Working with a Difficult Graduate Adviser

One Troubled Foreign Doc-talker wrote:

What I’d like to see are some suggestions for conflict management in the situation where essentially the supervisor’s guts and existence are heartily hated by other instructors, and, the supervisor has a psychological kink and seems to hate his students after an initial honeymoon period, refuses to contact them/does not honor agreements made with them etc. (Not just PhD students but all his graduate/undergraduate people). Change of supervisors is not possible as he is the only one in the country in that discipline. Now I’ve survived 4 years of this to date but you get so damn weary wondering when he contacts you what the hidden agenda is, or if he does not contact you, what he’s up to behind your back and what little “surprise” will await you. Fortunately he is away at the moment (marvelous–peace at last) but the situation cannot surely be that unique and I’d like to see some suggestions for when he returns.

Doc-Talkers Talk:

This one is really tough. We don’t have any specific suggestions for working with an abusive adviser–perhaps some of our readers have ideas that might help.

In Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict by Fisher, Kopelman, and Schneider the authors give strategies to manage conflict in specific crises and on-going disputes. The authors start by asking, “What exactly is wrong?” Most of us then ask ourselves, “What shall we do about it?” This, the authors suggest, is a mistake. We should be asking, “Who is someone who can make a difference in this situation?” Once we’ve answered this, we gear all our persuasive argumentation toward that person, taking the person’s perspective into account. We then generate fresh ideas and formulate advice for this decision maker by proposing a plan that is realistic and operational.

We replace the typical question of “What shall I do?” with the questions:

  1. What would I like someone else to do?
  2. Why haven’t they done it already?
  3. What could I do to make it easier for them to do it?

This structured, analytical approach is ideal for graduate student advocates and others who want to help students deal with long-term adversarial situations such as might exist with advisers.

Fisher et al. write, “Coping ad hoc with one conflict after another is an endless task–necessary, but endless. In order to move beyond a continuous search for one-shot solutions, we will want to improve the mechanisms for dealing with conflict. If we are tired of bailing water, maybe it is time to fix the pump. We will want to work on the system in which individual conflicts are embedded. It is in our long-term interest both to play each hand well and also to improve the game.”

–Roger Fisher, Elizabeth Kopelman, Andrea Kupfer Schneider. Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

From a Boston Doc-Talker:

I have had some similar problems with people on my committee. For example, one of my committee members never responded after receiving two different chapter drafts of my dissertation in the mail (to complicate matters, I’m finishing my PhD long-distance). I kept sending e-mails, calling & leaving messages (she never seemed to be in, even during supposed office hours), sending reminders asking for her feedback, etc. Finally I got the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department to leave a message for her to please get in touch with me regarding the two chapters. Only then did she call me and leave a message that she’d lost the material!!! I had to send it all over again, but meantime several months had elapsed.

My suggestions:

  1. Know that you’re not alone. Sad to say, MANY graduate advisers, especially at the thesis stage, are flaky, unreliable, and at times downright difficult and contradictory. DO NOT TAKE IT PERSONALLY.
  2. Find support and if necessary advice on the thesis elsewhere–other profs, other institutions, other grad students. I joined a support group of other grad students in my field who are all working on dissertations now. We read chapter drafts, discuss writing and committee problems, talk about job-hunting, etc. It’s very helpful and encouraging, and lets us feel less alone in this process.
  3. If possible, find someone supportive in a position of authority in the department and let them know what’s going on. For example, I had the DGS leave a message for that committee member, and suddenly she got back to me. If you think the chair or someone else would be supportive and could do anything to help, speak to them.
  4. Don’t stoop to a personal, angry level with your committee if possible, but don’t stop communicating, either. Keep them posted on what you’re doing and very clearly spell out what you need from them in a polite way. I’ve taken to sending letters with the chapter drafts that say something like: “I expect to begin revising this by (give a specific date), so please get your comments back to me by then if at all possible. If I haven’t heard from you by then, I’ll assume you have no major revisions to suggest.”
  5. Keep documentation on everything–i.e., keep copies of letters, document meetings and phone calls with your committee, keep records of problems and SNAFUs you have with them. You may wish to pursue the issue at some point with the chair, dean, or someone else in a position to do something about it. I’m considering making a formal complaint about some of the treatment I’ve received–once I’ve got my degree in hand! Good luck!

From a Canadian Doc-Talker:

Find someone who “is high” on you and devise a way to get rid of your adviser. It will be the shortest method in the long run. No one should put up with that stuff. You have my sympathy.

From an anonymous Doc-Talker:

I just read the submission from the student with adviser problems. I can sympathize with this person; I have a poor adviser, too. I don’t think my situation is nearly as difficult, but I have a question that I believe merits some discussion:

What are the consequences of switching adviser and project?

