The 5 Top Traits of the Worst Advisors

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.

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The 5 Top Traits of the Worst Advisors — 155 Comments

  1. I enjoy your take on academia immensely. As a fifth year PhD student, your blog has really got me thinking about what concrete steps I should be taking to secure my future work. Before reading your material I had some concepts of what to do, but your descriptions are great for helping me translate them to practical actions.

    I’m wondering what you would advise for someone who finds themselves with one of these advisers and is relatively far along? My adviser falls into your P.S category. He hasn’t even published in my sub-discipline. Over the years I’ve cobbled together so many resources to get my research done, since he doesn’t have an active lab (I’m in the sciences). I was seduced not by his corduroy but by his funding. Coming in he had funding for a project that I used to get my masters research done. Then I wrote a grant with him and got funding for my dissertation work. Now that I’m approaching the end I find he doesn’t quite know how to edit my papers for my diss in a way that is up to date with the thinking in the field.

    I tend to shop my diss out to another professor who is much more up to date on my topic (and incredibly generous with his time!). Frequently the edits I get from this prof and from my dissertation prof collide. It creates some drama llama moments!!

    • That’s a hard place to be. The egos are huge and the graybeard emeritus is often very jealous and easily threatened. Sounds like at least you’re well aware of the problem and have an effective intellectual ally. Remember that your diss doesn’t have to be perfect. Go with what your advisor demands to get done and out, and keep the insights you gain from your other prof in a separate file to the side, to be brought out for the book. Be super entrepeneurial and find even more current profs to engage with, both at your own and other institutions around the country. Get your name out at conferences. Separate yourself from your advisor in every respect except the most minimal, formal one. And be sure and cultivate 3 high powered letter writers for your job apps. You’ll need his letter, but plan to send out 4, with the other three being the really substantive ones.

  2. Hi Karen, many thanks for this site. I am looking to start a PhD/DBA soon and this is helping me in my ground work.
    I do have a more pressing issue however – my younger brother is in his fifth year as a PhD candidate at one of the Ivy League schools but has been told by his professor that he should set his sights on a masters instead instead of the PhD that he has worked hard for (and excelled in including all his courses). This is because he has has hit a wall in hos research where he is currently unable to marry two first parts of his three part research – the first two parts are harmonised and working but the third part is not. Part of his work is carrying on another PhD student’s work which was partially completed.
    It is very annoying that after choosing this school over the five other Ivy league school offers he had, it would appear that all he will be getting is a master – which frankly will be a waste of his time and is likely to haunt him for the rest of his live.
    Is there any recourse for him? His advisor is his department dean as well.
    Any advise will be very welcome.

  3. I’ve been reading your back posts for the last few hours, and have gotten lost in a tangled web of emotion: appreciation, sadness, a sense of being understood, anxiety, and more. But little has struck me as much as this sentence: “Nice loses in academia. Nice always loses.” Is this really so? And does it have to be? If reading this sentence makes me immediately want to ditch my Ph.D. program and run far, far away (even though I’m waist-deep in the dissertation), does that mean I shouldn’t be pursuing the academic path? Or, is there a way to use that insight to make your way into it, and then still find happiness in your little corner of it where, perhaps, you can make nice win? [or is that nothing more than wishful thinking?]

    • There are actually a lot of nice people in academia. But typically, they are not the people of influence. They may have succeeded in getting tenure, but there’s a good chance they won’t be the power brokers. And junior people/phds need to navigate the worlds of power brokers to get ahead in the current conditions of the academic job market. Beyond this, it is possible to retain your humanity and still be successful in academia. I knew some who did. But it’s the exception, and is not a thing that will happen automatically. It takes deliberate, careful, and conscious choices, at every step of the way, and a constant reevaluation of your responsibilities vis-a-vis those beneath you in the hierarchy.

        • I listen to my friends who also went to graduate school and I listen wide mouthed to how their advisers scoured the job market for them.

          My adviser never did jack shit for me. After graduating, she kicked me away to the dogs. I persevered, I kept publishing, all single author, for there was no one to collaborate with, making the most of the lousy postdoc opportunity at Podunk State that had come by my way.

          If my adviser had her way, I would never even have got the job at Podunk State. She had hooked me up with a 1 year job in Europe and that was it! When I emailed people at Podunk State, they wrote back: what? You are still looking? Your adviser told us you weren’t!

          Good thing I thought of contacting people at Podunk state independently!

          Three years later, I did have a bunch of decent publications, all single author. But no one knew and no one cared: who reads a CV from Podunk State, after all. Forget famous collaborators, I had no collaborators.

          I applied for TT jobs and they laughed me out. I applied for postdocs and they laughed at me. Meanwhile, my grad school colleagues who had CVs 1/3rd my length got TT jobs (or at least a second chance to postdoc). They had advisers who cared. I got zippo.

          F*ck my adviser. And f*ck me for choosing her.

          • well Karam, what were you thinking. By your own admission you had 3 solo publications, if you did not care including your advisor, why should she care about recommending you?. On those publications you could have included some famous people who would have to write grandiose letters…..but you choose to go the selfish way, so you are served now. See? you have to realize that publications are a coin for you to BUY things

          • Not sure why Karam should include other people in the publication if they have not real contribution, assuming that all the works are solo.

          • Were all the works performed in her lab and with the supplies/materials purchased by her? If that is the case, she should be an author unless she has officially declined being on the paper(s). If that is not the case and you have your own funding, then you should definitely be the only author on the paper.

      • As a doctoral student at the liminal half-way point between student and PhD-er (i.e., eternal student), I disagree with the blanket concept of “those who retain their humanity are the exception.” I believe that there are a lot of nice people in academia, inclusive of those people with influence and power. Just watch your esteemed professors/advisors, when they are around their esteemed colleagues. All folks have tough skins to penetrate and some folks choose to have thicker skins than others (for reasons that work for them). I think good academic networking involves studying scholars and locating their interests, inspiration, and purpose. If some folk’s idea of “nice” makes you gag, good! You found it– now, run. I’m just saying that locating “nice” may take a step outside yourself and a little more effortful, outside-the-box thinking.

  4. Dear Karen, I find your blog a great source of support and perspective for my own work as a graduate advisor. I wish you would write a follow-up post on the “nice advisor” problem, addressed to us nice advisors. I aspire to your level of effective bluntness, but I often find myself choking up and couching my criticisms in such “constructive” terms that my advisees can miss the underlying hard truths.
    Many times I long to say, “This writing sample is boring and shallow, and nobody is going to give you a job/fellowship based on it.” But don’t want to be toxic or undermining, so instead I say, “Use active verbs to make your writing more vivid! Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence and evidence to support a claim! Frame your argument and claims as a response to arguments and claims in the current literature – refer to scholars X and Y!” And my advisees think their work is basically okay, when it’s not.

    • What a wonderful and candid comment, nice lady advisor! I will certainly follow up, perhaps this week. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I will even quote Tony Robbins (I know, shudder). But he said this thing on Oprah (I know!), that has been poking and niggling at me for weeks about what “nice” really does in the world, especially among women. Stay tuned.

      • Dear Karen,

        I arrived at this discussion by clicking through the links from your “guest post: death of a soul” which in turn I had clicked to from reading the Terran Lane blog “on leaving academia.” now in late July 2012.
        I thank you for sharing your stories and also for being so responsive to reader comments. What puzzles me, though, is that your statement here regarding “nice” advisors seems to me to just underline why you felt you had no community when you were in a position of power in academia. Your explanation above to grad students and jr fac about managing power, to me is especially disturbing as it sounds just like corporate thinking, which is exactly the kind of thinking that is currently undermining academia. Yes, advisors have to be trenchant critics, that’s “tough love,”so to speak, and any human interactions benefit from political savvy, but to put it into such ruthlessly hierarchical and one-dimensional terms is, I think, misleading and unfortunate.
        Though I understand that the soul-killing atmosphere you found yourself in at UI was in many ways systemic, I also really want to ask you to think about what you could have done to change it — could you muse about that for people who are still committed within academic institutions? After all, as you say, you were a department head. Dept heads can set a tone and organize events and interconnections that foster community. In fact, they need to or it usually doesn’t happen at the dept level.
        I am tenured at a R1 top public univ. When I first arrived 16 years ago we really did have a sense of community, but the dept grew, and certain people had interpersonal falling-outs (that’s just human), some of my closest colleague/friends went elsewhere, and now I feel very little of the kind of community most of us hope for except that which I constantly foster among my students, both grad and undergrad. I do what I can to keep it up (while trying to keep my family together too). Anyway, I find it contradictory and kind of sad that you are using corporate-style logic in some places on your site to advise people who are turning to you. I wonder if you’d consider re-thinking this.

        • I am not following what you mean by my ‘corporate style logic.’ If you mean my critique of ‘nice’ advisors, I would have to dispute that. True caring is dedicated to the whole person–that means, not just their writing that week, but their overall career prospects and financial well being. Mentoring at that level, in this economy, means being tough indeed. Not mean, but tough. No amount of cookies on their birthday—regardless of the community that might or might not build—replaces the tough love that helps them understand just how monumental the task is before them to secure the tenure track job, and also stay out of crushing debt and off of welfare. At least, that’s my perspective.

    • I realize this is an older post, but looking at this list, it’s hard to know how an adviser can win. Putting aside the stealing research issue (because, of course, totally not acceptable!), these “worst” characteristics are totally contradictory:

      Don’t abusive, negative and undermining, but don’t be nice and friendly! Don’t be unavailable, but don’t be available!

      What on earth is a conscientious adviser to do?

  5. PS I typed that comment hastily on my iPhone, so if you do respond to it, I implore you to correct the several grammatical errors – I meant “us nice advisorS,” and the “they” in the last sentence of para. 1 refers to my students, not to my constructive terms!!

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  7. I had adviser #2 (never around) in both incarnations: primary adviser was flaky AND newly in recovery from two decades of serious alcoholism AND had a huge new book out which won tons. Second reader was in her 4th year AND working on a book AND totally paranoid about not getting tenure. Suffice it to say I wrote my dissertation pretty much by myself (possible if you’re in the humanities as I am), got my PhD, and then wrote a wholly different manuscript for my first book. They weren’t much help w/the job market either. I vowed to be the adviser I never had: attentive, constructively critical, encouraging, and PRESENT. I don’t sugarcoat, but I pay close attention to my advisees’ work and try to zero in on exactly what the problem is. I suppose I’m “nice,” but it seems to have worked for me — I have a terrific job, I’m well-respected in my field, and I have loyal and hardworking students.

