It’s Not About You

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.

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It’s Not About You — 19 Comments

  1. Sorry, but I don’t fully agree – the praise can very much be about the student!
    I recently had a very capable PhD student (best of all that I advised so far) with extremelly low confidence in their abilities and a perfectionist personality. This person just graduated (thesis with no corrections – which almost never happens) and has two papers in highest impact journals in my field from the thesis. But the only way to get to this point were three years of continuously saying “you’re doing great work, you’ve nothing to worry about, wonderful work, go ahead and do submit the paper now” (which was all sincere and realistic, as shown externally by their publication success). Anything less than this, and the perfectionist personality would never allow the student to actually do something about the work. It’s ironic, because this was the student most capable for research that I’ve encountered, but also with the lowest esteem. So in certain cases the praise can be purely about the student and not about the advisor being nice or neglectful or otherwise.

    • Agree (full disclosure… Dr. Aragon is a personal friend of mine – we both teach at universities across the water from each other, in British Columbia). But beyond the friendship, she is an extremely bright scholar with a passion for mentorship.

  2. Yeaaaaahhhh… So a prospective advisor of mine might be this “nice advisor” guy… At first, I really appreciated his laid back, “everything’s a continuing conversation” approach to my independent study, but reading this series has me wondering what that’s all about.

    He *has* given me a couple excellent suggestions on this pre-dissertation life, so I really appreciate that. He’s also new to this school’s faculty, so there’s the “I’m seeking tenure” factor, too. I dunno what to think… I’ll see how things play out when I finally get my term paper to him.

    I wish I’d known about all this stuff before applying. I thought I had a good understanding, but clearly I didn’t.

    • IMHO avoid avoid avoid the “everything’s a continuing conversation” type. I had a well respected charming super smart nice-person advisor like that who was just *no strategic use* and I wasted my first 3 years in a fog. I had no understanding how the situation worked until I traded in for a ball-breaking spirit-crushing advisor who actually told me the truth and busted my ass. And I was a lot better off (and finished the diss and found a job). Don’t wait til the term paper is handed in.

    • I’d just suggest that you are very careful when you work with an adviser pre-tenure. If at all possible, talk to someone that this adviser is currently advising. I got burned by having an adviser who’s advising style didn’t really fit my academic needs. Plus, I felt that every time I met with him it meant that I had just wasted a week (by working on the thing that he suggested I do a week ago).

      Before you jump into the waters with this “everything is a continuing conversation” you need to ask yourself if that fits your learning and working style.

      On the plus side, someone who is pre-tenure probably doesn’t have many advisees, so he/she has the ability to work more closely with you. And if “everything is a continuing conversation” it is likely that this adviser has an open door policy so that you may continue that conversation.

  3. I think I was just talking to you about this via email- I KNOW I have the “pat me on the head so he can move on with his own work” advisor. I didn’t magically become brilliant when I switched schools… and I can tell when I get external feedback.

    On the other hand, I know I am the most anxious, uptight student most advisors have ever had. I feel like I have to be.

  4. I have a nice advisor who many students are afraid of because they think he is way too smart and demanding. He is brilliant and he is demanding but in good way. He expects lots of good work. Recently he gave me very positive feedback on my early stage diss. which I took with a grain of salt. Why? Because he expects me to monitor myself as to quality- to be able to critique my own work. However, if the positive feedback continues, I will be blunt and say, ” Ok, give it to me straight.” I will demand honesty. I can’t afford a lousy dissertation and I am going to be as demanding on him as he is on overall student performance. I think that this is a two way street. You have to want honesty and be self-critical. Make them do their jobs.

  5. My former PhD advisor was incredibly tough on us in private, and while he offered praise, he was extremely rigorous and sometimes would be able to make us feel as though we should be in tears. But once we polished the argument, refined it and presented it in seminars, our performance was incredible. And people sometimes thought he was easy on us. NOT AT ALL. He had already asked us all the tough questions in private, engaged with the argument, helped us polish it AND THEN let us out loose for our work to be challenged. But this way, we avoided being publicly eviscerated. And we were ready for even more challenges. He was an incredibly nice man (still is), but he was never easy on us. And I really appreciate him and his feedback for this reason.

    Thanks for this post, Karen.

  6. IMHO, the relationship – or lack thereof – between an academic advisor and his or her advisee is the single most important contributing factor to the success of the latter. An excellent advisor can help a student soar, a lousy one can and will sink an aspiring academic.

    When I started graduate school I was paired up with a big shot in my field, a name anyone who works in the humanities and social sciences would instantly recognize. I remember the first meeting well: me, nervous, shy, eager to make a good first impression. He: aloof, bored, fidgety (I can still hear the squeaky sound of his office chair – him leaning back all the way, with his arms folded behind his head).