I am a student still in the first year of a Masters’ program in engineering. My adviser disappoints me at every turn. I find it very difficult to have any respect for this person as a scientist, a mentor, or a manager. When I show him some data and my analysis, he parrots back my interpretations as his own, and often incorrectly. One week he does not even care what I am doing, and the next week he is beating me to begin working on a task that I completed, and showed him the results of, the week before. He is up for tenure soon, and everything he does seems geared toward that goal, although these are often shrouded as benevolent acts. I don’t know of any one who believes he will be tenured; I sure don’t. I know that I am very capable of doing good work, but it is difficult to motivate myself when he either takes credit for or forgets what I do. I would like to go on to pursue a PhD, possibly at another institution. Will my opportunities be mitigated if I stick it out, or if I jump ship? I can’t seem to find a winning situation. Has anyone else dropped a poor adviser?

In response to the above, Ronda Dave writes:

Dear Doc-Talker, Many students change advisers mid-stream, but usually because the advisers become unavailable (get sick, die, transfer, or retire). If one of the other committee members assumes the advisory role, there are few negative consequences to the study. If another professor not on the original committee assumes the role of adviser, the student is almost always required to do extra work. One student was told that if she changed advisers, she would have to go through the proposal approval process again-in other words-start from scratch. A few students I know have “divorced” their advisers. One who was also taking courses from the professor felt the professor lowered her course grade after she requested the change. In contrast, one student changed advisers and the old adviser who eventually left the university continued to work with him, almost like a mentor, until he finished.

So it’s a tough call to know how your adviser will respond if you decide to change. Given your description, however, I’d predict his response wouldn’t be supportive. The only way I’d change advisers in your situation is if I could get someone more senior and more powerful in the department to assume the advisory role. To do this, you’ll need a good “excuse” to make the change. Is there a way you could slant your thesis research away from your current adviser’s research interests and more toward the interests of someone else in the department? This would give you a legitimate reason to make the change.

Remember that professors are joined at the hip even though they may have apparent differences of personality, philosophy, proclivity, etc. According to the professors I know, it’s a cardinal sin to criticize another professor or in any way imply he/she isn’t doing a good job. You’ll pass in and out of the department within 2-3 years; but the professors will remain (especially if they have tenure). You can see it’s to their advantage to stick together against an individual student, and they generally will. You’ll need to have a rationale for changing advisers that the new adviser can believe and can use to smooth any ruffled feathers on your old adviser. Good Luck to you, and thanks to other list members for their suggestions.


From an anonymous Doc-Talker:
I’ve survived a situation similar to the one described above. I worked with my first adviser for about 4 years before we “divorced.” It was a very bitter “divorce.” By then, I had already completed my course work toward my doctorate. I had even completed the qualifying exam (comps). Because most of the professors in the dept were invested in other students, I basically spent the next 2-3 years trying to find someone to take me in. My dissertation committee has been like a revolving door with the last member quitting a week before the proposal defense.

Given my experiences, I believe it is important to know that you have an adviser to work with before you make a change. Also, if you do decide to separate, be willing to give up any joint projects that are in progress or have not been published. I and my former adviser battled over projects for almost two years. It is important to do none of this “in private.” Find a chair or dean to confide in, and document everything. You may even want to contact a representative of some professional organization regarding authorship and research ethics.

From a Virginian Doc-Talker:
Advice for those early in the game: do not let any one person become too important to your process. It is well worth the extra photocopying dollars and meeting-time to have an extra prof or two or three on your team. My dissertation is interdisciplinary, so I benefit from advice outside my own department, but even if it weren’t, I would find ways to get a wider readership than one or two advisers. Look for professors who take a different theoretical or methodological approach from your own–ask them to read your work by explaining that you know the approach is different but you value their approach and respect those who practice it (if you do), and would like to see if your fledgling efforts will fly in the wider field. This earns you serious consideration as an intellectual seeker (if in fact you are–don’t do this if you aren’t really interested in intellectual challenges to your work). Plus, most valuable of all, you’ll receive comments on your work that can truly broaden its scope, appeal, and value–thus making you a better scholar and your dissertation more like a book.

I am lucky to have fabulous advisers–3 main ones and a team of 3 ancillary specialists who read from time to time sections of chapters I think they would be most interested in. Caveat: unless you are a pretty strong thinker you can feel “pulled apart” by all the disparate opinions and suggestions; on the whole I have found this beneficial in strengthening my work and my identity as a writer, but it is a risk I thought I should mention. I sympathize with those who have lousy advisers, but I would say to new folks that it is intellectually important and psychologically healthy not to let any one or two people have too much influence over what you do. Best wishes–

From an Anonymous Doc-Talker:
The Whole Story: I have just been re-reading the e-mails on adviser relations thinking about my own situation. I am a second year graduate student in Minnesota. In my department we are required to select an adviser at the end of our first year. We are told that it is okay to switch advisers later in our program. I had taken courses from only five professors and had little exposure to the other faculty members. When I joined the program, the Director of Graduate Studies strongly urged to select a certain professor as my adviser. His reasoning was that the professor was in a similar field of interest, had tenure, was the director of a well-known institute, and had a good record of research funding.

