For myself, and many of the academics I know, September is the most magical month: new planners, new pencils, new pens, new term and, most importantly, new potential.
September feels like a new start and this time, baby, we’re gonna get it right!
We often go into a new semester with the highest of hopes. We learned from what went wrong last semester, we’ve crafted a plan, and we’re ready!
Then life happens.
Stuff gets in the way.
Other people don’t cooperate with our perfect plan.
Somehow or another we find ourselves falling short of our high expectations.
What happens next?
Once our perfect plan fails it can be hard to get back on track.
I’m a September baby which means my astrological sign is Virgo. Virgos are said to be perfectionists, and I am, although I that may be more of an academic thing than an astrological one. Most academics I know tend towards perfectionism.
In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of procrastination: as long as something exists in your head it exists perfectly. Our attempts to bring our ideas into the real world mean that they no longer get to be perfect ideas but messy realities.
What we’re going to focus on in this month’s series is letting go of perfection and getting sh*t done.
Our series will have three main components. First, why we need to let go of our white-knuckled grip on perfection. Second, how to set achievable goals and, finally, how to keep moving forward when things go wrong.
We have reached the end of our series on abusive PhD advisors in the humanities (See here, here, here, here, and here.) We here at abd2phd are humbled by the positive feedback this series has received and are glad that it has seemed to be helpful to so many people.
Thank you for your notes and comments of encouragement along the way.
As I’ve mentioned before, writing this series has been particularly difficult, although that’s why I’m also so proud of it.
What has been difficult about this series is that there are so few solutions to offer.
Our normal format here is to identify a problem, explain the problem, and offer at least one solution.
Unfortunately, with abusive advisors there is often little that can be done because of the vast power disparities between advisor and advisee.
I’ve seen this play out several times with humanities graduate students and it is absolutely heartbreaking.
A lot of the mechanisms set up to protect students from bad behavior by their professors are designed to work for undergraduate students. Because graduate students exist somewhere in a liminal space between university employee and student we often don’t get good information on how to really be either which is a whole separate series in itself.
In this series so far we’ve tried to cover ways to help avoid becoming entangled with an abusive advisor. However, as we’ve said from the start, abusers are often quite charismatic when they want to be and some of them will promise you the world. Too many graduate students have done all the right things in the process of vetting a PhD advisor only to find out near the end of their process that their supportive, charismatic advisor, has transformed into an abusive bully.
Unfortunately, the later it is in the process of your PhD the fewer options you have (which is EXACTLY the reason that the most malicious, most savvy abusers will wait until you’re ABD or halfway done with your dissertation to reveal their true colors).
Today’s post is for those students who find themselves in that situation. You did the best you could, you selected the best advisor for you and your project and now, they’ve transformed from your greatest asset to your greatest liability.
The good news is that all is not lost. There are still things you can do to mitigate the damage to yourself and your project. At the same time, it’s important to be realistic about how much power a PhD advisor really has over your life and while you still have options there are some things you definitely can’t do.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Here are the things you cannot do:
Make your advisor someone else. One of the biggest lies abusers tell is that their abusive behavior is your fault. It is not. Abuse is always the abusers fault. I’ve seen so many graduate students tell me horror stories of their abusive advisor and then say, “Well, it’s my fault because I didn’t [normal behavior here].” Abusers often contend that if you were perfect then they wouldn’t be abusive. In reality no one is perfect. They choose to be abusive because they have their own deep damage that they’re not reckoning with. You cannot ever perform well enough to change your abuser into someone else. That is work they have to do on their own.
Be perfect. This is a corollary of the above point. You can’t be perfect and attempts to be perfect are the biggest impediment to success, especially academic success. You can never read all the things. You can’t create an argument that is beyond critique. You can’t be so perfect that your abuser will stop being abusive. You are not the cause of their behavior and your perfection will not change it.
