Monday, January 31, 2011

44. Advisers can be tyrants.

The most important relationship of your graduate-school career is that between you and your adviser (or in some departments, “major professor”). “Adviser” is an understated way of describing the person who is your academic supervisor, your advocate within the department, the primary assessor of the quality of your work, the person who will decide if and when you can take your qualifying exams and/or comprehensive exams and if and when you are ready to defend your dissertation, and—if you happen to be serving as your adviser’s teaching or research assistant—your boss. Your adviser will be the principal decider of whether you pass your exams and defense, and thus whether you will ever receive a degree. Choosing an adviser is not to be taken lightly, but the choice is not entirely yours. Research interests, departmental politics, and who happens to be available and willing to "advise" you will all play a role in determining who your adviser will be.

Tolstoy wrote that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and one could say that every tyrannical adviser is tyrannical in his own way. The worst abuses may occur in the laboratory sciences, where graduate students often perform the painstaking labor that results in the papers published under their advisers’ names. Foreign students whose student visas are dependent upon successful progress toward their degrees are especially vulnerable to demanding advisers who determine what “successful progress” is. Hopefully, most advisers will never go so far as the dean at St. John’s University in New York who has recently been accused of turning undergraduate scholarship-recipients into her personal servants. Less newsworthy are the common disheartening experiences of those whose research questions or conclusions have been dictated to them by their advisers, who have had to re-write their dissertations three times for no good reason, or whose fate is in the hands of an adviser who is simply a miserably unpleasant person (see Reason 25).


  1. I was a grad student in theater, working on an MFA and had a tyrant for an adviser. There was no option of changing advisers-she was the only. She would set me up to fail--send my out on wild goose chases for things that didn't exist. Another student taking the SAME CLASS as me, did 60% of the work, and got an A. I got a B. She took design opportunities away from me. It just got to a point where there was no way to win--so I quite.

    BTW, I got awards at ACTF for my work, so while she said it sucked, other evaluators like it. Also, in all the time I spent in higher education, as an undergrad and in other grad programs, I had oodles of instructors, and most either like you well enough, don't know who you are, or don't really feel one way or another about you. A few genuinely like you. Very few, to none, actually actively DISLIKE a student. She REALLY disliked me. And with my luck, right after I quit, so did she. If I could've held on a little longer, I would've had a SANE adviser the following year!

  2. Most important bit of wisdom from my advisor:

    "Make sure everyone on your committee likes each other."

    (I'm a psych Ph.D. & 15 years out. I work outside Academia.)

  3. As much as I criticize other things about grad school and academia, I can't complain about my adviser. S/he and I had mutual respect for each other from the beginning and had complementary approaches to the dissertation process.

    I've heard plenty of horror stories, though, and witnessed the wreckage to other peoples' lives and careers.

  4. I think this works the same way as bosses outside of academia. Although it's quite easy to get placed with a tyrannical or, perhaps worse, apathetic adviser, many advisers are excellent, caring mentors.

  5. I guess the one thing I'd add to my previous comment is that, while I respected my adviser as a scholar and as a person (and that was mutual, I think), s/he was older and a little out of touch with the realities graduate students face these days -- i.e. all the problems this blog addresses, especially that "adjuncthood awaits." The advice that if you do X, Y, and Z, you will land a tenure-track job may once have been good advice but no longer is, and I would have appreciated more guidance about alternative careers. This is a problem with advisers in general, I think. They see their role as helping advisees along an academic path, which makes sense, but, given the realities of today's job market, I think there is an ethical obligation -- if you are going to take on the responsibility of mentoring graduate students -- to help them with (at least talk about) a Plan B, since most of those who want to become professors never will.

  6. @recent Ph.D.

    I agree that good advisors should talk about job market realities and "plan B" for their students. But that's exactly the problem with academic careers: because they're tenured or tenure-track, they sometimes have limited or even no experience with either nonacademic jobs and the current realities of the academic job market. For example, my supervisor was a distinguished scholar in her field; Oxford PhD, worked with some of the best known researchers in the field, lots of connections and strong research funding. When I asked about nonacademic jobs toward the end of MSc, her advice was pretty shallow. She said she'd have lots of advice/connections for academic positions but nothing in industry. And she's tenure-track (with little doubt she'll get it). Academic advisors don't have much to say about "plan B" and "alternative" career paths because they have no real incentive to look into them. Even if they do look into these options, they're professional networks and connections might be almost useless.

  7. @JMG

    Agree 100%, but it's something Directors of Graduate Studies (or whatever the title is for that position at one's institution) should actively address, since advisers often aren't very good at it -- i.e. along with the professionalization workshops on conferencing and publishing offered to graduate students, there should be workshops on alternative careers. It's only fair, really.

    Of course, the same problem arises -- the DGS doesn't necessarily know or care about life on the outside any more than advisers do.

  8. One anonymous wrote: "I think this works the same way as bosses outside of academia." Nope. There are a few BIG differences...

    One difference is: The hoops you have to jump through to get a job "in the real world" (even in this economy) are not near as arduous and as strenuous as it is to get into grad school. So you think about the consequences of leaving, but you will rarely stay on for an extra year or two or three of soul-sucking misery, because at the end of the hellish journey, a degree awaits...

    Another big difference is MONEY. At a job--you still earn money! Usually WAY MORE than you do with an assistantship or a fellowship. Plus, you are NOT flushing THOUSANDS of it down the toilet towards a degree you may very well never get because your adviser is the spawn of Satan. You don't have to buy thousands of dollars worth of books (like people in the humanities do)--your job magically supplies the resources you need to accomplish it. (Generally speaking.) But that is not entirely related to tyrannical adviser vs. tyrannical boss, but it does make a difference!

