Remember, Professor, Not Too Close

When to keep your distance from graduate-student advisees

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

April 22, 2013

Everyone tells tales about advisers. Some of the stories are heartwarming, while others are prurient, even horrifying. We've all got such stories on tap because the adviser-student relationship is the most crucial in turning a graduate student into a professional.

So what should a dissertation adviser do? In last month's column, I proposed that advisers spend more time with their graduate students as people, not just as academics. In doing so, we encourage the student as a professional, not least by making ourselves appear less forbidding.

That approach is not without its pitfalls, however, and they lead me now in the other direction—to ask what an adviser should not do. Elizabeth Leake, a professor of Italian literature at Columbia University who directs many dissertations, told me recently that doctors of philosophy should borrow an idea from the other kind of doctor: First, do no harm.

Borrowing the Hippocratic Oath makes plenty of sense because doctoral advisers have the capacity to do plenty of harm. The ties between graduate students and advisers are both professional and personal and therefore uniquely strong—and tense.

So don't get too close.

Part of what I mean is obvious. Don't make your students into your flunkies, for example. That ought to go without saying, but I've known graduate students who have picked up their advisers' dry cleaning.

That kind of exploitation disgraces us all, but it's also possible to take advantage of graduate students inadvertently. You may think it's a gift to offer an impoverished advisee a chance to earn some money doing research for your latest article or book, but remember that the student may assume that he refuses at his own risk. Of course graduate students should be invited to collaborate on projects that might advance their training or careers, but an adviser has to be careful to offer them graceful ways to say no.

We need to treat our graduate students as people without getting overly personal. Do yourself a favor and don't friend your graduate students on Facebook. Those connections carry risk—and this one can come back to bite you in ways you won't notice until you're bleeding.

Why the caution? Because our graduate students are already so very close to us, closer than we sometimes realize. They think about us, and they care about what we think in ways that can be hard to believe. One professor told me how, when she was a graduate student, she ran into her adviser at a supermarket. He made an offhand remark about what was in her shopping cart. She turned that remark over and over in her mind for months, and remembered it vividly two decades later.

A graduate student can't tell her adviser, "You look good in that shirt," so don't say the same thing to a graduate student, no matter how pure your intentions. Most graduate students will become as well versed in your personal life as you allow—and when you need to criticize their work, too much personal involvement can swiftly complicate the transaction. All of that was true before the well-marked minefield of social media. Such interactions are much easier now, but just as cautionary.

Don't brag about your job—that's another obvious one. But here's one that's perhaps less obvious: Never complain about your job in front of graduate students, either. It's in the poorest of poor taste to do so. Our students aspire to jobs like ours, so our complaints disrespect their goals. They also make us look spoiled and unappreciative of what we have, regardless of the righteousness of whatever we might want to grumble about.

The fact I've been circling is this: Many adviser-student relationships—especially those centered around a dissertation—involve a transference. As Freud outlined in his writings on therapeutic technique, transference involves the projection by the patient onto the analyst of "some important figure out of his childhood or past," so that the thoughts and feelings of the earlier relationship (perhaps with a parent) affect and inform the interactions with the therapist in the present.

I don't mean to suggest that teaching graduate students is like psychoanalysis. It isn't. (If students need therapy, it's our job to refer them to counseling.) But I am suggesting that the long-lasting hybrid relation between graduate student and adviser—professional and personal at the same time—invites the kind of projection that characterizes transference.

I've heard Ph.D. advisers describe their dissertators as their intellectual children (and genealogical metaphors abound to describe that tie), so why shouldn't Ph.D. students experience some filial feelings toward their advisers? When I learned some years ago of the death of the last of my two graduate-school advisers, a man I'd not been in contact with for quite a while, I immediately thought of myself as an academic orphan.

With transference comes countertransference—that is, the identification of the therapist with the patient. Or in this case, the teacher with the student. It's a basic tenet of psychotherapy that the therapist needs to manage the countertransference. The task can be difficult. There's an interesting example of that in the 2010 movie The King's Speech, one of the best teaching movies to come out in a long time.

The story, based in fact, centers on the efforts of King George VI of England to conquer his stammer with the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Logue. When Logue pushes too hard at one point, he drives the king away in anger and frustration. The disappointed teacher then realizes that he had tried to project his own ambitions for his student onto an unwilling recipient. That's an example of badly managed countertransference, and Logue apologizes for it to his royal student the first chance he gets.

"Not too close" serves as a professional caution as well as a personal one. Countertransference can transform teachers into nannies who worry more about a student's deadlines than the student does. That can never do. Graduate students are in the final stage of becoming professionals, and they have to figure out their professional identities for themselves.

Advisers can also turn into mad scientists who seek to clone themselves. Graduate students know the difference between advisers who want to reproduce themselves and advisers who help students to know their own minds. That difference obtains even in science labs, where the adviser approves and pays for graduate-student experiments, and places his or her name on all student publications that come out of the lab.

So don't get too close, but don't stray too far either. How to maintain that delicate equilibrium will vary with each graduate student.

When the relationship works, though, it doesn't just end, no more than a parent will cut off a child when he or she moves out. It's not just that our students are our legacy (though they are), or that they still need us for a while even after they get jobs (we're still a vital source for recommendations until they build up their own contacts, for one thing).

In fact, they gradually need us less and less—and then they can start doing things for us, just like children do for parents. I've had former graduate students help with the advising of my current students when their topics align, a bridge across the generations that's exceptionally gratifying. And of course former students form a great employment network.

Lionel Logue and King George remained friends until they died, in the early 1950s. We can become friends with our advisees, too. All we have to do is wait till they graduate.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories