Ph.D. Students Facing Advisor Issues

The Critical Nature of the Advisor's Role

Ph.D. students depend on a good working and professional relationship with their Ph.D. advisor. Saying so is a gross understatement of the power and impact of the Ph.D. advisor's role. The quality and consistency of a Ph.D. advisor's advice makes all the difference in the Ph.D. student's choice of thesis and drafting and defense of the dissertation. The advisor's promptness and thoroughness in responding to the student's needs and reviewing the student's work can also make all the difference in the student's perseverance and eventual success. Ph.D. advisors also play important gatekeeping roles, determining or recommending when a Ph.D. student is ready to advance through the program at critical stages toward presenting and defending the doctoral thesis and graduating from the program. The Ph.D. student who doesn't have the advisor's support is probably going nowhere. And the quality of that support, whether vigorous or weak, can also make all the difference in the approval of the Ph.D. student's dissertation and defense and the awarding of the degree. Ph.D. students also depend on Ph.D. advisors for references and recommendation letters.

Causes of Ph.D. Attrition

The Ph.D. student who loses the advisor's support often loses both the battle and the war. Advisor issues are a big contributor to the relatively low percentage of Ph.D. graduations. The Council of Graduate Schools released a long-term study indicating that Ph.D. graduation rates vary from as low as 33% to 75% across disciplines. Responses to those low Ph.D. graduation rates have focused on improving student choices of advisor, improving the advising relationship, and increasing mentor support for the student. Clearly, the consistency, civility, quality, and duration of the Ph.D. advisor's support is an enormous factor in the Ph.D. student's success, perhaps the biggest single factor. The Ph.D. advisor who neglects, abandons, or abuses the student relationship completely undermines the Ph.D. student's degree program and efforts.

Power Imbalance Fosters Problems

A primary source of problems that Ph.D. students have with their advisor is in the power imbalance that exists between the student and advisor roles. Most Ph.D. advisors are tireless advocates for and supporters of their Ph.D. students. But few relationships of any kind are perfect all the time. And some relationships, including Ph.D. advisor relationships, are fraught with various ups, downs, and perils. The gross power imbalance between the Ph.D. advisor and student, unfortunately, contributes to problems in the relationship. Because Ph.D. advisors hold such sway over the student's future, Ph.D. students are generally ineffective in holding advisors accountable, whether by informal or formal means. It's natural that a Ph.D. student would be reluctant to confront, correct, or report the tardy, uncivil, neglectful, or otherwise unhelpful advisor. The risks of doing so are all on the student, especially loss of advisor support and failure to complete the degree.

The Nature of Advisor Problems

Issues that Ph.D. students have with their advisors follow certain patterns. Any one of these issues can undermine a Ph.D. student's progress. A combination of these issues can be catastrophic to the student's program. Advisor problems can include anything untoward or unusual that can occur between two humans but tend to focus on these issues:

  • The advisor's neglect of the student's advising needs
  • The advisor's incivility or unprofessionalism in student interactions
  • The advisor's imposing unrealistic workloads and study demands
  • The advisor's frequent unfair and unexplained changes in expectations
  • The advisor's insensitivity or inattention to study funding issues
  • The advisor's delays and unresponsiveness to student communications
  • Ethical concerns raised by the advisor's conduct and recommendations
  • The advisor's sexual harassment of the student or student associates
  • The advisor's discriminatory favoritism of some students over others

Solutions for Advisor Problems

The Ph.D. student facing advisor problems needs strategies and solutions. Fortunately, solutions exist. The best solutions depend on the circumstances of the student's individual case. And many of these solutions are better implemented by the student's academic administrative attorney advocate rather than by the student. But the point is that formal and informal administrative solutions uniformly exist. Appropriate workouts tend to follow these patterns:

  • Communication with the advisor clarifying the advisor's needs, requirements, expectations, and preferences
  • Communication with the advisor's program director or dean regarding the challenges that the advisor's performance or lack of performance creates
  • Splitting and sharing of the advisor role with another advisor or reassignment of the student to another advisor entirely
  • Documentation of the hours and other impacts of the advisor's unreasonable demands and sharing of that documentation with the advisor or supervisors
  • Report to the dean of faculty, dean of student affairs, or similar school official of the advisor's unprofessional conduct and ethical issues
  • Report to the school's title ix coordinator or office of the advisor's sexual harassment
  • Resort to other school advisors and officials for study funding opportunities, employment, and scholarships
  • Communication with the school's office of general counsel or Ombud's office regarding the advisor's discriminatory mistreatment of the student

An Academic Attorney's Role

Because of the gross power imbalance between Ph.D. advisor and student, Ph.D. students can find it difficult to negotiate and navigate appropriate relief for advisor issues. That's where an expert retained academic administrative attorney comes in. National academic administrative attorney Joseph Lento has the substantial academic knowledge, diplomatic skills, reputation, and experience to identify the appropriate school official who can provide special relief. Unlike many local criminal attorneys or trial lawyers whose court forum requires zealous advocacy skills, academic administrative attorney Joseph Lento knows how to communicate with school officials without destroying relationships critical to the Ph.D. student's success. Don't ignore your Ph.D. advisor problems. But don't unnecessarily upset the apple cart with incautious communications and demands. Get the diplomatic and experienced help you need. National academic administrative attorney Joseph Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm are available nationwide to assist you with Ph.D. advisor problems. Call 888.535.3686 / 888.J.D.Lento or go online to share the nature of your case.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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