What You Can Do. And What You Can’t.

Dear Readers,

We have reached the end of our series on abusive PhD advisors in the humanities (See here, here, here, here, and here.) We here at abd2phd are humbled by the positive feedback this series has received and are glad that it has seemed to be helpful to so many people.

Thank you for your notes and comments of encouragement along the way.

As I’ve mentioned before, writing this series has been particularly difficult, although that’s why I’m also so proud of it.

What has been difficult about this series is that there are so few solutions to offer.

Our normal format here is to identify a problem, explain the problem, and offer at least one solution.

Unfortunately, with abusive advisors there is often little that can be done because of the vast power disparities between advisor and advisee.

I’ve seen this play out several times with humanities graduate students and it is absolutely heartbreaking.

A lot of the mechanisms set up to protect students from bad behavior by their professors are designed to work for undergraduate students. Because graduate students exist somewhere in a liminal space between university employee and student we often don’t get good information on how to really be either which is a whole separate series in itself.

In this series so far we’ve tried to cover ways to help avoid becoming entangled with an abusive advisor. However, as we’ve said from the start, abusers are often quite charismatic when they want to be and some of them will promise you the world. Too many graduate students have done all the right things in the process of vetting a PhD advisor only to find out near the end of their process that their supportive, charismatic advisor, has transformed into an abusive bully.

Unfortunately, the later it is in the process of your PhD the fewer options you have (which is EXACTLY the reason that the most malicious, most savvy abusers will wait until you’re ABD or halfway done with your dissertation to reveal their true colors).

Today’s post is for those students who find themselves in that situation. You did the best you could, you selected the best advisor for you and your project and now, they’ve transformed from your greatest asset to your greatest liability.

The good news is that all is not lost. There are still things you can do to mitigate the damage to yourself and your project. At the same time, it’s important to be realistic about how much power a PhD advisor really has over your life and while you still have options there are some things you definitely can’t do.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Here are the things you cannot do:

  1. Make your advisor someone else. One of the biggest lies abusers tell is that their abusive behavior is your fault. It is not. Abuse is always the abusers fault. I’ve seen so many graduate students tell me horror stories of their abusive advisor and then say, “Well, it’s my fault because I didn’t [normal behavior here].” Abusers often contend that if you were perfect then they wouldn’t be abusive. In reality no one is perfect. They choose to be abusive because they have their own deep damage that they’re not reckoning with. You cannot ever perform well enough to change your abuser into someone else. That is work they have to do on their own.
  2. Be perfect. This is a corollary of the above point. You can’t be perfect and attempts to be perfect are the biggest impediment to success, especially academic success. You can never read all the things. You can’t create an argument that is beyond critique. You can’t be so perfect that your abuser will stop being abusive. You are not the cause of their behavior and your perfection will not change it.
  3. Change your advisor. This is a hard one to accept. While there are exceptions, the later you are in the process the more difficult it is to change your advisor. This is because of the weird internal politics of academia. The biggest impediment to changing your advisor is finding a new one. I’ve seen students with abusive advisors at institutions where there is, literally, no one else with the research background to take over their project. I’ve also seen students at institutions where there are plenty of people who could take over the project but . . . won’t. Why? Well, you work with your advisor, on average, for seven years. Her fellow faculty may work with her for decades. In a perfect world it wouldn’t be this way but very few faculty want to jeopardize their professional working relationship for the next thirty years to stand up for you. This sense of self-preservation plays out in other ways as well. I’ve seen cases where the departmental administrators, like the Director of Graduate Studies or Assistant Chair, encourage students to stay with bad advisors (through gaslighting or victim blaming) because they know it would be very, very bad for the department if the student proceeded with their very justifiable case against their advisor.
  4. Control your reputation. This is another hard one. One of the reasons graduate students don’t stand up for themselves to abusive advisors (other than the vast chasm of power differences) is because they’re afraid that their advisor will ruin their professional reputation. It’s not that this fear is irrational, but rather that it’s out of your control. If your abusive advisor is threatening (explicitly or implicitly) to ruin your professional reputation unless you comply with whatever the fuck it is they want you to do the odds are that they’ve already started to destroy your reputation. I know, I know, it’s not a hopeful message. Here’s the thing though: you can’t control your abuser’s behavior and that includes what they say about you when you’re not around.

