#1027: How do I handle a hands-off advisor who expects me to be a mind-reader?

Dear Captain,

I am a 4th year PhD student in a STEM subject and I feel that everything has gone off the rails, in part because my adviser and I don’t communicate well. I will try to be brief- there is a lot to unpack.

I started my PhD at 23 without a Masters, so I knew it would be challenging, and I came in with a pretty huge chunk of imposter syndrome. I was hoping my adviser would be a lot more hands-on than he has turned out to be, and without any kind of structure (other than “here’s what our current grant is, do something related to this”) I have struggled to find my footing and push my way forward. I struggle with anxiety/depression that leave me paralyzed when I feel I don’t have direction, and have been left largely to self-direct in a vacuum. Consequently, I have made a lot of mistakes and fallen flat on my face a lot. All of that is on me to fix, and I have a therapist who is helping me build better habits and address these issues. I know it is within my capability to finish this PhD, even if I feel I’ve wasted a lot of time and I’m no longer certain what I’ve been doing is what I want my question to be. I achieved candidacy, so I’ve managed to keep pressing forward despite my own mistakes and some systematic failings in my program. (They want us to finish in 5 years and I have felt very rushed by their demanding schedule, even though no one has managed that yet. I didn’t push back on this schedule until I slammed into a deadline I wasn’t prepared to meet. Consequently I had to re-do my proposal defense, in part because of our communication issues.)

My adviser is a major source of difficulty for me. A year and a half into my PhD (after I had just sat for my first set of exams), he told me that I was “falling behind”. He couldn’t really articulate to me what that meant, apart from suggesting I put in more lab hours on the weekends. It hasn’t gotten a lot better from there. His criticism is always framed with a lot of judgment and personal attacks- for example, when telling me that I don’t do well speaking off the cuff, he told me that I sounded like Donald Trump. He’s also told me multiple times that he doesn’t know if I can make it through my PhD (including the day before my second proposal defense.) He has high expectations but I don’t ever feel they’ve been clearly articulated to me, and all I get from these conversations is the sense that I’m not meeting them. He’s also a bit temperamental, and I find him very difficult to read, so it’s easy to make him irritable without even realizing that you’ve done it until he chews you out. The problem with his criticism is that there are often valid pieces mixed in that I need to address- pointing out that I’m struggling to frame my work properly is valid and helpful. Saying that he can’t visualize how I’m going to be a successful scientist is…not. Admitting to him that I have been struggling has not gotten me a lot of support either- when I said I struggled with the second proposal defense and became really depressed, he told me maybe now wasn’t the right time for me to be doing this. Several times he has framed his criticism with “and other people think this way too” without elaborating on who or in what context. I honestly don’t know if he knows what he says comes across as hurtful/abusive/manipulative, or if he thinks he’s being supportive. I also don’t think it matters which he intends, since the effect is the same.

Captain, I’m aware that this sounds like a terrible toxic relationship. But I love the field I work in, and it’s a small enough field that if I can’t repair this relationship with him, I don’t know that I will be able to continue having a career. I do want to finish school. I don’t want to quit, or be thrown out, but he’s hinted multiple times that he’s unsure of my capabilities and that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. I know I need to be more confident and assertive and I need to be proactive in pursuing ideas instead of checking every decision with him. I think that’s what he WANTS me to be doing, even if his criticism sometimes makes it hard to feel safe to do so. My resources for who I can talk to about this are thin, and every time I try to think of what to say it mostly sounds like “I know I’m screwing up, but he’s really mean, ok.” The other graduate students are supportive, but I don’t know how to draw on my committee for support right now or how to approach other faculty for mentoring. Particularly when it seems like he’s talking about me behind my back and telling them I’m not doing well. Sometimes I feel so completely lost in this mess that I don’t even know what I want help with any longer, except that I just want help, and to feel supported. Which I don’t think he’s capable of giving.

How do I begin to fix this communication issue? He is not going to change at this point in his career (he’s a significantly older white male, I’m a young woman etc.) I am not going to quit or give up. I don’t care if he likes me as a person any longer, but I do care about my career, and his potential impact on it. I want to make it to the end of my PhD and do a good job. How do I tell him that a) I understand his critiques and respect his opinion on my shortcomings, but that b) the way he frames them makes it difficult to implement them and makes me feel…anxious? Upset? Furthermore, how do you tell someone (who is known for expecting people to read his mind) that his expectations for what he wants aren’t very clear? What can I say to him to get a better idea of what he expects from me, without offending him? I’ve tried to approach the “what do you need from me to help you help me” angle, and tried to get more regular communication going, but for some reason or other it falls apart. I’m willing to try again, but I have to have a clear idea of how to make it stick and how to approach him constructively. Right now I just don’t.

Any help would be appreciated! Thank you so much, Captain. I’m sorry this got so long.

Sincerely,
Very Tired Graduate Student (She/Her)

Dear Very Tired Graduate Student,

You are perceptive when you say that your advisor is probably not going to change his communication style and suddenly morph into the advisor you need him to be. I can’t fix your program or give you back the four years you’ve already put into this path or magically fix this dude or undo all of the places where his vague undermining meets your imposter syndrome. But I hope I can give you a process and some questions for figuring out how to make things work better going forward.

Is it possible for you to take a long weekend and do some medium and long-term planning? Like, clear your calendar of all work stuff, fill the house with excellent snacks, take some walks in nature, sit with a journal of some sort, schedule some time to talk with good friends/family/people who love you (people who are not necessarily connected to your current career), and otherwise slow down for a second so you can hear yourself think?

Some questions to ponder during this little break:

Who are some people you admire who do the kind of science that you want to do someday? What path did they follow to get where they are? Is it possible to meet them at a conference/follow them on social media/keep up with that they publish from afar? If your current mentor isn’t getting it done for you could you choose a pantheon of virtual mentors and people you look up to and let them be your guide for part of the way? (Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist is a great template for this in creative fields, but there’s no reason it can’t apply to other pursuits!)

In a perfect world, when this degree is all done, where would you like to end up? Do you have dream universities or other institutions you’d like to work at someday? Can you research those places and think about who you could meet who works there? What kinds of work are they doing? What work could you do that would make you valuable to them? When you go to conferences, could you make sure to meet some people from these institutions? Daydream and then make a list.

What do you like to do about what you do? Long-term do you see yourself as more of a researcher or more of a teacher/professor? What percentage of your time would you like to spend in the classroom vs. in the lab vs. as a writer spreading your work? This is another daydreaming exercise, where you imagine yourself doing awesome science in your perfect environment with your dream colleagues, NOT an excuse to tear yourself down or brainstorm all the ways it won’t work.

Closer to Home: Is there anyone in your current department – especially people on your committee – you actually like and admire? Could you get to know their work a little bit better? Could you get to know them socially? Maybe they can’t replace your advisor or officially mentor you right now, but could you identify three senior people you count on to be generally friendly faces around work?

Your Current Project: Imagine you are pitching your current research to your dream institution/dream mentor. In pitching you are not allowed to apologize for it or denigrate it in any way, you are only allowed to talk about what’s great/exciting/important about it. What are you learning? What are you excited to see happen? What drags you into the lab each day? What do you hope will happen? What do you love about it? How would you explain it to a non-science person to get them excited about it? How would you explain it to a kid who wants to grow up to be a scientist someday? I challenge you to talk (to the cat, to the walls, to your neglected laundry pile) or “free write” about your research project using only positive language for 15 consecutive minutes. If you can’t get to 15, start with 5.

Your Next Three Projects: Your thesis work isn’t the only science you’re ever gonna do, right? You’re in this for life. So, in a perfect world, where you get unlimited funding and creative license and sweet sweet equipment, what are three other projects you would do? Spend time sketching out three one-paragraph proposals for other things you might pursue. Remind yourself that you have many interests and many options. Your current project is just that – your current project. It’s one of a series of things you will investigate in your lifetime. It doesn’t have to be the end-all and be-all of everything you’ll ever do. Daydream. Think big. Then think bigger. Your current project is a mere stepping stone to all the cool science you are gonna science someday.

Ok, that should take you through about three days (with frequent breaks for walks and snacks). Now, let’s talk about what to do when you dip back into your daily life.

For starters:

Ask A Manager has a ton of advice on managing bosses and “managing up.” Her archives on this are vast and a lot of it will apply to you.

Here are some other things that I think will help:

A. Stop complaining about your advisor to fellow grad students and to other professors in your program, unless you are 100% resolved to take steps to change advisors. It’s been four years, nothing has changed, your peers already know everything you will say about him, there isn’t anything actionable in his behavior that will let you make some kind of formal complaint (it will all get written off as a mismatch of personalities with the onus on you to change the dynamic even though you have less power in the situation). At this point complaining about him has become a habit. What if you could break the habit?

Also, do not complain about your advisor to people in your field who are outside your program. He is their colleague, how you talk about him to them is how you will probably (in their minds) talk about them if they became your colleagues someday. They don’t know all the inside baseball that you know. Your complaints won’t make him look bad, but they will make you look like you have an axe to grind. Even if all your axes are 100% correct there is a big unwritten “don’t badmouth your boss or organization to outsiders” rule and you’ll be breaking it. Nothing about his management style will change because you broke this taboo.

Places it’s 100% okay to complain: Your therapist, your journal, friends outside of your program, internet advice columns. Get the frustrations out! Just direct them into appropriate channels that don’t affect your professional reputation or sap your momentum.

B. Act “as if” he’s a great advisor.

How would a great advisor respond when you ask for feedback? What’s the kind of feedback you wish he would give? How would you translate those notes into actions you can take? Someday when you are advising someone like yourself, what are the things you would do to help and support that person?

Cool. Give that feedback to yourself and act as if he gave it to you.

Also, ignore all feedback that is about who you are as a person. Is what he said specifically about the science you are doing? Can you translate it into something that you can apply directly to the science you are doing? Or is it some vagueness about “your attitude”/mental health/personality? It would be great to have a mentor who sees and values you as a person and who helps you grow in a way specific to you but he is not that guy. That guy doesn’t exist. So what is he good at? What can he do for you? Can you channel your requests to him in ways that are more likely to give you something useful to you?

I know, I know, he’s your advisor, he has power and authority. But he sucks at this. So what if you decided, hey, you suck at this dude but I’m going to outgrow you and my own need for your approval beyond the most basic facts of science and the bureaucratic minimum bullshit I need from you in order to finish this degree? (Decide = inside your head/journal please, not out loud, at him).

For example, when you present something for feedback, do it with very specific, narrow questions to direct him toward the kind of feedback that you need. “Advisor, I have a new draft of findings, can you take a look at it and answer this specific question I have/tell me if you see any bigger-picture pieces that I’m missing?

When he gives you feedback, reflect what he said back to him and translate it into actions. Do it in an email so you can document the feedback and the way you are incorporating it. And don’t necessarily ask him what you should do next. Instead, tell him what you plan to do next.

So what I’m hearing is that [x, y, z science stuff] needs to be fleshed out more to be credible. I plan to take [a, b, and c actions] this month to make sure my bases are covered there. I’ll check back with you in [timeframe] and let you know how it’s going. Any other specific step you can recommend right now?

At the end of [timeframe] check back in with him via email. “Ok per your suggestion I did a, b, and c and this was the result. Thank you, I think we solved it/There’s some visible progress but now I need some strategies to deal with d, e, and f. I plan to try q, r, and s and I did some reading about [awesome scientists] who are doing j, k, and l. I’d love to try out j, k, and l and see if that solves the problem but I need t, u, and v resources. Can we make that happen?

If you send emails like this – very clearly spelling out your next steps – and what he says next isn’t a specific action step related to your specific science project, fucking ignore it and do whatever will get you good science.

Let that be your question when you approach him. Not “am I good enough” or “can I fix you so that you suck less as an advisor” but “How do we make awesome science right now?” followed by “I’d like to try ______.” 

C. Redefine “support” and figure out his preferred communication mode.

You want to feel supported but maybe you won’t ever get that in this program from this advisor. Reassurance is not in his nature. So, can you change your definition of support and be more targeted in what you ask for?

Do you need more resources/a better computer/a lab assistant/a better schedule/some time off from the lab to review more of the literature/to travel and observe a related project at another institution/a short course in scientific writing/more training in some specific skill/a more realistic completion schedule? If this dude can’t give you clear instructions or reassurances is there concrete stuff he can get you? What kinds of requests do other graduate students have the best success with?

Also, figure out your advisor’s preferred way to communicate. Some people suck at email and are better with in-person conversations. Some people are awkward in person and clear and eloquent in writing. Is there a medium by which you traditionally get better information or response from him? Figure out that combination and use that to your advantage. Don’t make appointments with Vague Throwaway Comment Guy, use email instead. Do make appointments with Gregarious Chatty Guy and then follow up by email.

D. Lean on the other members of your committee more. 

There’s a reason that you have an advisor AND a committee. When you have a credible draft of something related to your project, or when you get stuck on something, it is okay to run it by other committee members. Your program and yours school will have some kind of policy and process in place, so find it and read it (talking to someone in the office of graduate studies might help). It’s okay to not be born knowing what this process is and it’s okay to ask for help. Chances are your program wants and expects you to make relationships with these people. So, you didn’t start before, but you can start now. I guarantee you won’t have been the only awkward STEM graduate student who doesn’t know this stuff and who needs a little help navigating it.

Script: “I’m at a point in my process where I think it would be valuable to get a second set of eyes on things, how does that typically work?” “I’ve been relying a lot on my advisor to work on these sorts of things but I want to get some outside feedback, too. What kind of support can I reasonably expect from my committee members?

Or, “[Committee Member], I’m at a point where I’d like a second set of eyes on some recent research findings/I could use some help getting unstuck, do you have some time for me/is there a process you like to use for working with advisees?

Now, we talked about complaining, but I feel it bears repeating: If you get the attention of another committee member on your work, that is not the time to complain about past slights from your advisor. It is the time to listen to this alternate perspective and think about what you can do moving forward.

E. Practice excellent self-care. 

Get regular health checkups, draw on every health resource available to you. Keep working on your anxiety stuff. Get enough sleep. Eat food that makes you happy and feel good. Move your body in some way that is sustainable and enjoyable. Schedule regular downtime to go to the movies or read for pleasure. Make sure you see or talk to friends and family who lift you up and who make you feel good about yourself. Do something outside of work/school that you enjoy. Wear clothes that make you feel good and get regular haircuts (whatever you do to feel good and confident in yourself). It’s so easy to abandon this routine “life stuff “in the hothouse of academia, but your life is your life and it’s happening right now, not Someday When You Graduate.

Resolved:

  • You are an awesome scientist who is making awesome science with her life.
  • Imposter Syndrome is a jerk and basically everyone has it at some point. You are not alone in struggling in a grad program!
  • After a bit of reflection you hopefully have some neat ideas about where you’d like to go and what you’d like to do that excite and motivate you.
  • For now, you are saddled with an advisor who is a bad manager who doesn’t know how to mentor or teach.  This sucks, but the good news is that lots of people have terrible managers that they can’t immediately flee from or change and have to learn how to “manage up.” You can do it, too.
  • Your career is so much bigger than what this one dude thinks of you and of it. Work with him to the extent you can and then figure out how to work around and beyond him. Tell the story as “We are a bad match” vs. “I am failing at everything (and also he is mean).”
  • Do it for science!!!!

❤ and awkwardness.

 

151 comments
  1. MusePie said:

    No advice to add but I wanted you to know that you are not alone in having a crappy adviser. Check out this woman’s story: https://www.allisonharbin.com/post-phd/why-i-left-academia-part-1

    It is absolutely insane and reflects a lot of the problems that re boiling under the surface in academia.

    • MsM said:

      I’m not a science PhD, so all I have is secondhand anecdata from friends, but “my advisor is much better at killing my confidence and making me question everything than advising me” is a very familiar refrain in those stories. That’s not much comfort when you’re the one who has to live through it, and it does say a lot about the problems with the current system. But it might help if you start wondering whether there’s some magic secret to unlocking a productive relationship all the other candidates got and you missed out on (there isn’t), or if you start getting “grass is greener” feelings that aren’t connected to having met a mentor who’s actually helpful.

    • biogirl said:

      Hi OP – you’re definitely not alone!

      I had a horrible direct adviser and a hands-off PI, which was a bad combination. My adviser expected me to act like a post-doc even though I was only 1-2 years into my program. I was off-campus and cut off from the rest of my peers and program; I was the only grad student in the lab. I had no frame of reference for what was normal. My adviser would do the exact same thing – tell me I was behind, but never explain what I needed to do or what goals she wanted me to hit. I became paralyzed with anxiety. I couldn’t sleep. I would randomly burst into tears and have panic attacks driving up to the building. She eventually told me to my face that I should leave the lab because I was not cut out to be a scientist IN FRONT OF MY PI, who then did not say anything to defend me despite having no issues with my work. I ended up walking right out of that meeting to email the head of my program to transfer labs. I tried to start over in a lab with a pretentious a-hole of a PI; he ended up calling me into his office and reaming me out for something I didn’t do. I was completely blindsided. When I tried to defend myself, he told me to shut up. I ended up having a mental breakdown after the meeting. I ended up on anxiety medication, in therapy, and a shell of my former self. I ended up somehow completing a Masters thesis – from only 3 months of work on my project – and got out as soon as I could.

      People not knowing and not caring about how to be a good mentor cost me several years, an anxiety disorder that I still have, and a massive plummet of my self-esteem since all I wanted to be since I was a kid was a biologist working in a lab. Now I wasn’t sure if I wanted it or could even do it since everyone was telling me how much I sucked – it ended up causing a massive identity crisis. I have a lot of shame about not sticking it out and not just “getting over it.” I have basically resolved to leave academia behind completely much to the sadness of my family and friends. My wonderful friend had a great PI – she finished in 4 years doing groundbreaking cancer research and is now at Harvard as a postdoc. She would say what a shame it was for my field to lose me, but my field clearly does not feel the same. The people in complete control of my career had no interest or training in mentorship and it completely derailed my career, destroying my self-worth and desire to do research. Thank goodness I did not lose my love of biology itself.

