Today The Professor continues her mobilization of low brow pop culture references in the service of the scholarly career by bringing to your attention the sentiment, “It’s Not About You.”
This is actually another installment in the “Nice Advisor/Worst Advisor” post series. In its last installment, I told advisors to stop being nice. In its first installment, I told graduate students to fear and dread (and avoid) the nice advisor.
But the fact is, niceness (however that is defined—caring, altruism, generosity of spirit) is rarely the true motivator behind any advising that revolves around the message, “You’re great! You’re doing fine! Your ideas are brilliant! You have nothing to worry about!”
I called it nice because it generally comes across as nice to the unsuspecting student. And there are “nice advisors” who have the best advising intentions but struggle to effectively express those in an assertive and clear way.
But more typically, this level of praise is entirely self-serving on the part of the advisor.
The advisors who tell graduate students that they’re great, brilliant, and above reproach are not talking to the students at all.
They’re talking to themselves.
Grad students: it’s not about you.
It’s not about you in two distinct ways.
The first way it’s not about you is that it’s about the advisor’s priorities and work ethic. Sending an advisee on his or her way with a pat on the head and an “’atta boy!” takes 5 minutes. Sitting down with the chapter for an intensive read and a substantial organizational critique (not copy-editing, mind you, but scholarly engagement with the argument) takes an hour or more. Add in the follow-through of reading the revised draft, and you have a couple of hours dedicated to just the one chapter.
In short, it is exponentially easier and less work for the advisor to tell you you’re doing well than it is for him or her to tell you that you need help, and then provide that help.
The second way it’s not about you is that some advisors want desperately to believe that they themselves are great, brilliant, and above reproach. The best evidence of that is that their grad students are great, brilliant, and above reproach. Surely someone brilliant has brilliant students. Ergo, you (my student) are brilliant.
A floundering graduate student suggests, among other things, an ineffective advisor. A frightened graduate student suggests, among other things, an advisor of limited sway and influence in the field.
Confronting the floundering and fearful graduate student in an accountable and responsible way requires the advisor to acknowledge his or her own limitations—that perhaps his famous theory seminar wasn’t completely effective; that her advice on the dissertation topic was perhaps ill-considered; that inspiration doesn’t emanate from his every pore; that her judgment about admitting this student at all was perhaps faulty; that his reputation is not so illustrious as to guarantee, in this day and age, jobs for every disciple.
These are things that some advisors would prefer not to admit. And the quickest shortcut to not admitting them is to believe—even against all evidence—that their graduate students are uniformly brilliant and successful.
Self-interest and self-delusion are powerful forces. You, grad student, are not anywhere near important or influential enough (well, nobody really is) to make an intervention in them, if they are your advisor’s motivating impulses.
What can you do? Understand that the words “you’re great; you have nothing to worry about” are not about you. Take them as a clear sign that you must find other, reliable mentors. Make the effort to subject your work to intensive and reliable critique wherever you can find it.
You probably, if you’re reading this blog, are already in way too deep to be able to bail on the advisor without causing major political damage to your reputation or standing in the department. If that’s not the case, change advisors. But if it is, then play along, be gracious, appear to accept the compliments, then go away and work like hell to find the dedicated and invested mentors you need to produce a reputable dissertation, significant publications, successful grant applications, and a wide network of readers outside of your advisor.
You can take confidence in the likelihood that your advisor’s letter will probably be glowing.
You will be fine, as long as you are not in turn deluded about your own abilities and chances on the market. As hard as it is to reject unstinting praise, for your own sake, student, just remember: it’s not about you.*
*Of course this applies equally to unstinting criticism, but there the motivations and outcomes are different, because the advisor in that case becomes an antagonist and obstacle to finishing. That will be the subject of another blog post.