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.