Now for the good news! There are things you can do:

  1. Be Great. Even though you can’t control your abuser’s behavior you can control your own. You can continue to be great at what you do, to present yourself professionally on campus and at conferences, and so on. It’s hard to know that you don’t have total control over your professional reputation and may be at the mercy of someone with a vendetta who doesn’t mind lying but you have to trust that the truth will out. A lot of PhD students, when they start to fear that their advisor might be ruining their reputation, don’t want to face the broader profession at conferences or other professional meetings but this is the exact opposite of what you should do. If you fear that your advisor is maligning you then you need to show up and be great. It’s difficult beyond words but it’s the only thing you can do to regain control over your reputation.
  2. Get help. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you’re stuck with an abusive advisor one of the very best things you can do for yourself is get help. Get all the help you can. See a professional counselor if you can. Spend time with a support network of people both in and outside graduate school to remind you that you are not the person your advisor says you are. You can check into your institution’s CAPS program. You can check out 7 Cups. However you get help is fine as long as you get help.
  3. Don’t listen to your advisor. At least, not about who you are. If you’re advisor is telling you that you are stupid, incompetent, or don’t deserve to be in a PhD program DO. NOT. LISTEN. TO. THEM. If you’re past the point where you can change advisors and are stuck with an abuser do whatever it takes to remind yourself that you are smart, talented, and hardworking. One of the things that academic abusers have going for them is a semi-captive audience who have spent decades training themselves to listen to experts. Then you have your own personal expert confirming all your worst fears about yourself. Its a devastatingly toxic mix. You will want to listen to them. Do Not. (And forgive yourself on the days that you do anyway.)
  4. See your ombudsperson. Your university has one. I absolutely promise you. If you’re at an R1 university (and you probably are if you’re a PhD student) then they probably have an ombudsperson (or two or three) just for graduate students. The ombudsperson works for the graduate school and their entire job is to make sure that graduate students are treated fairly. Different ombudspersons do this with varying levels of effectiveness, but if you have an abusive advisor and can’t get out of the situation yourself it may be worth a visit to your ombudsperson. If your school has more than one take some time to discreetly ask around about who might be better for your issue.
  5. Leave. The decision on whether or not to leave academia has become a genre unto itself so I won’t belabor it here. In the context of this series I will add my own two sentences. Part of what is so traumatizing about abusive advisors is that many PhD students have invested a great deal of their time and their soul into a profession they thought would keep them safe and happy. It is possible to have a fulfilling life outside of academia.

Go forth and be great and always remember that we are here for you!

Dealing With An Abusive Advisor

Names have power. Interdisciplinary scholars know this. This is why our programs and our dissertations exist. If names did not matter than American Studies would not exist with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences. American Studies does exist, with its PhDs, its journals, and its conferences, precisely because it is inadequate to call the work we do “history” or “media studies” or “political science.” While all of those fields play a part in this dissertation, they are not, individually or collectively, what this dissertation is. This is an American Studies dissertation and it can be an American Studies dissertation because scholars acknowledge that names matter for precision and intellectual honesty. This is doubly true for interdisciplinary feminist scholars since so many of the victories of the modern feminist movement have been focused on the mutually constitutive nature of language and lived experience. The terms “sexual harassment” and “marital rape” did not create new phenomena. Women had experienced these things for centuries. Naming them did allow women to voice their experience, connect with other women, and work for social and legal change. The establishment of Women’s Studies programs across the US, acknowledging that something about women’s lives and history might be worth studying, was a revolutionary concept which continues to shape higher education in the United States. The fact that many of the original Women’s Studies programs are changing to new names like “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” or “Feminist Studies” goes beyond re-branding to indicate substantial changes in ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, feminism, and the academy.

The above is a portion of my dissertation that my advisor demanded I cut from the final version submitted to my committee. I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, I like it, and I wanted it to see the light of day somewhere. Second, and more importantly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge how healing it is to talk about problems openly and honestly.

Our series this summer on abusive advisors has been an attempt to do just that–to name a problem that thrives in silence.

However, while I deeply, deeply believe in the power of naming it is a necessary but not sufficient part of the healing process.

We also need strategies for how to protect ourselves, particularly in the case of abusive advisors.

At the beginning of this series we spent some time talking about exactly why abusive advisors can be so devastating to their PhD students. Because of the incredible amounts of power that advisors have over the lives and livelihoods of their PhD students it is easy to feel trapped by an abusive advisor. I would argue that abusive advisors purposely pick students who are less likely to know how to navigate the system effectively. I’ve you’ve been paying attention to the tags for this series you’ll notice I’ve tagged many of these posts as “first-generation.” Although I don’t have any data on it I thing first-fen PhDs are more likely to be victims of abusive advisors because we often don’t know what “normal” is for this process.

