Another 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. You can also see the previous entries in this series here and here.

11. Picking Fights. One of the most important things to know about abusers is that all abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.

Read that again.

All abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.

Bullies never, ever pick on someone they think might be able to fight back in any way. This is why isolation and shame are so critical to the cycle of abuse. If you aren’t isolated and/or ashamed then you might have the ability to stand up for yourself or have someone else stand up for you.

One of the ways that abusers find their victims is by picking fights. They start small. For instance, let’s say you miss a deadline you set with your advisor to turn in a chapter draft. A normal advisor will respond to this, even if they’re annoyed by it, with something like, “Thanks for your draft. Since it’s a little late I may be delayed in getting you revisions. I’ll aim to have revisions to you by [DATE].” Another normal response might be along the lines of, “I’ve noticed your last few drafts have been a little late. Would it be helpful to push out our future deadlines by a week or two to give you more time?” Or, “Would it be helpful to meet and talk about writing process?”

An abusive response is along the lines of, “If you can’t meet the deadlines you set for your chapters you should really think about whether or not you belong in this profession.” An abusive response is, “I don’t know if I can work with someone who can’t meet their deadlines.”

In the normal response your advisor notices that you are struggling with deadlines and offers to find a way to help. This is part of the professionalization process. In contrast, the abusive advisor belittles you in ways that threaten your livelihood (by raising the specter of you being kicked out of graduate school) and focuses on punishing you rather than helping you.

The point of these fights, from the abuser’s point of view, is to see how much you will take. The tests themselves don’t make sense. In the example above, the abusive response is not only out of line in terms of normal boss-employee relationship but particularly out of line in an academic context. Academics are late all the time. We tend to be terrible with deadlines. Academic deadlines are commonly understood by academic professionals to be aspirational. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but, generally, if you miss a deadline with your advisor there’s a strong chance they will be so busy missing their own deadlines with publishers, editors, etcetera, that they won’t even notice.

The only way to deal with this behavior from your advisor is to stand up for yourself. For instance, let’s say you get one of the abusive responses above. An appropriate response would be something like, “I understand your frustration and apologize for my tardiness with this draft. I look forward to your feedback.” Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it saved.

If you think your advisor might be showing some early signs of abusive behavior try and get as much info as you can in writing and Save. Everything. Save it in your email, save it on a flash drive, save it on your hard drive. Just save it.

12. Violence of any kind. This one is, in my observation, more rare in academic circles, but the advice is pretty simple. If your advisor is violent in any way–if they physically intimidate you, throw things during your meetings, rip up drafts, or do anything that makes you feel physically unsafe you need to leave as soon and as quickly as possible.

13. Criticism. From the Huffington Post article cited above, “Abusers tend to be messy perfectionists. They want the world and everyone around them to be perfect, but their own minds are a mess . . . They want to talk about what everyone else is doing wrong.”

Sooooooooooo . . . That’s kind of the definition of most academics and academic work . . .

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Because really, truly, the whole damn system is abusive.

So, how do you know if you’re advisor’s criticism is what passes for normal in the academic system or has crossed a line?

The first clue is how the criticism makes you feel. If you feel worthless after receiving criticism from your advisor then that may be a sign that their feedback has crossed a line. A lot of academics I know, particularly first-generation PhDs, women, and people of color tend to assume that if the feedback they are receiving makes them feel bad it’s because they need to “toughen up.” It’s some internalized boot-strap shit, of which I am the reigning queen.

Let me just say this: If you are a woman, a person of color, a first generation PhD, disabled/chronically ill, or some combination of the above your very presence in a PhD program is proof that you are tough as diamonds and strong as titanium. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. You’ve overcome obstacles most people don’t ever even see. You’ve torn yourself in two to fit in with “academic expectations” and your community of origin. You aren’t easily intimidated or overwhelmed so if your advisor makes you feel bad it’s a good sign that they’re trying to.

If you need more proof that your advisor’s criticism has veered from helpful to hurtful check in with what they’re criticizing. Are they criticizing the argument, the project, or the person? The function of an advisor is to critique your argument. This might mean questioning your sources, your theoretical feedback, your analyses, the organization–anything about the argument itself. The purpose of this critique is supposed to be to challenge you and make your argument better. This is good critique.

