Dissertation Advisor Horror Stories

in Articles from our Newsletter

We’ve all heard them: stories about the dissertation advisor from Hell. My clients have told me stories that make my hair stand on end.

To be fair, I only hear one side of each story. But since I talk to people on a weekly basis, it would be hard for them to make these stories up.

And while I’m being fair, let me just state that I have heard stories about wonderful advisors also. The National Association for the Support of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS) did a survey in 2000 and found that 77% of graduate students surveyed felt that they were receiving ‘ongoing, constructive feedback’ from their supervisor.

Unfortunately, that leaves 23% who answered in the negative (or neutral). The nature of my practice means that I am more likely to see the dissatisfied advisees.

Who Cares About Bad Advisors?

It is the advisor that can make or break your graduate experience. The advisor is the person who will help you develop as a scholar or professional in your chosen field. Even the most prestigious schools can turn out an unprepared Ph.D. if the advisor quality is low.

Many of my grad student clients appear to suffer from a version of posttraumatic stress. They have been so burned by their advisors that they get panicked just thinking about contacting them. Their self esteem has been lowered and they question their ability to function in the field.

The Advisor Who Ignores Your Existence

I’ve noticed that the students who have the hardest time are those who move out of town when they are ABD. Their advisors suddenly act as if they don’t exist. They don’t return emails (one client has waited 7 weeks and counting), they take long periods of time to return drafts (one person drove 6 hours in the snow, only to be told when meeting with his advisor that he should go away for a couple of hours so the advisor could actually read what had been sent a month ago.)

The Advisor Who Sits on Drafts

I think we would all agree that a month is an ok turnaround time. But a year? Yes, one of my clients waited a year to get feedback. Unfortunately, such treatment can cause the student to blame himself, rather than demand his rights. See next week’s article on how to handle such situations.

The Advisor Who Demands A Perfect First Draft

Here is one extreme example of the demand for perfection. A client of mine tried to talk to her advisor about some problems with the structure of her thesis. The advisor responded that she would not comment until she read the actual final dissertation!

The Advisor Who is Too Busy to Attend Your Defense

I’m not sure how this could be possible, but I’ve known students who have to postpone their defense, which is months away, because the advisor or a committee member doesn’t have time.

The Cruel and Cutting Advisor

Having apparently forgotten what it’s like to be a graduate student, some advisors give huge, hurtful insulting comments without specific, helpful suggestions. The most extreme example I’ve heard is the advisor whose response to receiving two chapters was to say that one chapter was fine, but that the other one made him wonder if she should change advisors.

How To Repair the Rift and Get Your Needs Met

If you are in this kind of situation, what should you do? Tune in next week, when I review the various options.

Do You Have a Horror Story?

If you do, please let me know, anonymously if you wish. I’’d also welcome any first person accounts from people who have successfully dealt with such a situation.

© Gina Hiatt, PhD.
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully.

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