Evaluating a professor
October 19, 2011 9:16 AM   Subscribe

I am an advanced PhD student in an engineering discipline. I have been sent a presumably routine email from the department chair asking for comments on my research advisor's interaction with me to be submitted as an email, as a part of a multi-faceted evaluation.

My advisor has tenure, but I think he or she is not a full professor. How are these letters used? I am ambivalent towards my research advisor--there has been some good and some very, very bad.

By "bad" I mean severe failings as a scientific, intellectual, and PhD mentor/advisor. As a human being this person is appropriate, pleasant, and supportive.

How do I write something constructive that isn't so politically correct as to be useless? And is that smart for me? My career is intertwined with my advisor's, and I can't send this letter anonymously. (Presumably my letter would be kept "confidential" but...)

By constructive I mean I would like my advisor's behavior to changed, as I pity future unwitting students who end up in the lab.

Rambling details:

One anecdote: My advisor didn't read my dissertation proposal. I couldn't get him or her to do it, with excuses of recovering from gallbladder surgery (which was scheduled in advance but I found out was happening a couple weeks before my exam), and just generally being ignored, it went on and on.

I presented my proposal and passed my candidacy exam, barely, after much drama. He or she got a little spooked after that and has been much more attentive and cautious with other students in the lab. But I doubt his or her behavior will stay changed for long.

That's one example. But it's such an insane example that... do I put it in the email? I never told my graduate chair because, I don't know. I joke with another student in the lab about all the weird co-dependence issues between my advisor and all the students.

Summarizing another way: he or she is an abysmal scientist but a brilliant grant writer and charismatic communicator. It's all smoke and mirrors and a hodgepodge of either handwavy papers, or relationship management and piggybacking on, frankly, real scientists. The lab brushes up against medicine, so it's easier to get away with handwaving on grants and papers.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

If s/he wants to, they can find out who said what in his/her tenure case. This will happen if s/he is denied tenure and puts in a request for the file. This isn't really confidential.

Go to the chair. Say to chair: "Hey chair, I saw your email about Dr. Whatever. I think that it'd be best if we talk about this face-to-face. Is now a good time or can we schedule something?"

Then when you go in, talk in general terms. Make general statements about "some of the advisees feel that Dr. Whatever is slow to respond to things, even when they're important like reading our proposals and qualifying exams" or "Of course Dr. Whatever does a fantastic job writing grants and funding all of us grads, but sometimes whatever whatever."

But seriously, this sucks for you. How will it be for you on the job market if Dr. Whatever does such a crap job managing this stuff? What about your job letters? Personal recommendations? Does the whole discipline know that s/he sucks?
posted by k8t at 9:21 AM on October 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

I cannot see any way this will go well for you until you have passed your dissertation defense and have a job.
posted by jeather at 9:23 AM on October 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

To follow up on jeather, you're going to need recommendation letters from this person for at least the next 5 years (or you need to start really getting close with your committee members). If you don't get letters from him/her, people will wonder about you.
posted by k8t at 9:25 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since your advisor has tenure, this is likely for the promotion case to full professor.

Ask for a face-to-face.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:26 AM on October 19, 2011

If the chair is asking, then presumably that allows you to decline -- which I would do.

If the chair presses it, I would still decline, saying that their request places you in a conflict of interest -- which it does.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:27 AM on October 19, 2011 [8 favorites]

How do I write something constructive that isn't so politically correct as to be useless? And is that smart for me?

Don't. And no.

Talk to the chair face-to-face if you want, but even then you'll want to be fairly guarded. Before you put anything more substantively critical of the advisor in writing you should be degreed and well-employed and no longer need to maintain a good relationship with them.

Why are you working with this advisor, anyhow? As k8t says it sounds like this person's flakiness may have other negative repercussions for your future career. Could you switch — or, before you think about that, could any of your concerns be discussed with the advisor directly?
posted by RogerB at 9:28 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should add that I was asked to do this for someone who was not my advisor, but whom I had RA'd for. I did not have good things to say. I spoke to the chair that I was concerned about confidentiality and repercussions. He told me that I should reject the request.
posted by k8t at 9:33 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Echoing comments that say DO NOT DO THIS, especially in writing. I was asked (told, actually) to do this once for a person who wasn't tenured, wasn't on my committee, and whom I would never interact with professionally again, and even that felt like a huge risk for me with basically no reward. I had tons of terrible things to say about that person but, after a lot of pressure from my adviser, wrote the barest factual review I could and even then, that was only to stay in my adviser's good graces. There is NO WAY I would do this about an adviser or committee member.

If your primary concern is other future students, they should start hearing through the grapevine about the difficulties you and others have had with this person, but NONE of it should be written down, EVER, especially in response to any formal request for info from higher-ups. Rumors among students can be very powerful things in grad school, and they will accomplish what you hope to accomplish in terms of warning other students away from this adviser.

You have absolutely nothing to gain from doing this and are being put in a very awkward situation. You are not actually in a position to get your adviser's actions changed. His/Her publication record, as assessed by your department and (presumably) by peers outside your institution should be what's used to determine their scholarly contributions. You are not in a position that can significantly influence that. You are a pawn being used in a much bigger game than you can perceive, and you should absolutely decline to participate.
posted by BlooPen at 9:40 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you mention negative things in your letter to the chair, it will come back to hurt you. Not just because departments are small, not just because your advisor will find out, not just because you're powerless in this situation, but also because you didn't raise these issues with your advisor first. Going to the chair with a complaint is saying that you don't trust your advisor enough to have a talk about the issues.

