Surviving a Bad Graduate School Advisor

There are bad advisors in every institution of higher education in the world. Bad advisors cost students thousands of dollars, many months of unnecessary toil, and in too many cases, the graduate degree they are seeking. The EBD “degree” (Everything but the Dissertation) is frequently the result of bad advisement. Graduate students are abused by unscrupulous advisors, some of whom may be ignorant of their responsibilities toward the student, some who are deliberately abusive because graduate students represent an unwanted annoyance, or worse, advisors who enjoy the feeling of empowerment over another human being.

Red Flags

Students should be aware of red flags when choosing an advisor, such as:

1. A faculty member new to the department can make a bad advisor. He or
she is probably on a tenure track, meaning their work will be scrutinized by other members of the department and the college to which they belong.

I heard the following complaint typical of this red flag within the last month: “My department chair said Professor Smith was a rising star and had a lot of creative ideas. When I chose her and started my dissertation, she turned down the research topic I wanted to do and made me do her own. I am now doing my ninth revision of the proposal to do research, and she still keeps correcting practically every word I write.” I have heard this complaint, or a similar one, for 30 years.

New faculty members may be more interested in making a good impression on their new colleagues than in moving a student through the process in an expeditious manner, and the result can be an endless round of corrections and additions to a thesis or dissertation as they try to turn out a perfect piece of work on their first try. Also, they may never have managed a graduate student, and lack the skills to do so. Advisors do not take a class in how to be an advisor. Consequently, they tend to put students through the same process they went through themselves, and it may not have been a good model.

2. “You can call me Bob.” An advisor who insists that the student call them

by their first name is a red flag. This unfortunate behavior instantly puts the student at a disadvantage because forever afterward this artificial “friendship” prevents the student from speaking up, and may lead to all kinds of requests of the student that are not appropriate. The opposite is the advisor who acts like a king on a throne and forces the student to become a supplicant.

3. “Professor Jones is the finest researcher and scholar we have on the staff. He is supporting 10 graduate students, and is in demand as a speaker. It is an honor to be his student because he can really help you professionally.” This recommendation by a helpful faculty member is a red flag. An advisor who has a string of publications on their record and several research projects may look good on paper, but they do not necessarily make good advisors because graduate students can at the bottom of their priorities. They have little time to spare, are almost never in their offices, every meeting is hurried, and their trips to conferences and meetings can keep a student from making deadlines.

4. An advisor who fails to apprise a student of 1) the ground rules of the
departmental graduate or graduate school processes, or 2) the ground rules of their personal process for moving a student through research and writing a thesis or dissertation. The omission of information lays traps students. This particular red flag is hard to detect before it is too late, so the student should study the thesis and dissertation process of both the university and their department as if it were another class. There are several books about the process available on, particularly “Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation” by Glatthorn and Joyner.

The Rules

The unspoken rules of the graduate process keep students blind from the beginning. First, the chain of command is never explained. When in graduate school the Dean of the graduate school is the Dean presiding over the graduate student, not the Dean of the college. This arrangement is one of the checks and balances in place to protect graduate students from abuse. The position of graduate Dean is often a part-time appointment in addition to a regular faculty role. Consequently, the graduate school Editor, or an Assistant Dean are charged with the responsibility for solving student problems, and bringing those they cannot solve to the Dean’s attention.

When I was a graduate school editor I had the lofty title of Research and Writing Coordinator, but I was just an editor. Because there was no Assistant Dean, I was usually the first person to hear about abuse of a student. Only twice in 12 years was it too late to salvage the situation with the help of the Dean. Often, it was a matter of teaching the student to “manage upward,” as I called it, which I will discuss later in this article.

Second, a department must prove it is a viable asset to the university. In large part, departmental value to the university is based upon how many students they graduate per year. For instance, if a philosophy department only graduates one or two students a year, the department may be eliminated through programmatic reduction, including all faculty, tenured or not.

The university adds up the cost of the space a department occupies, the overhead to maintain that space, the cost of journal subscriptions for the library ordered by the department (that can cost a small fortune), classroom space, and all other costs of maintaining a degree-granting department. If the department cannot justify the expense of maintaining the program, it is in danger of being eliminated. This is one reason departments write research grants. A large percentage of grant money is given to the university for “overhead,” some is used to support the research project, and some supports graduate students.

One would think advisors would be cognizant that the very existence of their department is on the line when they abuse students to the degree that they never graduate.

Bad Behavior in the Ranks

Choosing an advisor should be easy after a student has taken a few classes from each member of the department, but it is not. A “nice” instructor may be the worst advisor in the department. A bad advisor has one or more of the following characteristics after they accept a student for advisement:

1. They treat graduate students like servants, asking them to sweep floors, stock
shelves, run errands, and do other tasks more appropriately assigned to a secretary or a paid assistant, and may ask a student to help out in their personal life by grocery shopping, cleaning the pool, or taking a car in for service. One student I counseled, in addition to all of the above, was cleaning up dog scat from his advisor’s back yard every day.

2. They take credit for student work, publishing papers under their own

name, talking about discoveries in meetings as if they were their own, and may go so far as to flunk the student out and then publish on the research the student generated. I know of two cases where the graduate student shot the advisor between the eyes for this last scurrilous behavior.

In another instance, the advisor of one student I counseled, together with two of the committee members, destroyed all of the student’s notes from which the dissertation was to be written, destroyed (or hid) the mutant strain of fruit flies that the student had developed, and threw away all of the student’s possessions, claiming that they thought this abrasive, but brilliant student, had left for good when he had only gone on vacation. The research represented a breakthrough in cancer research. In this case, the graduate dean signed the three-page dissertation himself as a committee of one, and the three faculty members were fired.