Change your advisor. This is a hard one to accept. While there are exceptions, the later you are in the process the more difficult it is to change your advisor. This is because of the weird internal politics of academia. The biggest impediment to changing your advisor is finding a new one. I’ve seen students with abusive advisors at institutions where there is, literally, no one else with the research background to take over their project. I’ve also seen students at institutions where there are plenty of people who could take over the project but . . . won’t. Why? Well, you work with your advisor, on average, for seven years. Her fellow faculty may work with her for decades. In a perfect world it wouldn’t be this way but very few faculty want to jeopardize their professional working relationship for the next thirty years to stand up for you. This sense of self-preservation plays out in other ways as well. I’ve seen cases where the departmental administrators, like the Director of Graduate Studies or Assistant Chair, encourage students to stay with bad advisors (through gaslighting or victim blaming) because they know it would be very, very bad for the department if the student proceeded with their very justifiable case against their advisor.
Control your reputation. This is another hard one. One of the reasons graduate students don’t stand up for themselves to abusive advisors (other than the vast chasm of power differences) is because they’re afraid that their advisor will ruin their professional reputation. It’s not that this fear is irrational, but rather that it’s out of your control. If your abusive advisor is threatening (explicitly or implicitly) to ruin your professional reputation unless you comply with whatever the fuck it is they want you to do the odds are that they’ve already started to destroy your reputation. I know, I know, it’s not a hopeful message. Here’s the thing though: you can’t control your abuser’s behavior and that includes what they say about you when you’re not around.
Now for the good news! There are things you can do:
Be Great. Even though you can’t control your abuser’s behavior you can control your own. You can continue to be great at what you do, to present yourself professionally on campus and at conferences, and so on. It’s hard to know that you don’t have total control over your professional reputation and may be at the mercy of someone with a vendetta who doesn’t mind lying but you have to trust that the truth will out. A lot of PhD students, when they start to fear that their advisor might be ruining their reputation, don’t want to face the broader profession at conferences or other professional meetings but this is the exact opposite of what you should do. If you fear that your advisor is maligning you then you need to show up and be great. It’s difficult beyond words but it’s the only thing you can do to regain control over your reputation.
Get help. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you’re stuck with an abusive advisor one of the very best things you can do for yourself is get help. Get all the help you can. See a professional counselor if you can. Spend time with a support network of people both in and outside graduate school to remind you that you are not the person your advisor says you are. You can check into your institution’s CAPS program. You can check out 7 Cups. However you get help is fine as long as you get help.
Don’t listen to your advisor. At least, not about who you are. If you’re advisor is telling you that you are stupid, incompetent, or don’t deserve to be in a PhD program DO. NOT. LISTEN. TO. THEM. If you’re past the point where you can change advisors and are stuck with an abuser do whatever it takes to remind yourself that you are smart, talented, and hardworking. One of the things that academic abusers have going for them is a semi-captive audience who have spent decades training themselves to listen to experts. Then you have your own personal expert confirming all your worst fears about yourself. Its a devastatingly toxic mix. You will want to listen to them. Do Not. (And forgive yourself on the days that you do anyway.)
See your ombudsperson. Your university has one. I absolutely promise you. If you’re at an R1 university (and you probably are if you’re a PhD student) then they probably have an ombudsperson (or two or three) just for graduate students. The ombudsperson works for the graduate school and their entire job is to make sure that graduate students are treated fairly. Different ombudspersons do this with varying levels of effectiveness, but if you have an abusive advisor and can’t get out of the situation yourself it may be worth a visit to your ombudsperson. If your school has more than one take some time to discreetly ask around about who might be better for your issue.
Leave. The decision on whether or not to leave academia has become a genre unto itself so I won’t belabor it here. In the context of this series I will add my own two sentences. Part of what is so traumatizing about abusive advisors is that many PhD students have invested a great deal of their time and their soul into a profession they thought would keep them safe and happy. It is possible to have a fulfilling life outside of academia.
Go forth and be great and always remember that we are here for you!
As we’ve discussed earlier in our series on surviving summer, humanities PhDs often trade money for time. That is, summers for PhD students are often unpaid but full of “free” time.
Up to this point, we’ve covered a few ways to save money and reduce your cost of living over the summer (see here, here, and here). In this post, we want to switch gears a bit and focus on ways to maximize your time.
Summer is a great time to try out new routines and find new ways to be productive.