Some times, you have an advisor you can't work with. And in that case, as a PhD student, the correct choice is to find another advisor.

But seriously, do not go to the chair with your grievances yet. That's the nuclear option. Talk to your advisor and if that doesn't work, switch advisors, or stay and suck it up.
posted by zippy at 10:37 AM on October 19, 2011

What a terrible position the department chair has put you in.

I think I'd write a carefully-worded statement that your advisor is appropriate, pleasant, and supportive, but that you don't feel comfortable evaluating their work more fully before you have finished your graduate work. These folks read and write letters of recommendation all the time, and they recognize damning with faint praise when they see it. So that would get the message across quite clearly but prevent you from getting involved.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:57 AM on October 19, 2011

What a horrid situation for you!

I urge you to decline the request [on preview: tchemgrrl's suggestion of a "carefully-worded statement that your advisor is appropriate, pleasant, and supportive, but that you don't feel comfortable evaluating their work more fully before you have finished your graduate work" is a great]. I appreciate the feeling of wanting to use it to change your advisor's behavior, but nothing -- nothing -- positive will come of this. It's not a level playing field, and you're very vulnerable -- expendable, even.

Unfortunately, that doesn't help your broader situation much. You didn't ask, but this is what I would recommend:

* To me, the most alarming thing you wrote was that he/she is an "abysmal scientist" who whose work is "smoke and mirrors." You can make up for bad advising by finding other mentors, but if your papers are written with a senior author who has (or is about to get) a reputation for publishing nonsense, YOUR career will suffer. If this is truly the case, I would strongly consider your options for getting out of that situation ASAP, ideally by defending quickly & taking a postdoc where you can build a body of work independent of him/her. There's also finding another advisor, if it comes to that. For the time that you're still in this lab...:

* Cultivate VERY strong relationships with other mentors. Members of your committee, collaborators, past instructors... anyone who can and will give you honest feedback. You might need several, depending on their expertise. This will not only benefit your work now, it will ensure that there are others who know your work well enough to speak in detail when it comes time to recommend you.

* Let word of mouth take care of future grads. When a prospective grad comes to visit or do a rotation, you can caution them that they will need to be very independent b/c it is hard to get Prof So-and-So's feedback. (But obviously, don't complain about your advisor to your other mentors; just make it clear that you value their opinion -- which, presumably, you do!)

* For what it's worth, your advisor's hands-off approach is teaching you to be independent early, which can be a silver lining. Are there opportunities to take advantage of that by instigating things yourself that are absent from your advisor's "advising"? (Eg, organizing a peer paper review circle within your lab, journal club, &c.)

* When it comes time for a letter from this person: give this person a list of highlights for inclusion in his/her letter. This is true for anyone, actually, but given that he/she seems not to be terribly aware of what you're doing, it's particularly important to remind him/her of your accomplishments. Since this person has already shown themselves to be flaky around deadlines, I would recommend that you ask them to file a letter with a dossier service like interfolio.com, so that you can have a generic copy automatically sent wherever you're applying. (Also, at this stage in your career it's not unusual to request to see a copy of the recommendation letter.)

* If you feel that you are somehow tacitly condoning your advisor's behavior by saying nothing (I know I would), keep in mind that declining recommendation request is the usual action when the reference has nothing positive to say, and the Chair knows & understands this.

Good luck!
posted by Westringia F. at 11:09 AM on October 19, 2011

Could you suggest that the dept chair contact other recent(ish) graduates from your group who are stably employed? Other suggestions above are good too.
posted by ecsh at 11:55 AM on October 19, 2011

Oh, Lord, no.

No matter how fabulous your chair is, they are shady, thoughtless or politically naive to put you in such a position, and none of those choices bode well for you. The fact that s/he didn't share how your comments would be used, or verbally note the power differential and that your comments would be kept confidential means that you're basically unprotected.

In true academic fashion, consider feinting and punting. Really, apparently your conscience prevents you from writing something stellar and untrue, which means you're left with candid and balanced (Dr. X is excellent here, but mediocre there), or uncandid and demure (Dr. X upholds the standards and values of the institution). Either of which your advisor might see, and disapprove of (which honestly, if you haven't given them this constructive criticism to their face, will feel like an ambush).

Seriously, there is no wiser, more circumspect path than tchemgrrl's. Don't critique your advisor via email, in hardcopy, or in a supposedly confidential in person exchange. Few people can navigate the landmines of a 'candid, supposedly confidential' word with a higher up, because in the end, it's your word and interpretation of what you said and what you meant against theirs, and no one wrote anything down.

An email vs. in person evaluation of someone who has power over your well being is the difference between 'ass in the wind in summer', vs. 'ass in the wind in winter'. It's still your ass, and it's still exposed. So keep your pants up, your head down, and defer, as hopefully all of your fellow students are doing. A tenure decision/performance evaluation where subordinates punt their evaluation should not be a new experience for your chair.
posted by anitanita at 2:03 PM on October 19, 2011

Awful, awful, awful. Just decline and say nothing. No benefit:career-stifling cost.
posted by cromagnon at 7:04 PM on October 19, 2011

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