      I will probably not ever return to grad school since I was burned so badly by my program and my adviser, which saddens me because I still really want to complete my PhD. But I know firsthand how much academia does not care about me, how much the people who were supposed to help me did not care about me or my career and did nothing when they saw me deteriorating.

      So OP, you’re doing well sticking it out so far. Just remember your PI probably has no freaking clue how to mentor and follow the Captain’s advice to mitigate his crappiness. And if it becomes too much at any time – before or after the PhD – you have my permission to leave. It’s okay to leave. I survived leaving and am doing okay – I have a wonderful boyfriend, two kitties, and a 9-5 job that I don’t have to even think about in the evenings and on weekends. I’m still working through a lot of feelings about my experience now that I have some more distance and it does not feel as raw, so it won’t be easy leaving but you have to prioritize your own health and self-worth above everything else.

      • star said:

        I can relate. I was going to be a musician. I was going to play in orchestras. My biggest mentor broke my heart. I haven’t touched my flute in seven years. This doesn’t help the LW. But I can relate.

        • Working Hypothesis said:

          I’m so sorry.

          I had… not quite a similar experience because nobody specific caused it. But a kind of similar heartbreak. I hoped to be a writer of fantasy literature from the time I was 11. At 27, I attended one of the most prestigious writers’ workshops in the country… before we knew I had a serious endocrine disorder. I couldn’t keep up the pace. I wrote three of the best stories of my life during the first three weeks of the workshop… and burned out my talent completely. Couldn’t write a word in the second half. Never wrote again — not fiction, anyway; I’ve done a bit of poetry since then. But I came home sick enough to spend six solid months in bed, and when I was well again I couldn’t write. It’s never come back.

          Losing a dream is bad, but most people who research, create, or do anything else for the love of it can keep doing it if they have to walk away, and most of them do. They may not get paid for it, but they can keep doing it. A painter can still paint. Even an architect can design, although they’ll only be able to build if they or their friends have the money to put up houses.

          But for people like you and me, who leave behind not only the profession but the art itself, my heart aches.

        • Mayati said:

          Oh, friend. My cello is sitting in a closet for similar reasons. I’m so sorry.

        • niknak said:

          I haven’t sang in seven years. My last semester was filled with a TA telling me I was wasting my time in my degree and will never account to what I was working for. The professor of that course (who was also my advisor) said she couldn’t refute his words because she wasn’t there. While I find comfort knowing I’m not alone, I’m more saddened that it’s happened to other people and I wasn’t just an isolated incident.

        • tsupertsundere said:

          Oh, boy. Me too. I had a hellish last year of undergrad in an Animation program. I was struggling with the dissolution of my relationship with my best friend since childhood, my girlfriend cheating on me, anxiety and later-diagnosed depression, and managing a large team, half of which I could not manage or oversee but which I was still responsible for what they did.

          I asked a trusted, beloved professor that I felt like I was drowning all the time, and if that would stop. He told me no, it always will feel like this.

          I graduated, got the piece of paper, and have not looked back. I’m looking for work in editing and publishing now.

          That was a year and a half ago. I think I’ve drawn six or seven times since then. Haven’t opened animation program of choice once.

    • RP said:

      That was like the most stressful story I have ever read!! Argh

    • CrushLily said:

      Thank you for sharing that link. I’m in the final stages of PhD completion and her story is terrifying.

    • Jules said:

      My dad got his PhD 45 years ago. Mom compares it to boot camp. Sergeants are not supportive…

      Take care of yourself, and good luck! We need you to do the awesome science that you want to do!!!! (I mean, getting into a PhD program without a MS? You must be amazing!)

      • I can’t help laughing. I went through some of my calc courses with some ex-military guys. We had a prof who wrote what I called “tests from another planet”, because you’d open the test and not be able to find anything in it anywhere that seemed to relate to anything you knew. If you were able to get past the panic, though, and if you REALLY understood the theory as opposed to the execution, you could figure it out. One guy’s wife used to make it a point of being waiting when we came out of an exam, because she said it was so fascinating watching us band together to lick our wounds, like she was used to seeing in guys who had been through combat together.

    • KittensMakeEverythingBetter said:

      Oh do I relate to this story! I did finish my Ph.D., but I had my first dissertation stolen as in the story and had to fight hard to get the second one through (which I didn’t share with my advisor until the work was finished). Luckily for me my advisor just happened to complain to the department secretary about me and she “just happened” to note down all his complaints and *not one* was about my ability or the inadequateness of my thesis. She then encouraged me to go to the ombudsman with this and she supported me. And the one member of my committee who was not from the department also supported me.

      Not the way I wanted to finish, but I took it and then left academia. LW, I’m so sorry for what you are going through.

  2. I feel you so hard, LW. My advisor doesn’t say mean things to me, but he’s laissez-faire to the point of ridiculousness… until he’s not. I gave him a draft of my proposal (saying very clearly THIS IS A DRAFT I WOULD LIKE FEEDBACK) and he said, “Yes, this is fine,” and then in my actual oral exam basically tore it to shreds.

    I’m in a small program in the humanities, so adapt this however you can to your own department. I one million percent second what the Captain said about your committee. That’s what they’re for. Since you’re in candidacy, if your plan is to remain in academia/research, your #2 job after your dissertation is networking. Form relationships with these people. Find out what strengths each one of them brings both to your project and to your formation as a scientist. My advisor is basically worthless from a career standpoint, but one of my committee members takes that stuff really seriously and is the one who pitches me book reviews and other publishing opportunities, and helps with my networking at conferences and such. You might find that it ends up making more sense to make one of them your advisor, if that’s a possibility, but maybe not. Just keep in mind that they’re all human beings, including your advisor, and they’re each going to have their own contributions to your work and your development. If you’re able to frame it in that way, you might find it easier to deal with your advisor, because you’re not expecting to get anything from him than what you know he can offer.

    Also, treat this as part of your learning experience. Are you planning to go into university-level teaching? Now you have an amazing example of how NOT to be with your own advisees.

    • Charmed Omega said:

      Oh, in your shoes I would be so tempted to go to my adviser and say “I’m so sorry I made YOU look bad with that paper… (since you’re supposed to be teaching me and improving my work)”

      • In the moment I couldn’t think of a non-defensive way to ask why he didn’t mention any of his concerns to me when I asked for feedback. 😛 Luckily, my whole committee kind of has the same attitude toward dissertations, which is that they change a lot during the writing, so the proposal itself is mainly a way to assess that the student knows how to identify and launch a good project.

  3. Oh LW, I would like to give you so many hugs. So many.

    I also started a PhD at a high pressure institution without a Masters with a hands off supervisor while dealing with anxiety. Luckily I’ve been fortunate enough that my supervisor, while sometimes more distant than I’d like, has been unfailingly kind and supportive.

    PhDs are already so hard, without anyone making them harder. I am enraged on your behalf that you’re supervisor, who agreed to be your teacher and mentor and help you be the best scientist you can possibly be, has completely failed in his most crucial duties. How appalling.

    The Captain’s scripts and advice all look superb. I wish I’d had them 2 years ago. But I’d like to add one of my own.

    You can ask for help from other professors who aren’t on your committee as well. Its generally not polite to just ask them to “look over your research” in general, since that’s very time consuming but if you have a specific question (how to use a method, or analyze a specific type of data and etc) and there’s someone else who does that, you can totally write them a little email and say:

    “Dear Professor So-and-So,

    I’m a Ph.D. student with [Advisor] and I’m working on [thing you are good at], because you are an expert in this I would really appreciate some advice about [thing].”

    Thanks very much,

    LW”

    They won’t always say yes, but they usually do and its always a fine thing to ask. Most of the research community is very friendly and helpful.

    I wish you so much good luck and support LW.

    • roramich said:

      solid gold. I would totally answer a message like this from a student who was not my own.

    • Triptrop said:

      This is excellent advice. Have used this strategy myself (especially in my postdoc days); have responded to this strategy from others (now that I am a STEM professor). The lovely thing is that it can often result in great collaborations: if you are reaching out from a place of expertise in ABC to a person with expertise in CDE, not only do you get advice in DE but they get access to AB, which may complement and enrich their projects. We’ve written papers this way.

      Here is a strategy I take with my own students that may or may not help you, and has helped us through some rough spots:
      Set a regular hour-long meeting with your advisor. Weekly or biweekly (at least at first). Keep it on the calendar. Come to this meeting with:
      a) the goals you had since your last meeting
      b) the experiments you’ve done or progress made on each
      c) which of those experiments (if any) are DONE: they can be Figure 2D or whatever in your future paper.
      d) Which experiments are nearly done: they need one more replicate or a key control or a prettier picture.
      e) which experiments had problems and what the problems are
      f) what you think is causing the problems and your plan to solve them/priorities for next meeting.

      You will not have every item a-e to talk about every time, but this starts your meeting by talking about success and builds to publication. Ask your advisor whether he agrees/disagrees with your solutions in f, and if he thinks your priorities should be different. Make a set of limited, specific goals for the next meeting (experimental, and/or writing oriented, and/or collaboration/ reading oriented).

      Other recommendation:
      -Go to conferences/seminars/lunches with seminar speakers as frequently as possible. Sit in the front and ask questions. Make contacts and afterward, email them briefly to say it was nice meeting them and what you liked about their work. A strong professional network is THE MOST USEFUL thing for latter success, and can buffer a great deal of friction with your mentor.

      And CONGRATS on achieving candidacy! That is a huge feat, and the fact that you had poor mentorship makes it more impressive, not less. You are smart and good at this stuff. That has been demonstrated and agreed to by leaders in your field. Take confidence from that that your plans are sound and achievable. Break them into small bits and conquer.

      • caraway said:

        An advisor who knows what being a manager is!

        Seriously, thank you so much. I wish there were more like you.

  4. TheAngryGuppy said:

    Hi LW,

    I’m pretty sure that you are me about 7 years ago! Iam reaching through time and the internets to give you a GIANT hug if you want it, and to let you know that you will get through this (no spoilers, though).

    You are right that you will not change your advisor’s communication style, and you are on the right track in trying to compartmentalize the constructive advice away from the rest. I commend you for getting a therapist – so important! Also, the good Captain’s advice is excellent, so I’ll only add one thing: Find thee a mentor who is NOT your advisor – maybe a woman who has made it to where you want to be but is not so far removed from her own doctorate so as to forgotten how much of a struggle it can be to get there. Seek this person out for the constructive advice on how to keep improving and how to manage imposter syndrome and build both the technical and soft skills to be a great scientist, but don’t use her as a sounding board for your gripes with your advisor – if she feels her loyalty is tested it will fall on the side of her fellow faculty and you will be disappointed. If you can’t find her in real life, find her on the internet – there are so many great people blogging about their career trajectories and their victories and difficulties – one of the best ways I found to connect with this community was to start my own (anonymous) blog and strike up a conversation though that medium. The online community of scientists I connected with gave me so much greater breadth and depth of perspective when I couldn’t get that from my own advisor or committee.

    Good luck and godspeed, Tired but Awesome Grad Student!

  5. Snow said:

    Seasoned PhD candidate here. The Captain’s advice is fantastic, and I’m going to jump up and down and point lights at reaching out to your committee members. I’m super lucky to have wonderful advisors (who think I’m a human instead of an emotionless Research Machine), but there are times when I’ve relied heavily on my other committee members because their area of expertise is different or just because I wanted to hear another perspective. I know this can vary by institution and field, but at least in my PhD program, switching advisors is pretty common – is there any chance that you can switch to one of your other committee members, if you have better rapport with them? I would not suggest switching lightly or casually, but it seems like this guy is making you pretty miserable, and a new start might feel pretty liberating. Finally, do not beat yourself up about finishing “on time.” Many programs seem to give the absolute bare minimum of time to complete the degree, which does not allow for anything like illness or family emergencies or life upheavals of any kind. Only one person finished “on time” in my program last year – the rest of us have either fled for the hills or are grimly trying to push through while out of funding. It sucks, but Imma go out on a limb and say that if the completion rate is 12.5%, the problem lies with the program and not with the students. I digress, but the point is that it just takes a lot of time and energy to get a PhD. Be kind to yourself – it sounds like you are really dedicated and doing good work. Good luck!

    • Yup about “on time.” My program supposedly has a seven-year limit, four years to reach ABD. Mainly what happens if you don’t meet the timeline is the registrar sends you an email saying, “Here’s the extension form you need your advisor to sign.” We have some students (not in my dept but in adjacent ones) that have been around for a decade.

      • Yes, this is an important point.

        Professors have to let students go who aren’t going to make it. It happens. They don’t like this job. They do strange and bizarre things to avoid it. Some become flagrantly abusive to get the student to quit, just like some people don’t break up romantic relationships when they want to, but instead try to abuse their partner into leaving them.

        Programs start to develop features to create wash-out points to give professors an easy-out to let a student go that they don’t think will work out. In my program, there were some unnecessarily punitive obstacles in place with insane failure rates. But even though the professors knew they were breaking and driving away good students, they kept voting to keep them, because how it worked was that the student always got another chance if the professor asked. To let a student go, the professor just had to remain silent, and the student was gone.

        Time limits are one form this took/takes — they can be extremely punitive, in that they may be set to be almost impossible to hit. Because the secret rule is that the professor just has to ask for an extension, perhaps in a one-line email, perhaps just verbally, and the student is given more time. All the professor has to do in order to let a student go is to not speak. Professors LOVE these features. It gives them protection and an easy-out.

        • Snow said:

          That’s really interesting and really different from my program. I wonder if it’s a discipline difference or an institutional one. In my program you get 5 years of funding. Period. There is no way to get departmental funding after that, regardless of personal circumstance or what your advisor thinks of your work and progress. The good news is that you aren’t ejected from the program, though many people leave at this point, but you can stay as long as you want…as long as you can pay for it, which most people cannot. Ugh.

          • With that funding model, it would make things very different — what you’re basically describing is a 5-year-fellowship, if a fellowship is defined as you get X amount of time supported and you do with it what you will.

          • Snow said:

            Alas, it’s not a fellowship – we have to work (mostly teach or admin positions) throughout the program, though some are awarded a year of fellowship.

  6. DrJerkZor said:

    From a recent science PhD grad – this is all really good advice.

    Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to me like advisors say horribly negative things or weirdly vaguely negative things to “motivate” their students to be more independent. I had a similarly hands-off advisor who seemed to just want me to go and do my science thing and flounder for a while, and eventually, I decided to push through the impostor syndrome and anxiety (with a therapist by my side) and go do whatever I thought would be good science. He still criticized. I mined for the nugget of valuable scientific information that was buried in the vaguely hurtful statements, hit up PubMed and Dr. Google to follow up, and then either revised the experimental plan based somewhat on his advice or, more frequently, went ahead and did the scientifically meritous thing that I thought was correct even though I didn’t think he’d agree and then came to him with data when I had it. I ended up with a stack of publications at the end of my PhD that I felt I had strong ownership over – which is the only advantage of an advisor like this. Now I’m a postdoc in a very large lab with an even more hands-off advisor who offers even less useful advice, but I trust myself (usually) to figure shit out on my own. I’m not thankful that my grad school advisor was kind of a jerk, but I do feel like learning to only rely on myself to figure the science out was a really valuable skill learned in a really horrendous way. And you’re not on your own, entirely – you can ask fellow grad students and postdocs for experimental planning advice and “interpreting” advisor-speak (without complaining) and you can also go to your committee. These are skills you’ll have to use after your PhD also!

    Does your program have annual evaluations done by a committee running the program? Is your advisor expressing concerns to that committee (which normally requires more concrete communication than what you’re getting now)? I found that my advisor would say upsetting things to my face but never say anything nearly as weird or bad about me to the folks running the degree program. If your school has that kind of committee, maybe lean on them more for feedback? I would say things to them like “do you think I am on track right now? What do you think I need to do to stay on track?” When I did that with my program committee, they were surprised that I had concerns since on paper I was getting high marks despite bad face-to-face feedback from my PI. They were also willing to intervene when things got particularly weird with some funding threats. Their goal is for people to graduate and bring in good PR for the program by getting good positions, and sometimes an older more established (tenured!) advisor doesn’t care as much about having a high student success rate and will behave poorly.

  7. reddressgnome said:

    are there any other students in a similar point of their degree under the same advisor (who you trust?)? one of my academic friends had a “Get The F* Out” group with a couple of her colleagues. to support and encourage each other and back each other up on the advisor being a bad reviewer and supervisor. they discussed actual scientific/experimental/analysis/networking strategies and next steps as well as just providing a safe place for “AUGH, i really want to finish this project and advisor isn’t helping!” (and i think there was also a lot of drinking :p that step is optional!)

    the same friend also found a very good mentor in a neighbouring lab, who originally helped her with some analysis techniques but also provided a lot of feedback on her project. she also got quite a bit of support from a senior researcher who was originally in her lab but ended up moving to a different school during her research. the captain’s scripts for talking to committee or other faculty or experts from anywhere who might understand your field is spot-on. it’s ok to ask for feedback from anyone who might be better at providing it than your advisor is.

    academia (PhD+post doc and the struggle to publish) is SO HARD. nearly everyone feels like they are failing at it. i know so many smart, capable, expert people who were questioning all that about themselves while enduring it. some made it through, and some decided it wasn’t worth it. but i can confidently say that it is NOT a reflection of your skills or worth that you are struggling with this. you can figure out a way to do what you love.

  8. You are doing an awesome job, because you are succeeding in your field already. Passing comps and getting your proposal approved are huge accomplishments which I celebrate. I hope you will celebrate those accomplishments too because your letter mentions “failures” but not successes.

    If you are at an institution with some kind of women in STEM group (or with any luck an NSF ADVANCE grant), seek out those people / resources and find support outside your immediate department but still in science. Be sure they are not best friends with your advisor and as always don’t complain about him, but do look to them for mentoring and support. My background is also humanities, and our committees sometimes did not want to look at work earlier in the process for reasons of either 1) laziness or 2) not wanting to step on supervisor toes. Yet, many of us absolutely jumped in to help students when they needed a little extra or just different feedback than their supervisor was providing. I agree with Dendritic Trees’ approach of asking for specific advice and targeted feedback if you do approach other members of the committee or professors outside the committee.