    Another difference is that you can still put that experience on the resume. No one really cares that you spent five years at Something U in grad school, if you didn't get the degree. But two years at Someplace, Inc. is EXPERIENCE. It "counts!"

    Another difference: Even if you worked for the worst tyrant, most HR departments are aware that in the "real world" the only thing they are permitted to do is to verify that you did indeed work there--that vilifying you to potential employers is litigious. Evil, spawn of Satan advisers have no qualms about vilifying you, given the opportunity. My favorite is the person who requested a recommendation from a prof they were under the misapprehension liked and respected them. The prof said, "Sure, I'd be glad too!" And proceeded to write a scathing letter on what a useless and bad student they were. Usually, if you are stuck with and adviser from hell, you have learned that you can't trust them vis-a-vis any recommendation, but in the academic world, NOT getting a recommendation from your adviser is suspect.

    So two years or so, stuck working for a tyrannical boss is not nearly as soul-sucking, or as expensive, as being stuck with a tyrannical adviser. Believe me--been both places...

  9. Watch out for the adviser whose students are not where you'd like to be after your finish. What makes you think you'll fare any better, especially if his students were among the smarter ones?

    (You won't, because he's writing bad letters of recommendation behind his students' backs. Mwa ha ha ha! Based on a true story.)

  10. What are advisors supposed to be doing? I dont understand. Do they advise people in what field to go in? What are all the tasks they are supposed to help you with? I thought that all advisors did was help you know what classes to take next for your degree or whatever.

  11. Oh, okay, I see now. This whole blog is talking about graduate schooling, while I was thinking about undergraduate schooling. I see now.

  12. My first round of graduate school was at a large, mediocre, urban state university, where, about twelve years after finishing college, I embarked on a history Master's. My undergraduate major had been English. The history advisor at this university was easygoing and fairly tolerant of my desire to explore certain arcane, rather un-PC avenues--I was the 800-pound dead-white-male gorilla in the room--because he wasn't obsessed with Foucault, theory, etc. After earning the M.A., I obtained a fellowship for the doctorate at a large, R1 state university in a semi-rural college town. My advisor there was much more high-powered and preeminent--and he despised me on sight. Remember Matt Groening's 1987 cartoon about grad school? Rule Number 1: Do Not Annoy The Professor. Yep. This guy hated just about everything I said and did, even though I respected his work and we shared a lot of interests. I ended up getting friendly with two or three professors in the department who told me flat-out that they hated his guts. It finally dawned on me that all of my eggs were now firmly lodged in one basket--far more so than they would be in an ordinary cubicle job with a difficult manager or supervisor. My entire future and reputation, in effect, were beholden to this man; I was at his mercy--and nothing could improve the situation. I realised that he could simply reject section after section of dissertation submissions, and I would have absolutely no recourse. I was already forty, and could see myself broke and wretched at forty-six or even fifty, endlessly revising and submitting. Quitting, which I did after one full academic year in the Ph.D. program, was hard, not merely because I had invested my ego and sense of self into the venture (though I had) and not because I feared the disapprobation of my classmates, whom I utterly despised and disdained in any case. No, quitting was hard because I simply had noplace else to go, no alternatives, and I was shitscared. After leaving graduate school I floundered more, made more vocational and career mistakes, but learned a great deal about life and myself in the process, and now, six or seven years later, I finally have a normal job. Graduate school is counterproductive and does nothing to enhance the abilities and skills one needs to survive.

  13. I came across this post again. It turns out that the person at St. John wound up killing herself in 2013.

  14. TL;DR summary: Don't join a program which will result in having more than one adviser if you can help it.

    I am an M.A. student who has THREE official advisers, one for each of the two graduate certificates I'm getting along with my M.A. and one for the M.A. itself. And two of THOSE are replacements for OTHER advisers in my first semester who are no longer doing any advising.

    Yes, I've been a graduate student for less than a year and have already had 5 advisers, not counting the admissions professor with whom I spoke when I was considering this school and not including the professor in charge of my research assistantship, who has their own ideas about what I should be doing.

    I'm just glad I'm in a non-thesis terminal M.A. program for which I don't actually need advisers to sign off on anything and that I didn't need anyone's advice to know which course I wanted to take to achieve my goals.

    (I did make one mis-step, and that was taking one course for which I signed up on the advice of one of the advisers, which resulted in me NOT having room in my degree requirements to take another course being offered later which would have been a better match with my goals. That same adviser suggested I go ahead and take the new extra course, even though it would slow down my timeline to graduate, and paying for it myself of course, because it would be so good for me to take it ... oh, and they just happen to be teaching it.)

  15. Is my advisor maligning my character, rather than refusing to help me out a little, as some sort of misanthropic Socratic pedagogy*, or am in the grip of someone who entered academia while still a child and has never known any other kind of life?

    I think academia shares this problem with some other professions (having once or twice been in the care of physicians with the emotional maturity of a bright twelve-year-old). My adviser does not really seem to have a clue how much power she has in my life, not only what I do with 100% of my productive time, but also over my economic survival. A lot of these people have been academics since they were children, and have no idea of what real life is like.

    *Haha I would not let myself use that term without research (and I probably got it wrong anyway, smarty-pants readers). Has this been mentioned, that one no longer feels confident saying anything about anything without consulting scholarly sources?