What You Can Do. And What You Can’t.

Dear Readers,

We have reached the end of our series on abusive PhD advisors in the humanities (See here, here, here, here, and here.) We here at abd2phd are humbled by the positive feedback this series has received and are glad that it has seemed to be helpful to so many people.

Thank you for your notes and comments of encouragement along the way.

As I’ve mentioned before, writing this series has been particularly difficult, although that’s why I’m also so proud of it.

What has been difficult about this series is that there are so few solutions to offer.

Our normal format here is to identify a problem, explain the problem, and offer at least one solution.

Unfortunately, with abusive advisors there is often little that can be done because of the vast power disparities between advisor and advisee.

I’ve seen this play out several times with humanities graduate students and it is absolutely heartbreaking.

A lot of the mechanisms set up to protect students from bad behavior by their professors are designed to work for undergraduate students. Because graduate students exist somewhere in a liminal space between university employee and student we often don’t get good information on how to really be either which is a whole separate series in itself.

In this series so far we’ve tried to cover ways to help avoid becoming entangled with an abusive advisor. However, as we’ve said from the start, abusers are often quite charismatic when they want to be and some of them will promise you the world. Too many graduate students have done all the right things in the process of vetting a PhD advisor only to find out near the end of their process that their supportive, charismatic advisor, has transformed into an abusive bully.

Unfortunately, the later it is in the process of your PhD the fewer options you have (which is EXACTLY the reason that the most malicious, most savvy abusers will wait until you’re ABD or halfway done with your dissertation to reveal their true colors).

Today’s post is for those students who find themselves in that situation. You did the best you could, you selected the best advisor for you and your project and now, they’ve transformed from your greatest asset to your greatest liability.

The good news is that all is not lost. There are still things you can do to mitigate the damage to yourself and your project. At the same time, it’s important to be realistic about how much power a PhD advisor really has over your life and while you still have options there are some things you definitely can’t do.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Here are the things you cannot do:

  1. Make your advisor someone else. One of the biggest lies abusers tell is that their abusive behavior is your fault. It is not. Abuse is always the abusers fault. I’ve seen so many graduate students tell me horror stories of their abusive advisor and then say, “Well, it’s my fault because I didn’t [normal behavior here].” Abusers often contend that if you were perfect then they wouldn’t be abusive. In reality no one is perfect. They choose to be abusive because they have their own deep damage that they’re not reckoning with. You cannot ever perform well enough to change your abuser into someone else. That is work they have to do on their own.
  2. Be perfect. This is a corollary of the above point. You can’t be perfect and attempts to be perfect are the biggest impediment to success, especially academic success. You can never read all the things. You can’t create an argument that is beyond critique. You can’t be so perfect that your abuser will stop being abusive. You are not the cause of their behavior and your perfection will not change it.
  3. Change your advisor. This is a hard one to accept. While there are exceptions, the later you are in the process the more difficult it is to change your advisor. This is because of the weird internal politics of academia. The biggest impediment to changing your advisor is finding a new one. I’ve seen students with abusive advisors at institutions where there is, literally, no one else with the research background to take over their project. I’ve also seen students at institutions where there are plenty of people who could take over the project but . . . won’t. Why? Well, you work with your advisor, on average, for seven years. Her fellow faculty may work with her for decades. In a perfect world it wouldn’t be this way but very few faculty want to jeopardize their professional working relationship for the next thirty years to stand up for you. This sense of self-preservation plays out in other ways as well. I’ve seen cases where the departmental administrators, like the Director of Graduate Studies or Assistant Chair, encourage students to stay with bad advisors (through gaslighting or victim blaming) because they know it would be very, very bad for the department if the student proceeded with their very justifiable case against their advisor.
  4. Control your reputation. This is another hard one. One of the reasons graduate students don’t stand up for themselves to abusive advisors (other than the vast chasm of power differences) is because they’re afraid that their advisor will ruin their professional reputation. It’s not that this fear is irrational, but rather that it’s out of your control. If your abusive advisor is threatening (explicitly or implicitly) to ruin your professional reputation unless you comply with whatever the fuck it is they want you to do the odds are that they’ve already started to destroy your reputation. I know, I know, it’s not a hopeful message. Here’s the thing though: you can’t control your abuser’s behavior and that includes what they say about you when you’re not around.

Now for the good news! There are things you can do:

  1. Be Great. Even though you can’t control your abuser’s behavior you can control your own. You can continue to be great at what you do, to present yourself professionally on campus and at conferences, and so on. It’s hard to know that you don’t have total control over your professional reputation and may be at the mercy of someone with a vendetta who doesn’t mind lying but you have to trust that the truth will out. A lot of PhD students, when they start to fear that their advisor might be ruining their reputation, don’t want to face the broader profession at conferences or other professional meetings but this is the exact opposite of what you should do. If you fear that your advisor is maligning you then you need to show up and be great. It’s difficult beyond words but it’s the only thing you can do to regain control over your reputation.
  2. Get help. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you’re stuck with an abusive advisor one of the very best things you can do for yourself is get help. Get all the help you can. See a professional counselor if you can. Spend time with a support network of people both in and outside graduate school to remind you that you are not the person your advisor says you are. You can check into your institution’s CAPS program. You can check out 7 Cups. However you get help is fine as long as you get help.
  3. Don’t listen to your advisor. At least, not about who you are. If you’re advisor is telling you that you are stupid, incompetent, or don’t deserve to be in a PhD program DO. NOT. LISTEN. TO. THEM. If you’re past the point where you can change advisors and are stuck with an abuser do whatever it takes to remind yourself that you are smart, talented, and hardworking. One of the things that academic abusers have going for them is a semi-captive audience who have spent decades training themselves to listen to experts. Then you have your own personal expert confirming all your worst fears about yourself. Its a devastatingly toxic mix. You will want to listen to them. Do Not. (And forgive yourself on the days that you do anyway.)
  4. See your ombudsperson. Your university has one. I absolutely promise you. If you’re at an R1 university (and you probably are if you’re a PhD student) then they probably have an ombudsperson (or two or three) just for graduate students. The ombudsperson works for the graduate school and their entire job is to make sure that graduate students are treated fairly. Different ombudspersons do this with varying levels of effectiveness, but if you have an abusive advisor and can’t get out of the situation yourself it may be worth a visit to your ombudsperson. If your school has more than one take some time to discreetly ask around about who might be better for your issue.
  5. Leave. The decision on whether or not to leave academia has become a genre unto itself so I won’t belabor it here. In the context of this series I will add my own two sentences. Part of what is so traumatizing about abusive advisors is that many PhD students have invested a great deal of their time and their soul into a profession they thought would keep them safe and happy. It is possible to have a fulfilling life outside of academia.

Go forth and be great and always remember that we are here for you!

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