5 More Signs of an Abusive Advisor

This mini-series is an adaptation of 20 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo. Please check out the previous installments in this series here.

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

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

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

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

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


5 Signs of an Abusive Advisor

This mini-series is an adaptation of 20 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.

  1. Love Bombing. Love bombing is where an abuser showers their intended victim with praise and attention. The HuffPo article above states, “They will tell you you’re unlike anyone else they’ve ever met.” While a graduate advisor may not love bomb you in a romantic sense–wooing you with flowers, dinners, and comments on your physical appearance–they may love bomb you with the things academics value–promises of publications and prestigious introductions. They may tell you that you are the most brilliant grad student they’ve ever had and that you’ll go far together. Love bombing is, by its very nature, incredibly seductive. So, how do you tell if you really are the most brilliant grad student your advisor has worked with in a decade or whether or not they are love-bombing you? Look to how other graduate students in your program relate to them. The clearest instance of love-bombing I’ve ever encountered is when an abusive advisor was taking on first-year PhD students while her senior grad student was still in the program. In her case, love bombing took the form of telling her new graduate students not to listen to her veteran student because they were special and much more qualified than he was. They wouldn’t have the problems he had with her because they were special, unlike him.
  2. Monitoring. In a romantic relationship this often takes the form of wanting to know who you are hanging out with and where you are and what you’re doing. In an academic relationship this can be an advisor who wants to know what courses you’re taking, what conferences you’re going to, and who you’re talking to at those conferences. Again, part of the problem with recognizing abusive advisors is that the behavior of an abusive advisor is not fundamentally different from the behavior of a good advisor. A good advisor will probably want to know what classes you are taking (some programs will make your advisor sign off on your classes or research hours). A good advisor will want to know what conferences you’re going to and may recommend panels to attend or people to seek out at those conferences. The difference really comes in intention and tone which can be incredibly hard both for victims and observers to pick up on. A good advisor will listen to your reasons for attending X conference. They may make recommendations such as “don’t go to any conferences in the final year of your dissertation–just focus on finishing” but they will treat you as an intelligent person making decisions about your future career. In contrast, an abusive advisor will always approach you from the perspective that (a) you are an idiot who could not survive without them and (b) your behavior reflects on them. An example would be a PhD student I know who went to his field’s major conference. As an aspiring academic professional should do he went to the book room and chatted to several publishers. He happened to talk to the publisher that had published his advisor’s book. Although he did not seek to drop her name it organically came up in conversation with the publishing representative. The publishing rep said they would be very interested in publishing the grad student’s dissertation when he was done writing it. For any rational grad student and advisor this would be a huge win and the next steps would be talking about how to stay in touch with the publisher and how to think about restructuring the dissertation for a book proposal. Instead, when the publishing rep told the advisor that he’d ran into her talented student she angrily emailed the student and told him not to talk to people she knew without her permission and that he had horribly embarrassed her. The grad student agonized for weeks about what he had done or said wrong to the publishing rep. In reality, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had done exactly what a grad student should do but his abusive advisor saw his actions as a reflection on her professional reputation and wanted to both monitor and control who he talked to and how. This also relates to the next abuse tactic.
  3. Isolating. Abusers always seek to isolate their victims because abuse only functions in an environment of deep shame. If you have a strong support network they’ll remind you that you don’t need your abuser’s shit and help you figure out ways to get out of the situation. This is why one of the first things any abuser does is isolate you. In romantic relationships this often takes the form of explosive jealousy when you spend time with other people, picking fights with your friends, encouraging you to quit your job or move away from your family. I think this is one of the abuse tactics that looks the most different in an academic setting. For starters, the structure of grad school is isolating in and off itself. You’ve often moved far away from your established support network and you may be financially dependent on the institution and, therefore, on maintaining your advisor’s favor. The process of academic specialization is, in and of itself, isolating. By the time you’re ABD the world of relevant experts for the academic field you’re in is astonishingly small. This can mean that, if you realize you have an abusive advisor, your options to switch are small and, in some cases, nonexistent. Apart from the isolating structure of graduate school, though, individual abusers may try and isolate you but it won’t be by picking fights with your friends. Instead, they may refuse to work with certain other faculty as part of your committee. It never ceases to amaze me how many academic professionals are willing and eager to be sycophants. I know of more than one case where an abusive advisor would refuse to allow anyone on the committee who wasn’t part of their cult of personality. This, of course, defeats the very purpose of having a committee in the first place. The role of a committee is to ensure that you are earning your PhD and not receiving, or being denied it, unfairly. When an abusive advisor fills a committee with people devoted to them it further isolates the student by ensuring that your success is dependent on keeping your advisor happy (and it usually results in some group gaslighting or backlash if the student dares to mention their concerns to someone on the committee). Abusers also seek to isolate by taking control of the narrative. For instance, they may mention, or may hint that they’ve mentioned, to other professor’s in the department that you are a difficult student. This sense that your advisor has poisoned the well can keep students from  looking for alternatives. One old chestnut that carries over in all abusive situations is the abusers contention that no one else would put up with you except the abuser. Abusive adviors will contend that no other professor would put up with your procrastination/writing/email salutation/teaching load/family situation/insert random normal thing here.
  4. Shoulding. The HuffPo article I’m pulling from for this list says, “Comments about how you should or shouldn’t cut your hair, whom you should see, what job you should take, how you should speak, etc. are an indication that your partner believes he knows more than you do about yourself and your life.” Uh, so, this dynamic is pretty much the premise of all PhD advising. giphy                                  So, what’s the difference between when this behavior is normal and when it’s abusive? A good advisor will see you as a young professional in your own right–someone who knows what they’re doing but may need a little guidance from time to time. They’ll give you advice to make your life easier or better. For instance, there were a lot of times that my advisor asked me questions I absolutely hated. However, as I wrestled with them I realized that they made my thinking clearer and my argument better. It wasn’t exactly pleasant but it was both well-intentioned and based on the premise that I was an adult who could deal with complicated questions. In contrast, an abusive advisor will talk to you and treat you like you are an idiot child who could not survive without their beneficent help. An abusive advisor uses “should” like a weapon saying things like, “Congratulations on your book review but you really should be working on an article” or “Instead of wasting your time on conferences you should be writing.” The point of this abusive shoulding isn’t to help you but to make you feel like everything you think and do is always-already wrong. This is an important part of instilling the shame that’s critical to an abusive relationship. A good tell of an abusive dynamic is if your advisor is shaming  you for normal behavior. However, to know what “normal” is for graduate students you need to be in regular contact with your peers.
  5. Permission. Abuse isn’t logical. For abusers there is absolutely no conflict in telling you that you should do something and then getting mad at you for not asking permission before doing that thing. Forcing you to ask for permission by explicitly telling you you have to or by getting mad when you don’t is a method of isolation. Remember the grad student I mentioned earlier whose advisor wanted him to ask permission for who he could talk to at conferences? That’s a perfect example of this type of control. There are other advisors who will tell you not to approach other faculty about being on your committee until they say you’re ready or not to send your article into a journal until they approve it. This is, of course, a trap. They will either (a) never give you permission (b) force you to do the thing without permission and then get mad at you or (c) only give you permission when they feel they can control the results or the narrative.

