5 Signs of an Abusive Advisor

This mini-series is an adaptation of 15 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo.

  1. Love Bombing. Love bombing is where an abuser showers their intended victim with praise and attention. The HuffPo article above states, “They will tell you you’re unlike anyone else they’ve ever met.” While a graduate advisor may not love bomb you in a romantic sense–wooing you with flowers, dinners, and comments on your physical appearance–they may love bomb you with the things academics value–promises of publications and prestigious introductions. They may tell you that you are the most brilliant grad student they’ve ever had and that you’ll go far together. Love bombing is, by its very nature, incredibly seductive. So, how do you tell if you really are the most brilliant grad student your advisor has worked with in a decade or whether or not they are love-bombing you? Look to how other graduate students in your program relate to them. The clearest instance of love-bombing I’ve ever encountered is when an abusive advisor was taking on first-year PhD students while her senior grad student was still in the program. In her case, love bombing took the form of telling her new graduate students not to listen to her veteran student because they were special and much more qualified than he was. They wouldn’t have the problems he had with her because they were special, unlike him.
  2. Monitoring. In a romantic relationship this often takes the form of wanting to know who you are hanging out with and where you are and what you’re doing. In an academic relationship this can be an advisor who wants to know what courses you’re taking, what conferences you’re going to, and who you’re talking to at those conferences. Again, part of the problem with recognizing abusive advisors is that the behavior of an abusive advisor is not fundamentally different from the behavior of a good advisor. A good advisor will probably want to know what classes you are taking (some programs will make your advisor sign off on your classes or research hours). A good advisor will want to know what conferences you’re going to and may recommend panels to attend or people to seek out at those conferences. The difference really comes in intention and tone which can be incredibly hard both for victims and observers to pick up on. A good advisor will listen to your reasons for attending X conference. They may make recommendations such as “don’t go to any conferences in the final year of your dissertation–just focus on finishing” but they will treat you as an intelligent person making decisions about your future career. In contrast, an abusive advisor will always approach you from the perspective that (a) you are an idiot who could not survive without them and (b) your behavior reflects on them. An example would be a PhD student I know who went to his field’s major conference. As an aspiring academic professional should do he went to the book room and chatted to several publishers. He happened to talk to the publisher that had published his advisor’s book. Although he did not seek to drop her name it organically came up in conversation with the publishing representative. The publishing rep said they would be very interested in publishing the grad student’s dissertation when he was done writing it. For any rational grad student and advisor this would be a huge win and the next steps would be talking about how to stay in touch with the publisher and how to think about restructuring the dissertation for a book proposal. Instead, when the publishing rep told the advisor that he’d ran into her talented student she angrily emailed the student and told him not to talk to people she knew without her permission and that he had horribly embarrassed her. The grad student agonized for weeks about what he had done or said wrong to the publishing rep. In reality, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had done exactly what a grad student should do but his abusive advisor saw his actions as a reflection on her professional reputation and wanted to both monitor and control who he talked to and how. This also relates to the next abuse tactic.
  3. Isolating. Abusers always seek to isolate their victims because abuse only functions in an environment of deep shame. If you have a strong support network they’ll remind you that you don’t need your abuser’s shit and help you figure out ways to get out of the situation. This is why one of the first things any abuser does is isolate you. In romantic relationships this often takes the form of explosive jealousy when you spend time with other people, picking fights with your friends, encouraging you to quit your job or move away from your family. I think this is one of the abuse tactics that looks the most different in an academic setting. For starters, the structure of grad school is isolating in and off itself. You’ve often moved far away from your established support network and you may be financially dependent on the institution and, therefore, on maintaining your advisor’s favor. The process of academic specialization is, in and of itself, isolating. By the time you’re ABD the world of relevant experts for the academic field you’re in is astonishingly small. This can mean that, if you realize you have an abusive advisor, your options to switch are small and, in some cases, nonexistent. Apart from the isolating structure of graduate school, though, individual abusers may try and isolate you but it won’t be by picking fights with your friends. Instead, they may refuse to work with certain other faculty as part of your committee. It never ceases to amaze me how many academic professionals are willing and eager to be sycophants. I know of more than one case where an abusive advisor would refuse to allow anyone on the committee who wasn’t part of their cult of personality. This, of course, defeats the very purpose of having a committee in the first place. The role of a committee is to ensure that you are earning your PhD and not receiving, or being denied it, unfairly. When an abusive advisor fills a committee with people devoted to them it further isolates the student by ensuring that your success is dependent on keeping your advisor happy (and it usually results in some group gaslighting or backlash if the student dares to mention their concerns to someone on the committee). Abusers also seek to isolate by taking control of the narrative. For instance, they may mention, or may hint that they’ve mentioned, to other professor’s in the department that you are a difficult student. This sense that your advisor has poisoned the well can keep students from  looking for alternatives. One old chestnut that carries over in all abusive situations is the abusers contention that no one else would put up with you except the abuser. Abusive adviors will contend that no other professor would put up with your procrastination/writing/email salutation/teaching load/family situation/insert random normal thing here.
  4. Shoulding. The HuffPo article I’m pulling from for this list says, “Comments about how you should or shouldn’t cut your hair, whom you should see, what job you should take, how you should speak, etc. are an indication that your partner believes he knows more than you do about yourself and your life.” Uh, so, this dynamic is pretty much the premise of all PhD advising. giphy                                  So, what’s the difference between when this behavior is normal and when it’s abusive? A good advisor will see you as a young professional in your own right–someone who knows what they’re doing but may need a little guidance from time to time. They’ll give you advice to make your life easier or better. For instance, there were a lot of times that my advisor asked me questions I absolutely hated. However, as I wrestled with them I realized that they made my thinking clearer and my argument better. It wasn’t exactly pleasant but it was both well-intentioned and based on the premise that I was an adult who could deal with complicated questions. In contrast, an abusive advisor will talk to you and treat you like you are an idiot child who could not survive without their beneficent help. An abusive advisor uses “should” like a weapon saying things like, “Congratulations on your book review but you really should be working on an article” or “Instead of wasting your time on conferences you should be writing.” The point of this abusive shoulding isn’t to help you but to make you feel like everything you think and do is always-already wrong. This is an important part of instilling the shame that’s critical to an abusive relationship. A good tell of an abusive dynamic is if your advisor is shaming  you for normal behavior. However, to know what “normal” is for graduate students you need to be in regular contact with your peers.
  5. Permission. Abuse isn’t logical. For abusers there is absolutely no conflict in telling you that you should do something and then getting mad at you for not asking permission before doing that thing. Forcing you to ask for permission by explicitly telling you you have to or by getting mad when you don’t is a method of isolation. Remember the grad student I mentioned earlier whose advisor wanted him to ask permission for who he could talk to at conferences? That’s a perfect example of this type of control. There are other advisors who will tell you not to approach other faculty about being on your committee until they say you’re ready or not to send your article into a journal until they approve it. This is, of course, a trap. They will either (a) never give you permission (b) force you to do the thing without permission and then get mad at you or (c) only give you permission when they feel they can control the results or the narrative.

You, my dear readers, are all very smart people and so I’m sure you’ve already noticed that the common them of all five of these examples is control. These are all strategies to control your behavior in one way or another and, through controlling your behavior, to isolate you. The next set of abusive behaviors we’ll look at are also about power and control but focus, instead, on controlling how you think about the situation you’re in.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

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