Tuesday, September 01, 2009


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.


Ms.PhD said...

If you want to read many examples of bad advisers (both UBA and TBA) and what to do about them, read my blog archives. That barely scratches the surface.

It's true that some UBAs will mend their ways. I spoke to one recently about a revelation he had as a young professor that led him to become a Really Good Advisor (RGA).

However, I find some of your suggestions incredibly naive and/or still missing the point.

1. Advising doesn't have to be rude. It can be subtle (though not if you want to get credit for it, re: one of your recent posts).

e.g. "Go think about that yourself before asking someone to solve it for you."

Becomes "Well, what do YOU think?"

Gets you to the same place, but MUCH more encouraging and positive.

2. "In the 21st century, there are graduate advisers and committees and ombudsmen and offices that deal with ethics and conflict resolution."

Are you kidding? This is a joke. Where I went to school, the administrators, HR and ombuds always sided with the professors. As far as they were concerned, that was who paid their salary. Students were a nuisance.

"offices that deal with ethics and conflict resolution" - um, let's just take one example, that has nothing to do with a scientific ethics concern. Have you ever tried to file a sexual harassment complaint? The FIRST THING they tell you is that you cannot remain anonymous, there WILL be backlash, and while that backlash is technically illegal, there is nothing they can do to protect you from it.

Yeah. Ombuds offices are a joke unless you're planning to quit science. They will not help you.

3. "unless the latter is an unstable and vindictive person."

I've written a fair amount about this on my blog, but I think it's fair to say that the majority of TBAs are unstable and this tends to make them become, if they weren't already, psychopaths.

4. "change advisors"

Again, naive. If you already have a thesis project, getting to finish it and graduate in any reasonable amount of time requires that you find someone

a) willing to take you in
b) able to fund and/or make room for you
c) willing to risk permanently burning bridges with your former adviser.

Best case scenario, most students who switch labs for any reason will graduate 1-2 years later than the rest of their class. This is not a reasonable solution.

Personally, I think the graduate committee should step in where necessary and kick the TBA to the curb. This rarely happens though, because TBAs are often powerful and graduate committees are usually spineless.

I am curious to hear more creative solutions, as I am too tired to try to come up with any.

Nicole said...

I would like to wholeheartedly agree that some advisors who might be UBAs for some people are also really good advisors for other people. I was warned ahead of time that some people did not get along so well with my advisor. On the other hand I think I made a pretty good choice in having him as my advisor and that it was precisely some of things that others disliked, that make him a better advisor for me.

Maybe the answer for students to avoid UBAs is better information. It is also really important for students to consider many dimensions of what they want in an advisor before picking one. In many cases of UBA, either the student did not actually have enough information to make an informed decision about their advisor, or they didn't think too hard about it.

In many ways I think that in a UBA situation, the student should definitely take some responsibility, even if that just means putting a little more thought into choosing their next advisor.

Anonymous said...

Can you talk about basic rights of graduate students and postdocs. The labor relations b/w advisors and advisee is quite complicated.....

Advisors with Egos. Someone should talk about Professors with stupid Egos....and a false perception of his/her importance.

BAs or GAs (good advisors).

Is the Ego meter a good measurement of BA or GA?

Can you teach a dog (new or old) new tricks???

I highly doubt that BAs can become GAs become of egos and age and etc.

It takes guts to admit you are a BA (and be willing to change?), and the wife is afraid of the BAs (they can't handle the truth).

So the emperor with no cloth :)

Anonymous said...

"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."

What are some of the pitfalls of changing advisors and/or changing schools? Is this always the last option/last resort? Or the first options. What are the potential pitfalls a student should know???

This is quitting, right?

Like to the Lark said...

Your feed title "BAs' made me think you would be talking about the Bachelor of Arts degree!

Kea said...

As a woman who went through 6 or more official PhD supervisors in theoretical physics, from at least four institutions, I think you might have mentioned the possible difficulties of unconscious (or conscious) prejudices, unique circumstances etc etc. Sometimes the measures you mention are just plain futile.

Roughly speaking, half of my advisors were good (in that they helped me make progress) and half of them were shockingly bad (in that they hindered my progress so much that my health was seriously affected). I think the number one difficulty, that far overrides anything else, is the situation where an advisor is completely incapable of listening to the student (unfortunately, not so rare) on the assumption that they always know better. If you avoid these people, and work hard, I think things will always work out.

MomPhDstudent said...

I just wish that there are quick tests to determine if a prospective adviser is a GA,UBA or TBA.
I havent met the other students my prospective advisors are supervising. I have seen a couple of advisors and it is the same in all the cases. I dont know if it is intentional or otherwise. restricted entry into the dept also dosent favour getting to know other students. So I am left to decide based on my gut feeling and the rapport we develop during the first few interactions. I also feel the publication record and the no. of students that they have supervised may not always be a good indicator of the adviser status. Feels like high risk gambling sometimes :)

American in Oxbridge said...

