Scholars Behaving Badly

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A dissertation advisor has a lot of different roles. S/he is the content guide, the networking guide, the methodological guide, the institutional-logistics guide. But an unspoken role of the dissertation chair is to just be a decent, intelligent, empathetic person. And boy, the fails pile up.

  • The dissertation chair who, upon learning that his successful PhD student wants a career at a teaching-focused institution rather than another major R1 lab, basically quits advising and washes his hands of any further mentorship in their professional circles.
  • The dissertation chair who shows up 40 minutes late for the defense, because he thought it would be cute to go out and buy little congratulatory brandy glasses but didn’t have the wherewithal to either get it done in advance or the decency to inform anyone else that he wouldn’t be on time.
  • The dissertation chair who schedules a trip that conflicts with his student’s already scheduled defense, and so has to lead the questioning from afar via Skype.
  • The scattered lab manager who couldn’t organize a two-car parade, but who claims lead authorship on every paper that the planning and foresight of his post-docs makes possible.

That’s just the ones that have come up in my conversations recently. Imagine how many others there might be. And there are good stories, too: I know two grad advisors who held monthly dinners for all of their grad students, talking not about the research but about scholarly and career success. THOSE are the ones you want to work with.

We need the equivalent of Rate My Professors just for doctoral faculty and research advisors, so that individual tales can be more broadly public. In the absence of that, let me at least reassure you that, although you’re going through it for the first time and it FEELS uniquely bad, you aren’t alone. There really IS an element of hazing to the PhD journey, in which the ills visited upon one generation become the “rituals and traditions” of the next.

Some traditions aren’t worth upholding. Please, be the person who does well by your students. And if you’re a doctoral student or pending post-doc, listen carefully to the hallway conversations from your more advanced peers.