To stay or go? Life in grad school.
February 27, 2009 2:05 PM   Subscribe

Another grad school issue/what do to with my life question. Long inside, bear with me please.

I've been in a Cognitive Psychology Ph.D. program for 5 years now. I've had a series of issues with my advisor the entire time I've been here. I am a fairly straightforward blunt person who will not take a ton of crap without saying something about it. My advisor is a lazy passive aggressive person who hates conflict and deals with it by avoiding you if you cause it. Over my 5 years I have felt like I have had to fight to get him to allow me to do anything, including behavioral research that doesn't cost him a dime. Every time I propose research he says that he'd need to think about it more and then ignore me for months on end. When I'd ask to go to conferences (again, which he doesn't pay for), he'd always try to talk me out of it.

Now I'm at the point that I should have my prospectus out, be working on my thesis, generally finishing up. I should also have papers published, in fact I can't graduate without this. He refuses to work on my prospectus (won't look at outlines, talk about research, read anything I've written), telling me always I should work on publishing the papers on the data I have as then no one can have issues with them in the prospectus. However, he also refuses to work on any of my papers. After 2 years of having one of my papers, I finally got him to submit it, it needed revisions, and now, he's refusing to look at the revisions. He made me take a 1 month extension on the revisions, it's due tomorrow and he won't look at it. I have no hope for the 2nd paper either.

So i'm seriously stuck thinking that due to conflicts he and I have had due to different personalities, that he does not want me to be in his lab anymore and that he will never let me graduate, and will simply continue ignoring me until I quit. And I don't know what to do. There is zero support at my school for grad students. Anyone I would complain to would simply just tell him and obviously that wouldn't go well.

I don't know what to do, as far as I can figure, my options seem to be to try to switch labs, no easy feat because many other professors would not risk my current advisor's ire to take me in. In addition, there is not a small chance that I would have to start from scratch, negating my 5 years of work (also, I have a baby due in June, and I need to get out of school for this reason). My other option? To quit. Take my earned Masters and drop out of grad school and find a new life. I don't want to do this. I've learned that I love teaching college students for all their faults, and this is hard to do with simply a Masters. I have no other thoughts for what I'd like to do. So what do I do? Has anyone else been in this situation?

Sorry for the length, I'm just impossibly frustrated and need guidance.
posted by katers890 to Education (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
To me the key to your decision is if you have a realistic path to completion. You could be in one of two states right now: Either floundering in a hopeless swamp, or only N years from a PhD. If you can get some kind of assurance from your advisor and your committee that you are in the latter state, and can agree on a definition of N and all the various things you will be completing over those N years, then you can make an informed tradeoff: N years of hard work and a PhD, or quit now. The current tradeoff as you've stated it, an unbounded number of years and no guaranteed payoff vs quitting, is a much different question. If you're truly faced with the latter question, to me it makes sense to quit, or to switch to a new lab. Even if you switch, if you have a path to completion in the new lab it might be worth starting over.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:29 PM on February 27, 2009

There is zero support at my school for grad students. Anyone I would complain to would simply just tell him and obviously that wouldn't go well.

Really? Are you absolutely sure? Because I'd be surprised if there weren't people that you could talk to. Of course your first port-of-call should be your DGS but if you don't feel that they could help then you have to take it to the graduate school. If you genuinely feel that anyone your would speak to in your department would go straight back to him and not take you concerns seriously then you have a dysfunctional department and you have to go elsewhere. Frankly this is what the grad school office is for. There have to be people there that have dealt with this before. My field is completely different and I had a fantastic relationship with my advisor but almost every single friend of mine that was in the sciences had issues like you describe, hence why I think that there has to be some recourse at your university...

Lastly, and I always say this when such questions come up on AskMe, you should consider posting this on the grad-school life forum at The Chronicle of Higher Ed. Best of luck, for your sake please don't drop out because you have a crappy relationship with your advisor.
posted by ob at 2:38 PM on February 27, 2009

I work in the humanities and I find the idea of such a combative relationship in grad school to be utterly bizarre. That said.

1) Can you figure out whether he has a particular issue with you or your work? Perhaps if you were to discover that there is some specific problem, you could attempt to rectify the situation. Perhaps you could ask around the department.

2) If the relationship with your adviser is hopelessly antagonistic and unsalvageable, could you make it worth his time to get you out of the program? What would happen if you showed up at his office every single day, multiple times per day, asking for his feedback and input. What if you e-mailed him repeatedly, setting a new deadline each time and then holding him to it? In other words become such a constant and severe pest that he decides that it would be better by far to help you graduate? Just be careful to avoid breaking any rules and make sure that your communication is always polite, substantive and defensible.

