Being a shadow advisor

My department has several wonderful faculty, working in a variety of areas, producing great work and supporting their students. There are also a handful of faculty who are not as great: toxic toward their students, condescending, generally hard to work with. As luck would have it, they are all in the same subfield, which I happen to have an expertise in, too. From my perspective, this has been a rather sad discovery: on paper, this is a great career opportunity. I am at a place with multiple famous researchers, who have work that clearly and obviously interfaces with my own, and who would be great people to talk and work with. However, it became clear early on that they are anything but great to talk to, so I have been keeping one-on-one interactions to a minimum and instead have opted for large group meetings and presentations, so I still get the feedback on my work that I require. I’ve also been cultivating interactions with others on and off campus. I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at that, so it’s not what I want to concentrate on in this post.

I feel particularly bad for these professors’ students. Over the time that I have been here, several of them have reached out to me. Some simply looking for a sympathetic ear, someone who can help them navigate their difficult relationship with their advisor. Others needing a confidence boost, after being repeatedly told by an advisor that they were not good enough. With some, I have also begun a more substantive advising relationship, since I have expertise in their areas of research. And this is where it gets tricky: some of these professors are also isolationists–they have told their students that they shouldn’t talk to anyone other than them. So, I have been meeting with students “off the books,” because I want to help, but this entire situation is clearly unhealthy.

On the one hand, I want nothing more than to help these students, who I fully believe to be deserving and smart, and who could be successful if they had the right kind of support network. It pisses me to no end when someone is repeatedly bashed for no reason, so now they will say multiple times in a meeting “I know that I am not good enough, but …”, prompting a long conversation about why that isn’t so. Yes, some students might not make it, or might not have great prospects on the job market, and they should be encouraged to leave with a Masters early on. But when a student is in advanced dissertation writing stages, it might just be time to stop telling them they are stupid and to help them through. Beyond that, a professor who singles out his female students for this particular treatment isn’t actually judging them on merit, let’s not kid ourselves. Another consequence of their advisors’ low opinion of them is that at least some students aren’t receiving enough attention, which has led to research either stalling or going in demonstrably wrong directions. These are things that I do believe I can help with, that are tangible.

On the other hand, in what I feel to be a highly selfish yet necessary for self-preservation sentiment, I don’t know that it’s good for me to be this go-to person. I feel over-burdened by the number of students that I talk to. I am very happy when I can help someone see their self-worth and develop concrete plans for dealing with work and life, but this often leaves me drained and disillusioned, I think not unlike drmsscientist’s sentiment in her recent post here. Since most of these advising relationships are unofficial, I also don’t get any credit on my CV (for what that’s worth), and I can’t really have advisors discuss this in their letters of recommendation for jobs. This is also probably at least somewhat politically dangerous for me–although I don’t rely on these people for recommendations, they are still more powerful than I am, and I want them to at least have a benign opinion of me, if not a positive one. Meddling in their advising relationships won’t help that (if they knew), I am sure. So, what to do?

For now, I don’t see how I could turn these students away, but I wish there was a way to help improve the situation more permanently, because I won’t be here forever. Don’t want to overstep my boundaries; I do think it’s important to respect the official advising relationship that does exist. I worry I will be “discovered,” I feel sad that this situation even exists, and that I have no idea how to begin to fix it.  I just don’t understand how it’s even possible for things to get this way. My hope is that at least some of these students can overcome their circumstances, be successful, and pay it forward.

23 thoughts on “Being a shadow advisor

  1. Hi, I read through all of this and I can confirm this is exactly how I feel right now. I’m an 2nd year undergrad student and at the moment my grades aren’t too good, due to a variety of factors (low-self confidence/esteem, family issues, attention problems).

    I have hopes to do a PhD and I always have, only my adviser said it wasn’t a good idea due to my bad grades. I’m not too naive, and I’m aware of the “burden” a PhD can bring, as my father has one and has told me countless times.

    But I really want to do one, for the research and for the career prospects- even though it seems I am one of those students who are going to have to settle for a masters/other career paths. This really hurts, as I can’t see myself doing anything else other than the course I truly love.

    I guess that’s life.

    Thank you for your post.

    • In my undergrad I had a lot of issues mainly with the health of family members, but also financial worries too. I had to work and look after family members a lot which meant that assignments didn’t always get priority. In saying that, the yo-yo grads in my undergrad haven’t stopped me pursing postgrad studies. And since a lot of my financial and family issues are under reasonable control I have been able to excel. Good grades help but they are not everything. If you know you are worth more than that, then you can go on to achieve great things.

