Things No One Told Me About Grad School That I Learned the Hard Way (A New Series)

#1: Your Dissertation Advisor Controls Your Destiny

This is never a good thing.

My advisor was very supportive of my work. He gave me prompt feedback on my writing and always responded quickly to my emails and calls. He was also a pathologically controlling demon-God who squashed me under his thumb for years, robbed me of my voice, and forced me to cut off contact with other faculty so that he, and only he, had the power to determine when I could be released from the grad school prison. I felt emotionally and intellectually abused by him, but I just kept on trudging meekly along because this person was in a position to decide whether my ten years of advanced study (and the various personal and economic sacrifices that such an endeavor implies) would result in a degree or not.

I can hear what you skeptics/hopeless optimists are saying: “My diss advisor is a nice person and would never act in a controlling manner.” My first answer is, “how do you really know?” You don’t. You won’t know what s/he is really like until you get there. You can research your advisor and talk to other students about their experiences (always a good idea), but you won’t know for sure what kind of relationship you will have with this person until it’s your turn. Taking classes with someone is no indication of what he or she will be like one-to-one. Your relationship with your advisor, the person who controls your destiny, is not something you can really predict. You have to live it. It’s a risk – and a big one – that you have to take.

My second answer is that it doesn’t matter whether your advisor is the sweetest, most supportive human in the world. The point is that this person will control your destiny. S/he can decide, almost single-handedly, when or whether you are ready to defend your diss, to move on, to grow up, to have any kind of life outside the bubble. In the vast majority of cases, there is simply no way out of this bind because such a bind is the essence of advisor-advisee relationships. When one person controls your destiny, it doesn’t matter if s/he has your best interest at heart. That is because there is no way someone who controls your destiny can really have your best interest at heart. Power will eventually produce displays of dominance. That’s the very definition of power.

I didn’t end up hating my diss advisor. I sometimes feel a sort of irrational fondness towards him now that I have been released from his clutches. We still communicate. Nevertheless, my experience in a Humanities PhD program taught me that you cannot possibly have a healthy relationship with anyone who controls your destiny. By selecting an advisor, you are basically putting your future in someone else’s hands. There are very few ways that story turns out well.

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1 Response to Things No One Told Me About Grad School That I Learned the Hard Way (A New Series)

  1. Kelly says:

    Fantastic post!

    I came in to study X. Advisor #1 derailed that plan in some truly machiavelian* ways (). Now I am with adviser #2. Advisor #2 is a lovely person, really the only sane person in the department from what I can tell. But s/he studies Y. So now I do too.

    Things to know:

    1. People in my original, intended subfield all think Y is BS and my studying it makes me a freak, or is somehow indicative that I have poor moral character or something. Of course, I’ve decided that most of these people in my original subfield are gaping, pulsating A-holes, but there’s still not much opportunity to combine X and Y.

    2. Y is so niche that no one I know outside of my subfield has ever heard of it. I have a colleague at the school where Y originated, and s/he’d never heard of it before.

    3. Getting a T-T job in Y is going to be impossible.

    4. Getting a teaching job at a smaller school with a diss in Y is going to be hard if not impossible.

    5. Y is incredibly rigorous. I know someone who did an interview-based diss who essentially made up data to fill in the gaps. In Y, I have to submit my original data for review.

    6. For all the reasons above and more, I have come to hate Y.

    In other words, teaming up with the only sane, kind faculty member in my department killed my career before it began.

    *The little red misspelling line just popped up under machiavelian–see it just happened again. Guess I misspelled it. Don’t care enough to fix it. One of the suckiest things about being a sociology grad student is that we can’t possibly have objective exams–that would be unfair, or pedagogically improper, or something–in lieu of tests we grade reams and reams of papers (I’ve graded as many as 700 in one 10 week period). But then after assigning all these stupid, tree-murdering assignments, the profs say, “Well, don’t count spelling and grammar and writing ability, because you know, that wouldn’t be fair.” Thanks for wasting thousands of hours of my time assigning moronic BS assignments that I have to grade without really grading. So fuck it. It’s my turn to write badly.

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