Unhelpful PhD advice

No matter who you are, when you start your PhD advice falls around you like fine rain. Despite the fact that I worked in research education already, lots of people felt free to give me advice when I started. I noticed that the advice ranged from the banal and obvious:

“Don’t leave all your writing to the last minute”
“Make sure you have regular meetings with your supervisor”

To the confusing:

“Try to write papers during your PhD to improve your chance of getting a job”
“Don’t get distracted writing papers while doing your PhD,  finish your thesis”

… the disheartening:

“There aren’t many jobs in academia anymore”
“You’ll end up being over qualified and underemployed”

And the outright bizarre (and borderline offensive):

“Make sure your husband knows you are actually studying on weekends” (wtf?)

Of course, if it wasn’t for all the uncertainty around the PhD, and the ever present hunger for advice, I wouldn’t have a career at all. But I think it’s fair to say, not all advice is good. Or, rather, that some the advice might be good, but it’s possible it either:

a) Won’t work for you.
b) You don’t need to hear it right now, thank you.

The other week I asked people on Twitter to send me the best examples of bad PhD advice for a workshop I was putting together and it triggered a huge flood of tweets. The advice ranged from laughable to the seriously offensive and you can read most of them under the #unhelpfulphdadvice tag I started. So much of the advice was questionable, but there was just enough of a kernel of truth in some of them that people found the hashtag too real and had to turn away.

Pat Thomson has pointed out that advice floating around on the internet can be suspect. Rachael Cayley over on the excellent explorations in style blog points out that advice is often offered without any context. Actioning advice on examination designed for the US system, which is so different from the Australian system, can be, frankly, dangerous. Books are better, but they can be limited. Books are often full of good advice, but there’s a difference between telling someone what should be done and helping them do it. I agree with Pat that all PhD students need to develop good ‘crap detection’ abilities so they can assess the advice, action what’s useful and ignore the rest.

As another, admittedly small, step towards this grand aim, I offer you four kinds of unhelpful PhD advice so you can recognise them then they are offered. I offer these in the hope that in the comments you will offer some suggestions and ideas of your own.

Advice that infantilises you

Just because you are a student again, doesn’t mean you are a child. Infantilising comments are harder to spot than other sorts, but they are the sort of advice that assumes you are less capable than you actually are. They might be something like: “Your supervisor will work you to death and take all the credit”. This assumes that the PhD student has no power to talk back or refuse to be treated like dirt. Or “No one does a PhD in 3 years,” which assumes you cannot manage yourself, or a project, to deadline. Or “Just sit down and write it!” – do they think you haven’t already tried that?

PhD students occupy what Dr Mary-Helen Ward calls in her excellent thesis ‘a liminal space’. Liminal is a word derived from the Latin ‘limin’ for threshold and means an inbetween state. This is a complicated explanation of course. Most people see the word ‘student’ and make all kinds of assumptions, about who you are, what you do with your time and what you need in the way of help. This is the reason you see so many patronising workshop titles like “How to survive your PhD”…

… Hang on – that was the MOOC we ran last year. In my defence, there were Reasons and I was Conflicted.

Anyway, you get my point.

Over 50% of research students have come from the workplace back to study. Many PhD students are much older, with a lot of life experience. I’ve learned to be careful of what we in the trade call the ‘deficit model’ of teaching – teaching which assumes the student don’t have any prior knowledge, or agency.

I don’t know what you can do when presented with unhelpful infantilising advice, but I think a start would be to point out that you are a grown up. Assert your prior knowledge, skills and experience. You might have to change some of your ways of doing things to make them more fit for academic purpose, but you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Advice that is actually a sexist / racist / ageist comment in disguise

I was a bit shocked at some of the unhelpful advice tweets that were shared, particularly by women:

  • “Don’t write abt women, you won’t get a job”
  • “You’d better get on with it (PhD), because after 35 women don’t accomplish much.” (said by a male Phd candidate; I was 25)”
  • “You should date [a research subject]. The pillow talk will be helpful information for your research.”
  • “as a woman a PhD will be especially problematic for you – it will destroy any chances of promotion or a career”
  • “Well a PhD is very hard on a women’s brain” (from a doctor when I was trying to get a mental health plan).
  • “you should/will have to sleep with your (male) supervisor if you wish to graduate”
  • “Don’t sleep with your supervisor (pretty sure guys don’t get that nugget of advice).”
  • “Don’t you want to have children?”
  • “You are so lucky that you got married before starting a PhD. Otherwise no men would marry you”
  • “Now that you’re about to get that doctorate, it’s time for you to become a mom; then your life would be complete.”
  • “You got enough education for yourself now, it’s now time for a baby!”

