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When your thesis adviser advises you to quit

You may be familiar with the phrase “grad school isn’t right for everyone.” Maybe you heard it from an admissions counselor, or your own skeptical self-doubt, or your parents—who are just trying to help, geez. And maybe you brushed it off thinking, “No, of course not for everyone. But surely it’s right for me.”

What happens, though, when the entity who doubts the validity of your educational choice is not your counselor, not your parents, not even you—it’s your thesis adviser?

More than anyone else, doesn’t your thesis adviser know your professional strengths and weaknesses intimately? When they say, “Hey, you know where you don’t belong? My effing lab,” the insult carries the weight of an ultimatum.

I had a friend in grad school whose Ph.D. thesis adviser forced her to take a course he taught. She had worked faithfully in her adviser’s lab for several years, but for whatever reason—perhaps she was distracted by actual lab work—she failed one of the written exams.

You’d think the failing grade itself, not to mention the lingering insecurity, would have been sufficient punishment. But her adviser apparently disagreed. He pulled her aside, returned her exam, and said something that hurt her more than the grade ever could: “You really shouldn’t be in a Ph.D. program.”

Epilogue: She finished the Ph.D. program. But as you can probably guess, it wasn’t exactly a festival of joy.

After hearing a similar story from a reader last month, I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter to find out whether anyone else had a thesis adviser tell them they weren’t cut out for the degree. And damn. What I thought would be a couple incidents turned into a tweetstorm of misery. I knew not everyone has the best relationship with their thesis adviser—I’ve even put together a list of thesis adviser horror stories—but I had no idea how many grad students suffer regularly because their bosses like to remind them that they’re not good enough.

People sent me novellas detailing their struggles. Some even sent supporting documentation, for goodness sake—such as a CV refuting any maligning of their academic prowess or an annotated communication from their thesis adviser.  

I got the feeling that some people sent me their stories not to vent, not to help future sufferers, but under the (unfortunately) mistaken premise that I have some way to help them. And more keep coming in. The more stories I read, the worse I feel that I’m just a lowly columnist. I can’t, as I think some hope, burst into their departments tomorrow and whack their thesis advisers upside their respective heads. I only have the power to do exactly what I’m doing now: share their stories.

Take, for example, the student whose adviser emailed her “out of the blue” to suggest dropping out, then immediately left to do fieldwork without internet access for 3 months. Or the student who was told upon starting her degree that the program head did not think she was a “quality candidate,” that “the program was very prestigious and [she] was not,” and “to know [her] place.” Or the student who was told to quit because she “lacks commitment”—because she left at 5 p.m. each day to spend time with her family, which she balanced by arriving early every morning. Or the student whose adviser must have gossiped about him to a guest lecturer, because the lecturer pointed him out in front of his colleagues and said, “You. You need to work harder.” Or the student whose adviser said she was “one of the nicest students in the doctoral program” but that pursuing a master’s degree instead of a Ph.D. might be a better way for her to “make a difference in [her] Latino community.”

Students heard that they were a waste of their thesis committee’s time, that they “showed no potential for scholarship,” that they should “cut their losses,” that it would be “too cruel” to allow them to continue their Ph.D. because they already possess “credentials sufficient to enable [them] to find employment.” When one beleaguered student eventually left for her postdoctoral fellowship, her adviser added, “Don’t embarrass us.” Another had an undergraduate thesis adviser who said she could only be admitted to her undergraduate institution for graduate school, nowhere else, because she wasn’t good enough—but the adviser could “convince the panel to admit [her].”

You may have picked up on the frequency of she/her pronouns for the students in these stories. The fact is, almost every single student who responded with stories about a problematic adviser was female. Maybe the gender imbalance isn’t a surprise—we know that women’s scientific training is often riddled with obstacles and discrimination that men are less likely to face—but that’s going to have to be a topic for another article.

If there’s any good news here, it’s that a majority of the stories I received ended in vindication for the downtrodden student. The student earned the disputed degree, or found a kinder mentor, or won every department award possible. One student, overwhelmed by stress, recalled being pulled aside by a favorite instructor and reminded that he “didn’t get in by accident.” Some advisers even ultimately apologized for their misjudgment.

I can’t say, however, that it always ends well. Maybe the only people submitting stories are those who are largely un-traumatized—or maybe others are afraid to send the stories with unhappy endings, lest we suspect their advisers are correct. There were plenty of students still embroiled in their bad situations. I fielded many pleas for anonymity—because the professor in question can still ruin the student’s academic career on a whim.

But what all of the success stories have in common is that the affected students approached the issue of their competence the way a scientist should: with data. They questioned whether they themselves belonged there, but not just in a pensive, musing way; they asked other mentors and collaborators for an honest assessment, then concluded that their advisers’ opinions were outliers. They trusted their own feeling that they were not, in fact, struggling; stuck with the program; and ultimately moved on to healthier situations.

The stories were one-sided, yes; let’s get that out of the way. I didn’t ask thesis advisers to send me stories of negligent students, so no one could defend themselves. Of course, not all thesis advisers are wrong to advise some students that “grad school isn’t right for everyone,” and I don’t want to portray all advisers as meanies who fail to appreciate their students’ specialness. Certainly, some students aren’t likely to succeed in a Ph.D. program, and telling them this may actually be more benevolent than not telling them. But telling them in their fifth year? Telling them in front of their thesis committee? Telling them in response to a “B” grade? Telling them without explaining why? Assholes all.

Maybe the fallacy lies in assuming that your adviser really does understand you professionally better than anyone. After all, there’s one person who may just know your chances of success in grad school better than your adviser—you.

Grad school isn’t supposed to be easy. But it shouldn’t be soul-crushing, either. If your thesis adviser ever tells you to quit—and you don’t think you should—look for other mentors or support networks. As my inbox will attest, survival is possible.

And if it’s truly not a good fit, there’s no shame in leaving. Just be sure to do it on your own terms. Then you can tell your adviser, “Hey, you know where I don’t belong? Your effing lab.”

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