Saturday, March 17, 2007

Passive-Aggressive Control-Freak Slacker Advisor

Advising grad students is probably the most difficult part of being a professor at a research university. I enjoy it immensely, most of the time, but it is impossible to get the right balance of giving 'just enough' advice and assistance but not too much or too little. Too much = controlling; too little = uncaring, disengaged. And every student is different in terms of their abilities (intellectual, self-motivation etc.) and preference for amount of advisor input. It is a stressful relationship at times. It is very easy to accuse even the most caring advisor of not giving enough information/structure/advice, or being too critical, or of expecting too much.

My advisor was totally disengaged from what his students were doing. He had a sink-or-swim attitude, and many students sank. I thought that all I would have to do to be a better advisor to my own students was to be tuned in, accessible, and encouraging, and to provide them with sufficient financial support to do their research. Wrong.

My approach is to be as accessible as possible, as consistent and fair as possible, and as calm as possible. Or, I should say, that is my goal. My success varies depending on the situation. Some situations are difficult for everyone: students with depression, disabling physical illness, substance abuse problems, family/personal crises, in addition to all the academic problems that can arise even without these issues. There doesn't seem to be a how-to manual for things like "How To Advise a Heroin Addict". I could write one, but it would be short, as the answer ended up being "You can't".

A student once said to me "My therapist says you are passive-aggressive towards me." This student had previously told me that he had been diagnosed with an 'anxiety disorder', and I was glad that he was getting help, but not sure I wanted to know what his therapist thought of me (and what information that was based on). I asked my student to give examples so we could talk about it, but he didn't want to give me any examples. I thought that was rather passive-aggressive of him.. (and no, this student did not finish his degree).

Passive-aggressive is a rather easy (and unfair) label to give to any advisor. For example, I think many of us hold back on criticism at particular times, but are more open with it at others, depending on the context of the situation, but thereby giving the impression that one is 'secretly' critical at some times, only to attack at others.

Fortunately or unfortunately, grad-advisor relationships have years to develop and evolve, and, in most cases, over time we can figure out a way to work well together.


AnonymousWomanProfessor said...

There are days when I wish I was a trained therapist...

I have bawling students who have come to see that they are not great researchers and are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, have relationship problems, sudden pregnancies, HIV infections, etc. etc. I send them off to find their own therapists and doctors, I pretty much get everyone through.

But sometimes it really scares me, like the time a woman asked if she could delay her thesis to have her baby - I said yes, of course, and she sighed in relief: I would have hated to have to abort this child.

But I am open up front: For an undergraduate degree, I am pushing - I want to see them every week with something written & questions for a short time, I will use my red pen on everything, ripping up misspellings and inconsistancies as I encounter them, asking painful questions as I go. It is a kick in the seat of the pants, every week.

All say that they want this. The good ones soon get a longer leash - every other week is fine. Cancelling appointments leads to me not giving out appointments any more. Not showing up with anything prepared leads to me getting loud and throwing them out of my office. That tends to avoid repeats.

I find spelling this out up front makes my position very clear.

Grad students and the odd excellent undergrad come for bull sessions - I *love* these, as we kick around interesting questions in our field. These are the times I live for, this is one of the reasons I'm doing this.

Sure, I'm a bitch - but I'm open about it. And it works.

Anonymous said...

So, to everyone out there with perspective on the mentor-(grad) student relationship:
I never (very rarely) get any criticism from my advisor. I'm sure some people wish they had this situation, but it leaves me feeling like I have no idea what she thinks of my work or expects. I know I'm not so perfect that there isn't need for improvement at this point. Advisor is great generally and willing to help when requested, but my sense is that 1st year grad students don't always even know what questions they should be asking. Any advice on how to get my advisor to really tell me what she thinks of my work, toward the end of improving quality/learning the academic world ropes? I don't need to be told what to do nor seek a lot of affirmation, but some feedback occasionally would be nice.

Anonymous said...

How would you handle it if your advisor does not show up for meetings but does not tell you in advance. My advisor flakes out on at least 40% of our meetings?

Anonymous said...

It sounds as though you are doing a fine job as an advisor. Being calm with and accessible to your students are important decisions and will certainly be valued by your students.

However, I think it also okay to ask your students what they think of the balance you are attempting to strike and to listen carefully to their answers. If they are honest with themselves, they'll tell you if they need more or less advice/help while also recognizing that you may have valid reasons for disagreeing with their assessment. -But by asking, at least you'll know what they are feeling and get a general sense of how you are doing.

I had an advisor who considered himself available to his students and considerate of them. However, this same advisor routinely missed scheduled meetings, began each meeting by telling me how busy he was and would interrupt me mid-sentence to read incoming email (!)but thought me overly emotional when I finally ventured to protest his inconsiderate treatment. I wasn't heard or valued and yet he thought he was doing a good job.

EcoGeoFemme said...

That sounds like a professor I deal with who answers his phone during scheduled meetings. Not just an important call he was especially expecting, but any call can end our meetings at any time. I hate that.

borat said...

Advisor-student relationship is like marriage, right? It takes time to adjust to one another and the relationship has its ups and downs just like real marriage. The only difference is the lack of sex and once you graduate you start missing each other soo badly(like divorce)..

Ms.PhD said...

I was with you up until you called yourself a bitch. You need to get over calling yourself that.

anonymous who wants more advice from advisor,
Ask *specific* questions. For example, present some figures that you think are publication quality, and ask if they really are. Most professors I know make this mistake over and over: they say nothing until the paper is in preparation, and then they come down HARD, when they should have been giving advice all along. I think it's a combination of not wanting to always be in Paper Mode, which these days can be depressing, and a kind of passive-aggressive mentality in the sense that some really do hope the student will just magically grow out of it, without any guidance whatsoever. Some of them really do think that good scientists are born, not trained... which is ridiculous, of course.

anonymous whose advisor flakes a lot,
That sucks. And I have had this problem before. The best you can do is camp outside the office door and make your presence known. Try to make your meetings efficient- have everything prepared, rehearse your rapid-fire questions, so if you only get five minutes in the hallway, you can get some information without having to have a scheduled meeting all the time. Other options include things like documenting your requests and their flakiness; going through administrative assistants to make appointments or asking them to act as live reminders; reminding incessantly (the week before, the day before, the morning of) to make sure you aren't scheduled over.

advisor-student relationship is more like parent-child than marriage, I think.