I'm good friends with my former TBA now, after I changed universities and advisors and plenty of time elapsed after the fact. A TBA is not necessarily even a bad advisor to everyone, I think it's important to note that the student-mentor relationship is different for every set of two people.

Anonymous said...

I think that there's another type of TBA...the unprofessional professor. Someone who puts extreme pressure upon their students to conform to their personal preferences (whether it be political or religious pressure, or if it's sexual harassment). Students can still work in such an environment, and even receive post-grad recommendations from the professor, but it sure makes the graduate experience miserable. And in situations like that, there are almost no protections. The HR protections for employees don't extend to students, and unless there is an academically-based gripe against an advisor, the academic administration is loathe to address it.

scicurious said...

I have to agree with MrsPhD that switching advisers is often a TERRIBLE thing to do, and sometimes impossible. Many students who are stuck under TBAs end up with a reputation (either spread by the TBA or due to sometimes unprofessional behavior under stress) which results in no other adviser being willing to take them. I've seen several students forced out of the program (hopefully making it into other programs) due to this and it's not pretty.

Anonymous said...

Here's my problem with this whole situation. I two friends who joined a department. Both of these friends are the personality type that hate conflict and are unlikely to be their own advocate in any of the ways you describe (more likely to take the blame on themselves for things that go wrong).

As it turns out, one of these people picked a great guy for an adviser. In his hands she has blossomed and is progressing well in her graduate career.

My other friend wasn't so lucky. Her adviser turned out to be a TBA in every sense, and she was eventually forced out of the program because of his ineptitude and cruelty.

Basically what I'm saying is that this situation is so arbitrary. If the situation were reversed, friend A would have failed and friend B succeeced. There's no reason why friend A and friend B couldn't both have gone on to do great science.

Emily said...

The system for matching students and advisors seems to have some pretty serious flaws built in.

Students have to find advisors who are working on material they find interesting and who have personalities/advising styles that will work well with the student's own personality/educational needs.

Advisors have to find students that will fit with the lab culture and be capable of learning to be productive there in a reasonable time. Advisors also have to adapt to the needs of the students they take on and make sure they are getting a reasonable educational experience.

Even if both of those things were happening, there would still be a lot of room for problems.

But to make matters worse, a lot of students are pretty naive about what they need in an advisor, and so pick a lab where it will be hard to thrive. Or they are at a school that limits their choice in the matter. And then once they realize there is a problem, it's difficult to change advisors and gets harder as time goes by.

And advisors often don't have a lot of information about how the student will be when they take them on. And then there are conflicts between the advisor's responsibilities to the lab: time is zero sum, and must be divided between students, activities to keep students funded, teaching (which may not benefit the advisor's students directly, but they took classes from other profs, so it works out in my mind) etc.

And of course, some advisors find it in their interest to treat students as infinite work sources. And some students do the absolute minimum to get by and end up not really contributing anything to the lab.

It seems to me the system needs some more flexibility to help correct for the inevitable errors.

But cheer up, everyone. If you make it through you get a valuable degree that lets you be paid much better in your next job, where all the same pitfalls will still be there in some form or another.

John Vidale said...

I'm taken aback by the naive approach many apparently have taken in choosing how to conduct graduate studies.

The profs at my undergraduate school were glad to help form my list of schools for applications, and discuss the faculties. I visited five schools to consider attending, talking with the graduate students at each, particularly seeking those working for the advisors in the specialty I was after. Many potential advisors were revealed to have complex personalities.

It takes some time, but why not spend the effort before spending 5+ years working as an indentured slave for peanuts?

These days we bend over backwards to invite prospective students to get a thorough look at us and our departments before choosing. Prospective students should do their research, particularly if they consider themselves suited for a career in research. A hint for applicants - doing one's homework is evident from the advisors' end of the process, too, and it is impressive.

One can't foresee all problems, but by definition, BAs and TBAs are repeat offenders.

whyme? said...

I've had generally good adviser experiences (one adviser who was great for some students (including me) and less great for others, one who was a genuine good adviser, and one who might have been a bad adviser if I hadn't stood up to him early and often, but ended up being at most annoying).

I guess the fact that I've been lucky may cause me to inadvertently overlook situations where toxic advising is occurring, but I'll say that it seems pretty unusual where I am now (I would say less than 5% of students I observe around me have this problem, though a larger percentage probably suffer from poor fit with their advisers).

Despite the fact that some people here have reported poor outcomes when they went up the ladder, I would encourage people not to discount the possibility. I personally know of one situation here that ended up in mediation, one ongoing situation where a Dean's level administrator is actively involved in identifying a new lab and funding for the student in question, and two situations where students have switched adviser's relatively late and gone on to be fairly successful.

Anonymous said...

