Pearls of Wisdom–The Blog


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“You tell the truth, you tell it well. In the crowded and fetid swamp that is the job market, that is oxygen.” – a reader

If you would like your academic career to begin in delusion and end in disillusionment, then by all means, ignore Karen Kelsky. If, however, you want unvarnished straight talk about the academic job market—and how to navigate it—then heed her, and heed her now.” —Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate.

At The Professor Is In, we have a particular commitment to supporting black women in the academy, as well as other scholars of color. This is a core company mission. If you are a member of these communities, and finances are an issue in working with us, please get in touch to discuss possible arrangements.

Healing Racial Trauma in the Academy, Part I – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color. These go up on Wednesday.

PLEASE submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration! I want to hear from you! Email me proposals or drafts at I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by Candice Nicole Hargons, PhD. Dr. Candice Nicole Hargons is an award-winning psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. She leads the RISE^2 Research Team, where they study sex and social justice with a love ethic. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Therapy for Black Girls, and Liberate Meditation. Dr. Hargons has been a leader in psychology and the community, serving on the executive boards of the Society of Counseling Psychology, American Psychological Association Council of Representatives, and the Lexington Urban League Young Professionals. She is also the founding director of the Center for Healing Racial Trauma, where they use love, liberation, equity, and creativity informed therapeutic interventions to help racially/ethnically marginalized people heal from racism. Connect with her at and


You enter the faculty club, and every portrait on the wall is of a White man.

You refrain from using your mother tongue at work to avoid possibly confirming stereotypes. 

Your colleague publicly conflates the demand for a “diversity hire” with lowering the academic standard.

And you wonder why you have a headache, why you’re taking shallow breaths, or why you’re more fatigued than normal. Racist stressors – from microaggressions to direct racial harassment, and everything in between – take a physical and mental toll. Racist stressors elicit race-based stress reactions, the involuntary, immediate responses we experience in our thoughts, emotions, and bodies. 

My research team recently completed a pilot study where we played consenting Black students a five-minute audio recording of a White woman saying disparaging things about Black people. We observed their body language, measured their heart rates, and then interviewed them about what they noticed. Three different race-based stress reactions were occurring. 

We called the first one RISING ABOVE. This was a cognitive reaction where people tried to intellectualize the racism or distance themselves from the emotions and sensations the racist stressor triggered. “You don’t want to give her the satisfaction of getting a reaction out of you.” People with this race-based stress reaction style used their academic privilege to deconstruct the White woman’s rant, “You can tell she’s just not educated on some of the things she’s speaking on.” Anybody been there? Yup, me too. In some ways the academy, among other things, socializes us to enact a rising above race-based stress reaction. It feels, and in some ways can be, protective. 

We called the second one SITTING WITH. This was an affective reaction where people identified their emotions. They felt sadness, powerlessness, and various levels of anger. Someone said, “it just really annoyed me hearing that.” Another talked about feeling surprised, “wow, people really think like this?!” Many people tried to reframe their anger into something more palatable, because they didn’t want to be the stereotypical angry Black person. One person said, “I felt enraged, but I’m more sensible than that.”

We called the third one LETTING OUT. This was a somatic reaction. People experienced these race-based stress reactions in their bodies: muscle tension, heart racing, tearfulness, and even shaking. “My blood was boiling…I could feel my heart pounding.” Another person said, “I could feel myself getting tense.” 

These latter two race-based stress reactions might feel more vulnerable, because POC receive so many sanctions for expressing normal reactions to stress that many of us learn to suppress them, stuffing it down until numbness takes over. All three of these reactions are normal. We may experience all of them, but there’s usually a predominant one. When we don’t acknowledge and cope with the reactions, they can become race-based stress symptoms. You might find yourself feeling hypervigilant – always on the lookout for the next racist stressor, because to be ready for it feels like it will prevent it from hurting so badly. You might even begin to feel fatigued or tense more often. And when these race-based stress symptoms stick with you, causing you to suffer severely, it’s racial trauma. (For a formal definition of racial trauma, see my Instagram @drcandicenicole.) 

Academia requires a lot of work when it comes to healing racial trauma. At predominantly White institutions, every POC is navigating White habitus – a space designed around the norms, values, aesthetics, and interests of White people. Depending on your stage of racial identity, you might not experience White habitus as a racist stressor, but many of us do. Added to that, you might have an administrator address you as Ms. X, when he addressed your colleagues as Dr. X. You might also receive teaching evaluations that call you intimidating. It can hit from multiple angles, and over time racial trauma can wear you out.

Universities want to know what to do, but there is no panacea. Healing racial trauma requires multifaceted, intentional, and consistent effort. It requires empathy, discomfort, and change. The best efforts invite stakeholders at all levels to actively participate in dismantling the systems that uphold racism, while sanctioning and reeducating (if possible) the individuals who have bought into and perpetuate racism and facilitating healing among POC who are targeted. In part II, I am going to provide a few strategies to get universities started in the systemic work and POC started in the self and collective healing. But for now, I end with this:

You enter the faculty club, and every portrait on the wall is of a White man. Remember that every external resource was provided through the university for those men to be there and prosper. Very few of the same resources were allocated to you, and you are there anyway. You shouldn’t have had to be as good as you are to be there, but there you are. And because you are, we are.

Ivory Tower In the Rear-View Mirror — Dr. Henry Ngo

We continue with our new column, “Ivory Towers In The Rearview Mirror,” featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

Remember, 50-90% of PhDs (depending on the field) end up in work off the tenure track. Putting traditional academia behind you IS the normative path!

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Henry Ngo.

Currently, I am doing data science work with my provincial government’s Ministry of Health. 

I got a PhD in Planetary Science from Caltech in 2017.

Before starting the PhD, I had a range of careers that I found interesting, including research and teaching in academia, government and industry, and I realized they all would benefit from the training and research skills that come with obtaining a PhD.

At the start of the PhD, choosing where my spouse and I lived was more important than what we did for our careers. So we were prepared to move a bit for postdocs but planned to eventually end up geographically where we wanted even if it meant leaving academia.

During the PhD, I learned what I really enjoyed about the work. I liked the science aspect but that wasn’t my passion. I also learned that the main product of academia is a paper and most projects are not really done until this happens, which was limiting. What I did like was using techniques and solving problems. Luckily, these skills and problems need solving everywhere, not just in academia!

I got my first postdoc in this geographic area working at a government lab! There I could see that projects have lots of different end goals and purposes. It doesn’t have to be a paper in the end. This is refreshing to me!