  8. I’ad add one: The Deadwood Associate.* You know: The one who wrote the big book or had the big project five (or ten… or twenty…) years ago, got tenure, and then checked out. They may be the reason you chose that grad program, but if they’re not still active in research, RUN AWAY. Besides being poor role models, such advisors will not serve you well at all when you hit the job market.

    *There are actually a number of subspecies of this one: the Deanlet, the Consultant, the Full-Time Parent, etc. My personal favorite is the Reservation Leaver. This is the one who takes the “intellectual freedom” part of tenure so seriously that they spend the rest of their careers half-heartedly pursuing crackpot projects that give the illusion of activity, but are never actually funded, published, etc.

    • I <3 this comment so much. The "Full Time Parent" ooh, ouch! I was that Assoc Prof! And, I was seriously distracted.

    • I read this 6 years too late. I had a combination of “soon to be emeritus/deadwood associate”. Very famous in the field, wrote the ‘bible’ textbook and is internationally known but he is not active in research anymore. As a latinamerican student I was thrilled that someone so famous took me under his wing. Little did I know. I did my whole dissertation on my own. But nobody cares. I finished, graduated and out of his mind. That was a year ago. To this point I have only a single publication and I have been unemployed for a whole year. No prospects of postdocs. You said it: RUN AWAY from this kind of advisor, or else you will be doomed.

  9. Nice always loses? No. I am nice, and I have a 2-2 job, a book coming out with a good press, and a tenure file with strong advance support. It may be that I will *ultimately* lose, whatever that means, but I have not so far. Neither have my nice colleagues. I understand that hyperbole is part of your schtick, but you should keep in mind that plenty of graduate students read your blog as truth. That means that when they read “nice always loses,” they take it as instruction: you must not be nice. This is cynical, because you are presenting a critique of professional culture in a way that perpetuates that which you don’t like about it. In fact, it is possible to be both nice and critical, and I actually think it pays off professionally to treat people well as you vigorously argue about ideas. Anyway, as an intellectual you should know better than to make “always” statements. What’s your evidence?

    • This was an early post, one of my first (possibly my very first–i have to check!) written when I had basically a nonexistent readership. I would not write “nice always loses” now because I’m much more aware of the degree to which people read this blog as “truth.” Indeed, I am somewhat more careful with nuance now, although yes, hyperbole remains part of my schtick, in blogging and in life, as my friends and family know all too well. I don’t believe in rewriting posts, though, so I’m going to let this stand. I think the fact that it has provoked this kind of response from you and other readers makes it a far more effective teaching tool than if I ‘censored’ my older voice. To return to the theme: i’ve seen far more women undone by “nice” than I’ve seen helped by it, so I say to young women starting out, if you have to err on one side, err on the side of not-nice.

  10. Nice always loses? Like the above commenter, I hate this myth of academia more than anything, as it justifies the abusive behavior of all the other “worst advisors.” As someone who left academia for a career in editing commercial non-fiction, I can tell you it is possible to give smart, constructive criticism without being a jerk. It’s even possible to make major criticisms and require a rewrite without seeming like a jerk. And if you can be honest, yet not abusive, with people about their the flaws in their writing, they will be much more likely to improve than if you make them feel like the task is so enormous they will never be able to do it.

    • Exactly! Let’s stop feeding into this myth of academia that nice always loses. As you articulated so well, it only serves to justify the abusive behavior that all too often undermines the very purpose of advising – that of guiding students towards successful completion of their theses or dissertations.

  11. Good advice! Unfortunately for my advisees, I may be a bit too nice sometimes. The one thing I take exception to is your presumption that emeritus are outdated. My father is an emeritus at a top tier university. At the age of 70 he continues to do ground breaking research, reads top journals daily, and attends numerous national and international events. In a white male dominated field, he has repeatedly been honored for his support of women and nonwhite scholars. A young scholar would be missing out if he or she dismissed him as outdated.

  12. Oh. Em. Gee. I wish I’d read this when I first started following you a couple weeks ago. As you know from out Twittere conversation, my current advisor… Well, let’s just say he “has a lot goin’ on.” (I ended up blogging my results; the post is from May 15, if anyone cares to peek.) But I’ll definitely be sizing up one of the prospects I have. I’m only in his class & taking on a half of one upcoming class period, so I’ll chalk his niceness up to lack of more intensive contact. Also: we’ll see what happens when I turn in my term paper.

    Thanks, Karen!

    • I really enjoyed this post. The reason I’ve ventured to this sight are because I have a really bad advisor. I’m going into my 4th year in Biomedical research at Einstein Medical School. My advisor, whom I worked with as her technician for 3 years prior to becoming a student, I think is crazy. Everything I do is never good enough. She constanlty lets us know we don’t work enough. Meanwhile I’m in the lab literally running 50hrs a week. That’s all I can do right now, I have a baby at home and a part-time job on the weekends. We work like dogs in here. I never go to lunch, I just work. Now, this investigaotr is known to be not good to work for. However, I thought we were good until I became the student (her first I might add). I only came back to this woman because it was supposed to be the quickest way to a phd and its completely blown up in my face. I’m now at the point of quitting and just getting a job with my master’s. I’m 34 and cannot afford to be here for another 3+ years…it was not supposed to be that way and now I’m stuck. If was going to be this miserble I would have gone to another lab or another school all together……ugggh..aweful. She is know to be nuts…no boyfriend, no husband, no children, 50 years old, independently wealthy from an inheritence……classic workaholic….boy I picked a winner!!

      • So nice to see someone doing biomedical research. Doing a PhD in humanities is a lot different from doing one that requires experimental research in labs. The European system is also different from the American one. I started a PhD in biotech in a prestigious institute of tech in Europe this year. Less than a half year later, I’m leaving the lab. My ex-boss has some above-mentioned traits of a bad advisor. First, he’s never around and nobody knows why, perhaps too many conferences? Second, he is negative and always tries to motivate his students in a very demotivating way. Third, due to bad management, he’s also a bit schizophrenic due to the fact that he can’t keep track of what projects the students work on. To complete the list, I must add that in disciplines that require experimental research, your advisor must be financially strong, because running your experiments consumes money. The lab I’m leaving does receive sufficient funding, but the group leader hired way too many students and made everybody poor. Furthermore, in biological research, an incoming PhD must receive a certain degree of supervision within the first half year, a critical period. Of course the students must be able to have their own ideas, but that should come with insights from experience, not something you ask an entry-level PhD to do. In summary, for the lab I’m leaving, there is no money, no supervision and no projects, but you have to deliver results! This is in general a very bad deal for a new PhD. 5 months into my PhD, the boss thought I couldn’t deliver the result he wanted for a project that turned out to be much bigger than anyone anticipated. Then he forced me to resign, or fire me the hard way and ruining my reputation. The time point is crazy because in 5 months most American PhDs are still taking courses without having started any research. I didn’t enjoy working for him either, so leaving was a win-win solution for both of us. Luckily I have a 2nd author paper in SCIENCE from my master thesis to help me find another position, and hopefully a better lab.

        For the “nice guys finish last” argument, I dont think it’s completely true. Nicety without competence is not ideal, but truly talented PIs must be able to afford being nice. I don’t ask them to remember my birthday, but at least they shouldn’t make your day a living hell. The supervisor of my master thesis is a nice and social person who enjoys playing cards during breaks with his students. Scientifically, he’s a very competent mentor and accomplished in terms of publishing. Such PIs must be a rare breed, but I know that they exist, since I worked with one.

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  16. My adviser is a universally agreed nice guy. Ha I guess I already have a clue.

    He is intelligent and diligent. He is available to students most of the time.

    The problem is that he criticizes a student’s thinking with a blink. Most of his directions end up no where.

    Should I leave or stand up for my idea?

  17. Let me make the situation clearer.

    My adviser has a different research interest from me. I joined his program because of his cooperation with another professor. My adviser was new in this area. But that professor left later.

    So most of his time and energy is devoted to his research. But he is too nice to be absent from me. He is also too intelligent to believe that I can do my job. Therefore all my ideas end up in two directions.

    The first direction is a pat on the back and encouragement. For the next half or a year, I keep working on simulation and meet with him on a weekly basis. Right after I collect my data and present to him with my analysis, I am told that it makes no sense and no need to go further after less than 1 minute looking at my report and listening to my reasoning.

    The other direction is to deny my idea and ask me to go the other way. The problem is such work ends up the same way after I collect data and do analysis. Then he directs me to my original idea without knowing that he already denied it and why. It is another year’s working leading no where.

    The following happened for real. One of his students submitted a paper to a peer-reviewed conference. The paper got accepted and would be presented. The night before the presentation, my adviser called this student and told him that there was a deadly fault in the paper because another student said so. My adviser and the student author had been working on the project for a year, meeting on a weekly basis. They went through the whole process together: ideas, simulation, data, analysis, paper writing, slides making. Right before the presentation, the adviser believed that it was wrong because another student told him that. Then the student author had to reason with him again. And the so-called deadly fault was not there.

    Is this normal to a phd advisor? BTW, this student’s research also falls out of the adviser’s interest.

  18. I had a bad advisor (for me, it seems like other people in my lab likes him). He has never been constructive about my research nor positive about me…. I was wondering if you had any advice about switching advisors? (especially in later years of the program). Hopefully you’ll see this, thanks prof!

    • It is doable but awkward and treacherous. But definitely try to do it before you’re in the final diss writing/defense stage—you want the new advisor to get on board in time to help direct the diss, and to know you well enough to write powerful letters. You should check with mentors you trust in your dept to ask what the political fallout might be. Generally it’s very touchy and feelings and egos are easily bruised…even if the guy doesn’t love you all that much as his advisee!

      • I know this is an old post and therefore, I hope I get an answer as I am a little desperate now. My husband is in a humanities program and is finishing his last chapter of his dissertation. He always used to get really good feedback from his dissertation advisor (also chair of the dept. and he holds lots of other positions). Not only did this advisor not teach my husband about how to write a diss proposal or a chapter (he learned that later after I gave him the advice my department and advisor gave me), but also, he boycotts my husband’s advancement. Some examples are that he has proposed my husband for a fellowship and the next day tells him that no, that he is proposing someone else for it; he has also sent letters of recommendation when it was already too late, although he had more than a month to do send it, and moreover, he always tells my husband to write the professor’s letter of recommendation. This last thing happens all the time. The last time he had to write a letter, he told my husband that it was his fault that he missed a fellowship because he wrote the letter badly! (that was his job!).
        I could tell you many other things that happen, this is just a bit of the problem. But as a consequence of all this, my husband is now depressed, does not want to confront his advisor, and feels there is no sense in going on.
        The department is not going to help him as his advisor has all the power.
        What should he do?

