When your Advisor is not your Friend

Graduate school plays a huge role in the outcome of many students’ lives. They spend their 20s and sometimes their 30s preparing to dedicate themselves to lifetime careers of discovery and scholarship. Yet I sometimes see advisors carelessly phoning it in, and students taking their every word seriously because they don’t know any better. They wishfully assume that their advisors are their friends, constantly thinking of their best interests, rather than self-absorbed and self-interested bureaucrats of thought.

So here are three questions that may help inoculate against Stockholm Syndrome:

1. What’s their response to the current job market? It could come in various forms, from tailoring training and thesis topics to the jobs that are out there to encouraging students to explore promising “real world” careers to curating the cohorts they graduate so they are only producing limited groups of well-supported candidates with good shots at success. If your advisor has no well-thought-out and compelling response to the job market you will be entering, they are not your friend.

2. How do they make you feel about your work? A good advisor can come off as a tough coach, a cool aunt, or visionary sage, and good advisors always push you to do distinctive work of high standards. But they need to understand what you’re reaching for and help you reach it. If your advisor doesn’t see the point of your interests and project you shouldn’t be working with them.

3. Does your advisor stand up for people? On a small scale, do they return emails and do the important things for people on time? On a large scale, do they assert themselves to help people? In cases of glaring unfairness, sexual harassment, or discrimination, does your advisor use their tenure as it was intended–to do the right thing even if it’s challenging or unpopular? If your advisor does not go to bat for others they will probably not go to bat for you.

 

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