    • KS said:

      Yes to seeking out a women in STEM group! There may also be a more general community for women pursuing master’s/doctorate degrees, particularly if your institution has any funding or scholarship money directed toward that (and you may be able to access the community for group support/networking even if you are not receiving that funding). If neither of those exists, scope out female faculty members or even take a look at the graduate administration staff who are former faculty… many of them are mentors at heart.

  9. persimmon said:

    Also a grad student (though in the humanities so discount as needed), and all of this is definitely familiar. What I have learned in observing my experience and others’ is that it’s usually best to view your advisor as a) a source of very valuable (though not infallible) advice for a project that is ultimately directed by you, and b) enforcer of the process that you are going through, for better and for worse.

    Regarding b), this means that your advisor is often structurally the wrong person to be your academic-emotional support. They are going to be the voice of criticism a lot of the time, inherently. While some can be supportive in criticizing, I think I would always need voices with a purer faith in my ability to persevere. For me, those are my peer friends in the department. They can read my early-draft work and not ask “is this good and why not,” but instead, “is this heading somewhere interesting–let’s experiment with what it might be.” Another person I know gets her best support from people she met on academic Twitter–she will even do a mostly-silent Skype session with a Twitter friend while writing just for the morale boost of working together. I think it’s very important to set up this kind of support system.

    For a), I think it’s a very natural instinct to want clear instructions from an advisor, but most just aren’t prepared to give them (and, opposite extreme, you wouldn’t want an advisor who does all the thinking of your project for you either). I have worked hard to envision my research project as something I am in charge of, with my advisor as one of several guides and assistants. Often vague advice really means, “I haven’t thought about your issue hard enough to really understand what’s likely to fix it, but you’re making me give you an answer so… here’s some brainstorming.” Would I rather have the solution? Well, yeah, maybe–but her brainstorming can be useful too as long as I treat it as just brainstorming not a command. In the long run learning to work somewhat independently, and to be entrepreneurial in seeking advice from lots of corners, are skills that I’m glad to be developing.

  10. allyschild1 said:

    Hi LW 🙂 Thank you for writing in. As a fellow female academic (but in the humanities), I’ve really enjoyed the sense of solidarity around the last few letters. I’ve been so fortunate in having an advisor who is basically like my fairy godfather, even though demographically we are very different (middle-aged white man, young single woman of color).

    However, even fantastic advisors have areas of weakness, since they are only human after all. My advisor wanted me to finish my dissertation faster in lieu of applying for grants, for instance, or teaching more. Unlike some of my friends’ advisors, he didn’t put me on conference panels or offer to co-author work with me, or actively introduce me to other senior scholars in the field.

    I knew that grants, and teaching, and presenting, and conferencing would be crucial to my future development, however, and so I resolved to try to fill these gaps myself. The great thing is that in academia people are always looking for opportunities to collaborate, and present work together, and so it will help you down the line to form contacts not only outside your own lab or department, but also your school and your immediate field.

    I’ve signed up for mentorship programs sponsored by our big field organization; taught widely outside the institution where I got my PhD; made it a point to follow up with at least five new people from each conference; cold emailed professors whose work I found interesting; sent out CFPs to listservs and made some fantastic connections that way; reached out to people with whom I interviewed *unsuccessfully* for jobs and formed conference panels with them; applied to a million grants and jobs and managed to have some real wins (even though the ratio of failure to success is basically like 100:2).

    The exciting, scary, frustrating, and motivating thing about academia is that it’s so entrepreneurial, and you have to constantly seek out opportunities. Having a good advisor can ease things considerably and launch you far. However, once you get your degree, most grant and tenure committees will expect you to have letters of recommendation from people other than your advisor and even your committee members. So the work you do as a graduate student to cultivate mentors and supporters beyond your advisor will continue to pay dividends far down the line.

    Good luck! I love how determined, strong, and self-aware you are 🙂

  11. aq said:

    Yes yes yes! Your dissertation isn’t your life’s work. It’s what you need to start your life’s work. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be finished.

    Other than what Captain mentioned, does he have any other students? In previous situations I’ve been in, a group vent among the students, even with amazing advisors, is common and helpful to relieve stress – but ONLY among those students.

    Advisors don’t work out. They FREQUENTLY don’t work out for so SO many reasons, and it shouldn’t affect your career. Generally, there are no hard feelings. If there are, then it says something about him. If he’s talking to other faculty, it says something about him; advisors are supposed to champion their students, and institutions and departments don’t like it when they set them up to fail if only because of a wasted investment. All of these things that are being said? Are bad and are known. They are known in the department. They are known in the field. Especially in small fields, people know who the jerks are.

    Some great canned reasons to shop around for other advisors:
    -You’re currently on a grant. You’re currently on year 3 or 4 of a grant, yes? Has he talked to you about extensions, renewals, or new funding sources? Does he give you a straight answer when you ask? No? Then it looks fine, responsible even, to look for new funding.
    -Are you his only student when any other professor has multiple students? Does he have very few former students? Two big reasons for that are that he can’t get funding regularly or that he’s not a good advisor. FANTASTIC reasons to change advisors, and iIf you go to your chair, committee, anyone other faculty and say “It’s not working out” without mentioning anything, there’s a whoooole lotta background that they know that’s going to back that up.
    -Have you had a change in focus or interest? Are you open to having a change of interest? These things happen. You’re in school.

    • “Your dissertation isn’t your life’s work. It’s what you need to start your life’s work.”

      Honestly, thank you so much. I’m not the LW, but I really needed to hear that this week.

  12. I’m sorry I can’t give you any practical advice, but my observation of the grad-student world, based on my wife’s experience getting her PhD, has convinced me that graduate education is the last vestige of feudalism in the developed world. PhD candidates are not employees or students of their advisors; they are serfs.

    I doubt that this form of organization is actually the best way to produce good scientific research (or good literary criticism, or good new theorems in mathematics), but the serfs seem unlikely to overthrow their overlords in the near future, so I guess if you want the kind of career options that are only open to people with PhDs, you have to put up with a certain amount of serfdom.

    Just remember that the stress you are feeling is not because of any personal defect or failure on your part. It’s a broken system and you’re being stabbed over and over by one of the broken pieces.

  13. Driftless Thinking said:

    This is just plain heartbreaking. I can’t affirm or critique Captains advice. It seems solid, given that the LW states she will stay. But this is a crap way of treating human beings. I used to wonder why anyone gave up on academia. Now I wonder why anyone starts at all.

  14. Gabs said:

    This could have been written by me, word by word.

    As a PhD student who has advanced to candidacy a few years ago and has less than 1 year to finish — I can tell you this: you are definitely not alone. The struggle is real, and it is a hard one. I also deal with chronic depression/major depression/imposter syndrome/anxiety among other stuff, and had my ups and downs, which clearly impacted my work. In fact I see this quite often among my peers.

    I will tell a little bit about my experience to see if you can relate to something (it’s hard for me to give advice without knowing the specifics):
    I have two advisors. The male is very hands off, the female is super controlling and micromanaging. I could deal just fine with the guy because he literally just let me be without much pressure (he is very acquainted with mental health issues, and has them himself), but I thought the female advisor made my life hell, nothing was ever good enough, I had this sense she hated me, and I am sure that for most part of my first 3 years into the program, she really only endured me because it would look bad if she lost yet another student (I will be her first PhD student to graduate). She used to threaten me a lot before my proposal defense, wanting me out of the department for missing a very flexible deadline (her next student has missed said deadline and no issues were raised… but oh boy, she made my life a living hell to the point I left the country with very little intent of coming back, just did so because I didn’t want to quit on myself). One thing that changed my academic life for the better was to realize that the only person that needed to be satisfied with my performance was myself. yeah, I could do more, I could be the next Nobel prize in my late 20’s, but you know, I was perpetuating the whole idea of not being enough that was being imposed on me. From the moment I started working to satisfy my own standards I was way happier, even if things haven’t fully changed. I know that I could do and be more, IF mental health issues weren’t an issue, but they are and there are days that waking up and leaving my apartment is not an option.
    The other thing that was a change for me was when I had to conduct this project with this researcher from another institution. I had to work closely with her for a summer, and it was really bad. She was disorganized, didn’t respect me intelectually, really irresponsible, anyway, what matters is that I started valuing some aspects of my female advisor that I didn’t appreciate before. Now, 1 and a half years later, female advisor and I have a good rapport, we still disagree on how some things have to be done, and what the standards are, but it is overall much better.

    I know all this I said may not be applicable to your situation. But again, you are not alone! Sending love and encouragement your way!

    PS: I started my PhD after getting my master’s degree at age 25 and believe me, it makes no difference.

  15. tallulahsghost said:

    Hi OP –

    I am the person who wrote in earlier this year about my terrible, all-consuming, toxic work environment.* So I feel you. It is so difficult to function with this type of dynamic.

    One book that I think might be very helpful for you is “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense At Work.” Particularly with regards to modes of communication, it provides a lot of actionable advice and scripts. It has helped me not just by validating my perceptions of what was happening, but also illustrating some legitimate areas where there was miscommunication going on.

    You can do this. 💓

    *I have updates! Will either send as separate letter or submit during end of year call for those. Thanks to all for your incredible advice and support.

    • Vof said:

      Hi, I wanted to say this, too. I think the version I have is simply “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.” It has a whole chapter JUST about PhD programs!!

  16. Madge said:

    This is such great advice (and exactly what I wish I could have read when I was dissertation-ing a few years ago). I have used many of these suggestions myself with my similarly vexing advisor, and I came out alive on the other side. Mostly, Letter Writer, I came here to say that your letter really resonated with me. I wish more people would talk about these aspects of graduate school and early career science. Working on a PhD can be so lonely (and stressful in so many other ways), and I just wanted to offer my words of support/virtual hugs if they can be of any comfort.

  17. Oh, LW. My heart goes out to you.

    I can tell you three or four things that helped me get through a doctoral program with a problematic advisor.

    – Counselling services at our institution had a weekly support group called the ABD support group. There was a waiting list. Once I got in it, it was a chance to talk once a week with people who had similar problems but who had absolutely no connection with the toxic-family-dynamics research group I was in, and the affirmation plus the thought that I promised to tell them some progress by the next meeting got me to keep plugging along.

    – Late in my program when we had funding issues, I took a summer off to live elsewhere with supportive people and to do an easy part-time job. My advisor didn’t approve but didn’t kick me out. I realized that summer that I really did want to keep trying to finish, and I figured out that needing to work for my advisor for pay was a big obstacle (there was no more money on my project so he gave me RAs on other projects and then expected me to work a lot of hours on them first). So I went to a bank and got a family cosigner on a loan big enough to cover three more quarters of foreign-student tuition. Suddenly my pattern of contact with my advisor changed – no longer was I dodging him and being afraid of him all the time, but it felt like I was chasing him to sign things and give input on things, and that made me feel like I was winning/competent again.

    – At some point I figured out that he was more likely to read and/or sign off under time pressure. So I didn’t bother sending him drafts until shortly before deadlines, and I mentioned that they had already been past Committee Member Dr. Y and subject-matter expert Dr. Z. I didn’t get much more useful input from him, but I got his signatures when I needed them.

    – I don’t know if this was a net help or hindrance, but during my doctoral program (when I got feeling vulnerable and isolated due to being the first woman in the program, not having enough money for fun or self-care, being dependent on progress in the program to keep my student visa, etc) I got distracted into spending time and energy on a campus/community leadership role in a group where I felt appreciated. Maybe I would have finished a year or two earlier without that project, but maybe I wouldn’t have finished at all if the research was the only thing in my life.

  18. The Captain has given you great advice! But I also wanted to point out that if you are feeling that the professor’s goal in life is to keep you from getting your Ph.D., chances are he’s just too busy to think about your work. In other words, it’s not you, it’s him. Chances are he’s a better scientist than he is an instructor or advisor. He’s frantically trying to keep up with his own work. Just remember those words: It’s not me, it’s him.

  19. Mir said:

    I have worked under professors and bosses like this, including my advisor. Other people have already said a lot of great things that I agree with so I will add the one thing I found very helpful that has been less discussed:

    With people like this, every mention you make of your feelings, anxieties, stress, or mental health is not only fruitless (it will not lead to increased support or understanding) it is also tangibly damaging to your career and credibility. It causes him to see you as weak, unreliable, and not up to the task. It is a core part of bullshit toxic masculinity and I’m so so sorry that this person has authority over you, but unfortunately it’s still true and you need to try to escape this professional relationship as unscathed and well-recommended as possible.

    My advice: immediately take him off the list of people entitled to know about your feelings, stress level, uncertainties, or mental health. He is not a safe person to discuss these things with. He will only use them against you, as proof of his suspicions that you’re not up to the task. As much as possible, be a robot around him. He doesn’t want you to have feelings – he sees them as a sign of weakness and lack of focus. So as far as he’s concerned, you don’t. Everything needs to be about cold hard facts, deadlines, project specs, plans, and information. Reframe the way you conduct all your interactions with him.

    In my experience, these people respect “toughness” in the stiff-upper-lip sense, and they also respond much better to brashness and confidence than deferential and careful behavior (which they see as timid and weak). If you are behind on something because you’re depressed, I’ve found it’s better to say something simple and totally unapologetic like, “I’ve pushed the timeline on Project C back to Wednesday. The data analysis required more time than expected.” No apologies, no sheepishness, no explanations of a personal nature. If they complain or criticize you, give no quarter. Repeat, with no emotion, “It’ll be done Wednesday. If the timeline change requires any adjustments, I’ll handle them.” Do not show weakness or let on that you’re bothered. I literally practiced this in front of a mirror until I could do it even when someone was being really cruel and I wanted to cry.

    I was also a young woman at the time, and I found that even though I paid some cost in being seen as a “cold pushy bitch” I still fared way way better and got a lot more respect than the women and men in my program who were more conciliatory and deferential.

    Again, I am so sorry you are involved with this asshole. This is a very common problem in academia, especially with people in your professor’s demographic. But unfortunately those people are everywhere, and very often they’re the ones in charge of the labs doing the interesting research. You need to develop a way to survive their bullshit without letting it crush you. Lean hard on your therapist, family, friends, dog/cat, etc. and practice building an armor of professional toughness to keep you safe.

    • tralala said:

      I was going to comment along these lines as well, so I’m glad to have found someone else’s comment that I can reinforce. My own doctoral advisor, although a friendly, chatty guy, maintained a strict compartmentalization between his academic/social scientist self and his personal, human self, such that he would completely tune it out if I mentioned that I’d been sick for a week. The dynamics were different, in that I was doing this in my 40s and I’m only a year or two younger than he is, but I quickly learned that our conversations should be entirely about the research and not about any aspect of the rest of our lives. Your advisor seems to want something like this too – show him the part of you that’s pure research, and do your best to leave your apologies and any mention of feelings and your mental health out of it.

      I get that you’re finding it challenging to get him to clarify how he wants you to change the work you’re producing, and that he’s not being sufficiently supportive in that context either. You’ll be able to do much better when you’re someone else’s advisor or mentor, I’m sure! For now, try to separate the support you need as a human being in this situation (which you’re getting from your therapist and your Team You), and the support you need as a researcher, which you can try to get from other members of your committee and other people in your field. And when you go looking for help from the latter group of people, do your best to focus on very narrow questions not prefaced by any expressions of your feelings about your own inadequacies or your advisor’s inadequacies. I hope you can soon connect with people who are excited about your work and the contributions you can make. I also hope that your work soon grows beyond being just a subset of your advisor’s field to one where you get to know in your very bones that you’re the expert.

    • Emma9 said:

      ~My advice: immediately take him off the list of people entitled to know about your feelings, stress level, uncertainties, or mental health. He is not a safe person to discuss these things with.~

      Not an academic situation, but can concur that it can be very helpful to reframe your contact with someone this way. In my case it’s a family member, and while cutting this person off entirely isn’t a feasible option for me, I have a less stressful relationship with them now that they’re ‘officially’ labeled untrusted/unsafe for anything beyond superficial, thus they have less ammunition the next time things get bad.

      Slightly more related to the letter – at one of my very early jobs, I had a manager who was, at first, very kind and encouraging. Partway through my time there, things flipped radically; suddenly he was hostile to me without warning or explanation, to the extent that other managers and employees were coming to me privately to ask what was up. (Heck if I knew.)

      At first I was upset and anxious. This previously-nice person wouldn’t be treating me like this unless I’d done something terribly wrong, it must be my fault! But his behavior rapidly became so openly nasty that he, too, merited reframing. No truly kind person would treat another the way he was treating me now, regardless of what I might have done. Ergo he was off the list of people whose insults had any impact whatsoever on my self-image. (‘Consider the source’ was my mantra.) It was still stressful and annoying to deal with him, but I was able to shift my schedule around to minimize contact, and my emotions were no longer at his mercy.

      In the case of your advisor, you don’t need to disregard his opinion that entirely, but it might be good to reframe him in your mind: ‘He has some good insights about research and I will pay attention when he says something along those lines, but he is not a good judge of how other people work or what they’re capable of, so remarks about how I can’t handle it or should drop out will be ignored like the meaningless white noise that they are.’

    • prof said:

      This whole thread moves me: I could’ve been the letter writer some 10 years ago, and now, as a PI, I have sympathy for the adviser too.

      First, the adviser does sound like an oaf of a manager, and I don’t mean to excuse his behavior. I would have problems working for him also.

      But I take issue with the idea that a PI’s not wanting to discuss feelings and struggles necessarily exemplifies “toxic masculinity.” I have enormous sympathy for mental health problems in academic trainees. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression most of my life, and I’m better at working with them now than I was in grad school. But expecting your adviser to provide emotional support is, well, expecting your adviser to provide ongoing emotional labor, and I don’t think this is part of the job. I sure don’t have that kind of energy on the tenure track. I try to be kind and patient with trainees who say they are struggling. I let them blow a deadline, I forgive a brief unproductive phase, I give them some quick CBT tips, I point them to good resources (and usually divulge how much therapy has helped me!)… but I really expect them to deal with it outside lab so we can get on to the science. I have a trainee now who is dangerously perfectionist, confrontation-avoidant, image conscious, and therapy-phobic; as a consequence, his work is extremely uneven, and I can’t count on him to get things done well on time. I’ve told him many times things need to change. This is a real problem that threatens my ability to get grants, and it thus threatens the whole lab. I will soon recommend he take a leave of absence. My duty here is not to point out his unthinking internalization of parental egos, his pervasive transference problems, and failed individuation in the face of competing maternal figures he seems desperate to please, and it’s not to tell him that I know he’s capable of being an awesome PhD student. It’s just to describe how his behaviors affect our research goals and what the expectations are.

