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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First off, consider firing them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AntonioGuillem / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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#Dispatches From the Front – Help, I Have a Toxic Advisor! Part I: Firing Your Advisor, Building Your Team — 1 Comment

  1. This is such an awesome set of answers — only wish I had them while I was slaving away under possibly the most fickle (albeit not abusive) adviser imaginable.

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