I probably should have noticed the warning signs about my graduate program earlier—like, in the first week, when I went to meet my temporary assigned advisor and he said “Oh, uh, I don’t want any more students right now. Go find yourself another advisor.” (I guess he didn’t really understand the whole idea behind “temporary advisor”.) I probably should have trusted my instincts to run away to saner pastures, but I decided to stick around for a bit. What I didn’t realize at the time was that things would soon get much, much worse.
Fast forward to the end of my first year. I had finished much of the coursework for my master’s degree, and like most of my cohort was trying to settle on a research project for my master’s thesis. I didn’t have summer support, so I found myself a research internship at an industrial lab. I was talking to my temporary advisor (the one I had to find on my own) about the project I’d be working on, and he said, “This sounds like it could be a really great master’s project. And we have a new faculty member coming in this summer who would be a great advisor, because this overlaps with his area and it’s an area he wants to get more involved in.”
Cool! The pieces are falling into place, I thought.
So I talked with Soon-To-Be-Advisor and indeed, he was very interested. Negotiations started with the lab in terms of ownership of intellectual property, publishing rights, and all that fun stuff. An agreement was in place about halfway through the summer. The project went very well, and the results I got were way beyond what my supervisor expected. The results were interesting—very interesting. I was excited. My supervisor and colleagues at the lab were way excited. The lab hired me back on a part-time basis for the academic year, basically paying my research assistantship stipend for the next year, so that I could finish up my experiments and simulations and write up my masters thesis. I thought for sure I would be graduating in May/June with the rest of my cohort.
That’s when my personal hell started.
My advisor turned from Pretty Reasonable Guy to Nothing You Do Is Ever Good Enough Guy. Any experiments or simulations I did were not good enough, any results I obtained were not strong enough. The things we originally agreed upon as being sufficient for the master’s suddenly were not sufficient anymore. The things I needed to do were constantly shifting. I would meet one of his goals, only to be told that the goal wasn’t relevant anymore, and that instead I had to achieve this other goal instead. While my cohort was starting to write up their results, I was essentially starting over with my simulations because the originals “weren’t rigorous enough”. While my cohort was sending out their first papers to conferences, my advisor was telling me that my stuff would never be publishable.
May and June passed, then August and September, then January and February. And still I was redoing simulations, redoing experiments, and never quite getting it right enough for this guy. I spent weekend nights in the lab, running experiments and simulations from midnight until dawn, leaving as the sun came up. I was exhausted and demoralized.
I don’t know what it was that finally caused me to snap. Maybe it was too many weekends of too little sleep. Maybe it was that I was falling way behind my cohort, in pace towards graduation and in publications. Maybe it was the job offer I was considering from Industrial Lab that would get me out of this hell-hole once and for all. But I met with my advisor one day in March, showing him my latest results. “Those aren’t good enough. You’ll have to do the experiments again.”
“No.” I said, firmly and confidently.
He sat, in stunned silence. I continued, “Look. We both know that I’ve done enough work for three master’s projects at this point. We both know that I’m ready to graduate. This is just ridiculous at this point. So you’re going to sit here with me and we’re going to map out a plan for me to finish, NOW. I can’t be held back by this any longer. We both need to move on. I need to graduate and move on to the PhD.”
He looked at me for a few minutes, during which I kept my frowny pissed-off face on him (although inside I was shaking like a leaf and feeling pretty sure that I had just burned every single bridge I had at that school), then slowly nodded and said “OK.”
I defended later that summer, and moved on to another advisor and another project (although again, not without drama, but that’s another story for another time). And I actually ended up graduating with most of my cohort, because I finished my PhD in record time just so I could get the hell out of there. Of course, I spent the rest of my time playing catch-up, and when I graduated I was at a serious disadvantage as compared to my cohort in terms of publications, because of my master’s advisor’s obstinance. (He never did let me publish anything from my work, and I *know* I had at least 2 conference papers worth of publishable stuff.)
This experience was my first, hard lesson that life is not a meritocracy, that it’s not enough for you to just do good work. I learned that I have to be my own best advocate. I learned that only I am looking out for my best interests. I learned what an academic bully looks like and how to stand up to one. I figured out what traits to look for in future advisors/mentors to avoid situations like this in the future. I learned how to find my own resources and allies, how to evaluate my own work, what good research looks like. Sure, I would have learned these eventually, and maybe less traumatically, but I think it ultimately served me well to learn these lessons early on.
I also learned to trust my research instincts. When it came time to pick my PhD thesis topic, I was actually able to identify a topic completely on my own because of this experience. And luckily, I found a supportive advisor to guide me along. (I sometimes wonder if part of the problem was that this project was *my* project and not something that *he* came up with, because none of his other graduate students had the same level of problems with him that I did.) I became confident in my ability to not only pick good problems, but pick good directions for those problems, too.
In a sense, though, this experience also hurt me, in that it made me more reluctant to trust my colleagues. I still, to this day, will persist in trying to do too much on my own without asking for help or advice. I guess part of me is still afraid that my trusted colleagues and mentors will eventually turn on me, just like my master’s advisor did.