  2. I have experienced the same situation you face, and couldn’t have explained it better myself. I can only add one thing, which I have realized from living through this exact type of situation: We hire and promote faculty members based on their ability to secure funding, write papers, and/or teach: unfortunately, their human relations, personnel management and people skills are at best an afterthought and usually not considered at all. And that’s not good. How can we change this?

    • I agree. I wish people skills would be given at least some thought. Every year I am surprised to learn that some people with notoriously bad communication skills, woefully lacking teaching abilities, inability to hold a conversation, etc. get jobs, over other (I think) equally qualified candidates who would also be much better colleagues, teachers, and advisors. I’ve never sat on a search committee, but I really have to wonder why the question of collegiality and the well-being of students doesn’t seem to come up.

  3. Thank you for sharing; I bet this wasn’t easy. The issue you raise is an important one. What you’re talking about reminds me so much of a friend who I did my PhD with and who was also humiliated by her supervisor all the time. Constantly. Even though her second supervisor was able to balance this out a little bit which was great my friend never finished her PhD. She just didn’t believe that she could, and in the end she didn’t want all that awfulness anymore. I am wondering why there is only one ‘isolationist’ supervisor working with your students. I had two supervisors each for the Masters and the PhD and whilst I was able to draw on both scholars’ expertise I was also able to bond with at least one at a time, i.e. establish trust and have a yarn about private stuff if it burdened me. Perhaps you could officially suggest to adopt a two-person supervision model? Maybe this official ‘solution’, though it may not help you right now, would be a good one for the students.

    It’s so wonderful that you are there for the students!

    • Indeed. In my department, you had annual meetings with your full thesis committee to check on your progress – hopefully such models would nip this behavior in the bud. I’ve also heard of systems where part of the meeting is closed doors and *excludes* the student’s primary advisor, since this meeting is supposed to be a referendum on them as well (both the student and advisor has to submit some paperwork beforehand).

    • There are actually three (well, two and a half) isolationists. Probably not accidentally, they were all students of the same advisor, who had this same policy that you should work with hir and no one else. (This advisor is famous for not letting students graduate on time and limiting the kind of topics students work on. S/he is also a renown scholar with a very successful placement record, and has had many strong students over the years.) I think this is terrible on many levels, including for example the fact that the students’ work would surely benefit from getting multiple perspectives and feedback from people with different backgrounds; and the fact that these students might have one stellar letter from their advisor, but most jobs require three, and the other two letters will necessarily be weaker.

      I don’t think any of these problems are things these isolationists need me to tell them about, I’m sure they know, and yet this is their working style. I have actually been told by students that their advisor explicitly told them *not* to meet with other professors with relevant expertise. I am frankly not entirely sure that getting myself in the middle of this as a co-advisor is a good idea, given that these are people who are senior to me and seem not to play nice with others. I am sure I would say ‘yes’ if a student asked, but otherwise I’m not sure I should be suggesting it myself. I will definitely give it some thought, though, so thanks!

      • Oh, this is a tricky situation…one that you alone cannot remedy for sure! I am a little bit shocked about what you’re revealing here. Perhaps, to an extent, it’s a case of needing to watch someone practise an unhealthy working and interaction style without doing anything about it. The students, after all, do pick their supervisors, too, don’t they? And they are going for the reputation and then probably just knuckle down when things get tough. They must have an idea of what they’re in for when they set out on the degree programme. It’s probably all connected in intricate ways which you cannot do much about. Though that’s easier said than done. Honestly, I wouldn’t really know how to not do anything in a situation like this even if that was the wisest course of action, so you have my fullest sympathy!

        • To an extent it is the students who choose the advisors, but students who work in one particular subfield don’t really have any good choices. In part, students are also sometimes assigned to a professor with little input from them on their preferences. Beyond that, as I say in my post, this is a program that on paper looks very appealing for this subfield, with several leading scholars who are famous for their work. Before coming here, I would always mention this department as a potential place that students should consider when applying to grad school. I’m sure others have recommended this department to their students too, and they would be appalled if they knew what was really going on.

