The Dissertation Bottleneck

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.

September, Baby!

Welcome to the Academic New Year!

For myself, and many of the academics I know, September is the most magical month: new planners, new pencils, new pens, new term and, most importantly, new potential.

September feels like a new start and this time, baby, we’re gonna get it right!

We often go into a new semester with the highest of hopes. We learned from what went wrong last semester, we’ve crafted a plan, and we’re ready!

Then life happens.

Stuff gets in the way.

Other people don’t cooperate with our perfect plan.

Somehow or another we find ourselves falling short of our high expectations.

What happens next?

Once our perfect plan fails it can be hard to get back on track.

I’m a September baby which means my astrological sign is Virgo. Virgos are said to be perfectionists, and I am, although I that may be more of an academic thing than an astrological one. Most academics I know tend towards perfectionism.

In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of procrastination: as long as something exists in your head it exists perfectly. Our attempts to bring our ideas into the real world mean that they no longer get to be perfect ideas but messy realities.

What we’re going to focus on in this month’s series is letting go of perfection and getting sh*t done.

Our series will have three main components. First, why we need to let go of our white-knuckled grip on perfection. Second, how to set achievable goals and, finally, how to keep moving forward when things go wrong.

Stay tuned for more!

Happy New Semester!

Hi All,

It’s the first day of classes where we are and we wanted to wish all of you a happy first day of class, if you’re starting today, or last few weeks of summer, if you’re not.

No matter where you are in relation to the semester start we are here to support your productivity and your sanity.

Let us know what you want us to cover for our September series on productivity!

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!

Surviving Summer: Try Something

As we’ve discussed earlier in our series on surviving summer, humanities PhDs often trade money for time. That is, summers for PhD students are often unpaid but full of “free” time.

Up to this point, we’ve covered a few ways to save money and reduce your cost of living over the summer (see here, here, and here). In this post, we want to switch gears a bit and focus on ways to maximize your time.

Summer is a great time to try out new routines and find new ways to be productive.

The important thing to remember is that, when the term starts, it will absolutely blow up even the best summer routine. That’s not the important thing. The important thing is to experiment with new routines to find what makes you feel your best and most productive. That way, when your semester starts to feel like it’s evening out, you can begin to incorporate some of the elements of your summer routine that you liked.

In particular, I like to try out new planners over the summer.

Two of my favorites are the Panda Planner and the Passion Planner.

(NOTE: THIS IS NOT A SPONSORED POST BUT IT COULD BE. PLEASE HIT ME UP PANDA PLANNER AND PASSION PLANNER.)

I like different things about each of them.

For day-to-day planning, the Panda Planner works best for my brain. I like that every day gets a full two-page spread with different sections including tasks, schedule, priorities, gratitude, and even exercise.

In the final semester of my dissertation, when I was teaching or TAing three classes and churning out chapter revisions a couple of times a month my Panda Planner kept me sane.

I would sit down with my Panda every evening and write out my tasks and schedule for the upcoming day with all of the things I knew had to get done. The next morning, when I got to the office, I would sit down with my coffee and decide on my five biggest priorities for the day as well as my focus for the day (e.g. productivity, self-care, patience, health, grading, and so on).

What I *love* about this system is that it scaffolds the day’s priorities in a way that helps me be gracious to myself. For instance, maybe I don’t get all of the things on my task list done on a day but I do accomplish my Big 5 Priorities. That’s still a win–I prioritized those things for a reason and got them done. Hooray!

By the same token, maybe there’s a day that I don’t get my tasks or my Big 5 accomplished but I stay true to my focus by making extra time for self-care or to meet with students outside of class. That still feels like a win because it reminds me that, while productivity ebbs and flows, I was true to my values that day.

If you want some sample pages to try a Panda Planner and see if it’s right for you then you can submit your email here.

The Passion Planner has a different daily/weekly schedule. One week is spread out over two pages with a schedule for each day as well as a separate section for top priorities, both personal and professional, and a dedicated space for creativity.

Personally, I like having a dedicated daily priorities section rather than a weekly one. My adhd brain often can’t see what the priorities will be at the end of the week. When I try to, I get lost in the weeds or overwhelmed, so the daily priorities works better for me.

For those of you with decent executive function, however, the Passion Planner is a wonderful option.

What I really, really love about the Passion Planner is the passion planning system it walks you through. The Passion Planning system helps you decide on what you want your long-term goals to be and make a plan to achieve them.

It’s particularly good, in my opinion, for multi-passionate entrepreneurs. If you haven’t heard that term “multi-passionate entrepreneurs” is a fancy term for people who are passionate about multiple simultaneous projects. This category fits most humanities graduate students I know who are passionate about at least one research project, a creative pursuit, teaching, and activism. Oh yeah, and on top of that most of us are trying to stay reasonably healthy.

The Passion Planner is dedicated to making space for all of those aspects of your life and has a great system for walking you through how to do it.

If you wanna try out a Passion Plan or a day or week of using the Passion Planner you can download pages here.

Both planners include dedicated spaces for gratitude which is excellent.

Both planners have blank pages to take notes though the Passion Planner has more and includes graph paper which makes my nerd heart happy.

If you’re into aesthetics the Panda Planner is minimalist. Different versions of the planner come in different colors but they’re all matte covers with the imprint of a panda.

The Passion Planner is beautiful and each week includes a different inspirational quote.

If neither of these planners feel right for you then I would recommend checking out Day Designer. Like the two above, Day Designer has a host of free printables so you can try before you buy. Day Designer planners are expensive but they’ve collaborated with Blue Sky to offer a modified Day Designer at Target for a much more affordable price.

Commit 30 is a planner specifically designed for academics (yay!) and you can print out a trial version here.

Do you have a favorite planner or planning method that’s helped you be productive?

Share it in the comments!

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.

 

Surviving Summer: Eat Something

Welcome back to our series on surviving summer on the low or no income of a humanities graduate student. A lot of our previous posts have focused on food (here, here, and here). This probably isn’t surprising. You need to eat. I need to eat. We all need to eat. When we’re looking at cutting costs in a budget where all luxuries have been cut out long-ago we start trying to cut food costs. We can’t do much to change our rent or mortgage. We can try and cut utilities but food is our most constant cost and the one we are in the most control of.

The following is my Number 1 tip to grad students over the summer:

USE YOUR LOCAL FOOD PANTRIES.

Seriously.

Use them.

Find out where they are, when they are, and what you need to bring with you then go and get food.

I am passionate about this subject because during my PhD I helped establish a campus food pantry. I was a co-advisor to a group of students who was establishing the food pantry and, as the only grad student on the team, I was tasked with reaching out to graduate students to get them to use the food pantry.

All of the graduate students I reached out to said the same thing: I don’t want to use the food pantry because I don’t want to take food away from someone who needs it more. 

This view is a misunderstanding of how food pantries actually work.

This idea, that if you take food from a food pantry there will be less food for someone else, is based on the belief that food pantries are like pie: there is a finite amount of pie/pantry and if you take some then there is less pie/pantry for other people.

Food pantries don’t operate like pie. They operate like creativity. In the words of Dr. Angelou, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” 

The more you use a food pantry the more money that pantry is eligible to request in add from corporations or grants. The more aid they receive, the more food they can buy. The more food they have, the more people they can serve.

In actuality, the more you use a food pantry the more food they have. It is the exact opposite of pie. cake-food-fork-890574

Many colleges and universities have opened their own food pantries to server their students (this is the type of pantry I was a part of). These pantries are often open over the summer but see a sharp drop in clients because graduate students don’t want to use them and most undergraduates are gone.

This is particularly frustrating because a lot of charitable organizations give fresh food and vegetables over the summer and if no one comes to pick those perishable items up they go bad and get thrown out. This is particularly frustrating to those of us who have to cart the boxes of now-bad vegetables and fruits to the trash bin.