You, my dear readers, are all very smart people and so I’m sure you’ve already noticed that the common them of all five of these examples is control. These are all strategies to control your behavior in one way or another and, through controlling your behavior, to isolate you. The next set of abusive behaviors we’ll look at are also about power and control but focus, instead, on controlling how you think about the situation you’re in.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

Signs of an Abusive Advisor

Talking about abusive advisors is hard for a lot of reasons. One reason why this series has dragged on for so long is because it has been personally difficult for me to compile these stories of abusive advisors. Many of them come from people I care about quite a bit and listening to them recount their stories of pain has been difficult. I’ve tried to turn them into a blog post that will honor them and help other students avoid abusive advisors.

Even in the abstract, however, talking about abusive advisors can be difficult for other reasons. In researching for this post I spent a lot of time googling variations of “signs of an abusive relationship.” The overwhelming majority of my results were signs of a romantically abusive relationship.

When we, in the US, talk about abusive relationships, we tend to default to romantic relationships. I’ve often noticed that when we talk about abusive of power in workplace settings it often has to do with leveraging differences in power to take advantage of a subordinate sexually.

I sometimes fear that our concept of abuse is so rooted in a conception of romantic/sexual abuse that it leaves graduate students who are experiencing other types of abuse from their advisors without a vocabulary to articulate what is happening.

The third reason why talking about abusive advisors is so damn difficult is because, as I’ve argued previously, the whole damn system is abusive. When trying to discern whether or not a romantic partner is abusive there is an expected set of standards of normal behavior and there is abuse. For instances, all couples fight but it’s definitely abusive if one partner hits another.

With PhD advisors it’s different. The very job definition of a PhD advisor is too critique your work. Every body’s advisor is critiquing them. If your advisor’s critique makes you feel terrible for days you are more than likely to wonder if that’s a problem with you. If you tentatively ask faculty you trust whether or not your advisor’s feedback should make you feel this way you’re likely to be told that you need to toughen up

I’ve adapted 20 early signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. The list is not perfect or complete but I hope it helps someone. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading the adapted signs with their academic examples.




First, do no harm.

I think about that phrase a lot. It’s part of the foundation of Western medicine. It’s part of the foundation of the Western academy.