        • Ester, unfortunately this is not an uncommon story; your husband has an abusive advisor. The only thing he can do is just finish for his own sake within these constraints, or quit. Given that he’s already writing the diss, it is likely too late to start again with someone new. He should find a replacement for the advisor regarding letters of rec, or better yet, use Interfolio to place one recommendation from that advisor on file, which your husband can write himself. He might consider working with me on his rec letter for himself as candidates usually cannot write good and effective letters for themselves. It goes without saying that it’s appalling that the advisor is making him do that, but do know that it’s not unusual and many candidates have to write their own letters. Once a good letter is written, just keep it on file with interfolio and then your husband will control the letter himself.

          I don’t know that he should confront him; i don’t know the situation well enough to advise re that. But he can certainly put his head down and finish as quickly as possible to be removed from his abusive grasp. This is what i had to do with my own abusive advisor.

          • Dear Dr. Karen,
            Thank you so much for responding to my post. I read it to my husband and he will be contacting you for help with the letter of recommendation. Thanks especially for discouraging me from telling him to confront his professor. I have a very strong personality and the last thing I want to do is give him a bad advice, which is why I asked you.
            Since this is so common, I hope this post helps others. Even though you can’t do much to change your situation, it helps knowing you are not alone.

  19. I am 5 years into a 6 year science Ph.D. program that shall remain anonymous

    I think I may have an advisor that is in all 5 categories. If you are scratching your head to figure out how someone can be both 1 and 2+3, I should add that I think my advisor may have some kind of split personality disorder. Also, I should clarify that by “never around”, I actually mean she never mentors or advises or helps me in any way. I am fine working independently, but sometimes I really really need her to submit a letter of recommendation for a fellowship or to read a draft of a manuscript and she can’t be bothered to do so even if I remind her of the deadline daily.

    By “steals my work”, I mean that over the past 5 years I have worked near her (“with” seems too strong….) she has taken away multiple projects I have started and given them to other students to complete. When they prove to be unable to pick up where I have left off, she has forced me to do this work for them, and then allows them to pass it off as their own. I have attempted to report her for academic misconduct, but the university was uninterested in helping me. This was one year ago. I have since then continued to do my own work (when I can) plus the work of two other students.

    I have been to my department head twice about switching advisors. He says my advisor is so nice and likable, surely if I tell her how I feel she will turn things around. Speaking with her has resolved nothing and the department head won’t budge on allowing me to find a new lab.

    Should I throw in the towel on my Ph.D 5 years in?

    • This is a terrible story. Just remember that grad school is short and a career is long, so if you can finish the phd and get a job, you’ll never really have to suffer from this advisor again. The question is how close you are to finishing and how possible it is for you to finish. If you can, I’d say you should. You’ll want to make sure the advisor can/will write you a strong rec letter for the job market and meanwhile cultivate a lot of better people both inside and outside the dept to be your supporters and letter writers for your career after Ph.D..

  20. I truly wish I had found someone with this type of advice sooner. Unfortunately, I just finished my undergrad with a painfully terrible advisor. I went into undergrad with a super positive attitude believing that I’d win him over with my skills and talents. By the time I had caught on to the routine, it was to late. My credits were so specific to the school and my program that transferring was useless and would have necessitated 2 extra years of work. Unfortunately, now I’m far behind in finding positions and have no support from my former advisor.

    I think my advice to someone with a bad advisor would be to change advisors or schools immediately without hesitation. I realize that in “real life” or the “real world” or however you want to describe it one has to deal with difficult people. This, however, is just to important. It isn’t your responsibility to come up with strategies or force someone, whose job it is to help you by the way, to actually do their job. Don’t wait for it to get better, get out.

  21. Hello,

    Here’s another type. I’m not sure where this one fits in.

    I took 6 months off of academia between masters and thesis and so we agreed to work together unofficially for 6 months, because, in my country, the rules are now that we are to finish a thesis in 3 years, not so easy. so an unofficial headstart, is the new tactic.
    In my field and school, it is common to do 50% practical work and 50% theoretical work. This advisor is rather high profile. She said she enjoyed reading my master’s thesis, was interested in working with me, but wanted me to do 90-100% theoretical work. When I asked three times over three months, her what she liked about my master’s thesis, she never answered, I had little indication of what she thought I should or shouldn’t do in terms of approach to thesis writing. She only wanted me to research subject that had a link to hers. I told her I was motivated by practical work, so she had me prepare to organize an exhibit around practical work i will have done. At very last minute she then switched it and asked me to basically organize a conference around her practical work with a prestigious foreign university (in a language that i speak far better than her), skipping my practical work and the related exhibit
    Basically she was trying to use me as a free, unpaid research and administrative assistant without encouraging me to do any of my own entirely separate research work. I checked with more senior professors and they said her approach was entirely unethical and she will apparently get a speaking to.
    I have researched whether purely theoretical thesis is advantageous in my field and it most definitely is not! I now have lost 3 months of time and research and momentum.

    and i need to attempt to fine a new advisor. i have less momentum now after having been discouraged for 3 months.

    Early on i did core research relative to my subject which is not unrelated to hers. i’m sure she will use whatever she wants of my subject for her own projects.

    i have since gotten feedback from various sides that she is intensely ambitious and can thus be manipulative and is without a doubt calculating, not forthright. her fame comes first, for sure, well before integrity, for example.

  22. Hello,

    It is really nice to see someone that seeing profs as a human being rather than god and telling the possible mistakes that they are commonly doing. My prof. is schizophrenic, negative, really rude, and commonly want me to change the data a little bit. Generally, we are arguing and not speaking. He is like a god, just wants some work done and I do not want to do some stupid experiments without a reason or any explanation. But my prof. just does not tell me the details of “my” experiments. I have many problems with him however I passed my qualification exam and I am in my third years. I took anti-depression pills last year, not to cry every moment and left the wet lab for a couple of months to study my qualification exam. Now, I came back to wet lab and my prof. shoutings at me as always. I love science, I am really enthusiastic to any subjects of it, however I want to quit my phd due to my prof because I am not happy and every day he shouts at me for any possible or not possible reasons. I cannot change my advisor because he wont let me go and there is no prof. who would like to take him on. So I really need some advice 🙂

  23. I might add another worst advisor, The Customer Service Prof(essional). This would be the advisor who talks a good game but utterly fails to deliver. They dazzle you with promises of collaborations, publications, timely completion, funding, conferences, that never quite seem to materialize. Departments do this too, maybe especially to competitive applicants, and I learned this the hard way with my masters. Now, as I’ve carefully evaluate PhD opportunities I have simply stopped my pursuit of those where I feel too much like someone is running a salesjob on me. Which brings me to another point: Potential and existing graduate students in my experience seem so socialized toward underconfidence and timidness being conditioned maybe through years of primary, secondary, and undergraduate education to pleasing others rather than developing a sense of their own worth or merits. That, and/or students are caught up on broad reputation metrics (e.g. size of name/rep in the field, rank of institution), rather than any idea of what works best for them. The idea they/we can also evaluate institutions, departments and advisors on a personal level sometimes seems lost on many us (long story there).

  24. Karen,

    What’s your opinion on administrator-advisors (i.e. writes grants for the department, in charge of the hiring committee, serves as the negotiator between the department and the Dean of Humanities, etc.)? I figure there are both pros and cons to this; on the one hand, they’re often more established, visible, and active, as well as great at dealing with departmental politics and networking. On the other hand, they’re often extremely busy and may not have time for proper advising. Thoughts?

    Hopefully this doesn’t get buried in the flurry of emails in your inbox. Thanks for your time!

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  26. I am also an NSF-GRFP recipient. I have an adviser with traits 4, 3, and 2. No matter how hard I work or what success I have, it’s never enough. I feel like I’m going crazy.

    • My advisor combines traits 4 and 3. Plus a bit of insult once in a while, disguised as small ironic comments. Over the last 3 years, I’ve grown more and more terrified of her. She has made me doubt of everything I do and of myself. I wish I had made a better background check on her before joining this project with her.
      I think your advice on how to deal with 3 is the only thing that can possibly save me.

      • I also have a chairperson with both #3 and #4 characteristics. This senior professor, “Doc X”, has been extremely high achieving, yet has clear inferiority issues. These get thinly veiled (Doc X is pretty transparent despite contrary belief) by a pompous attitude and constant declarations of excellence.

        This professor takes pride in not being the ‘nice professor’ (which is a good thing) but the honest critiques can be biting and spill into personal criticisms of students. I’ve witnessed, overheard or heard about comments from Doc X that were true (yet truly fucked up) such as, “the main reason you’ve made it this far is because of your white privilege”. Ouch. Similar to what Another Gradgirl stated, other insults and threats are often subtle insinuations or negative, unfounded assumptions made in blanket statements.

        This does not negate the fact that Doc X can be quite caring, always present and willing to give feedback, funny and all around generous. However I’m beginning to learn that, at least with some past advisees, those acts of generosity can at times come with some controlling manipulation of students’ personal endeavors. This professor has a reputation for being rather nasty and mean to grad students and undergraduates, yet is indeed a stellar teacher and has won several awards.

        The inconsistencies in advising often happen as a result of understandable factors such as memory lapse due to busyness; but also due to an unwillingness to be wrong and fear of giving the wrong advising. When the hypocrisies are observed and called out, the professor then takes the defensive, projects his/her issues and plays the victim. Doc X has a serious ego problem and wants to have a lasting name in the field (understandable, this is what most scholars desire), and attempts to use students in the lab to achieve a reflection of this success. Doc X’s former spouse is a well known name in the same field, yet is an independent scholar with no PhD, which only fuels insecurities. Many of my peers don’t even know that they were ever married.

        I could write all day because clearly I know too much about this professor. I’ve been warned by several times over the years to be careful in dealing with Doc X. So far, I’ve for the most part flown under the radar. I’m in my sixth year, praying to be finished around 2015-16; and Doc X aims to retire in the next few years. There is a long line of former graduate students who struggled with and eventually rebuffed this professor, and I’m glad there won’t be many more after me. In the meantime I’m trying to keep my head down, do my work well, and finish without compromising my integrity, humanity, or sanity.

  27. I completely agree with this article. Me and several people have had problems with one particular lecturer. During my studies several students had this supervisor who was passionate and lived an aspirational academic lifestyle for many students. I decided not to carry on with academia yet due to family issues.

    A few years later I have found that she has published two books similar to my dissertation and another on my previous essay that I was going to expand when doing a PhD. These were two very unique ideas that was pretty much unwritten upon at this point. When I say similar I mean the exact same topic, literature, and theoretical approach. I was fine with it at this point as I was happy with my career. I would have liked to work on my ideas at some point, but by being beaten to the punch it sort of took the impetus out. Basically, I could live with it.

