The day I learned to stand up for myself, professionally

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.

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Thanks for writing this.

I know that such a non-specific comment sounds like comment spam, and you might think I'm just missing a link. But really it just means that I appreciated reading that, and since noone else is commenting, I wanted to let you know that you've got people reading!

I feel the same way a lot Siamang and typically shy away from a comment that just says thanks or whatever.

This is a really nice post.

I can tell you that if I were in that position, given my relative lack of assertiveness and self-confidence, I'd probably still be in the first advisor's lab :P

I carefully picked a MS advisor, made a huge mistake, and went through hell. I moved on to a PhD with an advisor who didn't advise much, but supplied what support I needed. I think, looking back, that I had an excellent educational experience which prepared me to go forth and do what I want to. I'm also very careful about who I depend on. So I think you may have had a pretty good educational experience. Of the kind, that if it doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

Wow - if you worked in the field of ecology instead of computers, I'd think we had the same advisor. I actually contacted an attorney to finally finish! Much better planning and evaluation of my Ph.D. advisor, though. Glad you made it out, and excellent that you stood up for your self, even while skaing internally . . . .

By ctenotrish (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

shaking, that is . . .

By ctenotrish (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

Jane, this is a good post. I worry that I am too trusting because I *didn't* go through an experience like that. It's good to read such things to remember not everyone is looking out for me. Keeps me sharp. Thanks.

I am currently struggling with your first advisor's twin! I am ready to graduate now. Unfortunately, nothing I even do is good enough for him. Even worse, I can never seem to get any feedback that might help me improve the situation. I'm at a point where I just want OUT and don't even care about # of publications any more! I've got enough to get me out and out is ALL that I want.

Thank you for letting me know that it's not just me!

By Frustrated (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

Getting burned like this is rough, but I am glad you learned so much from an otherwise awful experience! I keep hoping that I will learn this much from my own experience as well, both from the good and the bad.

Nice post, I too meshed lot of things when I was doing undergraduate Thesis work, because I never meshed before. My experience can be counted more worst. I wrote programs those became chapters of other PhD students, and at end I got a recommendation that reached after deadline. I was promised to have many publication- got nothing, Why? Because I failed to look after my best interests.
Thanks for this post I loved this one

Very nice post. I have to wonder - since you say that other graduate students didn't have the same sorts of problems - do you think that sexism had anything to do with it? I was wondering whether it was the kind of situation were a female student does well, really really well, too well, so gets subtly stomped on, by way of being held back by flimsy justifications.

This is EXACTLY what I needed to read right now. Thank you so much! I think this will make a difference.

Great post. One of the things that drove me insane while completing my MS was watching all my cohorts move through the Ph.D. program. It was especially tough when they were passing their candidacy exam and I wasn't even writing my MS thesis. It sure did light a fire under my ass when I finally did get the all clear and entered the Ph.D. program. Even though I started the program 3.5 years after them I only finished the Ph.D. 1.5 yrs. after they did...not that this still doesn't bug me a little. :)

This is such a valuable post for anyone every considering grad to school to read. You are absolutely right it's a hard lesson that life is not a meritocracy. It's even harder to accept that good work is not enough. This is true in all arenas of our lives not just science. We must learn to be our own best advocates and to stand up to people who bully us. Thank you for writing about this experience.

I've applied for Computer Science graduate school this year, and this is one reason that I'm waiting to hear from some Canadian unis (Waterloo, Alberta, UBC) even though I've received acceptance from U of Maryland, College Park. With US unis, I'm applying for the entire M.S.+Ph.D. program (otherwise there's no funding), but with the Canadian unis, I'm only applying for the M.S., which means if I do it successfully then I have the option of either remaining there or moving elsewhere. I was actually surprised to learn at first that Canadian unis offer assistantships to M.S. students.

C, I'm not sure---he had other female students that seemed to do just fine, but who knows what really happened....I always thought it was mostly personality, but there may have been a bit of a gender component in there too.

Am I the only one who's completely drawing a blank on a plausible motivation for this kind of behavior?

Interesting to note that such experiences are inter-disciplinary in nature... I had difficulties in an MFA course, except that the experience was something of a reverse-image of the above-related in that there was an almost total lack of advice, guidance, and even consideration... the only comment being "should be okay". Thus it wasn't till the last that I was informed by the review panel that my 1st. year thesis was 'inadequate' and that therefore I couldn't move on to the 2nd. year without re-doing everything. When I suggested to people at ever higher levels of the hierarchy that perhaps it would be nice if they took some responsibility for the total lack of professionalism on the part of my 'supervisor', they of course stonewalled. When I pushed, it was 'suddenly' discovered that I was in fact ineligible for that degree course since it is 'unavailable on an external basis' (I was then, as now, living and teaching in Japan, and would visit the uni, in Australia, during vacations). They were unable to answer the obvious question: "Then why did you allow me to enrol, pay fees, and study for a year?" I was then informed by the administration that since I was remiss in enrolling, and had in fact paid less fees than applicable to an external course (a non-existent one remember) they had 'in your interests' falsified... whoops: 'adjusted' their records with regard to my enrolment/record so as to avoid any future negative impact vis-a-vis the national fees organisation/tax office. Hampered by not being on the spot, and by a rising gorge, I wrote it off, rather than prolong the anger and disgust.

So... things that currently make me feel old? I don't have to take that sort of rubbish any more; daily aerobics; I don't have to worry what anyone thinks; I weigh less than when I was a teen (40+ years ago); and I have a sunnier outlook on my future than at any time in my past. I may even be becoming mature! Old? Love it! (^_*)

By johnathon john (not verified) on 08 Apr 2009 #permalink

I know that such a non-specific comment sounds like comment spam, and you might think I'm just missing a link. But really it just means that I appreciated reading that, and since noone else is commenting, I wanted to let you know that you've got people reading!

By andersland (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

This is so helpful... I'm seriously thinking about quitting my PhD and i've already been here for 3.5 yrs... My first advisor was great, and was more of a guide... we had picked up a thesis topic that noone else had done before and had gotten some really interesting results .. Anyway, so here i was all set and ready to go, planning on graduating in another year or so when my advisor passes away... since noone else was doing this work the only option I had was to switch to a diff. advisor and project... it started out great with a potential collaboration and we had decided that maybe another 2 yrs at most and i could graduate
Now, i don't even have a project (collaboration never happened), there is no funding (and the dept will only provide so much more TA positions since they have a limit of 8 semesters) and I'm not really getting any mentoring at all; let alone being able to graduate in 2 more yrs....
so i've been thinking about just quitting and moving on but at the same time I really want the PhD... Any advice anyone???

Good thus it wasn't till the last that I was informed by the review panel that my 1st. year thesis was 'inadequate' and that therefore I couldn't move on to the 2nd.

Hampered by not being on the spot, and by a rising gorge, I wrote it off, rather than prolong the anger and disgust.