I eventually decided that if I was going to stay in astronomy, I wanted to work at the government lab and not at a University, mainly for the work-life balance and my desire to support great science rather than be the PI all the time. The actual workload compared to the pay and work-life balance in Canadian tenure track faculty positions are not the right fit for me at all. It isn’t worth it. Especially compared to the cost of living for most places.

However, new hires at the lab where I did my postdoc are very scarce so I also looked for positions in the same city but outside of astronomy. I found a job posting that  felt like I was reading my CV. So I applied for it, got it and turned down another term position with my postdoc employer.

If you are a PhD considering alternatives to the tenure track, you should do what is right for you! There are a lot more careers out there besides TT and the (stereo-)typical post-academic path for astro/physics PhDs (i.e. data science, finance, etc.). Do informational interviews and find out what you can be doing. Many of us went into PhD programs because we wanted to contribute to the greater good of humanity. There are a lot of ways we can do this outside of academia too!

#Dispatches From the Front–Help, I Have a Toxic Advisor! Part II: Therapy and Quitting, Both Excellent Options

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

This week, the question is: “Help, I have a toxic advisor/PI? What can I do? What have other people done in this situation?”

I’m sorry to say this question garnered 33 responses and the stories are very detailed indeed about the kinds of abuse suffered by vulnerable grad students and postdocs. For more information on this topic, please also look at this post by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: 20 Warning Signs Your Professor’s Abusing You

Today I present to you Part II of II: Therapy and Quitting, Both Excellent Options. Don’t forget to look at Part I: Firing Your Advisor, Building Your Team. A couple pieces of advice are replicated from last week because they cover so much territory!

In the meantime, we continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: we ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. We don’t edit these except to guarantee anonymity. Some of the identifying language has struck us as odd, but as long as it is not offensive to anyone, we don’t censor it.


If you have a toxic advisor, first off, get the emotional support you need, and in particular, please consider therapy. So many respondents mentioned how valuable their therapy was in surviving the trauma.

Find a good therapist and others that have experience navigating your advisor/PI. They can give you advice on how to get by or, if it comes to it, out. I was lucky in that my therapist knew exactly who my advisor was as soon as I mentioned their name (thanks to prior patients) but regardless, I guarantee you aren’t the only one on the receiving end of this toxic behavior. Also, document everything. Keep the emails, comments, a record of what happened when. Administrations appreciate paper trails more than anything else. (Postdoc, humanities; Single, white, 30-something humanities person)


You can work with the therapist on the option of “firing” your advisor, either by finding a new one in the same program or changing programs entirely.

I was in your very shoes. 1. Know that toxic and abusive people tend to make you feel isolated…but you are not at all alone!. So many of us have been in the midst of that pain. I felt shame in response to my advisor and didn’t speak out to other trusted faculty until the end of my graduate career. But there are trustworthy people in your field (look to your disciplines resources if they’re not in your department) and they want to help you. Please invite them to help! 2. There are many forms of severe abuse, including sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological. Your university should endeavor to protect you from every kind. If you’re unsure which resources to turn to, university counseling is a great start! 3. Therapy is an amazing first step and it’s often available to you for free as a university affiliate. Please go! Your therapist can be a great aid to your healing as well as a great advocate for you in terms of calling out the toxicity you’ve been going through. 4. Consider transferring grad programs if it would significantly assist your wellbeing and is financially feasible. It’s becoming quite common now to do so and most programs you’d enter won’t need you to provide a detailed rationale for your transfer beyond growth in your research. I wish I had done that! (Asst prof, Humanities; White, female, humanities TT)


More importantly, a therapist can help you identify patterns of abuse and develop coping strategies, which will serve you will no matter where you go in the academic career (and life). Because toxic people are everywhere, and good boundaries and self-care are essential. As the two responses below show, you can also find support beyond therapy, in the form of family, friends, exercise, and other outlets.

This is a very difficult situation and it is unfortunately far more common in academia than widely known. I have dealt with it myself and for me, the only option was to go to therapy (which I know not everybody can afford). Together with my therapist, I developed strategies to offset the stress that my narcissistic advisor caused me in addition to strategies on how to deal with him during work. Luckily, the circumstances in my case were so that the person was my advisor everyday but not on paper – I therefore always kept a good relationship with my advisor on paper which helped me in getting good reference letters. I then dealt strategically with my abusing advisor without burning too many bridges. Things that helped me: 

-finding time for family and friends

 -make time for sport and yoga 

-venting to said friends, they made up fun names about him 

– something which I wasnt able to do. That helped me to find some distance emotionally 

– exchanging with co-workers who also suffered from him and put his behavior into perspective -planning my days off when he wasn’t off 

– maximizing the time without him in the office -directly communicating with everybody and not believing anything he “handled” for me -publishing my way out of the PhD 

– once everything was published, they had to let me go 

– find another position, once that was set, it was easier for me to stay on focus 

– therapy (without that, I wouldn’t have made it)

– go to conferences where I knew he wouldn’t be able to join, so I could network without him 

– being overly nice to him (that’s part of some strategies on how to deal with narcissists, might be different in everyones case)

keep a folder of accomplishments (emails, awards, acceptance letters, job offers), if I feel down, I look into it.

I still get stressed when I see him at a conference or get an email, so it was never resolved but unfortunately, in my opinion, we cant change other people and I luckily escaped that situation with my PhD and my mental health recovered from it. Now I have a very good sensor for that kind of personality and I hope that I will be able to avoid in the future to ever have to work with a person like this again. (Staff scientist, STEM; 32, white, cis, with partner, family history of depression)


I am a woman of colour who felt trapped by visa requirements and finances but also the culture I come from which is quite hierarchical. All of this made me feel that the fault was mine and that I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I was constantly being compared and treated with disdain at times when I did not agree on certain things. I also received unkind feedback on my writing at times. But over the course of the final year where I was working more on myself through professional help, I came to understand that it was not about me at all. I understood that we always project our insecurities on to others and when we are not aware of that, we hurt others. The need to control others stem from our own insecurities. I eventually stopped giving much value to both the excessive praise and excessive criticism from my supervisor because they were simply products of their mood at that moment. It is still very difficult to remain unaffected because we all want to be seen and approved by someone who oversees our work. But it also helps to remember that they see only some aspects of our life and make judgements based on that, which is then inflected with their own vulnerabilities. Finding things to do outside work helped me find a way to connect to the parts of myself that I also liked, which meant my entire identity was not tied to that one chapter or thesis I was writing. Having said this, I also wish I had known early on that the supervisor had gone too far and that there were official channels through which to address that. But given my conflict fearing nature and the bad experiences of other students who broke away, I do not know if knowing this would have helped very much. It was not always bad and I did receive helpful feedback and passed my Viva with minor corrections. But my confidence also took a hit and I would have been worse off if I had not started working on myself. If one had the choice of taking departmental action, that is what many others have done. But how many international students, especially women, have actually done this or think this is a viable option? (Postdoc, SS; Woman of colour)


Remember that you can sometimes turn to friends in the program for support as well. Abusers love to isolate, and one of the best antidotes to that is human connection, even if it’s over a beer at happy hour once a week (just make sure those you vent to are trustworthy).