    What gets worse is that one of my friend’s carried on to do a PhD and was supervised by the same person. My friend came up with a new interdisciplinary theoretical approach. Due to tragic family issues my friend had to take a year break. When my friend carried on they found that the supervisor had published an article on the approach (but based on a different country with the same context). My friend was upset, but at this point it was halfway through the PhD. When writing the PhD the supervisor became very critical about certain aspects (i.e. that does make sense, everyone already knows about this, take this approach instead, etc.). Despite protests my friend finally followed the supervisor’s advice. This meant a huge re-write in the last year of the PhD and even in the final month.

    This is where it gets even worse. During this period the lecturer was applying for funding in a research area very similar to my friend’s PhD (i.e. same but wider focus) and was pretty much dangling a post-doc position if he/she gets it. The lecturer asked my friend to write the proposal and due to the possibility of the post-doc and needing the supervisor’s reference to get a job in the future my friend wrote it. The lecturer got the funding.

    Near the end of the PhD my friend started noticing on Facebook that the lecturer was referencing all the ideas that he/she asked my friend to take out of the PhD as though the lecturer had just came up with them (with the lecturer’s academic friends lauding him/her with compliments) and publishing articles on them. The lecturer even had the nerve to email my friend and write something to the effect of ‘your ideas have generated a lot of work for me’ (almost word for word quote)!

    My friend bit their tongue due to the possibility of the post-doc and the need for a good reference. Now it turns out their is no post-doc.

    These were also not isolated instances. Another PhD student of the same supervisor asked them to give feedback on an application for research funding for new academics. The supervisor advised against it. It then turned out that the supervisor applied for the funding themselves instead and got it (despite not being a ‘new academic’).

    I really wish there was a way to warn PhD students of supervisors like this, but my friend is still dependent on a good reference to get a job so does not want to rock the boat.

    • I understand the frustration of the students but you should put yourself in the professors position What should he do sit and wait that you come back and do the work. Having good ideas is nice but what counts is work and implementation. I have an idea of an electric car but do I have made it – no. Your job is also to write proposals and generate ideas for other students. It is unfair if you don’t get phd but if you do then everything is fair.

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  29. Hi,

    I really love your perspectives. I am not sure whether my situation could be seen as one in which my adviser has verbally abused me or not. His email looks like orders, and he seems to communicate in a very negative way. Always negative comment, indicating my incompetency and stupidity. For example, he would say it was very very basic to do xxxxx; you should never—–; you should—————; he is not American, he is from Korean as I am. So I feel that he kind of took advantage of the same cultural background and talk to me in a way that is very uncomfortable, very demeaning, very upsetting. When he communicated with domestic American students, he is far more polite, and dares not to say anything sounding like an authority. He always smiled to them and used lots of things like would you please xxxx, if you would——, that would be great, etc.

    In summary paper for a week’s readings, when an American student directly added a comment that he did not understand one of the articles at all, he would praise him in class and said that he would really appreciate such comments. But in my paper, he would directly write that: you don’t understand this article at all. Obviously, he uses two criteria when dealing with students. I really cannot bare his way of communication. Is this abuse? I am not sure, but I am sure he makes me upset, depressed and very sad, sometimes.

    I really how I can solve this, I even think of quitting the doctoral program several times.

    Thanks so much!

  30. What was your situation at UH? I’m working on my thesis there now as an undergrad and I’m deeply afraid this great advisor is a “too nice” one.

  31. “They are old. They made their reputation in decades past. They may have been highly successful 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 their theoretical foundations are old.”

    This is just absolute nonsense! Well maybe it’s true in the field of anthropology, but that just goes to say something about the field doesn’t it! The Math and Physics emeritus professors I’ve met have all been brilliant. Maybe that’s because they’ve actually been using their brains in their work instead of speculating on things that become irrelevant within a year or two.

    Otherwise the list is good.

  32. Karen, thank you for your excellent blog. This post was great fun to read. The take-home point here is, phd students, get up and stand up for yourselves. My advisor was in the vicinity of number 4 and 3. In a weird turn of events, during a group meeting during my last year, he threatened to cancel my defense (already scheduled and I had accepted a postdoc offer). I stood up for myself and a huge scandal followed. At the end of the meeting, this was followed by a job offer to stay as a postdoc in his group!

  33. I would also watch out for ‘The Paranoid’. My first PhD advisor was warm and wonderful with all of his advisees…but full of paranoia about other profs. (There were indeed strong ideological factions in the large dept so it seemed sort of natural). It was nice to be part of his in-group until he and I disagreed about the direction my work was taking. I decided it made more sense to have another member of my committee as my primary advisor and all hell broke loose.
    Later, I learned that there had been similar fallings-out with most of his previous advisees and subsequent ones as well! The department never cautioned any students about this pattern and numerous students quit their program and/or had difficulty getting references from him after they finished. This was in a top-ranked university.
    A big beware to grad students: avoid advisors with a strong Us vs Them outlook. Sooner or later, you will be a Them.

  34. Dear Karen,

    Thank you for your blog post. I have suffered through a bad advisor in the past, and am now dealing with another not-so-great advisor. He never offers comments on anything I send him, and when he does they are usually not very specific. I am looking for post docs now, and he’s just not helpful with connections. I’m basically all on my own, and I fear that I just won’t make it.

    I have found though that emeritus scholars oftentimes offer great advice. One read my entire dissertation and commented on every other page. I thought that was extremely helpful. True their theories are old, but sometimes that is an advantage. You’re right though, it just wont help me with connections. It’s a big problem.

  35. You are FUNNY, Karen. Nice posts. Unfortunately, my advisor hits 2 of the 5…can’t wait until I leave and hoping my future is not screwed.

  36. “Steals your work” seems sort of pointless… the advisor’s name is usually one every single thing the student publishes while in grad school already…

    “If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.”
    For those of us that don’t cry, are suicidal thoughts and other symptoms of depression acceptable substitutes?

    • In the humanities advisors’ names are not usually “on” grad student work. Then it’s more a case of stealing ideas and publishing as his or her own.

      Suicidal thoughts and depression are a different thing entirely. Systemic abuse or neglect is not the ideal here. We’re looking for wake-up calls, shocks to the system, things that shake you out of delusion or complacency.

      • Well I don’t know about the humanities, since I’m in a STEM field, but my advisor has been a co-author on everything I published, which seems to be the norm: if there are two authors, it’s a good bet it’s a graduate student and an advisor.

        The humanities do seem very different from what I read in this blog of yours, and I don’t envy humanities folks at all.

  37. I had an incredibly nice and supportive advisor. He has been a true Doktorvater. I never, ever felt that he wasn’t fully on my side. This is not to say he never made me cry — he did. But he was always careful to separate the thesis director who needed to kick me in the arse from the mentor who picked me back up and told me there was no doubt I could do the job. An advisor can be nice AND painfully honest.

  38. I’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with my “nice” advisor — who is also a power-broker. She’s the top of the field, widely respected (as in one of the three go-to people in her subfield, runs a major center, and her name means something), and makes time for extraordinarily constructive criticism. It’s possible to be wise, sharp, and on point without being mean. It’s possible to give sage advice and be human. It’s possible to maintain an active research agenda and look out for students. It’s possible to read carefully and critically and offer comments kindly. It’s possible to push students to be better in humane, graceful ways. Let’s find and tout and reward more of these people.

    • This is right on. What a great advisor.

      One addition: Advisors are people too, so sometimes they are late, have family emergencies, are being harassed or beat up by other forces, etc. Its hard to always handle everything gracefully and effectively sometimes.

  39. You should really get a reality TV deal for TPII: America’s Next Top Professor. You are the Tyra Banks for hopeful academics. Maybe that will help people understand what you are saying about being nice not being helpful. Not being nice doesn’t mean not being empathetic. Tyra cares about her models a lot — but she also knows that being nice to them is not going to move them forward in the show or in their modeling careers. It is a tough, tiring, catty business, a lot like academia, actually — you have to have the right “package” and know how to sell it in the current market if you are going to make it.

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  41. I enjoy this blog, and have (sadly) witnessed much of this behavior. I’m sending a comment in order to make a request. Having recently lost an incredibly brilliant 27-year-old nephew to suicide, I’m asking that all of us think twice before using phrases such as, “Don’t shoot yourself in the head.” I know it was meant to be a light-hearted comment in the text above, but it really stings when read by depressed folks and their families. Another comment above asks if suicidal thoughts are an ok substitute for crying in the advisor’s office. This may or may not have been a joking comment — thank you, Karen, for addressing it as you did. Making light of suicidal thoughts is never ok. As an educated community we are making progress self-censoring racist and homophobic language. Now let’s work on this one.

  42. Really enjoyed your article until the final ‘bonus’ bad advisor. In my experience in grad school, I found the ‘old guys’ in my department to be the most demanding, the most up-to-date (none of that tenure review, next-big-thing distraction), and the most willing to let me run with ideas someone else hadn’t had already. Sure they were critical–they had to be; they were mentoring doctoral students, not grade school children. As one of those older faculty members now, I adhere to what those old guys taught me–be honest, be thorough, be attentive, be available.

    • I completely co-sign this as it was also my experience in graduate school (in the life sciences). Certainly there are people like those described in the post, who could maybe be described as “pre-retirees.” But the old guard also contains battle-hardened veterans who are just as intellectually rigorous, demanding, and excited about the field as they ever were. It’s probably hard for new grad students to tell the difference, but I think if you’re intimidated by them, that’s a good sign that they have something important to teach you.

  43. Just a note: in some fields (economics and finance, say), there is no “first author”. Authors are listed alphabetically. Always. And it is assumed work is equally shared (though it seldom is).

    Also, I would argue an article in a lousy journal (the bottom fifth of peer-reviewed journals in your field, say) may do more harm than good. But this probably depends on your field, your PhD, where you apply, etc.

    • wow, that is timely! I really like this piece and I like your blog too. I’m going to post the link on my TPII FB page. Thanks for commenting. Why is it so hard for people to hear that constructive criticism is the nicest thing you can do for someone, and sometimes that criticism is damned hard to take?

  44. Does sitting on a student’s publication for 3 years before deciding to submit to a journal count as an advisor stealing a student’s work? What recourse does a student have in this case?

  45. Thanks for this post. I think the first step of finding and meiteng regularly with your advisor is especially important for graduating on time. Your advisor will know the details of your school and degree and be able to anticipate what you need to do to get everything done on time if that is what you choose.

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  47. I found this searching for how to deal with bad advisors. I’m only in high school, but I’m dealing with a terrible advisor for my school’s magazine. He delayed publication by four months by changing every minor detail, he made us get into trouble through an (illegal) bake sale that he said he filled out the paperwork for (then blamed on me, personally), and more recently stared straight at me as I scrubbed paint off a floor on my knees. I have more and more examples – generally just very overzealous and very creepy. I have no idea how to get him to back off the magazine process and me, specifically. If I try to get rid of him, the politics of the school means that no-one else will be our advisor and the magazine will die.

