Avoiding the Most Dangerous Trap in Graduate-School

Posted on June 29th, 2018 by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.

Were you recently accepted into grad-school? Are you fortunate enough to have been accepted by more than one program, and now find yourself having to make a choice? Maybe you decided in advance what you would do in this situation, or perhaps you now have a difficult choice among equally attractive options. Either way, you might be about to make a mistake that will throw your education and career plans completely off the rails. My aim today is to help you avoid that mistake.

My advice will be relevant to anyone who applied to research-based master’s or doctoral programs; if you are starting a graduate program that lacks a research-thesis component, it will be less relevant. If you have an offer from only one program, much of the following commentary will still be relevant to your situation, because you have the option of declining that single offer and reapplying to different programs next year. Think that’s a ridiculous suggestion? Well, it might not make a lot of sense in many cases, but for some who turn down that offer of admission, they will be dodging a rather substantial bullet.

Hidden risks

While most people who go to graduate school see it as an essential step along some career path, it’s a mistake to assume that the only essential aspects include getting into a program that offers the degree you want, and working hard to earn it. If certain other conditions aren’t right, success will be difficult — maybe even impossible. Whether or not these essential conditions are in place may depend on which program you choose. But this is not because of differences in the overall quality of the programs or schools.

Most programs will look at least somewhat attractive as long as certain criteria are satisfied, but there are many reasons why one program might seem like a better option than another. It might be at a more prestigious school, or in a more interesting city. Maybe it’s closer to home. Perhaps the professor who would serve as the student’s advisor (a.k.a. supervisor) is a big name in the field. But, as sound as these reasons for a preference may seem, none of them are actually correlated with success in getting through a Ph.D. program, or with the overall quality of the graduate-school experience, or with establishing a rewarding career afterward. Still, most people decide which programs to apply to, and which offer of admission to accept, based on considerations like those I just mentioned.

Something else can be much more critical to having a positive and successful graduate-school experience – namely, the quality and style of support and guidance you receive from your graduate advisor. Many grad-school applicants fail to give this factor much consideration, and some overlook it completely. They essentially assume that any accomplished professor whose research interests match their own will be a suitable advisor. But matching research interests are only a starting point for finding the right advisor. If you don’t go beyond that level of analysis when choosing whether or not to apply to a particular program or to accept their offer of admission, you may be making a huge mistake, with disastrous consequences.

The critical role of the advisor/supervisor

Your academic achievements as an undergraduate were primarily the result of your own hard work. In grad school, that won’t be enough. You will need a supportive graduate supervisor, or advisor (both terms are synonymous in this context, but I’ll just use one of them for the remainder of this commentary). Don’t underestimate how much this person can either negatively or positively affect your progress, your morale, and your ability to finish the program and launch a successful career.

When accepting an offer of admission to most research-thesis-based master’s programs, or to a Ph.D. program, students are essentially agreeing that a particular faculty member will be their graduate advisor. Referring to this professor’s role as being that of an ‘advisor’ belies the reality of how directly he or she will influence the priorities and activities of the student. Their role will go far beyond overseeing the students’ work and giving advice. Students in research-based programs depend on their advisor for essential resources, as well as guidance and mentoring throughout graduate school. Prospective graduate students tend to underestimate how much their success will ultimately depend on the amount and quality of support they get from their advisor. In many cases, the dependence continues for some time beyond program completion, as the former advisor is a key source for letters of reference for job applications, academic and research awards, or research funding.

While the majority of prospective grad students understand the importance of applying to programs in which potential advisors have research interests that match their own, very few give any consideration to the other important characteristics of a potential advisor. If one agrees to do graduate studies with a particular professor and things don’t go well, it is often difficult and sometimes even impossible to switch advisors, and doing so will almost certainly be a setback that affects how long it takes to finish the program. So, it’s absolutely critical that the original choice of graduate advisor is a good one. It’s a difficult mistake to reverse and recover from.

Not all professors provide their students with the support and mentoring they need, and serious problems can arise in the student-advisor relationship for various reasons, especially if there turns out to be a mismatch in terms of personality variables or expectations regarding the working relationship. There are many online forums where current and former students share their grad-school experiences, and where the majority of discussions revolve around terrible experiences involving the graduate advisor. A few years ago I wrote a commentary about a certain type of strained student-supervisor relationship, and many people shared their similar stories in the comments section. Anywhere you find current or former graduate students discussing their experiences, it is evident that most of the negative ones involve their advisor. In fact, a recent study found that the most frequent reason people give for dropping out of a Ph.D. program is some type of conflict with their advisor. Think about this for a moment. More Ph.D. drop-out because they can’t bear to continue working with their advisor than for any other reason! In the U.S., close to 50% of doctoral students drop out before finishing. https://www.chronicle.com/article/PhD-Attrition-How-Much-Is/140045   And believe me, no matter how capable and determined you are to succeed, you could easily find yourself in the same situation if you end up with a lousy graduate advisor.