I won’t go on because I feel a fit of Feminist Rage brewing, but suffice to say, just imagine any of those comments being offered to a man and you will see immediately how ridiculous they are.

Other bits of unhelpful advice were ageist: “You’re too old to go back to school” and “You’re too young to do a PhD”. Some, disturbingly, suggested that the student should do a certain topic because of their race: “write abt ur country” bc/ u are “foreign” student… even if u rather do 19th France, etc!”. Or advice that assumed that the topic should be done a certain way because of where it was located “Good to include gender issues. Since your research was done in Africa, people expect to hear about the women.” (a trifecta of patronising, sexist and racist!). Or advice that assumes the person doing the study, shouldn’t do it because of their background: “I always get asked if I am Jewish because I am doing a Jewish topic. When I say I’m not, they ask ‘why do it?”. And the most blatant of the lot: “If you want to make it in academia, you need to change your accent.”

I can’t even, ok?

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.57.07 pm
Talking back to this kind of casual intolerance can be hard. Some people often don’t even realise what they are saying is totally unacceptable – or worse, don’t care. My sister and law, Aurora has a good line that I trot out on these occasions: “You might not have meant to be racist, but in saying that you become the unwitting tool of racism”. Try it out some time. It’s fun.

Advice that is out of date

The most common piece of unhelpful PhD advice I hear is along the lines of: “Only 3 people read your PhD – including your mother, but not your supervisor”.

This advice is from late last century when this person was a huge star:

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 5.32.30 pm

Remember him? Of course you don’t. Consider that the people who give out this kind of advice often got their jobs in academia when this was the height of fashion:

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 2.20.16 pm

Or maybe the first time that was the height of fashion … this 80’s look is probably on trend right now. But I think I’ve made my point. This is advice you can comfortably ignore.

Yes, it used to be the case that people didn’t read theses. This was understandable when they were kept in the library stacks and a librarian would stand over you, breathing down your neck, every time you wanted to read one. Times have changed. Data is emerging that shows theses are one of the most downloaded documents in university repositories. People will read it. But it also means your thesis is out there, forever and can be subjected to electronic scrutiny. I’ve known people who have lost their jobs because they thought their plagiarism was safely hidden away in the library stacks.

A more confusing, relatively recent, development is supervisors advising students will not be published in book form if they put their thesis on an online repository. Some disciplines still see the book as the launch of a scholarly career, so this advice has teeth. I’m not sure there is really any evidence for publishers not wanting to print a thesis that is already online – most theses are extensively rewritten when they are put in book form anyway. There is much talk about scholarly presses dying, so should you really bet the farm on that idea that a book is a career starter?

You’ll have to make up your own mind. But I do know this – when old ways die, new ways have room to grow. I have a publishing deal based on this blog, which will contain some material that is already online. The publisher recognises that people still like to consume books. Books are neat packages of information. They are nice to own. Print on demand and other low cost, small print run options make book publishing more accessible – I’ve published a low cost ebook that pays for this blog to stay online. Slowly, surely, what counts as ‘academic prestige’ changes.

Personally, I’d rather be the change. Ignoring a lot of advice around academic publishing has worked out pretty well for me, but your mileage may vary.

Advice that is demoralising

The more poisonous sort of demoralising advice assumes you need to be traumatised to do good work: “you have to make sacrifices” (maybe, but how many is too many?), “If you’re not suffering, you are not doing a PhD properly” (says who?), and – the worst one I got “(from my supervisor) The problem with you is that you are not prepared to die for your PhD”. Just no, ok? A supervisor should never say this. Ever.