      As others have recommended, go to friends and family for the real emotional support. It’s good to ask your advisor about which skills you most need to work on, but don’t ask if you have what it takes to make it through your PhD. No one can really tell you that anyway. (In academia, if you haven’t seen this yet, there are *always* people who think you are doing your science wrong and have inadequate training, and you have to learn to ignore them while getting things done.) It’s easy for younger adults especially to look to advisers as parental figures, and this is dangerous and inappropriate. We’re not qualified, and it’s better to cultivate inspiration and drive from within (and close friends!).

  20. Norawora said:

    Hi, I just want to say that I’m in a similar situation. IT SUCKS. The advise given here is great!
    I have found point C really useful, one of the problems with my supervisor is that we have two very different communication styles.
    He loves emails and I prefer regular face to face meetings, we had a conversation with an other academic staff member to mediate. He has a habit of talking over me and this was prevented with a third person there. It was severely uncomfortable and he said some not nice things. However I now understand him a little better and we made some agreements to meet in the middle. It is a work in progress but there is some improvement. I also find that leaning on other academic staff is super useful. It is nice to have someone in your corner and people to discuss your work with even if your supervisor won’t or won’t productively.
    These situations are always super though, but know that you’re not alone, you’re kicking ass and will be an even more awesome scientist because of it! Virtual hugs a fellow struggling STEM Graduate

  21. Kat G., Ph.D. said:

    Oh, LW, I feel you so hard. I was a very bad STEM Ph.D. student. I’m not exaggerating or trying to make you feel better or putting myself down. I came to this conclusion after a lot of time and quite a bit of therapy: I was very bad at being in grad school. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it’s true.

    This was not helped by the fact that my advisor had no idea what to do with me. In my case, my advisor is actually very kind, and he’s someone I like a lot as a person. I care about him deeply (and vice versa, I believe – he and his wife flew from Kentucky to Massachusetts for my wedding last year!), but he was not a good advisor *for me*. He did not personally attack me, but he wasn’t good at giving me the direct feedback that I needed to fix the issues with my work habits and research. He also wasn’t very good at teaching me to be a good researcher or helping me brainstorm solutions to problems. Instead, I’d get vague pushback on my ideas or work, and I’d flounder along, and nothing would get done, and he’d be unhappy that nothing was getting done. It was nonstop vague instructions and miscommunication and “go read some more papers” and “you need to be spending more hours on this.” It was EXHAUSTING. I cried a lot.

    I don’t have a ton of useful advice for making it through your Ph.D. I really wish I did. I just barely made it through. My dissertation defense went poorly – one of my committee members is um, a nice word would be intense. An un-nice word would be UNMITIGATED ASSHOLE. He chewed me out for ten minutes over a small error. (Direct quote: “Just skip the next 4 slides. I don’t want to see them. They’re wrong.”) I ultimately passed my defense, but it was not the exciting, happy day I had expected for 6 years. For a solid year afterward, I couldn’t think about my defense without nearly crying. It was very bad.

    I’m getting to my point here, I swear. My point is this….

    Your skill (or lack thereof) at being a Ph.D. student does not necessarily indicate your skill at what you will do after grad school. I promise. I know this because I was a horrifyingly bad grad student, but I am an awesome professor. I have a TT position at a mid-tier, teaching-heavy state institution, and I love my job. I am pretty great at it. I’m not perfect, and I still struggle with impostor syndrome, but this is really what I am meant to be doing. I don’t know what you are meant to be doing long-term, since that will depend on who you are and what you want out of your career, but I do know that grad school doesn’t last forever. One way or another, you WILL get out.

    The Professor Is In (http://theprofessorisin.com/) has been really helpful for me over the years. She’s from a humanities background, so some of her advice doesn’t exactly match up with the STEM world, but she gives a ton of very straightforward, practical advice. She also tells it like it is: that sometimes advisors are jerks and you need to figure out how to work within that framework. She also has a ton of advice on what to do if you can’t or don’t want to be in academia anymore. Good luck, and Jedi hugs if you’d like them!

  22. Erin McJ said:

    Fabulous advice from the Captain, as always. If I’d had her wisdom in my arsenal during PhD school, it might have gone very differently!

  23. Hithere said:

    I’ve dealt with people (though not advisors) before who thought very highly of themselves as scientists/logical people (sometimes even rightly so) but liked to be super vague about their problems in the hopes that other people would just sort it out. What’s worked well is playing to their bias/mental image of being human vulcans. “As a scientist, I’m sure you can understand that I have trouble extrapolating from so little data – could you elaborate a bit on what the core of your objection is/give more examples?” or “As someone with a scientific inclination, it’s much easier for me to address specific concerns rather than vague, emotional type ones”, “Hah, not sure what to make of that! I have a friend who’s in postmodern literary criticism – I’ll see if she can parse that!”.
    (Note: I am a humanities person who roles her eyes at people who think logic is entirely separate from emotions and laughs at people who strut about in this manner. But if you have shitty biases that you use against other people (who you are responsible for supporting no less!) then expect them to be used back at you)

    • JenniferP said:

      Yes, yes, yes!

      A lot of academics and I mean a lot NEVER get trained in how to be a good teacher or boss or mentor. They don’t know how!
      They also have a significant bias towards “things I am not an expert at must not be that important.”

      So finding a way to appeal to what they do think is important and what they do think they are good at to get what you need is an excellent idea.

      • stellanor said:

        When I was a TA I literally got 4 hours of instruction on how to teach before they turned me loose on unsuspecting students, and 2 of those hours were devoted to a workshop on teaching evaluations run by someone totally opposed to the entire concept so those hours don’t really count.

        I don’t think professors even get that, I think they just hurl them at students.

        • MsM said:

          Again, I’m just going by anecdata, but my professor friends seem to attribute whatever skills they have in teaching – and they spend a lot of time stressing about how they have no idea what they’re doing – by looking at the professors they hated and doing the exact opposite.

    • “As someone with a scientific inclination, it’s much easier for me to address specific concerns rather than vague, emotional type ones”

      That is genius!

      Also oh god I hear you on the Vulcan-wannabes of the world. Pretending emotions aren’t important because you don’t like having them is an emotion-driven decision and a profoundly irrational one at that. I’m a programmer and even I’m sick of that BS.

  24. InsufficientDat said:

    This comment section is filled with commiseration over the same “problem” with PhD experiences. Let me offer an alternative perspective. Your adviser is preparing you for the reality of an academic career. He is not poorly trained as a manager or teacher. For better or worse, this is how academia works. It is full of harsh rejection based on your inability to meet vague and potentially impossible standards. Consider what your adviser is telling you directly, personal attacks included. Now imagine the blind review. There is no recourse for being unsatisfied with a reviewer’s unhelpful comments (or a student’s unhelpful evaluations). Your adviser has had a career full of this. To succeed in academia you need to be able to work with vague criticism and personal attacks. When an adviser tells you s/he thinks you aren’t cut out for it, it’s not to be “mean,” it’s to encourage you not to waste your time and energy.

    • JenniferP said:

      Let me offer *you* an alternate perspective:

      What if senior academics decided to make the things that suck about the field SUCK LESS for their advisees?

      What if the world offers enough rejection and bad criticism and someone who has passed their comps and hung in for four years in a competitive program IS cut out for it? What if it’s not the advisor’s job to weed out someone who is doing the work?

      What if senior academics aren’t necessarily experts in people skills and managing teams since (as you affirm) that stuff is so undervalued?

      What if “welp that’s just the way it is” arguments don’t hold water in a field with such a terrible track record of discrimination against women and people of color? Maybe the same people who logicked against the inclusion of half the human race don’t actually get to decide “how it is?”

      • InsufficientDat said:

        Academia needs to change in many ways including graduate student development. I am not terribly optimistic that this will happen any time soon. But it certainly won’t happen in the time-frame that this student needs to finish her degree requirements. You can be angry with me about that if you like.

        I offered an alternative perspective to encourage the student to consider the context in which she has situated herself and reflect seriously on whether or not it is good for her. I’m going to stand-by this advice and even suggest that it’s much kinder and more helpful than the original.

        Many students enter PhD programs assuming they are extensions of their undergraduate and/or masters’ work. The reality is a PhD is a completely different beast. Producing knowledge is entirely different than consuming knowledge. Some students are well-suited for it, most aren’t. It generally is impossible to tell which of the very successful consumers will become successful producers until you throw them into the deep end. It is very clear to me from the letter that this program (and academia in general) is not a good fit for the student.

        This student’s story is extremely common. It generally ends in one of two ways. One: the student slugs it out and leaves with a degree, but little if nothing else added to the CV, and much lost personally. Two: the student accepts that the program isn’t right for her and moves on to something that is. Either way, it doesn’t end with a fulfilling career in academia. Students in this situation who leave are much happier.

        Leaving a PhD program is not a failure and I wish graduate students (and people advising them) would stop viewing it this way. Sometimes what students need the most is permission to leave.

        • VeryTiredGraduateStudent said:

          With all due respect, I don’t require “permission to leave”. I already know I can give up at any time. In any difficult situation, it’s always possible to turn back and choose not to keep going. I have considered the possibility of quitting before, when my proposal defense went awry. I have discussed the possibility of walking away with an MS and calling it quits with a colleague already, and flat out, I’m not ready to make the decision to walk away. You have to be where you are, and this is where I’m at. I didn’t ask for suggestions on whether or not I should walk away (although I recognize it’s a valid option I may one day want to pursue, and that I wouldn’t be wrong to pursue it. The option is always on the table.) I’m perfectly aware of my shortcomings and my struggles to address them and that this may not work out. I didn’t ask for opinions on whether or not I’m suited for academia. I can solicit that feedback from people who actually know me and my situation. I can debate that with myself, my friends, my committee, and my therapist. In fact, I HAVE done so.

          Your username is appropriate. You have insufficient data. You are entitled to think that a letter written in a moment of distress suggests that I suck at my chosen profession and that I should bail. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

          • Please accept this jedi highfive because that was great!

            Producing knowledge is entirely different than consuming knowledge. Some students are well-suited for it, most aren’t.

            I disagree that most students aren’t good at producing knowledge. Humans in general are pretty incredible at producing knowledge, that’s how we survived as a species for so long. My theory is that a lifetime of consuming knowledge when, where, and how you’re told makes it really hard to make the leap from consuming to producing.

            Something broadly similar happens to programming students – a lot of them really struggle with making the leap from following tutorials to writing their own programs from scratch. That’s not because they’re just not smart enough, the idea that you need to be super smart to be a programmer is a myth. I think it’s because we collectively suck at teaching people to solve problems and because it’s a lot easier to write a simple tutorials for a total beginner than it is to write a guide for an intermediate programmer that gives just the right amount of gradually decreasing hints to help them learn to tackle a whole project on their own.

            Teaching people to become independent programmers/researchers/etc is really hard, but that doesn’t mean you should be proud of being bad at it.

        • Lizards80 said:

          “You can be angry with me about that if you like.”

          Lol. Passive agressive much?

          This statement is so condescending and out of place, that it makes me wonder if this is trolling.

          Either way – I’m in the military. Part of what I do is make sense out of ambiguous, vague, and potentially lethal situations, and produce information and direction out of them.

          Stress of this nature brings out the best and worst of people. Regardless, I expect EVERYBODY to be professional. To mentor and coach those within their sphere of influence. To help others make sense of ambiguity and then to teach them to do the same.

          There are plenty of toxic people around who don’t do those things. Should I bully my folks to toughen them up for “reality” or should I set the example of how things should be?

          If I ever make the alternative point of view that you just did – that this is just the way things are and students should determine whether they are able to adapt themselves – when, are you kidding me, that is LITERALLY what she is doing by writing CA, she is seeking ways to adapt and being damn vulnerable and damn brave in doing so – I hope I choose that day to retire.

          • aebhel said:

            Yeah, “You can be angry with me about that if you like,” is code for, “Not only am I going to be an unhelpful asshole about this, I expect you to be grateful for it,” with a side helping of “If you’re angry, it’s not because I’ve said anything objectionable, it’s because you’re not properly in control of your emotions.”

            Catty and passive-aggressive. Hard pass on that.

        • Jackalope said:

          Other people have addressed many of your comments thoroughly, so I will try not to repeat what they said. I did have a few things to add:

          1) Looking at all of the posts responding to this letter, it seems clear to me that this student’s story *is* in fact “extremely common”; look at all of the people who wrote in to say they had the same experience while getting their PhDs and now have said PhDs and have gone on to a happy and rewarding career in their chosen fields. Frankly, the lesson I’m getting from this is that given how far the LW has made it with success, she appears well-poised to finish up her PhD, take a well-deserved rest, and then continue in her career of choice.

          2) “Academia” is a broad field with a wide range of possible career options. As others have pointed out, not all of them have the vicious, poorly managed atmosphere that you describe. Some place more emphasis on research, others on teaching, still others prefer a combination. Having a difficult time with an unsupportive advisor is not a sign that the LW would be unsuited to all of those options.

          3) This may be less applicable to the LW’s life since from what I understood she wants to go into research, and her comments indicated that she is interested in a specific field that I suspect is academa-related. PhD’s in general, however, are not necessarily a sign that someone wants to remain in the academic world. In many fields having a PhD is a foot in the door for a job, a higher pay scale, and more opportunities for a variety of positions. In my current field having a PhD means that you can potentially be paid almost twice as much for the *same* job starting on day 1 as someone who has a bachelor’s degree (assuming that both of you are walking in off the street with NO relevant experience). It doesn’t even matter what your doctorate was in; just the letters at the end of your name get you double the salary with the same experience. This levels off to a certain extent after several years, but you’re always going to be ahead of the game in important ways (access to certain jobs, for example). A PhD can be an investment paying off for years to come in terms of salary and life options. So saying someone isn’t cut out for academia (which to be clear I am not saying is the case for the LW, but talking about PhD students in general) doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on whether completing a PhD program will be beneficial in their lives, even factoring in the debt they may go into in order to get said degree.

          4) “I offered an alternative perspective to encourage the student to consider the context in which she has situated herself and reflect seriously on whether or not it is good for her. I’m going to stand-by this advice and even suggest that it’s much kinder and more helpful than the original.” While I will take you at your word and assume that you meant to be kind, providing discouragement to someone you don’t know other than from a letter on the internet, whose work you have never seen, and that you will never meet by telling them they are lousy at what they love most and should just give up is not ever going to come across as a kindness. If anything, CA’s original advice is more likely to get her to the point where she can honestly determine if she wants to stay or quit. If she were to take the recommended long weekend to look at the future, for example, and meditate on what she loves about science/her field/what she’s doing/etc., it’s possible she could decide to go a different direction and give up the PhD. (Given her other comments I consider this highly unlikely, but it is possible.) If she were to choose to do so, then she would be doing so by giving herself a chance to take a hard look at what she’s doing and why, which is a more probable way to help her face “hard truth” than internet diagnosing from a stranger.

        • Thursday Next said:

          Hmm. Re. InsufficientDat’s first comment, I agree that “harsh rejection” is rampant in academia—the scarcity of jobs compared to the number of candidates (at least in the humanities) is a major culprit there. I also agree that some aspects of Life as a Doctoral Student are mirrored in Life as a Fully Credentialed Academic.

          There we part ways: I don’t think bad advisors are advising badly as part of a well-thought-out strategy to prepare students for academic jobs. And I *definitely* don’t think that LW’s letter demonstrates that she’s a poor fit for her program. Quite the contrary! She’s remarkably clear-eyed about her situation.

          LW, I think it’s a tragedy that faculty don’t get training in advising students. Given that they’re (IME, at least) hired almost solely on the basis of their research, you have the makings of a disaster: people with neither experience nor training who are charged with the task of mentoring students. Some will be good at it. Seek them out, if only to play a peripheral but encouraging role in your work. I can’t tell you what a boost I’ve gotten from emailing a particularly kind professor to ask a minor question a couple of times during my darkest dissertation days.

          A lot of faculty, too many, won’t be very good, perhaps because they’re too immersed in their own work to pay attention to anyone else’s, or because they don’t have a grasp of what advising entails. There will also be outright assholes. The Captain’s strategies are excellent ways to prevent the assholes from hijacking your vision for your career. Best of luck to you.

    • Hithere said:

      Ok….and? Even if it’s a feature not a bug it’s still something the OP needs actual tools to deal with. And shitty things aren’t good things because they’ve always been shitty like that. All the ‘positive’ aspects you mentioned could be achieved by better means. Even if all you said was true, it’s also true that statistically some advisers will be petty, mean and unhelpful people (past whatever the average is) whose students need help dealing with them.

      If that’s how academia works (and I’ve seen enough specific counter examples to know that isn’t always the case) then wouldn’t a decent adviser help their trainees learn to work within that system and meet those demands instead of assuming the person they’re training should already be trained for it (working with vague criticism is a learned skill)? I’m having trouble understanding how you think it’s an adviser’s job to stop a candidate from ‘wasting their time and energy’, but not their job to train them to operate in what is supposedly the entire system of their field. Also, if someone has a senior academic post but can’t use their words to properly articulate their thoughts on standards/work done in that field then they’re not fit to assess and guide people.

      • annonononon said:

        “Even if it’s a feature not a bug it’s still something the OP needs actual tools to deal with.”

        EXACTLY.

        Academia and academic science are harsh and cruel *regardless* of LW’s advisor situation. What her advisor *should* be doing is exposing her to aspects of that harshness by involving her in things like the paper revise-and-resumbit process, responding to reviewer feedback on grants, presenting posters at conferences, presenting preliminary research in front of other people in her department, etc., and then giving her the tools to deal with that harshness as someone who is on her side.

        That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t critique her science where he sees flaws. But there is a difference between saying “X experiment is a bad idea for Y reasons, come up with a different way for us to test Z before our meeting next week” and and implying that she will fail as an academic.