    Just venting in these comments because no-one else will listen, haha. Maybe now that we’ve published our first issue he’ll take a backseat approach and stop bothering me. This post is very good, BTW, although I’ll never go to grad school!

  48. Dear Karen,

    I have been reading your posts regularly in the past couple of months and they have been very helpful to me on preparing my job application.

    I am in the 5th year of my PhD in Engineering in one of the top schools in Canada. I have been working very hard since the day I started. I was aiming for a job in academia since the day I started my PhD (worked in the industry for 3 years after Masters). And so I was very determined to have good publications. In my field for a PhD to have say 3 good publications from PhD research is considered very good. I have 3 published papers already (2 in very top journals of my field), with my 4th paper (potential for publication in a very good journal) waiting on my advisor’s desk to be read since September 2013!!! He keeps promising that he will read it next week. Furthermore, I am finishing my lab work to write my 5th paper.

    In our department, PhD students graduate with 3 to 4 paper-format chapters in their thesis. My advisor just wants more and more. I am his 4th PhD student. The other 3 are in their 7th and 8th years. On several occasions my advisor has told me that I will not graduate before the other 3 PhD students who started before me. He literally told me “let me make this clear for you, I will not read any of your work until these 3 are gone”. And he is not reading their work either. They were all supposed to be gone by Apr 2013, then Aug 2013, and then Dec 2013 and now Apr 2014… It is a very sad situation were he just does not care about our lives. Last year, he was super stressed and busy with the submission of his tenure dossier (according to him he was brain-dead!!). After submission, he has been busy with teaching a new course and writing grant proposals. He keeps making promises and never puts time to read our work.

    Last summer I was looking for postdoc positions and he told me that I will be graduated by Feb 2014. He even wrote recommendation letters for me to potential postdoc advisors mentioning Feb 2014 graduation. I got an offer for a funded postdoc from an Ivy league school, very famous researcher and a great project. I believe this opportunity as a door to my potential future in academia. The offer is valid for me to start in spring or summer.

    I have talked to the PhD Students Director in our department, according to him and a few other Profs I have consulted with, I have done enough contributions to the field to defend my thesis. I am in a situation where my advisor is not reading my work, I have a very good opportunity waiting for me that I might very likely loose, and I don’t know what to do.

    Do you have any recommendations? I would really appreciate your advice.

  49. I’d like to comment that I think a lot of the problem with bad advisers is a lack of training in mentoring on behalf of their home universities. If there are still bad advisers out there who are not mentoring well, who were graduate students before and “know” what it takes to be a good mentor then why are they still bad mentors? After reading this post, I wonder what evidence exist that “tougher” advisers produce more successful academics, or those potentially prepared to be more successful. It would be great if you could point me to those studies, and, of course, any studies that find the opposite trend of “nicer” advisers producing more successful students or vice versa.

    I think there is something to be said about having someone who is a tough adviser. Advisers can’t pretend there is nothing wrong all the time and expect their students to do well, this would obviously be a lack of mentoring entirely. However, I do believe that the extreme opposite of this – consistently being tough – is also a lack of mentoring. Students are never going to learn anything from someone saying, “this is terrible so fix it or you’ll not amount to anything in academia.” As a 5th year PhD student, I find what works best for me is for my adviser to point out what I’ve done wrong and then walk me through how to fix it. So for the case of not getting publications, I think this would be the best scenario: “You don’t have any publications and that’s a terrible thing in academia. Let’s sit down and talk about why you don’t have any and try to see how we can mend this issue.”

  50. Dear Dr. Karen,

    This blog really resonates with me. Too bad I didn’t discover it earlier! I think my advisor falls in the “negative and undermining” category unfortunately, and I am already entering my fifth year so toughing it out or quitting are the two only options. I usually walk out of our individual meetings feeling I will never be good enough for my advisor, and I am tired of this feeling so I started skipping meetings. After my advisor went in and out of town for a month, these meetings feel more awkward because we haven’t had them regularly, like there’s a disconnection. Each time I walk into the office, she looks like she has no time for me. How do I revert this awkwardness?

    • Having an honest conversation would be a good place to start. “I feel like I’ve gotten off track in recent months, and I’d like to recover momentum. Could we set up a regular meeting or email plan?”

  51. This is a lousy perspective and you shouldn’t be in a field of higher learning if the best advice you can give is to tell people things are lousy and to accept it. Acceptance like yours is the reason academics is fast turning into a stink house of unimaginative tenure-desperate wanks, who once they get tenure become pathetic schemers. But on the bright side there are enough people who care about learning, sharing knowledge and developing new generations of interesting thinkers and I am happy to know them!

  52. As someone prepping letters of recommendation requests, beginning applications, refining writing examples, and balancing a marriage to a pre-tenured professor, your blog is a breath of fresh air. Perhaps the breath comes after a few tears at the reality of what is ahead, but your insight and direction are quite pleasant. I’m grateful to have stumbled upon your blog early through suggestions from both peers and professors. Thanks for looking out!

  53. Karen,
    Great post. I had a pretty great Master’s advisor. He would probably fall under “nice” here but I imagine he would have been a bit “meaner” if he was working with me as a PhD candidate.
    I’m writing to ask for your advice regarding my boyfriend’s former PhD advisor. She falls under category 1. My boyfriend is intelligent, hardworking, and extremely capable. He has taught himself the very complex computer and technical skills necessary to gather and analyze his very large sets of acoustic data, skills his advisor is lacking (not to say she should know everything about this particular technology, but suffice it to say that she does not understand, and has not made attempts to understand how is he doing what he is doing). After difficulties moving forward with his PhD program after 3 years of work, he made motions to remove his PhD advisor’s husband from his committee, in part due to do strong evidence of a conflict-of-interest and feeling like that committee member was contributing more to his wife’s decisions than my boyfriend, who understands to this day better than anyone on his committee the most appropriate way forward in his work. He has consulted with other PhDs and found support and agreement among the best in the field.
    After he asked for the husband to be removed from the commmittee, the advisor terminated my boyfriend’s funding by resigning as his advisor, citing that they had an impasse and could find to way no work together any longer, despite extensive email evidence that my boyfriend was extremely flexible and willing to work towards a solution, this following a meeting with department heads and deans designed to do exactly that. The resignation came 2 or 3 days before the committee was supposed to meet and lay out the science of the situation and come to an agreement. The advisor canceled this meeting to avoid the inevitable conclusion that she and her husband were both wrong. In the process, she lied to the associate dean and to my boyfriend about how she had come to her decisions.
    Since then, she has reported on my boyfriend’s work, citing him for gathering the data but not for the analysis, which she does not understand and could not replicate in a million years.
    If anyone laid it all out, looked at the emails and the reports, and the science, they could see with complete transparency what has transpired. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is in the right because he has shared all of the communications with me since this began, and because he has explained to me in detail his analyses and statistics. Oh, and he’s an extremely good person who just wants to “save the (insert type of wild animal species here).”
    The committee member husband and advisor wife have since launched a campaign of slander to keep him away from their offices and from talking to other students, god forbid they learn the truth. They have ACTUALLY told other students to “beware” of my boyfriend because of his apparent likeliness of stealing computers and equipment, and sent lab members to check on him when he was in the building. To consider that my boyfriend is a thief is downright laughable.
    He is in an independent PhD program, so there is no “department” head to go to (or that’s what the department head of the advisor’s department says). The associate dean of the graduate school has not been supportive, and has subtly suggested that he might be dismissed if he appeals his advisor’s conduct to higher-ups in the university.
    He has suffered financially as well as professionally from this experience and he has the evidence to prove why. His only crime is being too accommodating and using discretion to not speak badly (the truth) about the husband and wife team.
    Short of hiring a lawyer, what on earth can he do to get back his work, his reputation, and his money?

  54. I have had 2 advisors because my first one retired. The first one, who should have retired many years ago, was like the Greybeard/Curmudgeon/Emeritus advisor described in the article. Plus nothing was ever good enough and she was never around. After a year of throwing around ideas, she had me go back to my very first one (that she didn’t like when I first mentioned it). My second advisor is young, energetic and very positive. However, he never answers my calls or emails, keeps losing important forms, and delayed my IRB approval by not turning in his IRB training. I have now been waiting over a month for my grade from last term’s dissertation research class. I have emailed/called/texted 5 or 6 times and the University has placed ME on academic suspension because no grade was turned in. Very frustrating, but I don’t feel like I can get angry at him or go over his head because he holds my future in his hands. I HATE the sucking up part most of all!! I will be happy when that is over.

    • Be sure and have meetings with your DGS and Dept Head about this, and be very professional and factual and forceful in your statement of ther situation (ie, don’t go all emotional, and don’t go all diffident and querulous)

  55. There is one more characteristic of a bad supervisor/advisor.

    He wrote a proposal and has a way for it. It seems that it will flow nicely, but, suprisingly, it will not because he/she just out together som e nice words to win the funding of the proposed project but never did a quick research how to SET UP the project. Conclusion: he/she is not a supervisor but a salesman!

  56. Dear Karen,

    Wonderful article. I am doing post-doc now and can clearly related with your story with my own story. I would say that “nice”ness is a characteristic “frequently” found in academic salesmen profs but not it does not necessarily mean the nice prof is ALWAYS worst. My own advisor was a nice person and I wish I would have read your article 6 yrs back. I graduated without a single paper and later on I feel the heat as I struggle for job in real world. Thanks for posting this since it is going to help not only future student but also the advisors for sure.

    I sailed through PhD… not a stellar work as I found that the topic I chose was also not well in lone with my lab’s expertise and I did hard work and frequently hit dead or non-conclusive ends. My “nice” advisor gave a go ahead for it. Now I am trying hard after I graduate to get that work published, especially since the work in that area was the greatest time sink. I have 2 papers out from total 4 so far over a period of more than 2 years. I have nice relation with my advisor and have respect for giving me strength and support during my PhD. However, over the time that is getting offset by the fact that he is not paying attention to my papers and I feel very bad that the hard work, late night work in lab is going unnoticed. I have sent final draft and at least 26 e-mail reminders to which every time I get response that – “I am working on it… within couple of days it will be done”.
    My question is what I can do the best to get it published (I can’t avoid him btw and won’t prefer the route for solo publication) ?