The important thing to remember is that, when the term starts, it will absolutely blow up even the best summer routine. That’s not the important thing. The important thing is to experiment with new routines to find what makes you feel your best and most productive. That way, when your semester starts to feel like it’s evening out, you can begin to incorporate some of the elements of your summer routine that you liked.
In particular, I like to try out new planners over the summer.
Two of my favorites are the Panda Planner and the Passion Planner.
(NOTE: THIS IS NOT A SPONSORED POST BUT IT COULD BE. PLEASE HIT ME UP PANDA PLANNER AND PASSION PLANNER.)
I like different things about each of them.
For day-to-day planning, the Panda Planner works best for my brain. I like that every day gets a full two-page spread with different sections including tasks, schedule, priorities, gratitude, and even exercise.
In the final semester of my dissertation, when I was teaching or TAing three classes and churning out chapter revisions a couple of times a month my Panda Planner kept me sane.
I would sit down with my Panda every evening and write out my tasks and schedule for the upcoming day with all of the things I knew had to get done. The next morning, when I got to the office, I would sit down with my coffee and decide on my five biggest priorities for the day as well as my focus for the day (e.g. productivity, self-care, patience, health, grading, and so on).
What I *love* about this system is that it scaffolds the day’s priorities in a way that helps me be gracious to myself. For instance, maybe I don’t get all of the things on my task list done on a day but I do accomplish my Big 5 Priorities. That’s still a win–I prioritized those things for a reason and got them done. Hooray!
By the same token, maybe there’s a day that I don’t get my tasks or my Big 5 accomplished but I stay true to my focus by making extra time for self-care or to meet with students outside of class. That still feels like a win because it reminds me that, while productivity ebbs and flows, I was true to my values that day.
If you want some sample pages to try a Panda Planner and see if it’s right for you then you can submit your email here.
The Passion Planner has a different daily/weekly schedule. One week is spread out over two pages with a schedule for each day as well as a separate section for top priorities, both personal and professional, and a dedicated space for creativity.
Personally, I like having a dedicated daily priorities section rather than a weekly one. My adhd brain often can’t see what the priorities will be at the end of the week. When I try to, I get lost in the weeds or overwhelmed, so the daily priorities works better for me.
For those of you with decent executive function, however, the Passion Planner is a wonderful option.
What I really, really love about the Passion Planner is the passion planning system it walks you through. The Passion Planning system helps you decide on what you want your long-term goals to be and make a plan to achieve them.
It’s particularly good, in my opinion, for multi-passionate entrepreneurs. If you haven’t heard that term “multi-passionate entrepreneurs” is a fancy term for people who are passionate about multiple simultaneous projects. This category fits most humanities graduate students I know who are passionate about at least one research project, a creative pursuit, teaching, and activism. Oh yeah, and on top of that most of us are trying to stay reasonably healthy.
The Passion Planner is dedicated to making space for all of those aspects of your life and has a great system for walking you through how to do it.
If you wanna try out a Passion Plan or a day or week of using the Passion Planner you can download pages here.
Both planners include dedicated spaces for gratitude which is excellent.
Both planners have blank pages to take notes though the Passion Planner has more and includes graph paper which makes my nerd heart happy.
If you’re into aesthetics the Panda Planner is minimalist. Different versions of the planner come in different colors but they’re all matte covers with the imprint of a panda.
The Passion Planner is beautiful and each week includes a different inspirational quote.
If neither of these planners feel right for you then I would recommend checking out Day Designer. Like the two above, Day Designer has a host of free printables so you can try before you buy. Day Designer planners are expensive but they’ve collaborated with Blue Sky to offer a modified Day Designer at Target for a much more affordable price.
Commit 30 is a planner specifically designed for academics (yay!) and you can print out a trial version here.
Do you have a favorite planner or planning method that’s helped you be productive?