This sort of demoralising advice is usually offered by people who are just trying to be helpful by being ‘practical’:

Why bother? It’s not like you’ll get a job with it”
“It’s cripplingly expensive”
“Part time students often drop out”
“No one cares about what you do”
“One in four of you will not complete your PhD”
“It’s not your life’s work”
“A good thesis is a finished thesis!”

Variations on this sort of advice inevitably come up when you convene a panel of supervisors to talk to new students and I always cringe inside. Look, some of the stuff in the list might be true. Or, it might be true some of the time for some people, Or it might potentially be true, maybe – if you have bad luck. But seriously? Do you need to hear it right right at the start of your degree?

Sometimes, especially in a rich, tolerant, liberal society which has the resources to spare, people just do stuff because it’s fun, it’s interesting or it’s creative. This activity might end up being pointless, or it might help us discover gravitational waves or something else that’s well – practical. This sort of advice is unhelful because some people doing a PhD might be career driven and don’t need you to harsh their buzz. Others are just walking the road to see where it goes. Don’t be that person who ‘helps’ by offering practical advice when it’s not wanted. I know, it’s easy to do. It makes you feel good, wise and beneficent. Hell – I’ve done it myself, plenty of times. But please, if the PhD student looks away or tries to change the subject when you start being practical, leave them the hell alone ok?

So, this has turned into a bit of a rant. I’m sorry – I was feeling the rage after I started the #unhelpfuladvice meme. What about you? Have you had unhelpful advice? Did any of it turn out to be useful? Tell us about it in the comments.

Related posts

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56 thoughts on “Unhelpful PhD advice

  1. Saf Ali says:

    I thinks that’s Joey McIntyre from the boy band ‘New Kids on the Block’. Growing up, it used to be my sisters favorite pop band, and mine, but don’t tell anyone. Anyway love the posts. Pure inspiration for all of us as students to reach our goals in life.

  2. Hillary Rettig says:

    Bingo! Another great piece. These kinds of clueless and callous statements can really screw writers up.

    When I teach workshops on writing productivity we frequently do a Bingo game of all the crazy and clueless things people say to writers. The ridiculous comments are the Bingo call-outs and they are mocked as they are read out. We have a great time and the game really helps defuse the statements. Anyone could do this with the above statements as well.

    I also wrote an article on this:

  3. Anonymous says:

    Totally agree. I am 38, male and a mid career. Happily marroed with a baby girl (3 months). When started out my intent to do a part time PhD, was met with many unhelpful advice. Some can be quite demoralising. But still, i took on the challenge and I am now a PhD student with Curtin Uni.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This post is spot on! I’m a 27 year old female just finishing my first year of PhD and the things I get told can be so demoralizing that sometimes I don’t even want to say that I’m a PhD student. The most common one I have been told is the “Why are you doing a PhD, you will be overqualified, you need to go out into the real world and work at a ‘proper’ job first”. I usually just say I plan on becoming an academic and that they can keep their ‘real world’ jobs.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’m always enjoying this blog (thanks you, Thesiswhisperer!) and this is my first comment here, regarding the issue.

    My supervisor (who is white, male, ivy-leaguer, and working on a relatively popular topic in the field) told me that it would be better for me to go back to my countryand do PhD there instead. Why? Firstly because of the language proficiency, and secondly because “it would be easier for you and better for you career.” (Me, a non-american, female, student with no established background or upbringing, working on relatively marginalized topic in the field.)

    Seriously, what a nonsense!

    I don’t like the fact that he said so as if it was a very thoughtful suggestion.

    Once a university accepts a doctoral student, s/he has a right to be there (unless being against the regulations), and it is not only her/his responsibility but also of a supervisor to do as much as we can. I’m not one of the geniuses but still enrolled, making progress.

    It is truly pity that many professors usually have only successful experiences (that’s why they are there) and never imagine how much it would be difficult for those who have more hardships than anything else.

    (BTW, I’d really hope someone could start “coaching” and “moral training” for university faculties one day!)

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Coaching on how to relate to students is offered to supervisors in many universities in Australia. Sometimes they are honestly blind to their prejudice and this helps. And you are spot on with your comment that most supervisors are successful and have little experience of struggle. There’s a saying that the worst students make the best teachers. My own experience as a terrible undergraduate has been enormously helpful. Good luck with your supervisor!