  57. I suppose my advisor straddles these categories, in that he’s non-critical and out-of-touch, but also resoundingly not-nice. A greybeard/curmudgeon (as well as chair of my department, to which he accepted me, frankly, because my MA advisor was a favorite former student of his), he’s gruff, abrupt, and deliberately awkward in his dealings with almost everyone, and I have basically been terrified of him from the day we met. He’s discouraged me from TA’ing and conferencing (both of which I’ve done), as well as from trying to publish (which I’ve tried but have failed to do, largely due to the fact that I’ve tended to get by on style instead of argument, but no one except junior faculty ever even bothered to bring this up), brushing aside these concerns as personal neuroses. When I voice these concerns, he simply snaps that all I need to do is write “a really good dissertation,” even though he has offered no guidance or intellectual mentorship throughout the entire process, leading me to pick a topic without a clearly focused research question, to flounder in the archives, and to write proposals too weak to secure any kind of dissertation completion funding. Because I am a dedicated worker, I have still turned in four shitty, rambling chapters on which he has offered no substantive developmental feedback whatsoever, even though I have continually and concernedly pointed out their utter lack of argument; he does, however, go through them line-by-line circling grammatical infelicities or small errors of fact, for which I guess I am supposed to be grateful.

    To be fair, I was warned he was “hands-off” when I entered the program, but at that point, I was giddy with the fact that I had been offered a free pass to an Ivy and would thereby (I thought) escape the peonage of my prior existence in publishing, and had no real conception of what that would mean. I’ve come to think of him not as a mentor, but as a patron, since that’s basically how he functions; a great deal of his confidence is based in his continued ability to pull strings at various private colleges in order to get his students employed. But at this point, I am nearly out of funding, desperate to graduate, and feel like such a floundering fraud that I’m not sure I’m fit to continue, much less want to. I believe that he can probably get me a one-year job somewhere after next spring, but I also think that my work is so fundamentally weak that I may end up having to walk after that anyway, as I’ve seen much more talented, accomplished, and deserving people do.

  58. I agree, unfortunately in academia, especially biological science too much advisers/professors who should do something else, but not science, I could add one more worse adviser: treat students as annoying child, like go and play with your toys … in that case we do the same experiment 20 -30 times with slight changes, as a result – no publication, patchy results ….

  59. I would like to embellish on the “crazy inconsistency:” the advisers who tell you everything is fine until the zero hour, at which point everything gets called into question. I did my PhD at one of the most prestigious institutions in my profession. I had come from a master’s program that was OK, but certainly not the caliber of what I was walking into. I was well aware of the discrepancy. While I passed all my entrance exams, I knew there were a number of topics where I really and truly needed extra coursework. One adviser kept telling me I didn’t need the remedial coursework, and even KICKED ME OUT of her class because she said I met the exit criteria. One professor told me I had “serious deficiencies” in several areas, but wouldn’t tell me what they were – “you need to see your adviser about that.” (See above about being asked to leave the class.) I did find another adviser, and he at least said to take the coursework I felt I needed.

    Then came qualifying exams.

    I failed half of it and had to re-take the half I failed. Suddenly serious questions were being raised about my ability to finish my doctoral work. Remember: this was the SAME coursework that I had practically BEGGED to take and was told I didn’t need. I somehow muddled through the exams and struggled through every awful moment of it, along with the oral exam, dissertation proposal defense, and finally dissertation defense.

    I am still at a loss to explain or understand why I was, in many ways, PREVENTED from receiving the education I felt I needed, and then told I was deficient. Four years out from receiving my PhD, I am seeing a wonderful counselor who is helping me work through this, since my feelings of stupidity and inadequacy smack me in the face every time I put pencil to paper.

    I now work at four-year liberal arts college, and any time I advise seniors on senior papers, I think of my experience and make sure I am upfront and honest with students about what they need to do. I don’t ever want this to happen to another student.

  60. Here is a story for you: I had experienced pretty much all of the personality types. I had to switch dissertation chairs TWICE. Chair 1# was incompetent and did not her a** from a hole in the wall. She traveled a lot because she worked in a department that handled international campuses for the university. Every time we had our meetings she did not remember what we discussed and prolonged my proposal. She was also depending a lot on her buddy on the committee. He was an idiot too.

    One day, I got so mad that I had to make the dummy a 3-ring binder to keep her up to speed. Then I found out later she did not understand statistics!

    After a year, she stepped down before I was going to fire her! We had a meeting with the Graduate dean of the department and I asked her questions about statistics and she did not know what a factor analysis was! She totally embarrassed herself. She finally stepped down after she embarrassed herself. Then this idiot tried to be on my reformed committee!

    Chair #2 chair was worse. She was very inconsistent. My first mistake picking her was she did not know my research area. My second mistake was that she was extremely inconsistent in her instructions for revisions. My last mistake picking her was that our meetings would turn to arguments. She did not know my subject area so she would make suggestions for deleting major researchers in the field in the lit review. I got so mad that I told her that I wanted another committee member who had a background in my subject to review my lit review.

    After that she got mad after the other committee member agreed with me. So she started prolonging my progress by doing underhanded stuff like not telling me what needs to be done and intentionally waiting after deadlines for my defense.

    It got so bad that the Graduate Dean had to get involved. Then she made up some lie and stated that “she felt threatened by me.” In other words, that I threatened her. What saved me was I recorded all of my meetings with her with an Olympus digital recorder. Because of this I had to meet with the Graduate Dean. In our meeting I told him I had recorded all of my meetings with her and was considering seeking legal action. Next thing I knew she was removed from the dissertation committee as the chair. Another chair was put in just to get me out of school and I graduated.

    So it was a rough ride for me. I certainly had an interesting experience in my doctoral program.

    The key is to strategically pick a chair. Pick one that is competent not an idiot!

  61. Pingback: Cómo elegir el director de tesis adecuado para ti

  62. Who in the world ever decided that professional fierceness and a love for baking (or the desire to remember the birthdays of the people around you) can’t exist within the same human being?

    • They can. I love to bake. However, grad students too often confuse home baked cookies, in and of themselves, for adequate advising.

  63. I have a story for you. My current supervisor used my work to enter herself for consideration for an award at an international symposium without my knowledge, and subsequently won a prestigious young scientist award. Changed the order of the authors on the abstract (she’s first author on the symposium’s website) and everything.

    She was added to my project months AFTER I’d completed the work she won the award for (my original supervisor left my university a couple of months after I’d registered and I was without a supervisor for a year or more).

    To make matters worse, I’d conceived and executed the entire project by myself in its entirety (the project I was originally given was nonsensical).

    Even worse, she deliberately sabotaged my experimental work and has been withholding data I need in order to complete my dissertation and publications (she runs the facility that performed the analysis). Submitted my samples (which took almost two years to prepare) in late 2013, the analysis takes 48 hours.

    She is currently being investigated for research misconduct by my university’s ethics committee. I insisted upon this, but am not hopeful. One of the committee members, presented with a preponderance of evidence, stated that he didn’t understand why I thought her behavior was unethical (!!!).

    HOWEVER the director of the institute I’m at supports this creature in her actions (they’re colluding, have proof), and it looks very much like the ethics committee is going to rule in her favor.

    Can’t tell you what I’m working on at this stage, but it’s a first for my country. Will post full details when I hear back from the ethics committee. Hopefully it’ll be with good news.

    I’m absolutely exhausted at this point, and still need to complete my dissertation in the knowledge that it will probably serve as the foundation for this undeserving, soulless scumbag’s career, while my own future is very unsure. It’s a nightmare.

  64. Hello Karen, I found this post while searching on the internet for an answer to my PhD woes.

    My problems started before I began my program. The professor I requested to be my supervisor left the University for greener pastures. Because there was no one else to match my area of research, my department assigned me to another professor (the ambitious type who supervises many students). It has been hell for me. Because I did not choose her in the first instance, all my work is crap to her.

    My case study choice is China but she said that I will not be doing any field work in China. From the start, she already ruled out my application for language skills acquisition funding. On our first official meeting she told me that it is normal for students to fail their upgrade (my program requires an upgrade exam after the first year)and that if I fail it is normal. She is already hinting that she will fail me after the first year during my FIRST meeting with her!

    She feels my case study choice should be another other country because China is not her area. Her area of specialization is Gender, quite different from mine so I am often excluded from invitations for conferences, publications, teaching, etc. The other student she supervises is always bragging to me about how they are teaching a summer course together, attending fancy dinners and how she was told that her dissertation will change the world. I know I should ignore these kind of things but it is hard to when the relationship one has with a supervisor determines how well their academic career will start. I feel no connection to my supervisor and she does not understand me at all.

    I had a random discussion with another professor who specializes on China (He fits your description of the Emeritii) and for once, it was great to discuss with someone who talked about my future career beyond the PhD. I wanted to include him as a reader or co-supervisor for support on China but she refused, she says she does not see the reason why she should include him. She already chose a co-supervisor for me. So once again, I am left with nothing to grasp on.I feel so isolated and unsupported and it is making me second-guess all my ideas, my writing, and indeed my decision to do a PhD.

    I fear that for the next three years I will be stuck with someone who does not give a crap about my development as an academic, or about my actual dissertation. I don’t know what to do to make the best out of this situation.

  65. Hello Karen,
    Your blog is fantastic and really helpful! I’m a PhD student in my 2nd year. I just finished my coursework and exams. So far I haven’t met much with my supervisor but now that I’ll start writing my research proposal and dissertation I will hopefully meet with her more regularly. I still don’t know in what side she falls and I hope everything will work out well. So far she has been nice and very busy…. So I was wondering if you had some advise for graduate students. I mean, how should we behave, what do our supervisors (in general) expect from us, and how can we get the best out of a meeting? I think of the relation supervisor/student as depending on both of us so, what can we do as inexperienced students to get this relationship working? Thanks

  66. In the social sciences, how can one tell that an advisor is stealing your work? For instance, my advisor and I are looking at similar people and he is an emerging expert in the field.

    I am only in the my first year and I gave him an essay linking the work on this broad area with a new theory, in a way it hadn’t been done before. To be sure, my advisor (say person A) had not referenced this theory until our conversation last week. Of course, I don’t claim to discover this theory–I had been working with my advisor’s advisor (Person B) on another paper in a totally different realm. That I was able to use this particular theory to my work is probably my inventiveness and I sent this to my advisor, Person A.

    However, at a conference recently, I have noticed that my advisor, Person A, developed one of my ideas to make a larger point in his latest paper that he presented–and the paper has been received well. Of course, I have not been mentioned. On the one hand, I feel that it is great that my ideas have wider currency, but on the other I feel that maybe he is stealing. This has alarmed me somewhat as I had heard from one of his other students that he didn’t share his ideas with our supervisor as he was worried that our supervisor will steal them. This student is currently on fieldwork, so I can’t ask him what he means exactly.

    Should I worry?

