Dear Mentor: Abusive Advisor?

Dear Mentor,

I’m a science PhD student and I'm near the end of my degree and should, God willing, be defending in a few months. My advisor, unfortunately, is a bully and I feel like the main target. My advisor has verbally abused me in many ways, such as telling me that I would never get the fellowship I received or telling me I was negative because I couldn't handle another task that was given to me. My advisor demands manuscripts to be handed in at a certain time, never reads them (and admits it to me), and then demands I rewrite them without knowing what was in them in the first place. When told to stop wasting my time on a certain project, I complied and then saw that the project was given to my advisor’s prize student because clearly, "I didn't care about it." I am talked about privately with other students. When other students tell me what was told them about me, I get angry and begin to rant and call my advisor terrible names. 

I have NEVER been this way. I have become the most hypocritical, unloving, bitter, depressed, angry Christian that I have ever met. I feel dirty inside. I have tried to approach my advisor calmly but it didn't work and nothing changed. My new husband is feeling it too and is also emotionally drained. What should I do? I can't take the abuse any longer. I have gone to higher ups — until my advisor was promoted! Now even my committee won't help as my advisor is everyone's boss! How can I be Christ-like in this situation? When should I take action or just ignore it?  How do I know if I'm just pushing or or if I need to live in God's time? I'm trying to love my enemies and forgive but I am finding it almost impossible! Please help!

from guest mentor Catherine Crouch

This is an extremely tough situation and I am really sorry that you are dealing with it. Unfortunately academia does not always provide good alternatives to the power that bad advisors can have over students. I think there need to be two dimensions to your response: the practical and the spiritual.

First the practical: It sounds like you are very close to finishing your PhD, and so it’s better to just come up with an exit strategy rather than trying to get your advisor to treat you fairly. Assuming that’s right, here is what you should be thinking about.

Identify and communicate with other faculty to ask them to provide you with letters of recommendation, as it sounds unlikely that you can rely on your current advisor to advocate for you in the future. (You never know; every once in a while, people who are completely unreasonable to work with nevertheless support their graduates well. But don’t count on it.) Even if members of your committee (or other faculty in your program) can’t or won’t “stand up” to your advisor, hopefully they can write you letters. Go to the people who are closest to your own field, who you think are most likely to be willing to advocate for you. Ask them if they are willing to write letters for you, and if so, what information they would like you to provide them with so that they can write the best possible letter of support. Don’t put them in an awkward situation by linking your request in any way to your advisor’s behavior. It is completely normal to get letters from more than one faculty member, so there is no need to bring up your advisor’s shortcomings. If asked, just explain that you have been advised that it is always a good idea to have multiple letters of recommendation. If they are paying attention, and if they have interacted with you enough to recognize the quality of your work, they will be aware of your situation and may be willing to make a little extra effort on your behalf.

In addition, figure out the most efficient way to finish with as much to show for your work as practical. Try to get the advice of a trusted person (maybe a member of your lab, maybe another faculty member) who knows the situation and can help you evaluate it dispassionately. What papers can you publish based on your work? What conference or conferences might you present at? How can you leave with the best possible record, while not having unrealistic expectations? Ask the person you discuss this with to help you see your advisor’s behavior as clearly and dispassionately as possible, including telling you if you are being excessively critical. Given what you’ve experienced so far, you are likely to expect the worst and you may not make the best decisions. Do your best to set aside the frustration you feel to focus on a realistic exit strategy that will set you up for your next position. It is to her benefit, as well as yours, to publish papers on your work, so figure out if you can leverage that to your advantage. Although your advisor may be a bully, it is less likely that she will actively sabotage your next steps; neglect is much more likely, because it doesn’t take effort on her part. (Of course if you have evidence to the contrary you should take that into account.) 