3) Why not work on your papers yourself or ask someone else to review your work? What is it about his seal of approval that is necessary to the publication of your work?

4) Why not explain to him that in fact he is hindering your graduation and ask him to plan a reasonable course of action with you? If you state your case and desires ("I want to graduate this year, and I feel that I have done good work. etc."), it will be hard for him to just avoid the issue. If he does (or if he has already avoided your polite, clear, and plain requests) then ask again but CC your department head. Continue to escalate, contact your dean, etc.

(These order of these suggestions is not necessarily a guide to the order of your actions.)
posted by oddman at 2:57 PM on February 27, 2009

I'm curious - does your advisor act this way with all his students, or just you? I've heard plenty of stories of professors who are lazy with papers and if he's that way with everyone it's hard for me to believe that the other faculty don't know about it. If he is generally like this and if this is known, I would imaging you'd get support from your committee or from other faculty to help come up with a solution.

At least in my experience, the faculty who were problematic were well known in the rest of the department, and if this is the case it's hard for me to believe that other faculty or the head of your program wouldn't be able to help you out. It's possible that your program is different than mine was but in general graduate programs want their students to do well and be happy - it's in the best interest of the program. In the cases I've seen when peopleswitch labs it's not a big deal, although I do know of one case where an advisor was a colossal asshole and tried to ruin his former postdoc's career, but in this case the other faculty in the department went to the postdoc's defense because the advisor was such a jerk. And if your advisor really doesn't want you in his lab, why would he be upset if you switched labs?

It seems to me you have two major options - either work out a deal with your advisor and committee so that you can get out, which will probably involve a certain amount of pestering your advisor to get papers out, or switch labs. Where I've been, you can graduate with one paper, and it sounds like you've got material for a 2nd so it seems like you should be able to get out without a ton more work. I would try using your thesis committee or the director of your program as leverage with your advisor. If you can get them to agree that you should graduate by some target date, that gives you something to work with.

Apologies if none of this is relevant to your situation; it's based on my experience in bio graduate programs and things may be different for you.

On preview: oddman - in some science fields, it's standard that your advisor is coauthor on papers you publish while a student from their lab. In some of these fields (biology is one) publishing your work without your advisor on the paper is a major ethical breach. I'm guessing it's the same in the part of cognitive psychology the OP is in.
posted by pombe at 3:15 PM on February 27, 2009

Response by poster: ob. Yes, it's ridiculous that there is no support, but there isn't. Another person in my lab switch in after her advisor essentially tried to pimp her out to his colleague (he told him she'd have sex with him and then sent her off to work with him), and nothing has been done to him. She only managed to make the switch because she was a TA for someone who could help her out. I've only ended up TAing for postdocs or lecturers that don't work in the university. The department chair doesn't talk to grad students unless they are the ones causing trouble, the dean of the department is the same way and already doesn't like me due to some old issues from a while back. Each department runs their own grad students and there is no overarching control. I have a former lab mate who was much less invested in her already done work (I'm seriously almost done, I could write a thesis now with what I have, it may not be the best, but it would be a thesis) left the lab, explicitly told people why she left (exact same issues I'm having) and nothing was done. Another professor has never managed to graduate a student because they all quit or switch labs, he's still there. I will look into that forum though.

And oddman, alas, I've tried most of those. It seems to mostly be an issue with me, when I do something he doesn't like (which so far has included taking a lecturer position elsewhere to make some extra money, and getting pregnant) he suddenly thinks my work sucks. Otherwise it's neutral to slightly good comments if I get any.

As far as 2 goes, i'd love to make that an argument for him, "You hate me? Then graduate me!", and honestly to many degrees I've tried. He doesn't work that way, if he's mad, he doesn't do anything (one labmate once submitted an abstract to a conference that he refused to comment either way on, she got a talk at the conference and he refused to work on the talk with her until they were actually at the conference). I've tried the bugging him every time I see him, he stops coming into the lab/his office (that was today's tactic), repeated emails are ignored, setting deadlines are ignored, the only deadlines that seem to matter are those made by others outside of the lab and even those he's now ignoring (ie. my paper is due tomorrow. He said that he wasn't concerned and that we send it in later and that it wouldn't be a big deal, even though the journal has already given us a full month's extension). I always try to be polite, it doesn't make a difference.

