time to divorce your adviser?

We recently discussed toxic advisers, who do more to harm than help. Most of the time, it is best to just tough it out. But some times, it becomes really, really toxic. I have one friend, a brilliant man who knew about eight languages, who simply could not deal with the adviser. It got so bad he fired his adviser. Literally, one semester later the dissertation was defended and he soon got his PhD.

I never did figure out why the relationship wasn’t working, or why my friend’s adviser was so toxic. But I did learn a simple lesson – some advisers are preventing students from finishing and you need to get a divorce.

Should you get an adviser divorce? As with any other relationships, it depends on a few factors:

  1. Make sure the relationship is truly toxic. Be tough and take criticism. That is normal. But it is not normal to yell at students, it is not normal to ignore a student for a year or more, it is not normal to refuse to write letters of recommendation, it is not normal to tear down a student so bad that they can’t constructively improve their work.
  2. Make sure that there are enough other non-toxic advisers in your program and that at least one knows about the situation and is willing to take you on. And don’t be shy. Your career and degree are slowly draining away.
  3. Make sure that the potentially new adviser won’t make you redo everything from scratch. Be blunt and ask up front.

It’s a rare thing. Most of the time, switching advisers is more trouble than it is worth. But if you’re like my friend and semester after semester nothing happens when you hand in drafts, it may be worth thinking about.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 11, 2017 at 12:30 am

5 Responses

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  1. To repeat what I said in the other thread. You should NEVER be dependent on just one adviser. Every student needs a committee and multiple recommenders. Students should always be seeking significant relations with committee members and other faculty throughout their career so they do have someone to talk to if they are worried about toxic adviser behaviors. It is a toxic DEPARTMENT if students are considered to be “owned” by one faculty member and discouraged from having relationships with others. This is a question a student should always ask about a prospective department.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 11, 2017 at 4:55 pm

  2. Excellent advice, OW. Yet, it is often a challenge. If you are working in a small department or subfield, it could be challenging to find a back up adviser. Also, I have found that students are often shy about networking. It is natural to be shy and so many people don’t think about reaching out to professors from their BA and MA programs for help when trouble arises. Finally, people mistakenly believe that all people are toxic and that no one will help them, so they don’t reach out.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 11, 2017 at 7:41 pm

  3. As a graduate student in a small department, I can attest to your comments about the challenge of finding an alternative advisor. With respect to OW’s recommendation to build relationships with other professors, I completely agree. However, I have encountered a sort of code of silence and protectionism among professors in which they routinely engage what I can only refer to as “pledges of loyalty” to the college of professors to which they belong. That is, they defer to the advisor in question and refuse to offer advice or feedback on any written work or on the professor’s actions, which then makes it virtually impossible to find any honest advice about how to proceed. So I’m left with the question of “where to go?”


    Ashley Duester

    May 14, 2017 at 8:32 pm

  4. Ashley: I realize it is too late once you are in the program, but asking grad students about this kind of stuff when interviewing programs is important. I agree that it can be very stressful. Over the years, I’ve talked to quite a few students who had issues with their advisers and counseled them about what to do. In our program, both large and generally civil and collaborative, I’ve usually been able to help them to a reasonable solution. But, yes, it can be very difficult. And many students don’t even know whom to ask.

    When I was grad advisor, I sent an email to all grads with the subject line “you are allowed to change advisors” and giving some basic advice about what to do. I got a lot of thanks from students for sending that email. So I would say that is a structural thing that the director of graduate studies (or grad advisor, whatever the title; in my program we have both) can and should do to improve department climate. Tell students they can change advisors and offer to talk confidentially to anyone who has concerns about their advising relationship.

    Liked by 2 people


    May 15, 2017 at 4:15 pm

  5. […] week, we got into a discussion about advising relationships that don’t work. In the comments, Ashley Duester posted the […]


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