  67. Hello, I’m currently enrolled in my masters program for psychology. When I picked my advisor, she had some of the area interests that I had, and of course I picked her. After, presenting my thesis topic and starting my thesis proposal, it has slowly become an entirely different topic. One which I could careless to study about in the first place. When I had first spoken with her, I laid out the topic and exactly what I wanted to pursue studying. At that point she was fine with it, but she eventually continued to pile different things onto the thesis. Now I’m second semester doing a thesis that I can’t stand, and an advisor who always criticizes me, and never once has given me positive feedback in the class or outside. Working with her has made me question my ability as a graduate student completely! I used to be very confident in my field, but after dealing with all the negativity, I hate it. I want to switch advisors, but I don’t want it to impact my future professional career. What should I do?

  68. Advisors do steal PhD students’ ideas and work. It happened ro me. My first advisor was recognized as a pre-eminent expert in my field and her research interests were perfectly aligned with my interests.

    When I was ready to start my dissertation proposal, I had identified a gap in the literature and a strategy to address that gap that (if I was correct) had the potential to finally explain longstanding and counterintuitive findings in the literature. I mentioned my idea to my advisor who asked me to write up a detailed “prospectus” including my aims, research questions, hypotheses and rationale for said hypotheses. A week or so after submitting this “prospectus”, she called me in for a meeting and basically told me that my prospectus made her question my suitability for doctoral education. In addition, she stated that my idea for my proposal demonstrated such unsophisticated thinking that she no longer felt she and I were a good match and terminated the relationship. She also insinuated that I was an “affirmative action baby”, just for good measure.

    I was obviously devastated and felt like an idiot. I nearly dropped out of the program (which in hindsight would’ve been the best thing I could’ve done financially). Just over a year later, this same professor published a study that addressed the very research questions I had mentioned in my “prospectus” and which supported my hypotheses. This paper has since become a classic in our field because it was the first to offer a novel explanation for the aforementioned problem that was supported by the study’s findings and has since been replicated a number of times.

    i regret mentioning this sordid affair to the powers-that-be in my department. If I could do it over again, I would keep my mouth shut and just move on. This professor was extremely powerful in my dept. and is now probably the most powerful person in my field (and is now a dean at another university). I am only now starting to recover from the effects of being blacklisted by her, and i doubt i will recover entirely for many years to come.

    It sucks having to cite her as the originator of the idea that altered the course of my field–MY idea–whenever I write a paper on that particular topic. But it sucks even more that my career was set back several years because I made the mistake of reporting what this sociopath did to me to my department.

  69. Hi guys,
    My supervisor is totally a jerk he stealing my ideas and use it for his own work. I can’t change because I have already my prelim exam. I totally uncomfortable to work with him. he don’t support me at all and he don’t encourage me to do anything special.

  70. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the top five traits of the worst research mentors. I am quite happy to note that I am an ‘intense’ mentor who wants his graduates do the work beyond their capacities always. Otherwise, how can we produce a more competent generation making them ready to replace us in future?

  71. My supervisor and I haven’t talked for months (literally, not even emails.).. We didn’t argue or anything I just stopped and wasn’t asked why. I don’t know how to reinitiate contact or what to say (haven’t also workd much). What should I do?

  72. As a 4th year PhD student I realized that all Professors are the worst kind of people. However, few exceptions are there and you are really lucky if you are working with them.
    Let me tell you the real story. Most professors want “good” publications and they are not ready to work hard to achieve that. So, you(PhD students) are their “slaves” to do all their work which will help them to get reputation and salary hikes. You are just a tool for them. A more interesting thing is that most professors have a sadist inside them. Remember, all of them did this donkey work when they were PhD students like you. So, they always get pleasure to give you more trouble and make you cry. Don’t ever think that if you show your best performance, your advisor will love you more. Most probably they will get more mad and jealous at you. Every year tons of PhD slaves come to developed countries(USA,Germany,France,Canada etc) from economically not so developed country(India,Chaina,Iran,Pakistan,Bangladesh etc) for a better lifestyle. If you are a citizen of a first world country, I would say Master degree is more than enough for you to grow. Don’t let others to suck your blood.

    • I have to say that your last two sentences are really sticking with me. I think that for anyone, from any background, a Master’s will go an insanely long way. I’m in my 4th year now and I feel like starting the PhD was both the best and worst decision I have ever made. Some weeks I feel great, other weeks I ask myself why I am still here. The one question I would pose to prospective PhD students is: “Do you think you can successfully go through this process alone? Are you confident to the point of being practically shameless?” If you can do rigorous research very, very independently and with rock solid confidence, the scholarly life may be for you. In my case, I’m a hard worker and a people person, but I could have used a little molding to really get my academic skills to the next level. Little tweaks here and there and maybe more constructive criticism and project guidance early on. It makes a world of difference.

      At any rate, I have heard from countless people that they did their entire PhD virtually on their own. I want people thinking about grad school to know that this is not an exaggeration. Many of us are thrown to the wolves without any support. I have also experienced more abuse than I could have ever imagined. Thankfully I have handled that part of it and seem to be doing better now. Truthfully, however, I have been my own mentor and advisor throughout this process. I have also had great family and friends.

      Ask yourself: Is this the kind of life I want? Do I really need this PhD? If you don’t, I suggest doing anything else.

  73. Pingback: Mentoring at every level | Memoirs of a SLACer

    • You have to talk to people in your field. Most likely, no it’s not OK, but there are also situations in some labs where this might happen.

  74. Thank you for your insightful post! I enjoyed reading it and wished I had encountered it much earlier in my graduate school years. I would like additional information on what you include under the rubric of “steals your work.” Would this include instances in which an advisor has the student write the majority, if not all, of a given paper, and then claims first authorship? This would be a case in which the student is perennially in the second author position despite having contributed the majority of the work (such as gathering the data, writing the entire article, etc.).

    • It depends. In the sciences it’s often standard that the Prof will be the first author, despite the student’s contributions. But i can’t state definitively when and where this applies. In the social sciences or humanities this would def. be unethical.

  75. My advisor is squarely the graybeard. I was fooled because he was not that old when I started, and I was a clueless undergrad who didn’t realize that he hadn’t published after 1990, and apparently hadn’t read anything written in this millennium either.

    He has a strong inferiority/superiority complex, always talking about the awards he got (some major, some trivial). Tons of humblebrag, like “it was so hard to be the guest of honor.”

    I came to my senses half way through my PhD and started collaborating with someone else, who I owe my entire PhD success to. Advisor came up with bureaucratic hurdles to make it harder to work with the new person, and constantly dropped snide remarks about him. You would think someone with that level of accomplishment and age would be a bit more mature, no?

  76. I am 2 years into my research, I do my research away from the University. Originally I was suppose to get financial support but that never came through so I have been teaching to meet the high costs of tuition and just living. I was excited to start my research under my advisor (who is not affiliated with my University) I was under the impression he had a lot of students successfully work under him. I didn’t realize that after 20 years, he only had 1 PhD student, who never published and is never spoken of, most of his previous students were undergrads with a few masters students. Being the only PhD student, I have the fewest meetings with him – my first year we had 3 meetings. He ignores my questions and yells at me for trying to email him and during the lab meetings he belittles my research, which is outside of his scope, and complains that I haven’t made enough progress. My research is exciting and I have sought guidance from a few other researchers – which also upsets my advisor. I am nearing the end and I am worried I will leave with no prospects. I’m not introduced to anyone and he won’t let me present at any professional meetings. He recently told me that I wasn’t at the level for him to introduce me as his PhD student. He’s much friendlier with the other lab people. I can deal with being ignored, unpaid and treated badly, but the thought of leaving with no future is troublesome. Are there ways to network and present without advisor approval?

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  78. Good list. I had an advisor (asst. prof) steal my work (#5), she would promise you co-authorship, have you show up to her weekly meetings for two years (for free), then claim your ideas weren’t as smart as hers and publish the paper by removing your name. There was no doubt she was smart, but that also gave her a perceived entitlement to your intellectual property, coding, and paper writing (how else could she get someone to do that work for free?).

    How did I react? I contacted my dept. head and terminated the relationship (it went very bad with her yelling and me yelling back at her (to her surprise I wasn’t going to put up with this BS) and her colleagues telling me “tough break” and then adding their names to the same paper ). I switched advisors to a different department and he was very fair (although people thought he was harsh – I actually liked him because he gave you credit for your work). At the same time, a classmate of mine began working with my first advisor and they pulled the same stuff, all over again. Same outcome.

    I later graduated as did my classmate. I had a brief stint in industry (no major pubs at the time of graduation) for a year – during that time all the work with my second advisor became published as well as other coauthored work, and now I am tenure-track at a R1 top university. My classmate graduated at the same time and became a research scientist at a top tech company.

    Lesson of the story for me is:

    If it’s a bad situation like that, GET OUT as soon as possible. Change schools or do whatever you have to do. Being productive in the next 3 years is much more important than trying to undo the past 2 years. She’s just not worth it, she was too young an immature to use PhD students. And her department implicitly supported these kind of maneuvers (guess what – they have a terrible placement record in academia but are a high ranked dept.). I published one A+ journal after I left her, and a few more coauthored A journals with people I was so happy to work with and treated me with respect. And working in industry was much happier for me than being a student, I was paid for my hard work and my bosses valued me. The tenure track offers (and many of them) came after I left the scene and that gave me much better opportunities.

    No regrets at all. Was a great learning experience for how to deal with these idiots in the future when the stakes are higher.

  79. There is another characteristic that wasn’t mentioned. The slutty drama king. The advisor that sleeps with undergrads and master’s students and therefore surrounds his or herself with pretty younger students, that ultimately get into paid positions of power coupled with “private” trips to conferences, all on NIH money. In the meantime, the PhD students, who are publishing, that are not taken by the glow of the PhD advisor get funding cuts, lose stipends, don’t go to conferences and are always looked at with the side eye because of who you work for.

    The best advice I was ever given, and probably the sole reason I am sticking it out was from a PI of position. Get your PhD, get into a high profile lab for the post doc, publish and then get on grant review committees! I’m counting down my days until I can become a reviewer! Success is the best revenge, especially if it comes with a red pen.

  80. You seem to have forgotten the non-advising advisor, who somehow got funding in a field that he is not even an expert in and can’t help you because you know more than him. You might wonder how he got the funding to start with if he’s not an expert but it happens in a bureaucratic world.

