Surviving a Bad Advisor
Barbara von Diether, EdD
There are bad advisors in every institution of higher education in every part of the world. Bad advisors cost students thousands of dollars, many months of unnecessary toil, and, in too many cases, the graduate degree they are seeking. The ABD “degree” (All but Dissertation) is frequently the result of bad advisement. Graduate students are abused by unscrupulous advisors, some of whom may be ignorant of their responsibilities toward the student, some who are deliberately abusive because graduate students represent an unwanted annoyance, or worse, advisors who enjoy the feeling of empowerment over another human being.
Students should be aware of red flags when choosing an advisor, such as:
1. A faculty member new to the department can make a bad advisor. He or she is probably on a tenure track, meaning their work will be scrutinized by other members of the department.
I heard the following complaint (typical of this red flag) within the last month: “My department chair said Professor Smith was a rising star and had a lot of creative ideas. When I chose her and started my dissertation, she turned down the research topic I wanted to do and made me do her own. I am now doing my ninth revision of the proposal to do research, and she still keeps correcting practically every word I write.” I have heard this complaint, or a similar ones, for 30 years.
New faculty members may be more interested in making a good impression on their new colleagues than in moving a student through the process in an expeditious manner, and the result can be an endless round of corrections and additions to a thesis or dissertation as they try to turn out a perfect piece of work on their first try. Also, they may never have managed a graduate student, and lack the skills to do so. Advisors do not take a class in how to be an advisor. Consequently, they tend to put students through the same process they went through themselves, and it may not have been a good model.
2. “You can call me Bob.” An advisor who insists that the student call him/her by their first name is a red flag. This unfortunate behavior instantly puts the student at a disadvantage because forever afterward this artificial “friendship” prevents the student from speaking up, and may lead to all kinds of requests of the student that are not appropriate. The opposite is the advisor who acts like a king on a throne and forces the student to become a supplicant.
3. “Professor Jones is the finest researcher and scholar we have on the staff. He is supporting 10 graduate students, and is in demand as a speaker. It is an honor to be his student because he can really help you professionally.” This recommendation by a helpful faculty member is a red flag. Advisors who have a string of publications on their records and several research projects may look good on paper, but they do not necessarily make good advisors because graduate students may be at the bottom of their priorities. They have little time to spare, are almost never in their offices, every meeting is hurried, and their trips to conferences and meetings can keep a student from making deadlines.
4. An advisor who fails to apprise a student of 1) the ground rules of the department or graduate school, or 2) the ground rules of their personal process for moving a student through research and writing a thesis or dissertation. The omission of information lays traps for students. This particular red flag is hard to detect before it is too late, so the student should study the thesis and dissertation process of both the university and the department as if it were another class. There are several books about the process available on Amazon.com.
The unspoken rules of the graduate process keep students blind from the beginning. First, the chain of command is never explained. When in graduate school the dean of the graduate school, not the dean of the college, is the dean presiding over the graduate student. This arrangement is one of the checks and balances in place to protect graduate students from abuse. The position of graduate dean is often a part-time appointment in addition to a regular faculty role. Consequently, the graduate school reader/editor, or an assistant dean, is charged with solving student problems and bringing those they cannot solve to the dean’s attention.
When I was a graduate school editor I had the lofty title of Research and Writing Coordinator, but I was just an editor. Because there was no assistant dean, I was usually the first person to hear about abuse of a student. Only twice in twelve years was it too late to salvage the situation with the help of the dean. Often, it was a matter of teaching the student to “manage upward,” as I called it, which I will discuss later in this article.
Second, a department must prove it is a viable asset to the university. In large part, departmental value to the university is based upon how many students they graduate per year. For instance, if a philosophy department only graduates one or two students a year, the department may be eliminated through programmatic reduction, including all faculty, tenured or not.
The university adds up the cost of the space a department occupies, the overhead to maintain that space, the cost of journal subscriptions for the library ordered by the department (that can cost a small fortune), classroom space, and all other costs of maintaining a degree-granting department. If the department cannot justify the expense of maintaining the program, it is in danger of being eliminated. This is one reason departments write research grants. A large percentage of grant money is given to the university for “overhead,” some is used to support the research project, and some supports graduate students.
One would think advisors would be cognizant that the very existence of their department is on the line when they abuse students to the degree that they never graduate.
Bad Behavior in the Ranks
Choosing an advisor should be easy after a student has taken a few classes from each member of the department, but it is not. A “nice” instructor may be the worst advisor in the department. A bad advisor has one or more of the following characteristics after they accept a student for advisement:
1. They treat graduate students like servants, asking them to sweep floors, stock shelves, run errands, and do other tasks more appropriately assigned to a secretary or a paid assistant, and may ask a student to help out in their personal life by grocery shopping, cleaning the pool, or taking a car in for service. One student I counseled, in addition to all of the above, was cleaning up dog scat from his advisor’s back yard every day.
2. They take credit for student work, publishing papers under their own name, talking about discoveries in meetings as if they were their own, and may go so far as to flunk the student out and then publish on the research the student generated.