    • gemmaem said:

      I disagree. My PhD was with a very pleasant adviser who nevertheless undermined me at every turn and made it very difficult for me to learn things. I’ve landed a postdoc within a very healthy department where people treat me like I’m competent, and give me lots of chances to learn to become better at what I do.

      It’s just not true that academia has to be a place where people routinely attack each other personally, telling each other things like “you’re probably not cut out for this” or “I just can’t see you succeeding.” Healthy academic departments leave lots of space for constructive feedback, while also encouraging an environment where people try to build each other up rather than cutting each other down.

    • CallMeCordelia said:

      This is absurd. If an advisor truly thinks a PhD advisee has no future in the field, they need to sit down with that student, have a kind but direct chat, and help the student plan an exit from the program or find a different advisor.

      Also, learning how to absorb the constant criticism and use it well takes time. Faculty members who are decent humans mentor students rather than adding to the pile of vague critiques. (Shout out to the kind full professor who walked me through his process for handling brutal peer reviews and reassured me that he still feels like an imposter sometimes as an academic in his 60s…)

      • roramich said:

        indeed! yes!

    • Clarry said:

      This just doesn’t work. Parents who abuse children often say that they’re only readying them for a difficult world. The result is adults who are even less resilient or prepared to deal with the normal ups and downs of adult life. Imagine if this argument were applied to something like food or sleep: “As an adult, you will sometimes have to stay awake longer than you would like, so to ready you for this, I’ll make sure you never get a full night’s rest. Then you’ll be great at sleep deprivation!” See how stupid that sounds? To get ready for staying up all night, you sleep soundly. If you’re well nourished, you can tolerate better the situation where you have to fast. To put up with unfair assholes in a profession, you’re better equipped if you’re armed with lots of kindness going in.

      • roramich said:

        yes!

    • piny1 said:

      Dude, that Philip Larkin poem wasn’t prescriptive.

    • AndTheRest said:

      Just because the advisor was abused by academia does not entitle the advisor to abuse their students the same way. “That’s just the way it is,” and “That’s the way it’s always been,” are never legitimate excuses for choosing to treat others badly, in any situation.

    • 30ish said:

      I will agree that academia is often full of rejection, but the rest of what you’re saying is just not true. The standards for success need not be vague and often are fairly clearly laid out by supervisors, personal attacks are not normal, and you actually can complain about bad reviews to the journal editors.

      Also, the advisor is doing his job badly with his uncalled for comparisons of LW to Trump and so on.

    • Witch Hands said:

      Yo, I am not putting myself in decades of debt to be discouraged from pursuing an education. All this (perfectly reasonable) conversation about whether the advisor is being fair or cruel aside, this person has a job (to advise) and they are not doing it. “You’re not cut out for this” is the answer to a question I did not, in fact, ask. If you can’t come up with comforting words to inspire someone’s scholastic journey, that’s fine! I probably couldn’t either! So just keep your rude and pointless opinions to yourself and give constructive, educational guidance – aka, your job as an advisor. Your job. An inability (or, by your implication, a refusal) to form articulate points is not the sign of an effective advisor – in fact, it’s the opposite.

      “To succeed in academia you need to be able to work with vague criticism and personal attacks.” Okay, sure, let’s pretend that’s an acceptable argument: to succeed in not drowning, you need to be able to swim. Only, instead of giving you instruction on swimming, I’m going to passively watch you struggle in a pool and occasionally drag your head out of the water by your hair and yell into your coughing face that you look stupid while you drown. Helpful, right? I’m such a great swimming coach. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m encouraging you not to waste your time and energy. I’ve had a career full of this. Just give up!

      Gatekeeping bullshit is my least favorite part of academia. It’s designed from the ground up to be inaccessible. That, in and of itself, is steeped with classist, racist, sexist ideals – and then you pile on the people in the system who are also classist, racist, and sexist. A lot of those folks are the ones who end up in positions like this one, primed to select which students are worth mentoring and which “sound like Donald Trump.” Consider this: your “alternate perspective” is the perspective.

      • Madge said:

        +1000 (especially the gatekeeping bit)

      • roramich said:

        solid gold

    • hhhhhh said:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monster_Study this is about an experiment on children and not academia, but it’s pretty solidly detailed that constant “ur bad and should feel bad why don’t you quit whilst you’re ahead” makes performance and confidence in performance worse. You’re not giving tools for people to deal with criticism you’re just telling them that they suck. “I don’t think you’re cut out for this” is useless for a professor to throw around, why are they still mentoring them if they don’t think they’re cut out for it? That’s a neg at best (Which is Not Okay in a personal relationship so why should it fly in a professional one?) and “hi I’m deliberately wasting my time mentoring you Because Reasons 8D” at worst. As another commenter said if they really thought that they could help OP come up with an exit plan but they don’t. Having to work with vague criticisms is useless and just takes up more of OPs time having to suss out “okay but what do they want” that could be spent on the actual work.

    • Mags said:

      I read a description of 18th or 19th century law school in England once that basically said that want-to-be lawyers hung out at court until they felt like they were ready to be lawyers, fending off attempts to chase them away by extant lawyers and judges. Usually they found someone to mentor them, which meant finding someone who wasn’t too scathingly awful to the student. On the whole, though, the process of becoming a lawyer was more-or-less hang out until you are one, with no books, and no exams, just old-boy networking. If you didn’t look like a lawyer going in, you weren’t going to be one. I’m not sure it’s gotten a whole lot better, at least as far as the mentoring component goes.
      There’s room for improvement, and that doesn’t happen when everyone accepts the status-quo just because it’s always been done that way.

  25. n.b. said:

    I went to college in the 80s. Your description of your advisor sounds pretty much like every significantly older white male teacher of any sort that I ever had, especially my professors.

    Basically, school was there to weed people out. The professors would “put it out there” from their lofty position of superior and rare knowledge, but it was your job to make the catch or not. Sink or swim and survival of the fittest, not support, was the order of the day past elementary school.

    The attitude of your advisor is what I think my profs were proud of and considered a helpful educational stance. High, vague expectations with a lot of criticism was their idea of being motivational. Sympathetically acknowledging a student’s anxiety, depression, or struggle would definitely not happen. It would have been seen as giving a counterproductive evolutionary edge to the unfit. They believed it would be kind and helpful to toughen students up. They valued independent students who dared to take a swing in the dark and scorned “hand-feeding.”

    Best wishes. Lots of good advice here from the Captain and commenters!

    • n.b. said:

      In case that wasn’t clear, I meant that the professors scorned what they dubbed “hand-feeding.” Which might be known otherwise as “giving full, clear instructions and a little encouragement.”

  26. 30ish said:

    That’s hard. A lot of advisors unfortunately aren’t very good at giving constructive feedback to PhD candidates.

    What I would recommend is thinking very clearly about what exactly you’ll need to successfully finish your PhD and be well positioned for the next step of your career. Try to really figure out what the essentials are here, possibly by talking through people who have gone through the process. My impression is that you’re looking for your advisor to be encouraging and supportive, and he likely won’t ever be. It’s possible he doesn’t even consider that part of his job (even though he should). But that does not mean that you can’t finish your PhD with him as your advisor. As the Captain said, you can get better support and encouragement elsewhere, the relationship with your advisor just needs to be good enough for you to be able to do your work successfully. Maybe you’ll do better with a fairly distanced relationship.

    Another thing is that, especially in academia, you need to take everything people say with a huge grain of salt. Yes, try to identify the points that your advisor might be right on and work to address them, but also get some other opinions and develop your own positions. I get the impression that you’re taking your advisor’s comments that you might not be “good enough” very seriously, and he could be 100% wrong about that, or maybe he doesn’t even quite mean it. Don’t put too much stock in that and get other opinions.

    Lastly, PhD students often feel more secure when the “conditions for success” are laid out fairly clearly so they are not suddenly surprised by some requirement. You may be able to get more information about this from your supervisor by asking a question like “what features make a really PhD thesis, in your opinion?”, or similar. Try to get clearer about his criteria for judging success. Again, this sort of goes back to identifying the essentials. You need to know – at least more or less – what you need to do in order to defend your PhD, there should not be so much guesswork on your part. But this can sort of be divorced from getting personalized feedback. Let him lay out the general criteria for you.

    Good luck!

    • 30ish said:

      Forgot to add, there is a pretty good book, “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” that can help with the relationship aspects of doing a PhD. It has a chapter with a funny supervisor typology.

  27. Southernbelle said:

    Hi, I have a PhD in science, I went in as a young (very young – I was 21!) woman, and I had an older male advisor. I had a very similar experience. I was anxious, I was depressed, I was miserable, I thought very seriously about switching labs, or just leaving. My advice to you is this: you need mentorship, and a lot of other technical and scientific advisor, and maybe your advisor can’t give it to you. You still need these things. Find women in your field/program who are older, and can give you real feedback once a week! Need science help and he’s not giving it to you? Find someone in another lab to work through your experimental design with you. Get someone to teach you how to do Experiment X, which will finally kill That One Project Your Advisor Wants You To Do But Which is Horrible, or which will open up a new avenue! Etc. Figure out what YOU need, and figure out who you can ask.

    Also, this is hard, but I found it really helpful to write down criticisms, then take them out a week later (or whatever), when I was done being mad about the delivery style, so I could see if there was any valid ‘room for improvement’ advice in there.

    If you think it will help, I wrote this thing Lo These Many Years Ago about how to be assertive among the piranhas. http://naturalscientist.blogspot.com/search/label/Assertiveness%20Training

  28. ProfessorPat said:

    (bias note- I am a female identified college professor in a machismo rewarding rough and tumble male dominated field, a long time reader, and an old.)

    First, you’re not off the beam here. This is bad advising behavior, but in very small fields within STEM, your instinct in wanting to keep your head down and graduate can be a good self-protective posture. It stinks. I hear you. Dig in your nails and don’t let your advisor’s weaponized indifference drive you away from something you love and are good at doing. I advise you to listen to the captain’s action points, but also to find a bungee-advisor. This is someone that you feel gets you as a person and supports your studies. Think of professors you’ve had for external courses (like research methods or stats) who were kind to you, or professors in your own field about whom you’ve heard other grad students speak kindly.

    A bungee-advisor is someone whom, without taking this as a formal title, will be an interpreter for and advocate for you within the system because they recognize your value as a human being. You’re not asking too much here, just to sit in their office occasionally, ask them questions about their life experience, and occasionally ask for advice in navigating academia and the STEM fields. It may take a few casual conversations to find someone you trust and click with. This is worth the effort.

    At this point, I can’t tell you the precise number of bungee-advisees I’ve collected over my academic career- there have been at least 50. I do this because I have had good role models. My own bungee-advisor will forever have my heart for vociferously defending my intellectual ability when my own advisor was a horse’s patoot. She was in a related field and had nothing to fear. My advisor wasn’t able to stand up to her so my thesis passed through with the high marks it deserved. I have made professional connections for some, fought for others, and have proofread more papers than I care to remember. More often than not, I have written letters of recommendation on the official university letterhead when their advisors were untrustworthy stinkpots.

    I see this action as a vocation within the occupation- to support and empower more female, sensitive male, and gender non-binary identified folks to join the field I love. If I like them and their work I help them- I teach because I care about human beings and improving my field. I am old and have tenure, so this earned privilege allows me to be as kind as I darn well want to be.

    A thought that might help you get through this frustrating time, is that by sticking it out, you can take on the mantle of bungee-advisor and be on the side of the angels. You can help future yous and move your field toward a place where bungee-advisors are no longer needed. You are clearly smart and articulate. You have merit and worth- your degree is worth fighting for. G*dspeed and Illegitimi non carborundum.

  29. Turquoise Dragon said:

    I once had a boss who wasn’t able to give complements. Just, apparently, flat unable to do so. My coping mechanism was to receive an email from her, open it, stare at the ceiling and recite: “you’re doing a really great job. Thank you for all the hard work. I’ve found a few places where I think we can improve the project. Can you please look at . . . . . ” and then I’d look down at the email, which was a list of things I had done wrong and needed to fix. It didn’t help the relationship, but it got me through some bad spots until I was able to get a new job. I don’t know if the rest of a PhD program would strain this coping mechanism to its breaking point, but I offer it for you use in hopes that it helps.

    • Dia said:

      That sounds like a really clever idea for approaching those emails!

    • reddressgnome said:

      love it! it might also work for problematic mothers. :p

    • Esselyn said:

      I think this is a quite brilliant coping strategy. Sometimes you know what you need, and the other person just isn’t going to say it.

      Weirdly, this kind of exercise was a turning point in recovering from a bad breakup for me. I played Ex’s ringtone from the menu, answered with “Hello?” and then conjured up his voice in my head, saying all the apologies I needed, all the groveling I wanted, and then I gave him what-for, yelling into an empty phone for about fifteen minutes.

      Then I booked myself a counseling session a few days later.

  30. Karak said:

    LW, Captain is spot-on, and now is time to Use Your Words.

    Your advisor probably can’t be a mentor. That sucks. But you can start to phrase every question to them as either/or. “Do I expand on part X or leave as-is? Do I redo part Q or not?”

    This requires a ridiculous amount of emotional effort and brainpower. It totally sucks. But it will make you more self-sufficient and strengthen you as an independent researcher. If Advisor tries to go outside the lines with Unhelpful Answer just call him out.

    “Well, Q isn’t the problem!”

    “You have not told me what a solvable problem is. Please tell me a concrete element of feedback.”

    Repeat yourself. It’s ok to get stressed and cry. It sounds like your Advisor is a blunt, somewhat unintuitive person, and this may be what breaks through that wall.

    Your therapist can help you! Your friends can help. Your committee is meant to give you nuanced feedback. You can get through it.

    • I was never an advisee of this sort of person, having stopped at my BA, but I watched my sister work through her MS with one and I used to work for one. I would actually go further: rather than offering an “either/or” scenario, I would ask “Yes/No” questions:

      “Do I expand on Part X?”

      “Do I redo Part Q?”

      The reason for this is the either/or question leaves room for the advisor to come back with a yes/no answer anyway, and then LW has to ask for clarification again and Advisor doesn’t want to “hand hold” so LW never gets their clarification. But if either answer comes back “Yes”, then LW has their answer; if “No”, then LW knows they’re digging in the wrong place and to look elsewhere.

      Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend asking a close-ended question, but in this case it may be the best LW will get. :/

  31. gemmaem said:

    It may help to make a list of aims that you have that do not come under the heading of “make my advisor treat me like I’m competent”. When I was a PhD student, some of those aims were:

    * Become a better scientist. Try out my own ideas. Figure out how to modify them when they inevitably fail. Learn when to take a step back and re-think, and when to just keep plugging.
    * Get a job after this where people treat me like I am at least potentially capable, instead of undermining me.
    * Finish my degree in whatever way I can.

    It can help to know what you want. Also, please believe that it’s not wrong to want things. It’s not wrong to react to “I can’t see you succeeding at this” by quietly saying to yourself “well, I think I can learn to be better at it, no thanks to you, so I’m going to keep trying.” Research really is a learned skill. Many scientists say things like “there’s this essential element to it that you just can’t teach”. Well, whether or not they can teach it, a lot of this stuff can be learned. So if you want to learn, keep learning.

    Also: do you have any handy postdocs in the department? Sometimes they can be a nice intermediate stage in between the graduate students and professors. They know enough to help you, but they’ve been in your shoes recently enough to know what it’s like.

  32. C. Fox said:

    Flattery will get you everywhere. Set up google search alerts for each of your advisor and committee members. Every time they get cited somewhere new, or publish something themselves, go work it into conversation. “I saw so-and-so recognized how important your paper on xyz was” “I’m glad your work on q & r is finally getting the attention from specific-other-source that it deserves.” If the work is difficult or contradictory, praise its rigor.

    As long as you stick to flattering their work, and you find fairly specific things to mention, you can get away with being absolutely blatant in your flattery, and they will love it.

    When you have an idea or work of your own, rather than sticking to straightforwardly crediting only your actual inspiration, look around for other people’s stuff that’s tangentially related to give some credit to. “Your work on X inspired me to follow up on Y” is something that doesn’t have to be strictly true to be very useful – giving them credit will encourage them to support you. Flesh it all out with flattering questions that draw them out about their subjects.

    • KittensMakeEverythingBetter said:

      So true! This is part of what got me through.

  33. Luke N. said:

    An additional piece of advice from someone who has done academia for too long: Find a nice administrative assistant/ department secretary (or perhaps lab tech person? not sure about the sciences). Administrative assistants often have INCREDIBLE institutional knowledge and can help you find resources and navigate weird protocols. They have seen grad students come and go, and often have an outsider’s eye that gives them a lot of wisdom on what works and what doesn’t. They also have the benefit of knowing how to work individual department personalities (ie, Professor X publishes with students a lot, Professor Y is super helpful, but only if you do this random thing, Professor Z seems unapproachable but is supportive to anyone who stops by, etc). While a department secretary can’t necessarily give you feedback on specific points of your research, they often have insights that can really help you get support and resources.

    • Ginger said:

      As an admin in a very different field: this is one of my standard pieces of advice! Much co-sign.

  34. CallMeCordelia said:

    I had a difficult relationship with of one my advisors in grad school as well, and I would just like to reassure you that you sometimes you simply cannot “manage up” all that effectively, no matter how many of the standard strategies you try. To the bitter end, my primary advisor refused to read even extremely brief emails carefully, refused to provide helpful feedback for my overall thesis idea (much less read or answer specific questions about drafts of chapters), and refused to meet with me on any regular basis to help provide some structure.

    To graduate, I laid out my vision for a scaled-back version of my original dissertation idea in writing, and I insisted he agree that it would be enough to receive my degree. In my case, I think I framed it as an ultimatum — I will quit this program if we cannot agree on the basic scope of my project because I am tired of floundering and want to graduate ASAP.

    To break the day-to-day isolation, I leaned on older grad students/recent PhDs for getting feedback on my ideas and improving my writing process. I also formed a writing group with grad students in other fields to force myself to sit down and write. I thought of my writing as a no good, shitty first draft so that I would at least have something. That mindset gave me momentum, and some of the writing from that stage was actually not bad. Of all the faculty members on my committee, I found one who was legit willing to read it all once at the shitty draft stage and give me non-judgmental, actionable feedback. I relied heavily on that too.