I had a toxic MSc advisor, but just grinned and bore it and finished early to get out of there as soon as I could. The advisor made it very difficult at times, and I found myself saying and writing whatever it was I thought they wanted to hear. In the end, I graduated and moved on to greener pastures. A MSc takes a lot less time than a PhD, so if the person asking is a PhD student, my advice may be different. Just started your PhD? Leave altogether or stay and find a different advisor. This may be the easiest time to switch, before you have a proposal fully worked out. Middle of PhD? Talk to department head or department graduate studies coordinator and have them help you identify a different advisor (maybe a committee member will step up to the plate?). Your project may change a bit with the switch of an advisor, unless you have several faculty within a particular field that you can fall back on. Alternatively, if you are a middle of the road PhD student and don’t already have a Master’s, some programs have a “leave with a Master’s” policy that burnt out PhD students can take around the time of candidacy exams. Finally, if ABD and nearing completion, I would suggest just digging in and finishing. It’s not ideal, but I have known many senior graduate students who have taken this route. In the process, find time to go to counseling and surround yourself with trustworthy friends and peers. Going out to “happy hour (may or may not include an adult beverage)” once or twice a week to vent and unwind really helps. Many graduate students have conflicts with their advisor at some point. Your conflicts may be more significant than most, but others can still listen and help you take some of that weight off your shoulders. This all being said, if you feel that your life is in danger or you have been physically, verbally, sexually, etc. abused by your advisor, report it to the authorities at your university, and get out ASAP. (Grad student, STEM; White female in 20s)


One thing that many respondents this week and last week emphasize is that the advisory relationship is inherently temporary and sometimes if you just put your head down and WORK, you can get out relatively unscathed and move on to more autonomous stages in your career.

Seek out a senior, internal mentor who can help you separate petty feedback from substantive feedback. Develop writing teams outside your university and write like crazy. If the university climate supports it, work from places other than campus, and make sure you have non-work related activities that bring you joy and help balance out the stress of Academia. (Asst prof, SS; 30s, female, heterosexual, single, and Asian)


One crucial coping strategy is to maintain excellent boundaries, and to control the amount and type of personal information you share with a toxic advisor.

Do not isolate yourself from others – which can often happen in these situations, potentially as a result of the behavior of your advisor. Seek out collaborations, additional mentorship, a strong peer network — all of these will help give you additional perspective and support. You can and should be working with other people. Ultimately, when you are able to graduate/separate from your toxic advisor, these relationships will be the ones you will continue to cultivate and can rely on. Do not share information about your personal life with your toxic advisor. If they have been asking/expecting this information as part of your relationship and you have been sharing it is not too late to stop. You can respond with “Everything is great!” and that is all that needs to be shared. (Asst prof SS White cis-gendered married female)


And last of all, remember: you can cut ties with the abuser. Nobody, ever, is obliged to stay in a relationship with a toxic person. This may lead to you leaving academia, and that might turn out to be wonderful. It certainly was for me (Karen)!

I stood up to my toxic PI who just wasn’t a nice person and told her she wasn’t being nice. It wasn’t received well and for my mental health I ended up leaving, once I’d handed in my notice she didn’t speak to me again or acknowledge me. Luckily I made other allies who I have positive relationships with but it’s put me right off academia! (Postdoc, SS; White, married late 40s woman)


I finished my PhD and started my own business. I no longer speak to my advisor, and do not have to, since I do not even need to ask her for a reference. She is a toxic narcissist and I know that just brushing her off without any fanfare just eats her alive!  Even though my advisor is also a woman, she is from a different generation and all of her advisees noticed that she strongly favored her male students over females. She even made a statement once that I did not have a need to earn much money since I have no family to support….. (Non-ac PhD, Humanities; 43 year old Caucasian woman, who at the time of graduation was single and childless.)


Thanks to all our respondents! We have a new Dispatches Question for next week:

Journal Editors: What do academics do wrong in the journal publication process What do you wish academics understood about how to get published in scholarly journals?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!

“I Ran and Hid From My Computer” – Women and Negotiating Redux

Yet another woman client (this time a senior, tenured scholar) with a tenured offer from a famously wealthy and elite institution, was told by all of her mentors that she was “crazy” for wanting to negotiate the offer, and would risk “alienating everyone” by trying.

Thank god, she did not listen to them. This is the story.

Find Negotiating as Therapy here.

And by the way: if you have a topic you want me to take up in a video blog post, just send it my way in an email, a comment here on the blog, or on social media!

[As always, makeup notes below]

[Makeup notes: If you’re wondering why I am always trying so many different products, it’s because I am a dedicated sample-collector. I never pass up the chance to get the big sample bags that Ulta and Sephora regularly offer, and I time my regular product restocking buys to when they are running those offers. I rarely end up changing my products but trying all the new items does allow me to stay up to date, and every so often I will switch. This is one of those weeks – i plan to buy full size of the mascara and the setting powder. In addition to my usual products today’s look includes:

  • The Ordinary The Ordinary. AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution (this. is. stunning— bought full size for $7 on recommendation of a friend)
  • Make Up Forever Step 1 Matte Primer (too matte for me but a great makeup grabbing primer)
  • Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder Glow, Radiant Finish
  • LORAC Pro Plus Fiber Mascara]

Productivity: Play to your Strengths

We are all very good at identifying our weaknesses.
And highlighting them.
And worrying about them.
And perseverating on them.

To what end?

Does intense focus on a supposed deficit change behavior? (Hint: The answer is no.)

For some of us, there is the additional layer of worrying about whether we’re paying attention to our weaknesses.  Do we really see them? Are we taking care of them so no one else finds out?

In a perfect world, when we have identified something we want to work on, we would do a careful inventory and create a plan to strengthen the weak areas, approaching it much like strengthening a muscle that has been ignored. Regular workouts with a non-emotional goal.

But in our real and imperfect world, what do we actually DO about the areas where we are not as strong as we would like to be?

We look to our strengths. 

(Alert readers of my series will have figured out by now that all of my productivity advice is a version of “do the opposite of what you think.”)

