Wednesday, October 16, 2013

No one has the advisor relationship they want

Last weekend I was hanging out with some other recently-tenured friends when the conversation turned to grad school and our relationships with our respective dissertation directors. We're all in different fields, went through different programs, and the nature of our advisor relationships were also quite different. But the conversation made me think, not for the first time, that dissertation directors trail only one's family of origin and certain romantic partners in their emotional and psychological impact. And as in those cases, an advisor's importance has less to do with what they actually do or don't do (i.e., whether they're objectively cruel, thoughtless, or neglectful) than with the fact that they're intimately involved in our lives at a crucial and difficult stage.

At this distance, I feel confident in saying that no one has the relationship she wants with her advisor while a grad student, just as virtually no one has the relationship she wants with her parents while a teenager; the problem is that you're not yet the person you want to be--whoever that is--and you're radically dependent on someone else. This complicates even the best relationships.

But here's the thing: unlike one's parents, the only purpose of an advisor is to get you to the point where you don't need him or her--where you know, experientially, that you can write a persuasive chapter, a publishable article, a dissertation, a book. And any advisor who helps you get there is a good advisor.

Now, don't get me wrong: there are certainly better and worse advisor relationships. Some are objectively bad (an advisor who doesn't read your work, belittles it, steals your ideas, makes sexual advances) and some are just bad-for-the-individual (a personality mismatch). And a bad relationship can do real damage. But few advisor relationships are so good that the advisee is never anxious, embarrassed, playing the suppliant, or terrified of letting his or her advisor down. And everyone has to learn, sooner or later, to trust herself and her own intuition, to find other mentors and collaborators, to do work without the (literal or figurative) voice of her advisor in her ear.

Accordingly, there are "good" advisor relationships that don't serve the advisee well: a close relationship isn't helpful if you depend too much, or for too long, on your advisor's advice or approval.

These days, I'm happy with where my relationship with my advisor is at, and I don't think much about its past. But if there's a bigger lesson here, it's that one can't escape the need for external sources of approval, especially in one's early years (as a child, as a scholar), and it's normal to cathect on those individuals or imbue those relationships with all kinds of magical thinking. But one is happier the more internally-motivated one becomes. Mostly, this just comes with time. But it's never too early or too late to try to separate one's sense of self from extrinsic sources.


Canuck Down South said...

This was an interesting read. First, though, I truly hope that one's relationship with an adviser isn't the third most important (type of) relationship in your life, as you say at the top. I'd like to think that, say, children, long-term friends, or in-laws, for some people, have a much bigger impact. Or in other words, if the adviser relationship does occupy that #3 spot (and we're not just talking about those who go on to be great, long-term friends with their advisers) then it seems to me that there's something wrong, or at least disproportional, about that relationship or its impact.

I'd also go further in ascribing some of the inherent difficulties in advisorial relationships to the structure of graduate school. While not everyone is "who they want to be" when in grad school, I know plenty of, say, 25-30 year-olds, both in grad school and outside of it, who are pretty comfortable with themselves and their lives. But reliance on one's adviser, or "radical dependency," in your awesome description of it, is pretty unusual in almost any non-academic professional circumstances. The structural inequities force what are actually fully-fledged adults in a much more of a supplicant position than they would normally be in at this age/stage of life.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this. I didn't mean to imply that the advisor relationship is among the top three most important relationships a person ever has, but that insofar as it happens when you're still "becoming" someone or growing into an identity, it has a disproprotionate impact on your sense of self (at least professionally/intellectually). It won't last forever, but it doesn't end immediately, either.

Some people no longer have a relationship with their parents, but the early relationship shaped them in major ways. And I at least have exes who are not important to my present life--I may not even be in touch with them--but who, because of when I met them and the life stage they're involved with, shaped some crucial aspects of how I see myself. The self-conception born of early relationships can change over time, but it takes a while to do so, and there's a whole part of your past that remains framed by those relationships.

So yes, it's entirely structural. You may be a totally confident and self-sufficient human being in every other aspect of your life, and still have a neurotic, adolescent relationship to your advisor. The structure almost guarantees it. This is the single most important person for your intellectual life at a really vital stage--and even becoming "your own person" is inter-involved with their opinion and approval. It's hard for me to think of another adult relationship that isn't actually abusive/manipulative where you're so dependent upon a specific person to tell you that your ideas are valuable, that you're smart, that you've got what it takes and can do this.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

In the sciences, it is your post-doctoral mentor who launches you into scholarly independence. So I will comment on my relationship with my post-doc mentor. We absolutely had the advisor relationship I wanted. She had the perfect demeanor and scientific style for guiding me towards fascinating scientific questions whose successful pursuit inured to the benefit of both her own career (she got tenure based on the work we did together) and mine (I got a tenure-track faculty position based on that work). And she also was very explicit about the meta-level sausage making: how to give compelling presentations, how to mentor more junior scientists, how to write grants, etc. We remain very close friends to this day, and speak several times per month.

