There has been much discussion recently in these pages about Bad Advisers (BAs): How abundant are they? Who is mainly responsible for the quality of adviser-student interactions, or is responsibility shared equally between adviser and student? What characterizes a bad adviser anyway?
So many questions. Today I want to add a new one for discussion:
Can bad advisers become good advisers?
Surely some can and some won’t, depending on the reason the adviser is considered bad (by someone).
Some bad advisers (and I include myself in this category) don’t mean to be bad advisers. We are unintentional bad advisers (UBAs) and have a sincere wish to have a constructive working relationship with students, even though in some cases we fail at this. We UBAs are not uniformly bad: we work well with some students but not others. We feel varying degrees of sorrow about the unsuccessful students depending on how much, if any, blame we place on ourselves for a student’s failure.
The most likely explanation to account for our UBA status involves conflicts in personality, work ethic, expectations, and goals between adviser and student. The conflict may arise in part from lack of communication and may exist and persist despite efforts at communication.
Some advisers intimidate their students and/or are rather fierce with them. For example, I have colleagues who refuse to answer questions from students who ask questions that they (the student) could easily figure out if they thought about it first. If asked such a question these advisers will say something like “Go think about that yourself before asking someone to solve it for you.” These colleagues are not particularly liked by some of their students, but are they bad advisers? They are trying to teach their students to think for themselves, so if they are bad advisers, they are UBAs.
Can UBAs improve to become universally beloved by students, who will all succeed in their graduate programs? Of course not, but it may be possible for an adviser, with time, to learn to anticipate student concerns, questions, and gaps in knowledge about academic culture. With experience and with increased confidence, UBAs can become less bad by avoiding some basic problems and by learning ways of responding that are forceful but perhaps less fierce. It is unlikely, however, that most of us UBAs will ever become completely user-friendly, nice, and endlessly sympathetic.
There will always be some element of randomness in adviser-student interactions even with very experienced advisers, and even advisers who have a long track record of successful advising will be disliked by some students, who find a certain advising style or research project abhorrent or who have other problems beyond what can reasonably be dealt with by an academic adviser.
According to this definition, most of us are UBAs to some subset of the graduate student population. Another type of adviser, designated here as Truly Bad Advisers or Totally Bad Advisers (TBA), are much more rare. These advisers treat students like worker bees and/or are actively evil, undermining their own students. I knew some of these decades ago, but my impression is that their ranks have thinned over the years. In terms of active colleagues and their adviser-related behavior, I know very few who are certifiable TBAs.
TBAs may not be interested in changing their evil ways, so the real question is whether graduate students afflicted by TBAs have any recourse. When I was a graduate student, the answer was definitely no. There wasn’t even a graduate adviser and the department chair interpreted even a mild adviser-related complaint as a sign of weakness by the student.
In the 21st century, there are graduate advisers and committees and ombudsmen and offices that deal with ethics and conflict resolution. Tenure and promotion files have a component devoted to teaching and advising, including, in some cases, letters of reference from students and advisees. Many funding agencies want proposals to address in specific ways how students will be involved in research and mentored. Our CVs list our current and graduated students. Some award nominations require lists of students and information about Where They Are Now. We are judged in part by our success as advisers.
All of this emphasis on students should provide even TBAs with some incentive, however selfish, to have students who succeed. All of this emphasis on students also gives graduate program directors and administrators leverage if students bring valid complaints to them about a TBA.
So, what recourse does a student have? If a student encounters a BA, particularly a TBA, the options are:
Endure. Do your work, keep some perspective, stay sane, get your degree, and move on to something better. Establish yourself as independent of your adviser as soon as you can. If possible, make other connections while still in graduate school and try to develop good working relationships with faculty on your committee. (Actually, this advice applies in every situation). If you one day become an adviser yourself, try not to repeat your TBA's mistakes (f you still think they are mistakes when you become an adviser).
Try to fix the situation by communicating in a calm and constructive way with your adviser. Do not launch into a list of all the things you think your adviser should change and do to make things better/easier for you (this would not be constructive). Perhaps the communication could be phrased as a question if part of the problem is a lack of understanding of why certain things are done the way they are. Perhaps this can be done in an exploratory way so that a student does not endanger his/her position even if the adviser is unlikely to welcome a discussion of his/her advising style and philosophy.
Try to fix the situation by calmly discussing things with other faculty or administrators. Ideally this will be done after approaching the adviser, unless the latter is an unstable and vindictive person.
Change advisers (or, in extreme cases, departments or universities), realizing of course that, although in some cases this really is the best thing to do, this option comes with possible pitfalls.
9 months ago