Names have power. Interdisciplinary scholars know this. This is why our programs and our dissertations exist. If names did not matter than American Studies would not exist with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences. American Studies does exist, with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences, precisely because it is inadequate to call the work we do “history” or “media studies” or “political science.” While all of those fields play a part in this dissertation, they are not, individually or collectively, what this dissertation is. This is an American Studies dissertation and it can be an American Studies dissertation because scholars acknowledge that names matter for precision and intellectual honesty. This is doubly true for interdisciplinary feminist scholars since so many of the victories of the modern feminist movement have been focused on the mutually constitutive nature of language and lived experience. The terms “sexual harassment” and “marital rape” did not create new phenomena. Women had experienced these things for centuries. Naming them did allow women to voice their experience, connect with other women, and work for social and legal change. The establishment of Women’s Studies programs across the US, acknowledging that something about women’s lives and history might be worth studying, was a revolutionary concept which continues to shape higher education in the United States. The fact that many of the original Women’s Studies programs are changing to new names like “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” or “Feminist Studies” goes beyond re-branding to indicate substantial changes in ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, feminism, and the academy.
The above is a portion of my dissertation that my advisor demanded I cut from the final version submitted to my committee. I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, I like it, and I wanted it to see the light of day somewhere. Second, and more importantly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge how healing it is to talk about problems openly and honestly.
Our series this summer on abusive advisors has been an attempt to do just that–to name a problem that thrives in silence.
However, while I deeply, deeply believe in the power of naming it is a necessary but not sufficient part of the healing process.
We also need strategies for how to protect ourselves, particularly in the case of abusive advisors.
At the beginning of this series we spent some time talking about exactly why abusive advisors can be so devastating to their PhD students. Because of the incredible amounts of power that advisors have over the lives and livelihoods of their PhD students it is easy to feel trapped by an abusive advisor. I would argue that abusive advisors purposely pick students who are less likely to know how to navigate the system effectively. I’ve you’ve been paying attention to the tags for this series you’ll notice I’ve tagged many of these posts as “first-generation.” Although I don’t have any data on it I thing first-fen PhDs are more likely to be victims of abusive advisors because we often don’t know what “normal” is for this process.
The hard truth is that your options for dealing with an abusive advisor are often very limited.
The very best thing you can do is get rid of an abusive advisor as soon as possible.
This doesn’t mean that you should wait for your advisor to do something definitively wrong or abusive. Remember, abusers often don’t work like that. They are masters at plausible deniability. If you have reason to think that your advisor may be abusive it may be time to start looking around for another advisor.
The most natural time to do this is as soon as possible after your prospectus exam. You can thank your advisor for seeing you through the exam process, explain that your work is going in a different direction and X faculty member’s work is a better fit for this new direction.
This is a fairly common practice and allows everyone to part ways while maintaining public civility.
If, as is often the case, you are much further along in your dissertation process and changing your advisor or adding a co-chair isn’t an option for you there are some other things you can do to protect yourself.
1. Record all in-person meetings.
First, look into whether or not your state is a one-party consent state. If they are, this means you can legally record things without letting the other party know that they are being recorded. After my advisor told me, out of the blue, that she didn’t buy my main argument I recorded all subsequent meetings up to and including my dissertation defense and the post-defense meeting with my committee. I lived in a one-party consent state so I would take my laptop to meetings with my advisor, not unusual, and when I would pull up a document to take notes I would also pull up my camera and start recording a video.
If you live in a two-party consent state you will have to get their permission to record, but you can often get around this by asking “Do you mind if I record this meeting so I can make sure my notes are accurate later?” It’s a hard request to say “no” to but even if your advisor does deny your request to record the meeting you can use step two.
2. Send an email after all meetings.
After every meeting you should send your advisor an email in this template:
Dear [Advisor Name],
Thank you for your time today! I appreciate your insights on moving my project forward.
Based on our meeting today I understand my immediate action items to be X, Y, and Z.
I expect to have the draft/revisions/deliverable to you on [DATE]. If any issues come up I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as possible.
Even if you don’t have an abusive or negligent advisor it’s good to get into the habit of sending this email after every meeting. Misunderstandings happen–it’s just part of being human. This email helps make sure that you and your advisor are on the same page. If you leave a meeting thinking that the most important thing to do is “X” and your advisor thinks the most important thing you need to do is “A” this email is a great opportunity to clarify that.
