3 Toxic Adviser Types

“Every one who surrounds me is free to quit me, and when they leave me will no longer have any need of me or any one else; it is for that reason, perhaps, that they do not quit me.”
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

There are some very good advisers in Academia. Professors and PostDocs who invest a great deal of time, effort, brain power and social capital into the next generation of scientists. They take their responsibility as senior scientists seriously and deserve kudos — and they get it. Their former students — even after becoming senior hard-core scientists in their own right — weep when these advisers retire, and they are fondly remembered even decades later.

This posting is not about them.

Looking at some postings about advisers and remembering some conversations with former PhD students, I tried to determine “types” of advisers which are toxic for a scientific career. The following three types are the result of an unsystematic ad hoc reflection, but perhaps they are useful nonetheless.

#1 The Dark Lord of the Sith

Remember Star Wars? Darth Vader who could make people gasp for breath? Some people have this aura, often fueled by emotional outbreaks and unpredictability. This makes them very difficult to deal with. Open discussions of issues are impossible, and even normal conversations are often a dance through a mine-field, you never know when they explode. Not surprisingly, their leadership style is autocratic and given their aura, they are avoided even by people who need the most — their PhD students.

In the Sith Model of Advisory, some have a golden boy (or girl), someone who is their protege and whom they shape in their image (to quote Star Wars: “Two there shall be … a master and an apprentice: one to embody power and the other to crave it.”), the rest are usually used as cheap work for grant projects or teaching duties.

I think that in many cases, they are very insecure, either due to personal issues or due to professional issues, and they use this aura they create for avoid discovery. Their aura is essentially shadow-play. But whatever the reason, the de-facto malice makes this the worst adviser you can get.

#2 The Absent Captain

The main characteristic of the ‘absent captain’ is the lack of advisory. They are like the father who is a captain on a freighter — never available. Be it due to other formal positions or concerns about their immediate short-term career (e.g., working like hell on their own projects), they ask for understanding that they “do not have much time”. In some cases, they are badly organized and lack needed skills for Academic work. What is worse, they often do not have an idea about the domain their PhD students are working in. Whereas every PhD is an exploration beyond the known, what is needed is someone who gives one the best course through the areas that are already known. Who strikes contacts with the field, gives an overview of the important discourses and players. The Absent Captain is neither there nor able to say whether the journey goes into the right direction … or not.

While working in Academia is stressful and a career is a high-stakes hit-or-miss game, this is no excuse for the lack of advisory. They should not take this adviser position if they cannot do it well enough. And nobody should advise someone in a domain they are not familiar with. And while a students own initiative is crucial, this is no excuse for deliberate or accidental neglect.

#3 The Fair-Weather Adviser

The Fair-Weather Adviser is there for you — when things go well. S/He’ll be on your papers and grant proposals, but if there are problems this person distances him-/herself by referring to rules and regulations, or abstract, superficial rhetoric. The lack of spine makes this person almost worthless — and devastating in larger projects where negotiation is needed. Often they ‘advise’ PhD students in topics they are not familiar with, just because this topic/technology is hot. Unfortunately, that the topic is hot is often all they know, and they abandon the project (and the student) when the topic gets tough.

When they give advice it is often “secure” advice on an abstract level, without considering the concrete case (e.g., “publish in high-ranking journals”, without taking into account the communities involved in the journals). There is also often a striking lack of continuity in the advice. Without thinking the issue through they rely on changing superficial cues and arrive at different conclusions, making it very hard to plan ahead. If you try to nail them down they are slippery as an eel.

Combos and similarities

These three types are not distinct, some bad advisers combine multiple types. What they have in common is that they are toxic for any scientific career. Communication fails, either because you avoid them (Sith), they avoid you (Captain), or the communication is a waste of time because it goes no-where (Fair-Weather). But communication and feedback are crucial to the qualification of young scientists. Instead of helping to create prolific scientists, they use them like worker bees for their own projects. They employ highly skilled people (or anyone who brings research money and/or publications), but these people do not get better in this position — instead their (potential) careers waste away.

These three types would not be as damaging if they had great proxies — PostDocs which have the necessary experience to cover for them in the areas where they are lacking. But (un)fortunately, good scientists will leave as soon as possible, only people with deficits or another serious lack of skills of their own remain in such a department.

If you stay and work for them, you are wasting your time and hurt your career. Persistence does not help, you are just turning more circles in the desert. Intelligence does not help, you are just punching air. Using you to do their work without helping you to get the necessary qualification in return they essentially bilk you out of your scientific career. Unfortunately, some PhDs think they have to do it all by themselves, on their own, without advisory (sometimes because these kinds of advisers ‘suggest’ that this is the case, or that people ‘either have it or they don’t’).

However, a PhD is something with which you qualify yourself, but you cannot enter the scientific world on your own. It’s different than a diploma thesis, it’s larger, it’s a real contribution in a tough field. You need to get into the community and participate in the discourse, answer questions that matter, make the contribution that is worth sharing. There are too many skills that are needed for this work to do it all on your own. Some informal rules that are hard to find out on your own. You need someone who is able to take a long-term perspective, who can see when you are doing something that hurts you later in your career, not only regarding confounds in studies, but also regarding the kind — as well as the depth and breath — of questions you try to answer (e.g., answer to questions that are difficult to publish).

In short, these kinds of advisers should be avoided at all costs. Science is a high-stakes, highly creative and inherently insecure career ‘path’. Without qualified advisory it is extremely hard to impossible to succeed in science.

Don’t waste your chance to make a significant contribution to science by working for the wrong people.

See also:

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