I had a TBA. I tried talking to him and working with my program director, all to no avail. Finally, I bit the bullet and switched advisers and labs. Even though I had to start from scratch with a new thesis project, it was well worth it. My current adviser does, of course, have his faults. But overall it's been a positive experience. So here's my advice: If you're in a bad situation, do whatever it takes to get it. Even if that mean you will graduate a little bit later. 5 pleasant years are much better than 3-4 horrible ones. Plus, having a TBA can make you less productive and much less successful in the long run anyway.

Anonymous said...

I have graduated 11 students with PhDs and had 3 finish with a Masters. Of those who got their PhD, all but one are employed in jobs that use their talents in different ways, from tenured professor through industry to medicine. The two who got their masters least recently are also both gainfully employed in the business and doing well. Each student was unique, each posed different challenges, and each had times when I am sure they were ready to kill me. However, in my Department and those I was in as a student and a postdoc, it is NOT true that that most advisors are/were "bad" . Perhaps my experience is unusual, but I think not.

I agree with John that both sides need to do their homework before joining a lab. In my field all prospective grad students visit us for a weekend, and compare us to their other choices. In my program lab rotations are mandatory. Do your homework on the training record of the Department and then the lab you are considering. What did their students accomplish, how long were they there, where did they go afterward. Talk to folks in the lab now, and other people in the Department. If you can't get answers to these questions, then start worrying.

However, if you expect me to be perfect, never rude, never angry, infinitely available, unendingly patient, and always supportive no matter what you do, I would not suggest working with me--I cannot promise that.

Mark P

Megan said...

There is an easy solution to this problem:

Get rid of tenure.

In what other field are there no yearly performance reviews, are employees (professors, in this case) not held accountable for their behavior (I have a long list, from multiple "advisors," at multiple insitutions, from personal experience and firsthand accounts), and are there little to no recourse for the underlings who are mistreated?

(Obviously I agree with the naivete behind the thought that students/postdocs can go to an ombudsman or use committees to solve issues.)

Academia is a sick institution that is not the real world. Tenure is at the heart of that problem. Force professors into being held accountable, on a yearly or bi-yearly basis, for how their advising is received, how their students are doing, how they treat their postdocs, how well they teach their classes, and this might begin to resolve itself.

A once-in-a-lifetime tenure review does not a good advisor make.

Globalistgirl said...

I agree with an anonymous poster on another post - incorporating management into advising and other things professors do may not fix TBAs any more than they do bad bosses (Either version of The Office, anyone?), but there ARE instructions and theories on how to be a good leader and mentor out there.

I also agree with Anonymous at 9/01/2009 01:22:00 AM in that professorial egos are a big impedance to becoming a better advisor. If you are willing to admit you have something to learn in the area of leadership and mentoring, there's management literature out there that gives you a number of approaches and specific advice on how to do it. However, many professors seem to suffer from what a psychologist at my BigU calls "The Delusion of Academic Superiority". He's researching graduate advising and lectures on his findings, and says that most advisors think that because they do such Momentously Important and Difficult Things in their research, things like management and organization are so simple in comparison any hare-brained fool can do it. (This matches what I've seen very well.)

While being a good boss/advisor isn't Difficult in the same way research is Difficult, it's not something you do while sleeping, and it requires conscious reflection and effort nonetheless. Professors who think their Great Intellectual Prowess is their no. 1, 2, and 3 best assets are just not likely to make use of the information out there on how to deal with people and get the best out of many different types of people.

All managers, including professors, end up with difficult employees/stuents sometimes. However, they far more frequently end up with employees/students that simply are not similar to them, but can be good workers/students anyway. Knowing how to make that happen is the test of a good boss/advisor. If you're going to be in a managerial position, including advising students, it is IMO part of the job to learn to support employees/students that aren't like you. I know it's not considered part of the job in academia, but in what context you supervise/mentor people doesn't change reality or cause and effect.

Few people are genuinely bad workers. If you think you have one, odds are better you haven't figured out how to work with them. Sure, the employee/student has responsibilities in that area too, but those are discussed very actively in academia, whereas those of advisors less so. A big part of leadership is taking responsibility for the entirety of your area of responsibility - whether or not something is your personal fault.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what MsPhD said about how the committee should do something about these TBAs. Of course, like she said, they never do...

As for the comments on doing research on potential labs - this does not always work out. First of all, if there are no active students in the lab you may never know. Potential advisers try to lure you in and even 'wine and dine' you during a rotation only to turn into an insane multiple personality loon later.

My BA for instance never had a student before me and seemed VERY nice and enthusiastic. Later I found out this enthusiasm was really insane control issues.

yolio said...

I agree that the UBAs are probably much more common and troubling. I would describe myself as the product of a UBA. My advisors had been very successful at advising certain types of students before me. But it turns out, I was a very different sort of student with very different sorts of needs, and they never did figure out how to adjust to that. Combine this with a series of random events that conspired to prevent me from finding effective alternative advisor support. I finished grad school isolated, marginalized, and frustrated.