Please fight food waste and use your local food pantries.

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve used “pantries”, plural, throughout this post.

That’s because different food pantries specialize in different things. Many campus food pantries specialize in non-perishable items: Peanut butter, pancake mix, mac and cheese, canned veggies, ramen, tuna, and so on.

In contrast, community food pantries often have a broader selection that can include fresh eggs, meat, and dairy that needs to be used shortly after it’s donated.

Before you go to the pantry you’ll want to check them out online. Questions to ask are:

  1. What days are they open?
  2. What hours?
  3. Do they serve different populations or different food stuffs on different days?
  4. Do I need to bring my own bags?
  5. Do I need to bring anything with me? (Many food pantries operate on an honor system requiring you only to show up–some campus food pantries ask you to show a campus ID. This just helps the pantries compile the numbers for how many people they are serving which helps them apply for grants and things).

If you want to find out if your campus has a food pantry check out this map from the Colleges & Universities Food Bank Alliance. This map isn’t exhaustive. For instance, my current campus has a food pantry that is not on this list–but it can be a good place to start. If you don’t see your campus listed on this map you might want to check your campus website or email someone in student services. I know as grad students we often don’t interact with student services as they are more geared at undergraduates but they’ve got the hook-up on a lot of good stuff.

In conclusion, please, please, PLEASE, use your local food pantries over the summer to make your food budget more manageable and to help increase their ability to serve your community.

The Absent-Minded Abuser

We just completed a series on what 15 abuse tactics can look like in academia. (Feel free to check it out here, here, and here.)

I wanted to include a special post about The Academic Bumbler. This post is derived from Lili Loofbourow’s brilliant piece “The myth of the male bumbler.” You should absolutely read the whole piece if you haven’t but for our topic today the most important part is the following:

The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

Loofbourow was writing about men with long histories of sexual assault who use the idea that they are not malicious–just socially awkward–to generate sympathy for them and discredit their victims despite the fact that there actions are often incredibly strategic.

I vividly remember reading Loobourow’s piece the first time because I shared it to Facebook with a long, rambling post about my own experiences with an academic bumbler who, but for my own self-advocacy, would have cost me my career several times over. A few minutes or a few hours later, I don’t remember, a dear friend messaged me privately asking, “Are you talking about X?”

Reader, I was, indeed, talking about X.

It turns out I was not the only victim of his “bumbling.”

Then again, bumblers rarely have just one victim. It’s devilishly clever that the bumbler’s alibi actually requires he has multiple victims.  A key part of creating the image of a bumbler is leaving a trail of wreckage behind him. After all, too few victims and it might start to seem like they’re targets.

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In Loofbourow’s piece she talks about how men weaponize the cultural image of them as socially helpless.

In academia, both men and women have access to the image of the absent-minded professor and I’ve seen both successfully weaponize it to keep certain students down not through obvious malice, but through continual bumbling.

What does the academic bumbler look like?

Well, let me tell you about mine.

Bumbler 1, who was in a position to do so, promised me that they had filed the appropriate paperwork with the college to ensure that I was ABD. Five months later, I got an email from Bumbler 2 saying that they had forgotten to file the paperwork so the college had no record of me passing my prelims. I got this email because when Bumbler 2 went to rectify this mistake they were unable to do so because of a mistake I had made in filing my Plan of Study and could I please fix the problem with my POS so that they could file the prospectus paperwork on my behalf?

Notice the subtle shifting of blame to me for making a mistake in my Plan of Study and the lack of responsibility for taking five months to file paperwork that should, in theory, be filed within a week.

In the meantime, someone, perhaps Bumbler 1 or someone who worked for them, had removed me from the departmental email list. The same email list in which the annual request for TA positions was sent out each year.

I never got that email so I never knew that I had missed the date to request a TA position. (I was in absentia due to family crisis at the time so I didn’t have means of finding out about these things in person.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when, in a conversation with Bumbler 2, she casually let slip that I had no TA appointment because I had never requested one.