      • ultimatemegs says:

        I am just out the end of my PhD and still struggle with some of these issues as a post-doc. This is a great and thought provoking post. Perhaps supervisors are successful, but I think its naive at best to suggest that “supervisors” generic have little experience of struggle – they are people too – their houses flood, they have family disasters, their parents die, they have had mental health issues, they get really cancer, and immune diseases, their pets die… Even those who are successful.

  6. Ben says:

    Oh yes! The infantilising advice was the worst for me — especially as a younger candidate. A barrier of self-confidence helps, I found: “You say I won’t finish in three years? Well, speak for yourself.”

    When it comes to demoralising advice, I was thinking a while back that, just from my day-to-day usage, social media seems to have produced (or maybe just amplified?) a certain way of speaking about being a PhD candidate, or ‘branding’ yourself as such — in much the same way as ‘being writerly’ has its own set of behaviours, characteristics, etc. that you can tap into on social media. Anyway, demoralised talk seems to be a part of this #phdlife personal branding, and that’s not a good thing.

    On publishing, I think there *might* be a kernel of truth in the advice about publishing your thesis. Manchester University Press, for instance, explicitly say in their author guidelines ‘We do not publish PhD theses’. I’d say this is a filtering mechanism, but it seems anecdotally that commissioning editors respond more favourably if you don’t mention, in your pitch, the relationship between your book and PhD. Obviously a thesis needs rewriting for publication, but I’d say that first step of getting the editor’s attention is important to get right. If they do happen to work out you’re pitching a book based on your thesis, it’s helpful to be able to say it’s embargoed, I guess.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Indeed – it’s a complex and emerging publishing area. A librarian told me the other day that Harvard University Press editors look through theses to find stuff to publish, so it’s going to come down to an individual policy stance I suspect. I did write a paper on the phenomenon you have pointed to in PhD circles, it’s called ‘toubling talk’ – you can download it here: https://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/view/rmit:15401

    • Another Anon says:

      I was told explicitly that publishers would not publish a thesis that was available online.
      Thinking it through, I heard of a forthcoming book (published by a uni-linked enterprise) and because I wanted to read it before it was out, downloaded the PhD thesis.
      Both books and thesis may be different, but would you really buy a book if you had the thesis it was based on?

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        In my view, anyone who presents this as a firm opinion is not very informed. No one knows for sure what the answer is right now. Publishers seem to have different policies. Since it’s highly unlikely you will make money from a scholarly manuscript I’d be asking – what gives me more exposure for my work? What I was saying in the post is you need to make up your own mind, based on what evidence you can find that relates to your own case. It’s a tough one!

      • Anonymous says:

        In my discipline, yes. The thesis may contain the information but is essentially uncitable and inadmissible in academic works. The book though…

  7. Catherine Ebenezer says:

    The singularly most disastrous piece of advice I read was that the literature search for one’s literature review should be exhaustive.This led me to spend far too long on one area. I later had to cut back drastically what I had written to preserve a balance between topic areas and stay within a reasonable word limit.

  8. Judy Redman says:

    Some of the advice is helpful if given to the right people in the right way eg if you are having a roadblock and panicking that you will take longer than 3 years, the advice that many students don’t finish in 3 years is helpful. Much of it is plain disastrous. 🙁

    • annon says:

      I would agree. And the “a good thesis is a finished thesis” also has its time and place. Often students get really bogged down and can’t see the forest for the trees. Reminding them that all research is imperfect, that a literature is never “done” so good enough will do, and finishing rather than agonizing over imperfections is a good goal is useful. Also useful is the advice that there is a time and a place to repeat to yourself “The fact that I can’t remember why I started this PhD is not good enough reason to drop out”. There can be a point, especially in an abusive department, that pragmatic advice is extremely useful.

  9. Larisa Barnes says:

    This post definitely resonated with me! Only I related it to when I was obviously pregnant and random strangers as well as friends would decide to tell me all about their terrible birth experiences without stopping to think if I wanted to hear their stories! With my PhD it was comments like, “Oh, watch out, my marriage/life/relationship disintegrated over my PhD.” I used phrases similar to when confronted with horrific birth stories, “I’m sorry that was your experience, I’m working on being positive and creating a supportive network around me so ensure I have a better experience than that.”