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  82. Wish to submit my experience ….as it may help someone out there. I completed my Ph.D. in Biophysics some time ago at NYU. After the degree was awarded I wrote up the core of my work for peer review publication in a high impact journal, naming my mentor as my co-author….as is tradition. The rough draft was mailed to him for editorial comment. Rather than respond and discuss, he submitted my manuscript to the journal without my knowledge or permission, removed my name from the byline, removed all bibliographic reference to my dissertation and other published presentation as meetings…..and achieved his goal. The Journal…JBC….published his manuscript ….without my name in the byline ….but he did acknowledge me for “generous advice”! JBC had received a copy of the same manuscript during the same week they received my mentor’s copy….where I placed notice to them that my mentor was my co-author and that I was waiting on his editorial comments. They published his version and not mine and never notified me of the authorship conflict. The ORI received my complaint as the mentor was a recipient of NIH grant monies….and this research was supported by the NIH. The final decision by the ORI after two years of investigation into my complaint was that NO graduate student who completes a Ph.D. dissertation and graduates with the degree is entitled to authorship (first, second or third, etc) unless they can prove that ALL the ideas within their dissertation were SOLELY their own. Impossible to EVER prove. So ORI has determined that NO university has any obligation to protect the IP of the student and to offer the student the right to a first authorship published peer reviewed manuscript…..the calling card for future employment, credibility amongst one’s peers and citations in the future. NYU supported allowing their tenured faculty member to steal credit from his own graduate student. I was never permitted a copy of the final report that NYU submitted to ORI ….and ORI closed the case. They are mandated by Federal Register Regulation to publish all closed cases …but just eliminate names for privacy purposes…but in my case…it appears I am the ONLY closed case they refuse to publish. Furthermore under FOIA they are redacting 80% if my file. When I phone the appropriate parties at JBC, at NYU or at ORI….they all have one thing in common….they hang up on me. This decision affects ALL graduate students throughout this country who are supported by Federal Grant money in the hard sciences. Not sure where to go next but one thing is for sure this fight is not over. The citations to my original work are building and building ….but I am not getting the credit. For every citation the mentor gets he is being raised and I am being harmed and it continues.

    • Seek a higher education attorney with a knowledge in publication law. If you obtained a copyright for your thesis and allowed for open access of that material, as is typical when you send your thesis to the publisher, you have intellectual rights. I would advice against writing anything further on public forum until you speak with an attorney.

      Best of luck

    • I know someone whose co-author did this to them during their post-doc. What he did though was switch the order of authorship, making himself first author instead, and resubmitted it to the journal for review. Of course it was published that way. When confronted by the post-doc, he told him that he needed first authorship because he was up for tenure. Didn’t even try to hide it.

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  84. I had an advisor that gossiped about me behind my back to his classrooms. Then he made up a bunch of crap during my defense about not knowing I switched projects (he knew) and not using him more when he could have helped (even though he was never around anyway). Another one of my committee members fit the “it’s fine, don’t worry about it now.” category.

  85. I would suggest “delusional” as an additional worst trait. My current Master’s supervisor is young, and exclusively focused on publishing, for sake of tenure, I assume. This would be no problem, except that the method / model they are advocating for (using me as their tool) is completely broken. I have gone to great lengths to show them this (which they criticize as a waste of time), to no avail. They are so laser focused on publishing, that the content of the publications is apparently irrelevant. Unfortunately, our topic is so niche that I doubt any reviewer will find the faults I have found. (Having been a reviewer myself, I find the whole process sham-full anyways, pun intended.)

    You may think *I* am the delusional one, for disagreeing with an established expert in the field. However I know I have investigated the method to a higher standard that my advisor ever has, and, for what its worth, I also think I have significantly more intuition about the method than they do.

    Essentially, my 2-year thesis has been hijacked, and I will be forced to publish multiple papers full of crap I don’t agree with. I feel so strongly about this that, as a Canadian Engineer, I have removed my Iron Ring for the remainder of my degree.

  86. Thanks for the advice! I’m a Bsc student in mathematics and am a bit nervous to choose an advisor eventually, after hearing horror stories from my friends about going through 2 universities without writing a thesis due to only encountering mean advisors in their field to wasting a whole year writing a thesis that the advisor published to steal the students credit! It’s really not easy finding advisors in my field that are good, and you make some good points.

  87. Hi all

    I am the first-year graduate student, and right now I am torn between 2 professors. The first professor is the one that I would like to work with, but when I ask him to be my advisor, he said he did not know how many students he would take this year, he might take 2 or none. The second one is recruiting me, but I am not sure I am interested in his project. My friends told me that when I asked a professor that “Will you take me if I would like you to be my advisor?” But when I asked the first professor, he said he did not know yet, and that was his answer to every students that would like him to be their advisor. So what should I do? Choose the second one or persuade the first one?

    P/S: My graduate school ask the students to rank their top three
    choices and obtain a signature from each of them. Before the beginning of the Spring Semester, the entire research-active faculty will meet
    to discuss the new students Those new students with long-term, extra-departmental support will normally be allowed their first choice for advisor

    Thank your for your help

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  90. “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.”

    This is a really gross and harmful stereotype of female academics. It causes people to write off women as “unserious” but women aren’t taken less seriously because they’re too busy baking bread to be good mentors (seriously, what?). It’s because of stereotypes like this that don’t at all reflect reality. Ironically, women are also likely to be called mean while a man doing the same thing would be called serious so they really can’t win.

  91. My supervisor stolen my idea i.e sent my proposal and got a grant under his name, without giving me credit. This happened just last week. And yes, I’m crying ….I took two years polishing that proposal in between my working hour (I was working in the Univ under different institute) and also the time I (subsequently) have to undergone chemo in the hospital. That research proposal means so much and has a sentimental value to me. But that assholes stole it, alter it the way he wished, got a grant and didn’t consider me to be apart of the project. I’ll come back with better explaination with what happened, right now…I just can cry!

  92. It’s not easy being an advisor. To mean, too nice, too this, too that -whoever you are, you can fit into those 5 “worst traits”. Yes, I’ll probably fit into your “worst of the worst” – the too nice “lady associate Professor “. This is who I am. Too nice but definitely honest when needed & definitely doing my best. Btw, my students in general do really well. No one is perfect.

  93. Some useful advice ther but a bit too hard on us advisers. Most of us, in fact, most humans, fit into one or more of those categories. I’m the “worst of the worst “ according to this post – “too nice lady A/prof”. Ok, maybe too nice sometimes but definitely honest and have no problems saying what I think and feel when necessary. And definitely wanting the best for my students.. no one is perfect but most advisers really do their best.

  94. I also have a bad adviser according to your criteria. My adviser regularly
    ridicules my data analysis (says bioinformatics guys are the first who are fired), only to ask for my help months after. In addition, he adds authors to manuscripts who have not contributed, responding to my inquiry regarding contribution as “that’s not the point.” He also regularly misses meetings, forgets agendas, and reneges on discussed plans. This combined with his habit of disappearing for weeks on end without any contact and generally refusing to answer emails or messages has made my academic experience similar to torture. I have been writing manuscripts that he receives corresponding authorship for but it is not clear to me that he even understands my research. I would like to talk to someone regarding his behavior, but I’m not even a graduate student; I’m a research technician. I had left academia a few years back and decided to return to see if I would like to be a graduate student in the sciences. However, this experience has truly rotted my view of academia. Do you have any advice on moving forwards from here?

  95. Hello,

    I stumbled upon your website as I am dealing with an issue that seems to be very difficult to resolve.

    How do you do when you have built a theoretical framework that answers (or strongly indicates that it does) a research question but your supervisor doesn’t buy into it, because of clearly lack of knowledge of the subject matter?

    Don’t get me wrong, my supervisor has the knowledge and experience to do what they do. But I think I have spent more time (we’re talking social sciences here) to study a question very much in-depth.

    In other words, they want me to answer a way that I find superficial and very generic instead of getting to the bottom of the question. I can certainly to that and earn my PhD but I won’t be fulfilled and I almost don’t want this kind of work define what my dissertation was. I want to make an impact.

    I feel like doing what they want me to do, but this thing on my conscience.

    Your take?

    • Benjamin, it’s 2019 and the world is on fire so I’m just gonna say: your comment reeks of male entitlement and a mansplaining tone. I’m gonna guess your advisor is a woman? But even if not, you sound like so many male grad students who think they’re experts after like 3 years of grad school. Now, I AM aware of grad students who seek to do work their advisors can’t accept because I was one of them back in the day. But your TONE in this query is what I’m reacting to and honestly, in 2019 I just have no time for mansplainy guys. BTW, there is actually a straight answer to this: nobody reads dissertations anyhow, so write what your advisor wants and publish what you want later.

  96. I read your list with interest due to some issues I’ve had with an outside reader, not my advisor.

    I have been very fortunate – but like you said, I also chose well. She has been the best advisor I could have imagined, and I am grateful that she welcomed me as her student.

    On the emeritus / emerita advisor… I have to say that while I recognize a “type” in there, it is ageist to characterize professors like this. My advisor has been emerita for many, many years, yet she is still on top of all the latest work and has never rested on her laurels, though she easily could.

    I think the way you wrote it devalues the knowledge, (often continued) contributions, and support / guidance of those who came before us.

    But you have done your job in being provocative and continuing to get blog reads and comments years later, so I have to give you that!

  97. Okay, #5 and #3.

    I left the lab due to #3 after far too long. But that has largely resolved that problem.

    The lost credit due to #5 — a completely written manuscript ready for submission — is costing me job opportunities, right now.

    I don’t feel that reporting to the dean is going to help. It’s a small circle in the academic community and potential blowback could cost me quite a lot.

  98. Reading the comments above, I guess my advisor is probably not is terrible as I think he is. However, I’m still not sure whether he is trying to push me or it’s just trying to make my life miserable. I thought we just had mismatched personalities until I went to apply for summer funding the spring. My funding request was for a project I had outlined in great detail in my application to the program, but when I sent it to him to him for approval he insisted that the project would be a complete waste of time. We went back and forth for over a week before he finally, grudgingly agreed to sign off on the application.
    We have also clashed over directed readings, to the point that he offered to step down as my advisor. That has been patched over for the moment, and he always seems to give in eventually, but I always find myself wondering whether he’s trying to do something constructive or trying to stand in my way.
    I have professional, cordial relationships with everyone else on my committee–they treat me as a colleague, not as an imbecile–and if I could replace this individual as chair my life would be wonderful. Unfortunately, he’s probably the only person in the department suitably qualified to supervise my project, so I’m pretty much at his mercy.

  99. Hi, Karen thanks for this. This is an issue of both me and my advisor. My advisor being a bully, and he had had a history of it with other students too. My response is to procrastinate, and it takes me a month to get over our meetings and continue work. Please advise how do I get over this. We have a very dysfunctional relation. He is also a narcissistic personality so it makes me and other students and staff hard to deal with him. However, I need to get over this and get my work done.

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