How To Fire a Professor

Today’s post is a Special Request post. This one is for Jenn, who asks, “how do you replace one professor with another on your committee?”

This is a delicate matter, as I’m sure Jenn is aware. There are all kinds of reasons that committee members end up needing to be replaced, not all of them bad. But it is always delicate because there are professorial egos involved. And where professorial egos are involved, nothing is easy or painless.

In my own case, I decided to “switch out” a committee member between my MA committee and my doctoral committee at the same institution. I actually really liked committee member #1, we had a good relationship, and he’d been helpful. But I was moving in new directions, and I realized that for my external member I needed someone versed in postcolonial studies and post-marxist theory far more than I needed a second Japan-focused social scientist.

So I left him a jaunty little message on his answering machine, basically “firing” him from my committee. Of course I didn’t intend it that way. I explained my reasons, which were entirely scholarly, and indeed sound, and assumed that he’d understand them.

Well, he didn’t. He was furious. He was offended. His feelings were hurt. And he refused to  engage with me any further in my academic career.

Now, this was a juvenile and unprofessional response on his part. But for my part, I had totally failed to anticipate his feelings.

Indeed, until that moment it had actually never occurred to me that professors have feelings. Feelings, that is, about graduate students. I thought they mostly viewed us as burdens, and would welcome the opportunity to jettison one. I had absolutely no idea that in fact they might feel intellectually invested in one of us, and feel intellectually insulted if dropped.

Chalk that up to youthful ignorance.

In any case, I did learn my lesson. I was very sorry to have hurt the feelings of this man, who had only done right by me. And I made sure that in the future, I took far better care to try and anticipate the feelings of the committee members who had invested their time and energy in me, and later, in my students.

I have advised quite a few students in ways to negotiate this mine field.

While there is no one method of doing this that fits every personality and set of circumstances, the best way to proceed is probably a combination of email and personal meeting, for both the departing (fired) member #1, and the new (recruited) member #2.

To remove Professor #1, your initial email should read something like this:

Dear Professor #1,

First off, I want to thank you for serving on my thesis/dissertation committee. I have appreciated your efforts to improve my writing/scholarship/etc., your good advice, and your generosity with your time.

I am writing today because I’ve been making plans for the next stage in my work on the thesis/dissertation project, and I’ve been rethinking some of the intellectual directions I hope to take. In that context, I have realized I may need to reorganize my committee.

I am hoping that we can meet sometime in the next few days to discuss this in person. Would you have any time to meet with me? I’d appreciate it.

Thank you,

Jenn

Once you meet in person, it is probably best to conduct the conversation something like this:

I want to thank you again for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been a great mentor and supporter, and I really appreciate how generous you have been in introducing me to new scholarship on xxx/editing my writing/discussing my ideas/etc.

The thing is… I’ve actually had a pretty big change of heart/direction in my research in the last few weeks/months. Instead of focusing on XXX, I am more and more interested in YYYYY. But I don’t know a whole lot about YYYY, so I’ve been working closely with Professor Q. It’s going really well, but I realized that I need to reconstitute my committee, to include Professor Q.

So… I’m really sorry, but that means I am going to have to replace you on the committee, and put Professor Q in that slot.  This is no reflection at all on my respect for your work—it’s just a reflection of the new directions that my work is moving in.  I hope you can understand.

Really? Thanks for understanding. I really appreciate that. I just want you to know that you’ve made a big difference in my studies. If it’s ok with you, I’d still like to stop by now and again and let you know what I’m up to.

Great. Thanks.”

All of this is pretty effusive in expressing appreciation and gratitude. I recommend that you operate along these lines even in the cases where you feel few of such feelings, such as when Professor #1 was a total asshole. You want to at all times preserve an aura of professionalism and probity in your dealings with faculty. As long as you couch this decision in entirely academic terms, it is difficult for Professor #1, or your other committee members, or the Department Head to take issue with it.

OK, now on to Professor #2.