You would not be where you are right now if you did not have tremendous internal strength.  You would not have moved the bar as far as you have moved it, moved the rock up the hill as far as you’ve moved it, without incredible strength. 

And it’s important to remind yourself of that, especially when it feels like you are made up of one shortcoming after another.

Struggling with something you don’t feel good at? Recognize your strengths. Highlight the tools that you have, acknowledge them, make a list of them.  And once you have captured that sense of assurance that, yes, you are good at things, use that strength to turn and face the things that challenge you. Stare right at them and draw the line in the sand on how you will deal with them. No waffling.

And that’s on every level. Face and commit to dealing with tasks, but also commit to drawing a line in the sand in your thinking.  “I will not re-play my weakness. I have the strength to keep this commitment, and I’m going to stop now because it does not serve me.”

To be clear, I’m not saying deny what is going on with your mind or body —  that you’re tired or that you’re overwhelmed or that you just keep pushing to meet someone’s bar.  I am saying, when you reside in your strengths, you can say ‘I’m not gonna spend my time and my energy on that thinking right now.”

So, let’s begin.

What are you good at?

How to Maximize a Visiting Position – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color. These go up on Wednesday.

PLEASE submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration! I want to hear from you! Email me proposals or drafts at I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by an author who prefers to remain anonymous.


Whether you’re a postdoc or a VAP, chances are you’ve thought about how this position can advance your career. Over the course of a 2-year postdoc, there were a handful of things I figured out that helped me make the most of my time and land a TT position at an elite SLAC. While there’s no magic formula to getting a job offer, hopefully a few suggestions and lots of luck can help you convert your visiting position into TT job at another institution.

  1. Don’t expect it to turn into a permanent job

You’re probably wonderful. Your students probably think you’re wonderful. Your colleagues probably think you’re wonderful, too. That doesn’t mean your job will become permanent. For starters, it’s possible that your position is a replacement for someone on leave who’s definitely returning. In other instances, the visiting position might be designed to gauge student interest in an area that could expand the curriculum in the future. Maybe they plan to hire in your field in a few years, but not right now. Even if your colleagues want to hire you, that decision is likely above their pay grade. Departments don’t get new lines just because they want them. Some institutions, like mine, require the hiring department’s support, and need this type of hire to be approved by a college-wide committee, the provost, the college’s legal counsel, and the president. Other institutions might require a national search for all TT positions, so you’d need to apply like everyone else. It’s entirely reasonable to hope the VAP line becomes a TT line and to try get some supporters in your corner, but don’t let your hope lull you into a false sense of security. I was under no illusions that I’d be able to stay put. I hit the ground running, so although my colleagues probably thought I was auditioning for a job, I was really just trying to get enough work done to be competitive on the market.

2. Mind your business and do your work

Stay out of departmental politics. I walked into a department that didn’t quite get along with each other. Within the first 1-2 months of starting my new position, one colleague specifically told me who they disliked and was very vocal about their negative feelings towards our chair. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that there was a minefield laid out ahead of me. Even though you might get caught in the crosshairs anyway, play nice with your colleagues. As a new employee in any job, other people’s longstanding issues are very much not your problem. The easiest way to avoid getting dragged into beef that doesn’t concern you is to mind. Your. Business. 

In addition to avoiding conflicts, recognize the other things that are decidedly not your business: advising, service, or any attempts to fundamentally improve the institution. “Business” involves compensation – unless these duties are in your contract or unless you’re being paid for additional labor, it’s not your business. Your business is doing whatever you need to find and prepare for your next job. To me, that entailed teaching the hell out of my classes, publishing a journal article, having a few other pieces accepted for publication, and securing a book contract for my monograph. Your loyalties should be to yourself above all else, so be sure to prioritize the things that matter to you, not the things that matter to the institution.

3. Take advantage of what the institution has to offer

Exploit the institution, don’t let it exploit you. As a visitor I assumed that I couldn’t take advantage of some of the resources offered to TT faculty, like teaching support, conference funds, or research grants. While some funding was restricted to TT and tenured faculty, there were other opportunities available to all full-time faculty, including VAPs. Closed mouths don’t get fed, so I asked my chair and a dean if I was eligible for specific grants. There were a surprising number of applications that didn’t specifically preclude visitors from applying, so I threw my hat in the ring. I ended up with over $35,000 of grant money to take students abroad on a fully funded spring break trip. 

You might find that there are non-monetary professional development opportunities or resources that are accessible to visitors, not just tenure-track faculty. If your university is a member of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, for example, there are workshops and trainings that you can participate in. If your library has an institutional subscription to a database or journal in your field, you can use them in your research and teaching. Also, be sure to cultivate relationships with faculty within and outside of your department so that you can maintain a professional network after you leave. 

4. Take chances in the classroom

If there’s any time to experiment in the classroom, it’s when you’re a visitor. It’s somewhat comforting to have the freedom to make mistakes knowing that your contract is going to expire soon anyway. I incorporated new assignments into my classes without knowing if they would work how I imagined because the stakes of messing up were lower as a VAP than they would be in a TT position. If you’re on the market, of course you want to have strong teaching evaluations and there are only so many risks it would make sense to take. Nevertheless, you can try new things knowing that a reappointment or tenure case isn’t riding on whether a course goes well or not. A visiting position affords you the opportunity to refine your pedagogy and test different learning tools in the classroom with the confidence that you have nothing to lose.

Visiting positions are not without their faults. They often require sudden moves far away from family and friends, and the uncertainty that accompanies temporary positions can be anxiety-inducing. Despite the downsides, visiting positions can work in your favor and can help you prepare for a permanent position elsewhere.

Ivory Tower In the Rear-View Mirror — Dr. Beth Hallowell

This month we introduce our new column, Ivory Towers In The Rearview Mirror, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

Remember, 50-90% of PhDs (depending on the field) end up in work off the tenure track. Putting traditional academia behind you IS the normative path!

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Beth Hallowell.


I am currently Director of Research and Analytics for The American Friends Service Committee, a mid-sized Quaker nonprofit in Philadelphia. I turn data into insights and strategy. Visit us at

I got a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015. When I started in 2009 I was planning on a traditional (TT) academic/teaching and research career. Although the market was very bad when I started, I knew that people were getting tenure track jobs. By 2015, I only knew of a very few out of my program who were on the tenure track

About halfway through my program I realized I wanted a life that the academy wouldn’t support — buying a house in my home city (Philly), staying close to family and friends, having kids, work-life balance, stable work/salary, etc.

