Harm

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.

 

 

Manage Up

Let’s start with an uncomfortable truth: The overwhelming majority of PhD advisors are very bad at their job.

This does not mean that they are bad people.

Many, many of them are good people, good teachers, good scholars.

And bad advisors.

There are many reasons for this and the most mundane are the most powerful. Without discounting the fact that there are some very bad actors taking advantage of an archaic system, a lot of bad advising happens because good people are stuck in a bad system.

As we’ve mentioned before, the academic system is set up so that advising PhD students, while a necessary part of pursuing tenure and promotion, is competing with all of the other (mostly unpaid) things that faculty have to do for tenure and promotion. Advising is a small slice of your advisor’s time and advising you is just a fraction of the total time she can devote to advising. Let’s pretend that your advisor magically manages to have a perfect work-life balance and spends half of her waking hours working and half on her family. The image below is what her time would likely look like in this ideal scenario:

Advisor Time

You are one of the tiny slices of pie that she devotes to advising. In reality, though, your advisor doesn’t have perfect work-life balance because none of us do. In reality, research and writing probably take up more of her time than the 25% of the pie we’ve allotted to it here. In reality, shit happens: the kids get sick, teaching is more time consuming than she thought, an in-law passes away, the toilet stops working and she has to cancel everything and call a plumber, her tenure portfolio needs to be put together, and on and on it goes.

So, where is she gonna find that extra time she needs in her day when stuff comes up? Well, dear reader, it’s probably gonna come from her advising time. You are, after all, a smart and capable adult or else you wouldn’t be here so you’ll either figure it out or let her know if you need something.

In this, the best case scenario, it’s not that your advisor means to give you the short end of the stick it’s just that she, like you, is a person in a rigged system.

In this situation, the best advice I can give (and which I discovered way too fucking late) is to borrow from the corporate world and employ tactics for managing up. Managing up is, essentially, how to get the person in authority over you to do what you need them to do and there is a lot of helpful advice in the corporate world about how to do this.

What it all boils down to, though, is that you have to know what you need and ask for it.

Do you need regular meetings to stay on track? Ask your advisor if you can schedule a quick check-in with her once a month.

Does your advisor keep giving you contradictory advice? After you receive advice from her, either in person or comments on a draft, email her right away with the following template:

[Salutation]

Thank you so much for your feedback on my work [at our meeting/in the comments you sent me on X date]. I see you’ve raised issues A, B, and C with the manuscript in it’s current form. 

I hope to have revisions addressing these issues back to you at [realistic date–which is when you think you can have it back + 10 days]. 

This does two things. First, if you’ve misinterpreted the feedback in some way it provides an opportunity for clarification. Second, when you get contradictory advice on the next draft you go right back to this baby in your email and forward it to your advisor with this note:

[Salutation]

Thank you for your feedback. I see that you would like me to do X in revisions. In our conversation on [date] (included below) we discussed me addressing A. I included X in an attempt to rectify the issue you identified with A but seem to have missed the mark. Can you provide some clarification for how to move forward? 

[Probably put in some sentences here specific to your issue, like, “Do you think providing a more detailed lit-review would be helpful here?”].

This will help you and your advisor have clear conversations in the event that it’s just miscommunication getting in the way. It will also hold them accountable if they truly are giving you contradictory advice because it forces them to explain themselves without upsetting the delicate ecosystem that is the academic ego. Finally, it creates a paper trail should the need arise.

New faculty and veteran advisors, we would be particularly grateful if you have time to lend any advice in the comments about how your PhD students can be proactive in creating a productive relationship with you.

 

 

Toxic Advisors

As mentioned in our last post, the medieval system of apprenticeship employed in academia can give dissertation advisors a truly terrifying degree of control of the lives of their advisees.

There are many good people in academia who do not abuse this power. There are many good people in academia who seek to subvert these hierarchal power dynamics.

But there are also too damn many people in academia who do use the almost-unchecked power advisors have over their doctoral students for ill ends.

