Am I still paranoid if they're really out to get me?
December 12, 2008 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My PhD Orals Chair just suggested I postpone my orals, scheduled for Monday.

I am a PhD student in the UC system. I've had problems with my adviser for a long time, starting the first day of school when I walked in and he said, "I know you got that letter saying that I would provide you support for at least a year and a half - I'm not giving you any money."

This blatantly broke departmental policy, but is a somewhat common procedure for Profs- they know that they won't get reported by the students, who need them to sign off on their projects.

From there, it has gotten worse. I have a strong background in his field, except I have been a practitioner and he has never been. He does not respect the field experience. I am his second grad student. Everyone else in his lab has known him for decades and has a very strong research background, which I lack.

I received a prestigious award which took care of the funding problem, but he has recently referred to it as HIS _____ and he explained to me that it was awarded to me because I was in his lab and because of all the help he gave me in preparation of it (both utterly bogus- he didn't even write his letter of rec, I did!)

This fall he told me that because he hadn't seen any progress, he was considering booting me from the lab, also because I had an interdisciplinary focus. I've spent the fall working my ass off and trying to get ready for my Orals qualifying exam, which he sees as a benchmark of progress.

He has been doing little things that don't help- told a couple of professional colleagues that he has "zero respect" for me (who later told me, I can't imagine who else he has repeated this to). He has also ceased being available to look at my Prospectus or give insights. Due to a death in the family (a distant in law) he has been gone for nearly a month and I've sent him updates, though haven't insisted on a reply - until I found out that he is still in communications with other members of the lab, just not me!

The Chair of my Orals is a very fair man, but also very good friends with my adviser. He has been asking me persistently to get my Prospectus cleared by my adviser (who has not even read it, despite it being sent to him weekly) and today emailed me to let me know that he was concerned about my progress and wanted to suggest I postpone my orals.

I am at the end of my rope. I woke up, saw the email, and started sobbing. I have been doing so much to prepare for this and I feel so ready. I would rather drop out of school than postpone my orals, but my partner feels like I will be destroying myself if I go into orals with a Chair who has already told me not to do it.

What should I do? Postpone the orals (and very possibly drop out of school)? Do I have a chance of success if I go ahead with my orals?
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm really sorry you're going through this. Grad school can be stressful at the best of times, and having an unsupportive advisor is a huge problem. I think your long-term goal should be finding someone new to be your advisor. There was one prof in my department who was eventually forbidden to have any new grad students because she was so awful to them.

Does your university have an ombudsperson? Does your graduate handbook offer any information that might be helpful?
posted by sevenyearlurk at 10:18 AM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing that these are the orals that you need to pass in order to qualify for Ph.D candidacy? If so they are very much a benchmark of progress. That having been said, your advisor sounds like an advisor from hell and your relationship is disfunctional. You should talk to your director of graduate studies in your department. If that isn't possible then you should take this out of department.

My reading of this is that the only reason that you're not ready is that the Chair of the committee thinks that you haven't submitted something that you should have, if that's the case then you need to talk to someone else, either the DGS, dept Chair or out of department.

If you are being advised to postpone for any other reason then you should listen. It may well be that you are not ready even though you can't see that yourself. Unfortunately, academia is full of issues like this that come up time and time again. There is a good reason for the 50% drop-out rate. If you really want to carry on doing what you're doing you'll see this as a hurdle rather than as a mountain.
posted by ob at 10:25 AM on December 12, 2008

and by 'should have' I mean 'have'
posted by ob at 10:26 AM on December 12, 2008

I think you need to change advisors. I think you probably should have changed advisors quite a while ago, but the delay does not mean that all is lost. Is your award portable? An experienced student with funding should not have too much of a problem finding a new home. A change will cost you time, but will save you frustration. And, ultimately, pursuing a degree with an advisor who does not support you is just a waste of your time.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:27 AM on December 12, 2008

What a terrible situation. I agree that the goal should be to get a new adviser, but that can be easier said than done.

First, if the chair is saying that you should delay the exam, you need to delay the exam -- this is done to avoid having to fail someone, and the consequences of failing the exam can be a lot more severe than deferring it. (And deferring it does not have to lead to quitting -- many, many people are told to delay their exams; this is not a rare or shameful situation.)

