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.

giphy-1

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.

 

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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.

  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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Still Here

Hi Friends,

It’s been over two months since we last posted. Perhaps you thought that we had disappeared, but we’re still here and still passionate about helping YOU get through your PhD in a way that is physically, mentally, and emotionally beneficial for you.

One thing humanities PhD students know we’ll is that, if you don’t find time to take a break then you will have a breakdown.

In interviewing PhD students about their experience I was commonly told that folx would push themselves through the semester focusing on teaching with grand plans to write at their next break. However, break would roll around and they would spend it exhausted, sick, or both. This was frequently accompanied by feelings of guilt around the “lost” productivity.

Almost unanimously, the graduate students I interviewed believed that a certain measure of adrenaline kept them going during the semester and the minute they were on break their bodies crashed.

You learn to take breaks or you breakdown.

Recently, someone asked me about work-life balance. As we’ve talked about before, balance is an individual process, which means there is no work-life balance practice that will work for everyone. However, I will share my work-life balance philosophy with you:

There will always be people willing to give you more work. No one will ever give you more life.

This is why it is essential to prioritize your life over work.

What makes this particularly difficult for many of us who work in higher ed is that our work is an expression of what we are passionate about in life.

I wrote a dissertation on how the concept of virginity is crucial to the patriarchal nation-state because of my experiences with the sexual control of women in Christian Nationalist churches. I recently met someone who was drawn to academic advising, in part, as a way to help other students avoid the mistakes he made. One of my clients is doing an amazing black feminist analysis of digital activism because of how vital the internet was to her own identity formation as a black girl and black woman.

Without exaggeration I can tell you that everyone I personally know who has completed a PhD has done so on a subject that is vital to their identity. It may not always be obvious. I know a Revolutionary War scholar whose topic doesn’t seem particularly related to who he is as a person until you realize that a love for the history of the American Revolution was something he and his dad shared growing up.

This deep connection to our topic of study may seem obvious–after all, you can’t study something so deeply for, on average, seven years without passion for it whether that passion takes the form of love or hate.

What this means in practice, though, is that beyond #NeoLiberalCapitalismProblems, which demand we all feel like we need to work all the time to be good people, academics often want to work on their topics because it feels like a vital, creative expression of our own existence. Together, these forces can prevent us from taking breaks, even though all the good science says that we desperately need them in order to avoid a physical, mental, or emotional breakdown.

All of that is to say, taking a two month break from this site wasn’t something I planned on doing, but I needed a break after a very eventful 2018. The thing is, I didn’t know I needed a break until I found myself in it. In true grad student fashion, I was in denial that I needed a break until I had a little breakdown. After that, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about needing a break. Finally, I just leaned into that sh*t and owned up the break.

I missed y’all terribly and I’m so glad to be back. We have some exciting stuff planned for the rest of 2019 but the most important message for today is this: We take breaks so we don’t breakdown.

Manage Out

One of the wisest pieces of advice I got while I was writing my dissertation was from a senior faculty member who observed that, “Sometimes, through no fault of their own, advisors and advisees get stuck in a loop rehashing the same issues in the text.”

Again, in it’s own way, this can be a bizarre sort of academic compliment. It can mean that your advisor sees potential in your work and wants it to be the best it can be. It can mean that your advisor is trying to prepare you for questions you’ll face from journal editors and hiring committees. It can be a lot of things, but whatever else it is, it is also damn annoying. No document is ever perfect. Dissertations, in particular, are a deeply weird genre, in which perfection should not be the goal.

When this happens, the best thing you can do is manage out.

(Note: I have no idea if this is a real term. I just made it up to parallel our last post about managing up, which is a real term.)

The entire point behind having academic committees is to make sure that the whims of one person don’t control your whole dissertation. Even so, I’ve met dozens of dissertating students who don’t use their committee. Hell, I was one until the very end of the process when a molten core of anxiety and rage formed something approximating motivation that was strong enough to overcome my imposter syndrome.

That is how I know that if you feel stuck in a feedback loop with your advisor one of the best things you can do is to show your work in progress to another member of your committee and get their feedback on it. Perhaps they’ll be able to frame your advisor’s comments in a different way that makes more sense to you. Perhaps they’ll be able to advocate for you with your advisor by mentioning how well that chapter is coming along the next time they see each other.