And for 3, I do work on the papers myself, I get them to where I think they are pretty good, but he will not let things leave the lab without his approval. I'm currently at the point where I'm going to have to withdraw his name from the current paper to resubmit it apparently, which will look very bad. As far as prospectus/thesis stuff goes, your advisor has to approve, he has to sign off on everything. As far as having someone else review the work, I've tried that as well, but the lab has now shrunk to me, him, and 1 other grad student, who is currently refusing to do anything besides her own work, and in the past has offered to read it and never followed through on it. I tried contacting an graduated lab member and he offered to help, but again, no follow through, and I couldn't force him, because honestly he has his own work to do in his postdoc.

And for 4. I've had that talk to. I told him I wanted to graduate this June, it got a "well we'll see" and no follow through. I've bumped it to Jan, he says, "well focus on these papers and then we'll do the other stuff, I understand you want to graduate but I need to focus on x thing first". You seriously underestimate this guy's ability to avoid. Again going to the department head is really not likely to do much in this department, dean, etc, see my comment to ob related to that.

The problem is that I am 5 years in, I have a house, a disabled mother in law, and a coming baby to support. Starting from scratch seems like I'm going to be explicitly screwing myself and putting us in a big financial bind, our plans have always revolved around me taking about 5 years in school, and until recently I thought it'd be difficulty because of my advisor's issues, but that I could do it if I just pushed enough, but recent events have made me seriously question it.

The main problem with quitting is I have no other plan. I want to teach, but I can't without the Ph.D., and I don't know what to get into otherwise, Cognitive Psychology isn't a big transfer field to all kinds of jobs.
posted by katers890 at 3:25 PM on February 27, 2009

You're not going to get a PhD before your baby comes, as it sounds like you're hoping, so set that goal aside.

Talk to other faculty in your department, and don't just assume that

many other professors would not risk my current advisor's ire to take me in.

I can pretty much promise you that at least some of the other faculty are decent human beings, and know that the guy is a terrible advisor. Those that have tenure (and are not wusses) have nothing to fear from his "ire". That may be hard for you to fathom, but there it is: he's just a guy, maybe famous maybe not, who works with other people in a department. They are not his underlings and are not scared of him. If he's as bad as you say, to people other than you, than trust me--other members of the faculty know this. So find someone who seems reasonably nice, and talk to them. Tell them what you told us. That person is in a MUCH better position than we are to know about the practicalities of a) getting someone else to mediate things with your advisor, b) switching labs within your school, or c) maybe even transferring somewhere else. You don't need your first such conversation to be with someone whose lab you might want to enter -- it just needs to be with someone with whom you can have a candid, confidential conversation about your options.
posted by kestrel251 at 3:28 PM on February 27, 2009

Response by poster: One big note, I have no committee. My advisor wouldn't let me form one, continually stating that we should focus on this paper before that. And my deparment sucks. Let me reinforce that. It sucks. My advisor isn't well known as the annoying pain in the ass that he is because he has managed to graduate 3 students so far and hasnt' been that long. Previously he did work because he wanted tenure. He got tenure, work has dropped since. Last summer he couldn't work because he had to buy a car, the summer before because he had to buy a house, he went on sabbatical to do research and did nothing (I'm not kidding about any of these). The program is pretty small and each professor is very wrapped up in their own world, they don't care what happens in other labs.

The problem with switching labs is I have to find one that would take me (without fear of offending my current advisor, ire was probably the wrong word, but in general noone wants to step on anyone else's toes, and yes, most would probably talk to him about what I said, did I mention my deparment sucks?) and trying to not start over from scratch. My advisor is the only one doing my area of research, several other are tangentially related, but that's it.

(and yes, pombe, it is the same standard as in bio, my lab is very neuroscience based, so we aren't that far from your biology world)
posted by katers890 at 3:35 PM on February 27, 2009

Yes, it's ridiculous that there is no support, but there isn't.

I'm sorry to hear that. That being the case, I don't really have anything to add as my field is so far away from yours but I think that you really should post this question on that forum too. Best of luck, this sounds like a bad situation.
posted by ob at 4:07 PM on February 27, 2009

I really cannot fathom that there is nobody in a position of authority in your department, college, or university that you can talk to about this and get good advice regarding how to proceed. You need to think harder here. Is there an ombudsman? If no, then go above the dean to the provost, vpr or president, explaining that there is nobody 'below' them that is not already 'compromised.' Go to the faculty senate. Raise a ruckus. Stop worrying about hurting the feelings of your asshole adviser. If what you describe is true, then you are right to complain to anyone who will listen. There must be some written rules, somewhere, which describe what you must do and what your adviser must do in the PhD process. Find them. Read them.

