Advisor as Steward of the Discipline (Case Study 1)

Engendering Commitment to a Research Career

Research shows that a relationship with an advisor is critical for graduate completion. A negative relationship can lead to attrition from the program or choice of a non-research career. Two female computer science PhD students at a large, public research university talk about their relationships with their advisors.

“The experience here is very dependent on your advisor and also by whether you’re the advisor’s favorite,” says this fifth-year student, holding her baby. “I have a really good relationship with my advisor. We meet once a week. We see each other frequently. He gives me suggestions. We write papers together. It’s collaborative. We don’t tend to go to conferences together, but he introduces me to visitors, suggests which workshops I should participate in, and has been helpful with my job hunt. He talked to me about who should be on my committee. I’m very lucky.”

“I meet with my advisor all the time. Every time we meet, he comes up with new ideas of things I can work on. It’s like working with someone with ADD and Alzheimers, who changes his mind constantly about what’s important. He’s very famous and gets a lot of money for new projects. Whenever I talk to him, he manipulates me into working on his newest idea. I don’t really know which grant I’m funded from.” She adds, “I didn’t choose him. One day, my original advisor and I had a meeting with another professor and a grad student from the same country as my advisor. The professor asked me to say what I was working on. Based on this, the two professors arbitrarily swapped me and the other student. Suddenly I had a new advisor – in fact, two bosses, because both of them were now telling me what to do and both were unhappy.”

This very articulate woman has a lot to say, and she continues. “He has also done inappropriate things. For example, although I’ve been ready to do my prelims for more than a year, he told me that I can do my prelims when my boyfriend does. When I told him that was inappropriate, he gave me a lecture on why I should be married and how to behave once I am. Unfortunately, there’s no policy on when grads prelim and he told me that if I publish one more paper I could. So I published another peer-reviewed paper and he told me I wasn’t ready. He’s not held accountable to what he says. I recently received a message from the anonymous graduate committee that oversees my progress saying that I should defend my prelims by summer, but I can’t defend prelims I am not allowed to take. So I guessed who one of the reviewers was and told her about my dilemma. She said they hadn’t been updated about my situation, since my advisor has not attended any of the meetings about me, even though he is supposed to. He doesn’t play by the rules.”

“Luckily, I’ve found an army of people who will give me advice, but I just avoid my advisor at this point. I have no interest in being in an environment like this again. I plan to go to a teaching university. I’ll finish, but in spite of, not because of, my advisor.”


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Authors: Lecia Barker