Putting the Passive-Aggressive in Ph.D

Humorous diagram that shows how to decipher your professor's mood based on how he or she signs his or her emails.Today in “Duh:”  A study of graduate students at a major Western U.S. university discovered that over half of the graduate students surveyed had experienced major emotional stress.  Over half also reported knowing a colleague who had experienced major emotional stress.

Today in “DUUUUUHHHH!!:”  experiencing emotional stress was correlated with have a dysfunctional relationship with one’s advisor (also, precarious financial status, lack of contact with friends and family, being single, and being female).

Graduate students–and probably females in particular–spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what professors think of them.  This is not just because they are insecure, needy little babies.  It is because the academic survival and career outlook of a grad student depend significantly on the quality of her relationships with senior faculty.

As such, I was intrigued to hear that faculty in my department have been doing a bit of bitching about graduate students during Graduate Program Committee meetings, an issue which prompted one of my fellow grads on the Professional Skills Committee to organize a session on Faculty/Grad Student Relations for younger graduate students.  Now, some of the faculty’s complaints were entirely legitimate.  Students who wait until the very last minute to request job recommendations or feedback on materials rightfully deserve to be admonished.  I gave my reccommenders 8 weeks, so I don’t think I am one of the problem students, but no one has ever told me one way or the other.

But that’s actually sort of a problem in itself.  One would sort of hope that faculty members could tactfully tell their students that they need X number of weeks notice on a recommendation or a request for feedback on a chapter or article themselves, rather than making it a topic for committee gossip.  One would hope.  Yet the colleague who ran the Professional Skills session reported that pretensions about openness and honesty between faculty and grad students followed by confessions about dissembling and manipulating in touchy situations was sort of a theme.  When she asked each faculty participant to talk about how they wish to be addressed by grad students, one faculty member declined to answer.  I am, as of this moment, now obsessing about the fact that I once called this same faculty member “Matt” in an email, thinking I remembered him introducing himself that way, only to go back and realize he signs all of his emails with an ambiguous “MC.”  How can something as simple and straightforward as “How do you like to be addressed?” become such a locus for anxiety and misunderstanding?

Later, when they were discussing the need for directness and openness when setting the terms of an advisor/advisee relationship (how often you expect to meet, what kind of turn around time the advisee can expect for feedback, when the advisee feels they need to finish, how long it usually takes students of that advisor to finish, etc.), one distinguished professor admitted that when he doesn’t wish to work with a grad student, he becomes “really busy all of a sudden.”

From the safety of my pseudonymous blog:  that’s fucking ridiculous.  I am gradually–as professors begin to seem a bit less like towering, impenetrable monoliths and more like human beings–beginning to realize that many faculty members are as socially awkward and terrified of confrontations as their students are.  But really, the standard needs to be a bit higher.  Given the enormous amount of power an advisor has in a grad student’s life, the refusal to honestly negotiate the terms of a relationship and occasionally have difficult conversations about the student’s performance or etiquette  isn’t really a simple personality quirk.  It’s downright passive aggressive and detrimental to the grad student’s academic development and overall well-being.

Graduate students often feel as if they are constantly breaking rules and failing to live up to standards that no one has ever spelled out for them.  Worse, the rules and etiquette change depending on whose class you’re in or who is conducting a particular meeting or workshop.  Graduate students also frequently feel like they are imposters, as if someone at the university is going to realize that they do not, in fact, belong there and immediately send them packing.  But even worse is the sense that maybe you don’t belong here, but no one is ever going to tell you one way or the other.  All you will know is that the faculty members who work in your sub-field won’t return your emails, and the Graduate Advisor refuses to look you in the eye.

Ok, that’s not my situation, and I do know of excellent faculty members who were able to sit down and honestly tell them that things just weren’t working out.  I’m reminded of Notorious Ph.D’s excellent post about having that very conversation with two grads in her own department.  She describes that conversation as “difficult,” but I guarantee you that it was also compassionate.  Grad school is too huge of an investment of time, money, and energy, and faculty are being downright disrespectful if they allow grads to simply flounder through the process with no clear signals about their progress or their future in the field while complaining about them to the colleague down the hall.

Image Credit: Ph.D Comics

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4 thoughts on “Putting the Passive-Aggressive in Ph.D

  1. I have a really awkward confrontational conversation I need to have with a grad student (And I hate the idea of it) – thanks for reminding me of why I should go ahead and do it!

  2. Man oh man, does this ring true. I’ve accepted that, with the exception of my advisor, my committee takes zero interest in my work. Do they avoid commenting because they think it’s shit? Quite possibly, but it’s pretty hard to divine any meaning at all from absolutely zero contact. Whatevs, I just keep doing my thing. It is refreshing to hear that it’s not just me or my department.

    1. Megan,

      I would say that it’s because faculty members are as overwhelmed with work as anybody and have the bad habit of pushing off things that don’t immediately demand attention. That doesn’t make it right. It’s just a reality of human nature. Sometimes it helps to give them a (generous) time frame for getting things back to you. For example: “I’m hoping to send this off to X journal by the end of April, and I would love to get your feedback before I revise.” Or: “The deadline for submitting M.A. Theses to the Graduate School is May 15, and I expect to spend two weeks on revisions.” Most of my profs who are willing to get specific say that a month is reasonable for a full-length dissertation chapter, journal article, or M.A. thesis. Keep in mind that most of them have no idea when job market or grad school deadlines actually are, so it helps to send reminders.

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