  10. Annabelle Leve says:

    I’m wondering if it is not appropriate for me to comment, having completed my PhD in 2011. But having spent years listening to every bit of advice, attending every helpful seminar, and basically researching around my research to try to get my trajectory ‘right’, in hindsight I was virtually paralysed at times by dwelling on what I could/n’t or did/n’t do, instead of just doing it. I can’t help but compare it to child rearing, you just have to do it – and things will inevitably change along the way. Confidence helps. As does perspective. And having understanding peers who are more or less at the same or similar stage as yourself. Best of luck, and love your work ThesisWhisperer!

  11. Audrey says:

    I was pregnant with my first child, planning to take a year’s leave and come back part time. My favourite comment was “You can’t do a PhD part time!”. Well meaning I’m sure…

  12. Jesse says:

    Great articles – I’ve gotten so many similar comments as well. About to finish my 1st year – my supervisor actually started out a meeting with “so since you don’t want to be an academic…” and it went downhill from there. Including advice on how to manage my personal life with my wife while I do my field research.
    Anyway, thanks for this – it’s really helpful!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Doing a PhD in theatre attracts all sorts of infantalising advice and comments. My top two are: “There’s no point doing arts research because artists are too busy making art to read boring academic texts about it” and “Yes, a lot of artists do PhDs because it’s nice for them to have a secure income for three years but be careful because you won’t get any theatre work if people see you as an academic” (double barrel effort, that one).

  14. Woon Chin Yeong says:

    I haven’t had a long list of #unhelpfulphdadvice so far, except that would like to share with all that one MUST have a clear mind throughout your Ph.D. journey regardless of what background you are coming in from (experienced Ph.D. candidate or not).

    Without a clear mind, all advice from every direction will sound helpful or even useful to you. An unclear mind never moves forward things. In the end, it is all talking only and no work gets done.

    One takeaway I have gotten from my Ph.D. journey so far. Grit is required. No self help book will be able to help you move forward if you don’t have the grit in you.

  15. David Stern (@sterndavidi) says:

    I think a lot of potential PhD students should be put off doing a PhD. Especially, doing a PhD at places and with supervisors where it will be so much harder to get an academic or research job than it already is, if that is what the student wants. And if the student doesn’t want that kind of job they need to think seriously about over-qualification. That advice though maybe isn’t so useful once they have started. But there is definitely a place for it. Just visit the Chronicle of Higher Education to read all about PhD grads desperately looking for jobs and regretting they did the PhD.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Well, that’s a pretty negative view! I do agree that going in with eyes open is recommended. It’s a big commitment. Personally I never regret being more educated. I hope employers recognise the dedication, intelligence and creativity that a PhD graduate carries with them. I employ them whenever I can because they are awesome.

  16. Marie-Louise AYRES says:

    Sorry Inger if you’ve ever had an experience of a librarian breathing down your neck while you read a thesis from the stacks… don’t remember ever doing so myself when I was a stacks steward. Research repositories are generally managed by library folk; they are really committed to making access to theses freely available (thrilled that my 20 year old Ph.D is alive and useful thanks to those repository managers).

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Many apologies! It’s meant affectionally of course. I love librarians with all my heart. Only one of them has ever fixed me with laser vision while reading an old thesis – but it did fill me with terror 🙂

  17. Chris Porter says:

    WRT publishing online available theses, in my current discipline the monograph is still king, queen, and almost the entire court; with journal articles commonly coming in as the adjunct jesters. There are entire series of publications which are originally theses but slightly reworked or reformatted for print. Most of these are also available though online databases of various forms. These days it is almost expected to have a thesis out in the wild in both mediums.

    As for the rest of the post, thanks for continuing to normalise my continued experience (between this and PhD Comics i feel vaguely normal 😉 ). Although even as a male I have received the advice to not sleep with supervisors… of both genders!

  18. Amina says:

    This post made me reflect on about what unhelpful advice I might have knowingly/unknowingly given to other PhD scholars. I think for me, some of the advice I received were unhelpful at the time because of the timing when they were offered…I could not even relate to it to use it. And for me the most unhelpful advice in the early days of my PhD was ” start writing NOW….write everyday” – without any elaboration or guidance on it. I would get to my desk everyday and try to write but then was paralysed by the question – ‘what do I write when I haven’t even done the research yet ?’ I was so clueless….perhaps still am.