    Hang in there! The advisor-advisee power balance is bizarre. It gets better.

  35. VeryTiredGraduateStudent said:

    Hi all! LW here. Thank you so much for all of your wonderful suggestions; I have been lurking here a long time reading your advice. Many suggestions were things I had contemplated doing or struggled to think of where to start doing, but knew I probably needed to do them. Having outside reinforcement has helped shake some of the anxiety off the situation.

    Some additional notes, I guess:

    1) I really appreciate the suggestions about reframing the situation away from him. Essentially, I need him because he provides me with access to a highly specialized type of work, in which he is well-respected as a researcher. But he has demonstrated multiple times that he wants to look at essentially completed (or at least well on the way to completion, “you took an idea and executed it”) stuff, not be involved in any of the messy steps of figuring out to get there (“I’m in the middle of this…”). (An example: I wrote multiple drafts of a fellowship proposal but didn’t fill out the section on funding, because at the time I didn’t know much about what kind of materials and money a project like that would require, and requested that we talk about it. We never talked about it. I never got any feedback on that proposal. We haven’t spoken about it in months.) I need his lab, and his resources. I need him to sign off on things so I can proceed. On occasion I might need specialized feedback on a direction from him. It’s time I stopped relying on him for anything else. He can’t articulate his expectations well, but what is loud and clear is that I have to be as proactive as humanly possible. And I think the suggestion to be a robot is basically what I need to do- I have already tried to keep any sort of personal discussions away from him, and talk strictly about work and the weather, so it’s just an expansion on what I was already working on.

    2) Within our department, our lab is isolated and run very differently from almost everyone else’s. We are the only lab not collaborating with another lab on some kind of project or grant. Other labs get together and read papers or discuss projects as a whole, together; we report in on what progress we’ve made on our individual work every two weeks, and never shall the twain meet (most of the time). There is another grad student, but he is not precisely my ally. At times he’s been friendly and helpful, but he’s also been difficult to get answers from about his own work and where ours intersect, and I’ve been told he feels competitive with other grad students. We do have a (new-ish) post-doc who I have tapped for feedback before, and I’m going to continue trying to use him as a sounding board for the rougher parts of the process. He’s willing to have those conversations with me, where the other two aren’t.

    3) I think essentially this whole situation is that we are about as poorly matched as it is possible to be, without crossing the line into deep harassment. He wants to be as hands-off as possible, he is not very good at interacting with people, and he will never provide any kind of positive feedback on whether or not you are doing things correctly. I never operated without at least some level of supervision and direction before, and I came in with that “gifted child” problem and had to learn proper time-management and self-motivation and how to study when you understand maybe 40% of what you just read in a paper and now you have to puzzle it out. His attitude is basically a terrible situation for someone like me, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to just overcome my own faults to move forward. I admit it’s taken me a lot longer than I want to learn how to do all of this (especially when combating mental health issues), but I have learned what works and what doesn’t work. And I know I have the support system to set up accountability buddies to confront situations that are currently difficult for me (like second-guessing my own interpretations, and consequently trying to play it safe and avoid looking stupid in front of my adviser.) Half the problems with my PhD are my own fault, and I own that. But…

    4) Even if I have been a “bad grad student” until now, I don’t want to quit. I have learned a lot, even if it isn’t obvious to him (and even if it was only “how not to grad student”.) The overwhelming majority of my professional and personal support systems have told me they think I am capable of this. That I have good ideas, and I just need to put them forward. That I have the determination and grit to see it through. The only person who’s suggested I’m incapable is him. Maybe he sees something they don’t, or maybe he’s too frustrated with me right now to help. Certainly he’s a source of anxiety and depression for me, and I don’t fit well with the culture of his lab. But also, it’s my goddamn PhD, I sunk a lot of time and effort into this, and I want to do my goddamn projects. I passed that proposal defense with essentially no constructive help from him. I have survived a lot worse than an “aloof and unpleasable father figure of the lab” adviser.

    So thank you all. I will take this weekend to sit down and think through some things and start identifying who I can tap for Team Me and approach for certain kinds of problems, and define what those problems are more clearly for myself and where I want to be going. So I can start forging my own path instead of getting caught up struggling to squeeze blood from a stone.

    • Hi LW,

      Not a science PhD student but I have spent a long time working in STEM labs and all of my friends save one are in labs (because healthy social circles are part of the deal with science.)

      Couple of things: First of all, this is super good information for your postdoc (if you want to go on and do one) where you’ll know what you need from an advisor to succeed.

      Second, there is often a trade-off between prestigious labs and labs with involved advisors. It’s a rough correlation but it exists – well-funded labs that are churning out science are often doing it because their PI is treating getting grants and doing the visible part of science as a full time job. This means much less time for sitting and talking to students. Smaller labs with less money and therefore less resources often are that way because their PIs want to spend more time mentoring. (Again, general correlation, not hard truth.)

      Both types are capable of doing great science but they can be very different atmospheres – I do well in big, well-funded labs but I am super independent and truly believe the most valuable thing I have in a lab is my time (so I’ll spend money to make my life easier and I’m not scared of making reasonable errors.) One of my friends much prefers smaller labs, where she has to worry about funding and often has to do the cheaper, more time-consuming processes, but she gets lots of face time with her PI and a lot of in-depth conversations about her experiments. I would hate being that close to my PI; she would have hated the “here’s a problem, let me know when you’ve solved it” amount of independence I had. We both had excellent PIs for our preferred working styles. It sounds like you want a more supportive, closer relationship with your PI, so that’s great knowledge to have going forward.

      I would encourage you to be more proactive with your PI – have you brought up the funding section again? Bring it in with a rough estimate (even if it’s wrong, that’s okay) when you talk to him; you can put things on the schedule. It’s your meeting too. Ask him if it looks reasonable and if not, ask him to point you in the right direction. The best question I’ve learned in academia is “Can you tell me where I should look to find this information?” Makes you sound proactive, doesn’t put the work on on the other person, and half the time they’ll do it for you anyways. If he has an admin assist, ask that person to put you on his schedule. For instance, email him, cc AA, and say, “Hey, PI, I need a meeting with you to discuss my fellowship application. Admin, can you put me on the calendar?”
      PIs often assume that if it’s really important, you’ll do all the work of bringing it to their attention – which means if you tell him something is important and then let it go, he’s going to assume it’s not actually important and forget about it. Pick your battles and be very visible with the stuff you decide does need his attention.

      And finally, it sounds like you might be struggling with a fear of being wrong. That’s okay and totally normal, but science is all about being wrong most of the time. Give your PI data and conclusions, tell him your reasoning, and don’t be afraid of being wrong in front of him. It doesn’t sound like he’s afraid to tell you when you’re wrong, so just roll with it. Give him concrete suggestions, even if you think there’s probably something better out there. He doesn’t want to do the work of reasoning for you and it sounds like he likes to correct you. Use it – do your own reasoning and give him something to correct. If he has no criticism of something, consider it a compliment. It’s hard but hopefully your therapist can help you work out good strategies.

      Good luck! These are very common grad student problems and you can get through them!

    • tawg said:

      I think it’s quite likely that your supervisor thinks that you’re “incapable” because you are “incapable of flourishing under my particular style of supervision” (which doesn’t sound like a particularly good supervision style for a PhD canidate to begin with, but anyway…). So I guess try to keep that in mind? When he says “You’re not going to make it in this field”, he’s saying “you’re not going to make it in this particular lab environment, which I am perfectly at home in and which I am intentionally structuring to suit MY OWN needs”. You already know that there are other lab environments out there. You already know that you don’t want to spend your entire career working under this dude. So you can mentally dismiss those assessments of your “fit” in the field, imo.

      • 30ish said:

        It’s also possible that he thinks his comments will motivate her to work harder. Which makes no sense, but some supervisors have seriously misguided ideas about this.

    • Netwyrm said:

      Hi LW,

      I am you in about 7 years time (Female, STEM, post-PhD). You can do this. My advisor wasn’t as given to personal attacks as yours, but we had a similar deep mismatch between our working styles and I went through a very long period of depression in the middle of my PhD. Things that helped me get through/things that I wish I had had:

      1) Bump up your social network/Team You. Find a new hobby. Anything that will provide you a strong mental break and give you a space where you can have social interactions that have nothing to do with STEM. Bonus points if it’s something that gives you lots of little wins or feelings of accomplishment.

      2) When you’re taking your weekend to assess, make a list of what you _need_ to do to complete your PhD. This is not what you would like to have in your PhD, but the bare minimum you feel would allow you to pass your defense. This can be daunting, but once you have it, it can be very empowering to be able to check off items and know you are one step closer to completion.

      3) See if there are any female or female identifying post-docs in your department who would be willing to go out for a coffee with you. I am a senior post-doc at this point and I have had more than a few long chats with PhD students about their thesis project and their emotional states and I am always happy to be a shoulder to cry on and to give low-level advice on how to navigate the department’s politics.

      4) Attend as many conferences as is practical. In small fields, these are the people who will be your network for the rest of your career. I am fortunate that I now have a handful of people in the field that I can count on as allies and references, and that is a great source of comfort when impostor syndrome comes knocking.

      Jedi Hugs if you want them, know that you are not alone and that if I shared a department with you I would want to take you for the aforementioned coffee.

    • B said:

      Ah. Well it’s good that you don’t think your supervisor isn’t actually malicious. The whole higher-level academic system is very strange, I feel like grad students have no formal process explaining how to grad student (how to write a paper, how to write a grant, career options, what the PhD process looks like) – my experience is it’s mostly left up to the adviser to guide these and maybe if you’re lucky there’s a workshop somewhere (and yes, actually the workshops can be very valuable, but it’s strange it’s not part of a 101 class or something). And the advisors are wearing a bunch of hats (researcher, manager, teacher, marketer, mentor, etc) and may or may not be so great at the mentor hat, and probably little to no formal training on how to mentor.
      I dunno, my impression is that there are a lot more people pursuing higher degrees now than there used to be and the system is well designed to suit itself but not necessarily the students.
      You can do it LW, be your own advocate, keep your eyes on your own goals, and keep trying to forge connections that help you.

    • PostRock said:

      Hi LW,

      Thanks for this update. You’ve gotten loads of responses to your letter, which is an amazing highlight of how much your issues resonate with people both inside and outside academia. I just wanted to add my two cents as a recent PhD grad from a STEM field.

      1) Lots of folks are advocating for you to go to your committee. My committee was terrible and cared very little about my work or my progress, so this is not an option for everyone. (I was fortunate to have a caring advisor, but he was also extremely hands-off – just without the added insult of personal attacks and criticisms.) I substituted in peers to those roles – I had a few friend-colleagues whom I could always count on to help me work through a problem (or just be a sounding board), read drafts, etc. Look outside your immediate field for these people if needed – it’s a fallacy that we can only provide concrete feedback for science within our own sub-specialties.

      2) My advisor was also the “show it to me when it’s done” type. He’s infamous for giving essentially no feedback on written drafts, even submissions for publication where he is a coauthor, beyond minor grammatical issues. The first time I got content-driven comments from him, I was floored – and it only happened 2 or 3 times in the course of my degree. He was a LITTLE better about this in one-on-one meetings (which were hard to pin him down for, but usually helpful/successful when they happened), so I’m seconding the Captain’s advice to figure out the style of communication that best teases out actionable comments from your advisor, and stick to that as much as possible. And when your advisor tears apart the work he refused to help you develop, give yourself as much time as possible to let the anger and grief and embarrassment pass, then mine through the comments for anything useful. (If he leaves comments in track changes, delete the parts that don’t matter so you don’t have to keep seeing them!)

      3) Your situation is so awful right now, but this WILL make you a better scientist and better prepare you for the next thing, because the sad reality is that you are more likely than not to encounter people like your advisor as future colleagues & supervisors. I want to be clear that I am NOT advocating his approach or saying it is the best way to train students to be good scientists – it 100% is not. But, you’re facing adversity and you will grow from it. (You will also hurt from it, and I’m so so glad to hear you already have a therapist. Maintain that as long as necessary.) When I completed my defense, I felt the greatest sense of pride from the immense amount of personal growth I could see in myself, much more so than from the science itself. I became more self-confident, I reframed my views on success and failure in a much healthier way, I gained insight and clarity on what I wanted to do with my career, and I learned what some of my personal values and priorities are. I still struggle with imposter syndrome, with self-doubt and anxiety about my progress and my abilities, but I am much better equipped to handle those struggles than I used to be.

      4) I hope you stay in academia if that’s what you want to do, and I also hope that you carry these experiences with you when you become a mentor (either officially or unofficially) to future students. I’ve seen it too many times already with my own colleagues – it’s very sad and disheartening to see them adopting the terrible habits and approaches of their not-great former advisors because it’s all they know. “Expert amnesia” is as real an issue as imposter syndrome – how quickly we forget the real struggles of grad student life, of the awkward adolescence of the student-to-scientist transition, when we are suddenly faced with new and (seemingly) harder struggles as teachers, advisors, mentors, lab managers with little or no training for those roles. Take heart knowing that your suffering now can translate to less suffering for future students – that by powering through these final stages, you can put yourself in a place of authority where real cultural changes can be made.

  36. DropTable~DropsMic said:

    This is reminding me of many of the men I’ve had the misfortune of working with since I started my software career (I’m a woman). A lot of criticism that wasn’t actionable and came bundled with personal attacks. In my experience this sort of thing can be very gendered, though it also sounds like he is just a jerk. It sucks and I hope you can finish your program and get away from him as soon as possible.

  37. LW: I am so glad you will be following the advice and gathering a Team You.

    A couple of things from this post:

    1: I wrote multiple drafts of a fellowship proposal but didn’t fill out the section on funding, because at the time I didn’t know much about what kind of materials and money a project like that would require, and requested that we talk about it. We never talked about it. I never got any feedback on that proposal. We haven’t spoken about it in months
    Does your division have its own Business Operations or other group that helps with the submission/budgeting for proposals? If not, is there a campus-wide department that handles such? If so, I might approach whichever of them is pertinent to see if they can help you with the budgeting — you tell them what you think you’ll need and they’ll help you figure out at least parts of your budget (at least, that’s how it works on both campuses I’ve worked at). The answer may be no, unfortunately, but right now the answer’s “I don’t know” so this may be one way to ease uncertainty.

    2. I’m glad you’ve found a helpful post-doc! Another thing to check on might be the possibility of accessing a Journal Club (I think that’s what they’re called) on campus — it’s usually one division but sometimes multiple divisions and they all get together to discuss not current work but Journal articles, and possibly you might find some academic additions to Team You there?

    Please do continue! I don’t think you’re a “bad grad student” at all.

    • MsM said:

      If your university has an MPA or nonprofit management program, you might also see if they’ve got any resources; they won’t be able to advise you on the scientific specs, but they might be able to help you track down comparative budgets and walk you through what factors you should consider in determining costs. A local Foundation Center-affiliated library might work, too.

  38. PermanentHeadDamage said:

    LW,

    I could have written this letter myself. I was in your place less than a year ago, in a science discipline, and I finished my PhD. I recently started a postdoctoral position where I am mentored and my scientific contributions are appreciated. The Captain has a lot of advice on self-care, managing-up, and asking your committee for feedback. I 100% agree. Other people have mentioned maintaining connections with your other support network, including friends and your therapist. Definitely continue to reach out to them.

    Another person you might consider getting help from is your student or university ombudsman. The ombudsman is an independent, neutral, and confidential place to discuss academic or workplace concerns. Nothing need escalate beyond the Ombudsman office, but if you are facing some push-back on graduating from your advisor and department, he/she may be able to help you resolve the issue.

    I am sending you a million hugs–you will finish your PhD, and you will have deserved it.

  39. Eva H Smith said:

    I finally got my STEM PhD this summer after 8 years. I spent many years with a SHIT advisor who sounds a lot like yours: uncommunicative, mean, unhelpful. I wish I could say I quit, but he ghosted most of his students (including me) and then formally fired me when I said something in a very small meeting that contradicted his girlfriend’s research. The Captain has great advice for dealing … I want to cast a vote for switching advisors. I think there’s a general expectation in academia that if you’re a “real” scientist you’ll “tough it out” because of how “gritty” you are — but professional relationships can be just as unfixable as romantic/friend relationships.

    • gemmaem said:

      Congratulations on getting that degree and getting out of there!

  40. Katie said:

    I was once in a STEM field phd program (phd dropout here). In a lab I tried to work in for a while, I had an advisor that loved me (for some largely racist reasons, I suspect) but treated another non-white, non-american student much like your advisor treats you. More than once, she told him that she didn’t think he was phd material, or something to that affect, and was concerned over not making progress on something in a few weeks after drastically moving the research goalposts. What worked for him was actually switching advisors to another professor that did similar work but was not as horrible.
    Since your field is small, I don’t think that’s necessarily the best strategy, but maybe there’s some wiggle room to do something similar. For example, if the grant moneys are a shared grant between Jerk Advisor and Some Other Prof, maybe you can more closely collaborate with Some Other Prof. In some departments and fields, it’s even possible to be co-advised. Another thing to look into is see if your other committee members are available for advice or pointers. Since they have seen your proposal defense and are familiar with your work, they might be helpful with some things.
    As a final note, as someone who was in a phd program once upon a time, and has seen many of my friends finish theirs, I’d like to say that it’s important to have a social life outside of your field of study. This doesn’t mean you have to not hang out with friends in your program. But just have the occasional night at a bar, no “shop talk” or have a board game day or a movie night, or whatever kind of fun you like to have. Me and some of my friends had a weekly knitting group, where we’d knit for an hour or so and then go get some dinner together. I know that phd work is a big time sink, and you sometimes feel like you don’t have time for outside interests (or shouldn’t) but it is a big help for your sanity if you have something to do outside of your field once and a while.

    • Katie said:

      I’m glad that the post doc is more helpful. Tap him for more help, especially if it winds up something he can co-author on. Postdocs pretty much just want to get as many publications as possible in a short amount of time, so helping you could be a real benefit to him, if he can be a second or third author on some of your future publications.
      author order in publications matters but it’s different in different fields, so i don’t know where “postdoc who helped a bit” would rank in that for your field. I know that some fields do first author=person who did the thing, middle people are people that helped, last person is person who paid the bills (your prof in this case). YMMV on that.