If you talk to me for any length of time you’ll find out that Feminist Standpoint Theory is my jam. I love it. I relate everything to it. I wanna talk about it all the time.

Feminist standpoint theory argues that your view of the world around you is dependent on how you’re positioned in the world. One of the contributions of feminist standpoint theory is that the view from the bottom looking up is more accurate than the view from the top looking down. In feminist standpoint theory, one of the arguments is that women know more about men’s lives than men know about women’s. This isn’t that women are necessarily smarter than men but that they need to understand men’s needs, moods, and lives to survive while men don’t need to know the same things about women. Some bitterly humorous evidence of this can be seen in the recent viral post showing that many men can’t recognize a speculum–a foundational piece of medical equipment for people with uteruses while everyone knows the traditional symptoms of a heart attack in men.

As someone who is a hardcore fan of Feminist Standpoint Theory, a scholar of women’s medical history, and someone with multiple chronic illnesses I have a conflicted relationship with, “First, do no harm.”

As the Harvard Health Blog has argued, to do no harm is not a particularly useful healing injunction. There are times when remedies carry harms of their own and one must weigh the relative costs of these harms because no harm is not a possible option.

Going deeper than that, however, I wonder who gets to determine what constitutes harm.

For instance, a lot of modern medical practice comes directly out of the suffering and death of women. For instance, J. Marion Sims, considered the “father of modern gynecology” practiced the techniques for which he became famous on black women without anesthesia under the belief that black people could not feel pain.

Take a moment and imagine, if you will, the mental barriers one has to erect to vivisect a live human being and convince yourself that they are not in pain. Imagine then, if you were the man who had successfully barricaded your mind against seeing clear evidence of harm, or even humanity, in your subjects how you would record your practice for others. You would not note, for instance, their screams of pain. You would, perhaps, write that the subjects you worked with are strangely reluctant to undergo medical procedures that directly benefit them. To be fair to Sims, we need to position him within the history of women’s health more broadly. For thousands of years what passed as official medical knowledge was the idea that women might not be fully human, with wandering organs that made them do crazy things. Medical practices known to benefit women by decreasing their death in childbirth were ignored for decades because male doctors didn’t think it was important. In other words, they didn’t see a harm there.

Defenders of Sims’ legacy have argued that, “To implicate him . . . is to implicate medicine in mid-19th century America.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far you might rightly be wondering, what does any of this have to do with getting a PhD or dissertation advisors?

To answer that question, let’s look at some of the similarities between the modern medical field and academia.

Both an MD/DO and PhD are terminal degrees. Trainees in each field are required to pay a huge opportunity cost through extended, expensive years in schooling while often paying a personal cost such as less time with family, chronic stress, or decreased health. The training for both professions (at least the Western incarnation of both professions) is rooted in an exclusive practice where male actors have, historically, gotten most of the credit and acclaim while the contributions of women and people of color have been overlooked. In both professions, you practice as a professional for years before being recognized by your community as a professional. The human cost of pursuing each degree is often written into a narrative of rigor–where the harsh conditions of the program theoretically weed out trainees who can’t “hack it.” After years of training and harsh conditions trainees finally earn the right to the title and, hopefully, a place in the profession.

Looking at both of these professions side-by-side, I would argue that what passes as “normal professionalization” in each field contains quite a bit of harm that participants at every level are trained to see as something other than what it clearly is.

All of this is not just a rambling diatribe (I mean, it is that, too), but a necessary prelude to understanding abusive advisors.

Abusive advisors are supposed to exist as a small minority in distinction to the vast majority of advisors who occupy a range between fine and great.

It’s hard to overestimate how important advisors are to whether or not a grad student successfully makes the journey from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge, from student to doctor, from temporary employment to permanent employment. In my MA program it was common practice to refer to your academic “family.” You advisor occupied the role of parent. The other students being overseen by your advisor were your academic siblings while your advisor’s advisor was your academic grandparent.

Personally, I tend to shy away from analogies that construct graduate students as children because those analogies are, of themselves, part of the toxic culture of graduate school in which the contributions of accomplished professionals are minimized until and unless they finish the degree. However, in terms of raw power, I don’t know if anything conveys the actual and perceived power that academic advisors have over their students than this analogy. Like a parent, your academic advisor has the power to make you part of a lineage or to exclude you from it. Like a family, your academic advisor and your fellow advisees shape a large part of who you become both professionally and personally.

There is one other way in which this troublesome analogy may be of use. The law recognizes that parents can abuse their children through neglect. In fact, we have laws on the books that protect children, the elderly, and the disabled from abuse via neglect. We even have a legal standard of “duty of care” that applies to corporations (a.k.a did the corporation take reasonable steps to protect a consumer from harm).