Different professors have their own approaches to dealing with their grad students. Some are excellent at meeting their students’ needs, and they make indispensable contributions to their students’ successes. Some hinder their students’ success. The former types cannot be distinguished from the latter by the kinds of research they do, or by the size of their labs or research teams, by their personal fame, or by the prestige of the institutions that employ them. A program’s faculty webpages do not indicate who are the good, the not-so-good, and the bad graduate advisors. This means that many new grad students are basically walking into a trap. The bait is there on the program websites, where everything about a program and its faculty members is made to look appealing. The hidden risks become apparent only after the successful applicant begins the program, and by then it’s too late to make an easy escape. When students decide to reverse course and drop out of a program, the failure to complete can tend to hang over them for a long time, potentially hampering any attempts to get into an alternative program, not to mention the regret one can feel for having wasted so much time, money, and wishful thinking on the original plan.

Understand this simple message: The reputation of the program or the school will not protect you from the perils or risk of ending up with a bad graduate advisor. The research profile of the potential advisor will not protect you. The only way to reduce the chances of this happening to you is to do your own research and find out what you can about a potential graduate advisor before you accept an offer of admission.

Red flags

You might be wondering… Are incompetent or abusive graduate advisors really so common that it’s worth worrying about? To understand why they are, in fact, very common, it’s important to realize that most colleges and universities have no checks or balances to ensure that professors provide their graduate students with satisfactory guidance, support, training, and mentoring. There are no formal quality-control mechanisms designed to safeguard students against mediocre or incompetent advisors. Tenured university professors are not held accountable for incompetent or irresponsible supervision of their graduate students, because boundless academic freedom basically means they can deal with their students however they want, and it’s no one else’s business. Some professors turn out to be excellent graduate advisors, while others are so awful they actually have a negative influence on their students’ progress. The ones who are good or excellent take pride in this aspect of their occupation as a professor, and they actually care about their students; the lousy advisors are usually professors who take pride in different aspects of their job, but care little about the long-term success of their students.

(Before I go further, I must make clear my belief that in a substantial proportion of dysfunctional graduate student-advisor relationships, some or most of the blame rests with the student, or at least both parties. But in the present commentary I am writing from a student’s perspective, as the readers of this blog are typically students. I do not want to give the impression that when the relationship turns south, it’s somehow the fault of the advisor. It’s not true all the time, but it sure is true much of the time).

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to get insight into a professor’s style of supervision without having to experience it first-hand. These steps should be taken before accepting an offer of admission. I’ll give some suggestions below. But first, just what makes for a “good” or “bad” advisor? Not surprisingly, there are different ways an advisor might be sub-par or even terrible. There are also a few clues to watch for, however, and although they aren’t foolproof and perfectly reliable predictors of a poor student-advisor relationship, they do seem to account for a substantial proportion of those that turn sour at some point.

Good advisors mentor their graduate students and guide their acquisition of professional skills and networking opportunities with colleagues in academia and beyond. They help their students learn how to organize their ideas and communicate them effectively, both orally and in writing. They provide moral support during difficult moments, constructive criticism, and thoughtful and useful feedback. They teach the ‘tricks of the trade’ and they give good advice on how to navigate various obstacles. They are often influential in helping their former students in the early stages of their careers, by continuing to informally mentor them and providing letters of recommendation for job applications and the like.

Ideally, your advisor should be someone you can get along with on an interpersonal level, as you may need to communicate frequently about matters related to your research or other activities. It’s not necessary to like everything about the person, or even to like them at all, but a strong dislike will risk making every interaction you have with them unpleasant. Before long, you will dread every meeting, and your motivation to follow their directives and advice are likely to diminish, thus setting the stage for a few miserable years of grudgingly going along with the wishes of someone you feel no desire to help, but whose support you need to complete the program.

It’s even more important that you can live with your advisor’s expectations regarding the working relationship. Remember why professors supervise graduate students in the first place. They do it because they need the help of graduate students to do their research. Some professors might have additional motivation for supervising grad students, but most do it primarily to benefit their own research program. (If you think you were accepted into a graduate program because someone decided you deserved it more than other applicants, you are most likely wrong. Selecting graduate students does not involve determining who deserves to be in the program. You can read more about how the selection process works in one of my previous posts).