Second, I think that you should try and speak (in person, not by email) with the chair ASAP. Not to argue, but to try and find out what is really going on, from his perspective. (And is he the chair of your committee, or of the department?) You probably also should be in communication with the DGS in your department, perhaps the chair, and possibly an ombudsperson or other outside person who can clarify rights and responsibilities.

Good luck.
posted by Forktine at 10:27 AM on December 12, 2008

There are a lot of things I can't tell about your situation, so maybe take my advice with a grain of salt, but here's what I think you should do: (i) Talk to someone else in your department about this, the chair, the graduate advisor, maybe the chair of your orals, and tell them what has been going on. (ii) postpone your orals, unless you can do step (i) before then and get something figured out. (iii) Switch advisors/labs if at all possible (maybe even schools; this does happen, especially for students with external grants in your situation; whatever he says, it isn't his funding, and it probably goes with you). You absolutely need to do step (i) regardless of what happens, and regardless of how unpleasant it is to do. (In fact, honestly, you should have done it after that first funding issue, though I know it is hard.) It is possible the entire dept. will be on his side, but I do not think that is as likely as you seem to think, and it really sounds like they have no idea what is going on. If he is up for tenure soon, for instance, this could be something they really need to hear about. Even if you leave the program it will be good that they hear about this. Also, I think you should go talk to your union rep (UAW 2865 for all UC schools, probably your department has a rep.). Because you have external funding you may not actually be a member, unless you are currently TAing, but you are covered under their contract and I think they would be willing to help you figure out what to do. By the way, one reason for step (iii) is that it seems like it would be very hard to go on the job market with a letter from this guy.

Also, I want to describe a dynamic that occurs in grad school; it is an extremely common one. I do not describe this to put blame on you, because it sounds like this is almost entirely not your fault. Many, many, incoming graduate students show up thinking they know what they want to do, how they want to do it, and why. They are almost always wrong, especially when this is examined in the context of their department or lab (this was certainly true of me). A major factor of success in graduate school seems to be how well people transition out of this state. It sounds to me like it was not the right thing to do to remain interdisciplinary in your lab (possibly in your subfield). A good advisor will help their students with this transition, and probably be explicitly aware of this dynamic; it sounds like yours did not and was not, and saw your interdisciplinary focus as some kind of rebellion against him. But regardless, I'm guessing that it is not in fact a good focus for a student in his lab, and he has failed to do a good job of pointing this out to you & helping you become someone who is a good fit there. This is another reason why I think you should switch advisors & labs.
posted by advil at 10:50 AM on December 12, 2008

You might want to check out Phinished for additional advice.
posted by mecran01 at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

My opinion on what to do... Did you send your prospectus to your adviser via e-mail? Do you have e-mails or a paper trail otherwise proving that you sent this work to him, and sent other messages requesting that he review it, and what exactly he told you (or didn't tell you) about what kind of progress he wanted to see? If this is all documented I would bring this to a meeting you have with the department chair.

Don't get emotional about it, just be clear that this is what you did to ensure that you were on track, and that you have done everything you could to meet expectations as you understood them. But again I would focus on just stating the facts of the matter with documentation, don't get emotional and don't overtly put blame on your adviser, I would put it more on "miscommunication." If your adviser is at fault here, the chair will figure that out, though he probably won't tell you that your adviser is at fault. Just state the facts and show that they're documented. If this doesn't help resolve the situation at hand, then worry about taking it to the next level. If you were obviously angry and upset in your emails, be upfront about it and say you regret it, and stick to the issue of: what can we do now to resolve this situation and the miscommunication here, because your objective is to be on track toward getting your degree. That is the real issue.

I agree that was awful and unfair of your adviser to take credit for your award and preparation for it, and worse to talk about not respecting you, but try to bracket this out - it's not relevant right now. Once you square things away with the department chair, you can move on to find a new adviser if possible, and again I'd put it under the general problem of miscommunication, because if you complain about your adviser being a complete jerk & keep holding on to ways of proving that.. you'd be right but saying so is not collegial and will hurt you. Especially if you're a woman because things are unfair like that. The chair of your department has to maintain a good professional relationship with this guy and would almost have to take his side if the issue became "he's a terrible adviser and unfair."

I can't emphasize enough the need to be calm, straightforward and professional about this. If there's one thing I learned in grad school it's that getting emotionally upset about your profs and your department, no matter how unjust things are.. it's natural to get upset, but keep it out of your interactions with them. They don't want to deal with it, it's not their job.
posted by citron at 10:58 AM on December 12, 2008

Academia politics seem so overwhelming, but you're not helpless and not alone. There are mechanisms instituted for exactly this sort of crap. It seems you might have to go outside of your department. There are some acerbic politics you're dealing with, and there is always a general office for graduate students within a UC. Lay out your side of things, and often there's something like a mini-trial, where your adviser will have to explain himself to neutral parties. If the facts are what you've told us, it seems like he should fear this scenario.

However, if I were you, I would have a face to face meeting with the chair and give your side to him, first, otherwise you will anger and alienate the chair. Let him know you have no vendetta, but feel you should be allowed to continue, and will contact student affairs in your defense - you're not powerless, here. You need to get the word out that you're hardworking, determined and serious, and are being treated unfairly. Another adviser will come.
posted by namesarehard at 10:59 AM on December 12, 2008

You really need a new advisor. It's common enough of a problem, but most of the time, it ends up derailing the grad student's career, not the advisors. So here's my 2 cents on how to approach this problem.

1) Go to the chair of your orals. Bring your prospectus with you, and say something to the effect of, This is the material you provided to your advisor xx many weeks ago, but you haven't had any feedback yet. And here's a very important part: Your advisor has had a death in the family, and you realize that he has had lots on his mind. You apologize for the imposition, and realize that it's not the usual procedure, but your advisor is, after all, dealing with a death in the family, and you want to be cognizant of his needs. And that is why you are asking the chair of your orals, since he is the chair after all, to take a look at your prospectus and evaluate whether you might be ready for your orals or not.
Go to other faculty with whom you have a good relationship (or other members of your committee), and give him/her a copy of your perspectus, and ask them the same question, with the same caveat. This should give you a pretty good idea as to whether you're ready or not. AND, you give everybody a means of giving you feedback without stepping on any toes and forcing another faculty member to choose between you and your advisor.

2) Go to the chair of your dept., or the head of your area, and tell him/her the problem. DON'T say the advisor is out to ruin you, etc., Instead (again, very very important), say that the fit isn't quite right, in terms of what you want to do in your research. You're interested more in an interdisciplinary approach to the problem X, where you would like to better understand the impact of A, B, and C on X, whereas your advisor is only interested in how problem X is impacted by a small subsection of A. So, you were wondering if there might be someone else whom you can work with who would be a better fit for your research interests. Again, even though it's a personal problem, don't turn it into one. Keep it professional, and keep it in the language that the profs will understand. And again, by making it into a research issue, not a personality fit, you're giving everybody a chance to solve this without having it derail your career.

Good luck.
posted by jujube at 11:16 AM on December 12, 2008 [9 favorites]

I used to run a graduate program in an art college and have had experience dealing with graduate students. It's a very stressful time for students as someone has already stated. That being said, a good advisor, seeing that you might not have been a good fit in his lab, would try to help the student make good decisions about their studies, research, and which faculty might be of assistance, not try to undermine them. He sounds either sadistic or jealous.

Others have made some good suggestions on what your next steps should be. I wish you the best.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:17 AM on December 12, 2008

Many, many, incoming graduate students show up thinking they know what they want to do, how they want to do it, and why. They are almost always wrong, especially when this is examined in the context of their department or lab (this was certainly true of me). A major factor of success in graduate school seems to be how well people transition out of this state.

This is OTM! I got in a big argument with one of the most important profs in my department because I was so sure that I was right, thought a grade was unfair, and didn't want to hear his criticism. Luckily a fellow student was good enough to set me straight that I was supposed to be a student and listen to what he said, and I was able to back down quickly and tell him that I misunderstood my role and respected his evaluation of my work... before I really screwed myself over. I found other ways to do that. :)

Maybe the real underlying issue is that your adviser really does not respect your choice of an interdisciplinary focus, and thinks you are out of line when you insist on keeping it - that you don't belong in his lab doing what you're doing. So it's not about a personal grudge here.. and again, it sucks to have to do this, but stick to: this is about your objective of finishing your PhD with this focus, and in light of that.. you may not be a good fit for his lab.