On a personal level, everyone got along great. We all liked each other just fine. Every one had good intentions, and everyone was generally good at their job. But the mentorship, while not a complete failure, wasn't what any of us wanted it to be.

I think it is important for the advisors of the world to understand that this sort of thing is possible. My only marginal success coming out of a ``good" lab is a professional stigma that I have to deal with. Given half a chance, I can do great things. But after that initial bit of bad luck, it can be hard to convince people to give that half a chance.

Anonymous said...

It's fascinating to read some of the student's comments. I don't think they always understand what good or bad advise is. I did a postdoc with somebody who at the time didn't think much of in terms of his mentoring/advising skills. I felt he was OK, but nothing special.
After another postdoc and a few years as a professor I realized how much he was constantly doing to foster my career. It took me years to make connections between things he did and the impact they had in my professional life, and I wouldn't be a professor today if it wasn't for him (and I really mean this!).
I remember his students complaining about his mentoring skills, but again, there is a long list of his alumni (many underrepresented minorities) that graduated and got good positions because of his great (but often subtle) advising skills.

Anonymous said...

FSP, you seem to keep mixing up "bad adviser" with "human". Your own characterization of yourself as a UBA seems a bit harsh. Based on the way you talk about your job and your students on this blog, I would guess that you are a pretty good adviser.

Kevin said...

I like to think I'm a good adviser, but how can I tell.

I didn't really have an adviser in my 8 years of grad school. I had fellowship money for most of the time, and worked on different projects. When the final fellowship was one year from running out, I asked around to find an adviser willing to "supervise" my latest project (that is agree to read my thesis).

I did get some good advice from him (like that joint appointments between departments rarely work), and he did get to be co-author on a paper that I and a couple other grad students wrote, but otherwise it was not a very traditional adviser/advisee relationship.

I did give a talk at his retirement symposium---the only person there who was not in his primary field (which was neither the field of my thesis nor my current field).

Anonymous said...

Naive? Yeah, it's those silly women not knowing how to dick swing their way into a grad program loaded up with boys club advisors. I had 4 grad school interviews while I was wrapping up college. I was asked by a dept chair if I was applying for grad school just to hang out while my boyfriend finished his degree. I was asked by a potential advisor if I planned on getting prego. After months of talking to what seemed like a great advisor, he gave me the cold shoulder the minute he met me, and later told he that he doesn't think I look the part of a researcher (*cough* male). The 4th guy had the personality of a milk carton. Yeah, sign me up to work with a shithead who impacts my entire career - NOT. I took another year to redo the advisor search to avoid misogynist assholes and decided to do a master's first rather than my original PhD plan. It wasn't that I couldn't do a PhD, it was that I didn't want to commit to a project and be stuck with a possible asshole advisor for 4+ years. If I hadn't experienced the misogyny upfront in the interviews, I would have gone straight into a PhD program.

Women do their homework. It's just not the kind of homework YOU think of. Male privilege. You have no idea what it's like being interviewed while being a person in a young woman body. There are plenty of dudes that you dudes can work with since your gender is the golden goose. In my experience with many undergraduates, the women have done extensive homework (bordering on neurotic!) on advisors and programs, while the guys just wing it, well, swing it. jc

John Vidale said...

The one piece of advice I always give prospective students - choose a department that offers multiple options in case the primary desired advisor doesn't work out, never choose a place with only one option.

Faculty move, retire, or just turn out to be incompatible for a variety of reasons.

Even if the primary advisor works out, having other respectable and often contrary opinions down the hall is good for perspective.

Anon said...

Getting rid of tenure is tempting, except that I think achieving tenure is what allows some UBAs to relax and become true RGAs. Maybe adding the caveat to tenure that it is conditional upon proper treatment of graduate students (although I don't know how that would be defined).

On another note, I just left my research group due to lots of problems with my adviser. I know that it is a risky move and I might be spending longer in grad school than I wanted, but the alternative was to stay in the group, grow increasingly bitter, unhappy, and unproductive, lose my love of chemistry and probably leave with a masters. So I think it's worth it.

Female Science Professor said...

momphdstudent: Advisers also wish that there were quick tests to determine if a prospective student will work out or not.

Megan, there are yearly performance reviews for professors at many universities. Professors are in fact constantly evaluated in many different ways.

Female Science Professor said...

anon 12:28 - You make some good points, but the attack on John V is off base. It's clear from his many comments to this blog that he is a strong supporter of women in science.

mixlamalice said...

"bordering on neurotic!"

That's what I am starting to think too...

