Dealing With a Difficult Adviser

February 09, 2010

Question: I'm very near to finishing my dissertation but can't get my adviser to read the final chapters of my work. She's been abroad for several months and barely responds to my e-mail messages. I'm worried that her lack of interest in my work will delay my graduation indefinitely, and worried about what this means for any letters of recommendation she might write on my behalf. Do you have any ideas for dealing with this situation?

Question: Publications mean everything in my field (life sciences) and, unfortunately, my adviser has not been very supportive. I am a postdoc and am very worried that my time in this lab will not result in any publications. I'm not sure if I should bother trying to fix this situation or should just try to find another postdoc.

Academe is unique in many aspects of its working culture, especially in the relationships that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have with their advisers. Certainly people outside of academe can have bad relationships with their bosses. It is often easier for them to extricate themselves from the situation by finding a new job. But it can be complicated for graduate students and postdocs to leave a bad adviser without risking the academic career they've worked so hard to build.

When faculty members turn out to be a bad advisers, it's often because they either don't know how to be good mentors or are so encumbered by their own responsibilities that they are unable to attend to their students' needs. Each relationship is unique, but the most common problems we see between graduate students and their advisers tend to involve the following:

  • Lack of response to the student's work.
  • Disappointment with the quality of the student's work, without constructive suggestions for improvement.
  • Lack of agreement with other committee members, which impedes student progress.
  • Questions of publication, authorship, and ethics.
  • Inappropriate involvement in the adviser's personal life (asking students to babysit or run errands).
  • Reluctance to let productive students or postdocs move on, most often in the sciences or engineering.
  • Hostile work environments (sexual harassment, yelling).

So what can you do to avoid such problems, or resolve them if they occur?

Preparing to avoid these situations needs to start early on, when you are selecting an adviser or mentor. Talk with other students or postdocs who have worked with your prospect. Find out if that adviser helps them keep on track and set deadlines. Does the professor give timely feedback? Be sure to talk with students who are at the dissertation-writing stage.

When you talk with potential advisers, ask them how they work with students and what their expectations are. It's not enough for you to be interested in the scholar's research; you also want someone who will work with you.

When applying for postdoctoral fellowships in the sciences, it's important to talk with postdocs already working in the professor's laboratory. You need to determine if the principal investigator is someone who can guide you in becoming a strong candidate for a faculty position. Find out how much actual time the postdocs get with the professor, and if they feel they are getting regular feedback and advice.

Whether you're a postdoc or a graduate student, it's important to cultivate relationships with other faculty members, too. They can be people in the department, in related departments, or even at other institutions. From a career perspective, developing a solid professional network and being an active member of your field will be important for finding positions and getting tenure. At the same time, this network can serve as a source of advice if you and your adviser have a disagreement. In an extreme case, it can provide recommenders if your relationship with your main adviser goes truly awry. It's critical that you have multiple faculty members—not just one—interested in your career development.

Both of the readers who asked for advice could benefit from this strategy. In fact, the first step for them should be to reach out to another faculty member—a committee member or a department chair—for advice. Perhaps members of our first questioner's dissertation committee are wondering about her progress and would appreciate her taking the initiative to fill them in.

Part of being a graduate student or a postdoc is being able to manage your relationships in a mature, professional manner. Sometimes it's necessary, however, to get someone with authority to step in. A recent post on Tomorrow's Professor discussed how department chairs should deal with faculty members who fail to meet their obligations to graduate students. As for postdocs, check if your university has a postdoc office; there may be policies and procedures concerning the relationship between a principal investigator and a postdoc.

If none of those suggestions work, it might be necessary to go to the ombudsman's office. Graduate students and postdocs are often unsure how that office works and, for that reason, hesitate to make use of it. To help clarify that, we spoke with Michele Goldfarb, associate ombudsman at the University of Pennsylvania.

People come to her office, Goldfarb said, if they believe they have been treated unfairly in the academic workplace. "With the complainant's permission," she said, "the ombudsman will undertake an independent inquiry into the matter in order to develop an objective, impartial understanding of the situation, and then help develop some method for resolving the dispute. The ombudsman has no power to impose outcomes. Instead, the ombudsman uses a variety of strategies to help resolve conflicts constructively." That could include identifying your options, mediating a dispute, or alerting top administrators to the problems.

We asked Goldfarb how she would handle complaints similar to the ones described by our two questioners. "Very often individuals embroiled in these situations rely on old and ineffective modes of interaction and need an outside, disinterested party to help them learn and practice more-fruitful strategies," she said. "At times that's all that is necessary. We have also helped to identify other people—either in the department or in the lab—who can act as trusted go-betweens between the student and the adviser. At other times, we have to locate other scholars/researchers who would be willing to oversee the work that is being neglected by the distracted or absent adviser."

Graduate students and postdocs should know that the ombuds office will respect their confidentiality and will pursue mediation only if it has the permission of all parties involved. Although that may sound intimidating, Goldfarb said, "These meetings can result in an agreed-upon timetable for completing work and also create a detailed and mutually understood set of behavioral guidelines to move the work forward."

Another strategy the office might use is to directly confront the problematic adviser about the negative impact of his or her behavior—again, only with the permission of the complainant. "The independence and objectivity of the ombuds position can often result in the complaint being 'heard' and taken seriously where other strategies have failed," Goldfarb said. "If the behavior is not adjusted appropriately and satisfactorily, the ombuds office also has the option of carrying the complaint forward to a department chair, dean, or other administrator in a position of authority." And if all else fails, the office will help a student find a new adviser or a different laboratory to work in.

Graduate students and postdocs who find themselves in conflict with their advisers can end up feeling isolated. It's important to reach out to someone—a friend, family member, counselor, someone in your university's career office or other administrative office—for another perspective. You are not the first person to clash with an adviser, and you certainly will not be the last. Don't let it stop you from reaching your goals.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of graduate-student career development at Columbia University's Center for Career Education. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to