If he runs his lab one way, and you come in wanting to focus a different way, then yes, he can see this as you disrespecting him, and continuing to do so, and sending him work to evaluate that goes outside his area of expertise, and expecting him to spend his valuable time to critique it. Just saying. If this becomes about you wanting to prove you're right and he's wrong, you're going to lose. If at all possible try to resolve this by keeping it within your department; going up the chain of command to higher-ups at the university IMHO is a definite worst-case last-resort scenario, a mini-trial with your adviser would wreck your career before it even gets started!
posted by citron at 11:38 AM on December 12, 2008

I used to deal with these kinds of problems about once a semester when I was the student representative on the graduate school academic grievance committee and I have to say a lot of advice here is pretty solid. I'm going to say something a little different because I tend to plan for eventualities hoping they don't come to pass. I would start with your university's graduate school ombudsman. These problems are more common than you think and usually are resolved way before it comes to formal hearings, but you need to start preparing now for the possibility that it's going to go there. In my experience, when an ombudsman is involved, department personnel listen more carefully and quickly than when it's just a student - the ombudsman has all sorts of advantages in dealing with this that you just plain don't.

Tell them that you wish to resolve this informally if possible, and would like some advice on talking to your graduate school advisor (usually the first step after the professor on the grievance chain). Be sure you have constructed a rough outline of events, specific grievable points by your own university's policy, and a preferred resolution. Nothing fancy, just notes so you can talk about concrete stuff. Your best resource is your own knowledge of university procedure and ability to construct for others a narrative explaining what has happened. Also, you need to think very hard about what culpable role you have played in this (not that it's your fault, but so many complaints I've heard are very one-sided) because you are going to be held to the fire about this at some point the further it goes and you need to be able to construct a narrative that places the burden of responsibility on the other party in a fair and reasonable manner. Your best resource is your own knowledge of university procedure and ability to construct for others a narrative explaining what has happened.

Once you have things worked out in your head, your ombudsman is going to be your first, best advocate in this and will try to resolve the situation in a way that works for both parties. Basically, you have a lot of latitude about what to ask for in terms of who can evaluate you and the transparency of the process - not so much on *how* they must do so. I've even seen the university pull in experts from other schools to offer evaluations that are not tainted by department politics. If it comes before a grievance board, be darned tooting sure (and I say this because so many students write 5,000 word grievance letters that never get to the point) that you articulate very clearly how the situation abridges your rights according to specific university policies and what redress you are seeking. Without that it's not going to go your way, even if the professor is found at fault.
posted by mrmojoflying at 2:27 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Talk about a day for flashbacks.

I was in a very similar situation five years ago with a previous PhD adviser. It was the night before my orals when I went into her office and she proceeded to chew me out for an hour because, in her opinion, I was not prepared and had not prepared/taken the process seriously at all. Regardless, she took it upon herself to cancel the entire thing without my permission (or knowledge until the next day when I received an email from a committee member wondering what had happened)

As everyone else has said above, you have options. Many options. I would make an appointment with the ombudsman as soon as you can. Spend a day or so putting everything down on paper before you talk to him/her. Lay out exactly what has happened, keep it as neutral as you can, and let them make suggestions or decide the ultimate course of action. Like mrmojoflying said, once the ombudsman gets involved, people start to listen. Also, get in touch with the Dean of the Graduate school, do the same talk with them. Might not hurt to talk to your department head and the department's graduate adviser.

It sounds like you have an ally in your committee chair. Do you feel comfortable in that relationship talking to them as to why they thing you are not ready? Can they honestly answer why they told you what they did? They may not be able to due to some of the wonderful departmental politics, but it never hurts to ask. But this is why orals and defenses are done in front of committees, as your current adviser may come across as a complete ass to the rest of the faculty there -- they will see that something is going on if he starts to express concerns and disrespect your work. Believe me, it shows, and it may influence the rest of your committee.

It's painful, stressful, and very unpleasant. But you have many options.

Good luck. Feel free to contact me if you need to.
posted by rand at 2:53 PM on December 12, 2008

hey anon,
I am in the UC system. I can help. Memail me.
posted by special-k at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2008

You should talk to your faculty graduate advisor or your dean/associate dean of students (or perhaps you have a faculty students' centre with advisors who can help). Get your paper trail together. Don't be too aggressive, it's possible there's some other (valid) reason you're being asked to delay, so don't begin the process by burning any bridges.

There is far (far!) too much politics at play in University faculties, but chances are if your phd advisor really is a shitcock, then other people know about it, and might be prepared (or even waiting) to help you.

I'm sure this is dispiriting, but don't drop out when you're so close. If you can't resolve your orals, your next step isn't dropping out, but changing phd advisors.
posted by The Monkey at 7:26 PM on December 14, 2008

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