What To Do When Your Academic Advisor Mistreats You
The first day that my graduate school advisor yelled at me in front of the entire lab I went into the handicap bathroom and cried. Just a little. Like one or two tears.
I was a grown man – a scientist – crying like a toddler because he got yelled at. It was absurd. I remember looking in the mirror and laughing at myself. What a baby. A few minutes later, I brushed it off and returned to the lab and starting working harder. Because that was always the answer in grad school. Just work harder.
I chalked up the whole experience as growing pains. I figured that this is what real life was like and I better put up with it if I wanted to get my PhD, get a good job, and be successful. Besides, I was sure that my advisor would feel bad about it later, apologize, and start treating me better. Wrong. He treated me worse. It was like he owned me now. He’d yell at me, call me names, and play weird games like refusing to give me any guidance on my project and then telling my committee that I refused to listen to him.
Is This Normal?
I thought all of this was normal. Really. I thought all of it was my fault too. As the years went on, I found out that lots of other graduate students had similar experiences. Which made things seem even more normal.
The worst part was that through some kind of loophole in my Department’s Graduate Student Handbook, my mentor was also the chair of my thesis committee. Usually another professor is the chair of your committee so that the graduate student doesn’t get screwed if his advisor doesn’t like him. I was screwed.
During my thesis committee meetings, I’d present my work, answer questions, and then watch my advisor stare at me blankly when I asked him how close I was to graduating. None of the other committee members were able to help much because my advisor was the chair.
It was an awful situation to be in. No support. No guidance. And everyone else was too afraid or too busy to help.
But I got out. With my degree.
And since being out I’ve talked to over seventy other medical students, law students, graduate students and postdocs who have either been through or who are going through something similar with their advisors.
9 Ways To Deal With A Bad Advisor
If someone above you in academia is treating you like dirt, there are 9 things you can do to make your situation better.
1. Conceal your goals.
As soon as I told my advisor that I wanted to move into industry, he was done with me. He withdrew his support and did everything he could to block me from graduating.
If your academic advisor is treating you like dirt, the worst thing you can do is to tell him or her all about your career aspirations. Especially if those aspirations involve anything other than being exactly like your advisor.
Zip your lips. Don’t give someone who is already against you another target to attack. Save your dreams for people who will support them.
2. Start your own project right now.
My last year of graduate school I started moonlighting as a janitor during the week. I just cleaned up offices. No bathrooms. I also shoveled snow and did landscaping on the weekends. Eventually, I started writing articles for my personal blog. This made things so much better.
The worst part of having to deal with a negative advisor or mentor is that you feel completely powerless. They hold the keys to your future. Which is true, in part. And this makes it seem like you can’t move forward with out them. But you can.
Start making something happen for yourself. Take control. Don’t ask permission. Just do it. Too many students fear getting in trouble for doing anything outside of the classroom or lab. This is ridiculous.
No one is going to arrest you or kick you out of school for having a hobby or a small project on the side. You’re allowed to live. Stop begging for permission to live.
3. Start looking for a job right now.
I’m sure it didn’t make my advisor like me any more but I started looking for jobs during my third year of graduate school. I even took offers as early as my fourth year, with the understanding that I still didn’t technically have my degree.
It’s never too early to start looking for the position of your dreams. Just be honest and tell the various employers you meet with about your situation. Be transparent with them about your hopes to graduate and your career goals. They’ll appreciate your candor.
4. Leverage your strengths.
I wasn’t one of those scary smart kids in graduate school. Not even close. I didn’t have an extensive knowledge-base or a long line of publications coming into graduate school. I felt guilty and less-than because of this. And my advisor would use these “weaknesses” against me whenever he could. So, I wasted a lot of my time trying to fix my weaknesses.
One day, I got sick of it and decided to forget about my weaknesses and instead, focus on my strengths. I was a good writer and public speaker and I liked running experiments so I just did those things as prolifically as I could. I pumped out a bunch of data and volunteered to speak at as many seminars and conferences as possible. Eventually my strengths started overshadowing my weaknesses instead of the other way around.
5. Keep records.
Every email between you and your advisor is kept on a server at your University. You know this right? You should also know that your advisor is likely saving all the emails that you send him, especially if he doesn’t like you. This what my advisor did. And when things started going sour, he would print out or reference these emails during the mediation meetings that we had with my Department.
The very first thing you should do when your advisor starts treating you like dirt is document it. Back up your emails on an external drive that you own or forward them to a personal email address and keep a daily journal of what happens.
6. Go through the system.
Most academic institutions have been around for a very long time and, as such, they’ve developed an extremely dense and complicated system to keep things running smoothly and to keep the institution from getting sued.
The system is so dense that it can make you feel very alone when things start going bad. You don’t know what to do or who you to turn. The key to improving your situation is to patiently start peeling back each layer of the system. This is what I did. After getting yelled at violently for the third or fourth time I decided to sit down and read through my Department’s Graduate Student Handbook as well as the overall Graduate School Manual.
Buried somewhere in the middle of my Department’s Handbook I found a line that said that all students are to graduate in 5 years or less. Bingo. And, in the overall Manual, I found an entire list of requirements that every advisor had to follow. This list included things like ensuring a safe and comfortable working environment and always supporting each student’s progress. This information was a game-changer and gave me massive leverage during the mediation meetings I had to attend.
7. Go around the system.
Use the system to your advantage but don’t get stuck in it. People above you who are trying to hold you back are also secretly hoping that you’re too brainwashed to go above them. There’s a hierarchy and you should follow it. But this is their rule, not yours.
If an advisor is treating you badly, don’t just tow the line and stick to the chain of command. Instead, go above them. This is what I had to do. I set up meetings with the head of my Department and several different Deans until I was able to get my problem solved.
Don’t be too intimidated to talk to other people. It’s not illegal and you can’t get kicked out for it. The more attention you bring to what’s going on the better.
8. Network with everyone.
Graduate school is a great time to learn how to network. You shouldn’t just be doing experiments and reading papers by yourself in some corner. You should be going to seminars and journal clubs and meet-ups. You should be reaching out to people in industry and people at other Universities. This is especially true if you’re in the middle of a negative situation with your advisor.
If your advisor is treating you like dirt, your first instinct might be to isolate yourself and sulk. You might think that you need to put up walls to protect yourself. This is the worst thing you can do. Isolating yourself just gives your advisor more power over you.
Don’t cut off lines of communication, open them. Increase the number of channels you have to work with. Get louder, not quieter. Expose yourself and what’s going on. Don’t let your advisor’s bad actions stay hidden safely in the dark.
9. Do less, not more.
Sometimes working harder is the worst thing you can do. Let’s face it, most high-level academics are overachievers. They’ve worked really hard to realize the dream of having an advanced degree and then using their degree to positively impact the world. The problem is that this desire to have an impact – this overachiever mindset – can work against you when you have a bad advisor. After all, who are you really working for?
Don’t work for your own destruction. If your advisor starts treating you like dirt, don’t just work harder and harder in the false hope that he will be nice to you or respect for it. The hard truth is that some advisors will treat you like dirt simply because they think it will make you work harder.
Stop chasing the approval of an advisor who treats you unfairly. And stop being afraid of conflict. You’re not going to lose your position. The only way that you’ll lose it is by doing nothing and letting the system overpower you. Don’t let this happen.
Take the above steps to improve your situation. No one is coming to save you. It’s up to you. But that’s okay. You can handle it. And you deserve better. You deserve to be treated right while pursuing your degree.
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Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.
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