Are PhD Advisors Failing Their Students?


In Partial Fulfillment: Are PhD Advisors in the Humanities and Social Sciences Doing Their Job?

Dissertation Reviews hosted an informal survey in Fall 2015, inviting PhD holders and PhD students in the Humanities and Social Sciences to reflect (anonymously) upon their own advisors, and in certain cases, their own advising styles.[1] The results were thought-provoking.

As part of the survey, the following statements were put forth to scholars who received their PhDs during the 2000s, and who have since gone on to advise PhD students of their own:

My advisor prepared me well for my comprehensive/orals exam.

I prepare my advisees well for their comprehensive/orals exams.

When asked to respond to the first of these two statements, gauging their reaction along a 5-point scale from ‘Strongly Agree’ (5) to ‘Strongly Disagree’ (1), the picture was not a rosy one. At one end of the spectrum, 17 percent of respondents “strongly disagreed” with the statement, suggesting that their own advisors (who remained anonymous in the survey as well) did not provide the guidance these scholars needed during one of the most critical and stress-inducing periods in graduate school. By comparison, only 10 percent “strongly agreed” with the statement which, while no doubt speaking to the diversity of experiences among the respondents, clearly leaves the negatives outweighing the positives. On this particular mark – the question of orals exam preparation – the average score assigned by 2000s PhDs to their own advisors was a tepid 2.93 on the 5-point scale: not too bad, but certainly not too great.

When posed the second question above, about their own advising style, however, responses veered sharply in the opposite, much more positive direction. Fully 31% of respondents “strongly agreed” with the statement, and a decisive 0% (not a single person) expressed strong disagreement.

When grading themselves, it would seem, the 2000s generation very much liked what it saw in the mirror, scoring an impressive 4.03 out of 5 on average. That’s not just good, mind you. That’s “teaching award good.” As for their own advisors, however, they had barely passed.

Responses from 2000s PhDs about Orals Exam Preparation
Responses from 2000s PhDs about Orals Exam Preparation

Across a spectrum of related questions – how one’s advisor provided timely comment on one’s draft chapters (or, more often, didn’t), provided guidance on the job market (or kept mum), and the like – precisely the same pattern held.

Responses from 2000s PhDs about Timely Comments on Draft Chapters
Responses from 2000s PhDs about Timely Comments on Draft Chapters
Responses from 2000s PhDs about Understanding Advisees' Research Projects
Responses from 2000s PhDs about Understanding Advisees’ Research Projects
Responses from 2000s PhDs about Job Market Preparation
Responses from 2000s PhDs about Job Market Preparation
Sample Responses to DR Survey Question on Comparative Advising Styles
Sample Responses to DR Survey Question on Comparative Advising Styles

Lest we assume there is something uniquely self-satisfied about 2000s PhDs, similar sentiments are expressed by those who received their PhDs in 1990s. In terms of preparation for orals and comprehensive exams, scholars who received their PhDs in the 1990s assigned an average score of 3.06 to their own advisors, and 3.63 to themselves. Timely comments on work-in-progress? 3.42 to their own advisors, and a stellar 4.43 to themselves. Job market preparation? An abysmal 2.7 to their own advisors, and a robust 4.0 to themselves. Depth of understanding of the student’s dissertation project? A respectable 3.63 to their advisors, but a whopping 4.35 to themselves.

Like 2000s PhDs, 1990s PhDs tended to admire themselves, but leveled criticism against their own mentors. Consistently, advisors were weighed in the balance by their advisees and found wanting.

Are PhD Advisors Getting Better or Worse?

Not only are advisors receiving low marks across the board, but their grades do not appear to be getting better over time.

When it comes to “hands-on” advising, 1990s PhDs assigned their own mentors a mediocre 3.03 on a 5-point scale. Among 2000s PhDs, however, this score dropped to 2.44. Upticking slightly to 2.79 among 2010s PhDs, most recently they receive a disappointing 2.46 among current ABD candidates.

In terms of receiving “timely comments” on draft dissertation chapters, current ABDs again deliver advisors their lowest scores: an average of 3.23, as compared to 3.42 among 1990s PhDs.

Drawn from an admittedly limited sample, and faint as they are, the contours of a narrative take shape in these responses. They tell a story in which each protagonist sees him or herself as having come of age intellectually in a less-than-ideal advising environment, but thereafter to have gone on (somehow) to surpass one’s teacher in practically every key area of graduate advising. Only their graduate students fail to agree and judge their mentors even more harshly than did earlier generations.

This narrative suggests a deeply held, if perhaps inarticulate idea that quietly structures graduate advising in academia. With each passing generation, one cohort of scholars perceives itself as having received one (mediocre) quality of advising, and as delivering a higher level of quality to their own students – in other words, of being a force for positive change within the context of graduate advising.

The Stories Advisors (and Advisees) Tell Themselves

So which story is true? Are academic advisors really getting better, as in the stories that each generation seems to be telling itself? Or are advisors getting worse, as in the stories each generation of scholars tells about their own mentors?

Or perhaps the dilemma is not so simple. Are the stories themselves symptomatic of systemic blind spots within graduate advising in the Humanities and Social sciences as a whole? Could there be deeply embedded problems, absences, or oversights in the way we advise graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences (that is, the “faults” we find in our advisors, whoever and whenever they are) that decade-upon-decade we fail to grapple with or even notice? Likewise, could there be embedded problems in the approaches that graduate students themselves take to their advising relationships? Are we really getting better at the job of advising? If so, how? If not, what do we continue to struggle at, and how can these struggles be made self-aware, out-in-the-open, and deliberate?

The answers to these questions are not straightforward. After all, few university advisors have ever received formal training in the act of advising. Unlike classroom teaching, which PhD students can develop experience in prior to launching their career (whether through Teaching Assistantships, visiting lectureships, or otherwise), few of us actually study the act of advising in any systematic way. Unlike research methods, or professional development, advising is something that advisors learn on the job, and on the fly.

Over the course of two pieces here on Dissertation Reviews, we will explore the practice of PhD advising in the Humanities and Social Sciences, asking ourselves what is working, what is not, and what steps can be taken to address the needs of PhD candidates and advisors alike.

Tom Mullaney
Dissertation Reviews

Associate Professor of Chinese History
Stanford University

[1] The survey on advising was announced on Dissertation Reviews on September 11, 2015. 350 responses were fielded between September 11 and November 5, 2015. All responses were submitted anonymously.

Image: Selfie. Matt Brooks via The Noun Project. Creative Commons.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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