Well, that sounds really nice, so I decided that I would ask the guy. He accepted, but now I am not sure that it was a good decision. I talked to some more advanced graduate students and was told that the professor had few advisees, and that those advisees tended to take a long time getting through the program. This worries me. Our department also has a requirement to do a research practicum, preferably within your first two years. It is also a requirement that needs to be met before you are eligible to teach. I asked my adviser his opinion on what I should take – an independent study or a two-quarter sequence that did not meet my interests. He suggested a third option, a two-quarter sequence that he was co-teaching. It was in my area of interest and he reassured me that it would meet my practicum requirement.

Before I registered, I suddenly felt unsure of the course. So I started asking him questions. Gee, what do you know…it didn’t meet the requirement. Fortunately I had something else on the back burner with another professor; otherwise I would have had to scramble. What really bothers me is that I would have been made ineligible to teach the next year by following his advice. I am not sure whether or not he deliberately misled me or was just ignorant of the procedures. I feel like he should know proper procedure if he is going to be an adviser, and especially since he is going to be the next chair of the department.

Not only do I feel wary of his advice now, but I feel like I cannot approach him. When I mentioned that I wanted to file my program soon, and would like his advice, he told me that next quarter he would be teaching so he would have more office hours. I am not one of his undergraduate students and I would really like to be able to make an appointment with him for ten to fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time.

I have another professor who has shown interest in me, been extremely helpful, has given sound advice, is pleasant, doesn’t ignore me in the halls, and is willing to make time during his day for me. Other students say that he is an excellent adviser; he communicates well, and works his students hard. He has been chair of the department, and has the highest standing (and pay) in the department. I have had him for several classes and am currently working on a project with him. BUT…he does not do research that I am very interested in. I cannot think of an excuse to switch to him. I am thinking that I could keep my current adviser just for show, and build a network of other professors both within the department and without. Or I could switch, but I am unsure of the consequences. What do you think?

…and Ronda Dave’ answers:
As we mentioned at the outset of this string on adviser problems, we don’t know what the consequences are of switching advisers. Obviously these consequences will depend on the particular circumstances under which the switch is made. If a reasonable justification can be constructed and presented in a “win-win” argument, so that no hard feelings are generated, then students should have the right to change advisers at any time. In fact, many graduate school policies specifically mention this right.

The key is, of course, to do this in a way that saves everyone’s face. It seems to me that an adviser’s availability is probably the most important consideration in the adviser’s ability to advise. If you feel your adviser is relatively unavailable because of a heavy research schedule, a heavy teaching load, or whatever, that is just cause for you to consider changing the adviser’s role. One option is to change his/her role to a minor one on the committee and ask one of the committee members to assume a more prominent role.

Keeping the adviser on the committee as a member is a courtesy but it can backfire, In your case, because there’s no actual “history of ill will,” keeping your adviser on as a member of the committee might be a good move, especially if he’s able to give you good advice about your topic. But putting your other, more helpful, professor on the committee to guide you sounds like a smart move too. You need to find an adviser who will at a minimum– (a) monitor your progress, (b) give you good advice about your research, (c) and provide you with *active* and *constructive* support. “What happens if the professor who is most expert on your topic proves least interested in monitoring your progress? Or the professor who is most nurturing and supportive is least able to give you good research advice? You may need to adopt the “pastiche” model, where your ideal adviser is actually a team, strategically put together by you. You should select your committee members to complement one another’s skills, but you may need to look outside the university. Look for experts first in your department; then in your academic community; next in other nearby institutions; and finally in community or commercial sites.

It sounds like you need an adviser who is more supportive. Having learned this about yourself, you may want to approach the other professor who’s shown an interest in you and ask him to be your adviser. If he agrees, you need to go to your current adviser and put forth a proposition, something along the lines of… “I’m very grateful to you for accepting the role of my dissertation adviser, but I’ve learned over the past several months that I need an adviser who can hold my hand tighter through this initial process of getting my project started. I know you’re busy now and you’ve said you’ll have more time next term, which I appreciate. But I’d like to get a jump on the project this term. I wonder if you’d be willing to serve as a committee member but let me make “so and so” my adviser? I think he has more time and he’s indicated he’d be willing to work closely with me right now. I’d only do this if you thought you could work well with him, but I know you two have worked on [name-a-student]’s committee in the past. And he says he’d be pleased to work with you again. Would this switch be okay for you? I still value your advice on my project given that you’re probably the professor who’s working on something most similar. But I really need regular, ongoing meetings with an adviser right now who can get me started so I don’t feel so frustrated….”

You can tell from his response whether he’s amenable or upset despite what he says. If it looks like he’s going to be nasty about it, just say you’re sorry it doesn’t work for you to work with him and thank him for what he’s done so far and leave. You’ll have to live with the repercussions. He might actually say he understands your predicament and will make time in his schedule for you to get advice from him on a regular basis. If so, set up a series of regular appointments right then and there. The third possibility is that he’ll thank you for relieving him of the advisory duties and admit he’s overextended and agree to help you in any way he can later on, in which case, stumble out and go celebrate.

Selecting a good adviser is probably the second most important decision you’ll make regarding your dissertation (the first being, in my opinion, your topic). Good luck and let us know what happens!