I've never seen so much people talking about sexism and sexual harassment and whatever.
Is it because these things are less present in Europe than they are here? Or is it because women are more willing to fight for this cause in the US? Or is it because with all this "politically correct" and these "affirmative action" stuffs, more and more people are going crazy and tend to see discrimination everywhere (for example, this first year grad student who left our group because she believed our advisor was sexist because he asked her during their first meeting if she was sure she did the experiment right)?

I don't even talk about this trend to analyze everything using crappy concepts that really look like "Freudism 101"... (exemple: this guy is abusing his power against me poor woman because he obviously has masculinity issues).

Come on, not everything has to be judged as a consequence of male-female relationships in a male's world.

Anonymous said...

The first thing older students tell you when you say that you want to do a PhD is that the most important thing is to choose your advisor carefully. Of course you think that you listen and follow the advice, but it's difficult to know what kind of advisor you really need and it's only later, when it's too late to change both advisor and project, that you realize exactly what they were talking about.

In my case, as a final year PhD student, my main advisor has been a very bad advisor for me (it's a mutual feeling, I know because he told me so). The co-advisors have worked much better as research advisors, but since the main advisor is also the head of the department and a control freak when it comes to any kind of power that gives only limited help.

Based on his (=the main advisor) current and previous students it seems that he is a really good match as an advisor for a very specific kind of person. For everyone else (including unfortunately me) the situation tends to get out of control and turn into a disaster. He is not interested in changing his ways, and treats every hint about doing something about the problem as a declaration of war. I've tried at various occasions to raise the issue at higher levels (department and faculty, both alone and with the help of the student union/ombudsman). It didn't help and only resulted in making everyone annoyed with me for daring to suggest that a professor might actually be required to do his job (EVEN if he has personal problems!).

My main complain is not that he is evil, overworked or crazy (I personally think he is all those things, but that I can take if I really have to). My main complain is that he is no longer interested in having goals and doing research with the aim of publishing it. If a project occasionally results in a paper actually getting published that's fine by him, but he's not driving the research projects with the goal of producing papers. And published papers are what makes up a good thesis (at least at this faculty/university/country) and published papers are required to get postdoc funding afterwards. This is a real problem, not just for me but also for others at the department, since it's very difficult to get anywhere in this research environment. And not very surprisingly we have almost no funding anymore.

Since I'm extremely determined to get my degree and I've already worked for a few years on the project, there is really only one solution. Finish the thesis, get the degree and interact as little as possible with the main advisor. And focus on trying to publish the paper from the project that was not initiated by him and that has external coauthors.

At least I know some very specific questions to ask both TO the next advisor/boss and ABOUT him/her.

Chris said...

UBA's are probably unavoidable, but it seems like the prevalence of TBA's is at least partially due to departmental culture. I have been around the same university and department for 20 years, intermittently and in various roles. There were few TBA's when I was here as a student, but a new generation of faculty seem to have come in with the disrespectful disregard for students that is the hallmark of many TBA's.

Since faculty choose faculty, there is an increasing number of advisors who seem to be looking only for cheap labor and cannot spare time to advise or even meet with students. And since they all think it's acceptable behavior, the various evaluation and promotion committees do not penalize anyone.

It would certainly help if more colleges gave the type of advice and support that it sounds like students get at John V's school. I had no idea how to choose an advisor, and was very fortunate to end up with a good one. Some of my friends were not so lucky.

zed said...

What role do fellow faculty have in helping BAs become GAs? I have a colleague who I generally like and enjoy working with. However, it's become apparent he is a UBA. It's clearly not just a few random students, but 8/10 students who have serious problems with him. Should I intervene? Talk to him about what the problem is and how he might improve? When I have attempted to talk to him about students, he ends up just complaining about them (ie it's all her fault). I feel like if there was a way for advisers to receive feedback from colleagues on their advising, this might be a way to drive real improvements in advising.

Anonymous said...

"What are some of the pitfalls of changing advisors and/or changing schools? Is this always the last option/last resort? Or the first options. What are the potential pitfalls a student should know???"

It could be either a first or last resort depending on the student's personal circumstances, and how big of a change you are making (changing to another advisor within same department versus a different school in another part of the country)

Possible pitfalls:
(1) If you have to change departments, you may have wasted a lot of the classes you already took toward your degree. If you're 3 or more years in you would also have wasted whatever work you have already done toward your thesis.

(2) For many fields, there is only one game in town which is that one department in that one university in that one city. Switching advisors means changing schools, maybe moving across the country. it's a big hassle to apply to a new school, get accepted, and move your home and all your belongings. If you are married and have a family, spousal resistance to moving can limit your options to switch advisors. (moving for your job can also strain relatinoships with your family if they didn't want to move)

(3) if you stay in the same field it's likely that all the other advisors know your advisor too. You may continue to cross paths with your old advisor and if there's any bad blood between you, he can sink you if he wanted (like bad mouthing you to anyone ranging from conference committees to your current advisor).