I also cannot fathom that you're in a fifth year of a science based PhD program and you do not have a committee. This is exactly the situation that committees are meant for. They apply peer pressure to your boss to get him to do the right thing. You shouldn't need your boss to set up a committee. Just do it. Part of the PhD process is taking care of shit for yourself, even if it really is shit.

If you have 'earned' a masters degree, did that not require a committee? Is that committee not comprised of faculty that would also comprise your dissertation committee?
posted by u2604ab at 4:12 PM on February 27, 2009

Normally, this would be a ridiculous thing to suggest, but it sounds like you're at the butt end of a nasty little feudal power structure. I'm guess I don't really think you should do this, but I'll put it out there anyways, this being ask.mefi and all. May as well consider all your options, right?

You should hire a private detective to dig up something about your professor that would definitely break the conditions of his tenure. There's probably something - he sounds like a real SOB. Put it in a folder, leave it in his mailbox with an anonymous note indicating that he needs to graduate his students or a copy of the dirt will be given to the president of the university.

Yeah, it's ridiculous and cinematic, but I kind of doubt you'll be getting a letter of recommendation from this guy as it is, right? It's kind of a gamble, but it might work if done well.

More practically, I would take a Masters and run. Get a job as a researcher or lab tech for a year or two, then reapply to a different school for your Ph.D. The way you describe it, I don't see how you will be able to escape this with a Ph.D. Sorry for your troubles - good luck!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:16 PM on February 27, 2009

Response by poster: Ok, so general the view is that there should be someone I can talk to, I will try to find such a person, but what am I expecting to get out of this talk? Basically what I can see happening is that I talk to said powerful person, what would they do? Talk to my advisor? Ask him what work has been done? Ask him why I am not progressing? Then what happens? As far as I can see, he would get a talking to, this would shame him into doing a little something to at least appear to be dealing with the problem. However, he will know it was me (there are exactly 2 of us in his lab, the other has a thesis defense scheduled for April), he will be very mad at me for "tattling" or what not (immature or not). After he's grudgingly put in some work, he then goes back to as before, but worse, because now I've got him in trouble with his superiors. I still can't get him to approve anything and am where I am now again, just slightly further down the road.

That's what I see happening from that path, am I wrong? Has anyone else done something like this?

(note, he has been reported by the other woman who left our lab last summer, the outcome? He doesn't get new students from the program she is in (which was different than mine), he did not get in trouble at all. My other lab mate when she left the lab she was in before? Explicitly told the program chair that he had told his colleague she would have sex with him. Nothing happened to him either. This is where a lot of my pessimism comes from.)

Oh and also, has anyone switched labs? Are you required to leave all your previously gathered data behind because it was property of the lab? Could you use it for your thesis?
posted by katers890 at 4:56 PM on February 27, 2009

OK, you should organize your TAs, RAs, and Lab Techs and start a union.

Then, you must fight back by publicly reaching to the CP academic community and the professional psychologist/social worker [alumni] community and literally pound your drums. You are mostly likely to find generally strong support [and further discriminating evidence] from adjuncts past and present and those [former full professors] who now do not teach.

If you really want to go: Go. I would not blame you for seeking a way out. I also know the employability if you come from a place that [in other departments] foster great original and sponsored research and receives many awards, grants, patents, and/or Nobel Prizes, etc.

That is what poses the major dilemma of Leaving. Are you afraid that your mother will not see you graduate? Are you just afraid she will not see you graduate from somewhere "good"? Or, will it be simpler, you will find a place that will free you to research in the day and care for loved ones at night as you would like to do now.

But, I urge as the son of academics: do not let motherhood stop you from finishing from graduate school. Even if you think now that you did not ever even want to go to grad school I promise you one day you will start letting your kids know about your regret.

You will do the honorable thing for many people if you stick with it.
posted by parmanparman at 6:10 PM on February 27, 2009

Which school are you at? I'm a little bit incredulous regarding your very unfortunate situation as you describe it. Maybe take a few days off work, relax, and re-evaluate the situation? I was in a horrible situation for my MSc, and if I was to describe it when I was in the middle of it, I'd sound a little like you do. In retrospect... it *was* almost as bad as I described it, but perspective is important. I did manage to make things work (but graduated ~6 months after the hard-realistic date that I had set) but it took initiative and there was some fallout.

