Graduate school supervisors

I started writing a post about graduate school a few months ago. It began “debt, deception, depression”… I’ll finish that post some day, but today I come back to it for a different reason. Three of my dear friends are currently in graduate school. One met such distress in the first semester that s/he promptly became fatigued and ill. And my closest friend in the world is about to start. I am struck by the similarity in the experiences of people studying in fields as diverse as education, dance, and quantum physics. I so desperately want to provide a prophylactic to the suffering and waste.

Graduate school is a beautiful opportunity to indulge in deep and synthetic study of a field you love. It is a chance for reflection and creativity, accompanied by the greatest minds and practitioners, and in dialogue with fellow scholars and elders. It is perhaps the only space in which to grow your ideas expressively with a temporary suspension of the imperative to market them.

Although these are almost always among the reasons people go to grad school, this is rarely how people experience the time, space, and resources of the university once they are enrolled.

Instead, people are promptly drawn into a drama cycle with their advisor/supervisor. A drama cycle is a three point triangle of roles: victim, persecutor, rescuer. You know you’re on a drama cycle when you tell stories of yourself and significant others in these roles. (You may need a friend to listen to you talk and give you feedback about this.) When your supervisor doesn’t understand you or makes unreasonable demands, you are a victim. When you feel you are at battle with them, you are a persecutor. When you fantasize about a new advisor you are looking for a rescue. Most graduate students spend hours jumping around between these roles in their minds and not getting much work done.

Partners and friends just don’t understand why it’s all so intense and nothing they say gets through. They don’t realize that the student’s dream of blissful love with their subject has been abruptly compressed into the form of an arranged marriage, fraught with many of the intense highs, terrifying moments of alienation, fantasies, unarticulated expectations, disappointments, and profound hopes of a romantic marriage.

The experience of the relationship is unexpected, and unprecedented. It’s not like any boss you’ve ever had, because while your job may be important to you for various reasons, it probably never represented your dreams of self-expression and/or significant contributions to society. It’s not like a romantic relationship, which you enter slowly and consensually, taking each next step based on feelings of confidence in and growing love for the person, and moving away if you feel the costs outweigh the benefits.

While we may get involved in drama cycles at times in these relationships as well, we have ways of making sense of their conflicts (“my boss is an idiot” or “my girlfriend is a ditz but I love her”), we have ready escape routes (look for another job, break up), and we are able to contextualize the angst (“it’s just my fucking job”, “you can’t have everything in one person and the important parts of our relationship work”). When by definition your supervisor is not only your boss but a gate-keeping expert in your beloved field of study, his opinions and decisions are impossible to dismiss by calling him an idiot or an asshole. Having dreamed of and then committed to graduate school, the only escape, “dropping out”, is a total failure and blow to self-esteem. The conflicts cannot be sidestepped or trivialized because what you are conflicting about is generally substantive to the progress of your work.

You are indeed very, very stuck. You might be able to change advisors, but you certainly will find the same problems again, even with an advisor more suited to you in some ways.

What gets us stuck in the drama cycle is not taking responsibility for our power. Prospective graduate students are often wooed by their schools, because the schools need their talent or money. In this moment, the graduate student has the power to bequeath their presence on one university or another, and they feel respected in that power. But once enrolled, everything about the institutional experience conspires to take away their power and they enter and participate in the advisor relationship without power.

Having been on both sides of this experience I know that the advisor too feels a particular kind of powerlessness in this relationship. Although roughly 2/3 of the salary is compensation for teaching, advising, and other service, about 85% of the evaluation for promotion is based solely on research. And a clear win at research, for most, is a strung-up carrot they will never taste. This means that they really really don’t have time or intellectual space for their advisees, much as they wish they did because you are so nice and your project quite interesting and it’s great to witness young people at the beginning of their careers. When you walk into their office they are desperately trying to remember who you are and what you discussed last time. They are covering for not having read with sufficient care your latest draft or email. They are horribly distracted by the more significant work in their lives, none of which is easy, and for which they desperately need serene space and time that they don’t get, and which this meeting and the one before and after are acidly eating again. Not to mention the list of truly boring and annoying administrative tasks they must keep up with, hovering on a post-it next to the telephone on their desk.

Your advisor is the most important person in your life and you, no matter how much they like you, are a very, very low priority in theirs. Quite near the bottom of the priority list in fact. Just above the Provost’s Special Committee on Renaming Departments for which she is required to read reams of papers and sit through endless and mind-numbingly-dull meetings. But you, my friend, are a lower priority than the undergraduates in the intro-level class who aren’t even majors in your department, because undergraduates are being treated as consumers these days, and their parents call the dean’s office if the student feels they deserved a better grade in the class or the professor made an “inappropriate remark about an elected official”. Keeping the undergraduates and their parents happy is absurdly a topic requiring more concerted attention than your thesis, although your thesis is substantively far more appealing as the topic of a languid afternoon’s chat. But there is no languid afternoon, because time considering your albeit cutting edge and fascinating thesis proposal is time away from the advisor’s own always-neglected research. Because their research doesn’t make appointments, doesn’t send blue sheets of paper listing the semester’s meeting dates well in advance, doesn’t have a standing time in the weekly schedule, doesn’t have a secretary to call them in for a “chat about your progress toward promotion”.

How to get off the drama cycle? Somehow you have to stay in touch with the person who decided to do this graduate program after all. And don’t let the machinations of the university turn you into a peasant, alternately groveling and lighting things on fire. Your passion is the real currency, the value that drives research, that keeps the university enrollments profitable, that gives your profession and professors status. Take responsibility for your power. Make the relationship professional, contractual, clear. Don’t let your advisor be in charge of the relationship, they’re overcommitted and won’t do a good job. You manage the relationship, and manage it in the interests of your real boss (or client) — your own ambitions in your field of study.

Otherwise you will throw away the beautiful person and dreams that brought you here and live your grad school time in a distortion of your own power which will depress you to the point that you will only dream of escape in the form of “just finishing”. And that will be a tragic waste of the time and space and resources of the opportunity you have created for yourself.