On Twitter today I got pinged on a discussion among @ArchaeologyLisa, @DrIsis, @LexMcBride about how much publishing is necessary for the tenure track job market. The discussion was prompted by today’s post on the Isis the Scientist blog, Writing At Much Less Than the Speed of Light. In the post, Dr. Isis describes a shocking encounter in graduate school when a mentor informed her that because she had no first author publications, she was seen as unproductive, and not a competitive contender for grants.
“I was stunned and replied ‘But, I’ve done X, Y, and Z.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘But you can’t prove it and your peers haven’t reviewed and accepted it.’”
She goes on to relate the importance of this exchange in her eventual development as a scholar:
“I am so thankful to the mentor who initially pointed out that, for as great as I thought I was, people around me saw me as non-productive. It was hard to hear, and many of our interactions ended with tears, but it gave me the push that I needed to right my ship before it sank. There seems to be a critical period where you can’t really recover from the label of “non-productive” and I was, luckily, saved from it by some painfully honest advice.”
This is perfect illustration of my thesis in this blog post I’m reposting today – The 5 Top Traits Of the Worst Advisors – that the very worst advisor is the nice advisor. Nice serves nobody in the academic career at this point in time. I write below, “If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.” Many have taken exception to this advice, but I stand by it entirely, for the reasons that Dr. Isis explains so clearly. The stakes are unbelievably high in a market this awful. An effective advisor will sometimes need to shake you out of lingering complacency, passivity, or delusion. Ongoing abuse this is not (that must be rejected)–it’s targeted challenge to any comfortable but self-defeating habits of mind.
Never, ever believe an advisor who tells you it’s fine to “just focus on your dissertation” and “leave publishing to later.” Dr. Isis explains:
“I am now watching the careers of a couple of young people around me capsize and fall to the bottom of the ocean because people were too nice. It’s painful, but it was preventable. No one made it exceptionally clear to these folks that not publishing *now* was going to permanently label them and hurt their chances for future success.”
And on the question of how many first author, peer reviewed publications you need: well, that is field specific and can’t be answered definitively, except to say this- you must have at least one, and preferably more. They are the evidence that you are a productive scholar, an original thinker, an active member of your scholarly community, and finally a person who can produce the kind of work necessary for your eventual tenure case. To go out on the market without at least one is madness.
Dr. Isis reflects on the evolution of her thinking about this question:
“When I started [my blog] I was of the belief that, if a student’s thesis was done and they had a viable job prospect, good ’nuff. Let them graduate. My thinking has completely changed since then. It is the most profound of disservices to let a student graduate without a first author publication. They may be eager to graduate and move on, but it’s like putting them in a boat with no sails and no paddles.”
The 5 Top Traits of the Worst Advisors
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 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 an 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 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 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…no one 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. Not because you need to be mean, but because you need to be fierce.
P.S. Bonus Worst Advisor: The Greybeard/Curmudgeon/Emeritus: Never, ever have an emeritus as your advisor. Emeritii are old. They made their reputations in decades past. They made have been highly successul 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 most likely 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.