The most important thing here, when communicating with Professor #2, is never, ever to criticize Professor #1. You do not want to give the impression of being a malcontent, or difficult to deal with. You must restrict your initial exchanges with Professor #2 entirely to intellectual and academic justifications. Much later, when you know Professor #2 better, and have established a relationship of trust, you might be able to express some other factors that came into play. But for now, at the beginning, again, stick closely to the academic script.

Your initial email will read something like this:

Dear Professor Q,

I hope your semester is off to a good start. I have been enjoying your class, xxx, and learning a lot.

I’m actually writing to ask if I might be able to meet with you in the next few days. As you know, I’ve been working with my committee on my thesis/dissertation project on XXXX. Since working with you, I’ve become more and more interested in moving this project in the direction of YYYY. You have opened my eyes to some fascinating scholarship that I didn’t know about, and now that I know it, I’ve really reconceptualized my entire project. It’s very exciting.

Because of that, though, I will be reconstituting my committee a bit to reflect this new direction. I would like to meet with you in person, as I said, to talk about my new committee.

Sincerely,

Jenn

Once you meet, you can simply express your excitement for the new direction of your project, and your eagerness to work more closely with Professor Q.

Because of all of this, I was really hoping that you would be willing to serve on my thesis/dissertation committee. My timeline is to take my preliminary exams next spring, and I hope that one of them could be with you on the subject of YYY. After that, I plan to get out my funding proposals in the Fall, do coursework and finish up my dissertation proposal in Spring, and leave for fieldwork the following Fall. I’m hoping that schedule is compatible with your plans for being on campus.

You’re going to be on leave in Spring? Well, would you be open to doing my proposal defense by Skype or conference call? I know that other students have done that with no problem.

Really? Great. I’m so glad. Thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to getting into this area in more detail with you. For now, if you have any readings you want me to start on right away, let me know.”

The power of this approach to Professor Q is that it expresses genuine enthusiasm for his area of specialization. It is also highly respectful of his time. And it shows consideration for his schedule. Few, very few, professors will be able to say no to a request like this.

I realize that not all communications with faculty will go this smoothly, and that sometimes professors are just plain difficult and unreasonable. But in general, if you can refrain from personalizing conflict, and stay at the level of academic pursuits, your efforts to navigate the minefield of reconstituting your committee has a fighting chance of ending well, with your reputation intact.

Good luck!

 

 

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions–University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I’ve created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don’t.


Comments

How To Fire a Professor — 5 Comments

  1. I’m new. I agree with many points you’ve made here. Most of all, it’s the grad student’s choice whether to keep working with any advisor, which I wish people would remember.

    Grad programs use a range of models though. If it’s a “welcome to graduate school we hope you find an advisor” program (often in English or History), I think your advice fits. If it’s a program organized in labs or a mentor-based program (often in Bio or Chemistry) usually the prof invests… more than profs invest from other models… to train new grad students, find them money, teach how to publish, introduce to visiting scholars, etc etc. When a grad student leaves a lab it is still the grad student’s right, but in that kind of program it costs the prof more. It raises questions. Further, it has repercussions on the new arrivals in the lab who need help from senior grad students except now the senior grad student is gone.

    I’d advise a grad student who considers leaving a lab to remember it is their freedom and also to think how they can make things easier on the prof and other lab members. In my experience there are usually multiple lab members who invest resources in each student.

    • This is a very valuable perspective, from the sciences. Thanks for sharing it, Since. The sciences are often quite different in their advising models in many, many respects.

  2. Or you could do the Tower of Hanoi strategy. Many universities will allow you to have 4 member committees. So:

    a) Add Prof. #4 to Committee #1, #2, #3, and #4
    and then after a year or two of working closely with #4, ask #1 if it’s OK if #4 takes the lead as you’ve been working with them very closely.
    b) Committee is then #4, #1, #2, and #3
    c) After a few years, drop #1.

    It takes longer but is less liable to cause friction. This of course assumes that #1 and #4 actually get along, which is a HUGE assumption.

    (The Other Prof) Karen

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