5 More 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. Please check out the previous installments in this series here.

6. Us against them. Control and manipulation are hallmarks of abuse. The previous 5 signs of abusive advisors which we covered last week focus primarily on ways in which advisors can exploit the power difference between themselves and grad students to control grad students behavior. “Us against them” is a little different. In an “us against them” dynamic the abuser prays on the sympathy of the graduate student. It’s important to note that the results of the “us against them” dynamic are the same as other types of abuse. An advisor who positions themselves as the victim–of departmental politics, of jealous colleagues, of vindictive journal editors, of disciplinary guidelines–is not a good advisor. Even if they aren’t abusive they probably aren’t the kind of person who can give you the skills you need to navigate the academic workplace. So, how can you tell if your advisor is just inept or abusive? There are a couple of tells here. First, do you find yourself being isolated as a result? Does this “us against them” rhetoric cut you off from other people in your department or field before you’ve had a chance to judge them for yourself? Second, does your advisor seem displeased when you try and meet new people? Third, does it seem like they low-key want to be in feuds with everyone? That is, when you tentatively propose solutions or work arounds do they discount them or even become hostile? The thing about the “us against them” tactic is that, eventually, you will see through it and once you do the person using this rhetoric will discard you. In the case of a PhD advisor that doesn’t necessarily mean cutting off the relationship entirely but it might mean ignoring your emails, not responding to your drafts, and never having time for you. Don’t be surprised, once you’ve seen the light, if you find out that you have moved from the “us” to the “them” in your advisor’s world view and become one of the many people s/he counts as an adversary.

7. Hot/Cold. This is just what it sounds like. The abuser will turn cold and distant when you don’t do the right thing before running hot, perhaps even love bombing you, when you’ve done the “right” thing. Part of what’s so insidious about this tactic is that it acts as random reinforcement which can be incredibly addictive (think gambling). I’ve seen this play out in a couple of ways among PhD candidates and their advisors. The first way is pretty straightforward. The advisor runs hot and cold for no discernible reason to anyone outside of the abuser’s mind. It keeps their advisee disoriented and trying to guess at what behavior incurred their advisor’s wrath and what generated their blessings. It also keeps the student from getting fed up with constant negative feedback and running away. The second way I’ve seen this play out is with narcissistic advisors who could care less about a given grad student as long as they are average (e.g. teaching, researching, doing the thing) but are right there to shower the grad student with praise and be part of all their photos when they win an award or get published.

8. Manufacturing Jealousy. This technique is what you would get if you mashed the first two together. Some advisors will pick a student or two who can do no wrong and will spare no effort or expense on their behalf. In contrast, the rest of their students get the cold shoulder and the bare minimum of effort (often after having to beg for it). This is more than just some advisors get on better with certain students. That’s just human. In the cases I’m talking about the advisor uses blatant favoritism as a weapon both to ensure that they always have a few students who will defend them against allegations of bad advising and to use as an offer of reward to the rest of their students. The implicit offer is that if you could just do “something” like the golden students you too could be part of the chosen. It’s a powerful motivator and a good way to get a lot of hard work out of people. Some advisors aren’t this consistent, though, and their “golden student” will rotate based on who won the last award, turned in the latest draft, or some other arbitrary criteria in their head. The results are pretty much the same. You get a bunch of grad students who don’t trust each other enough to band together and ask for better treatment and you get students motivated by the need to get that inconsistent reward so they work ever harder.

9. Constant Togetherness. Okay, this is a rare one because of the nature of academia. It would be incredibly noticeable and weird for you to live with your advisor and spend all your time with them. However, there are a few signs that your advisor might be demanding too much of your time. For instance, do they seem to get offended if you don’t take or TA for their class? Do they constantly want to present at conferences together? Do they not want you to take on commitments they can’t be part of (like being an officer in your program’s graduate student organization)? Do they refuse to let you send your drafts to other people or hint that they wouldn’t like it if you did? Do they disparage publishing opportunities in which they don’t co-author? A good advisor will certainly try and professionalize you by recommending conferences in your field or having you TA for their class. The hallmark of when this becomes harmful is if it seems like it’s less about professionalization and more about controlling you. Students who experience this type of demand for their constant time and energy may find out later that their advisor was taking credit for their work. It shouldn’t happen, but it does, and making sure that the two of you are seen together as often as possible can help blur the lines between who came up with what idea in the broader discipline. After all, if you both presented at the same 5 conferences together and published 2 papers then who really came up with that idea, you know? The grad student or the professor? Hint: The professor always wins this game.

10. “Starting Over” together. This one is also very different in academic settings compared to romantic ones. In academia your research is your life. Asking you to start a new life is less about moving to a new place and more about asking you to start a new topic at a time when doing so would be not just difficult but harmful. For instance, after you are ABD. If your advisor is asking you to significantly change your topic post-prospectus then talk to other grad students and faculty you trust (possibly those at other institutions) before committing to any big changes. I’ve seen advisor’s string PhD students along for years by letting them make significant progress and then suggesting changes that are just big enough to not seem outrageous but add an extra year or two to the project. Nobody needs that shit. You know your project and where it needs to go. Trust. This might be a sign that it’s time to get a new advisor who will support the project you have.

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