Toxic Advisors

As mentioned in our last post, the medieval system of apprenticeship employed in academia can give dissertation advisors a truly terrifying degree of control of the lives of their advisees.

There are many good people in academia who do not abuse this power. There are many good people in academia who seek to subvert these hierarchal power dynamics.

But there are also too damn many people in academia who do use the almost-unchecked power advisors have over their doctoral students for ill ends.

If you’ve been following #MeTooPhD or #MeTooPoliSci or any of the other academic #MeToo tags then you will know that sometimes advisors, often but not exclusively, male advisors, use their power over their advisees to sexually harass them.

The #MeToo movement and the toxic culture it calls out is similar in many ways to the toxic culture of academia. Both are about hierarchies in which power over many is concentrated in the hands of a few and, largely, unchecked. Both have to do with status–high-status individuals tormenting low-status individuals. And, in both, it is the bad cases that stick out far more than the more numerous good ones.

The best statistics we have indicate that 1 in 10 men are a danger to womyn. There are two corollaries of this figure, however, and both of them are true in academia as well. The first is that there is no way of knowing with certainty whether or not someone is the dangerous one or one of the nine safe ones. The second is that the bad ones get away with their behavior because not enough of the good ones are willing to check them.

Personally, I think it’s a serious flaw in most graduate student programs which I’ve encountered that they make students pick a committee so soon. There are many problems with the emphasis on moving students through programs quickly via the many iterations of “fast-track” or MA and PhD programs. There are the concerns of quality, both in research and writing, but there is also the concern of the human cost. If a student is to be done with their PhD in 5 years (the stated goal of my college at my former institution) then they need to be done with their prelims and prospectus at the end of their third year (assuming it takes a year to research and a year to write). This means that a student will have a more or less fixed committee by the end of their coursework. Because of the various peccadilloes of academic scheduling 4 semesters, or two years, of courses will give you enough time to, maybe, take one class with every professor you think you want on your committee. That is sixteen weeks (14 after breaks and whatnot) of one week encounters and a couple of small papers or one big one to determine whether or not to give this person an immense amount of control and influence over your life.

It is not, in short, a lot of time to make a well-reasoned decision and, this being academia, there are a million other things that go into it. You probably picked this program because of the scholars you could work with here. You know these people by reputation. Now that you are in the program you know people who have worked or are working with these people. That one class is not your only information about them but it is your best source of information on how the two of you might work together.

Yet, just as abusers can be infinitely charming in public, I have personally witnessed several abusive advisors who are wonderful at teaching a class. So wonderful, in fact, that other folks who knew all the details of how abusive this person was to their advisees, still ranked her class as one of their favorites.

Once again for the people in the back: ABSUERS ARE CHARMING AF WHEN THEY WANT TO BE.

All of this means it can be nearly impossible to tell whether or not someone who seems like a decent professor will be a good advisor. I have at least three close friends who took a gamble on a good professor who turned out to be a truly atrocious advisor. I want to be very clear here. When I say “atrocious” I don’t mean “annoying” or “old-fashioned.” I mean almost career-destroying. For one person it was genuine malice in which their advisor actively sought to destroy their career both in and after graduate school. For others it was negligence. For still others, it was a little of column A and a little of column B.

Most importantly, however, none of these toxic advisors would have been in a position to advise students had their colleagues, or the university system, ensured that their bad behavior was punished early on.

So, what’s the point of this long, rambling post? I mean, besides the fact that it’s kind of therapeutic for me to write, even obliquely, about all the horrible advisors I experienced, directly or indirectly, during grad school?

The points are as follows:

  1. Toxic advisors are real.
  2. Toxic advisors are a systemic problem and academia, as an institution, needs to change.
  3. You didn’t cause this behavior.
    1. No. Seriously. You didn’t. It’s not because you missed a deadline or because your writing wasn’t perfect (no writing ever is).
    2. It’s probably not even about you. Honestly. Most toxic people are just trying to exorcise their own trauma. It doesn’t make their behavior right. It doesn’t excuse it, but whatever they’re doing to you probably has very, very little to do with you and 98% to do with them.
    3. Really. You didn’t.
  4. You. Are. Not. Alone. Even though we don’t talk about it, even though there are a lot of incentives to not talk about it, you are not alone.
  5. You can ge through this if you want to.
  6. But you don’t have to. It’s okay to quit if you want.
  7. I’m here for you. If we were betting, I would put all my money on you being better than fine.

Later this week (no, guys! I really mean it!) we’ll be back and talking about how to handle advisors of all types.

 

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