Dealing With An Abusive Advisor

Names have power. Interdisciplinary scholars know this. This is why our programs and our dissertations exist. If names did not matter than American Studies would not exist with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences. American Studies does exist, with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences, precisely because it is inadequate to call the work we do “history” or “media studies” or “political science.” While all of those fields play a part in this dissertation, they are not, individually or collectively, what this dissertation is. This is an American Studies dissertation and it can be an American Studies dissertation because scholars acknowledge that names matter for precision and intellectual honesty. This is doubly true for interdisciplinary feminist scholars since so many of the victories of the modern feminist movement have been focused on the mutually constitutive nature of language and lived experience. The terms “sexual harassment” and “marital rape” did not create new phenomena. Women had experienced these things for centuries. Naming them did allow women to voice their experience, connect with other women, and work for social and legal change. The establishment of Women’s Studies programs across the US, acknowledging that something about women’s lives and history might be worth studying, was a revolutionary concept which continues to shape higher education in the United States. The fact that many of the original Women’s Studies programs are changing to new names like “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” or “Feminist Studies” goes beyond re-branding to indicate substantial changes in ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, feminism, and the academy.

The above is a portion of my dissertation that my advisor demanded I cut from the final version submitted to my committee. I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, I like it, and I wanted it to see the light of day somewhere. Second, and more importantly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge how healing it is to talk about problems openly and honestly.

Our series this summer on abusive advisors has been an attempt to do just that–to name a problem that thrives in silence.

However, while I deeply, deeply believe in the power of naming it is a necessary but not sufficient part of the healing process.

We also need strategies for how to protect ourselves, particularly in the case of abusive advisors.

At the beginning of this series we spent some time talking about exactly why abusive advisors can be so devastating to their PhD students. Because of the incredible amounts of power that advisors have over the lives and livelihoods of their PhD students it is easy to feel trapped by an abusive advisor. I would argue that abusive advisors purposely pick students who are less likely to know how to navigate the system effectively. I’ve you’ve been paying attention to the tags for this series you’ll notice I’ve tagged many of these posts as “first-generation.” Although I don’t have any data on it I thing first-fen PhDs are more likely to be victims of abusive advisors because we often don’t know what “normal” is for this process.

The hard truth is that your options for dealing with an abusive advisor are often very limited.

The very best thing you can do is get rid of an abusive advisor as soon as possible.

This doesn’t mean that you should wait for your advisor to do something definitively wrong or abusive. Remember, abusers often don’t work like that. They are masters at plausible deniability. If you have reason to think that your advisor may be abusive it may be time to start looking around for another advisor.

The most natural time to do this is as soon as possible after your prospectus exam. You can thank your advisor for seeing you through the exam process, explain that your work is going in a different direction and X faculty member’s work is a better fit for this new direction.

This is a fairly common practice and allows everyone to part ways while maintaining public civility.

If, as is often the case, you are much further along in your dissertation process and changing your advisor or adding a co-chair isn’t an option for you there are some other things you can do to protect yourself.

1. Record all in-person meetings.

First, look into whether or not your state is a one-party consent state. If they are, this means you can legally record things without letting the other party know that they are being recorded. After my advisor told me, out of the blue, that she didn’t buy my main argument I recorded all subsequent meetings up to and including my dissertation defense and the post-defense meeting with my committee. I lived in a one-party consent state so I would take my laptop to meetings with my advisor, not unusual, and when I would pull up a document to take notes I would also pull up my camera and start recording a video.

If you live in a two-party consent state you will have to get their permission to record, but you can often get around this by asking “Do you mind if I record this meeting so I can make sure my notes are accurate later?” It’s a hard request to say “no” to but even if your advisor does deny your request to record the meeting you can use step two.

2. Send an email after all meetings.

After every meeting you should send your advisor an email in this template:

Dear [Advisor Name],

Thank you for your time today! I appreciate your insights on moving my project forward. 

Based on our meeting today I understand my immediate action items to be X, Y, and Z. 

I expect to have the draft/revisions/deliverable to you on [DATE]. If any issues come up I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as possible.

Warm Regards,

[YOUR NAME]

Even if you don’t have an abusive or negligent advisor it’s good to get into the habit of sending this email after every meeting. Misunderstandings happen–it’s just part of being human. This email helps make sure that you and your advisor are on the same page. If you leave a meeting thinking that the most important thing to do is “X” and your advisor thinks the most important thing you need to do is “A” this email is a great opportunity to clarify that.

3. Find a counselor.

I’ve interviewed dozens of graduate students about what the biggest challenges they face in completing their PhDs are. Many, many, many people said that they knew they needed professional counseling but that there were too many barriers to access. These included a lack of time, lack of transparency in the process of seeking out counseling, long waitlists to see a counselor, and confusion about what their graduate student insurance would pay for.

I know that these are all real barriers to seeking care.

I don’t make a lot of promises on this site. Like any good teacher, I offer suggestions, complications, and, hopefully, new ways of saying.

Let me break with that pattern now and make you a promise, a guarantee if you will:

The time you invest in setting up regular mental health care Will. Pay. Dividends.

I thanked my own therapist and psychiatrist in the acknowledgements section of my dissertation with the following

Jen Walsh, in terms of sheer hours spent, has probably spent more time on this dissertation than anyone else. She has kept me sane and kept me whole and kept me going. She has my deepest thanks. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Troy for listening, for understanding, for naming my anxiety disorder. You can’t treat what you don’t name and this process would have been so much more painful without her gracious help.

I won’t say that I couldn’t have completed my dissertation without the help of my mental health team but I know that without them it would have been a much longer, much more painful process.

Beyond that, I think my excellent mental health team helped me transition from academic life to post-academic life.

I’m passionate about graduate students taking care of their mental health. I could talk about it for weeks and we have a series coming up on it later this year. For now, let me just remind you of the most important thing: Your research doesn’t exist without you. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your project.

One resource I’ve heard good things about is 7 Cups which offers trained listeners for free and online therapy for under $40 a week.

Later in the week we’ll be talking about other actions you can take to help yourself and your career when faced with an abusive or negligent advisor.

 

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