In other words, we, as a society, have enshrined in law the common-sense notion that there are cases where neglect, in and of itself, constitutes harm. In most of these cases, neglect constitutes harm because one part (the caregiver or the corporation) has significant power over the life and safety of the person they are serving.

Your academic advisor does not actually have control over your life and they rarely have control over your physical safety. However, they can have a great deal of influence over your mental health and your income–and all that is correlated with it.

Therefore, before we talk about abusive advisors we need to talk about the perpetuation of harm by well-intentioned actors.

I’ve come to believe that most advisors are harmful advisors.

This isn’t to say that most advisors are bad people. Just like the grad students they so consistently fail to serve, they are people caught in a bad system being asked to do ever more with less.

While there are, undoubtedly, bad actors who are malicious and harmful, the far larger problem comes back to who gets to define what counts as harm.

A while ago, I posted an image of an advisor’s time. I recently updated that image to make it easier to read and to better reflect reality:

Dissertation Advisors Time


This is what a normal advisor’s time would look like in the best case scenario. This isn’t a bad person. This is a bad system in which there is almost no option for your average academic advisor to give the necessary attention but given the power differential between a dissertation advisor and a PhD student this sort of necessary neglect constitutes a real harm to the graduate student.

It is not the harm of an outright abusive advisor, nor is it necessarily the harm of missed deadlines or poor feedback. One thing we know about graduate students is that over 50% of them won’t finish their PhD. Many of these students will make it through coursework but a few will drop out at the exam stage and far more will drop out as ABDs. In my conversations with grad students and faculty about why this is happening the answer I most commonly got is that graduate students languished, not knowing how to take the next step, without getting advice from their professors. Professors saw this happening but, with their own busy schedules and need for human things like sleep and families, didn’t have the time or energy to combat it.

The harm, I argue, consists in the opportunity cost these graduate students pay, the deep grief in losing a part of their identity when they unwillingly leave academia, the toll on their health from near-poverty level stipends, and the gap on their resume that they may struggle to explain to employers.

Even in the best cases, I have seen harried professors often give incomplete or contradictory advice to their equally harried grad students. These harms don’t even begin to touch on the missed opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship that we all go into graduate school hoping for.

“First, do no harm,” is an inadequate injunction for care. Our advisors, even all the good ones, are doing harm because they are trapped in a bad system that creates a monumental power difference and then necessitates neglect of the dependents all in the name of cheap labor and the life of the mind or some shit.

What we need, when we think about advisors, especially abusive advisors, is to recognize the ways in which the current incarnation of the system itself is abusive.

If you came to this series because you feel like you are being abused but you feel conflicted because your advisor is a genuinely kind, caring person who just doesn’t have enough time then don’t let anybody gaslight you.

Even if your advisor isn’t abusive the system is.

There are a lot of proposals on how to fix the system and I’ll let you google them when you can’t sleep because graduate school gave you anxiety which gave you insomnia. Someday, I’d like to be a part of those solutions.

However, if you are ABD right now and you want to get those other 3 letters one of the best things you can do for yourself is be honest about the system you’re in.

Let me be very clear: I’m not writing this piece to indict dissertation advisors. They are almost as trapped as their students, if not more so. (I mean, sure, they have a salary but they also have many more years invested in the system and a longer resume gap to explain if they want to leave.)

I’m writing this to indict the whole system.

If critiquing J. Marion Sims means critiquing the medical establishment since the 19th century then so be it and if critiquing dissertation advisors as dangerously neglectful of their PhD students means indicting the whole system then let’s burn this mother down.

First, though, let’s try and get everyone out of the building.



You’re Not Supposed to be Miserable

First of all, you beautiful mothercluckers, thank you for sticking with this site in it’s first year through formatting changes and breaks both planned and unplanned.

One of the scary things about taking a long break from posting (or from grad school) is the unassuageable fear that everyone will forget you while you’re gone.

Posting last week for the first time in a long-time, about our values and why rest is important, was both incredibly joyful and incredibly nerve-wracking. It was joyful to ease back into this work that we love and it was nerve-wracking waiting to check the stats and see if anyone would bother checking up on this little website.

Thanks to all of you for sticking with us, sticking around, and checking out our posts. We hope you find value in them.

With that said, we promised you a post about toxic and/or abusive advisors. However, what started out as one post quickly became one very long post going in a million directions. As the post grew and grew in size I realized that I had a series on my hand.

Happy April, Everyone! We’re talking about abusive advisors!


This is a subject that we, as a profession, desperately need to have. I have come to believe that the problem is far more widespread than most people think it is and part of that is precisely because we don’t talk about it.

We’re going to begin this series by continuing our conversation on how the power dynamics of academia can be incredibly damaging to grad students even in normal circumstances. We’re then going to transition to actively abusive advisors. Finally, we’ll conclude by talking about what you can do to survive the situation.