          I think this stresses the importance of visiting and getting first-hand information from current students before choosing a graduate program. Anyone who visits here could quickly learn about the unusually high dropout rates and about the general feeling of unhappiness among many students. I don’t know if this is something that they would share in emails (I certainly feel that I have to be careful with anything that leaves a written record), but I am fairly certain that at least some students would hint at, if not flat out give, this information to candidates who ask the right questions.

          Still, I feel bad for those who are here. They may have been happier somewhere else, but this department still has (or should have) an obligation to support its students and see them through.

  4. I can’t tell you how to handle the unpaid emotional work. I’m not sure what I would do either. What I would do is keep track of who you speak to and how frequently. Before moving on to your next position, I would tell the students who else has been suffering at the hands of X, and that they are not alone, and if they want to complain to higher ups there might be safety in numbers, and be willing to provide some backup documentation from the safety of your new job.

  5. I have friends who are in a similar situation with their phd advisor at another institution. Though their advisor does not tell them not to talk to or get help from anyone else, he is a big name w a lot of influence and so he consistently chairs phd committees. A second faculty member (who is female and junior) consistently is on the same committees, advising the same students, and has to essentially do the advising/mentoring for two people, in addition to the emotional labor of listening to these students who are on the verge of quitting due to their chair. She becomes the primary advisor for these students, but does not get the recognition she deserves. Meanwhile, he continues to move up the ranks and gets recognized for his students’ successes while having little/no hand in their work. Usually he is a detriment to their progress, and almost never a source of help or support. I wish I knew what to tell my friends , but it makes me immensely grateful for my advisor.

  6. I am surprised to how the described situation replicates itself at so many different places, including at my department. As a scientist who works with large data sets, I feel this is a good example of a systematic error. I am convinced the system is faulty, but how do we change it and break the pattern?

  7. A friend just sent this to me, and I had to do a double take, as I could have easily been the author! I’ve been experiencing almost this exact situation, with a few additional challenging details that I feel better keeping to myself at this time. I’ve sought the advice or support of a few trusted colleagues in my department about my situation, and it has become even more disheartening because the general consensus is that I should do everything that I can to protect myself because I am pre-tenure. No one is surprised here that I have had this experience, so apparently they have all just accepted it. I’ve experienced tremendous guilt for not being able to help these students more, and part of the difference is that most of the students are too afraid to even come talk to me for fear of being found out and retaliated against. I did not have these experiences as a graduate student, and so I was clearly rather naive about how bad these politics can get.

  8. I would love to be able to say that the situation you describe is an exception, but unfortunately it is not, as I can testify from my work as a PhD counselor. I hope for the sake of the students in your department and for your department that you find the courage to keep up your invaluable work as a shadow advisor. Crushing confidence and self-esteem and then isolating these vulnerable people at the PhD stage of their personal and professional development is tremendously damaging. Your story also makes me wonder: does your department / university employ confidentiality persons? And I mean independent, dedicated ones, not collegial professors of these toxic supervisors who also happen to hold an office as ombudsman? They are usually able to not only collect and bundle stories and incidents, but can also mediate and offer advice for bystanders like you, especially when you fear for your personal future as a professional should you be more open about your involvement. Perhaps this can also help you and your shadow-advisees.

    • Thank you, this is my fav blog 🙂

      On Tue, Feb 2, 2016 at 9:15 AM, Tenure, She Wrote wrote:

      > Claartje commented: “I would love to be able to say that the situation you > describe is an exception, but unfortunately it is not, as I can testify > from my work as a PhD counselor. I hope for the sake of the students in > your department and for your department that you find the” >

  9. It has been said, and I think with much truth, that mentoring a Ph.D. student is much like being a parent. It’s so evident in situations like this. The same range of parenting styles can be seen in PhD-mentoring styles, and elders project their worldviews, upbringing styles, and fears and neuroses on their PhD students in the same manner as they do their children.
    In some cases, it’s “don’t you ever talk back to your Dad (or advisor),” “Mama (major professor) is always right,” “raising my kid (graduate student) is my job and responsibility alone, and no one else should be disciplining/giving advice to my children (doctoral candidates),” “I’m taking her/him under my wing and protecting her/him from the scary outside world where (s)he could get wrong ideas,” “as long as you’re living under my roof (in my lab) and I’m paying your bills (assistantship), it’s my way or the highway,” and/or “no one else tells me how to raise my children (or graduate students).” At the other end of the spectrum is, “it takes a village to raise a child (or grad student),” “I need all the help I can get in taking care of my kid (grad student) so family members (colleagues) are welcomed to pitch in,” and/or, “you’re on your own, kid” / “I’m going to be uninvolved, live my own life, and have my nanny (postdoc) raise you.”
    I’ve seen them all. And I bet the parenting styles of professors match their graduate-student-advising styles.