If your advisor is criticizing your project you might have a problem. If you are already ABD and your advisor decides *now* to have a big issue with your project then something is wrong. Being ABD means that you’ve been through your prelims and prospectus. If your advisor had a major criticism of the project itself it should have come up sometime during this process. To be fair to both sides, I know some people who have some bananas projects. I know one person who is working on a dissertation about comic books and their big, controversial claim is that classic US comic characters and story arcs are heavily influenced by the Jewish-immigrant experience. Which, yes? Comic book authors and industry experts have talked about this. It’s not exactly a hot-take. HOWEVER, even though the project might not be the most innovative, this person’s committee signed off on it by passing his prospectus. At this point, any suggested major overhauls of the project are out of bounds because they signed off on the project as is. All of that said, criticism of your project at this stage could just mean that your advisor is oblivious rather than malicious.

The real tell is if your advisor criticizes you. If your advisor ever makes you feel stupid or like you don’t belong in your program than their critique has crossed the line into abuse.

This is often a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of situation. A lot of times, we make the mistake of thinking that something has to be big and dramatic like someone screaming at you that you don’t belong in the program. Often, it’s more subtle than that with comments like, “If you’re not aware of the literature maybe you should think about switching to another program,” in cases were you are demonstrably aware of the literature. Other examples might be things like, “There are a lot of people who want to be in this program and would be happy to meet their deadlines” or “Are you sure you’re cut out for this kind of work.”

14. Comments About Exes. Substitute “exes” here with “former advisees.” If your advisor trash talks former advisees to you then something is wrong. Even if they didn’t have the best relationship an advisor should never trash talk a former advisee to current advisees. As instructors and faculty we all complain about our students sometimes to our colleagues. It’s part of what helps us troubleshoot problems and stay sane, but we don’t complain about our students to our other students.

Hearing an ex use derogatory terms about their former partners is troubling. As the article on intimate partner violence referenced above says, “Assume that whatever he says about her will one day be said about you.” In a romantic relationship this is troubling. In an academic relationship this is a huge red flag. Theoretically, in a romantic relationship both partners are equal. You have, literally, thousands of people to choose to be in a romantic relationship with and there isn’t a huge power difference between you. If a romantic partner talks shit about their exes and describes them in derogatory terms that’s a sign that they might have, at best, a skewed perspective and, at worst, be abusive and trying to control the narrative of their past relationships.

In an advisor-advisee relationship there are, maybe, maybe a few dozen people you can work with which is just one part of the vast power differences between advisors and advisees. When an ex-romantic partner talks shit about you it can devastate your own self-perception and social group. When an advisor talks shit about you as a former student it can devastate your whole world for a long time. Graduate school is so insular and isolating in its own right. Often your friends and social network are other graduate students. Your future career in academics depends, in large part, on whether or not your advisor is willing to right you a good recommendation. I think this problem is particularly acute for grad students in the humanities because transitioning your career from academics to industry is seen as a less viable option than it is in the sciences or social sciences. This is why, if you see or hear an advisor defaming their former advisee you should be very wary and take whatever steps you can to protect yourself and your reputation.

15. Superiority. Okay, this is another one that’s kind of baked into the structure of academia. The whole idea of this medieval apprentice-ship model is that full professors are better than associate professors which are better than assistants which are better than non-tenure track which are better than graduate students. So, yeah. I really can’t say this enough: The whole damn system is abusive.

As much as I critique the system, though, I have to admit that I sort of love it too. I really, really wanted a PhD. I loved the opportunity to teach and research and write. I love my topic and my dissertation. While I have criticisms of the existing structure those criticisms make me deeply ambivalent about, rather than all out against, academia. I’d like to believe in a future of academia that more closely aligns with the life of the mind so many of us thought it would be when we got started which is, really, the impetus for this series. We can’t change the abusive structures if we don’t recognize and name them.

In an ideal world, PhD advisors would be people who had more perspective than you because they have been in the profession longer and have had more opportunities to fail and recover. All of my healthiest interactions in academia were with people who had this attitude. In contrast, an advisor who believes they are inherently smarter or better than you because they are tenured or because they just *are* is a huge problem. Unfortunately, academia as it currently exists tends to attract a lot of these people because they see it as a space where they can expand on their own greatness ad nauseum and, too often, they are right. I don’t know if there are any studies to back this up but, based on my personal experience, I believe that academia disproportionately attracts narcissists the same way CEOs are disproportionately made up of people with dark triad traits.

Dear Friends, now you have a few warning signs to help you spot potentially abusive advisors. In the next few posts we’re going to focus on what  you can do to help yourself if you’ve recognized a few of these signs in your PhD advisor, program head, department chair or other figure who has a lot of control over your life as a PhD student.