Watch out for professors who treat their graduate students more like research employees than like genuine students or trainees. They do not help their students in the long run because they only care about managing their own careers and reputations, and they don’t give a damn about their students’ needs. They make the very worst mentors, and they tend to have unreasonable expectations regarding how much time their students spend “working” on their research. Some are real tyrants, going so far as to try controlling aspects of their graduate students’ personal lives.

It’s so important to understand that having a big-name researcher for a graduate advisor is no guarantee that things will go well for you, either during or following graduate school. Some researchers become highly-accomplished and well-known through the hard work of their students, but they seldom give those students the credit they deserve. When a professor’s research reputation is what lures a great number of students to seek her or him as their graduate advisor, it can be just like that baited-trap analogy again. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it will give you some great career advantage later on if your graduate advisor is well-known in your field. In fact, it can be hard to get noticed for your own original contributions when you are working in the shadows of a luminary. Co-authorship on published papers is not enough. You need an advisor who will take advantage of opportunities to actively promote you, and to bring your abilities and contributions to the attention of others – an advisor who cares about the development of your reputation. Many professors are too self-centered to operate this way on a consistent or sustained basis.

The suggestion here is not that you should avoid professors who are highly regarded for doing brilliant work, but rather that you should not let this factor alone influence your decision about whether to seek them as a graduate advisor. Keep focused on what is really important to your ultimate success, which includes having a dependable and supportive advisor who will be there to help you achieve your learning and training objectives, and who will continue to help you in the early stages of post-doctoral career development, if necessary.

 Some want to deliver, but can’t

Most university professors care sincerely about their graduate students’ research and professional development, and they have the best intentions when undertaking a commitment to supervise, support, and guide the research and professional development of a particular student. This is generally true even among those who are well-known and highly-accomplished. Many fail to deliver on this commitment, however, simply because they are too busy with other commitments.

Some professors are ambitious people with a lot going on, and they are busy all the time. Some travel a lot and are often out of town at a conference, or somewhere delivering an invited lecture. Even when they are in town, individual students get very little of their attention. Professors who are inaccessible to their students can be hard to spot in advance because they are often people who genuinely want to help their students, so they can seem like good mentors. Some of them could be, if only they had enough time for their students.

Bigger is usually not better

Many professors are the principal investigators (PIs) of large research teams, which tend to be composed of students at different levels or stages of training, including, for example, sophomores and juniors working as volunteer research assistants, senior undergraduates working on their honours thesis, master’s and doctoral students, and perhaps postdoctoral research associates.

Sometimes a group such as this will work very well together, and all or most of the people in the lab will get along just fine. The more-experienced people help the less-experienced, which provides a great training environment for everyone involved. Sometimes, however, the PI is a professor with a seriously inflated sense of self-importance, and this is evident in the way the roles of various lab members are laid out, and in who gets the PI’s attention. For example, the professor may give a decent amount of his time to the research associates, post-doctoral fellows, and senior Ph.D. students, but less so to the new Ph.D. students or the master’s students, and hardly ever meets with the undergraduate thesis students. The graduate students deal with the volunteer research assistants, so the professor won’t have to bother with them. Members in this type of group seldom work together in harmony, and are more likely to be competitive rather than cooperative. If you are someone who prefers to work on a team where everyone is a bit more equal, understand that there are PIs out there who work with their students that way. But you need to know how to spot them, and distinguish them from the rest. They are more likely to have a modest-sized research team, with no more graduate students and postdoctoral associates than can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Of course, just as bigger does not mean better when it comes to the relationship between the size of a professor’s research team and the quality of training received by graduate-student members of the team, it’s also true that smaller does not guarantee things are better for the students. Some professors have only one or a few graduate students but they still suck as advisors. The point I’m trying to make is that those who oversee the research activities of a large number of students and trainees are more likely to suck at graduate supervision, so a large research team is actually a red flag. Unfortunately, many ambitious research students mistakenly infer that the opposite is true. They assume that someone with a large research team must have a lot of research funding and that their work gets a lot of attention, which is usually true, but they further assume this must be good for the students who are on that team, which is often not true.

Gathering information to weigh your prospects

A personal visit is the best way to get insight to what it would be like to have a particular professor as a graduate supervisor. This is easy to do if they aren’t too far away from where you live, and of course this visit should be made before even applying to a program. Meeting a professor face-to-face might go a long way in helping you determine whether the two of you are compatible. It might not always be possible to show-up in person if the school is far away, but today that should not stop you from some sort of face-to-face, using Skype for example.