(4)if you do make a switch successfully, you are now years "behind" toward getting a degree and a real job. This can seriously impact your non-working life. There's only so many years of your adult life you can forego a real salary before it becomes unsustainable.

(5) Academic hiring committees will see you as being "not serious" if you have a history of switching labs (other than the transition from student to postdoc)... I switched postdoc labs (due to a Bad Advisor) over 2 years ago and I'm STILL having to explain and justify it to random people in my field that I run into in my organization or at conferences and meetings.

there is also the very real possibility that after disrupting your studies and even your life plans and moving across country to join a new lab you may find yourself right back in the same situation all over again with another Bad Advisor. (or an even WORSE one)... Now what?

that is why simply leaving a Bad Advisor situation is, IMO not a first resort because the personal cost is high, it's not like just buying a new pair of shoes. And you may very well end up in the same situation again. If you're going to switch advisors, do it as early as possible before you have too much to lose.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot!!!

Anon at 5:48pm

Anonymous said...

just as professors oversee their students, evaluate them, and penalize them (whether intentionally or not) for failure to do the job adequately so there needs to be oversight of the professors themselves with very real consequences for being inadequate in their advising roles.

First there needs to be clear cut criteria for what an advisor's responsibilities are (e.g. from a previous post, does your advisor "owe" you anything beyond a rec letter?) Don't leave it up to personal preference and individual style - that's a surefire way to get huge non-uniformities across the population. YOu will end up with some advisors being fabulous, but you will also end up with advisors who take advantage of the lack of oversight to simply do whatever suits themselves the best regardless of how it impacts the trainees.

In industry and government, managers are held accountable to higher levels of management. Not that it always works (see Dillbert cartoons for example! very true!), but it makes it at least a bit harder for one person to get away with being detrimental to other people just because it fits his personal agenda.

Only if professors are accountable to a higher authority on whether they are performing adequately as advisors of grad students and postdocs (and for that there needs to be clear criteria set for what the advisor's responsibilities and metrics for evaluation are), and if there are real consequences for advisors failing to fulfill their responsibilities, then can bad advisors be turned into good advisors.

Otherwise, without consequences for screwing up students' and postdocs' lives (even if unintentional and unknowingly), there's no reason for bad advisors to do anything different as long as their personal agenda is still moving forward.

Personally, I think that if we went away from the "professor as mentor" model, we'd all be better off. It's very hard to quantify mentorship. It means different things to different people. For some it means being nurturing. For others it means promoting your career. Thus when professors turn out to be a-holes it seems worse than if it was just another boss in a company being a jerk.

Anonymous said...

I switched labs, fields, universities and countries to escape from my really really bad advisor. Harassment, emotional bullying, blatant stupidity when deciding what experiments to pursue, pressure to misappropriate data, forgetting to turn up to yearly phd reviews as he had been out drinking the night before - i've seen it all.

I tried to switch to another advisor in the same university, but I faced brick walls where ever I went (including administrative avenues). Turns out everyone was scared about what this guy would do to their other students if they took me on. The best thing that the other faculty could do was write nice letters of reference and wish me well.

Even though I left behind 2 years of hard work where I had published papers, and was close to completing (in a country that has 3 yr phd programs) it has been completely worth it. I now have an excellent advisor at a great university who was understanding of my situation and took me on regardless. In return, I am a most willing worker as I feel as though I have been given a free ticket on my life. It has been the best decision I have ever made.

I realize that everyone's situations are different, but if things are bad for you, changing advisors or even universities will not be the end of the world.

The education (and references) you receive from an advisor that you get along with well is worth many times what you may or may not get from an advisor that you have a problem with. If you are good at what you do, any reputation you have as a quitter or trouble maker will not last long.

madscientist said...

This is a very interesting discussion. Some thoughts:

1. I am not quite sure where incompetent advisers fit. Not that they are malicious or even didn't get along with the students, they just didn't know how to advise students. Period.

2. In our department, we hire our students before they show up, so there is little interaction between adviser and student before the four+ year commitment is made. This is pretty stupid for obvious reasons. Some suffering students switch advisers, some endure and some end up leaving, but that is rare.

3. At my university, graduate students cost a grant $70,000 per year. In my land of research, that is not cheap labor. A Post Doc costs about $80,000. There is little motivation to take on students except for a couple of things: (1) the university strongly encourages you to do it; and (2) you love to teach students. For many of us, it is this love of teaching that got us into the whole field of... teaching.

4. Tenured faculty are evaluated constantly. I know that we have annual reviews in which we are judged on (0) money brought into the departments; (1) papers published; (2) citations; (3) teaching load; (4) number of graduate students supported; etc. While it is quite unlikely that you will get fired for sucking on all of these criteria, there are consequences.

5. One thing that is interesting to me is how privilege breeds privilege in the academic world, as it does out in the real world. If your adviser is a member of the National Academy and they like you, you are golden. If your adviser was Dr. DoLittle, you have an uphill battle to prove that you can stand with the Big Girls and Boys.