I found support for the transition from my family/spouse and friends, most of whom were also grad students looking outside the academy. I began networking and building on connections I had made during grad school. I used Penn’s career services as much as possible for advice, soul searching, and eventually resume review/interview prep/ etc.

In the department, I kept my decision private for the most part and did not go seeking either approval (or inciting disapproval), but as my advisors heard about what I was doing, they were supportive. But I had a wonderful committee and I ended up adjuncting in the Dept for a few terms after leaving grad school because I enjoyed teaching.

When I started the transition out of academia, I had to relearn how to engage different audiences. I had been good at this prior to grad school but had lost that skill while there. I also took control over my career narrative, framing my transition as a researcher graduating from a research program looking for a research job rather than “alt-ac.”

I was hired for a different role at my current employer toward the end of my PhD, and part of that role was building out a research program for my employer. I’ve done that and it’s been a great 5+ years.

I have always loved research and my program gave my a top notch grounding in research as a profession. I always tell people leaving the academy or thinking of leaving that we live in a knowledge economy so it’s actually a great time to be a researcher — just not inside the academy.

I want PhDs to know that it’s a great time to be a researcher, just not in the academy. If you are thinking about a research-y career, know that there are plenty of opportunities out there, especially for social scientists.

Try to frame your skills in different ways for different people/opportunities- few people outside of the academy will be able to translate your skills to a role at their organization, so the onus is on you to do that for them (both when networking and applying for jobs).

#Dispatches From the Front – Help, I Have a Toxic Advisor! Part I: Firing Your Advisor, Building Your Team

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

This week, the question is: “Help, I have a toxic advisor/PI? What can I do? What have other people done in this situation?”

I’m sorry to say this question garnered 33 responses and the stories are very detailed indeed about the kinds of abuse suffered by vulnerable grad students and postdocs. For more information on this topic, please also look at this post by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: 20 Warning Signs Your Professor’s Abusing You

Today I present to you Part I of II: Firing Your Advisor, Building Your Team. Next week I’ll post Part II of II: Therapy and Quitting, Both Excellent Options.

In the meantime, we continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: we ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. We don’t edit these except to guarantee anonymity. Some of the identifying language has struck us as odd, but as long as it is not offensive to anyone, we don’t censor it.


If you have a toxic advisor or PI, PLEASE do not suffer in silence, and do not accept that depression, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation are normal or acceptable.

First off, consider firing them.

In my third year of graduate school, I too felt trapped by a toxic advisor, so I can relate to how utterly awful that feels. My advisor was extremely controlling; he refused to allow me any autonomy in my own graduate studies and micromanaged every decision I was supposed to make. He also became irrationally angry when I would make small mistakes, making me constantly fearful of displeasing him. He tried to limit my contact with other graduate students and faculty members, often by belittling them and/or engaging in self-aggrandizing to let me know how lucky I was to be working with him. I was constantly anxious and felt that my fate was completely in his hands. Luckily (although it didn’t feel that way at the time), I made a verbal slip in his office and he became enraged, kicking me out of his office and then refusing to reply to my apologetic emails or requests for mediation. I wasn’t sure if he was even still my advisor. I, like you, began to crowdsource. I asked grad students in my department about his temperament and behavior and found that my experience paled in comparison to how he’d treated others. He frequently abused graduate students, screaming at them, overreacting to minor disagreements, removing himself from their committees right before major exams, even sexually harassing some female grad students and then becoming furious at their rebukes. Although I was mortified by my verbal slip, I decided to take action before he further retaliated against me. I sent him an email firing him from my committee, citing my repeated attempts to resolve the situation amicably. I don’t know if this option is available to you, but for me, it was the best decision I ever made. Even though I was wracked with anxiety, I managed to find another professor in my department to act as my advisor. He is kind and supportive and allowed me to pursue my own interests. With his support, I have won competitive fellowships and produced my best work, things I would never have been able to do in the constant state of anxiety, uncertainty, and depression I felt under my former advisor. I had just accepted that suicidal thoughts and panic attacks were “part of grad school” and the price I had to pay to work with such a(n) (in)famous scholar. It was not worth it. If you can, prioritize your mental health and find a new advisor. You may find the experience unpleasant, but keep in mind that you will be relying on this person for letters of recommendation. Are you certain what they might say? If there’s someone else you can work with, it just might be worth the risk of firing your advisor. If you can’t, and I completely acknowledge that circumstances are different for everyone, try involving a department head or the graduate studies director to help mediate. But, if the situation is compromising your mental health, I’d strongly advocate trying to sever the relationship. (Grad student, Humanities; I am a married, 33 year-old, cis woman working towards a PhD in the humanities)


My first advisor in grad school was a really famous senior scholar. He is extraordinarily intelligent. The problem with such intelligence and quick wit was that he was a really bad listener, he only wanted to talk about big ideas and was really quick at dismissing ideas, and he was not invested in advising about mundane aspects of PhD, like coursework or applying for fellowships. That may work fine for some folks. But I was a first gen student with really low self confidence and high anxiety. I felt completely lost and constantly terrified throughout my first two years of grad school. I cried during or after every single meeting with him. I finally switched advisors before my third year. I think I was extremely lucky to find an advisor who became invested in me and really boosted my self confidence. But I did have to reach out to other faculty to find this gem of a person. My advice is to always be on the lookout for faculty who are interested in your work and share your ideas with more than one person to get multiple perspectives.(Grad student, SS; I am an Asian woman in mid-thirties. I began my doctoral program at 29. I am a first generation college student.)


Sometimes firing the advisor involves simply moving to another department or campus. This is not easy but it’s definitely an option.

I came from a mid-rank state university, with extremely good credentials, and got admitted to grad school at a rather famous lab across the country. I did not do my diligence on the day-to-day life of the lab before passing 3 other offers (well ahead of deadline). The place was extremely toxic for grad students (as some threads on Grad Cafe would have let me know). There was a hazing culture of older PhD and more so post-docs on the lines of “I suffered like sh*t and so should you”. Last-minute pre-holiday reassignment of work to screw your travel plans in purpose (we were told not to count on being able to book tickets in advance in a borderline sadistic manner during orientation…). Active misdirection on department matters. Miserable people stalking you out on social media and gossiping if you were seen as having some sort of ‘fun’ they would not have, only to then openly question your commitment or say you could work more. There was a clique of yes-men PhDs who then got less abused by the lab seniors and PI, only to then become abusive themselves towards those who didn’t “pay their dues”. I endured 5 semesters of hell, and then, through an extremely helpful old contact at my home university, managed to tie in an accelerated PhD position elsewhere that would recognize my grad coursework from the uni I was at. They had some external funding for a specific project, enough for 4 (but not 6) years, and were in the process of securing something to match from their own uni. Of course, this my case is unusual and I am extremely thankful for the break I caught (2 of my cohort colleagues at that lab had serious mental breakdowns, one never to recover after 10 years). Yet, my message is to keep your network active, you never know when someone might be able to help you at desperate times. (Asst prof, STEM; 34 year-old female, 2nd year on TT (assistant professor), at large R1 institution)


Be aware that firing your advisor can result in retaliation, because people who are too toxic to advise responsibly are exactly the people who will then retaliate against the vulnerable.

