Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

Crimes Against Dissertation Humanity

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Image: Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life

Since I left academia in 2013, I’ve had a part-time job as something called a “dissertation coach.” I work one-on-one with a stable of about a dozen private clients, and help them manage both their workload and the emotional vicissitudes of graduate school. And no matter their field—I’ve worked with scientists, engineers, sociologists, psychologists, historians, and literary scholars—one thing remains the same: My services simply would not be necessary if the faculty advisers of the world saw fit to do their jobs. So, thanks academia, I guess!

This is absolutely not to say that my clients demand to have their hands held, or that hand-holding is the duty their advisers are neglecting. In coaching sessions, I am brutally honest about the place of harsh criticism in academic life. Anyone who has attended a conference or a job talk, or been peer-reviewed, recognizes that sharp critiques come with the territory. And most also realize where academics learned such behavior: from the flayings many of them received during the dissertation process (“From you, all right? I learned it by watching you!”).

From the moment future Ph.D.’s tiptoe into that first colloquium and observe senior scholars in their natural habitat, these students learn that, to many career academics, research-based transgressions are nothing less than crimes against humanity. By the time graduate students have been properly socialized—the diss, the conference circuit, the job market—they are equally well versed in the arts of research methodology and scathing intellectual takedown. This is the behavioral culture that academia has chosen, and if grad students want to be a part of that world, at very least, they must learn to withstand the blows.

So, again, when I say that advisers aren’t doing their jobs, I don’t mean that they are all a bunch of meanies, heavy on the critique and light on the cookies. (Any grad students who want cookies should go to Trader Joe’s, where even a sad little Ph.D. stipend can buy a vat of them.)

Here’s what I mean when I say that too many dissertation advisers are guilty of dereliction of duty: I’m talking about advisers who fail to provide constructive and useful mentorship at every step of the dissertation process, from the first book cracked to the final polish. This should be nonnegotiable. Hey, graduate faculty: You want so badly to preserve your Ph.D. programs, with little remorse about foisting graduates upon a carcass-strewn jobless dystopia? Actually advising dissertations well is the price for that.

What follows are some of the worst types of advisers that I’ve heard about from my clients and from social media.

First, let’s hear it for the Micromanager. Yes, advisers should be involved—but there’s such a thing as too involved, and involved the wrong way. Many of my clients’ supervisors demand to meet every week—and then they use that meeting to castigate students for how “behind” they are. That serves little purpose other than to self-fulfill the prophecy, since the more “behind” students think they are, the more discouraged they get and the less likely they are to muster up the will to work. In fact, “I’m behind” rhetoric is so damaging that in my practice, I have developed an entire repertoire of techniques and alternative vocabulary to get clients out of that very mindset. You can imagine how dispiriting it is when, week after week, I see them put back into it by their advisers.

That said, I’d still rather have the Micromanager than another favorite of my clients: the Superstar Who Can’t Be Bothered. I’ve had clients wait a year and a half for chapter feedback, or receive demands that they refrain from submitting pages for five months while the adviser is busy with research. Please. The idea that any “real” scholar is 24/7 consumed and cannot glance at a few pages of a dissertation she’s being paid to read is part of the larger cult of “academic-busy,” in which research becomes so simultaneously deified and impossibility-fetishized that it’s socially acceptable to be a year late on a 500-word book review. I hate to break it to all of you, but while academic writing is very difficult, nobody is justified in claiming that it can (or should) dominate one’s life to the exclusion of all else. To claim so, though widely accepted in the culture, is the height of self-indulgence—especially when even having graduate students is a privilege.

That said, both the Micromanager and the Superstar are Stuart Smalley compared to the undisputed kingpin of diss-adviser criminals: The Nothing-But-a-Finished-Producter. A reader recently wrote in with the following tale: “I’m almost done with my dissertation. I think I am, anyway. I don’t know because my adviser has never seen any of it. He only wants me to send it when the whole thing is finished, not chapter by chapter.” My heart fell through my gut and, propelled by righteous indignation, bored straight into the magma core of the Earth. What?? This would be like an obstetrician who charges for “prenatal care” and then refuses to see you until the baby’s already out.

What’s especially heartbreaking about cases like this: Often, the adviser has so much departmental clout that students really have no recourse to complain (or, like my reader, they might not even know how badly they are being shafted). Students can mitigate this egregious abuse by seeking out informal mentorship elsewhere in the field and joining writing groups—but, speaking of brutal honesty, none of that will help come defense time, much less on the job market, when said adviser is supposed to write an abject hagiography that betrays a multi-year intimacy with his students’ work.

Of course, there are great advisers out there, too. Mine was spectacular, although his feedback was—well, have you read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony? Let’s just say the subject matter of my dissertation oftentimes mirrored the experience of getting it critiqued. I can’t remember if it was the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze or Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben who reminded us that with great power comes great responsibility, but it’s true. And in an age when many Ph.D. programs do more for faculty prestige than they do for the students they churn out, that responsibility is particularly acute. That is why I am so livid to see it shirked—even if the cottage industry that supports me depends upon it.

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