If you’ve been following #MeTooPhD or #MeTooPoliSci or any of the other academic #MeToo tags then you will know that sometimes advisors, often but not exclusively, male advisors, use their power over their advisees to sexually harass them.

The #MeToo movement and the toxic culture it calls out is similar in many ways to the toxic culture of academia. Both are about hierarchies in which power over many is concentrated in the hands of a few and, largely, unchecked. Both have to do with status–high-status individuals tormenting low-status individuals. And, in both, it is the bad cases that stick out far more than the more numerous good ones.

The best statistics we have indicate that 1 in 10 men are a danger to womyn. There are two corollaries of this figure, however, and both of them are true in academia as well. The first is that there is no way of knowing with certainty whether or not someone is the dangerous one or one of the nine safe ones. The second is that the bad ones get away with their behavior because not enough of the good ones are willing to check them.

Personally, I think it’s a serious flaw in most graduate student programs which I’ve encountered that they make students pick a committee so soon. There are many problems with the emphasis on moving students through programs quickly via the many iterations of “fast-track” or MA and PhD programs. There are the concerns of quality, both in research and writing, but there is also the concern of the human cost. If a student is to be done with their PhD in 5 years (the stated goal of my college at my former institution) then they need to be done with their prelims and prospectus at the end of their third year (assuming it takes a year to research and a year to write). This means that a student will have a more or less fixed committee by the end of their coursework. Because of the various peccadilloes of academic scheduling 4 semesters, or two years, of courses will give you enough time to, maybe, take one class with every professor you think you want on your committee. That is sixteen weeks (14 after breaks and whatnot) of one week encounters and a couple of small papers or one big one to determine whether or not to give this person an immense amount of control and influence over your life.

It is not, in short, a lot of time to make a well-reasoned decision and, this being academia, there are a million other things that go into it. You probably picked this program because of the scholars you could work with here. You know these people by reputation. Now that you are in the program you know people who have worked or are working with these people. That one class is not your only information about them but it is your best source of information on how the two of you might work together.

Yet, just as abusers can be infinitely charming in public, I have personally witnessed several abusive advisors who are wonderful at teaching a class. So wonderful, in fact, that other folks who knew all the details of how abusive this person was to their advisees, still ranked her class as one of their favorites.

Once again for the people in the back: ABSUERS ARE CHARMING AF WHEN THEY WANT TO BE.

All of this means it can be nearly impossible to tell whether or not someone who seems like a decent professor will be a good advisor. I have at least three close friends who took a gamble on a good professor who turned out to be a truly atrocious advisor. I want to be very clear here. When I say “atrocious” I don’t mean “annoying” or “old-fashioned.” I mean almost career-destroying. For one person it was genuine malice in which their advisor actively sought to destroy their career both in and after graduate school. For others it was negligence. For still others, it was a little of column A and a little of column B.

Most importantly, however, none of these toxic advisors would have been in a position to advise students had their colleagues, or the university system, ensured that their bad behavior was punished early on.

So, what’s the point of this long, rambling post? I mean, besides the fact that it’s kind of therapeutic for me to write, even obliquely, about all the horrible advisors I experienced, directly or indirectly, during grad school?

The points are as follows:

  1. Toxic advisors are real.
  2. Toxic advisors are a systemic problem and academia, as an institution, needs to change.
  3. You didn’t cause this behavior.
    1. No. Seriously. You didn’t. It’s not because you missed a deadline or because your writing wasn’t perfect (no writing ever is).
    2. It’s probably not even about you. Honestly. Most toxic people are just trying to exorcise their own trauma. It doesn’t make their behavior right. It doesn’t excuse it, but whatever they’re doing to you probably has very, very little to do with you and 98% to do with them.
    3. Really. You didn’t.
  4. You. Are. Not. Alone. Even though we don’t talk about it, even though there are a lot of incentives to not talk about it, you are not alone.
  5. You can ge through this if you want to.
  6. But you don’t have to. It’s okay to quit if you want.
  7. I’m here for you. If we were betting, I would put all my money on you being better than fine.

Later this week (no, guys! I really mean it!) we’ll be back and talking about how to handle advisors of all types.