I panicked. I contacted a lot of people and found out that I had been removed from the important email list. I scrambled to get funding for the upcoming year.

Bumbler 2, in our next conversation, then told me that I needed to do a better job of advocating for myself.

Bumbler 1, I feel I should note, did apologize for not noticing that I had been removed from the email list and, consequently, had missed my opportunity to get departmental funding. It was, as they said, their responsibility to notice such things. The apology was nice. The year of writing I lost because I was working two jobs was not.

These series of events, with Bumbler 1 and Bumbler 2 purposefully or accidentally working in tandem, was by far the worst. I think I *still* have stress weight from it.

There were, of course, other incidents.

There was the time that an unnamed Bumbler suggested that, since I had made significant changes to my prospectus after passing (with revisions) that we get my committee together to update everyone on the changes. I love to talk about my work so a chat with my committee to update them on changes sounded lovely. When I got there, however, it was a surprise second prospectus defense which I was unprepared for because, you know, I didn’t know it was happening.

There was the time when Bumbler 2, who was on my committee, told me in January of the year I defended (so, you know, after seeing many, many drafts) that they just didn’t believe my argument. Like, my whole dissertation argument.

When I asked what part of it they didn’t believe and for examples, they showed me a claim they said had no support. I asked about the three separate quotes from different, (relevant) prominent figures I had just after that claim and what other type of support I should use. Bumbler 2 had no idea what quotes I was talking about.

Oops! A bumble they forgot to read that, or didn’t remember it, or some shit. Never mind that they were prepared to sit there and tell me to my face that my dissertation didn’t make any sense–an action with enormous long-term consequences for my financial and professional future.

Dealing with a bumbler can be incredibly difficult.

In the abuse scenarios we shared previously the abuser relies heavily on isolation and shame to keep you from talking about what the abuser is doing because if you did talk about it your support system would tell you that what the abuser is doing is wrong.

The Bumbler is . . . different.

As Loofbourow notes, the Bumbler’s alibi that they are just absent-minded is at odds with the rest of their lives. Loofbourow uses the example of Woody Allen, Bumbler extraordinaire, who has built his career on portraying himself as awkward and absent-minded despite the fact that he is organized and disciplined enough to produce a film a year.

If you take a hard look at academic Bumblers you’ll see the same thing. Though they often deploy the stereotype of the absent-minded professor as an alibi if you look at the office or the CV of the Bumbler you will often find an unusually organized office and a stellar CV that speaks to a very disciplined and organized scholar.

Like all abusers, Bumblers choose their victims with great care. Like all abusers, Bumblers can be extremely charming when they want to be.

In the case of Bumbler 1 mentioned above, some discreet questions revealed the fact that they only ever “bumbled” with students who entered the program the year before they took up their position.

I was in this group of students which is why I experienced the bumbling. What was unique about this group of students is that none of us had a permanent contract with the university. I was a typical model. I was admitted to the university for the PhD program but was not offered funding through the program. Instead, I was offered a tuition waiver and insurance if I could find funding through another department. This meant that my contract with the university, such as it was, was on a year-by-year, appointment-by-appointment basis. I had no long-term security and if I was unable to secure a position as a TA or through a fellowship then it wasn’t the department’s fault that I wasn’t in the program–it was just an unfortunate circumstance. Everyone in my cohort was in a similar position which meant that we were in a particularly vulnerable position. And every person in my cohort new this person as a Bumbler when it came to finding funding for us and our research opportunities or filing our paperwork in a timely manner.

In contrast, I had dear, dear friends who were in cohorts after me, when the program had mandated multi-year contracts with students. Essentially, if you were admitted to the PhD program you would be funded some way for X number of years. They never met The Bumbler.

When those of us who had had our careers jeopardized by the Bumbler’s bumbling tried to talk to our friends we were gently gaslit: Surely it wasn’t malicious! It’s not personal! They didn’t mean it! Even such a busy, important person must make mistakes sometimes! So sorry it happened to you but don’t read too much into it! 