  41. Katie said:

    I graduated with a STEM PhD 3 years ago, and learned that there are mostly bad advisors out there, mixed with a few awesome ones. Things that helped me:

    1) conferences. Apply for conference funding (lots have student travel grants), and if possible, set up meetings before hand with faculty whose work is interesting, and with whom you could possibly collaborate with.

    2). ”The professor is in” is a useful book. A bit bitter, but you might as well know what to expect after graduation

    3). For your thesis committee- you can interact with them by asking if you can attend their group meetings, and see if that can grow into a collaboration. Otherwise, you can at least learn from the meetings themselves.

    Good luck! Also, don’t worry- it’s not about you. It’s hard to live with knowing your advisor doesn’t respect you, but if you accept that and find acceptance within the field, you still win.

  42. hercat said:

    Some suggestions from someone in the last stages of their PhD (STEM field)

    Communicate by email where you can. This lets you pick through and assess point by point the validity of the comments and remove personal attacks. You can change an email-ramble-attack into a useful to-do list. It also gives you a paper trail if things go really wrong. Also prof is less likely to commit rude coments to permanent record. Document EVERYTHING – daily entries in your log book. If you can show that your prof is slow/ not helpful in responses it can cut you extra slack with the department.

    Look for opportunities to network within the department. Without sucking up or overcommiting yourself look for chance to show other profs (or even better) upper management (department chair etc) you’re helpful, reasonable and organized. It’s credibility in case of later disaster.

    Remember, it has to be good, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

    Make sure to get outside and take breaks. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

    Good luck!

  43. mercury said:

    I know nothing about PhDs but sometimes in the professional world in general, the only response to vague criticisms like you described is to curl your lip and say “That’s just your opinion man”, to managers or supervisors or seniors, inside or outside your head. See high achieving children often put people in authority, like teachers, on a pedestal. These people are not always right especially if making sweeping statements like “you don’t belong in this field.” Really there are very few fields where anyone with a bit of training can’t contribute in some capacity or another. But the all or none principle really undermines that.

  44. AndTheRest said:

    LW, your story is so much like mine. There are differences, to be sure — like my advisor expected me to be done in 4 years, not 5 for a Bachelor’s to PhD program in STEM. I’ve constantly had to deal with my advisor’s condescenscion, negative view of me, ignoring me (including things said in emails and meetings), as well as gaslighting me and undermining my career and research. He’s treated me badly, but he’s done the same to others, although much less so with his favorites (of which I am not). Gender and cultural biases definitely in play. Is hands off except when he wants things done his way and goes into micromanager mode. Pretends to be nice, but is a sniper — cuts people down without warning on things most people would not regard as important problems. Has tenure and a lot of grant money, so any formal complaints are pointless. It sucks so much to not be able to rely on and trust someone who you have to rely on and trust. What has helped me:

    1) Perseverance. RELENTLESS perseverance. I defended not too long ago, and I passed, but I think that was the easiest way for my advisor to get rid of me. Basically, I refused to quit.
    2) Even though I bitched about my advisor on many occasions, I consistently brought a positive, can-do attitude to the lab. My advisor didn’t appreciate this (I think he despised me for not showing that he’d gottent under my skin), but most of my lab group and others did.
    3) I didn’t share information with him that I didn’t have to. There was no point, since he was not supportive of me as a scientist or a person, and I didn’t want to give him any ammo to use against me.
    4) I made it a point to join professional organizations and go to conferences. I paid to attend one out of pocket (did not present), and insisted on submitting an abtract to another by saying I’d pay for my expenses myself (advisor capitulated and paid for it).
    5) Counseling/therapy and an SSRI. And even those combined were not really enough to keep me in a productive state, but they helped.
    6) Knowing I was more than capable of doing good science, even if my advisor didn’t want to see me that way or see me succeed. I’ve watched his behavior carefully over the years, and he is very ego-driven, even narcissistic in some ways. I think he saw me as a threat to his authority from the start. I think there is some sexist “the female cannot be smarter than me” crap going on as well, probably unconsciously.

    Lots of good advice here. Document! Email is very good for this, especially if face-to-face meetings are depressing time-wasters. Find an outside mentor, if you can, just be sure to tread carefully, because you never know what sort of politics may be afoot, especially if you are in a small field. Unfortunately, I had to adopt a policy of Trust No One.

    From what I’ve experienced and seen happen to others, academia might as well be a never-ending series titled “Survivor: University Edition” where everyone forms alliances with people they will later stab in the back, who will also stab them in the back, in order to get through another day/week/tribal-council. If you’re lucky, you manage to get the Tenure Immunity Idol. But remember, there is still life after Survivor (and academia) if you are voted off the island or decide to leave.

    • B said:

      Wow, that’s so awful.
      I agree, with an advisor that toxic; document, document, document.
      Consider reporting even if they are protected; I agree it might not go anywhere, but it seems like at random stories go viral and then the university has to pay attention XP

      • piny1 said:

        You’re not reporting for yourself. You’re reporting so that the next one doesn’t have to be the first one.

        • AndTheRest said:

          Interesting side note to my story: a former PhD grad student (and person of color) of my advisor did go through the process of a formal complaint, and they had better evidence than I do. Well, the advisor is still doing what they are doing (perhaps more subtly), and the grad student was forced out of the program without a PhD.

          BTW – I have intentionally kept details vague so people cannot be identified, and ironically, I have realized that this is probably an accurate summary for a lot of different students in STEM.

          Anyway, it takes a lot of time, energy, and spoons to navigate a univeristy’s formal compaint process (or take legal action, as some have tried – see Harbin story), and I just did not have those. In my case, I felt it would be a losing battle that would cost me a lot, including future career prospects and the handful of supportive people and connections I’ve made.

          Despite the similarties, everyone’s story is different in critical details. Others may have a better situation than I did to effect change through the formal process, but it is their choice to decide if they are going to fight that battle or not.

          • Southernbelle said:

            When I was in grad school, a similarly placed (male) prof with lots of grant money was smacked with a huge, well-documented sexual harassment suit. Not only was he not fired, the university hushed it up and settled out of court for millions upon millions. He’s still there, probably still sexually harassing people. Nothing has changed. I put the general likelihood of effecting change in this kind of situation pretty darn low. There’s such a huge power imbalance, and such an institutional inertia and lack of will, that yeah… it kind of is a losing battle. (See also: all the tales of grad students totally screwed over by reporting *actual falsified data*.)

        • B said:

          Eh, I appreciate the sentiment but reporting is a personal choice for everyone and subsequent problems with the offender is not “on the victim” if they don’t, it’s on the people behaving badly. Hopefully it does help other people, but I think people deciding to report should do so first and foremost for themselves, to validate their experience as well as to document and protect themselves.

          • piny1 said:

            I did not argue that anyone had a moral obligation to report for the benefit of other people, or that they should not proceed based on their own sense of their own safety and internal resources. I pointed out that reporting is useful primarily insofar as it documents a pattern going forward, which makes it somewhat harder for administrators to dismiss each subsequent incident as an isolated incident. The next person who approaches the administration with the same story – because it will be the same story – will have your prior complaint on their side.

            And in order to head off further responses to stuff I also didn’t say, I would like to clarify that I myself have been victimized by a horrible professor with tenure, and I myself was effectively forced out of my own program to seek what mentorship I could elsewhere, and I myself did make the decision to report it, and I speak from personal experience when I say that reporting usually doesn’t have good outcomes for the first person who comes forward. Even if you’re the eighth (and counting!) person to experience the exact same abuse in full view of everyone else in your program.

          • B said:

            Apologies for not couching my response appropriately, I was gearing it more towards LW/AndTheRest. Was not meant to say piny1 MEANT it that way and it certainly could benefit people in the future; just trying to balance supporting peoples experiences and decisions, whether it to be trying to work on the problem further or cut losses.

  45. anon professor said:

    I just read Jennifer’s response and not the rest of the comments, so I apologize if this is repetitive, but I wanted to type this advice out to you when I had a minute. Also, if it is repetitive, it’s probably helpful to see which pieces of advice are being generated by multiple people.

    I am a faculty member in a STEM field at a research university, so my advice is coming from that perspective. (This also made me wonder why Jennifer paired “teacher/professor” and put “researcher” separately; I am a professor and most of my job is research.)

    The advice not to complain to others in your department and field about your advisor is 100% spot on. At the same time, I would cultivate relationships with professors who are not your advisor. These people can be your committee members, other faculty members in your department, or people you meet at conferences. (I have a lot of advice about how to meet people at conferences, if this would be useful to you.) When I say “cultivate relationships,” I mean things like chatting with those people about how your work is going and sometimes asking for their advice, like, “I’m thinking of doing Experiment X or Experiment Y, which direction do you think is more important?” and career advice like, “I’ve been thinking about doing things A, B, and C to prepare for a post-doc [or for whatever you want to do after you graduate], what am I missing?” Specific questions are good. Vague questions like, “What should I know about becoming a professor?” would not, at least, endear anyone to me personally.

    Could you work on a side project with someone who isn’t your advisor? There are two considerations here. One is how science works in your field and whether this is feasible from a logistical perspective. The other is the politics of your department; if your advisor would be upset that you are doing a project with someone else, don’t do that. But if you can swing it, this can be a great way to cultivate a relationship with whoever is advising your side project, assuming that you use that project to demonstrate that you’re a competent scientist and a great human.

    A lot of this advice is geared in part toward helping you get strong letters of recommendation. These will be very important if you want to apply for academic positions. The letter from your advisor will especially carry a lot of weight, and it doesn’t sound to me like this person is going to write you an excellent letter, although he certainly could be a guy who is not nice interpersonally but then does stuff to help your career in other ways. If his letter is not glowing, and you’re applying for positions that care about letters, it will be helpful to have super shiny amazing sparkly letters from multiple other professors. Maybe one or two of them can address your advisor in their letter. They will be especially well positioned to advocate for you if they’ve conducted research with you, because that will allow them to comment directly on your work. If you were earlier in your program I would recommend exploring the possibility of switching advisors; doing so in your fourth year would delay your graduation, but might be worth thinking about, depending on how miserable you are.

    My last piece of advice right now is to talk with people who have already graduated from your advisor’s lab. What was their experience like, and what worked for them?

    Good luck!

    • JenniferP said:

      Thank you!

      About the researcher vs. teacher vs. author divide, sorry if I was unclear. Being in academia includes all of these things but I want the LW to think about which role & duties appeal the most because it will affect where she wants to go long term and I think it helps to remind yourself what sustains and energizes you vs. what you put up with yo get at the good stuff. There are different mixes at a research institution vs. a small teaching college for example. Thanks again for your insight.

    • VeryTiredGraduateStudent said:

      I absolutely would love to hear your advice about connecting with people at conferences. It’s hard not to feel isolated in my situation, and consequently it feels hard to get out and meet people and build those relationships. I always want to hear tips and advice on how to make that easier for myself and how to approach those situations.

      • I’m not sure my advice is helpful, because it sounds a bit, “Oh just try hard and smilesmile!” to me, but here’s what I’ve got:

        Hit all the receptions, early breakfasts, gatherings of any kind that are not formal sessions. Talk to people. My method was to literally walk up to people, tell them I didn’t know anyone, and ask to talk to them. This nearly always worked well, in part because of the big “student” bar on my conference badge. Several people made it their business to keep track of me and involve me in things simply because I was a student there without their professor. Others will include you simply because you ask — for a lot of nerdy types, all they need is a clear request they can parse, and they’ll include you. This is true of me coming from the other end — I’ve had junior colleagues express surprise at the trouble I took to keep track of them and involve them, when I was simply doing what they had asked, so for me it was “easy” in that there was no guesswork about what they wanted.

        At the end of sessions, where most people are leaving but a few congregate to discuss things further or ask more questions, I would go stand there and listen, even if I had nothing to say. If people asked, I’d just say I had no questions, but was really interested. People would usually try to include me in the conversation and sometimes follow it up with invitations, such as to join in a group going to lunch.

        If you don’t have business cards, make yourself some. My university didn’t provide them to students, so I made my own that looked professional, but I did things like give myself a clever title or made a a funny logo. Hand them out liberally.

        Show your face as much as you can. A big part of the advantage of conferences is face time and the impacts that has on interactions, so get out there and show yours. But not if you’re too exhausted to be socially engaged and pleasant, which can easily happen at these things.

      • anon professor said:

        In my field, most conferences have events to facilitate students interacting with faculty members, such as a lunch or round-table event where each table has one professor and 4-10 grad students who have signed up in advance to be at that table. I’d recommend signing up for as many of those as possible.

        Many conferences that I’ve been to also have some networking events that involve food and/or alcohol as well as faculty members who are there with the knowledge that people they don’t know might come up and start talking with them. These are sometimes advertised as networking events (like, “come meet the editors of X and Y journals!”) and sometimes as events around a particular topic (like, “come meet people who are interested in sub-discipline X!”) Academic small talk is your friend here. So, you are wandering around the room with a plate of food in your hand, and you see someone you want to get to know. You can go up to them and say some of these things:

        “Hi, I’m [name]. I was at your talk earlier and really loved it.”
        Them: “Thank you!”
        You: “I was especially interested in your point about X. I’m curious what you think about Y/I’d love to know more about your current work in the area/etc.” Key: Short-ish sentences that allow the other person to talk, i.e., you are having a conversation and not reciting a multi-paragraph essay to the person.

        Or, “Hi, I’m [name]. How are you liking the conference so far?”

        Or, “Hi, I’m [name]. I just wanted to let you know that your work has been super influential to my research on [extremely short description here, like, “my research on supernovas” or “my research on magic school buses” or whatever].” They will say, “Thank you, I’m so honored! Do you want to tell me more about your work?” Or they will say, “Thank you, that’s so nice of you” and stop, which is usually my cue to say, “It was nice to meet you!” and walk away.

        I also say stuff like, “Hi, I’m [name], and one of my goals for this conference is to meet you. Do you feel like chatting right now, or do you want to be left alone?” I have had some lovely conversations with people this way, but I am also very comfortable being weird, and I acknowledge that this is not for everyone.

        You can also apply these scripts to cocktail hours, receptions, etc., but one thing to keep in mind here is that lots of people go to those things to hang out with people they already know. So I’d give people way more outs of a conversation in this context and be prepared to have 30-second conversations.

        Another strategy is to e-mail people in advance if you want to meet them. Here’s a sample message:

        Dear [their name],

        My name is [your name], and I am a PhD candidate in the X department at Y university [optional: in Z’s lab — I’d add this especially for people who know your advisor]. I’m currently working on my dissertation research, which focuses on [very very very brief description here]. I noticed that you will be giving a talk at [conference name], and I was wondering if you might be interested in chatting at some point during the conference about [very specific topic here, e.g., “our overlapping research interests in X” or “about your experiences working in Z’s lab”]. I’m happy to meet at whatever time is best for you [obviously with whatever restraints you have, e.g., “I’ll be presenting on Friday morning at 9:00, but other than that my schedule is free”], although I also completely understand if your schedule is too full for another meeting!

        Sincerely,
        [your name]

        One strategy I’ve seen recommended is to go up to people after their talk. This usually hasn’t worked well for me because people are incredibly rushed at the end of a session, and people they know are coming up to talk with them. But asking questions during the Q&A can be helpful in terms of getting people to know who you are. Another frequently recommended strategy is to ask people you know to introduce you to people they know. It doesn’t sound like your advisor is going to do this for you, but maybe someone on your committee?

        If you want to meet other students at conferences, I’d recommend two things: talking with people who are presenting posters about their research (and maybe adding something like, “I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, do you want to stay in touch over e-mail?”) and going to any grad student events that the conference organizes. The networking stuff I mentioned above also works for meeting students, like, if you sign up for a lunch with a faculty mentor, you can also use that time to get to know the other students at your table.

        Not about conferences, but a similar idea: Does your department host a regular seminar series or colloquium? And are there department-sanctioned ways for students to interact with the speaker, like a grad student lunch or meeting with the speaker before their talk? If so, I’d go to those.

        One final piece of advice is to follow up with people you meet. After the conference/colloquium, send them an e-mail: “Hi, here’s a reminder of who I am, I really appreciated our conversation about X, looking forward to hearing more about your work as it evolves.” And then stay in touch, like, e-mail that person next year and be like, “My name is [name], we met at last year’s conference and talked about X. Would you be interested in catching up again? I’d love to hear your thoughts on my new data/I’d love to hear about your new data/some other specific conversation topic here.”

        • You raised a point I should have been clearer about — when I said it worked for me to join the conversations at the end of a session when most people had left, I was actually thinking of it as a way to talk to people other than the speaker. The speaker is often rushed and/or drained at that point. But by going up to the front of the room with the others and listening with interest to their questions, they’d realize I was interested in talking more and those who were so inclined were likely to include me in further conversation.

          So I agree, not the best way to get attention from anyone specific. But listening to the questions and discussion at worst means you learn something, hopefully communicates your interest, and positions you to be included in further discussion that various people might get going, and you never know what opportunity that might open up. Don’t be pushy or clingy, just present and interested.

  46. B said:

    As someone who did a MD-PhD but converted it to a MD-masters after 2 years because Not Happy with the lab, and have dabbled in various research projects
    1) nothing wrong with going into a PhD without a masters! Seems like how it should be.
    2) advisor sounds very problematic. Ah I remember those days 😦 And I remember how trying to change labs would basically mean a reset of the project/PhD timeline. I can’t say I’m a master researcher but I am at least happy and excited about the projects I am proposing, and it takes a lot of time to figure that out. It took me 6 more years of clinical experience to figure out my own ideas and proposals, to be precise! I saw some people be successful when they had a problematic advisor by /collaborating with a second adviser/. For myself, I have several people I consider some type of “mentor” now (a disease-specific mentor, a general I-Like-your-style lifementor, other mentors who are doing research more in line with my interest though they are in a different disease than my subsubspeciality). So basically
    3) try to find an ally somewhere who DOES click with you. You don’t have to change labs to get a coadvisor; try to find someone who is a good advisor and try to get their co-mentorship.