 

Mentor, Sponsor, Fan

In the darkest depths of my dissertation, when I was so close to done writing but totally done emotionally, my mom asked me why this process had to be so damn hard. Because I am who I am (i.e. obnoxious and long-winded), I went on a long ramble about academia as an apprenticeship model wherein the PhD candidate is an apprentice scholar to the professor, etcetera, etcetera.

My mother, who has worked for various unions most of her life, said, “But other apprenticeship professions, like machinists or pipefitters don’t work that way.” And that’s the moment I realized that, perhaps alone in the modern world, academia clings to a truly medieval model of apprenticeship and professionalism.

Within this model, the figure of one’s dissertation chair/advisor is crucial. Your dissertation advisor has an immense amount of power of your life. They can play a crucial role in whether or not you get funding from your institution, in your professionalization, and in your chances on the job market. That, of course, is all above and beyond the process of them actually helping you get your dissertation written.

In theory, we have dissertation committees to lessen what would be the advisor’s totalitarian grip over their advisees’ lives. The committee is there to provide other feedback and, if necessary, challenge the advisor on the student’s behalf from their more equal footing as fellow faculty.

In reality, some committees work this way and some don’t. I’ve had at least one faculty member tell me that, when she’s on a dissertation committee, she always votes the way that the chair votes because she figures the chair knows the project, and the field, best. On the other hand, I know of one person whose advisor developed a personal vendetta against them and tried to tank their career. The only thing that got that person through their defense was an outside committee member standing up to the chair.

I bring up this seeming aside on the power of committee chairs, and the varying efficacy of committee’s, because many of us go into academia thinking we will find a dissertation chair who will be a mentor to us. They will be the ultimate teacher and we their ultimate student. But that’s just not how it works the majority of the time. I, personally, have never seen that idealized type of relationship in person which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist, just that it’s not as normal as movies would make you think.

In reality, your dissertation advisor may be a good fit for the subject matter of your thesis but not for you personally. The inverse is equally likely. I know of more than one case where a person went into a program and had a fabulous year working with their dream advisor when that person got a better job and left leaving their students with whoever was left in the department to pick up the pieces. The long and the short of it is that your dissertation advisor is, at the end of the day, every bit as human as you are. It’s unfair to expect any one person to be all the things we need–especially in a project as vast and varied as a dissertation.

I’ve become convinced that no one gets through their dissertation without having a balance of three types of support: mentors, sponsors, and fans.

In an ideal world you would have all three of these represented on your committee. But the world is often less than ideal.

Never fear!

Just because you don’t have all three types of support on your committee doesn’t mean you won’t have all three types of support.

So, just what are these types of support?

The mentor is the figure we’re all most familiar with. The mentor is someone we listen to and learn from. They’ve been where we want to go and they know how to get there. In my dissertation process my chair was an exceptional writing mentor. She never judged my progress, or lack thereof. She freely shared her own frustrations with the writing process and the tools she used to work around them.

It is likely, in your journey from ABD to PhD that you will need several mentors for different parts of the profession. For instance, during my MA I had an amazing teaching mentor. Because of what I learned from her I went into my PhD program prepared to teach and didn’t suffer a significant loss of productivity due to teaching while dissertating.

As important as mentors are, you will also need sponsors.

Sponsors are the folks who open doors for you. I had two significant sponsors throughout my PhD. One was the head of the program at the time I was admitted. Without her, I would never have secured funding to attend the program. She leveraged her personal relationships at the institution to help me find funding and make my dream of getting a PhD a reality.

The second sponsor was my undergraduate mentor who went out of her way to connect me to people and opportunities she knew would benefit my research.

Sponsors are harder to find than mentors but they are worth it. I’d love to give you advice here about how to find sponsors but I really don’t know. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the sponsors I have and I sort of stumbled into them. All I can really say is work hard, follow your interests, be kind and someone will take notice and try to help you out. If anyone has a better idea of how to recruit sponsors please share in the comments below.

Finally, there are fans. Well, I call them fans, I think mentorship literature more commonly calls them “cheerleaders.” These are the people who celebrate your work and give you the strength to keep going when shit gets rough.