The worst thing about a Bumbler is that no one believes the bumbles are intentional. Even if you aren’t isolated socially it can feel isolating because it feels like even your support system won’t believe you, let alone advocate for you.

Abusers, all abusers, work by making you feel helpless. In the case of what we might consider the classic abuser, the type of abuser who uses the tactics discussed in our previous series on abusers, there are actually things you can do to help yourself. With the Bumbler things are a little more complicated.

The Bumbler works by convincing you and everyone else that they aren’t targeting you for abuse. They are always extremely careful to make sure that the things they do to hamstring your career seem like unfortunate accidents rather than careful targeting of victims.

The reason it has taken so long to publish this post is because it has been an agony. It has been an agony to rethink what I want through at the hands of my own Bumblers. Aside from the professional toll of the Bumblers, which can be immense, the personal cost is . . .

I spent a lot of time in therapy discussing my own Bumblers–discussing how stuck I felt and how angry and sad I was. My therapist was amazing and I would not have gotten through my dissertation without her. However, because the Bumbler is often careful to never do anything actionable even people who want to advocate for you just cannot.

Personally speaking, my Bumblers have left me with a sense of ambiguous loss and I think one of the reasons this post has been so damn hard to write is because I haven’t yet grieved what happened to me. I don’t even know how to grieve it because, in the end, my Bumblers were also instrumental to getting my PhD no matter how much harm they caused me along the way.

Perhaps that’s the worst thing about a Bumbler. At some point, I had to put aside my (very justifiable) anger, stuff my grief down deep, and just work through it. To do that, to get through it, I agreed to live by the lie that they were just Bumblers, to take more responsibility for things that never should have been my responsibility in the first place and live through it.

 

Surviving Summer: Share Something

One time, in another life, I was listening to a husband and wife missionary team talk about how they saved money to go on their mission trips and one of the things they said has always stayed with me as a very practical piece of life advice:

If I’ve got beans and you’ve got rice then we’ve got a meal.

I lived by this quote throughout my time in grad school. The year after my MA, when I was struggling to find work, I began hosting a weekly potluck. The potluck was a way for me to stay in touch with my grad school friends and to make food stretch. As a PhD student, over the long summers with no pay, I again held weekly potlucks as a way to stretch food and stay in touch with friends.

In a capitalist society there aren’t a lot of spaces where a body can just exist without spending money. When budgets are tight staying in touch with friends can seem daunting–do we go out for coffee? Seems like a luxury. Get breakfast? We can make breakfast at home. Go for a walk? Maybe, but it’s hot outside.

What I love about a summer potluck is that it provides a way to hang out and catch up with friends while helping, rather than hurting, your budget.

There are a lot of ways to do a summer potluck. You can take turns providing the protein (often the most expensive part of the meal) or hosting. You can do a brunch potluck or a dinner potluck.

For a brunch potluck I love this baked oatmeal from Budget Bytes. It’s delicious, filling, and super cheap. (If y’all aren’t following Budget Bytes you totally should–many of my favorite grad school recipes come from there.)

Last week I shared this recipe for homemade taco seasoning. If y’all can pool your spice collections or invest in a spice library then you can split the cost of a few cans of black beans, a bag of rice, some cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, onions–whatever you like. Individually the ingredients are cheap and you can make a huge portion to send some home with everyone. It’s also pretty delicious and filling.

I happen to be allergic to potatoes, but if you can eat them a baked potato bar is a great summer potluck. Potatoes, it turns out, have almost all the nutrients a human needs to survive and, of course, they’re super cheap. A 5lb bag of potatoes, with every guess bringing their favorite baked potato toppings, is a lot of food and a good time.

If you eat meat, a hot dog bar can be fun as well. They’re normally cheap but they tend to go on sale in summer so they’re even cheaper. Again, one or two people split the cost for the hot dogs and everyone else brings their favorite toppings.

Let us know in the comments if you have a favorite potluck or big batch item to help make your food budget stretch over the summer!

 

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.