6. Do students actually look at how many papers you have published and how many your students have published? I "force" all of my students to publish (at least) three papers before they can graduate. I think that many people in my field see my students as being extremely productive. It sort of shocks me that you wouldn't "force" them to publish. Isn't this going to be their JOB when they get done with school?

Adrienne said...

My department works similarly to Mark P.'s. However, that system arose after I joined our department.

Based on talking to several graduate students in my department, I have seen that most grad students are looking at several schools and speaking to many potential advisors. When I was interviewing, I spoke with many "happy" graduate students and was very drawn to a particular group that I did not end up joining. I am now glad I didn't. While the work would have been easier, the required face time would have tanked me. But, I didn't know that then, and it seemed reasonable enough coming in. Speaking to a "jaded" senior-level grad student helped me determine who to go to and who to avoid. But, many times the grad student interactions at interview are nil. And, who really wants to speak poorly about their own or other advisors? What might happen if you do?

This train of blogs about good and bad advisors has had me thinking about my own. Certainly there are things that make him difficult and downright a bad advisor, but there are things that make him wonderful, as well. I suppose he balances out, then.

It seems to me that most graduate students are not happy with their advisor post-third year or so. A general disillusionment with grad school that occurs about then spills onto the advisor. That's not to say there aren't bad advisors, just that many are painted that way when it is more a disillusionment with the grad student situation, as varied as that can be. My analogy is it is like summer teaching. Summer courses suck and the students taking them hate them. The instructor can be just fine, yet because of the sucky-ness of summer classes, the instructor is always rated lower during a summer class.

Anyway, I look forward to reading more on this topic by FSP.

Anonymous said...

Leaving is a crappy option. My first adviser and I parted mostly amicably, simply due to different expectations and letting things just get out of hand for too long. He had potential to be RGA, but simply lacked experience. I had potential to be a really good student of his, but likewise lacked experience in how to handle some difficult situations. Anyways, he helped me make a list of possible advisers I can start over with.

I studied them extensively. I looked at their science, their publication record, their student's placement. I even talked a lot with their students. My final choice was the guy who everyone liked, was one of the best funded professors in the department, had publications in Nature/Science. The worst people could say about him was that he was absent minded.

He was a terrible choice. He did not want to learn from his students. To this date, while he would like to learn about one of the projects -- which is btw a chapter in my dissertation -- but not from me. He has repeatedly told my collaborator, who to be honest is the main talent behind the project, to not make him have to learn from me. In the time I was a grad student -- I managed his lab for many years, wrote as many proposals under his name as years I spent as his student, all while doing my research. And he had the gal to try to tell other people that I should not be a graduate student because I clearly cannot make it. I spent a semester pointing out an effect to him and arguing that I was correct and him disbelieving it and not helping me figure out how to publish it, only for him to hand it over to one of his other grad students. By the time I left, he had no funding and no students. And no papers with him as lead author or real research.

What question was I supposed to ask to find this will happen? How was I supposed to find out that he responds well only to female graduate students who come and cry in his office, do what he tells them to do regardless of how inanely stupid and wrong it is until it is caught by a reviewer or a collaborator? (he did do better with male grad students -- or the male grad students did better with him)

I obtained my postdoc regardless of the fact that he never ever introduced me to people at conferences. My postdoc of course is in a different subfield than his.

You could argue that he at least paid my salary. However, this is not 100% honest. My salary was paid both because of pressure form the collaborator above and other factors. As for the advising committee -- I had a great relationship with them. I had two out of the best three professors there -- people who cared and listened. And their honest and well meaning advice is to suck it up, finish my dissertation and get out. Because I had NO recourse if I wanted to stay in academia. As it was I was advised to document every single case of harassment, bias and mind-game playing but not show it to anyone. If I showed it to the HR or the ombuds, my career was over. If I didn't they could apply pressure to keep me funded. By the end of my third year (and I only became aware of the problem in mid second year) I talked to a lawyer who advised me to sue the department. However, that would also end my career.

OK guess how much of this I told incoming students? None! Oh I told them that I work independently of my adviser and that they have to be self-driven. But I was not about to commit a career suicide in my third or other years.

Funny thing is, I think my postdoc adviser is one of those RGA -- possibly an RGtA (Really Great Advisers). Did I study his advisory abilities? Analyze him? No! I simply looked at the project -- it sounded really promising even if it is a long shot,-- and negotiated time to do my own work.

I only wish I knew what to do about all the results that got published while I was there that I know are bogus...

Anonymous said...

Regarding the last post:

"Anyways, he helped me make a list of possible advisers I can start over with.

I studied them extensively. I looked at their science, their publication record, their student's placement. I even talked a lot with their students. My final choice was the guy who everyone liked, was one of the best funded professors in the department, had publications in Nature/Science. The worst people could say about him was that he was absent minded.