  19. [sforim photo] says:

    Sexist advise: it could be so funny, if it was not so sad. And so common.. I just came from former alma mater meeting with a former co-worker. Most of the male and female PhD lectors (3 of them were in the room) were advising me AGAINST starting a PhD program,with the arguments you listed above… What they do not know is that I am already enrolled and I am already researching for my project. Made me laugh non the less.

  20. Maree says:

    Ugh, I (as a young, single, female PhD candidate) have had the “you will always be single; you’ll never find anyone if you’re in academia”. But then I have had the useful advice of “write down and save everything – even if it seems irrelevant now, it may be useful down the track”. I now try to tune out any of the sexist/just down right rude “advice”.

  21. Murray says:

    Great article. My first time on the site. Yes, not a month goes by when I don’t have some unhelpful comments. And that is on top of my Mum thinking I will be too overqualified. As a practitioner with 15 years experience, one of the first comments from my supervisor was that practitioners find a PhD harder and that I would have to change. Sure okay, research is different to work but the tone of the comment was ‘a-not-so-subtle’ dismissal of my work experience (which is in the same field as my research). It also seemed to invalidate my considerable previous study to Masters Level and that you start again doing a PhD. We have moved on from that but the ‘practitioner-academic’ divide still hangs around in some conversations. Anyway, despite all the negative comments, I will finish the PhD.

    PS: Even as a single male I even get the unhelpful (and sexist!) comments that instead of doing a PhD I should settle down and have kids! (Yes, that includes my Mum – oh the pressure!)

  22. annon says:

    One of the problems though is that in some fields at least there is age discrimination. Good luck if you are older than around 45-50 and starting out (if you are associate or full and looking to switch that is different). I was sitting in the PhD workspace when 2 faculty were discussing a student who was around 50. They said they didn’t even know why he was getting a PhD as he’d never make full so who would hire him. He did get a job – a backwater one for sure and not what he had hoped for – but did get one. This same batch of faculty commented that they should let less women in as we’d bring the salaries down. Now that actually is a true statement – in another field that has slowly “pinked” someone has tracked for years the salary trajectory, and in fact, it is negatively correlated with the % women in the field (there is other research that backs that up in other fields). However the solution to that is don’t pay women less than you ‘d pay an equally qualified man LOL.

    And I do think that warning people that it is likely they are going to lose their “adult status” when they enter a phd program is useful as many grad students are blindsided by that. It happens. Frequently. It is right? Of course not, but it is reality and students need to learn how to cope with that. Part of the problem is that in the work force students are used to making statements and people take their word for it due to their competence. I tell new PhD students the the currency for being “right” has changed (eg past research, arguments reasoned on that, etc.) – not that they very well might be right, but that how you “prove” it differs.

    Grad students are dependent upon their advisors in ways that undergrads aren’t. That means the power the faculty have over grad students is significant and so pissing off the people with power is not advised. Do that in many departments, even if the grade student is “right”, they will never “win” and get punished for trying. Just as in the work place you learn how to deal with this kind of thing, you need to in the grad student setting too. Odds are high you are not going to be able to change it and likely those with the least power (eg the grad student) will be the ones who will suffer the most from trying. As a result, talking back, etc. that this blog post discusses comes with very real risks. Sometimes the long term goal and decisions that make it more likely you will reach that long term goal matter more than a short term argument/discussion even when you are “right”. In some workplaces the same kinds of compromises need to be made. Doesn’t make them right but the reality is there are times that you need to decide if you want to be “right” and have “justice” or do you want your degree as likely there are times (eg in dysfunctional or abusive department with an administration that won’t hold faculty accountable) that if you fight something you then can’t have both. PhD students are the bottom feeder a the power structure where there is little accountability for faculty actions. That is a bad combination for getting any sort of justice or being able to challenge certain things without being “punished”. PhD students need to be aware that and make decisions that are in their own best interests with respect to being able to finish their degree and get the heck out, even if they are ones they’d rather not make. Now I am not talking about illegal things of the sexual nature – those there are laws against and likely they would win in the end (although it still may be a case of win the battle lose the war). Rather I am talking about those things that are just plan mean, cruel, unfair, etc.