Being in a predominantly STEM male environment since undergrad, where people from my specific ancestry background are very visible and numerous, I had to deal with misplaced expectations of male colleagues from my background. Many just assume (upon outdated social gender roles within our wider community) that women should take certain tasks by default, such as organizing social gatherings, volunteering to take minutes of every meeting, being very deferential to older males under the lenses of paying respect. Bruised by my low-risk pushback experiences from undergrad, I tried to stand my ground early during my R1 PhD program. I was the only female grad student from my cohort, and like everyone else was assigned a mentor for the first 3 semesters (before we would choose an advisor). The dean (as it often happened there) paired me with someone of my own background, probably in good faith assuming I’d have an easier time relating and onboarding. Things got progressively bad. My mentor (tenured but outside the department’s inner power circle) started trying to recruit me to his own departmental feuds. He attempted to become an ad-hoc “father figure”, which I never asked for or needed. He would then feel in his rights to enquire about my dating life, ask me to babysit his 8y.o. daughter once, which I avoided (barely), and to brew tea for his guests when the department secretary was on leave. More than once he assigned me to chaperone some of his seminar guests, and then criticized me for my dress choices (nothing out of line for white women, such as a business dress that didn’t conceal a non scandalous tattoo), and for not speaking well our ancestral language (which I am not fluent into) with a foreign entourage, saying I should study it more. It all came to a head when he was announcing around he was going to be my thesis advisor. He never discussed that with me. I was already in semi-secretive talks with another TT track younger professor (very professional ever since in our relationship) and had to rush the process when the dean casually mentioned this tenured old professor had told others I was going to work with him. Things were terrible thereafter. He tried to sabotage my placement with this new advisor, would purposefully ignore his deadlines to fill forms in our last month under his mentorship before the change, and started badmouthing me to other PhD students from the new cohorts of our shared background. Eventually he recruited another woman (on a terminal MSc program) as an RA who seemed pretty happy to be the type of deferential, submissive and quiet understudy I never was. She also relayed gossip on my private out of campus life to my old advisor. He became very aggressive during my doctoral seminar talks and anytime he could show his displeasure towards me. (Postdoc, STEM; Female, late 20s, Asian-American, now on TT at mid-range state U)


I believe that once a relationship with an advisor has broken down (there is no trust and no communication) the best for both parts is to end amicably. This takes a great deal of courage, but it is one of the lessons one needs to learn at some point in the academia. How to deal with people that cross your boundaries and that have no considerations for you. I would advise you to share your experience (in a non-blaming way) with whomever is in charge of your Phd programme, and ask to be assigned to another advisor. A decade ago, I had lots of troubles with my phd advisor. I felt he was using me as unpaid research assistant to complete his projects and would not support the research I wanted to do. So I went to the person responsible of the phd programme and asked to be assigned to a different advisor (this was half way my phd). Soon after I was assigned to an advisor of my choice. My former advisor never forgave me. He would see me in the corridors and would not even say hello. After all these years, I’m so proud of that decision because it completely determined the rest of my academic career. The advisor I was assigned to afterwards was loving, supporting, encouraging and kept in touch with me during all these years. Be assertive of your position (how you feel, what you would like to change, and move on). Don’t endure hell, it is not worth it. (Tenured, SS; Tenured academic, female, ethnic minority) 


AntonioGuillem / iStock / Getty Images Plus

I had this experience while a PhD student, and I successfully changed advisors pretty late in the day (after my comprehensive exams and before my dissertation). It was challenging, painful, and stressful, but it can be done and I’m glad I did it. Here’s what I suggest: 1. Think very clearly about what you want. I knew I wanted to stay in my program for specific reasons and I knew I could not continue working with Advisor A for specific reasons. I considered trying to switch programs, but after thinking through that option carefully, decided I wanted to try to stay. I also decided I wanted to try to work with Advisor B. Having a clear sense of what I valued, what I could tolerate, and what I wanted to accomplish was really helpful. 2. Rally your allies. I had a supportive department chair who was very helpful when I described the situation. At that point, I had several years of being an exemplary member of the department, and the chair referred explicitly to that when offering support. I also discovered that Advisor A had behaved similarly to other students before me, and that several other students had made the same switch from Advisor A to Advisor B (which perhaps explains the department chair’s support; it wasn’t the first time.) I talked to other faculty on my committee, including an extended conversation with Advisor B about being a shadow supervisor until I could formally switch, and I talked to a few other students who were ahead of me in the program. Assess your allies carefully; I don’t know that you can make a switch without them. If you don’t have them, I’d go back to point 1. 3. Move carefully. I spent several harrowing months pretending everything was fine with Advisor A while desperately trying to conjure a new research project that Advisor B could supervise out of thin air. Only a tiny handful of people knew this: department chair, Advisor B, two or three other students. So lean on your allies, but be discreet. One colleague described this as “ballet dancing across a minefield.” He was not wrong. 4. Know that you’ll pay for it. I saw Advisor A at a conference about 7 years after I switched, and you’d think he was convinced I was clubbing baby seals in my spare time. It was pretty uncomfortable. Nonetheless, switching advisors was the best thing I did in graduate school. I’m sure I wrote a far better dissertation and got a better job than I would have if I had I remained with Advisor A. By switching to Advisor B, I was able to work with someone I trusted who treated me like a person. It was totally, totally worth it. (NTT Humanities; Late thirties, white, female, single)

Whether or not you actually fire your advisor, you can always seek out a team of other mentors and supporters who will provide a buffer, provide letters of recommendation, and ideally run interference for you when the advisor acts up. This was absolutely the go-to advice from the majority of respondents, who shared many useful stories and scenarios.

