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What To Do When Your Advisor Goes Too Far, Part II

Last month we discussed the story of L., a recent Ph.D. from a prestigious school on the East Coast. L. was having a terrible time with her adviser, Dr. N. What started as a bumpy relationship deteriorated into complete dysfunction. Dr. N. failed to write letters of reference for L. and failed to return drafts of manuscripts. L. found herself in limbo, unable to extricate herself from her former adviser but unable to move on in her career in her search for postdocs.

A number of you wrote in to relate similar experiences with advisers who had "gone too far." Several of you noted that a lack of power equity between adviser and student tends to make students very fearful of approaching the administration for help in resolving a conflict.

In last month's articles I identified three areas where I thought L.'s adviser may have crossed the line:

  • misrepresenting the contents of letters of reference,

  • failing to send letters of reference, and

  • sitting on manuscripts.

However, having never advised students myself, I thought it would be important to hear from people who HAVE. So I invited two senior scientists from top academic institutions to review the story of L. and provide their comments.

Meet David Pollard and Joan Lorden

David Pollard is the Barney & Estelle Morris Professor of Geology in the department of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University, where he leads a large and active research group in structural geology and geomechanics. From 1990 to 1995, Prof. Pollard served as his department's chair. Joan Lorden is the dean of the graduate school at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). Both of them are the sort of people a troubled graduate student, such as L., might go to for assistance in resolving a crisis with an adviser.

The Appropriate Chain of Command for Conflict Resolution

I started by asking each of them who a troubled graduate student should contact first when they are having difficulty with their adviser. I also asked what mechanisms existed at their institutions to resolve such a conflict.

David Pollard: "First, let me say that there should be a clearly understood hierarchy of people with whom a graduate student can consult regarding problems with a faculty member. The names of these people and their roles should be known to all graduate students when they first arrive in the department. At my university these persons include, in ascending order of authority, the graduate coordinator, department chair, dean of the school, and provost of the university.

Independent and completely confidential consultations also are available for general problems through the university ombudsperson, and for specific problems (e.g., sexual harassment, discrimination of any kind, psychological difficulties, health problems, etc.) through appropriate university offices. If a satisfactory solution is not found through discussions with these people, there is a formal grievance procedure available to the student, starting with the dean and including the opportunity to appeal decisions up to the president of the university."

Joan Lorden: "There are some structural things that would be helpful almost anywhere. A few obvious ones would be:

  • Students are generally better off when there are advising systems in place that don't require them to rely solely on a dissertation chairperson. Program directors or small advisory committees can review a student's progress at least annually. It's useful to have students and mentors submit progress reports at regular intervals. If there are problems meeting milestones or if the student and mentor don't agree on the progress, then it is important to get both the student and the adviser in a room together to discuss this.

  • The university or at least the graduate school needs to have a statement of best practices or expectations for mentors in place. A couple of years ago, we put into place guidelines for graduate fellows and assistants and followed up by adopting the Council of Graduate School's recommendations in their book "Research Student and Mentor" as a guide for the faculty. Every member of the graduate faculty has a copy. Everyone who is added to the graduate faculty receives a copy and a letter about it.

  • During orientation sessions for new students, there should be opportunities to discuss the selection of mentors and the responsibilities of students and mentors. A program director should be able to tell a student what course to follow if things don't seem to be going right. Also, students need to be told that they need not rely on one person for all their mentoring needs. Talking to other faculty members about their work, goals, etc., does not reflect badly on the competence of their research adviser.

  • Schools also need a formal appeals process as a mechanism for solving problems if they cannot resolve them within their programs.

[Unlike Stanford], we don't have an ombudsperson, and students are encouraged to resolve their problems within their programs, with the understanding that they can come to the dean if that fails. The dean has the advantage of being removed from the local tensions that may exist in programs, and sometimes it is easier for a dean to get a faculty member and student to resolve their differences. A former secretary-general of the United Nations once remarked that there were only two ways to get people or nations to change their behavior: self-interest or fear of embarrassment.

It is not in the best interests of a faculty member to get the reputation of being a poor mentor; news tends to travel fast among students. It is also embarrassing to have student complaints aired outside the lab or department."

David Pollard: "In general I would recommend a student start with their faculty adviser as soon as a problem develops. To the extent that a direct conversation could clear up simple misunderstandings, this is the best approach. The next person to approach really depends on the nature of the problem (technical, methodological, personal, logistical) and the severity of the problem (threatens a grade in a class, an experiment, a thesis, a career opportunity, the health of the student, the life of the student).

Given the structure that we have in place [at Stanford], L. should have gone to the graduate coordinator, a faculty member who oversees the activities and progress of the students. This should have happened at an early stage, when appointments were missed or the communications were not satisfactory. Every student has the right to expect common courtesy, as well as timely and considered answers to their questions from their adviser. The student can appeal to the chair if the graduate coordinator is biased or cannot solve the problem. If the chair is similarly ineffectual, the next level is the dean and beyond that the provost. At these higher levels of authority, a student can usually be assured that the person will not be prejudiced by close personal relationships with the adviser. Furthermore, when different versions of an incident are presented by a student and their adviser, the benefit of the doubt is usually given to the student, because the adviser is in a power relationship over the student. If there are any concerns about retribution or bias, the ombudsperson provides both student and faculty member with confidentiality and an unbiased position."