Meeting a person can help you decide how much you like them, but how do you find out other important things about your potential graduate advisors, like their mentoring and management styles? Ask those who know best – namely, their current and former graduate students. If you do make a personal visit, you should give at least as much attention to arranging to meet with graduate students as you do to meeting the faculty members in whom you are interested. Graduate students will be the best source of information about what it is like to be in the program and to work with particular professors, and most students will be willing to answer your questions and eager to steer you clear of a bad choice, at least to whatever extent they can be helpful. If they smile and speak positively about having a particular professor as graduate supervisor, then that’s a very good sign. If they seem to be hesitating and carefully choosing their words, and generally sounding unenthusiastic about a professor, this may a bad sign. You may have to use your intuition. But, if grad students refer to their advisor as “the boss”, this is a triple red-flag warning that this professor is probably one of those who treat grad students like research employees. Avoid, avoid, avoid!

A single visit and a few emails might not be enough to discover the more important aspects of someone’s personality, or how they deal with their grad students. But some extra sleuthing might help you find answers to some important general questions: Has a significant proportion of this person’s previous students either quit the program without finishing, or changed advisors part way through? What have been the career outcomes for their previous students?

Ask their former graduate students. There is a good chance you’ll find one or more who are willing to discuss their experiences. If you can’t figure out who they are from information available on a professor’s webpages, another approach that works is to look for co-authors on the professor’s previously published work, as many of them are likely to be current or former graduate students. This can usually be confirmed or disconfirmed through a bit of additional detective work, so you can find out where their former students are now, and perhaps a way to contact them.

Why go so far as to contact someone’s former grad students? For one thing, they may be more frank with you than current students, especially compared to students who are still at an early stage of their program, and who may have limited experience. Former grad student may know about episodes that occurred in the distant past than do the current students. Don’t be bashful about contacting these people by email, and asking if they would please take a phone call from you. Offer them your number so they can call you instead, in case they prefer not to give out their number. Of course, not everyone will reply to your request for a bit of help, but you might be surprised by how many people are willing to help you and give you a few minutes of their time to share some of their experiences. Of course, the likelihood of getting a positive response will depend on whether you make the request in a tactful and polite manner. Make clear that you want to talk briefly with them because you understand the important role your advisor will play in determining what you get out of graduate school, and you would therefore appreciate hearing about any insights they might have.

Don’t get swayed by a few thousand dollars

Some programs and individual faculty members use monetary incentives to help recruit graduate students, or to convince the most promising research students to accept their offer of admission. Accepting one offer over another for the sake of a few thousand dollars can end up costing a lot more in the long run than a student bargains for at the outset. One might end up with a bit more money for a couple of years during graduate school, but this won’t protect from the consequences of having an ineffective graduate advisor. And if the student-advisor relationship turns toxic, more money won’t make things tolerable. But there is another, less-obvious risk when it comes to monetary incentives used as recruitment tools: The professors who are most likely to use this tactic are also the most likely to treat their graduate students as labworkers, rather than as trainees.

Do you have questions or comments about anything mentioned in this article? Please consider sharing them in the comment section. I will try to answer any appropriate questions. Alternatively, if you are interested in communicating directly with me to receive personalized guidance and advice on any aspect of your educational or career planning, you might consider using my consultation services. We can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes!

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3 comments

  1. I am just at a loss for words. This article contains so much information that most students entering graduate study will NEVER get from anybody, yet everyone of them should read it because it is so crucial.

    I wish I had read this article a lot sooner, because I walked into one of these traps that in hindsight I should have recognized. Every student that I talked to told me to stay away from my soon-to-be supervisor, but still decided to work under her because I was desperate. Then when she started telling me to come on weekends to complete experiments, I did, and soon I started resenting going to the lab but convinced myself that this is all part of being in graduate study. Ever since the first week of work I have been asked to work extra hours to get stuffs done, and then almost every week somebody in the lab was scolded for an hour straight by the PI for making mistakes. All the signs were there, but I had hope that things would get better. Never did, stayed for a-year-and-half. Should have quit way earlier. Listen to what this article has to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank-you for this helpful comment, tankyrase… Sorry to hear you went through this awful experience. As you know, the types of abusive behaviour displayed by your former graduate advisor fits pattern that is not at all uncommon.
      I also appreciate your comments on The Sham Ph.D. You’ve given some excellent advice there for students who find themselves in a similar situation, with an advisor who is abusive or simply unsupportive or incompetent. – Dave Mumby

      Like

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