If you do not want to switch PIs or leave the institution, build your connections to other people, including faculty and students. Try to build strong relationships with other members of your committee. Consider asking them to read drafts early on, even if it is expected that you won’t involve them until the dissertation is in final form. Think proactively about who you can ask to read and critique your work if you fear your PI will not help you. If part of the issue is that you think you are being ignored, do not just try to tough it out – go to others for input and support.(Postdoc, SS; woman, cis, hetero, white)


I got involved in committees within and outside the faculty, and built my network aggressively. When toxic PI and I eventually parted ways, I had other supervisors lined up (and happy to commit funding), and several contacts to provide general mentoring and help with finding a job after I graduated. It’s much harder to bring students down when they are visible and have built trust with other students and faculty.(Postdoc, STEM; I am female and mixed race)


My advisor is not encouraging of my desire to get a tenure track position. They discouraged me from publishing during my studies (which I did) and are now lukewarm about writing reference letters for applications – I am writing drafts of these for them. What I have found helpful is to seek out and connect with other mentors in my field. It has been invaluable to have these people guide me in terms of publications and to support my career. Of course TPII has been helpful too!(Grad student, SS; cis gender white woman, single)


I was in this exact situation myself and managed to escape very successfully by bringing other people on my team. Basically, I looked for constructive advisors around me, found a way to implement methodological aspects that were their core business, they became co-authors on my publications and became part of my PhD committee. I had several issues with my supervisor, which include: he never had time, he was never, ever satisfied with any drafts but could not provide detailed or constructive feedback on how to improve them, and he didn’t support me financially after my initial funding package ran out. Initially, the co-authors I brought on board mainly provided feedback on my manuscripts (constructive, timely feedback and also telling me it is actually good enough, for the love of God send it out already). When my own supervisor was still either non-responsive or not happy with drafts, I would send out a version and my co-authors would respond fairly quickly with constructive feedback and comments such as “I think this is just about ready to be submitted! well done” This was super helpful in building momentum and made it much harder for my supervisor to hold me back. My story ends happily, as I managed to get all my papers out, defend and even receive much praise and support afterwards from my supervisor (then, he was finally happy – I was a success, no longer an item on his to-do list). But I graduated several years ago and have members of my cohort who still did not manage to finish. The ones who got out, all used the same strategy as I did. So if you are in this situation, you need to find other people who can take over where your supervisor is dropping the ball. Build relationships, work with others, then bring them on your team. (Non-ac PhD, STEM; I’m a European woman who did her PhD in a different EU country)


You have a couple options: 1) quit and go do your PhD elsewhere; 2) outwit and outplay your advisor. To do the later you must change your power structure. Quitting is how you get out of the financial bi d— you have skills; you can get a good paying job. Go to career services and have them help you write a resume and start job searching. This will help you get your financial freedom. If this person is like my advisor, here’s how to try to survive them if you stay: 1) Figure out an RA/TA outside your department to fund you— if they aren’t paying you they can’t control you. 2) Volunteer for whatever pet student club or project your Dept Chair cares about; take charge of it. You will develop favors to be named later, which you will need when your advisor is a dick. Also, this tactic will reduce your advisor’s credibility when they complain. 3) Nominate yourself for multiple small awards each year. They don’t necessarily have to be academic— it could be from your U’s women’s group, or a scholarship from an outside group. Make sure the department knows you’ve won. This makes you seem like a badass. You will have created this positive buffer zone around you as you go in each day. Get to know your committee and use them as a buffer. Then it’s largely about managing your advisor’s mood and feelings. This can go to a dark place because toxic people like this want to drag everyone down with them. You may want to get into counseling to help support you as you manage this toxic person. (Non-ac PhD, STEM; Bisexual Woman; white; military spouse)


I had a similar situation with my PhD mentor. The best thing you can do is establish other mentors who can write you letters of support and who you can publish with, to give those letters weight. This was the key for me. The other thing that helped was carefully sussing out which of our shared collaborators (co-mentors to me) was trustworthy and knew me enough to trust me, so that I could confide the truth of what was going on in them, and they’d support me on the job market. Eventually enough of my mentor’s students started doing this that my mentor started to earn a bad reputation, and it made each of our stories easier to verify. What you really need is 2-3 mentors outside your primary, abusive one, who can support you on the job market AND, in a professional manner, let anyone from search committees who inquires about the lack of letter from the primary mentor know that it has nothing to do with/isn’t a reflection on you as a candidate. And of course, if at all possible, get out of that lab/group as soon as you can. And just having the rest of your materials as strong as possible. Early on I didn’t realize my mentor was sabotaging me by saying she’d write a supportive letter, then submitting a lukewarm letter of death – but luckily it was so incongruent with my other materials/letters it stuck out like a sore thumb. As soon as I found out about her letter I started strategizing how I could be successful without asking her for one in the future. If you carefully maneuver this you can completely go around your abusive mentor, but it takes time to get all the pieces in place. You can do this. I have a great job I’m super happy in, and I relish the lack of power my former PI has over me. And emailing her to cheerfully let her know I’d landed an Assistant Prof position (sans any support from her) felt incredible. You got this. (Asst Prof, SS; 34, white cis straight woman, married)


There are things you can do as well, while continuing to work with the toxic advisor. Things like be very, very careful about what you share, and strategically maintaining a relationship both to avoid the retaliation mentioned above, and to try and mantain support.

I opted for the strategies of maintaining self-respect through integrity and “keeping my enemies closer” (meaning, I kept the toxic person as a mentor so that they would have to feel somewhat invested). It was a very long and painful experience, and it only worked because I started establishing academic capital through publishing very early. But it worked.(Asst prof, Humanities; bi, femme, white)


Maintain professional boundaries. the relationship with my phd advisor became problematic when she began to say she thought of me as a daughter. while it can be nice to have a close family-like relationship, the boundaries became too blurred for her to be an effective academic mentor to me. i took this as lesson to be mindful of what i share with others in an academic or professional setting. know the details of your contract. after accepting my grant-funded postdoc, i learned that i was considered an employee of my advisor and not an employee of the university. this meant that when i ran into issues with my advisor, there was no option to move positions or work with anyone else. i wished i had known to ask about this detail prior to accepting the position. (Postdoc SS; minority woman)


However, if your situation is serious or potentially hazardous, take care of yourself first. And, always document everything, and consider reporting to Title IX.