The advisor of one student I counseled, together with two of the committee members, destroyed all of the student’s notes from which the dissertation was to be written, destroyed (or hid) the mutant strain of fruit flies that the student had developed, and threw away all of the student’s possessions, claiming that they thought this abrasive but brilliant student had left for good when he had only gone on vacation. The research represented a breakthrough in cancer research. In this case, the graduate dean signed the three-page dissertation himself as a committee of one, and the three faculty members were fired.
3. They do not define the graduate process for students by withholding information, such as the need for approval to use of human subjects, which is a federal law, the need to submit only letter-perfect complete drafts for approval (there is no such thing as a “rough” draft in graduate school), graduate school editorial requirements, deadlines, or other information critical for continuous forward progress. “They’re supposed to be adults. They should find out these things for themselves,” several advisors have told me. Nonsense. This bad behavior is entrapment.
4. They deliberately delay giving back a draft in a timely manner until the student is obliged to register for another semester. This behavior is particularly prevalent in online universities, many of whom are more interested in money than they are in granting degrees to students. I know of seven students from four different online institutions who will never graduate because, after three or more years of working on their dissertations, they have run out of money for additional semester hours.
5. They riddle draft after draft with hundreds of corrections again and again. These advisors frequently correct their own corrections. These advisors want the thesis or dissertation to sound like they wrote it themselves, and will endlessly correct language in the belief that they are making necessary changes.
6. They read a few token pages of a draft, find a few things wrong, and send the draft back for a complete revision, giving the student the unhelpful comment “Continue as shown.” If the student could read the advisor’s mind, this would be reasonable advice. If the student knew what the advisor wanted, it would have been done right the first time.
7. They demand that the student copy the exact format of the last several theses or dissertations the advisor chaired, whether it suits the content or not. This behavior has one of two possible causes. Either the advisor is arrogant and egotistical and thinks his format is perfect, or the advisor is afraid to depart from a format with which he or she is familiar. In fact, I read a dissertation that had only 5 pages of text–and 50 pages of pictures of the wings of dragonflies. The dissertation represented four years of research. I passed it. There is no “model” thesis or dissertation.
8. They allow students to propose such a huge research project that it will take years, and/or thousands of dollars, to collect the data. Such students often quit because they run out of money or time. A student I recently counseled had been allowed to propose collecting data by conducting personal interviews with over 1,000 elementary school teachers, one at a time. She would never have completed this task before her tenure in graduate school was terminated, yet her proposal was accepted.
9. They do not have the courage to tell the student that they should drop out of graduate school because they are not doing graduate-level work. When I was the graduate school editor I read an appalling dissertation from a very nice student. She had an advisor and three committee members. One committee member said he would “never” sign her dissertation after the oral defense, and she had come to me complain. Her committee member was right. The dissertation looked like the work of a seventh-grade student. I wondered how she had gotten so far in higher education, and why she had not been stopped sooner by her advisor or the other committee members. Apparently, only one committee member had the courage to refuse her dissertation. She sued the university, but she did not get her doctoral degree
There are other bad behaviors not listed here. The sign that a student has a bad advisor is when deadlines are missed, forward progress is attenuated, and no end is in sight. Becoming a victim of the Stockholm syndrome should not be the only way to get a degree.
The Cost of a Bad Advisor
Count the cost of a bad advisor. By the time a student gets to the thesis or dissertation “proposal to do research,” they have already paid 2-3 years of tuition, books, and fees, and more expense looms ahead for an indefinite period of time. They may have lived in undesirable places. They may have lost wages because they were geographically tied to the degree-granting university and unable to seek the best paying job elsewhere. They have lost 2-3 years of life when they could have been doing something more enjoyable and less costly in time and money, which is why graduate students may become doormats for bad advisors. They are afraid their entire investment will be lost if they protest their treatment.
If your advisor has any one of the nine above-described characteristics, or others that are impeding your forward progress, you need to seek help. It only takes one bad behavior on the part of an advisor to make your graduate experience a nightmare. This Website and several others in the same network specialize in assisting students from the time they choose a research topic to the end of the oral defense.
People think of the word “manage” as a downward action; in other words, the "manager" deals with subordinates. The key to surviving a bad advisor, or later, a bad boss, is to develop the skills to manage upward. Manage the manager.
Here are some tips for surviving a bad advisor.
1. Graduate school is professional school, and students should act like the professionals they hope to be from the first day they set foot in the department. That means dressing well, keeping an appropriate social distance from members of the faculty, and keeping the majority of their personal lives to themselves.
Students should choose an advisor as carefully as choosing a partner in life. The student should interview graduate students a year or two ahead in the program, or better, some who have graduated who had the same prospective advisor. Those who are still in the department may not want to say anything negative about their advisor because their own degrees might be threatened if negative remarks got back to their advisor. Some departments assign an advisor in an effort to level the work load, and the student has no choice. The bad advisors get the same number of students as everyone else, and they can hide in the numbers.
