how do you know if your adviser sucks?

Getting your PhD can be frustrating for many reasons. One reason is that advisers vary enormously in their quality. Some faculty have a very reliable record of happy students. Others are black holes who chew up students and never graduate them. Older scholars can more easily spot good and bad advisers but it is hard for young people with no experience to accurately assess advisers.

A few tips to help you determine if your adviser sucks:

  • Track record: A bedrock principle of evaluating people is past performance. If you meet a 60 year old professor in a major research program who has only graduated one person in his entire career, it’s probably a bad sign. If a 60 year old professor has a nice steady stream of advisees who seem well adjusted, then that’s probably a good sign.
  • Emotional response: I am a big believer in thinking through your emotions. An adviser is a leader and that means that they help you overcome challenges. Good advisers might occasionally give you tough love, but if you leave every meeting in tears and torn up from anxiety, they’re probably a bad adviser.
  • Absenteeism: This is simple. It doesn’t matter how famous or obscure your professor is. They have to be there and be there frequently. This can vary. Some professors have secretaries who take appointments and schedule you weeks in advance. Others just hang out at the office with the door open. Regardless, it means that they are working with you. In contrast, if your adviser boycotts you for a year and you don’t see him/her, or they never respond to email, then that is bad.
  • Deadwood: You don’t need an adviser who wins big awards every week, but you do need an adviser who is at least moderately active. The problem with deadwood advisers is that they may not give you a proper sense of what sort of scholarship is valued in your profession and how to get a job in the current job climate. They may be nice, but it’s like driving around town with a map from 30 years ago.

Use the comments and tell me about spotting the sucktastic adviser!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 26, 2017 at 12:22 am

5 Responses

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  1. she fails you on your comps without a grade/score, and denies you the right to have the oral defense of the comps, which of course is a standard part of the process. bullies/intimidates all other faculty and admin that have a pulse/conscience, so that they stay away from you, or deem you not worth the trouble from her “badmouthing” of you, therein making sure you are “orphaned” in the faculty. tells you that things are this nasty “precisely because so little is at stake”.

    perhaps if she knew about karma, she’d rethink that last bit lol :)



    April 26, 2017 at 12:51 am

  2. I think that you have written about this elsewhere, but I also stress to graduate students that while they need a lead advisor, they should also they need to have a team of mentors with whom to work. All of these look like warning signs of a *bad* advisor. But, there are advisors who are good, but those who are perfect are rare. Often you need support from multiple people, not just one advisor.

    Liked by 3 people


    April 26, 2017 at 6:03 pm

  3. What Mike said. And it is the only insurance against what Overstanding said. Grad students need a team of advisors. It is always limiting and can be dangerous to have all your advising eggs in one basket. A good advisor should encourage you to connect with other faculty. For one thing, you need at least 3 and preferably 5 letters when you on the job market. For another, very few faculty walk on water, most have flaws that are best balanced out by working a team. If your advisor doesn’t encourage you to reach out to other faculty, you should do it anyway. I had an advisor who was trying to sabotage my career and telling other people I had not done anything. (Long complicated sad and infuriating story.) I survived because I wasn’t an isolate and could talk to people when I found out what was going on. In less extreme cases, the advisor who is good intellectually but not emotionally supportive can be balanced by someone who is emotionally supportive even if not as solid on the substantive topic or recent research/publication ropes.

    Liked by 2 people


    April 26, 2017 at 10:57 pm

  4. Some advisors are indeed “sucktastic.” What I see more often, though, is a mismatch between the teaching/mentoring style of the advisor and the learning style of the student. An emotionally fragile student isn’t a good match with an advisor who doesn’t sugarcoat criticisms of the work, but that student may thrive under an advisor who is willing to do the emotional labor of helping the student through the inevitable rough spots of grad school. The first advisor might be perfect for the type of student who doesn’t pick up on interactional cues and needs to be told, bluntly, the problems of his/her argument before the reviewers do.



    April 26, 2017 at 11:22 pm

  5. Yes on multiple mentors. Also, as junior faculty member, I think it’s important for grad students to try to find more senior faculty to be their advisors or mentors. Grad students often gravitate towards the junior faculty, but they need to keep in mind that those junior faculty are prioritizing their tenure requirements (which emphasize research output much more than mentoring. Additionally, more senior faculty are better connected in the discipline and have more experience guiding students.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 27, 2017 at 7:54 pm

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