For many scholars, the hallowed halls of academe are a wondrous utopia—somebody pays them to read and learn! (And, occasionally, pontificate and then get very drunk at conferences.) For others, however—such as this Australian academic who says the pressure drove her to heroin—the life of the mind is a minefield: underappreciated work, little pay, poor social skills, posturing, back-stabbing. Which kind of experience you have often hinges on a single person: the doctoral dissertation adviser. A good adviser can make a Ph.D. candidate’s career; a bad one can sabotage even the most promising. (But no pressure, beginning grad students!)
Every person who dispenses advice to would-be grad students will tell you immediately and vociferously how important it is to choose the right adviser. (Except me; I will suggest you do the smartest thing of all and avoid grad school altogether.) The Platonic ideal of the dissertation adviser is the Dumbledore to your Harry: His reputation should be legendary, his credentials unassailable, his wisdom unmatched, and his presence cause for jubilation among the good and terror among the evil.
A good adviser will also turn your work from student-level to professional-grade, model successful academic behavior, and introduce you to the muckety-mucks of your discipline like some rumpled, jargon-spewing debutante. The idealistic will tell you to choose the adviser whose intellect and work makes you gasp, whose office you can visit for three hours and still not be done talking. The more careerist (or cynical) will suggest instead that you find the most famous and powerful person who will deign to work with you, and then do exactly the kind of dissertation he tells you to. The reality for a successful career lies somewhere in between (and rests on the whims of the job market).
All this might sound reasonable, were the adviser-advisee relationship not so weird. It’s a study in contradictions: The person’s not your boss—but you also can’t get a Ph.D. without doing your work in a way that pleases him. Sure, he can “fire” you; but you can also fire him.
Furthermore, the dissertation supervisor is supposed to be at once the graduate student’s harshest critic (I had to rewrite large portions of my own project six times) and her biggest supporter, responsible for milking connections to get a new Ph.D. well positioned to get hired in a job similar to the supervisor’s. Academics aren’t considered successful until they’ve successfully replicated themselves.
The word that’s used most often for dissertation advisers isn’t boss. It’s mentor. Some mentors are brilliant at it. The collaboration can be lifelong; the relationship between adviser and advisee can evolve from mentorship to equal footing. For many academics, the relationship they have with their Ph.D. advisers is among the most cherished in their lives. This can be inspiring to others, and also painfully annoying to them, like the people you know whose relationships with their parents are a little too good.
Speaking of parents, there is only one relationship that properly parallels that of the dissertation adviser and doctoral student. It’s not boss and it’s not mentor—it’s father. In fact, in my discipline, German, we actually call our advisers Doktorvater (or Doktormutter), and that term carries with it all of the attendant baggage: the simultaneous need to please and inability to please enough, the simultaneous need to follow in footsteps and distinguish oneself as an individual, the simultaneous reverence for and resentment of everything—good or bad—in the parent that reminds one of oneself.
That’s why when relationships with advisers go awry, it can be devastating in a way that you generally don’t find in the normal working world. In my practice as a dissertation coach, I’ve witnessed every possible kind of bad adviser in my client base, from the absentee to the abusive. The effect on these clients is wrenching. It keeps them up at night, monopolizes their therapy sessions, reduces them to tears in their appointments with me, and sends them spiraling into a trauma that may be lifelong.
Lest you think I’m sharing this glimpse of academia’s innards out of some long-standing bitterness from my own graduate experience, I hate to disappoint you. My own relationship with my Doktorvater, UC–Irvine’s wonderful and brilliant Kai Evers (who is actually just five years older than I am), is in the “annoyingly cherished” category. This is because of the Dumbledorean rigor with which he stewarded me through the dissertation itself, yes, but also because of his ability to put aside his own conditioning and support my decision to leave the academy. (And for what it’s worth, my relationship with my actual father is also healthy without being creepy.)
There are thousands of such great Doktoreltern out there—but that doesn’t mean the relationship template is healthy. It’s not. It needs a complete overhaul, because, as do many family relationships, it creates a blueprint for systemwide dysfunction, characterized by poor social skills, unprofessional behavior, bullying colleagues and inferiors until they become successful enough to bully others—or, if they decide to leave, cutting them off completely, disowning them like a son or daughter who’s married the wrong person. No profession should model itself on Russian novels—or, for that matter, a cult, a Ponzi scheme, or organized crime.
Many outside the academy (and some ill-informed folks in it) will say that the weird behavioral dynamics of the academy are there because of tenure, or post-structuralism, or political correctness, or lack of real-world experience. There are certainly kernels of truth in all of this. But it’s worth taking a long, hard look at academia’s daddy issues—to examine the simple structural bit of skeevyness at the heart of any academic’s ability (or inability) to form a scholarly identity and relate to others.