition to their community.

Also remind her that in the long term, one of the measures against which she would be evaluated is training new successful researchers. Your career success and her career success are tied together.

I would also guess that you might be a person who is hard to work with. Spend some time learning about managing your relationship with other researchers. There are good books out there, many successful people had this challenge. The good thing is that it is a skill you can learn. You are assertive, that is good, but also learn to be humble.

If you can get a senior faculty who is not your adviser, preferably from another research group, to be your mentor: meet once a month. You can get advise about how to deal with difficult situations.

Keep in mind that a main difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful person is that the latter blames others while the former tries to learn how to avoid failing in the same way.

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree that the relationship between a student and advisor can be complicated, and it is good to try to understand where she is coming from, I think the third paragraph of the OQ make its pretty clear that the situation you describe is not what's happening. The advisor wasn't arguing that she deserved credit b/c she thought she had contributed enough despite the student's disagreement, she was arguing that she should have her name on the paper solely b/c she is the advisor, to "take credit for her student's work". $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ she does so to conduct research and publish papers and advance in her career — Then let her conduct research and advance her career! Nothing you’ve written gives her license to add her name to research that she has not actually conducted. $\endgroup$
    – Jeffε
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 8:35

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