the professor’s omerta

Last week, we got into a discussion about advising relationships that don’t work. In the comments, Ashley Duester posted the following:

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?”

This is part of a larger code of silence among professors. The”loyalty” thing is part of what I like to call “the professor’s omerta.” I think there are good and bad reasons for this. Let’s go through them.

Good reasons: First, if you chose Professor X as your adviser, it is probably because they are an expert in your topic. For example, here at IU, I am not going to know more than Brian Powell about family or more about mental health than Bernice Pescosolido. So I would be super hesitant to take a student from them. Also, if you are professor X’s student, there is a good chance that they have invested a lot of time, money and effort. And you may not get the pay off if they move to another adviser.

Bad reasons: Professors are in a long term tit-for-tat repeated game. Tenure means that we will have to deal with each other for a long time. So we try not to piss each other off … well, at least the wise among us. So that bleeds into advising. I will freely admit that I would feel awkward if one of my PhD students bailed for another adviser. I hope that I am big enough to get over it, but many people wouldn’t. They’d hold a grudge and make their colleagues lives miserable. That is why it is hard to get professors to “defend” students or otherwise intervene on behalf of students.

What is your view on PhD advising? Use the comments!

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Written by fabiorojas

May 25, 2017 at 12:27 am

2 Responses

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  1. Fabio:

    I haven’t seen this “omerta” thing at all. Where I used to work, students would come to me and say, “Professor X told me not to work with you. . . .” And, who knows, maybe it was good advice!

    Liked by 1 person

    Andrew Gelman

    May 25, 2017 at 11:10 pm

  2. I tell people who ask me to be their adviser that they can switch advisers if it isn’t working out. It has happened to me fairly often. In most cases I remain friends with the person and on their committee, but someone else is better suited to be their main adviser, most often because of the intellectual direction their work has taken. In a few cases I encouraged a student to look elsewhere as it was obvious the relationship wasn’t working out.

    I also talk pretty often to students who are having adviser woes. I never tell a student “Don’t work with X.” But I DO tell students that advising relationships are about fit and that an adviser who is great for many students can still be the wrong adviser for you. And that people who are generally “bad” advisers that most students avoid can be a good adviser for the right student. In some cases, I give advice about how to manage the problematic person.

    I tell students when the behavior they are describing is bad behavior, and problem-solve ways of dealing with situation from being more assertive and clear to switching advisers. In a few cases, I’ve heard about behavior that was bad enough that I consulted privately with other faculty administrators about bringing the person under control. (Here we are talking about academic bad behavior like not reading a paper for six months, not illegal behavior.)

    I also tell students when the advising behavior that bothers them is well within the range of normal or that their (the student’s) expectations or ways of interacting are problematic. In some cases, I have helped a student repair a relationship with an adviser that had gone sour because the student’s ways of acting were driving the adviser crazy.

    And I tell them when the behavior implies that the adviser thinks the student is screwing up, and discuss situations ranging from improving performance to quitting the program.



    May 31, 2017 at 1:32 pm

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