Why Are There So Many Very Bad Dissertation Advisors?

in Articles from our Newsletter

Bad dissertation advisors — the most common problem among my dissertation coaching clients and among my readers. Here is an analysis of why that is and what you can do about it.

Dorothy: …you’re a very bad man!
Wizard: Oh, no, my dear, I …I’m a very good man — I’m just a very bad Wizard


There are many theories about why so many dissertation advisors are inadequate. These include:

  • They have no training in advising
  • They had poor advisors and thus no role models
  • They lack motivation, because they are not rewarded for advising well

Does Your Advisor Fear Being Found Out?

There is another reason for poor advising. Professors fear being seen as inadequate.

Scarecrow: You humbug!
Lion: Yeah!
Wizard: Yes-s-s — that…that’s exactly so. I’m a humbug!

How could a lowly graduate student make a professor feel inadequate? They might “pull back the curtain” and show him or her to be a fraud.

Dorothy: If you were really great and powerful, you’d keep your promises!
Wizard’s Voice: Do you presume to criticize the….

— Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the Wizard at the controls of the throne apparatus

Wizard’s Voice: Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures! Think yourselves lucky that I’m giving you audience tomorrow, instead of…
Pay no … attention to that man behind the curtain!

The graduate student may do this innocently, by

  • Catching him being wrong (gasp!)
  • Observing her work style
  • Hearing his unrehearsed thoughts
  • Noting her ability to be spontaneously creative
  • Just being close enough to notice that he’s human

How Your Advisor Avoids Having You “Find Out”

In order to avoid being observed in this way, some advisors become very good at maintaining their distance. There are so many ways to do this:

  • Make your graduate students feel like idiots. Then they will avoid you.
  • Avoid contact with the students. They will think you hate them and avoid you.
  • Take forever to return their work. They will think you hate their work and avoid you.
  • Don’t return their phone calls and emails. They will think you’re upset because they’re avoiding you, and avoid you more.
  • Become their friend, but forget to advise them. They won’t want to hurt your feelings by asking for more.

There are infinite variations on the theme of how not to let your graduate students know that you really didn’t deserve your Ph.D. in the first place. Today someone wrote me after taking my assessment “Do You Deserve a Ph.D.?“, and asked a profound question, “Do (professors) deserve a Ph.D.?” My guess is that many of them would say, “No.”

Why Would a Professor Feel Inadequate?

The sad truth is that most professors are extremely adequate if not brilliant. It is the system that creates the feeling that you’re inadequate.

In a recent excellent Chronicle article, “Principled Mediocrity,” the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton makes the point that academia predisposes people to feeling inadequate.

Everyone must be No. 1, and, in consequence, everyone is encouraged to lead a life of self-loathing. We learn to hate ourselves for being average, and we become ungrateful for what we have and who we are. We become paralyzed by fear—not of failure—but of not being the best.

Benton points out that as a result of this fear of not being the best, academics fear the rise of the very people they are supposed to mentor.

An advisee submits a dissertation chapter. Shall we admit that it is already quite good and that we have nothing to add, or shall we produce—under the pretense that we are being helpful and conscientious—a complex critique that will result in a series of fruitless, time-consuming revisions? “Your work shows lots of potential, kid, but you’ll never be as good as I am. I notice shortcomings in your work that you’ll never understand.”

His essay in effect argues for all academics to have more realistic standards and get satisfaction from being an excellent mentor.

What If You Can’t Wait For Hell to Freeze Over?

If you are not satisfied with your advisor, what can you do now?

  • Keep in mind that you are most likely dealing with a fragile ego (not yours, your advisor’s!) (Well, ok, both.)
  • It actually does work to compliment your advisor, thus putting him or her at ease. You might call this brown-nosing, but (s)he’s only human. Don’t overdo it, though. “Your input on that last chapter was helpful—I could finally figure out how to explain xyz.”
  • Keep in mind also that you have the right to be advised well, and therefore should think about which “advisor behaviors” would help you the most.
  • Put all requests to your advisor in terms of your own needs, being careful not to sound blaming:
    • “I’d like to meet for a few minutes to go over xyz again. I don’t know why, but I’m having a little trouble understanding it.” (Not “That’s the most vague feedback I’ve every heard.”)
    • “Can you tell me what part you liked the best about this chapter?” (Not “You make me feel like I don’t do anything right.”)
  • Since many fragile people become narcissistic, meaning that they will go right for the jugular if you are too fawning and obsequious, be direct but not whiny or begging:
    • “Which day next week is best for me to call?” (Not “If you’re not too busy, would it be ok if we could talk on the phone some time in the next few months?”)

Action Suggestion

Write down one change that would improve your relationship with your advisor. Keeping the “fragile ego of the advisor” principle in mind, think of a strategy to effect that change. Actually try your strategy. Write me with the results!

Wizard/Professor Marvel: Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th. D…that’s Doctor of Thinkology.

TA-DA is an interactive CD resource guide that gives you a complete roadmap to plan, prepare and finish your dissertation in less time. It guides you through obstacles step-by-step, including valuable tips for new ABD’s.


Too Nice for Your Own Good: How to Stop Making 9 Self-Sabotaging Mistakes, by Duke Robinson

It’s incredible how this book overlaps with the ideas of today’s article. It clearly explains how the “self-destructive pressures of perfectionism,” the need not to feel weak, suppressing your anger in the wrong way, and other mistakes, are all impeding your success as an academic. As the title suggests, the thesis is that being overly nice gets in the way of reaching your goals. The specific suggestions the author gives will go a long way towards helping you plan ways to get your needs met with your supervisor. It would be a great book for your advisor to read, too.

Read more reviews of this book at Amazon


Here is another article by Thomas H. Benton: “Productive Procrastination.” In this article, Benton makes the point that “Life is what we do when we are avoiding something else”. He takes it a step further, though: “For the last 10 years, everything I’ve done that was worth doing has been done when I should have been doing something else.” Read this article – you’ll enjoy it!

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