3. They do not define the graduate process for students by
withholding information, such as the need for approval to use of human subjects, which is a Federal law, the need to submit only letter-perfect complete drafts for approval (there is no such thing as a “rough” draft in graduate school), graduate school editorial requirements, deadlines, or other information critical for continuous forward progress. “They’re supposed to be adults. They should find out these things for themselves,” several advisors have told me. Nonsense. This bad behavior is entrapment.

4. They deliberately delay giving a draft back in a timely manner until the student is obliged to register for another semester. This behavior is particularly prevalent in online universities, many of whom are more interested in money than they are in granting degrees to students. I know of seven students from four different online institutions who will never graduate because after three or more years of working on their dissertations they have run out of money for additional semester hours. “Register for just one more semester and we will finish up,” is what students are told. There are no checks and balances in online universities to stop advisor abuse. In at least one case, it is the online institution that is abusive.

5. They riddle draft after draft with hundreds of corrections again and again.
These advisors frequently correct their own corrections. These advisors want the thesis or dissertation to sound like they wrote it themselves, and will endlessly correct language in the belief that they are making necessary changes.

6. They read a few token pages of a draft, find a few things wrong, and send the draft back for a complete revision, giving the student the unhelpful comment “Continue as shown.” If the student could read the advisor’s mind, this would be reasonable advice. If the student knew what the advisor wanted, it would have been done right the first time.

7. They demand that the student copy the exact format of the last several theses
or dissertations the advisor chaired, whether it suits the content or not. This behavior has one of two possible causes. Either the advisor is arrogant and egotistical and thinks his format is perfect, or the advisor is afraid to depart from a format with which he or she is familiar. In fact, I read a dissertation that had only 5 pages of text – and 50 pages of pictures of the wings of dragonflies. The dissertation represented four years of research. There is no “perfect” thesis or dissertation.

8. They allow students to propose such a huge research project that it will take

years, and/or thousands of dollars, to collect the data. Such students usually quit because they run out of money, or time, and become EBDs. One student I recently counseled had been allowed to propose collecting data by conducting personal interviews from over 1,000 elementary school teachers, one at a time. She would never have completed this task before her tenure in graduate school was terminated. Another last year was going to survey a giant sample of people scattered across the entire U.S. for a thesis. First, such a project for a thesis was inappropriate, and second, it would have taken years.

9. They do not have the courage to tell the student that they should drop out
of graduate school because they are not doing graduate level work. When I was
the graduate school editor I read an appalling dissertation from a very nice student. She had an advisor and three committee members. One committee member said he would “never” sign her dissertation after the oral defense, and she had come to complain about it. Her committee member was right. The dissertation looked like the work of a seventh-grade student. I wondered how she had gotten so far in higher education, and why she had not been stopped sooner by her advisor or the other committee members. Apparently, only one committee member had the courage to refuse her dissertation. She sued the university, but she did not get her doctor’s degree

There are other bad behaviors not listed here. The sign that a student has a bad advisor is when deadlines are missed, forward progress is attenuated, and no end is in sight. Becoming a victim of the Stockholm syndrome should not be the only way to get a degree.

The Cost of a Bad Advisor

Count the cost of a bad advisor. By the time a student gets to the thesis or dissertation “proposal to do research,” they have already paid 2-3 years of tuition, books and fees, and more expense looms ahead for an indefinite period of time. They have lived in places that may have been less than desirable. They have lost wages they could have had if they had not been geographically tied to the degree-granting university and unable to seek the best paying job elsewhere. They have lost 2-3 years of life when they could have been doing something more enjoyable and less costly in time and money, which is why graduate students become doormats for bad advisors. They are afraid their entire investment will be lost if they protest their treatment.

If your advisor has any one of the nine above described characteristics or others that are impeding your forward progress you need to seek help. It only takes one bad behavior on the part of an advisor to make your graduate experience a nightmare. There are several Websites that specialize in assisting students from the time they choose a research topic to the end of the oral defense, or contact the author of this article.

Manage Upward

People think of the word “manage” as downward actions people execute who are responsible for subordinates and programs. The key to surviving a bad advisor, or later, a bad boss, is to develop the skills to manage upward. Manage the manager.

Following are some tips for surviving a bad advisor.

1. Graduate school is professional school, and students should act like
the professionals they hope to be from the first day they set foot in the department. That means dressing well, keeping an appropriate social distance from members of the faculty, and keeping the majority of their personal life to themselves.

Students should choose an advisor as carefully as choosing a partner in life. The student should interview graduate students a year or two ahead in the program, or better, some who have graduated who had the same prospective advisor. Those who are still in the department may not want to say anything negative about their advisor because their own degrees might be threatened if negative remarks got back to their advisor. Some departments assign an advisor in an effort to level the work load, and the student has no choice. The bad advisors get the same number of students as everyone else, and they can hide in the numbers.

Before making a choice students should go to the library and find the last two or three theses or dissertations a prospective advisor has chaired and look at the format, the depth of the statistical analysis, the length of the review of literature, and the intensity of the detail. This should be done by every graduate student. Advisors tend to repeat themselves student after student.

2. If a student has an advisor with any one of the bad behaviors listed previously,
or another behavior that is delaying forward progress, the student should seek help immediately. Following are three Websites that specialize in assisting graduate students, or contact this author for a reference.

A. features consultants who have experience assisting students throughout the thesis or dissertation process including advisement about 1) choosing a research topic, and 2) writing the proposal to do research. In addition, consultants will edit all that the student writes. These consultants can also prepare the student for the defense.

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