Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth: The overwhelming majority of PhD advisors are very bad at their job.
This does not mean that they are bad people.
Many, many of them are good people, good teachers, good scholars.
And bad advisors.
There are many reasons for this and the most mundane are the most powerful. Without discounting the fact that there are some very bad actors taking advantage of an archaic system, a lot of bad advising happens because good people are stuck in a bad system.
As we’ve mentioned before, the academic system is set up so that advising PhD students, while a necessary part of pursuing tenure and promotion, is competing with all of the other (mostly unpaid) things that faculty have to do for tenure and promotion. Advising is a small slice of your advisor’s time and advising you is just a fraction of the total time she can devote to advising. Let’s pretend that your advisor magically manages to have a perfect work-life balance and spends half of her waking hours working and half on her family. The image below is what her time would likely look like in this ideal scenario:
You are one of the tiny slices of pie that she devotes to advising. In reality, though, your advisor doesn’t have perfect work-life balance because none of us do. In reality, research and writing probably take up more of her time than the 25% of the pie we’ve allotted to it here. In reality, shit happens: the kids get sick, teaching is more time consuming than she thought, an in-law passes away, the toilet stops working and she has to cancel everything and call a plumber, her tenure portfolio needs to be put together, and on and on it goes.
So, where is she gonna find that extra time she needs in her day when stuff comes up? Well, dear reader, it’s probably gonna come from her advising time. You are, after all, a smart and capable adult or else you wouldn’t be here so you’ll either figure it out or let her know if you need something.
In this, the best case scenario, it’s not that your advisor means to give you the short end of the stick it’s just that she, like you, is a person in a rigged system.
In this situation, the best advice I can give (and which I discovered way too fucking late) is to borrow from the corporate world and employ tactics for managing up. Managing up is, essentially, how to get the person in authority over you to do what you need them to do and there is a lot of helpful advice in the corporate world about how to do this.
What it all boils down to, though, is that you have to know what you need and ask for it.
Do you need regular meetings to stay on track? Ask your advisor if you can schedule a quick check-in with her once a month.
Does your advisor keep giving you contradictory advice? After you receive advice from her, either in person or comments on a draft, email her right away with the following template:
Thank you so much for your feedback on my work [at our meeting/in the comments you sent me on X date]. I see you’ve raised issues A, B, and C with the manuscript in it’s current form.
I hope to have revisions addressing these issues back to you at [realistic date–which is when you think you can have it back + 10 days].
This does two things. First, if you’ve misinterpreted the feedback in some way it provides an opportunity for clarification. Second, when you get contradictory advice on the next draft you go right back to this baby in your email and forward it to your advisor with this note:
Thank you for your feedback. I see that you would like me to do X in revisions. In our conversation on [date] (included below) we discussed me addressing A. I included X in an attempt to rectify the issue you identified with A but seem to have missed the mark. Can you provide some clarification for how to move forward?
[Probably put in some sentences here specific to your issue, like, “Do you think providing a more detailed lit-review would be helpful here?”].
This will help you and your advisor have clear conversations in the event that it’s just miscommunication getting in the way. It will also hold them accountable if they truly are giving you contradictory advice because it forces them to explain themselves without upsetting the delicate ecosystem that is the academic ego. Finally, it creates a paper trail should the need arise.
New faculty and veteran advisors, we would be particularly grateful if you have time to lend any advice in the comments about how your PhD students can be proactive in creating a productive relationship with you.