(Monday Post Category: Getting You Into and Out of Graduate School; Sub-category: Advisor Drama)
Those of you who have cruised around The Professor Is In. site are already familiar with some of my personal story of graduate school and the tenure track. Those who haven’t–check out the page, Why Should You Trust Me?
I had a fairly rocky road into graduate school. I had won the prestigious, and completely portable, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and had been recruited with a fabulously generous package of supplemental funding by Cornell. I was on the path to finish graduate school with a nest egg!
Then I traveled to a major national conference to have a personal meeting with my soon-to-be Cornell anthropology advisor….. and he behaved like a complete toad.
He was rude. He was dismissive. He sneered at my proposed topic (the one that had won the 6 years of full funding!)—an innovative (for the time–it was the late 80s) study of the impact of Japanese corporate culture on Southeast Asian workers in Japanese factories opening in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. He kept looking over my shoulder to find other, more important people to talk to.
I was stunned, shocked, dismayed, heartbroken. I didn’t understand what was going on. I cried. Slunk back to my hotel room. Raged to friends. A week or so later, recovering some of my equilibrium, I called up the department to complain. Come to find out, the department and the Graduate College at Cornell had happily recruited me as a NSF awardee— without first gaining the agreement of the one faculty member–the lone Japan anthropologist– who would have to be my primary advisor. Are you kidding me?
But never one to linger in uncertainty, I made a quick decision, said to myself, “to hell with you stupid Ivy Leagues, I never liked you anyway…” and I took myself to the University of Hawai’i, to work with a very well known anthropologist there.
Things worked out sort of ok with her… and then, not. It’s a story for another post. Suffice to say, for most of the years I worked with her, she was good enough.
But over the years I learned a lot about what makes advisors good, bad, excellent, and terrible. Not just from her, but from watching my friends in the program and their struggles with their advisors, and then coming to advise students myself, and watching my students’ experiences with me (!), and observing, and sometimes talking to, the students of my faculty colleagues in my various departments.
So, here it is: the Top 5 Traits of the Worst Advisors. If you are still considering graduate school—test for these before you commit yourself to an advisor or a program! If you are already in graduate school, and you recognize your advisor in this list—see if you can switch out. If not, work to protect yourself. And if you are in graduate school and your advisor has none of these traits—you’ve won the advisor lottery, appreciate your good fortune (and good judgment) and prepare to pay it forward with your own students later.
The Top 5 Traits of the Worst Advisors
5. Steals your work.
This doesn’t happen too often. But when it does, it means you have the very worst advisor. This is a toxic advisor, and you need to get out immediately. Talk to your department head, and the Graduate Dean.
4. Is schizophrenic, in the colloquial sense. Ie, crazy-making inconsistent.
This advisor insists on one path of action one week, and the next week, insists on its perfect opposite. One meeting they tear apart your diss chapter with, “too much poststructuralist feminist theory!!! It’s completely unnecessary to your argument!” You make the revisions, send in the new version, and the next meeting, she’s all like, “where’s your poststructuralist feminist theory??? How can you possibly write this chapter without it?”
Don’t shoot yourself in the head. Just follow up every meeting with a clear, short email that summarizes what she said. Then include that email when you submit the next set of revisions, and be ready to whip it out if you find the advisor contradicting it some time later.
3. Is abusive, negative and undermining.
This is sadly common. This is the advisor that can’t manage a positive comment. Avoid these advisors if you can, but it’s possible you can’t. If you’re already over-committed to one, surround yourself with other, positive, mentors. Remember that with all negative, undermining people, they are actually talking to and about themselves, and not anyone else.
Ironically, the best path with an advisor like this is to stand up for yourself. Bow and scrape and apologize and trust me, the abuse will intensify. I know this one from experience. Set firm boundaries and stand up for your ideas… and chances are, he’ll back off.
2. Is never around.
The more famous your advisor is, the more likely he is always jetting off to Amsterdam, South Africa, or Singapore for some high powered conference or symposium or keynote address. This is also a risk if you have an assistant professor advisor in about his 4th or 5th year in the department. Always away giving the next big talk.
Get self-sufficient fast, find mentors on campus who are more available, and schedule meetings with your advisor well in advance. This one, you can work around. Email, Google Docs, Skype…noone really needs to be anywhere these days.
1. Is nice, and friendly, and available.
And never gives you the fierce criticism and the tough pushback that forces you to confront your weaknesses, take risks, stop whining, cut the excuses, get over your fears, and make hard decisions about reputation, money, and jobs.
This advisor has been the downfall of countless graduate students. Too wussy to go after the big guns, these students circle around the nice associate professor ladies (and the occasional man) in the department, the ones who remember their birthdays and sometimes bring in homemade bread.
If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.
Do not attach yourself to someone “nice.” Attach yourself to someone “intense.” They might not be all warm and fuzzy, but they’ll have you prepped to deal with the REAL assholes who are always circling out there, waiting to pounce.
Nice loses in academia. Nice always loses.
P.S. Bonus Worst Advisor: The Greybeard/Curmudgeon/Emeritus. Never, ever, ever have an emeritus as your advisor. They are old. They made their reputation in decades past. They may have been highly successful and powerful. But that was in the past. Now they are old. Their peers are old, their connections are old, their publications are old, and their theoretical foundations are old.
You, my reader, are about the future. The Emeritus is about the past. Do NOT be seduced by their corduroy patches, and their leisurely gait, and their home-brewed beer, and the endless, endless hours they have to spare for you. Stay clear, keep a wide berth.
Don’t ever forget this rule: If you advisor seems to have infinite amounts of time to talk to you…. s/he is a bad advisor.