First, let me say that I hate myself for using lyrics from a song by Heart(?) in the title of this post, but it's what came to mind when I was mulling over the topic-of-the-day.
If this blog has any mission or goals, and it may not, one of them might be to demystify some of the experiences of Graduate School, and in particular the often fraught grad-adviser relationship. Some of my student readers seem very bitter about their graduate experiences. I know well that there are situations of extreme unfairness, but perhaps in some cases the anger stems from a lack of understanding of a system that is not always as transparent as it could or should be. In other cases, a bad situation may persist because a student doesn't know what the options are for resolution of the problem.
In saying this, my intention is not to 'blame the victim'. I want to be very clear that I abhor evil advisers, and that I think advisers (evil or not, and myself included) should work harder to explain what we do and why we do it. And I think that students can do more to ask constructive questions to try to get the information they want and need. Grad students vary in more ways than I ever imagined before I became an adviser, and I therefore appreciate it when students take the initiative to ask for the information they want and need.
When I was a student, I was often incredulous at the behavior, decisions, and overall philosophy towards students displayed by my adviser and other professors (though I never asked them about any of this), and was quite sure that I would do things in a very different way if ever I got the chance to advise students.
Well, of course it's not so simple. I provide more feedback and funding to my students than my adviser gave to me, although that is setting the bar rather low for improving adviser-grad interactions. Nevertheless, until you manage a research group yourself, you may not understand the decisions that go into how funding and publications and research responsibilities are prioritized and allocated. Some decisions or policies that seem unfair or inconsistent might actually be the actions of a well-intentioned adviser. And you shouldn't be too critical of how your adviser spends his/her time or research funds until know what it's like to be in a position of managing a research group, teaching, and having many service responsibilities, all at the same time.
That last point is in response to student comments and e-mails along the lines of "I do all the work and my adviser does nothing." I am deeply skeptical of such comments unless a student has an adviser who has no grants and has not provided the student with any research support or ideas, and who does not teach any classes nor do any service work for the institution or profession. Managing a research group is far from "nothing".
You can and should be critical, however, if your adviser doesn't provide you with timely feedback on your research progress, proposals, manuscripts, or other documents, despite specific and reasonable requests. And you certainly should be upset if all you get is criticism, with no suggestions for how to do things "right". These seem to be common complaints.
I think that in some (many?) cases of advisers who don't give timely feedback is that the adviser has so many things to do that it's not possible to do them all in a reasonable time frame, although in some cases it could be that the student's needs are lower in priority than they should be. That is a major problem for some, and it would be a significant improvement to the Grad Experience for many if we could all find a way to solve it. Perhaps we can use the collective wisdom of the FSP reading community to come up with some possible solutions.
As an adviser, I am pretty good about getting comments back to students on manuscripts and other documents, but I certainly have trouble getting co-authors to read, edit, or at least sign-off on manuscripts. These situations are different of course because I can remove a dysfunctional colleague from a project or send them an e-mail saying "If I don't hear from you by DATE, I will assume that you approve of the manuscript in its current form and will submit it with you as co-author." Students don't typically have that option, although I am curious if anyone has tried something like that with an adviser who sat on a manuscript for an unacceptably long period of time.
It is important to be clear about what amount of time is reasonable vs. unacceptable. If someone gives me a long document to edit just before a proposal deadline or conference or some other major time consuming activity, my response time might be slower. It is important to communicate about these things and, if possible, to work out an agreement about what would be a reasonable time frame for all concerned. That advice assumes that all parties involves are semi-reasonable people, perhaps a flawed assumption in some cases.
All of us who have advised students for many years can think of examples in which the adviser-grad interaction was very tense or somehow dysfunctional, not because the adviser was (necessarily) evil, but for a wide range of reasons involving misunderstanding, miscommunication, or widely divergent personalities and priorities. This is normal in any system involving interpersonal relationship, and may be particularly common when you add in the stress and power differential of adviser-student relationships.
Just because it is normal, however, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix problems that can be fixed. My overall message to grad students in apparently dysfunctional adviser-student situations is to first and foremost do whatever you can to try to understand the situation and make things work for yourself. Is your adviser really being evil and unfair? Maybe, maybe not. Be as proactive as is reasonable in your situation, and seek out allies in senior students, postdocs, and/or other faculty.
There are some extreme situations in which nothing you can do will work, and perhaps these situations can only be solved at the departmental or institutional level (if the will and means to do so exists), but my hope is that many misunderstandings can be resolved before they get magnified into major problems, and that advisers and students can develop highly functioning and respectful interactions through enhanced understanding on both sides.
6 years ago