    • “It has been said, and I think with much truth, that mentoring a Ph.D. student is much like being a parent.”

      There are some similarities, but an important difference is that graduate students are ADULTS. They are *not* the advisor’s kid. You don’t go around telling adults who they may or may not speak to, for example, without a damn good reason.

  10. Because this blog is “tenure she wrote” I’m only going to address this from the POV of the poster.

    This is unpaid emotional labor. We expect women to do unpaid emotional labor all the time, and it’s shameful and patriarchy and wrong. I would strongly advise you against performing unpaid, unnoticed “women’s work”, especially if you could potentially be caught in crosshairs for doing it.

    The students in question need to go to your chair, and ask whether you can be assigned a formal role that you will get credit for. If that means they bring light to a bad advising situation — they should. But your concern needs to be getting recognized (f* you, pay me!) for your work.

    The students also need to recognize you as a worker who needs paid, not an always-available Mom who “just wants to help” — because they are then also perpetuating the gendered roles there, by taking advantage of your willingness to help.

  11. As a PhD student whose PhD was basically saved by a (male) shadow adviser, I am so happy you are doing this and please don’t stop. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to not want to be the emotional coach of all these students, and I think you can limit that to an extent by focusing on their work rather than on the problems with their own supervisor. But the advise to tell them you cannot help and send them to the chair to make an official complaint makes me really sad. In my situation, for many reasons, that was not an option and I have many friends for whom this is the same (what if the chair is the supervisor?). That is a very confrontational route and for personal or financial reasons (some students’ scholarships are tied to the adviser) are just not possible. I am eternally grateful to my shadow adviser who did it all without ever expecting anything in return, and as you said, I will most certainly pay that forward. The major difference between him and you is that he is tenured, and has nothing to fear in terms of his own security. I just want to encourage all PhD students out there who are basically orphans like I was, to look for someone like that. They are out there! I am defending my thesis in a matter of days. And in name of all the orphans out there, thank you, Sciencella, for doing this and for wanting to make a structural change as well!

  12. If this was any other type of relationship, the attempt of one party to control the other party’s access to other people (“don’t talk to anyone but me”) would be immediately deemed abusive and manipulative. If it were a romantic relationship, any counselor or therapist worth their credential would immediately start investigating the possibility of domestic violence or other forms of abuse and trying to help the client break free from that relationship (very rarely are they salvageable). In my opinion, this type of behavior should be expressly forbidden in academia (and workplaces in general) and immediately reported to the faculty member’s dean/chair. It’s abuse.

  13. I would recommend encouraging or helping students to seek help outside of the department. This might sound strange or like passing off the burden, but as a student who has been under a toxic mentor I’ve found my interactions with the university as a whole, outside of my department to be my saving grace. This also has protected me from gossip, in-fighting, and other issues that could arise within the department and effect my degree.

    At my university there are physiological and counseling staff who have been very helpful personally. Official counseling falling under a technically medical purview that can give me protections under title IX (not just for sports and pregnancy) and the disabilities act (also for men). The counseling/mental health center at my university also has groups, several of which are specific for graduate students where many students can get together with one or two professional to work out issues common to all of them. If your school does not have services (or services at a reasonable cost to the students) you could connect to the staff in those areas to create services. That could be a ton or minimal work on the front end depending on the school for a potentially long term pay out for the students.

    Socializing with university student groups has also provided me tons of support and distractions from the negatives of my situation. These broader socializations have also helped me network across campus and not just in my field, which helps me find interesting cross-disiplinary talks and think of new research directions and ideas. Most of the time that is through socialization with other graduate students who are in different groups, know better, or can find out for me from better mentors in other groups, divisions, and departments.

    Education also has helped me greatly. By that I mean, education about impostor syndrome, abuse, university resources, CYA (cover your ass business techniques), managing upwards, women’s struggles, mental health in academia (and my field), etc.

    I hope some of my coping strategies as a student can help you and others work with struggling students. Thank you for your article and good work.

  14. Pingback: Linkfest: 13 February 2016 | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

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