3. Find a counselor.
I’ve interviewed dozens of graduate students about what the biggest challenges they face in completing their PhDs are. Many, many, many people said that they knew they needed professional counseling but that there were too many barriers to access. These included a lack of time, lack of transparency in the process of seeking out counseling, long waitlists to see a counselor, and confusion about what their graduate student insurance would pay for.
I know that these are all real barriers to seeking care.
I don’t make a lot of promises on this site. Like any good teacher, I offer suggestions, complications, and, hopefully, new ways of saying.
Let me break with that pattern now and make you a promise, a guarantee if you will:
The time you invest in setting up regular mental health care Will. Pay. Dividends.
I thanked my own therapist and psychiatrist in the acknowledgements section of my dissertation with the following
Jen Walsh, in terms of sheer hours spent, has probably spent more time on this dissertation than anyone else. She has kept me sane and kept me whole and kept me going. She has my deepest thanks. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Troy for listening, for understanding, for naming my anxiety disorder. You can’t treat what you don’t name and this process would have been so much more painful without her gracious help.
I won’t say that I couldn’t have completed my dissertation without the help of my mental health team but I know that without them it would have been a much longer, much more painful process.
Beyond that, I think my excellent mental health team helped me transition from academic life to post-academic life.
I’m passionate about graduate students taking care of their mental health. I could talk about it for weeks and we have a series coming up on it later this year. For now, let me just remind you of the most important thing: Your research doesn’t exist without you. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your project.
One resource I’ve heard good things about is 7 Cups which offers trained listeners for free and online therapy for under $40 a week.
Later in the week we’ll be talking about other actions you can take to help yourself and your career when faced with an abusive or negligent advisor.
Welcome back to our series on surviving summer on the low or no income of a humanities graduate student. A lot of our previous posts have focused on food (here, here, and here). This probably isn’t surprising. You need to eat. I need to eat. We all need to eat. When we’re looking at cutting costs in a budget where all luxuries have been cut out long-ago we start trying to cut food costs. We can’t do much to change our rent or mortgage. We can try and cut utilities but food is our most constant cost and the one we are in the most control of.
The following is my Number 1 tip to grad students over the summer:
USE YOUR LOCAL FOOD PANTRIES.
Find out where they are, when they are, and what you need to bring with you then go and get food.
I am passionate about this subject because during my PhD I helped establish a campus food pantry. I was a co-advisor to a group of students who was establishing the food pantry and, as the only grad student on the team, I was tasked with reaching out to graduate students to get them to use the food pantry.
All of the graduate students I reached out to said the same thing: I don’t want to use the food pantry because I don’t want to take food away from someone who needs it more.
This view is a misunderstanding of how food pantries actually work.
This idea, that if you take food from a food pantry there will be less food for someone else, is based on the belief that food pantries are like pie: there is a finite amount of pie/pantry and if you take some then there is less pie/pantry for other people.
Food pantries don’t operate like pie. They operate like creativity. In the words of Dr. Angelou, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
The more you use a food pantry the more money that pantry is eligible to request in add from corporations or grants. The more aid they receive, the more food they can buy. The more food they have, the more people they can serve.
In actuality, the more you use a food pantry the more food they have. It is the exact opposite of pie.
Many colleges and universities have opened their own food pantries to server their students (this is the type of pantry I was a part of). These pantries are often open over the summer but see a sharp drop in clients because graduate students don’t want to use them and most undergraduates are gone.
This is particularly frustrating because a lot of charitable organizations give fresh food and vegetables over the summer and if no one comes to pick those perishable items up they go bad and get thrown out. This is particularly frustrating to those of us who have to cart the boxes of now-bad vegetables and fruits to the trash bin.
Please fight food waste and use your local food pantries.
Some of you may be wondering why I’ve used “pantries”, plural, throughout this post.
That’s because different food pantries specialize in different things. Many campus food pantries specialize in non-perishable items: Peanut butter, pancake mix, mac and cheese, canned veggies, ramen, tuna, and so on.
In contrast, community food pantries often have a broader selection that can include fresh eggs, meat, and dairy that needs to be used shortly after it’s donated.