Finally, be sure to plan your next career move; don’t let the misery you feel presently blind you to making plans for what comes after defending, and don’t assume that you have no future or that all science is this lousy just because of this situation. Most scientists do not treat their grad students and postdocs this way. If you want to continue in academia, it’s quite likely you can find a better postdoctoral situation. If you want to go on in industry, you can probably find a better group of colleagues. Prioritize opportunities where you trust that you will have good people to work with. You may not realistically be able to compete for the most prestigious or competitive positions that you could have with a supportive advisor. If that’s true, that’s unfortunate, and you can and should mourn that loss, but don’t let it stop you from looking for a position that you will nonetheless find satisfying and worthwhile.

That’s the practical. As for the spiritual, it’s okay to be angry and sad over this very difficult situation. (You might want to pray some of the Psalms of Lament.) Loving your enemies doesn’t mean you can’t be angry at the injustice they are perpetrating, or mourn the losses that they have caused you. In this situation, I would say it means that you trust that God is greater than your advisor, and able to provide for you in spite of these losses and difficulties. So you can choose not to hate your advisor. It also means that you simply seek to escape rather than to take revenge. (It is not love to perpetuate an abusive situation; it is love to not return abuse for abuse.)

Try to give less attention in your prayers and thoughts to your advisor. Focus instead on trusting that God has good things for you in the future in spite of the suffering that you are going through right now, and ask him to use this extremely difficult time to bring about growth of character and maturity in you, and be patient. (Again the Psalms are a pretty good model as the writer is frequently in a desperate situation and calls out for God’s deliverance.) No matter what you do next, it will serve you well to learn how to allow suffering to produce perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3–5) rather than just frustration. This will probably involve spiritual discipline of your thoughts, choosing to turn your thoughts away from your advisor and toward the future that God has for you, or the work, family, and community that God has for you in the present.

All this is extremely hard, but nowhere are we given reason to expect the Christian life to be easy. Christ calls us to nothing less than to die to self and live in him, and promises to provide the Holy Spirit and to give us grace when we fall short. This doesn’t mean fabricating warm fuzzy feelings toward your advisor, but simply holding on to the truth that nothing in this world is as powerful as God. Ultimately all you are, including your love of science that brought you into this work, is safe in his care, even while you are suffering. I pray that you will experience that gift of grace as you go through your last few months of your PhD.

from an anonymous guest mentor

Dear Student,

Did I write this question? As a graduate student I was in an incredibly similar situation to the one you find yourself in. I relate to so many aspects of your dilemma in terms of the verbal bullying and how I saw myself turn into the kind of person who did not radiate the love of Christ. The more abuse I took, the more depressed and bitter I became. The more I tried to take the situation into my own hands (calm approaches, angry approaches, appealing to my committee), the less anything seemed to happen. I did not treat myself particularly well during this time, since I was so unhappy. I dropped a lot of the activities I had previously participated in, stopped exercising, stopped plugging in at church, and stopped cultivating a healthy spiritual life. It was pure survival mode. I entered into a very self-reinforcing negative feedback cycle. The more unhappy I became, the more I berated myself for feeling that way and not making the situation better, thus becoming more unhappy and bitter. 

Graduate school in the sciences is so unique with respect to student-advisor relationships. It is less like school and more akin to a years-long apprenticeship. Depending on how they themselves were trained, and their own personalities, advisors thus approach training their students in vastly different manners. Some environments are hostile (can be overt or insidious), and the treatment of trainees could even be seen as abusive. Other environments are very encouraging, to the point where the advisor and student engage in a collegial and almost family-like relationship as they together tackle interesting research problems and learn new things together. Advisors are given nearly complete freedom to arrange their research endeavors the way they want to. Yes, they do have some accountability to leadership in their department and higher university leadership. But at the end of the day, it is incredibly hard to bring about any corrective action to their behavior towards students, unless they are engaging in illegal activities. When their colleagues are consulted, typically they will not stand up for the student, because they view the advisor as a forever colleague, whereas students are there only for a time.

