Got a Bad Academic Advisor? 3 Things You Need to Do Now

We at Beyond the Professoriate yearn for the day when nobody needs to read this article.

But alas, ‘tis not this day.

How do you manage a relationship with a bad academic advisor? It’s one of the eternal questions of graduate students everywhere. And there’s no simple answer that will work for everyone.

The traits of a bad academic advisor have been amply examined and don’t need to be rehashed here. You probably know it when you see it:

  • They don’t support your research or career interests.
  • They have vague or unreasonable expectations.
  • They forget to read your chapter drafts, never reply to emails, or otherwise ignore you.
  • They yell at you or are abusive in some way.

An effective graduate student–advisor relationship is built on support and trust. A bad advisor is one who neither supports you nor gives you a reason to trust them.

So, once you realize that you have a bad academic advisor, what can you do?

In this post we’ll discuss 3 courses of action you can take to handle the situation. We’ll start with knowing your rights and learning how to deal with bad advisors from within the system.

We also encourage you to talk honestly with your advisor and, at the very least, make an honest attempt to salvage the relationship.

Remember this: when all else fails, just walk away.

1. Know Your Rights

The first step in managing a relationship with a bad academic advisor is to know your rights and weigh your options.

Dust off your department’s graduate student handbook and find the section on the responsibilities of a PhD advisor. It’ll be in a section titled “Formal Advising” or “Academic Advising” or some such formulation.

The handbook will specify how many meetings with students must occur each semester, when progress reports are due, as well as the advisor’s responsibilities in picking courses, planning prelim exams, and so forth.

Keep track of everything your advisor should be doing and all the ways they’ve failed to do those things.

Keep records of every negative interaction you’ve had with your advisor. If you communicate primarily by email, all your messages are conveniently saved for you. Dig up any emails that display negligent or inappropriate conduct and save them in a folder. Title it “Evidence” if you like.

The next step is to know the system. Universities are nothing if not bureaucratic. While it might sound crazy to sing the praises of bureaucracies, one thing they do very well is have a formal mechanism in place for addressing a wide variety of employee problems.

Somewhere, tucked away in the deepest, darkest corners of the university bureaucracy, is a process for filing a complaint about an advisor. Ask your departmental administrator to help find it. Be ready to use it if/when the time comes.

2. Talk to Your Bad Academic Advisor

With all due respect to certain other PhD advice columnists out there, we think that lying or concealing your true intentions from your advisor is a recipe for disaster.

Don’t start a new research project behind their back. Don’t start shopping around for new advisors without telling them. Don’t secretly apply for industry jobs while telling your advisor you’re still 100% committed to academia.

Seriously, when has the cure for a toxic relationship ever been more secrets?

Don’t do that. We know it’s hard, but we encourage you to be honest with your advisor.

If at all possible, schedule a meeting and tell them the hard truth. If they won’t make time to meet, write down what you need to say and email it to them.

  • If you feel your advisor has been ignoring or neglecting you, tell them.
  • If you feel your advisor doesn’t respect you, tell them.
  • If your advisor doesn’t understand or appreciate your career goals, tell them.

If it helps, rehearse the meeting beforehand. Figure out a way to say exactly what you need to say. Don’t downplay your concerns. Don’t circumlocute.

A bad academic advisor may not listen to you. They may not read your messages. But it won’t be because you didn’t try.

All we’re saying is that you make an honest, good-faith attempt to salvage the relationship.

Telling the truth is hard. But the truth, as they say, will set you free.

If your advisor still refuses to change their behaviors or accept your research and career goals, see below.

3. Switch Advisors

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.

If it’s clear that you can’t or don’t want to salvage the relationship with your advisor, just walk away.

Odds are, you were originally matched with them because their research focus hewed closest to your stated interests in your grad school application. All else being equal, it makes sense to pair grad students and academic advisors this way.

But comparable research interests are hardly the be-all end-all of good academic relationships.

Good advisors don’t necessarily have to work in the same specialization as you. Seriously, which would you prefer?

  1. An advisor who works in the same sub-sub-subfield as you, knows the ins and outs of your research topic, but never reads your work.
  2. An advisor who is moderately familiar with your topic, can’t comment on the finer details, but who sticks to a schedule and gives constructive feedback.

Clearly, the answer lies behind Door Number 2.

Sometimes, likeminded research interests can actually make the graduate student–advisor relationship worse. Why? Because of that infuriating (and infuriatingly common) propensity among academics to comment on what they want someone to do, rather than what that person is actually trying to do.

If your bad academic advisor works on a similar topic, takes a different perspective on that topic from you, and refuses to engage with your point of view, their advice will be of little use. It may amount to little more than “delete everything, start over, and do what I tell you.”

Not helpful.

And, of course, if your advisor just ignores you or refuses to read your work, that’s equally unhelpful.

So, don’t hesitate to give your advisor the ‘it’s not working out’ speech. Ask other professors in your department/program if they’d be interested in supporting your work. You may be surprised by who says yes.

Conclusion

Bad academic advisors have been part of the graduate school experience since the medieval days. They’re not going away anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with them.

Your academic career is challenging enough. Don’t let one bad advisor ruin your higher education.

You have options. Know them. Use them.

And again, if things just aren’t working, walk away. Remember that advice.

For more advice to get you through grad school, check out our article on 5 things PhDs and postdocs should do right now.

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