Before you go to the pantry you’ll want to check them out online. Questions to ask are:
What days are they open?
Do they serve different populations or different food stuffs on different days?
Do I need to bring my own bags?
Do I need to bring anything with me? (Many food pantries operate on an honor system requiring you only to show up–some campus food pantries ask you to show a campus ID. This just helps the pantries compile the numbers for how many people they are serving which helps them apply for grants and things).
If you want to find out if your campus has a food pantry check out this map from the Colleges & Universities Food Bank Alliance. This map isn’t exhaustive. For instance, my current campus has a food pantry that is not on this list–but it can be a good place to start. If you don’t see your campus listed on this map you might want to check your campus website or email someone in student services. I know as grad students we often don’t interact with student services as they are more geared at undergraduates but they’ve got the hook-up on a lot of good stuff.
In conclusion, please, please, PLEASE, use your local food pantries over the summer to make your food budget more manageable and to help increase their ability to serve your community.
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.
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.
This mini-series is an adaptation of 15 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo. You can also see the previous entries in this series here and here.
11. Picking Fights. One of the most important things to know about abusers is that all abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.
Read that again.
All abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.
Bullies never, ever pick on someone they think might be able to fight back in any way. This is why isolation and shame are so critical to the cycle of abuse. If you aren’t isolated and/or ashamed then you might have the ability to stand up for yourself or have someone else stand up for you.
One of the ways that abusers find their victims is by picking fights. They start small. For instance, let’s say you miss a deadline you set with your advisor to turn in a chapter draft. A normal advisor will respond to this, even if they’re annoyed by it, with something like, “Thanks for your draft. Since it’s a little late I may be delayed in getting you revisions. I’ll aim to have revisions to you by [DATE].” Another normal response might be along the lines of, “I’ve noticed your last few drafts have been a little late. Would it be helpful to push out our future deadlines by a week or two to give you more time?” Or, “Would it be helpful to meet and talk about writing process?”
An abusive response is along the lines of, “If you can’t meet the deadlines you set for your chapters you should really think about whether or not you belong in this profession.” An abusive response is, “I don’t know if I can work with someone who can’t meet their deadlines.”
In the normal response your advisor notices that you are struggling with deadlines and offers to find a way to help. This is part of the professionalization process. In contrast, the abusive advisor belittles you in ways that threaten your livelihood (by raising the specter of you being kicked out of graduate school) and focuses on punishing you rather than helping you.
The point of these fights, from the abuser’s point of view, is to see how much you will take. The tests themselves don’t make sense. In the example above, the abusive response is not only out of line in terms of normal boss-employee relationship but particularly out of line in an academic context. Academics are late all the time. We tend to be terrible with deadlines. Academic deadlines are commonly understood by academic professionals to be aspirational. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but, generally, if you miss a deadline with your advisor there’s a strong chance they will be so busy missing their own deadlines with publishers, editors, etcetera, that they won’t even notice.
The only way to deal with this behavior from your advisor is to stand up for yourself. For instance, let’s say you get one of the abusive responses above. An appropriate response would be something like, “I understand your frustration and apologize for my tardiness with this draft. I look forward to your feedback.” Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it saved.
If you think your advisor might be showing some early signs of abusive behavior try and get as much info as you can in writing and Save. Everything. Save it in your email, save it on a flash drive, save it on your hard drive. Just save it.
12. Violence of any kind. This one is, in my observation, more rare in academic circles, but the advice is pretty simple. If your advisor is violent in any way–if they physically intimidate you, throw things during your meetings, rip up drafts, or do anything that makes you feel physically unsafe you need to leave as soon and as quickly as possible.
13. Criticism. From the Huffington Post article cited above, “Abusers tend to be messy perfectionists. They want the world and everyone around them to be perfect, but their own minds are a mess . . . They want to talk about what everyone else is doing wrong.”
Sooooooooooo . . . That’s kind of the definition of most academics and academic work . . .
So, how do you know if you’re advisor’s criticism is what passes for normal in the academic system or has crossed a line?