He was a terrible choice."

How did this happen??? She did all the right things and asked the right questions, but the advisor turned out to be a terrible choice....what was she supposed to do.

What happened? Did people lie....

(Again: My final choice was the guy who everyone liked, was one of the best funded professors in the department, had publications in Nature/Science.)

How do you make a good gamble.

John Vidale said...

I see a number of posts that faculty are unreadable, and asking grad students about their advisors and other advisors in the department does not yield reliable results.

My experience is the opposite - even 25 years later I can remember several characterizations I heard scouting grad schools that proved accurate and my own intuitive judgments that avoided trouble. One particular "Never work for my advisor" remains vivid in my memories. Two overblown sales pitches that weren't science. One example of a great guy who couldn't communicate. Another potential advisor at odds with the world.

All I can say is that at some level, science requires an ability to gather and correctly process data - both understanding facts and understanding people.

Enginerd said...

"My final choice was the guy who everyone liked, was one of the best funded professors in the department, had publications in Nature/Science"

I'm not sure that "everyone likes" necessarily relates to "good adviser".

Anonymous said...

I had an experience with a UBA/TBA--the advisor in question was an assistant faculty and began as a UBA, but I think the stress of applying for and not getting grants gradually worsened the situation to a borderline TBA, through stress and inexperience. My three fellow grad students and I all ended up changing labs, after progressing through enduring, talking to the advisor, and talking to other advisors. The advisor ended up changing schools prior to getting tenure. So, I agree that TBAs get thinned out, probably at approximately at the assistant professor level. Other TBA assistant professors mellow after getting tenure and may graduate to UBA or good advisors.

Anonymous said...

I am the Anonymous response at 10:29pm. Just wanted to address a couple of questions.

At Anonymous at 11:49:
"What happened? Did people lie...."

Yes! People lied!

The adviser: pre-tenure he took sole credit for collaborator's work at conferences and presentations, though he did put his name on papers and abstracts. post-tenure... well he didn't do any work. Since it takes some time for people to realize that "OMG X stopped doing work", everyone in the faculty really thought he was continuing to do work. One of the faculty (a really really really really amazing graduate adviser) I talked with who thought that my Ph.D. adviser and I will be a good fit, was heart broken when he saw how it unfolded (he ended up being heavily involved in trying to not let the situation explode, he did way more advising including more comments on my prelim proposal or dissertation than my own adviser, he even advised me on post-doc interview strategy when I asked for his help, oh and he provided me some funding).

And not knowing the extent to which his previous work was based on collaborator's work really didn't help. Everyone still takes what he says at face value even though he has shown time after time after time that he does not understand the detailed math behind his science. A couple of examples include: not knowing the difference between forward and inverse calculation, and not knowing that if you assume X as a model condition, you cannot conclude that X must have happened.

His former graduate students? Well they lied. They have admitted the problems to me in later years. But NOT openly. NOT when I interviewed. NOT to anyone in the faculty who can do anything. To be honest, I may be guilty of that as well. In the latter parts of my years my response was "X was kind enough to keep me funded... so far. But you really need to have an idea of what you want to do and in what time frame and push for it. I work mostly independently. and you have to be the kind of person who is persistent to get X to look at your science." To be honest this was my code for -- a) he doesn't advise much b) ask about money since it is important and I know if you ask you will find out there aren't any c) maybe wonder how much science X does. I never felt comfortable saying more than that. Not with the faculty hovering. I always extended an invitation to chat informally when the official visit was done. Noone took me up on that offer. But it doesn't matter -- I technically lied. I didn't say that the guy is a really BA.

The thing is the guy was a good scientist pre-tenure. After tenure he just fizzled. And while he is a good scientist, he is a bad mathematician. And he doesn't want to admit it. And all his other students come from a not very mathy background. Except me. And I refused to do mathematically crappy science.

In response to Enginerd's comment that
"I'm not sure that "everyone likes" necessarily relates to "good adviser"."

It doesn't. Hence I looked at their science, their publication record, their student's placement. I talked a lot with their students. I took a recommendation from one of the top scientists in the field that he is a very good mathy guy. And I also looked at his personality. It turns out he sucks at math. And while he comes of as being nice, and I still believe he mostly means to be nice, he is nice only when it serves his self interest.

Was I supposed to think there is something wrong with the guy who everyone liked? Was I supposed to guess that post-tenure he will turn into I don't need to do science anymore guy? And which Ph.D. adviser who refuses to learn anything from his students is glowingly talked about? Oh and was i supposed to somehow figure out that his math mistakes have and are always being corrected by his collaborator-- the one whose contributions my adviser never acknowledged at more than 10% of what they actually are?

What question was I supposed to ask?

Anonymous said...

to comment #44, thank you very much!