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It’s OK to push back on your Ph.D. adviser

“Your adviser doesn’t care about you!” bellowed a professor during a professional development session that I attended midway through my Ph.D.

It was a jarring pronouncement, one that was meant to get our attention. What the professor went on to explain was that our advisers may be nice people, and even encouraging and supportive mentors, but they have their own priorities—securing grants, getting tenure—that might conflict with ours at times. That means trainees should always think critically about whether their advisers’ advice is in their own best interest—and if it’s not, consider pushing back or disregarding the advice entirely. “But don’t tell them I told you that,” he added.

Advisers wield an intimidating amount of power, and going against one’s faculty mentor is sometimes easier said than done. So, to provide a source of inspiration for current students who may feel an urge to challenge authority, three scientists share how they held their ground when the path they wanted to take didn’t entirely jive with their advisers’ visions.

Following your passion

When Bryan Dewsbury was in grad school, some faculty members worried that he was spending too much time teaching—a calling he had discovered during his first semester, when he was a teaching assistant (TA). He got comments such as, “You should stop this teaching thing and come back to being a grad student.” Under the weight of this less-than-positive feedback, Dewsbury could have easily folded and followed a more traditional Ph.D. student path, focusing more on his dissertation research, he says. “It’s tough to be in an environment where you feel like what you’re doing is not really valued.” But, he adds, “I was so clear on where I thought [my career] would go that I was able to kind of ignore or put in some perspective what the naysayers might say. And it was the best thing I ever did.”

When Dewsbury started his Ph.D. program, he had imagined a future as a marine scientist. But when he set foot in the classroom as a TA for the first time, he had an epiphany. He realized that, for him, “there was something else, something higher, something greater, something more—even spiritual—that came from the teaching process. … It was a pretty intense experience.” From that moment on, he knew that his future wasn’t in marine biology; it was in teaching or science education research.

“What my calling required was to spend more time thinking about teaching … and it required me to get skills that certainly weren’t a part of the Ph.D. program,” says Dewsbury, who is now an assistant professor in biology at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. So, he dove in. He taught more sections than was required of him; he became the head TA; he designed curricula for four classes—and he thoroughly enjoyed all of it, confirming the initial spark he had felt as a TA.

His adviser wasn’t unsupportive, but Dewsbury didn’t feel as though he fully understood his career ambitions and what was required to achieve them. “It wasn’t in his experience to advise somebody who had explicitly stated they were headed towards a teaching focused career.” So when it came to teaching, Dewsbury sought out mentorship elsewhere on campus, particularly at the university’s center for the advancement of teaching.

Looking back, he doesn’t have any regrets about how he allocated his time between research and teaching as a grad student. The varied teaching experiences “gave me the skills to do what I do now,” he says. He thinks they are the reason he was able to secure his current position, which allows him to teach and conduct biology education research.

And he still finds great satisfaction in that work. “Sometimes in life you’re fortunate to run into these things that you really would be excited to wake up and do for the next half century of your life,” he says. “Not everybody gets that, even people who like their jobs a lot.”

Finding compelling research

Jack Blauert was floundering during the first semester of his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He had initially been excited to work on the project that his adviser had assigned to him. But when he started digging into it more, he struggled to find the motivation to carry through with it.

He was supposed to design a system that would monitor hip transplants for the release of toxic metal ions by implanting a sensor and monitoring it wirelessly. Similar technology had already been developed for another application, so the new project, in his view, felt like a “copy and paste” sort of situation. “I just could not really come up with something that I was really excited about, where the idea felt like it was my own and I was really engaged with it,” says Blauert, a student at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

His reading on the topic ended up leading him to a different idea: Perhaps he could design a wearable antenna that would better communicate with implanted medical devices. That sort of technology had already been developed—for instance, to get diagnostic readings from internal glucose monitors—but he thought he could improve upon existing designs.

The next hurdle was getting his adviser’s approval to pursue the idea. He was nervous that she’d say no, but “we had a good enough relationship that I felt comfortable speaking my mind,” he says. So, he asked, “Hey, do you think we could maybe take a chance and try to do something different?”

His adviser wasn’t sure whether the idea would pan out. But she agreed to let him shelve his initial project temporarily and spend a few months tinkering with an antenna design to find out whether anything would come of his idea.

It took Blauert 3 months to develop the technology to the point where he and his adviser knew that he was onto something. “It seemed like a bit of a breakthrough,” he says. At that point, she gave him the green light to ditch his initial project and focus his dissertation on further developing and refining the antenna technology. Since then, they’ve published a paper and filed for a patent.

Now in his second year, Blauert is glad that he had the courage to speak up to his adviser—otherwise, he fears, he may not have gotten much fulfillment out of his Ph.D. He’s also thankful that his adviser was so supportive of his interests and open to shifting directions. “It was nice to be able to have that kind of freedom,” he says. “She’s an amazing adviser.”

Moving on

Danielle Robinson was elated. A fifth-year Ph.D. student at the time, she had just found out that she had been selected for a 10-month Mozilla Fellowship, where she would be able to work on issues related to open-source science publishing. It was just the sort of opportunity she was looking for as she considered her post-Ph.D. career direction. But there was a hitch. She needed to finish her degree before starting the fellowship in 4 months time, and she had barely scratched the surface of writing her dissertation. She knew she could get it done—but her adviser wasn’t quite on board.

When she told him that she intended to wrap up her experiments and start writing her dissertation in earnest, he didn’t think the time was right. “He really didn’t think that it was a good move for me and thought that I should just really focus on finishing my dissertation and then worry about a job when I was done,” she says.

But “I felt really strongly that that was not the right path for me.” For one, she knew that she did not want to pursue a career in her field of study, neurobiology. Moreover, “money was a struggle, especially since I had a kid,” she says, and the Mozilla Fellowship paid relatively well. When it came to figuring out what she would do after finishing her Ph.D., “the idea of a fallback postdoc, or putting off any kind of decision making, wasn’t really an option for me.”

So she spoke to a university administrator, who advised her to set a defense date with her committee and, in essence, “dare them to say no.” The approach worked: She defended within 4 months of receiving the fellowship offer. She also found that she and her adviser worked better together “once the defense was scheduled and the wheels were in motion,” in part because they were both on the same page that they wanted to get a solid dissertation written.

Looking back, she sees where her adviser was coming from: If she had taken his advice and prolonged her Ph.D., she could have gotten more research done, and perhaps had another publication, she says. “But for me today, that would not have been worth losing the opportunity to do the Mozilla Fellowship,” says Robinson, who currently works as an executive director at Code for Science & Society in Portland, Oregon. “I was doing the right thing for myself and my family and to advance my career on my timeline.”

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