The first clue is how the criticism makes you feel. If you feel worthless after receiving criticism from your advisor then that may be a sign that their feedback has crossed a line. A lot of academics I know, particularly first-generation PhDs, women, and people of color tend to assume that if the feedback they are receiving makes them feel bad it’s because they need to “toughen up.” It’s some internalized boot-strap shit, of which I am the reigning queen.
Let me just say this: If you are a woman, a person of color, a first generation PhD, disabled/chronically ill, or some combination of the above your very presence in a PhD program is proof that you are tough as diamonds and strong as titanium. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. You’ve overcome obstacles most people don’t ever even see. You’ve torn yourself in two to fit in with “academic expectations” and your community of origin. You aren’t easily intimidated or overwhelmed so if your advisor makes you feel bad it’s a good sign that they’re trying to.
If you need more proof that your advisor’s criticism has veered from helpful to hurtful check in with what they’re criticizing. Are they criticizing the argument, the project, or the person? The function of an advisor is to critique your argument. This might mean questioning your sources, your theoretical feedback, your analyses, the organization–anything about the argument itself. The purpose of this critique is supposed to be to challenge you and make your argument better. This is good critique.
If your advisor is criticizing your project you might have a problem. If you are already ABD and your advisor decides *now* to have a big issue with your project then something is wrong. Being ABD means that you’ve been through your prelims and prospectus. If your advisor had a major criticism of the project itself it should have come up sometime during this process. To be fair to both sides, I know some people who have some bananas projects. I know one person who is working on a dissertation about comic books and their big, controversial claim is that classic US comic characters and story arcs are heavily influenced by the Jewish-immigrant experience. Which, yes? Comic book authors and industry experts have talked about this. It’s not exactly a hot-take. HOWEVER, even though the project might not be the most innovative, this person’s committee signed off on it by passing his prospectus. At this point, any suggested major overhauls of the project are out of bounds because they signed off on the project as is. All of that said, criticism of your project at this stage could just mean that your advisor is oblivious rather than malicious.
The real tell is if your advisor criticizes you. If your advisor ever makes you feel stupid or like you don’t belong in your program than their critique has crossed the line into abuse.
This is often a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of situation. A lot of times, we make the mistake of thinking that something has to be big and dramatic like someone screaming at you that you don’t belong in the program. Often, it’s more subtle than that with comments like, “If you’re not aware of the literature maybe you should think about switching to another program,” in cases were you are demonstrably aware of the literature. Other examples might be things like, “There are a lot of people who want to be in this program and would be happy to meet their deadlines” or “Are you sure you’re cut out for this kind of work.”
14. Comments About Exes. Substitute “exes” here with “former advisees.” If your advisor trash talks former advisees to you then something is wrong. Even if they didn’t have the best relationship an advisor should never trash talk a former advisee to current advisees. As instructors and faculty we all complain about our students sometimes to our colleagues. It’s part of what helps us troubleshoot problems and stay sane, but we don’t complain about our students to our other students.
Hearing an ex use derogatory terms about their former partners is troubling. As the article on intimate partner violence referenced above says, “Assume that whatever he says about her will one day be said about you.” In a romantic relationship this is troubling. In an academic relationship this is a huge red flag. Theoretically, in a romantic relationship both partners are equal. You have, literally, thousands of people to choose to be in a romantic relationship with and there isn’t a huge power difference between you. If a romantic partner talks shit about their exes and describes them in derogatory terms that’s a sign that they might have, at best, a skewed perspective and, at worst, be abusive and trying to control the narrative of their past relationships.
In an advisor-advisee relationship there are, maybe, maybe a few dozen people you can work with which is just one part of the vast power differences between advisors and advisees. When an ex-romantic partner talks shit about you it can devastate your own self-perception and social group. When an advisor talks shit about you as a former student it can devastate your whole world for a long time. Graduate school is so insular and isolating in its own right. Often your friends and social network are other graduate students. Your future career in academics depends, in large part, on whether or not your advisor is willing to right you a good recommendation. I think this problem is particularly acute for grad students in the humanities because transitioning your career from academics to industry is seen as a less viable option than it is in the sciences or social sciences. This is why, if you see or hear an advisor defaming their former advisee you should be very wary and take whatever steps you can to protect yourself and your reputation.