The hard truth is that your options for dealing with an abusive advisor are often very limited.

The very best thing you can do is get rid of an abusive advisor as soon as possible.

This doesn’t mean that you should wait for your advisor to do something definitively wrong or abusive. Remember, abusers often don’t work like that. They are masters at plausible deniability. If you have reason to think that your advisor may be abusive it may be time to start looking around for another advisor.

The most natural time to do this is as soon as possible after your prospectus exam. You can thank your advisor for seeing you through the exam process, explain that your work is going in a different direction and X faculty member’s work is a better fit for this new direction.

This is a fairly common practice and allows everyone to part ways while maintaining public civility.

If, as is often the case, you are much further along in your dissertation process and changing your advisor or adding a co-chair isn’t an option for you there are some other things you can do to protect yourself.

1. Record all in-person meetings.

First, look into whether or not your state is a one-party consent state. If they are, this means you can legally record things without letting the other party know that they are being recorded. After my advisor told me, out of the blue, that she didn’t buy my main argument I recorded all subsequent meetings up to and including my dissertation defense and the post-defense meeting with my committee. I lived in a one-party consent state so I would take my laptop to meetings with my advisor, not unusual, and when I would pull up a document to take notes I would also pull up my camera and start recording a video.

If you live in a two-party consent state you will have to get their permission to record, but you can often get around this by asking “Do you mind if I record this meeting so I can make sure my notes are accurate later?” It’s a hard request to say “no” to but even if your advisor does deny your request to record the meeting you can use step two.

2. Send an email after all meetings.

After every meeting you should send your advisor an email in this template:

Dear [Advisor Name],

Thank you for your time today! I appreciate your insights on moving my project forward. 

Based on our meeting today I understand my immediate action items to be X, Y, and Z. 

I expect to have the draft/revisions/deliverable to you on [DATE]. If any issues come up I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as possible.

Warm Regards,

[YOUR NAME]

Even if you don’t have an abusive or negligent advisor it’s good to get into the habit of sending this email after every meeting. Misunderstandings happen–it’s just part of being human. This email helps make sure that you and your advisor are on the same page. If you leave a meeting thinking that the most important thing to do is “X” and your advisor thinks the most important thing you need to do is “A” this email is a great opportunity to clarify that.

3. Find a counselor.

I’ve interviewed dozens of graduate students about what the biggest challenges they face in completing their PhDs are. Many, many, many people said that they knew they needed professional counseling but that there were too many barriers to access. These included a lack of time, lack of transparency in the process of seeking out counseling, long waitlists to see a counselor, and confusion about what their graduate student insurance would pay for.

I know that these are all real barriers to seeking care.

I don’t make a lot of promises on this site. Like any good teacher, I offer suggestions, complications, and, hopefully, new ways of saying.

Let me break with that pattern now and make you a promise, a guarantee if you will:

The time you invest in setting up regular mental health care Will. Pay. Dividends.

I thanked my own therapist and psychiatrist in the acknowledgements section of my dissertation with the following

Jen Walsh, in terms of sheer hours spent, has probably spent more time on this dissertation than anyone else. She has kept me sane and kept me whole and kept me going. She has my deepest thanks. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Troy for listening, for understanding, for naming my anxiety disorder. You can’t treat what you don’t name and this process would have been so much more painful without her gracious help.

I won’t say that I couldn’t have completed my dissertation without the help of my mental health team but I know that without them it would have been a much longer, much more painful process.

Beyond that, I think my excellent mental health team helped me transition from academic life to post-academic life.

I’m passionate about graduate students taking care of their mental health. I could talk about it for weeks and we have a series coming up on it later this year. For now, let me just remind you of the most important thing: Your research doesn’t exist without you. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your project.

One resource I’ve heard good things about is 7 Cups which offers trained listeners for free and online therapy for under $40 a week.

Later in the week we’ll be talking about other actions you can take to help yourself and your career when faced with an abusive or negligent advisor.

 

The Absent-Minded Abuser

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader, I was, indeed, talking about X.

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

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

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

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

What does the academic bumbler look like?

Well, let me tell you about mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were, of course, other incidents.

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

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

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

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

Dealing with a bumbler can be incredibly difficult.

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

The Bumbler is . . . different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Another 5 Signs of an Abusive Advisor

This mini-series is an adaptation of 15 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo. You can also see the previous entries in this series here and here.

11. Picking Fights. One of the most important things to know about abusers is that all abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.

Read that again.

All abusers are bullies and all bullies are cowards.