    My gut instinct was: this isn’t going to work out. This is a mistake. We have nothing in common. What I should have done is to instantly walk over to the office of the grad. student advisor and fill out a “change of advisor” form. It would have been a simple and painless process.

    What did I do? Nothing. And it all went downhill from there, just like in a bad film noir in which the hero makes a terrible mistake that costs him his life in the end (think Bill Holden in Sunset Boulevard).

    I never had any kind of conservation with my advisor that wasn’t strained, forced, and labored. I think we had about 3 or 4 face to face conservations over the course of my graduate career, most of those in regards to some kind of bureaucratic matter. The rest of the time we communicated via extremely akward email exchanges or via letters he sent me full of exhortations.

    He never ever made me part of a network of scholars, never introduced me to anyone, never networked on my behalf. One time he invited a scholar to campus, even more famous, to give a talk. After the presentation, me and another of his advisees walked down to the podium, hoping to be introduced. (I know, how dare we! Shocking! Grad students who want to meet a major player in the field. What is this world coming to!). Akwardly, we “hung around” for what seemed like an eternity, only to have the advisor wave his towards in our general direction and say something like: “Well, here are two of my students.” He then turned around, and the two of them walked away.

    I’ve won all the major fellowships in my field. My department nominated me three times for a university fellowship. I won it once and was first runner up twice. I won a major prize, won a prestigious dissertation fellowship. I can’t remember him congratulating me once.

    Needless to say, I received almost no feedback on my dissertation, other than the most perfunctory and mostly unhelpful advice.

    So, because he constantly chipped away at my confidence and self-esteem, I had nothing left of either at the end of my graduate program.

    Most importantly, by not working with me, offering me research, co-publishing, and networking-opportunities, he didn’t help me build up intellectual capital.

    Again, had I jumped ship the very first day, this wouldn’t have happened.

    To summarize:

    My advice to grad students: trust your gut feeling. Then, if necessary, get another advisor.
    A good advisor will:

    1) Give timely and detailed feedback on your work.
    2) Will network on your behalf.
    3) Will – if possible – hire you as a research assistant.
    4) Will offer to co-publish.

  7. Could we get the follow up post on hypercritical, erratic advisers? I am dealing with one who–after three years of signing off on drafts with very few requests for revision–is now telling me that my work is barely passable three months from the date of my defense. She assures me that while the quality of individual chapters is high, the thesis lacks coherence… Any advice on how to deal with someone like this?

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  9. Well this was a very insightful read, and I hope that when I choose an advisor he or she will be brutally honest. Confessionally… I did ask an instructor to be my advisor today after class ( I participated in discussion and received great feedback from the professor), but she said, after hearing me spout out ideas for my prospectus, “Well, that sounds great! I would love to be your second reader. And we can find another time to talk about it ( my research question/ topic) at a later time”. I am so confused…Is there like an unwritten etiquette that I need to be aware of? I desperately need an advisor, and I don’t want to come across as needy, unprepared and pushy to the next prof I ask to be my advisor. Any tips.
    Background: English MA with a composition emphasis
    Location: Sacramento California

  10. My adviser was a “nice” adviser and my committee tried to warn me several times about the perils of it, but I was too dense to see how serious it was (after all I’m so PRIVEDGED to even BE here in the first place). I had to seek out criticism from others and adopt other mentors to vet my naive ideas. I still work with this person, everything is always great and I rarely get more than copy-editing as feedback. Thanks for this advise, as someone who now mentors students, I a aware now that “this isn’t about me.”

  11. I really enjoyed reading this article. There were two people in my department that I was trying to decide on for my committee chair. One had very similar thinking to me (linear) and the other professor approached things from a very different perspective (honestly I don’t know what to describe it as). I made the decision to choose the professor who does not think like me. She is my committee chair and pushes me to think about and view things from a totally different perspective. This has given me a lot of stress, but also provided another level of understanding that I wouldn’t have had if I had chosen someone more similar to me. When I asked her to be my chair, she was very straightforward that she would be very tough on me and that I could find other people at the school who would be easier on me. She has certainly been tough, but again she is making my dissertation all that much better for it.
    Also, she very seldom gives any praise. I can count on one hand the times in the past three years she has complemented my work. What makes a difference is that when she compliments me, I KNOW she means it.

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  14. I don’t agree with any of this nonsense. In order to work in academia one needs to be politically savvy. As for the students whether undergraduate or graduate they are the pawns. I have a doctorate from an Ivy league school and I’ve worked in both Ivy leagues and non-Ivy leagues. The non-Ivy leagues have a tendency to be worse because most the professors still feel the need to prove something. So, wake up! This article is silly!

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