15. Superiority. Okay, this is another one that’s kind of baked into the structure of academia. The whole idea of this medieval apprentice-ship model is that full professors are better than associate professors which are better than assistants which are better than non-tenure track which are better than graduate students. So, yeah. I really can’t say this enough: The whole damn system is abusive.
As much as I critique the system, though, I have to admit that I sort of love it too. I really, really wanted a PhD. I loved the opportunity to teach and research and write. I love my topic and my dissertation. While I have criticisms of the existing structure those criticisms make me deeply ambivalent about, rather than all out against, academia. I’d like to believe in a future of academia that more closely aligns with the life of the mind so many of us thought it would be when we got started which is, really, the impetus for this series. We can’t change the abusive structures if we don’t recognize and name them.
In an ideal world, PhD advisors would be people who had more perspective than you because they have been in the profession longer and have had more opportunities to fail and recover. All of my healthiest interactions in academia were with people who had this attitude. In contrast, an advisor who believes they are inherently smarter or better than you because they are tenured or because they just *are* is a huge problem. Unfortunately, academia as it currently exists tends to attract a lot of these people because they see it as a space where they can expand on their own greatness ad nauseum and, too often, they are right. I don’t know if there are any studies to back this up but, based on my personal experience, I believe that academia disproportionately attracts narcissists the same way CEOs are disproportionately made up of people with dark triad traits.
Dear Friends, now you have a few warning signs to help you spot potentially abusive advisors. In the next few posts we’re going to focus on what you can do to help yourself if you’ve recognized a few of these signs in your PhD advisor, program head, department chair or other figure who has a lot of control over your life as a PhD student.
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. 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.
Let me start with something we all know to be true: Graduate students in the humanities are not paid well.
While everyone who has ever talked to a graduate student in the humanities knows that this is true finding the data to back this up is incredibly difficult for a lot of reasons. To get a qualitative sense of how little humanities students are paid check out the comments on this unbearable piece from Chronicle Vitae.
While not paid well at the best of times, many graduate students aren’t paid at all over the summer. Summers in grad school can be hard to survive leaving PhD students with a range of options from ok to awful. I was always very lucky in that I could count on family support in a real pinch. Many people don’t have this option. Some PhD students take out student loans to cover the summer. Still other students take summer jobs to make ends meet. However, these summer jobs often cut into critical research and writing time extending one’s overall time in grad school.
In this series, I’m going to focus on the things that helped make summers as a PhD student better. I had a lot of privileges as a PhD student (I’m white, I’m cis, I was able to buy a house and I had recourse to some family financial support for starters). While I can share a few limited tips I would be grateful to readers who contribute their own tips in the comments!
Finally, I’ll posting a summer survival tip the day after I post something in our ongoing series about abusive advisors. Let’s begin!
Summer Survival Tip 1: Grow Something
Grow whatever you can. Maybe you have the money to invest in a raised bed (if you live near an Aldi they sell a great raised bed kit for $40). Maybe you can put a few containers on your apartment balcony. Maybe you can put a basil plant in a window.
Whatever you can grow, grow it.
It will make a huge difference to your quality of life over the summer. In the beginning of August, when you haven’t been paid in a month or two and you’re living on ramen adding a little fresh basil in there will make your life feel better.
Community gardens have gotten increasingly popular so if you don’t have the space or resources to grow something yourself check the internet to see what churches or community centers have gardens where you can put in a little bit of work to get some fresh produce. No one wants that grad school scurvy.
The town I did my PhD in usually planted edible plants in the decorative planters around downtown. In the middle of summer they would have these huge kale plants and you could steal a few leaves as long as you didn’t decimate one plant–you gotta hit up different planters for your salad. I mean it’s kale, but desperate times and all that.
I’ll just end with this tidbit–all parts of a dandelion are edible and those things are everywhere. Just make sure you wash it thoroughly if you get it from someone else’s property since you don’t know what chemicals they used in their lawn or if their dog peed on it yesterday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.