Before making a choice students should go to the library and find the last two or three theses or dissertations a prospective advisor has chaired and look at the format, the depth of the statistical analysis, the length of the review of literature, and the intensity of the detail. This should be done by every graduate student. Advisors tend to repeat themselves student after student.
2. If a student has an advisor with any one of the bad behaviors listed previously, or another behavior that is delaying forward progress, that student should seek help immediately. The Website you are on is part of a network of Websites designed to help graduate students and others with their writing projects, whether they have a bad advisor or not.
3. Manage upward. Keep an advisor informed constantly. Send him or her e-mails on a regular basis, and keep it up the entire time the thesis or dissertation is in process. Advisors like to know students are working hard and should be impressed with your enthusiasm and dedication, real or not. When a deadline approaches, remind the advisor 4 weeks in advance, and again 2 weeks before the deadline occurs.
4. Put a box somewhere at home and keep every scrap of paper pertaining to your graduate degree program. In particular, keep a CD copy or a hard copy of every corrected manuscript the advisor hands back. Keep all e-mails from the advisor. These records are for the graduate dean, if needed.
5. Keep track of how many weeks or months of work have gone into the proposal to do research, and the thesis or dissertation as a whole. The average thesis project beginning to end should not take more than one semester. The average dissertation should not take more than two semesters.
6. If your advisor assigns tasks that are outside the thesis or dissertation process, or are personal in nature, refuse politely. Students pay semester hours to work on their graduate degrees, and nothing else.
7. If your advisor fails to acquaint you with (a) the thesis or dissertation process, including deadlines; (b) the need for approval for use of human subjects and what committee makes those recommendations; (c) graduate school editorial requirements; or (d) any other organizational requirements that must be met before graduating, you should track down all the information. Then put it all in an e-mail to your advisor asking for confirmation so it is on the record.
8. If your advisor delays handing a draft back because he or she was “too busy” to read it, and it forces you to register for another semester, send an e-mail noting the additional expense of time and money, as well as the length of time the draft has not been returned. A reasonable amount of time for an advisor to hand back work is 2 weeks. When the draft does come back, if it has been more than 2 weeks, send an e-mail to note the number of days it has taken to return the work.
9. If your advisor riddles your work with hundreds of corrections, hire an editor to help. Never, ever, tell an advisor that an editor has been hired. Human nature will cause the advisor to find fault with the editor to prove his or her superiority. Instead, send the advisor a series of e-mails noting how much hard work you are doing, mention the major changes in the document, and note approaching deadlines. Note that the finest editor in the world cannot stop an advisor from making changes, but an editor can improve the professionalism and correctness of your work.
10. If your advisor only reads a few pages, then tells you to continue through the rest of the draft with similar corrections, send it back and tell the advisor the directions were not clear and to please clarify what changes should be made in the rest of the manuscript. It does no good to be a doormat and allow an advisor to behave badly. If your e-mail is met with further comments about following his or her directions, or there is a long delay with no word from the advisor, call and make an appointment, then present all the pages that had no corrections on them and ask how you can improve them. At this point you may need to bring a tape recorder to your meetings with your advisor.
11. If you reach the point where you are certain your advisor is not acting in your best interests, gather all your evidence together and go see the editor or an assistant dean of the graduate school. In writing, request a change of advisor. In all probability, your request will be denied, but you will have activated the chain of command. Someone from the graduate dean’s office will call either the dean of the college where you are a student, or the department head, and ask about the complaint. That person will then call your advisor and ask for comment. Good graduate deans will monitor your progress.
If you have been polite and professional from the first day of work with your advisor, you have nothing to fear. If your department head believes that there can be no amicable resolution to the problem, he or she can appoint one of the members of your committee to the role of advisor. Remember that there are inner-departmental rivalries and friendships among faculty that you know nothing about, and you may step into fresh trouble. However, the graduate dean will be monitoring the problem, and you can return to that office again if the situation does not improve.
A Special Note about Online Institutions
Problems with advisors at online institutions are extremely difficult to manage. Advisors commonly work for online institutions on a part-time basis. In fact, many online institutions require an advisor to have a full-time job elsewhere. Many such institutions are more interested in obtaining continuing semester tuition than they are in graduating students. There are no checks and balances in online institutions to help a student in trouble with an advisor. Nevertheless, a good editor can help students present a more professional and thorough thesis or dissertation, which often solves some of the problem.
Note: Dissertationadvisors.com lists consultants who have experience assisting students throughout the thesis or dissertation process including advisement about (a) choosing a research topic, and (b) writing the proposal to do research, and (c) presentation of the research. In addition, consultants can also prepare the student for the defense.
See www.editing-writing for every consultant in every category of this network (including academic format experts).
This short article cannot encompass all the troubles that can occur between a graduate student and a bad advisor, nor can the writer anticipate what might be the best course of action in a given situation. The best advice for a student is to hire a professional editor who deals with graduate students on a regular basis, has sat on graduate committees, and can help make the best of a bad situation.