There are some cases where you genuinely can’t go to the rest of your committee for help for various reasons. For instance, two of your committee members could be out of the country and one could be on sabbatical. Alternately, you could have senior committee members who have explicitly told you they’ll defer to the advisor’s judgement (thus nullifying the entire god damn point of committees, but anyway) and a junior member who feels powerless because she is powerless in this context.

If you find yourself in these or other commitee permutations that don’t allow your committee to advocate for you with your advisor then there are two key ways to manage out.

The Long-Game

The preferred method is to cultivate academic relationships. Cultivating connections in your discipline can be a huge help in breaking up advisor (or committee) gridlock. It can also be a good long-term help in your academic career.

When you and your advisor keep circling the same issues with no path to resolution it can be powerful to go into a meeting and say, “Scholar-X, who wrote book Y, very kindly read over this chapter and gave me some feedback. Based on her notes I was thinking of doing A and B in section C of this chapter.”

There’s no bones about it, this is a power move. What you’re essentially saying in the above sentence is: Look, another expert in the field thinks this is fucking fine. I’m going to make these minor changes. Please just drop this shit and let us all move on, ok? It’s a subtle reminder to your advisor that they aren’t the only expert in the field and that other experts have looked at your work and deemed it good enough (which is all our work can ever really be, tbh).

The thing about this strategy is that it takes *a lot* of investment to get to this place. You have to cultivate a relationship with a senior scholar in your field. Everyone says the best place to do this is conferences and that might be true? IDK, it’s never really worked for me. Everyone at conferences is some bizarre mix of tired and amped, bored and exhausted, trying to network and trying to turn this trip into a vacation. I’ve rarely made good academic connections at conferences and when I have it’s because I’ve been the slightly senior academic, but that’s a whole other post.

If you want to employ this strategy you can’t just email a senior scholar in your field and say, “Will you read my chapter?” (I mean, you could, but it’s not respectful of their time and if they send a response it likely won’t be in your favor.) Instead, you have to reach out to them ahead of time. I recommend reaching out with a genuine compliment like, “I saw your op-ed and really enjoyed it” or “Your book has been so influential in my thinking about X.” Everybody likes to be complimented, academics more than most.

If the academic in question responds positively to this then follow-up the next time you see a pop culture thing that makes you think of them like a Twitter thread or a television show related to their work. (I specifically advocate doing this with a pop culture thing related to their work because academia is a very small world when you get into people’s specialties. Sure, you could send them that new journal article in their area of research but there’s a decent chance that they were asked to be a reviewer for it or have already heard of it.)

When the next major conference rolls around then you email them and ask if they’d like to serve as the chair of a panel you’re putting together for the major conference. The important thing here is that you, as the junior scholar, are offering to do all the time-consuming leg work. If they agree then you now have a professional connection. Hooray!

After the conference it will be appropriate to ask them to read over your chapter.

Like I said, it’s a very time-consuming process.

The Quick Fix

If you need help sooner than that timeline would allow there are a lot of services out there to help you. You know, like this one.

You can work with abd2phd, or a service like us, where someone who knows the process can look at your work along with your advisor’s comments and help you figure out how to move forward. If you feel truly stuck this is a great option. In fact, I did this when I was near giving up on my dissertation and it was immensely helpful to have someone who didn’t have a lot of power over my work/life give me honest feedback about what was good and what was missing.

[Shameless Self-Promo: abd2phd is currently accepting clients FOR FREE. As in, we will work with you at no cost. If you’d like to work with abd2phd to jumpstart your dissertation progress then drop us a line via our Contact page. We’ll schedule a 30 minute consultation so you can decide if we’re right for you. If we’re not what you need then we’re more than happy to recommend some other folks.]

One last note here, managing out is not the same thing as having a support network. During the exact same time that I was working with the wonderful Avigail Oren on revising my dissertation I also had weekly meetings with a close friend to whom I could complain and rant and rage. My friend did an excellent job of supporting me which was her job in that moment. It was the emotional component I needed but it’s not what you want someone you hire to do for you. While it’s certainly alright to get on well with a paid editor (you should!) their job isn’t to take your side like a friend would but to help you make progress even if that means telling you something you don’t want to hear.

Sometimes, though, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

Sometimes, you have to leave.

There are a lot of reasons to stick with an advisor you don’t particularly like. Sometimes they may be the best person for your topic. Sometimes they are the only person at your institution to work with for whatever reasons. Sometimes things go bad when you are very close to done with the project and it’s easier just to finish.

Our next post in the ongoing advising series will be on what to do when your advisor is deliberately sabotaging you.

 

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.

 

 

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 😉