Keep absolutely everything in writing. All communication should be as an email, especially complaints about behaviour. Keep a diary of everything that happens on a daily basis. Make sure you have a support network of others in your research group, and outside it. Find a trusted member of academic staff (e.g. postgraduate wellbeing advisor) and speak to them about your circumstances. It is never too late to change supervisor. (Grad student, STEM; 26, non-binary, white queer person)


My ex-PhD advisor was extremely toxic and sexually harrassed me. I endured it for over 1.5 years because I felt isolated and unsupported in a department full of deniers and placaters. Eventually, I reported to Title IX because the bullying got bad and I felt like I had no other options. I have absolutely no regrets reporting. I was given a new advisor and a no contact order is in place which helps to feel more secure in the dept. My only regret is in not pursuing it further and filing with the department of education because as it stands now, my university has done very little to create a safer environment for his other students since he has full tenure. (Grad student, SS; white female, 35, married)


Toxic Advisor – I changed advisors. Sadly the second advisor was also toxic. Then I got support from a more powerful faculty member outside of my committee who was also the chair by sharing my dilemmas with her and asking for her advice (she intervened behind the scenes). I joined a dissertation support group sponsored by the university and led by a senior faculty member who gave good advice. I secretly recorded meetings with my toxic advisor so that I knew precisely when he was lying and also the recordings helped me to respond to every issue that my advisors bought up regarding my dissertation. I left ABD – not a good thing and not advised – but silver lining is advisor could see that I could do the job. I hired a dissertation “coach”. (The coach was helpful but not as good as TPII Kellee.) Hard crazy battle but eventually I made it. (Administrator, business; black woman straight)


One advisor I had during a summer project was impossible — she was always traveling and would never schedule meetings. When you finally got her in a room we’d agree on goals A, B, C. By the next time we’d see her a month later she’d want to know “why haven’t you done X, Y, Z?”, and would yell at those she thought weren’t working hard enough in front of everyone. I took to writing short emails documenting every single interaction our team had with her just after the meeting was done. Didn’t stop the random shifts of expectation (or, sadly, the yelling). However, it did make it easier to justify to our course supervisor at the end of the summer why we were confused and hadn’t gotten much done — so ultimately we still got credit and the “continuing project” monetary award.  (Grad student, STEM; female)


I am dealing with sexual harassment and assault from my tenure mentor, without any adequate reaction from the school. So I sought legal counsel and am still pursuing this. (Asst prof, Arts/Music/Theater; Mixed Race, Immigrant, Single Woman, 33 years old )


Several respondents advised remembering that success is the best revenge. If you put your head down and get finished and published, you can move on from the toxic person into your own independent career.

Start investigating ways to get out. If you’re a PhD student see if you can get another supervisor. Postdoc, look for a way to move. In the meantime, try not to buy into the ‘game’ which will make you feel worthless, keep your head down, get your papers out and get out. Look for support from colleagues who understand. Remember, it is going to be a small period of your life, you can learn from it and remember this time will end. (Postdoc, STEM; female, older now, but 25 years ago I was a postdoc)

Please keep adding a meaningful line to your CV even if the situation might be hard. During my PhD, I had a tough advisor who dragged things so long that I invested my time in other projects with another faculty. It led to a good publication. Reach out to other departments or centers where they might have workshops for enhancing your research, give you advice on grant applications, etc. My postdoc mentor is not great either. I take initiatives myself and I don’t rely solely on her mentorship. As a POC in a very competitive soft-money institute, I have learned the rules of the game: win a competitive grant, speak your mind in a respectful way, apply for jobs (don’t wait around in your postdoc), reach out to other researchers in the area, network and don’t lose hope! (Postdoc,Health Behavior; early thirties, POC, straight woman, have a partner)


To wrap up, this respondent provides an excellent and comprehensive checklist of options:

I am on the TT at an RI and my husband is staff at another college in the same institution, so between his contact with grad students and my own, I do hear fairly frequently about doc students at my institution struggling with toxic advisors. First, as a doc student, I also had a fairly toxic advisor and PI (two different people) and I coped with it by aggressively publishing dissertation chapters before they could be plagiarized (!) and working hard at networking at conferences by taking on the grunt work of program coordinating, etc. so that I could cultivate some references in case neither of these people would write me letters later on. In the end my advisor did sign a reference letter that I wrote when I went on the job market. This was not an ideal situation but ultimately, the best strategy for getting away from an advisor is to perform in spite of the circumstances by: focusing on research output and ignoring the manipulative emotional stuff (do your best). Accepting that you will get little to no feedback on your writing. Fine, send stuff out for peer review and lean on that feedback instead. Accept that you do not need approval from a toxic person to finish your dissertation, you just need them to allow move your work forward at each benchmark. Get requirements for moving forward in writing and make sure your committee is present and validates this, so your advisor is not solely in charge. Now that I’m on the TT, my advice to struggling doc students is to first identify an ally in the department and meet with them to discuss the issue. **Faculty know which of our colleagues are poor advisors** Faculty know about your advisor’s poor habits and behaviors, and we (esp junior faculty) will not dismiss your experience. We do not want to constantly pick up the pieces and we cannot always accept new doc students, but we can try to give practical advice. This may range from just validating your experiences with a “this is not OK”, and offering some strategies for finishing the PhD quickly. Or, we may be able to help you change advisors. The bottom line is, we do not speak poorly of our colleagues to doc students unprompted, but if you come to us with specific complaints we are likely to empathize and we want to help. If no one in the department seems able to listen to your experience (and, I cannot emphasize this enough, I would try to speak to someone before assuming this), then my advice to a student is to contact the ombudsmen in the graduate school. Many students, especially international students, do not know there is a person on campus who can field the type of complaint you espouse. Going to the graduate school is a bit of a nuclear option, but if you are at the level of toxicity where you worry you will never pass your dissertation defense, this person should at least scare the department into making a transparent plan that would allow you to finish. If you are at this level of toxicity, you have already lost your advisor’s support, so at this stage finishing is the main goal. At the same time, know that you will have to lean on your networks within professional organizations for references: get involved with one of the micro-networks within your national association, work on visibility there, and strengthen those ties. The wider your network is, the less important your advisor is. (Asst prof, SS; Tenure Track at R1, American, white cis woman. Was a grad student in Europe in a social sciences research group)


Thanks to all our respondents! While we will share more responses from this question next week, we also have a new Dispatches Question for you:

Journal Editors: What do academics do wrong in the journal publication process What do you wish academics understood about how to get published in scholarly journals?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!

Breaking Down the Fit Question

Today is another breakdown of a point of continued confusion among our Interview clients: the dreaded FIT question. Once again, I will walk you through a post that we assign for Interview Intervention clients, that clients struggle to put into practice. In this case: The Dreaded Fit Question Comes First, by Kel Weinhold.

Just like last week, when I broke down how to describe a course in an interview, I will dig into the places we see our clients fall into misunderstandings, and offer you ways to correct them.

Makeup look: In addition to my usual products, some Indie brand experiments –

  • Wander Beauty Mile-High Mascara (love it!)
  • Peripera Ink Velvet Lipcolor in Love Sniper Red (stays on!)
  • RMS Beauty Hidden Desire Palette