    “Your supervisor will work you to death and take all the credit”. Yup happened to me. It is not infantilizing when it is true. Sometimes the cost of fighting back is too great (see the above paragraph)- especially in an abusive department. Had I fought both that he had added his student to my paper when that student was not involved and wanted to be first author himself I would have had huge problems on my hand. I fought author order and won because the idea was mine, implemented on my own thank you the requirements of the summer research grant I had. I decided not to fight him adding a fake author because the costs would have been too great. That battle would have cost me more in the long run than it was worth. The better part of wisdom is to decide when to back off and when to fight. Had ideas stolen as well. The joke was on them in one case as it didn’t pan out (they didn’t study it “right” but that is another story).

    As far as the one in 4 will drop out – it is more like around 50% don’t finish actually. I’d agree that brand new students don’t need all that said – and many will not hear it anyway even if it is said. No one promised any of us PhD supervisors who have good people skills any more than bosses that have good people skills. I do think there is value in warning students what programs can be like (realistic job previews so to speak) so they can decide if they want to deal with that crap in order to get a PhD. Ideally it would come before they’d apply at a place so they could decide to stay away from abusive places and focus on the supportive ones. On the other hand people may still chose to go to an abusive place because that is the only choice they have (rejected from the other places) or because of the reputation currency of an individual faculty member or the department with respect to one’s future career.

    None of what I am saying excuses what can go on, however the reality is that people are going to have to deal with this kind of stuff in the work place, grad school… and so some of this advice does have a time and a place.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      thanks for your point of view – there is much in what you say about the power dimensions. I often advise PhD students facing bullying and abuse to speak up and make their case as it’s my experience that management doesn’t tolerate it. Not once have I seen the person who complains end up worse off, but it’s always a possibility. It is, however, a personal choice and some people choose to get the hell out. A minor point of correction. The 50% of grad students leaving is a US statistic based on research on humanities departments – it needs to be approached with care in other countries and disciplines. The systems are very different. The 75% retention rate I quote is an Australian, aggregate level reckoning, which means it may vary between disciplines. In the research I’ve done with a couple of university data bases, the most vulnerable to attrition are younger, male science students and the most frequent reason they give is financial. It’s disappointing that industries that ‘pink’ get paid less, but it’s an undeniable trend. We know very little about the career outcomes of older PhD grads – I would like to do some research on this myself.

      • annon says:

        Speaking up, filing grievances, etc. where I went to school resulted in faculty (tenured – dept was nearly tenured out) retaliating. Then filing about that resulted in more retaliation. As far as we could tell nothing happened to the guilty faculty. I talked to the dean about that and he asked, “How do you punish full professors?”. I told him to give then nasty teaching times, undergrad classes like the intro classes they they don’t want to teach, take away PhD classes from them, take away their allowance, their grad TA’s and RA’s… None of that ever happened that we knew of. Perhaps at some schools they had a more functional system to deal with stuff like this.

  23. S. A. Nichols says:

    Your posts are always so perfect.

    I never really thought about this topic but it is important to consider. My first thought while reading is that while we receive lots of different levels of advice, there are times when we receive good advice that leads to opportunity. Without fumbling through all the [insert adjective] advice we might not have ever received the advice that changed a piece of our lives. This doesn’t mean I will stop thinking “that advice was less than constructive”, it means, I will be thankful for any and all advice I receive. It will then be up to me to sort out the bad and be thankful for the good.

  24. Boaz Vilozny says:

    Thanks Thesis Whisperer, for reminding us that sometimes well-meaning advice can be unhelpful. As a parent, my advice to new parents is “don’t listen to advice.”
    One thing to keep in mind is that the advice-givers are often trying to save someone the trouble of what they learned “the hard way.”That may not always be what a PhD student wants to hear, but it’s why Lab Without Benches exists. I hope my advice on preparing for a nonacademic postdoctoral career is helpful, but I will make sure not to beat anyone over the head with it!

