How to Fire Your Adviser

Sometimes the only way forward is to start over again


February 28, 2016

"My doctoral experience," a former graduate student wrote to me not long ago, "was hell." The student — let’s call her Anne — described years of "verbal and emotional abuse" from her adviser that eroded her confidence and led her to doubt her own skills. Maybe the saddest thing about her story is that it’s far from unique.

No relationship in graduate school is more important than the one between graduate students and their advisers. But what if that relationship goes wrong? Let’s put aside the question of why it happens and focus on what you should do if it does.

You have three choices. One is simply to leave graduate school. That’s a drastic decision, but sometimes it’s the right one — especially if your problems with your adviser suggest that graduate school simply isn’t for you. (Just be careful you’re not leaving because you’re afraid of confronting the problem. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.)

It gets more complicated if you want to stay in graduate school. In that case, your second choice is to try to work through the problem. Depending on how bad things have gotten, you should consider a one-on-one meeting to hash things out.

If you distrust the idea of a one-on-one meeting, bring a neutral party — such as a department chair or graduate director — into the room. (You may need to ask for that specifically.) Whether or not a third person is present, the meeting might begin this way: "We’re not understanding each other very well, and I wonder if we might talk about our mutual expectations."

Those confrontations aren’t easy — although they’re easier than enduring an unpleasant status quo. But there is no escaping the fact that these discussions don’t always solve the problem. What happens then?

That brings us to your third choice: You have to fire your adviser.

You have to control your own life as best you can. If you're unhappy with your adviser, then you need to remember that you are the CEO of your own graduate education.
Sometimes the only way forward is to change advisers and start the relationship over again. You may not think you have the guts, but: (1) You have to do it, because no one else can make the decision for you; and (2) it may not be as hard as you think.

One former graduate student in the humanities — call her Kate — recently told me how she changed advisers. "Driven and self-directed" by her own description, she wrote in an email that "I really had no idea what I should expect from an advisor." Kate had heard stories of "bitter disagreements between advisees and directors that ended in tears and stalled projects," so she felt fortunate that her adviser "limited his comments to light pencil marks in the margin that raised nothing more than style issues, like whether to hyphenate ‘middle class’ or not."

But Kate soon found herself drifting. "It’s easy to think you are self-directed," she said, "when you are in a seminar, working off of someone’s carefully designed syllabus. As it turns out, I had a subject, but no argument and no idea of how to proceed." Worse, she had an adviser who had, she realized, "no knowledge of my subject," and no real interest in acquiring any. "I would go meet with him and we’d end up talking about his latest book project."

Seeing herself "floating further and further out to sea," Kate signed up for a department-sponsored dissertation-writing colloquium. The professor who ran it happened to be in her subject area, and she saw how he provided students with "lengthy, rigorous comments that directed — directed! — dissertators to books they should be engaging, arguments that needed clarification, sources that were problematic, always with an eye to the project as a whole." She gave him a draft and "even though he wasn’t my adviser, he read it, commented on it, and clarified my sense of purpose."

"I knew right then," said Kate, "that if I had any hope of finishing my dissertation — not to say anything of the quality of what that work would be — I needed to change my adviser."

She dreaded the confrontation. Her adviser "had a huge ego," so Kate worried that he wouldn’t take well to "being jilted," as she put it. She was wrong: "he was almost relieved to be off the case."

Kate finished her dissertation rapidly under the guidance of her new adviser, got an assistant professorship, and now has tenure. Years later, she reflected on her break with that first adviser: "As with most failed relationships, both parties are better off when it ends. My only regret is that I didn’t make that break sooner."

Kate was fortunate to avoid friction, or worse. Anne, the student whose story I began with, "sincerely tried" to change advisers, too. But the professors in her department were, she said, afraid to jeopardize their relationships with her adviser. So they refused her request to work with them.

Anne was studying in the humanities, but the notion that she was somehow the property of her adviser is more often seen in the sciences. When a graduate student in the laboratory sciences joins an adviser’s lab, the adviser pays the student from lab funds, and the money cements their connection.

The money mostly comes from grants, which need continual replenishment. That’s how the sciences work: The adviser runs the lab, while the laborers in it (graduate students, postdocs, and sometimes undergraduates) work to produce publishable papers in the adviser’s specialty. Those publications then become the basis for further grant applications, which are used to fund more publications, and so on and on.

Graduate school in the sciences resembles a medieval apprenticeship. The graduate-student apprentice has virtually no rights or independence and no hope of advancement to the postdoctoral (journeyman) stage unless the adviser (the master) is satisfied with the student’s progress and also willing to let the student go. If the apprentice is too valuable and the master too venal, the combination can delay graduation.

Graduate students belong to their lab director then, and their dissertations arise from the lab’s work. But what if a student just doesn’t get along with the adviser, or wants to change subfields?

As a graduate student in the sciences, you can become isolated in your lab, and that makes firing your adviser hard — but not impossible. One scientist — call him James — told me of how he was chafing in a lab run by a junior faculty member whose tenure bid was in jeopardy. "She micromanaged, and, in a belated effort to publish anything at all, she narrowed the focus of her lab down to a subtopic that I didn’t have any interest in," James recalled. The atmosphere also became more tense and competitive among the graduate students. "I had to get the hell out of there," he said.

James started negotiating privately with the head of another lab, and that professor agreed to take him on. "I arranged everything," he said, "and then I told my adviser I was leaving." James experienced no repercussions, and he believes that was because he made a point of telling his adviser "that I made the decision to leave because of scientific interests and not at all because of our relationship or the lab atmosphere, or her advising abilities." James went on to finish his degree in his new lab. Then he got the job he wanted, teaching and running a lab for undergraduates at a liberal-arts college. "I wanted no part of the system I left," he said.

Not all aspiring scientists land as smoothly as James did. Some encounter the same opposition that Anne experienced — and some wind up quitting graduate school, as Anne did. Anne picked herself up and got a job as a technical writer. "My new career has rebuilt some of the confidence that graduate school chipped away," she said. "I hope that my experience can help someone else."

The moral of this story is not that a happy ending awaits all graduate students who want to change advisers. Even so, you have to control your own life as best you can. If you’re unhappy with your adviser, then you need to remember that you are the CEO of your own graduate education. Your choices may not all be happy ones, and some may carry risks. But they are your choices to make. You can’t change your surroundings if you don’t try — and if you do try, the results may surprise you.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.