(Not saying this is the norm, but it is a counterexample to your claim of "no one".

Flavia said...


I admit I know much less about the sciences, so I appreciate the chance to hear (and learn) from you.

I wonder, though, whether what you describe is more possible in the sciences and/or with a post-doc mentor, because you've already completed the Ph.D. and proven that you have some scholarly chops? And/or because the work is explicitly collaborative and mutually beneficial? That would seem to encourage more of a genuinely collegial relationship than in the humanities, where what you're working on may be only loosely related to anything your advisor is even interested in, and where the relationship tends to be very much professor/student.

In my experience and the experience of those I've talked to in the humanities, it's the first years of working with an advisor that are the most difficult and neurosis-producing--that phase when you're still prey to the belief that you're a huge fraud. By the end, if you're regularly going to conferences, have gotten an article accepted, etc., you have at least some experiental proof that you're basically competent, have some worthwhile ideas and are capable of executing them. And you have sources of validation other than the advisor.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

My guess is that it's because the scholarly work is explicitly collaborative. Grad school plus post-doc takes scientists about as long as what I understand to be typical for just the humanities PhD. Regardless, there certainly are plenty of former science post-docs who don't view their mentors at all like I view mine, as seen on many disgruntled post-doc blogges. The most common gripe is that the mentor is an intellectual parasite who does nothing but steal the ideas of the post-doc. This is almost always delusional.

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with this statement, CPP: "The most common gripe is that the mentor is an intellectual parasite who does nothing but steal the ideas of the post-doc. This is almost always delusional."

I know you had a lovely experience with your post-doc, but there are some of us who in our naivete, think that collaboration will actually be collaborative and not a credit-stealing, exploitative adventure in academia is crazy. I have met few people (I count 2) who have great advisor relationships, and more who have shitty or neutral ones.

DDB said...

I'll chime in with an engineering example, which is probably reasonably closely aligned to the sciences. I didn't do a post-doc after graduation.

My relationship with my advisor was, and is, very good. While I wouldn't say we are exceptionally close, she was the right 'fit' for an advisor at the time (in terms of our personalities and expectations), and we have remained friendly in the 10 years (!) since I've finished. We catch up at conferences, she came and gave a talk in my department when I started a few years ago, and we often end up reviewing each other's groups papers.

I knew colleagues in my department who had wretched relationships with their advisors, and plenty of good ones as well. Overall, I was very pleased with my grad school experience, and I look back on it now with fondness - it was an exceptional place, and filled with exceptional people, and I wish I had taken better advantage of some of the opportunities while I was there.

Doctor Cleveland said...

My relationship with my advisor has been great. But that is a fortunate accident. While we have always shared intellectual interests, his personality was not what I would have sought out in an advisor when I began graduate study. But as it turned out he had EXACTLY the personality I actually needed in an advisor.

I could never have figured that out for myself; it only became clear during the stresses of dissertation-writing (which no beginning PhD student accurately foresees) and during some entirely unrelated personal growth of my own. I would never and could never have consciously chosen an advisor so good for me.

So you don't get the advisor relationship you want. I got the one I needed.

Anonymous said...

Many good points here, in both post & comments. Grad students need various things from their advisors, including praise, criticism, intellectual and professional role-modelling, career advice, idea midwifery, editing, bibliography, (figurative) pats on the back and kicks in the pants. It's rare that even the most dedicated advisor will be equally good in each role (and how we do in each role will vary from student to student, since personality match is a factor). In the humanities, at least, students usually need several mentors, not one, and learning to rely on different faculty for different things can take some pressure off that necessarily imperfect advisor relationship. Now that I do lots of graduate advising, I tell my students that they must figure out who among their teachers can give them what, and "use" us accordingly.

Cheers, TG

Flavia said...


I think your comment hits the nail on the head. The best take-away from the almost inevitable complications of the advisor relationship is that no one person should ever be the one you depend on for your entire intellectual & professional sense of self, and seeking out mentors, trusted peer-colleagues, and so forth as early as possible is really important.

The most structurally problematic feature of my graduate education was how little access grad students had to junior faculty (who weren't permitted to teach grad courses until their 4th or 5th year, and who of course were under tremendous pressures and stresses of their own); the program has made real efforts to change that in the intervening years, but in my time it wasn't great. It made the gulf between gradstudenthood and professordom seem enormous, and increased the feeling of infantilization and isolation (someone hired 20 years ago might reasonably be expected not totally to get our experience of the profession or our fears).

I TA'd for a junior faculty member the last semester I served as a TA, and remember the shock of realizing that he got us, and wasn't really that far removed from our experience; just having him mention, casually, that it took him 10 years to finish grad school, and how lonely he felt and how sure he was that he'd never finish was kind of a revelation: OMG! Here's a living breathing person who felt the way I feel, and who survived!

The internet and blogosphere helps too, I think, though it doesn't substitute for in-person support.