    Seriously, I never realized how much advisors and mentors can make or break things… I’ve muddled along a long time on my own, I’ve made a lot of “mistakes” – or at least missteps that cost time – but that’s okay. I’m in a good place now, happy where I am and excited where things are going.
    Good luck LW! It’s not you, it’s the system; keep the feelers out for people who can help you and keep a clear vision of what you want for yourself.

    • B said:

      I should also say I have zero regrets about bailing on my own phd, but I had an MD to fall back on and I knew I would be quite happy “just” taking care of patients. A PhD would have been fine and dandy if the journey was useful but I did not need it to do what I wanted to do. Basically it’s OK to bail if the path is not meeting your goals, it’s ok to stick it out if you decide it’s worth it. I can’t advise you there beyond saying it’s not a failure to change direction, it can be the wise and right choice depending on the situation and your ultimate goals. And from experience that is a really hard thing to figure out in the moment.

  47. LW, I don’t know how much you need to hear that you’re not alone. Others are posting links to stories. There are a lot of them. Look up failure rates sometime, for your program, your university, your field. Not many in my field who attempt a PhD make it, and none are accepted and given the chance if the faculty don’t believe they’ll make it through.

    In my PhD program, I was aware that my thesis advisor considered some aspects of the program punitive and barbaric, and argued every year to remove or ameliorate these aspects, including putting together data on other comparable programs that had ceased such practices. And I knew that he recruited me for some specific traits he thought I had in rare combination, including some pretty hard-core industry experience and research experience that he thought would make me tougher in the face of obstacles that were so often catastrophic for other PhD students.

    He was right. I shrugged at the issues he thought were barbaric. When they hurt me, I shrugged again and said cheerfully I’d have another go and succeed this time — I had looked up the success rates, and knew I was doing fine, comparably. Punishment was part of the system, not something I took personally. He was staggered — he’d never seen a PhD student so cheerfully resilient in the face of these obstacles before.

    My research crashed and burned a few times. But I’d done STEM research before, so I knew that’s the deal. It happens. The job is to pick up and go on (and examine the shrapnel for something you can rip from your own body, wipe the blood from, and use to build something new). I got on with it.

    The faculty thought I was unkillable.

    Until I got targeted by a known PhD-student predator in another program, a program already known for having its PhD students go mental and commit violence against female STEM students.

    I almost didn’t make it. I had to run for my life. The university covered it up, falsified the reports. They don’t have an equal opportunity problem, you see, just look at their records! Their records show there is no problem! They investigated complaints, but there’s nothing there! No problem! And that is the standard practice at universities. They bury the problems and insist they are not there.

    Academia is a sick system — if you look up what “sick system” means and what it means to be caught in one, you’ll see what I mean. Being cognizant of being caught in a sick system can give you a bit of distance to decide how you will interact with it until you extricate yourself and move on somewhere healthier.

    • piny1 said:

      This! I realize that “NUKE IT FROM SPACE” is not helpful to the letter writer, but I think it really might be a good idea to keep in mind that academia is especially bad at this stuff. I mean, ffs, in academia, seniority is something you’re awarded. It won’t make you feel more hopeful about your situation, but it’s the truth: academia is unusually hostile to marginalized groups, vicious, exploitative, negligent, resistant to accountability, committed to hierarchy, and defensive of privilege. I had a fairly minor story compared to some of these, and the amount of shit I experienced that would, at the very least, incur a sit-down meeting with HR at any given Entry-Level Office Employer is pretty staggering!

      • AndTheRest said:

        This. So very, very true. The attitude of privilege and entitlement is mind-boggling, as is the willful adherence to virtually 19th century colonial views of gender, race, and anyone who isn’t a cis het white male. Maybe it’s a little a better in the humanities (I would hope!), but it is so typical of the STEM academic environment.

        I’m glad I had a lot of prior outside work experience before going to grad school. Although it was frustrating to see how much bullshit and abuse is regarded as acceptable in academia, at least I knew it was unacceptable bullshit in most other places, and that ultimately, I would not be a grad student forever.

        • I didn’t realize until not long before I got out how prevalent the sheer predation was. See, they were so good at convincing us all that everything was a one-off.

          The endless stalking cases from white guys I endured? So unusual! Not at all what normally happens! Except, then there was another white northern-European-descended beautiful woman, and she got it as bad as I did, from the same demographics. We commiserated a lot. I encouraged her to get all her rage out in rants to me, because I was never going to gaslight her or belittle what she was facing.

          But that’s so unusual! That’s not what’s happening to other women in the program!

          Except, that’s what they were telling the other women in the program. It turned out that the south Asian women were being stalked by certain other demographics, including the huge number of south Asian men. But they were just supposed to not talk about that, because it wasn’t normal/”real”, or some kind of “internal south Asian matter” or something equally ridiculous.

          Which is what they told the east Asian women, too. They were getting harassed and propositioned BY THE PROFESSORS. But they weren’t supposed to talk about it, because it must be their own slutty fault, because the Euro-descended women never had that problem. I spent years thinking the faculty were a bunch of good guys if a bit thick about some things. It was right at the end that I found out otherwise. So then I started asking questions of all the east Asian women that I could, and they were all surprised I didn’t know, because they all knew to warn each other never, ever to get caught in a stairwell with a professor.

  48. FaintlyMacabre said:

    No advice, just commiseration. I named my eye twitch after my advisor.

  49. river tam said:

    I got my Ph.D in the hard sciences awhile back. I had an openly racists and sexist supervisor (who actually did write me an excellent letter of recommendation). There were several books that helped me deal with the gendered nature of some of what was going on.

    The first was an anthropologic study of Japanese high energy physicists and American ones called Beamtimes and Lifetimes by Sharon Traweek. In the more communal society of Japan, women were considered not well suited to be physicists because they were “too independent”. In the more individualistic America, women were thought to be “too dependent” to be good physicists. It also goes over how the types of behaviors that lead to men’s success at various career levels was often counter to the advice given to them professionally by their advisors. I think that is even truer for women in STEM fields who are given advice to perform a more traditional female gender.

    The second was Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving in the Academic World by Paula J. Caplan

    The third set of books I read were the type of books sold in the business section for women entering the business world in the eighties. The advice was uneven but some of it was useful. I would hope that the advice would be pretty dated by now but it seems your advicior himself is dated in his opinions on women. I don’t remember any specific title beyond one called Working With Men: Professional Women Talk About Power, Sexuality, and Ethics by Beth Midwil

  50. Mayati said:

    I’m a lawyer and my most recent boss was just like this — with an added side of setting me up to fail and yelling at me in front of the whole office when he’d had a bad day and needed a scapegoat. Managing up didn’t work, because he had no incentive to change when he could just fire me and hire someone who’d take his shit. So be aware that some people can’t be managed-up. It requires that your manager cares about the end result of your work (or about being a better manager). Your adviser, like my boss, seems to be irritated at having to manage anyone at all and is making it out like it’s YOUR fault for needing his advice. That’s HIS flaw, not yours. He has a job to do and he’s not doing it. If “managing up” ends up not working, it’s not because you’re a failure, it’s because he is.

    OP, this is all on him, not on you. Some people are not cut out to be managers. And in the academic world, where mentoring and advising and working with people who are in really vulnerable financial and mental health states are *part of the job,* people like this should not be in these roles. Zen your way through it as best you can. This, too, shall pass.

  51. lisakoby said:

    Ask a Manager has some useful information on dealing with difficult emotional bosses in terms of sifting through the static to try to get the pieces that are helpful for you to do your job.

    I’ve found it helpful to think about it as less managing up and more about about managing around them while simultaneously creating a Teflon coating around your emotions and self evaluations so they aren’t impacted by the extraneous noise you have to process to get the information you need. .

    It’s the emotional equivalent of hopping, while rubbing your stomach, patting your head and reciting Shakespeare but it can be done, especially if you have an end goal in site.

  52. Heather said:

    I completely relate as an engineering PhD with impostor syndrome. My thesis advisor was very hands-off and busy as dept chair, and I felt like I got no direction and was left to fend for myself (despite all my stress, it ultimately worked out and I got my degree and moved on). Later, my postdoc supervisor was much more hands-on (working alongside me in the lab, discussing technical concepts), and it was like night and day.

    During my PhD, I had no other choice than to find other mentors who would be more hands-on, show me how do stuff in the lab, answer technical questions, and provide feedback on my ideas. Are there postdocs you can work with? Other more hands-on academics? Other PhD students experienced in that lab technique or data analysis method? Is there a group at another university or government lab whose work is complementary to yours and you could collaborate with?

    I second the Captain’s advice on asking for specific feedback on work products. Something I figured out is that, if I’m seeking feedback on something from a supervisor (a project plan, a technical question, etc), I get a better response if I have taken a stab at it first and then ask questions based on what I’ve tried so far, than if I ask “Where do I start?” type questions.

    It sounds very discouraging for your advisor to suggest you shouldn’t be doing the thesis or that he doesn’t think you can be a successful scientist! Whether you go on to academic research or any one of the MANY paths a STEM PhD can take, it doesn’t really matter – you will get the PhD done and move on. It’s possible, however, that he is trying to suggest (in a dick way) that maybe you’ve got to consider whether academic research is a good fit for you. If not, that’s OK! I tried research, it wasn’t a good fit for me, and I moved to industry, where I continue to do interesting and meaningful engineering work. It’s not an either-or decision between professor vs. failure at life (no matter what academics try to tell you).

    I’d recommend exploring all your career options. Talk to people in your field at conferences to learn more about where they work and what they do – odds are there are researchers at government labs and industry who can share a new perspective. Befriend some successful academics (with better mentoring and social skills). Ask these people what skills they think a new researcher needs to be successful in this career path, and what activities they think would help you build those skills and best prepare you for that career. “Informational interview” is kind of a cheesy term nowadays, but people are usually pretty receptive if you ask for 15 mins of their time to learn more about their career path.

    It sounds like you are already aware of some transferable skills to work on. For instance, you mention being proactive vs. checking every decision with your supervisor. I know that the PhD is a time to learn how to do research, we don’t come into it knowing these skills. I think, though, that the expectation is that you are training to be an independent researcher, rather than somebody’s assistant. It’s a mindset you grow into, as you get more experience and confidence with what you know.

    You also mention receiving feedback on speaking and presentation skills (impromptu speaking and framing your work). Does your school offer training courses you could take, maybe through the careers office? Or a local Toastmasters club? Toastmasters helped me immensely to feel less anxious when giving presentations and to be more coherent while speaking impromptu. Assertiveness training was also really valuable for me in learning best practices for communicating what I need in a way that others will be receptive to.

    Also I recommend the forums at versatilephd.com, it’s a good resource for PhDs navigating careers, advisors, and life direction.

    Good luck!

  53. CAnemone said:

    Ok, so your supervisor sounds so much like my teaching practicum supervisor that I got all jittery reading your story.

    This supervisor would observe a class, give me a double-sided page of Things To Improve (ranging from “use a different colored whiteboard marker” to [thing that is actually useful]) and then when I inevitably failed to change all of the things by the next class, it was a statement about my personal weakness and failings and an indication that I was pursuing the wrong career.

    When I asked her to prioritize her feedback so that I could focus on the most important things first, her response (as it was to most of the clarifying questions I asked) was that I must be a slow learner, followed by refusing to clarify or prioritize anything.

    When I did make the changes she asked for, I would inevitably discover that I had “misunderstood” what she had meant, which also somehow reflected poorly on my character.

    Criticism was always framed as moral failings on my part (I was lazy, I was ignorant, I was a bad teacher), which fed hard into my natural state of feeling ashamed/guilty about everything all the time (I am working on this).

    My teacher supervisors would tell me I was doing fine, and then she would come meet with them privately, and they would “present a united front” in telling me I was falling behind, or failing in some way. And like your supervisor, she would say things like, “[visiting teacher who observed you] agrees with me” even when I had been told explicitly by that person that they didn’t.

    She made us submit regular “journal entries” to her, detailing our thoughts and feelings about the practicum, which she would then throw back at me as reasons I was bad. At one point, she actually suggested that I seek counselling because I “seemed overwhelmed” by the practicum experience (this was not a “coming from a place of concern”/”everyone can benefit from counselling” statement, but rather a weaponized one, used to suggest that my natural reaction to her poor treatment was actually the result of some mental instability on my part).

    She would generally conduct these meetings in the staff room, and I had several teachers at the school come to me, horrified by what she was saying and the fact she was saying it in public. One of them sat me down and told me she was being emotionally abusive, which had never occurred to me (I just thought I was a horrible teacher/person.)

    Finally, she failed me. When she did, I told her that I’d felt singled out by her from the beginning, as thought she was looking for things to peg on me, and her response was, “Sometimes you can just tell when someone is going to be weak.”

    She helped trigger an anxiety disorder and a series of panic attacks (which came up well after that practicum ended), and sucked all the joy out of teaching for me. I passed my next practicum with flying colors (my supervisors didn’t understand why I hadn’t already passed, since apparently, I was doing just fine, and even very well for a new teacher), but its taken 6 years for teaching to stop being tinged with shame and anxiety, and it’s kind of too late now.

    I don’t know how PhDs work, so can’t offer any great advice (and it looks like The Captain and everyone else has done a great job of that!). But I know that I wish I’d been able to recognize sooner that my own judgement was valid and I didn’t have to believe everything she told me (especially not things she told me about my own character).

    The kind of personal attack criticism your supervisor is meting out has nothing to do with you or your abilities, and everything to do with his own issues. I really like the advice about seeking out other mentors and expanding your network, because it’s easier to weather that kind of criticism when other people you respect are telling you otherwise.

    • AndTheRest said:

      I am so sorry that has happened to you as a new teacher. That is truly awful.

  54. AndTheRest said:

    So many stories here of people with hopes, dreams, and ambitions who were neglected or sabotaged by the people who should have looked out for them… whether you were able to continue and achieve what you wanted to or not, you all have my sympathy and wishes for better things in the future. Jedi hugs, y’all. And if you have the chance to be a better boss, advisor, supervisor, or mentor, please take the opportunity to do so. (And thanks for doing so here.) I think the best thing we can all do is to give better than what we got.

  55. peregrinations said:

    Science PhD here. The Captain and commenters have given you great advice already. I just want to particularly highlight the advice to find someone else to lean on/get advice and mentorship from. I went through a very difficult couple years with my PhD advisor where he was undermining his students (he loves to play his students against one another to inspire “competition”, when what it actually does is worsen our imposter syndrome). He also was actively attempting to take away my stipend for the final year in a messed-up attempt to pressure me to finish quicker – instead I spent months fighting him and the dept to get my funding back, and for some reason didn’t get much Science done! I also was at a point where I knew more about my topic than he did so his advice was at best unhelpful.

    Thankfully, my external committee member stepped up and became essentially my unnamed advisor. He helped me with analyses and writing and gave me both the practical advice and support I needed to finish up. It would have been very difficult to finish without him.

    Later, during my postdoc, I was glad to be able to return the favor when one of my labmates was really struggling with his advisor. I stepped in and mentored him as my external committee member had mentored me, and it helped him and made me happy to be able to see and help him grow as an academic. Many of us go into academia because we love helping others, so try to keep an eye out for some like that in your sphere.

    All the best to you LW! :: Science fistbump::

  56. Former Grad Student said:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Your advisor sounds a lot like mine! I dropped out of grad school a couple years ago, after enduring three years in a program with an advisor like yours. (Dropping out was the right decision for me, since in addition to my advisor being a massive jerk, I also thought I might be in the wrong field, and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue in academia at all. I admire your perseverance in wanting to stick through it and I wish you all the fortitude I can possible send through the internet.)

    Anyway I specifically wanted to respond to the part about not bad-mouthing one’s advisor in public. That part can be really hard! I know that when I was working with a crappy advisor, my impostor syndrome would always say “he’s a totally fine advisor, you’re just an incompetent grad student”. One of the things that really helped was external confirmation (from other grad students, and occasionally other professors) that my advisor was difficult to work with, and that the things he was doing / saying were not ok.

    So I would say: *do* keep talking to your fellow grad students (especially your advisor’s other students) about these problems. Are you close with any of them? Would it be possible for you to form a support network where you all collectively recognize that your advisor lacks certain fundamental skills, and so instead, you take turns advising each other? I like the Captain’s idea of an inner voice of “what a good advisor would say”, but I always found that the nay-saying voices of impostor syndrome were louder. So if you and your co-advisees could take turns being the voice of the good advisor for one another, that might work out really well.

    But I agree with the Captain that you don’t want to bring this up with arbitrary senior faculty in your department, or with random people at conferences. The script I tended to use, when people asked me how grad school was going, or how I liked working with my advisor, was: “[Advisor] is brilliant and I have immense respect for his research, but I’m not sure our working styles are compatible, so it’s been a little bit of a struggle.” Everybody in my field understood that working styles could be incompatible, so nobody perceived this as an insult to my advisor. And those who knew my advisor, and were familiar with his working style, would see through my academic diplomacy and nod knowingly.

    Anyway, I feel so much empathy for you and wish you the best of luck.

  57. Cedrus Libani said:

    I too could have written this letter. All I can say is that it gets better. I found academic work to be soul crushing; you have one project, and one advisor, and you have to make it work or else your career is over. (Short version, I’m 99% sure my thesis work is an artifact; my advisor never believed me, and thinks I’m both lazy and stupid.) But I thrive in the real world. Industry has deadlines, and deliverables. It has colleagues who are working towards the same goals and want to nerd out with you. Most importantly, you’re expected to keep multiple irons in the fire, and be pretty ruthless about trimming projects that don’t look like they’re going to work out. SO MUCH BETTER.

    You can be a bad academic without being a bad scientist or a bad person. Just get the credential with minimal psychological scarring and then get on with your life.

  58. mf said:

    LW, do you know any fellow PhD students whose work you admire and opinion you trust? Could you team up with them and trade work for feedback? (As in: you read my draft and I read yours and we trade notes.) If your advisor is really incapable of giving actionable feedback, it might be worthwhile to consider whether you can get useful feedback from peers.

    • JenniferP said:

      Hi, can you make it clearer that I am the author of this post and make the link back to the site more prominent? It’s not actually cool to lift entire posts from other site and repost them without clear attribution.

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