But what can a department chair or a graduate dean do when an adviser shows a pattern of poor behavior? Joan Lorden provided some advice.

Dean Lorden: "One place that most graduate deans have some leverage is in the award of fellowship and assistantship funds to programs. You can create incentives for programs to find ways to address problems if you make awards contingent on meeting certain expectations. For example, at UAB we have put a peer-review process in place. Every 3 years, the programs submit internal training grant applications and a committee reviews the program. It is not a trivial task, but review committees do look at the question of whether students in a program are publishing. When programs are held accountable for student progress, they are responsive. In many universities, graduate deans also appoint faculty members to the graduate faculty. This is a point at which a dean or program director could rein in a faculty member who was irresponsible."

Letters of Reference

We next turned to the subject of letters of reference. L. described how her adviser had sent out a lackluster letter of reference or, in some cases, failed to send a letter at all. What should a student expect of their adviser?

David Pollard: "This could be a tough issue if the personal relationship between the adviser and student was basically a good one, but the student's work did not quite measure up to the expectations of the adviser, or the adviser believed that the prospective position would be too challenging or inappropriate for the student. In such a case the adviser should explain to the student that the adviser, while noting positive aspects of the student's work, cannot recommend them for this particular position."

Dean Lorden: "Letters of recommendation are generally confidential, but they are also sent at the request of a student. I have always felt that a faculty member has to be candid with students about letters and not lead them to believe that they are getting glowing recommendations if they are not."

That being said, Prof. Pollard brought up a good point about L.'s decision to ask for a letter from her abusive adviser.

David Pollard: "After all the demeaning encounters with her adviser and all of his berating and rejection, how in the world could she have expected a positive letter? Such a letter would have been totally inconsistent with his pattern of behavior over several years. If such behavior really happened, and if a student in such a bad situation actually stuck with an adviser until completion of the degree (something I would strongly discourage), the student should not ask the adviser for a letter. Members of the student's Ph.D. committee could be asked, as could the chair of the department, or faculty members from another school who are acquainted with the products of the student's work (papers, presentations, etc.). The student should ask the chair (or dean) to write a letter to the prospective employer explaining why no letter is forthcoming from the adviser."

Timely Return of Manuscripts

I also brought up the issue of timely return of manuscripts. As any young scientist knows, manuscripts are key to one's job search. What should a student expect for turnaround time for such things?

David Pollard: "Every student has a right to expect a timely response on a draft of a report, thesis chapter, or manuscript. The student should ask the adviser for an estimate of the time it will take, and the faculty member should make an effort to comply. Having said that, there are too many circumstances to consider and too many cultural differences among disciplines to specify a 'reasonable' time for all cases.

Such a job might take a few days but could take months, depending on the schedule of the adviser and the complexity of the manuscript. It should be obvious to a student if their adviser is doing their job conscientiously. If the adviser is managing a big group, has a heavy teaching load, is in the midst of proposal-writing season, and is in the office working hard from dawn to dusk, the student should not expect a fast turnaround. If on the other hand the adviser spends the morning reading the newspaper, 2 hours chatting over lunch with colleagues at the faculty club, and leaves for home in midafternoon, the student has a right to expect a fast turnaround. If it is not forthcoming, the student should ask about the adviser's priorities and, if not satisfied that their work is given a high enough priority, a new adviser should be sought, or a neutral party (chair, dean, etc.) should be consulted."

Joan Lorden: "The positions that students get and their publications reflect on the quality of the program and the faculty. In L.'s case, the faculty member seems to be behaving erratically. A department chairperson should be concerned about that. The chairperson should be able to negotiate a way for a student as far along as L. to finish her papers with the faculty member. For students earlier in their careers, sometimes it is useful to have a student work with someone who can really teach them how to produce a good first draft to represent to a mentor. Some faculty members are good at teaching writing, but others are not. Some students need more help getting started than others."

A Student's Responsibilities

Both Lorden and Pollard commented that students need to take the initiative in managing their relationship with their adviser. Nearly all Ph.D.-granting institutions have established grievance procedures, and students must avail themselves of them. Also, students with difficult or aloof advisers must carefully manage their bosses, providing reminders of important deadlines or wayward manuscripts. Prof. Pollard summarized this:

"Professors are not in some elite class that exempts them from behaving with common courtesy and a professional attitude about their responsibilities. Bad behavior demands a solution, and most institutions have the mechanisms in place to help students implement a solution.

On the other hand, students have some personal responsibility to know the rules, know how to proceed when a problem first comes up, and be an advocate for their own cause. In my opinion L. failed on many counts to exercise common sense and due diligence on her own behalf. If her story is accurately portrayed, she has herself to blame, at least in part, for many of the difficulties reported. This fact in no way excuses the behavior of her adviser, if it was reported accurately by L., but it does emphasize that two people were involved and both had the opportunity to help rectify the problems."

One of our forum participants put it another way. "... The individual trainee is vested with the responsibility of telling their adviser when they have engaged in a behavior that the trainee finds unacceptable. But until the trainee takes the big step to inform the adviser, nothing will change."

Now that you've heard this perspective on the story of L., what questions or comments do you have? Join us in the forum section where we'll continue this discussion.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.