Bullies never, ever pick on someone they think might be able to fight back in any way. This is why isolation and shame are so critical to the cycle of abuse. If you aren’t isolated and/or ashamed then you might have the ability to stand up for yourself or have someone else stand up for you.

One of the ways that abusers find their victims is by picking fights. They start small. For instance, let’s say you miss a deadline you set with your advisor to turn in a chapter draft. A normal advisor will respond to this, even if they’re annoyed by it, with something like, “Thanks for your draft. Since it’s a little late I may be delayed in getting you revisions. I’ll aim to have revisions to you by [DATE].” Another normal response might be along the lines of, “I’ve noticed your last few drafts have been a little late. Would it be helpful to push out our future deadlines by a week or two to give you more time?” Or, “Would it be helpful to meet and talk about writing process?”

An abusive response is along the lines of, “If you can’t meet the deadlines you set for your chapters you should really think about whether or not you belong in this profession.” An abusive response is, “I don’t know if I can work with someone who can’t meet their deadlines.”

In the normal response your advisor notices that you are struggling with deadlines and offers to find a way to help. This is part of the professionalization process. In contrast, the abusive advisor belittles you in ways that threaten your livelihood (by raising the specter of you being kicked out of graduate school) and focuses on punishing you rather than helping you.

The point of these fights, from the abuser’s point of view, is to see how much you will take. The tests themselves don’t make sense. In the example above, the abusive response is not only out of line in terms of normal boss-employee relationship but particularly out of line in an academic context. Academics are late all the time. We tend to be terrible with deadlines. Academic deadlines are commonly understood by academic professionals to be aspirational. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but, generally, if you miss a deadline with your advisor there’s a strong chance they will be so busy missing their own deadlines with publishers, editors, etcetera, that they won’t even notice.

The only way to deal with this behavior from your advisor is to stand up for yourself. For instance, let’s say you get one of the abusive responses above. An appropriate response would be something like, “I understand your frustration and apologize for my tardiness with this draft. I look forward to your feedback.” Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it saved.

If you think your advisor might be showing some early signs of abusive behavior try and get as much info as you can in writing and Save. Everything. Save it in your email, save it on a flash drive, save it on your hard drive. Just save it.

12. Violence of any kind. This one is, in my observation, more rare in academic circles, but the advice is pretty simple. If your advisor is violent in any way–if they physically intimidate you, throw things during your meetings, rip up drafts, or do anything that makes you feel physically unsafe you need to leave as soon and as quickly as possible.

13. Criticism. From the Huffington Post article cited above, “Abusers tend to be messy perfectionists. They want the world and everyone around them to be perfect, but their own minds are a mess . . . They want to talk about what everyone else is doing wrong.”

Sooooooooooo . . . That’s kind of the definition of most academics and academic work . . .

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Because really, truly, the whole damn system is abusive.

So, how do you know if you’re advisor’s criticism is what passes for normal in the academic system or has crossed a line?

The first clue is how the criticism makes you feel. If you feel worthless after receiving criticism from your advisor then that may be a sign that their feedback has crossed a line. A lot of academics I know, particularly first-generation PhDs, women, and people of color tend to assume that if the feedback they are receiving makes them feel bad it’s because they need to “toughen up.” It’s some internalized boot-strap shit, of which I am the reigning queen.

Let me just say this: If you are a woman, a person of color, a first generation PhD, disabled/chronically ill, or some combination of the above your very presence in a PhD program is proof that you are tough as diamonds and strong as titanium. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. You’ve overcome obstacles most people don’t ever even see. You’ve torn yourself in two to fit in with “academic expectations” and your community of origin. You aren’t easily intimidated or overwhelmed so if your advisor makes you feel bad it’s a good sign that they’re trying to.

If you need more proof that your advisor’s criticism has veered from helpful to hurtful check in with what they’re criticizing. Are they criticizing the argument, the project, or the person? The function of an advisor is to critique your argument. This might mean questioning your sources, your theoretical feedback, your analyses, the organization–anything about the argument itself. The purpose of this critique is supposed to be to challenge you and make your argument better. This is good critique.