If I had ended up in your position, I'd form a supervisory committee, stat. Is your department secretary competent? Even if they're not, it's not a bad idea to make friends with them/ask them for their advise. Look through your department guidelines (usually online) to see how many members are required for a PhD candidate. Email/talk to professors in (and outside) of your department who are in similar fields in which you work and ask them if they'd be willing to be part of your committee. Keep doing this until you have enough people. In most programs you will be assigned a chair. Calmly lay out your situation to the chair with as many concrete examples as possible. Don't rely on hearsay or rumours - only documented stuff. Tell the chair what date you submitted drafts to your supervisor and how frequently you asked for a response. If you have documented all your grievances, this will help loads.

Set up a committee meeting.

If your supervisor refuses to attend the meeting or nothing gets resolved for no good reason after the meeting, then it's time to go see the Dean of (Graduate) Students. Is Cog Psych at your school under Medicine, Grad Studies, Interdiscp. Studies, or what? There should be an uber-dean if the one for your department is unwilling to do anything.

It's probably too late in the game to switch labs. It will depends on the nature of the data that you've acquired as to how 'transferable' it is. Are there any new hires/new PIs in your (or a related) department working in a subfield even remotely resembling the one your working on? New blood might be willing to take a risk, your current supervisor's ire be damned. Old established post-tenured blood could be another possibility. Anyone who's so rich from private enterprise that they basically don't care about the department and stay on because it's too much of a hassle to 'retire' into emeritus?


OTOH, your next career step (grants, post-doc, adjunct, and/or tenure-track) will require letters of reference. Do you have any other sources other than your supervisor? If not, and if your supervisor is also reluctant to write letters for you or say they will but never get around to it...

If possible, try to maintain the best possible relationship with your supervisor. Barring that, impress your chair and your committee and hope that several of them are willing to write letters for you.

Yes. It sucks horrendously to have a former supervisor refuse/say-they-will-but-never-get-around to writing letters for you.


There was a fellow grad student in my department who did her comprehensive examination while 7 or 8 months pregnant. Surprisingly, she came back less than 2 months after giving birth.
posted by porpoise at 8:03 PM on February 27, 2009

You need to find your graduate ombudsman. Your school should have someone in this position: the ombudsman is a graduate advocate connected to the graduate school but independent of it. As depicted, your advisor is acting unethically, and the ombudsman can bring this to the attention of the department chair/dean/provost/etc and effect some change. Your school should also have timelines for graduation, and it sounds like your department isn't properly monitoring student process. Another issue for the ombudsman. I know that each discipline/department/university is different, but, for me, not having a committee after five years of PhD work is unthinkable.

One question: Are you a full-time student? Are you funded by the department? Non-funded and part-time students are often ignored in timeline/accountability checks. If so, that's even more reason to take this to the grad school. Raising your concerns could ultimately benefit many.
posted by rockstar at 8:13 AM on February 28, 2009

I had a friend at an ivy league program who faced a similar issue many years ago. She was pursuing a Psychology PhD and made the mistake of signing on with an advisor who only paid lip service to supporting women in science. In reality, he enjoyed belittling and harassing many of his female students, putting their ability to graduate in doubt. After several years of degrading treatment and sexual harassment it became clear to her that she was either going to have a nervous breakdown, quit the program, or both. Finally, she sought out the graduate ombudsman.

The graduate ombudsman contacted her advisor who did...absolutely nothing. The next step (as outlined by the ombudsman) was to go through the graduate school mediation process. This is where things improved. My friend stated her grievances with the advisor and he was forced to put into writing what steps would be necessary for her to graduate. Basically, if she followed the guidelines for graduation he would need to do what he promised as well. In her case, a miracle happened. Several of the man's former students and employees came together in a sexual harassment suit and he was formally sanctioned and barred from working with females for a certain period of time. She was switched to another lab and was able to graduate. Even if this particular lightning bolt hadn't struck however, I think that the mediation process would have been successful. It was just too hard for him to justify not coming through on his basic obligations. The quality of her work was excellent and did not in any way justify his treatment.

What your school is engaging in is breach of contract. Think about it - the admission to a PhD program is formalized by a written contract which outlines both parties mutual rights and responsibilities. This is not a one-sided contract. It should outline things such as funding and time to graduation. If one side refuses to honor the contract the other side has the right to damages, as they have not gotten what they agreed to pay for. You might try reminding your college ombudsman of that fact. Good luck!
posted by thenewyawkah at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2009

« Older Ten movies, five plots   |   I'm just a silly little girl with grownup problems... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.