Throughout most of my PhD program the fans of my work were not professional academics but were, most often, my students and people in the community outside of campus. When I would share my work in-class with my students, or when I would share it at an event like 3MT, the encouraging comments I received helped me remember that my work was worth something to people outside of academia. Without that I think I would have walked away much sooner.

You’ll notice, in the above examples, that I found two out of three of these types of mentors outside of my PhD program. While I’m convinced that everyone needs to have some mentors, sponors, and fans, they don’t all have to be on your committee, or even in a PhD program.

 

WTF: Advising

I recently shared that I have started a full-time job in academic advising. It will likely come as no surprise that I have something of a soapbox when it comes to advising at all levels. After all, what is this site, really, but an attempt to provide advice on how to get through a PhD program.

So, because, it’s something I’ve been wanting to write more explicitly about, and in a nod to my new position, we are going to spend the month of November talking about advising.

This will be a short month, in overall amount of posts, for two reasons. First, I’m still learning how to juggle a freelance writing contract, working 40 hours a week, and managing the site. I deeply appreciate your patience, and welcome your feedback, as I learn. Second, so much of advising is deeply particular to the relationship between you and your dissertation advisor that I can only sketch the broadest outlines here.

I would encourage anyone who has a particular question to contact the site and I will do my best to address it. I know that one of the biggest factors that prevents a lot of PhD students from seeking help in their relationship with their advisor is fear of professional reprisals. Therefore, if you have a particular question you desperately want to ask but wish to remain anonymous please use the site’s Contact page. I will edit personal details from your question and address it in general terms here on the site.

The topics we are guaranteed to cover this month are the three types of advisors (mentor, sponsor, fan) and their role in completing your PhD. We will talk about how to use the corporate practice of “managing up” to improve your life as a PhD student and, because I have seen it too damn many times, we will cover the options you have if your advisor is toxic or abusive. Finally, I’ll prioritize any questions you send in because, after all, this site is for you.

With that said, let me tell you a little story about the last year of my dissertation. I was cranking out chapters to get done. When I say “cranking out” I mean submitting one revised chapter a week to my chair. At such a bruising pace it’s probably not a surprise that both of us lost our way a little bit. I say that because I don’t think either of us did anything wrong yet it seemed like we couldn’t communicate with each other.

I wrote.

She gave feedback.

I revised (I thought) according to her feedback.

She gave more feedback saying, “No, not like that.”

It seemed like we were circling around the same issues and I was near losing my mind trying to figure out how to get her to understand what I was trying to say. (I’m sure she felt she was near losing her mind too. She was, after all, reading and revising at a fast pace.)

Not knowing what else to do I turned to a group of academic women I knew online and asked for help.

Then, an angel appeared. This angel was a very talented editor (among other things). I paid her to read my work with my advisor’s comments and she helped me see what I was missing. As a third party without a depth of knowledge in the area or any relational baggage (and even the best relationships have their baggage) she saw both the merit in my writing and the merit in my advisor’s criticisms. Most importantly, she put what my advisor was saying in a way that I knew how to work with. I worked with her for three sessions and, shortly after our third session concluded, I had a productive meeting with my advisor and set a defense date.

I share this story with you for a couple of reasons. First, because I think there’s a notion that PhD mentors can only come from within the academia and this notion is harmful. Some of my best PhD mentors did not work in academia. Some, like the angel mentioned above, did have their PhDs and could speak to the process. Others did not (shoutout to Bill Arnold who kept me going when I wanted to quit).

They were all instrumental in helping me make it to and through that defense date.

The second reason I’m sharing this story with you is because advising just doesn’t work if you don’t know you can ask for help. For a long, long time I didn’t think I could ask for help. I’ve heard that’s fairly typical of first-generation students and our need to hide that we aren’t from the academy or (at least) a middle-class background.

But you can ask for help. In fact, you have to. What this month is dedicated to is making sure that you know who to ask for what kind of help and how to process the answers you get.

After all, I’m an advisor now 😉