  25. da Tyga (@CyberFonic) says:

    I wish I had read this blog when I was starting out. Anyway I have a few more generic, yet I feel pertinent points to make.

    * There is a lot of difference between advice to humanities PhDs and engineering PhDs. Unfortunately there is far less available to the latter.

    * Doing a PhD after a decade or more of professional experience is way harder than it looks. Even if you write a lot in your profession, you don’t have to cite as much. Business and technical writing often uses bullet points and structured layout (4-5 levels not being unusual). It is hard to unlearn these habits.

    * In some cases there is so much reading, follow-up, experimentation, etc to do – there is nothing concrete to write about until 2+ years in. By which time the window for getting published has shrunk considerably.

    * Unlike European and USA PhD programs – in Australia we still suffer from the cultural cringe in that without 3+ publications before submitting your thesis is in dire danger of being rejected.

    and finally …

    * REJECTIONS and RE-writing both suck big time !
    They are hard to handle emotionally and use up masses of time which could be better used to do better designed experiments and/or polish the thesis.

  26. Anon says:

    When I started my PhD, the university had an introductory day for us, and one of the speakers (a recent PhD graduate) told us, ‘Don’t worry if you get depressed – it’s a perfectly normal part of doing a PhD’. Thankfully, a more experienced academic got straight up at the end of that talk, and advised us to seek help if we felt we were becoming depressed.

    Also right at the start of my PhD, I made a post on Facebook in which I referred to it being a three-year process, and one of my friends (a senior academic) piled straight in with, ‘Ha ha ha – you’ll never do it in three years’. That made me feel great.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Advice from a well-known US chemist I used to work for: “if you’re not miserable when doing your PhD, you’re not working hard enough. You have to be unhappy.” (Bearing in mind US PhDs are often >5 years, particularly in her group.)

    I no longer work for her.

  28. jill Ashley-Jones says:

    Timely advice! i think the person most being ageist is me!
    Having semi retired ( Im 63) from a busy role it feels like the right time to do this study, but I constantly hear myself saying your too old whats the point? so thank you I will do better and I will succeed for as Master Yoda says, There is no try!

  29. Michelle says:

    So interesting!! I must be wearing a Phd-invisibility cloak or something as I have received no unsought advice. I have sought advice, by asking a number of people “If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give the beginning-PhD-you if you could go back and whisper into your ear?” (Which has since changed to “What advice would you give me?” after confusing someone with initial question – which i think is kind of hilarious given I’m sure they could have made my brain turn to jelly with complex concepts with their Phd). I have been given brilliant advice like:
    * if you have a deadline of Monday, don’t give yourself till Sunday night to finish. Finish by Friday in case you need to access on-campus support
    * keep working on (and updating) your literature review after confirmation (followed by commentary by sane person that someone told her this at the beginning of her Phd and she didn’t follow it, much to her *now* regret)
    * choose a topic you’re passionate about because it is such an intense process (you don’t want to be sick of it after 12 months)
    * get involved (volunteer) in projects or organisations related to your work throughout your Phd as a lot of people pop their head up like a meerkat at the end of their PhD and don’t know how to transition to their new career – best to be involved with the industry along the way…
    * find a partner who is an editor – it will save you money!! Lol, I guess it’s practical! 😉

    Enjoyed your talk in brisvegas last week! Thank you!

  30. Rosey says:

    Last weekend, I saw the friend who most loudly discouraged me from enrolling in my PhD part-time when my daughter was 18-months old. (I still know it was the right thing for me). Two years later, she is still strongly encouraging me to drop out. Unprompted. In these words: “You should drop out of your PhD.”
    Why? I think it makes her uncomfortable. And that’s ok, that’s her thing. She’s an adult and can deal with her feelings. And I can deal with the conversation. I value her friendship. We can talk it through.
    So I said, “No, I’m enjoying it. And work expects me to get one, now.”
    “But you could still drop out,” she said.
    Ok, then. I shook my head. But no harm. We talked about something else.
    Granted, this isn’t the kind of offensive advice listed above.

  31. Monalisa says:

    When I started 3 years back my PhD colleague comment on me, Well lots of mums are in Phd now a days”. I was surprised since, she was proud herself telling everyone that ” she was just 23 years that year’ !!!.

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