Controversial/Awkward topic advice


Dear all,

I just want to start by saying that this message is in no way meant to sound arrogant or vain. But I am so worked up I need to ask your advice/rant.

I am a first year PhD student, and admittedly I'm probably only where I am because during my MA I built up good relationships with staff/supervisors who helped me a lot with my application. Still, I am passionate about my subject and I do try hard.

However, my close friend who works in postgraduate administration in the department overheard my supervisor and another lecturer who gives me a lot of informal support, saying that a. They didn't think I'd make it through the probationary year (a 'miracle' if i did), and b. referring to me as 'eye-candy'. She said they were kind of laughing and being kind of sweet/patronising, saying 'aww'. She said that she didn't quite hear what it was exactly, but a comment was made about my 'designer clothes and handbags'. (Trust me - not even designer, Top shop's finest)

I am absolutely furious, they clearly think i am stupid and shallow and I am not at all! Just because I don't dress down like lots of students doesn't make me any less serious and dedicated. My supervisor, I THOUGHT was very fond of me, he's friendly and supportive and emails a lot and i have a meeting with him tomorrow but i am too embarrassed to go. This has made me so paranoid - like they are all laughing at me and I don't know what to do. My supervisor is a really nice person, and I keep trying to remind myself that I take the piss out of people I care about sometimes and would never intend to hurt them or for them to hear but I don't know if i can get over it.

What would you do/how would you feel? I feel so ridiculed..


Wow that's pretty rough to hear. I too have had comments about only getting certain things (conferences etc) because having a girl who looks like me representing the Uni makes it look better.
All you can do is be as absolutely professional as you can. Go to the meeting, but don't be over-friendly, just totally focus on your work, and prove to them that you are more than capable than passing the year. One good thing is that if their expectations of you are low; they can only be pleasantly surprised!!!


This sounds ridiculous, and completely unprofessional. However, I am aware that a lot of lecturers in my department are friends and have no doubt that they make personal comment about students, but i can not believe they would be so brazen about it. I'm really sorry but I don't know what to advise but I really hope you don't take this too personally and I hope you prove them both wrong!


My suggestion would be to ignore it. Honestly, it all depends on A) how truthful and serious your informer is being B) whether at all she has has heard and interpreted it correctly. And C) if this is really the case, and all of this is 100 per cent true, there isn't anything as pertinent in this situation as to pass your first year with flying colours and prove them wrong,

But do remember Steps A and B. Often we take these for granted and so many thousands of misunderstandings in the world happen that way. Also, pl do remember that most gossip is like chinese whispers. With every ear the version changes. Also, that interpretation is a huge factor.

Otherwise, please focus on tasks at hand (which includes having a productive and constructive supervision tomorrow) and just do your level best to pass this year with great honours, which I'm sure you will :-)

All best,



I once went into my manager's office full of hell over something that a director had said about me that was reported to me by a colleague. He countered with an arab proverb (were in an arab country) that translates as: the one who has bad-mouthed you is the one who tells you about it.

You weren't there - you don't know EXACTLY what was said and what the context was - and you have to wonder about someone telling you all this. If you are concerned ask your supervisor for some candid feedback on your progress and take it directly from him. Men in all professions can be patronising toward young women though I'm afraid.

I tend to think it's better we never know what people say about us. We all say things that are trivial or just on the spur of themoment and yet might by very upsetting if the subject heard of it.


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no one can tell you how you feel EVER, however you feel is how you feel. you are the only one that has control over your feelings. and if you are feeling a certain way you do not have to justify it, the fact you are feeling it, is justification in itself!

i like the others, agree that you should just ignore it and put it past you. i had a friend who was a phd student and she also got the impression she was there for the eye candy. but she is clever and got her phd and passed her viva!

i think most males in senior positions crack stupid jokes like that, but they dont mean it. i mean if you're a pretty girl, they just commented on that. it has no reflection on your intelligence!! they would NOT have given you your phd based on your looks! your obviously capable of doing the phd, and dont let their negative thinking that you wont get past the first year bring you down. you just work your hardest, and ignore them, do it for YOURSELF not for them. as long as you can then say hand on your heart and say to yourself and honestly say i did the best i could, no matter what the outcome, you will be able to live with yourself.

so like the other posters, ignore it, take it as a backhanded compliment, and just move on. i wouldnt bring it up. and i agree what the other posties have said about how things can be taken out of context and sometimes people just say stupid stuff without thinking.

and good for you for dressing how you feel comfortable!


It's weird, if your supervisor thought that you wouldn't even make it past year 1 - why would he waste his time supervising you? Failed students look bad on a supervisor's record.

Take what you have heard with a pinch of salt, like the others say, it was probably taken out of context. Now you have even more reason to work hard and succeed - prove them wrong!


I'd try really hard to prove them wrong as well, though as the others have said, overheard second-hand snippets of conversations aren't necessarily accurate and are out of context.

Your academic abilities should be judged separately from your appearance, even though they're obviously both you. When our external examiners read our theses, they don't get a full length photo and a run down of the contents of our wardrobes. It's the work that matters. If those staff for some reason regard being fashionable as an indication of being brainless or incapable of any academic achievement, that really is their problem and I think it's a bit sad actually. It reminds me of that film with Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde, where she proved she could be girly and fashionable and also an effective lawyer.

I can't remember the reference now, but a while back there was an article in the Times Higher about the dreadful state of UK academics dress, who were actually being sent on expensive workshops by their unis in an attempt to improve their appearances. There is no logical reason why an interest in fashion and being academically successful should be mutually exclusive - what's wrong with doing both? Try to forget those comments, concentrate all your energy on doing really well in your PhD and show them how wrong they were to have such shallow views of your capabilities.


Out of curiosity, what broad subject area/discipline are you studying?


Thank you all, I know you are right I was just a bit stressed out by the fact that my supervisor apparently has so little respect for me. I met with him this morning though and had a fairly productive meeting so I am just going to ignore it and get on with it.

My subject is history by the way.x


AH! The male historian! My dept is multidisciplinary - half history - but I am in the Politics bit. I was absolutely shocked and appalled (and almost left) when I arrived at the behaviour of some of the male historians in the dept. Whilst this is a massive generalisation and purely a product of my own experience, they were homophobic, misogynistic and felt they had every right to comment on the appearance of the younger female staff in a very open manner (but only if they were unmarried). When I raised concern about this behaviour, my personal tutor (another male historian) looked at me like I was mad and told me not to rock the boat!
At one dept social event, one of the senior staff told my friend and I that his life's ambition was to write a "Typology of German Women", then invited us to London for the weekend to a 'mind-broadening event' at one of the 'special clubs' he knows. But he was very drunk at this point.:p


Really?! We're probably at the same university...!


That sounds familiar! Male academics especially the older ones seem to comment on females inappropriately! I have heard it reported that they prefer pretty ones and would give them the job over less attractive ones if everything else was equal (eg. qualifications) so I think it's learning how to work the system and use it to your advantage! It really does suck and I would have expected more from them but there are some things you can't change!


For your sake Yaelle I hope not! I'm at a Uni in the north if that helps!