One of the more helpful things someone said to me during my own time in a similar environment was to affirm that what I was going through was indeed abuse. I wasn’t being whiny. I was being mistreated and was stuck in a lopsided power-based relationship. Calling it what it was helped me to reframe my thought process. Practically speaking, my only options were to stay and try to finish, or to go, which would lead to me either leaving graduate school altogether, or having to start over from square one in a different laboratory. In my case, I had several one-on-one closed door and confidential meetings with my committee members where I could candidly describe some of the interpersonal struggles I was having and also ask more directly whether they thought I was ready to graduate. I was fortunate to already have a demonstrated record of productivity with respect to publications and ability to secure a predoctoral fellowship. The members of my committee had graduated several of their own students with comparable publication records to mine. In the end, that was part of my golden ticket out.

The other thing I realized in talking to my committee members is that while they weren’t going to adopt a belligerent attitude towards my advisor or intercede directly on my behalf, they were willing to show up to meetings I arranged. A few months before defending, I arranged a committee meeting that was not required by my program. My presentation had an outline of my plans for the next several months, culminating in a tentative defense date. Setting up the extra meeting showed my commitment to setting attainable goals (i.e., defending at X date) and having my advisor assent along with the committee provided a bit of accountability. I entered that meeting confident, polished, and had my talking points ready. In that meeting, my advisor agreed to the tentative defense date.

However, that was the start of several months that were even rougher than the previous time had been. I dug my heels in and acted coolly, calmly, and for the most part, professionally, as I stuck to my plan. I knew that I had checked off all the boxes and it was my time to go. My advisor fought me every step of the way until I successfully defended. Looking back, I know the extra rough treatment at the end was in part a reaction to the worries about how the lab would perform once I was gone. It might have also been my advisor’s way (right or wrong) of making sure I had mastered the art of fighting for my science. Those were some horrible times, and I don’t want to relive them. But I can say that it is possible to survive this harrowing time.

From your letter, it sounds like you are right at that point of being mere months away from a thesis defense. Practically speaking, you can do what I did: meet and re-meet with your committee. Make sure your publication record matches or exceeds that of other students in your program/laboratory with similar career goals.

With respect to recommendation letters, make sure your committee is willing to step up and write good ones for you. You can be very direct with them, without having to badmouth your advisor. You can directly ask them for a letter and be frank about the need for it to be an excellent one. With respect to your own advisor’s letter, it’s not a foregone conclusion that it would be horrible. Even in the midst of the most dramatic periods, my advisor would always write good letters for students. Certainly if your advisor is an established investigator, there are some past trainees who you can contact to verify if a letter would be good or not (contacting them would also be helpful on helping you navigate your situation on a general level). Sometimes advisors treat their trainees terribly but do not want their dirty laundry aired outside of an environment where they have full control. It looks good for them if their trainees succeed.

However, if you are fully convinced that your advisor would not write a good recommendation, you will have to rely on committee members’ letters. They do not need to say anything bad about the advisor in their letters, but you would need to directly address its absence in a carefully worded cover letter. I know of three former graduate students from other laboratories who had to take this approach; all three were able to secure positions in their fields without the direct recommendation of their thesis advisor.

Moving on from the pragmatic to the spiritual. As I touched on earlier, I did not do the best at cultivating a healthy spiritual outlook during my darkest times in graduate school. The cynicism and bitterness seemed to completely transform me. To be fair, I let it happen. I knew the darkness was overtaking my soul in a crushing way. Yet instead of clinging to God and his Word like I had done during earlier difficult times in my life, I had simply let my spiritual life stagnate and deflate. I did have a glimmer of hope, in the form of a Bible passage that had been mailed to me anonymously. I tacked this small card up on the bulletin board at my lab desk and did my best to briefly meditate on it daily. From Philippians: 4:6-7 (NLT): "Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” At the end of the day, all I could ask for was peace as I spun my wheels in anguish. I pray that this peace will guard your heart as well.

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