If your advisor is criticizing your project you might have a problem. If you are already ABD and your advisor decides *now* to have a big issue with your project then something is wrong. Being ABD means that you’ve been through your prelims and prospectus. If your advisor had a major criticism of the project itself it should have come up sometime during this process. To be fair to both sides, I know some people who have some bananas projects. I know one person who is working on a dissertation about comic books and their big, controversial claim is that classic US comic characters and story arcs are heavily influenced by the Jewish-immigrant experience. Which, yes? Comic book authors and industry experts have talked about this. It’s not exactly a hot-take. HOWEVER, even though the project might not be the most innovative, this person’s committee signed off on it by passing his prospectus. At this point, any suggested major overhauls of the project are out of bounds because they signed off on the project as is. All of that said, criticism of your project at this stage could just mean that your advisor is oblivious rather than malicious.

The real tell is if your advisor criticizes you. If your advisor ever makes you feel stupid or like you don’t belong in your program than their critique has crossed the line into abuse.

This is often a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of situation. A lot of times, we make the mistake of thinking that something has to be big and dramatic like someone screaming at you that you don’t belong in the program. Often, it’s more subtle than that with comments like, “If you’re not aware of the literature maybe you should think about switching to another program,” in cases were you are demonstrably aware of the literature. Other examples might be things like, “There are a lot of people who want to be in this program and would be happy to meet their deadlines” or “Are you sure you’re cut out for this kind of work.”

14. Comments About Exes. Substitute “exes” here with “former advisees.” If your advisor trash talks former advisees to you then something is wrong. Even if they didn’t have the best relationship an advisor should never trash talk a former advisee to current advisees. As instructors and faculty we all complain about our students sometimes to our colleagues. It’s part of what helps us troubleshoot problems and stay sane, but we don’t complain about our students to our other students.

Hearing an ex use derogatory terms about their former partners is troubling. As the article on intimate partner violence referenced above says, “Assume that whatever he says about her will one day be said about you.” In a romantic relationship this is troubling. In an academic relationship this is a huge red flag. Theoretically, in a romantic relationship both partners are equal. You have, literally, thousands of people to choose to be in a romantic relationship with and there isn’t a huge power difference between you. If a romantic partner talks shit about their exes and describes them in derogatory terms that’s a sign that they might have, at best, a skewed perspective and, at worst, be abusive and trying to control the narrative of their past relationships.

In an advisor-advisee relationship there are, maybe, maybe a few dozen people you can work with which is just one part of the vast power differences between advisors and advisees. When an ex-romantic partner talks shit about you it can devastate your own self-perception and social group. When an advisor talks shit about you as a former student it can devastate your whole world for a long time. Graduate school is so insular and isolating in its own right. Often your friends and social network are other graduate students. Your future career in academics depends, in large part, on whether or not your advisor is willing to right you a good recommendation. I think this problem is particularly acute for grad students in the humanities because transitioning your career from academics to industry is seen as a less viable option than it is in the sciences or social sciences. This is why, if you see or hear an advisor defaming their former advisee you should be very wary and take whatever steps you can to protect yourself and your reputation.

15. Superiority. Okay, this is another one that’s kind of baked into the structure of academia. The whole idea of this medieval apprentice-ship model is that full professors are better than associate professors which are better than assistants which are better than non-tenure track which are better than graduate students. So, yeah. I really can’t say this enough: The whole damn system is abusive.

As much as I critique the system, though, I have to admit that I sort of love it too. I really, really wanted a PhD. I loved the opportunity to teach and research and write. I love my topic and my dissertation. While I have criticisms of the existing structure those criticisms make me deeply ambivalent about, rather than all out against, academia. I’d like to believe in a future of academia that more closely aligns with the life of the mind so many of us thought it would be when we got started which is, really, the impetus for this series. We can’t change the abusive structures if we don’t recognize and name them.

In an ideal world, PhD advisors would be people who had more perspective than you because they have been in the profession longer and have had more opportunities to fail and recover. All of my healthiest interactions in academia were with people who had this attitude. In contrast, an advisor who believes they are inherently smarter or better than you because they are tenured or because they just *are* is a huge problem. Unfortunately, academia as it currently exists tends to attract a lot of these people because they see it as a space where they can expand on their own greatness ad nauseum and, too often, they are right. I don’t know if there are any studies to back this up but, based on my personal experience, I believe that academia disproportionately attracts narcissists the same way CEOs are disproportionately made up of people with dark triad traits.

Dear Friends, now you have a few warning signs to help you spot potentially abusive advisors. In the next few posts we’re going to focus on what  you can do to help yourself if you’ve recognized a few of these signs in your PhD advisor, program head, department chair or other figure who has a lot of control over your life as a PhD student.

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.

 

 

You’re Not Supposed to be Miserable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Toxic Advisors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The points are as follows:

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

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

 

Mentor, Sponsor, Fan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never fear!

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

So, just what are these types of support?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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