What Should a Good Advisor Say?

I really don’t get it when people begin to complain that their graduate advisors and professors tell them, “Of course, you are going to find a job, you are amazing, you will get snapped up in no time“, etc.

What is it that advisors are supposed to say instead? “I don’t think you are very likely to get a job, you are not very well-read, your research is boring, your writing is clunky, your reasoning is pedestrian. Even good scholars can’t find a job these days, so who’ll hire you?”?

Who is capable of saying such things to their students? (Except my thesis advisor, I mean.)

Not only is this kind of honesty hurtful, it is also quite unproductive. Can you imagine a person who’d hear this and say, “Yes, this is so true. I need to go explore non-academic job options”?

When I was told these (and much, much worse, albeit completely honest and well-deserved ) things, I did not take them well. I still don’t.

41 thoughts on “What Should a Good Advisor Say?”

  1. I think the best advisor is encouraging but also gives direction on how to improve. For example, ‘you need to go to more talks and network there’, ‘you need to brush up your ancient Greek’, ‘you need to add more depth to your research’.

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  2. Before I did my PhD, the adviser told me there were no jobs on the market especially in my subject area and that if I wanted a job I should reconsider doing a PhD. But I didn’t want to do the PhD for a job, but a rite of passage. So I went ahead and did it. I haven’t looked for an academic job either. I just feel I know too much, above all about myself, to be able to fit into academia.

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  3. I don’t see the problem here: one can be honest about the grim realities of the academic job market without needlessly undermining students. “Here’s what you need to do to improve as a scholar, here’s how to build on your strengths and overcome your weaknesses” doesn’t need to be bolstered by false assurances that doing that work will result in a job.

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  4. I just tell the ones I don’t think are guaranteed to get a job that they should have a plan B. I don’t assume I am right that they won’t get a job, because you never know.

    (I want to tell someone why he is not getting a job. I am working on the wording. He has a professional website up in his own name that is not sober enough for academia. He has taught so many interesting gen ed courses at the lower division level in English that it detracts from his Spanish credentials even though these are good. He has published a lot but always in English, although on Lat Am lit. Given his topics and the type of degrees he has, to someone going through 700 applications he looks like an Americanist more than a Hispanist despite being native speaker of Spanish and from Spanish speaking country. There is in fact nothing wrong with him, he is good candidate, but I can just see how he would be overlooked in a pile of applications or typecast as something different than what he is applying for. He must either repackage or aim to different jobs than he is. I am really sure he is on long short lists a lot of places but not short ones. He is not my student but someone has to tell him or he will be contingent forever.)

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  5. P.S. Telling people they are not going to make it, or they will make it by the skin of their teeth only, is also not a good strategy. This is what I was told; I was told to choose very safe topics, be very obedient, etc., because only that way would I survive. The result is that I have not thrived, and I should have done, objectively speaking.

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        1. My parents were suffering from rather extreme problems.

          It’s not their fault they didn’t recognise them, but I do hold the so-called unaccountable observers responsible for what they chose to deny.

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    1. ” Telling people they are not going to make it, or they will make it by the skin of their teeth only, is also not a good strategy.”

      – That’s exactly what I’m saying. I cannot imagine any positive results coming from this kind of undermining.

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  6. Great post, Clarissa. I think being “brutally honest” is too valued nowadays as doing the student/candidate etc. “a favor” – and I think that you are absolutely right. It’s not a favor, it’s a disservice. It takes more strength than most people have to ignore this kind of “advice” and continue. Why people want to discourage others from becoming the best they can be, I’ll never understand.

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  7. But who is advocating “telling people they’re not going to make it”? People do point out the inherent falsehood in suggesting that good people get jobs or that a particular student is going to get a job. That’s different. It’s a bad idea for advisors to claim clairvoyance either way. It’s reasonable for an advisor to point out the inherently capricious nature of a buyer’s market.

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    1. What would be the goal behind pointing this out? What can it achieve besides undermining a student and making her worry that the adviser is planning to write her a lousy letter of recommendation.

      It`s like a doctor who hastens to remind a patient that death awaits all of us and we should prepare to die at any moment. The statement is factually true but coming from this particular person, the harm it does outweighs any good it might do.

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      1. A relevant analogy. Yes, it would be stupid for an MD to point out, at every routine visit, “oh, by the way, you’re going to die.” On the other hand, if the MD has diagnosed a chronic and potentially fatal illness, it’s the MD’s responsibility to tell the patient how to manage the illness and increase the odds of remission or cure, and to be candid about the disease’s morbidity. The job market is like a chronic and potentially fatal disease. It doesn’t help the student/patient for the doctor to pretend like the realities are other than they are. The doctor can and should do everything possible to help the patient achieve a good outcome, but it’s irresponsible to shield the patient from the fact that substantial percentage of people with the same disease and the same risk factors will die regardless of how diligently they exercise, eat right, and follow all the recommendations. Obviously, it’s not a fact to dwell on, but it does patients no favors to let then believe that the outcome is entirely in their hands and that death is going to be entirely the result of their personal failure.

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        1. ” The job market is like a chronic and potentially fatal disease.”

          – I’ll pretend I didn’t see this because, seriously, man, you’ve got to be careful about this kind of comments. You never know if anybody with a chronic or fatal disease is reading. It just isn’t right.

          “Obviously, itโ€™s not a fact to dwell on, but it does patients no favors to let then believe that the outcome is entirely in their hands”

          – That’s exactly what good doctors do, actually.

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          1. I get that you object to the analogy, so I’ll drop it. I’m puzzled by the “that’s what good doctors do,” though. Perhaps it depends on the illness in question? In my experience of loved ones with cancer, good doct

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      2. Gack. Please ignore that last half-comment. I was “anonymous” upthread (not sure why it didn’t use my usual cognomen) and I was starting a response, reconsidered when I realized I was half awake and probably shouldn’t be trying to have a sensitive conversation, went to bed, woke up, jostled my phone, and the half-baked reply went through anyway. My apologies.

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  8. You’ve raised a most difficult question. Unfortunately, much of our education system amounts to “bait and switch,” starting with high school counselors through undergraduate and graduate advisors. It’s not the counselors and advisors fault, of course. The problem lies with our economy, the worldwide oversupply of labor, and the generalized greed and materialism of Western society. The advisors are caught between a rock and a hard place.

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  9. I think that what they are angry about is being told to continue looking for jobs when it is obviously not working out. Being told that if they consider other options they are traitors to the best profession in the world, and so on.

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    1. Anybody who uses the word “traitor” in a non-combat situation is probably suffering from some form of mental illness. Seriously, can you imagine telling someone. “You are such a traitor!”?

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      1. It was what I was told repeatedly when I was going to quit. I was traitor to the cause, my leaving would dishonor the memory of those who had already fallen along the wayside, and so on, and so forth. My thought was that it would just mean a job opening for someone else, but no, it was all taken much more seriously. I am where I am now due to this guilt trip (and to my having been vulnerable to guilt trips). Truly!

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        1. I would be very traumatized by such experiences. This kind of misplaced intensity scares me. It obviously doesn’t come from any legitimate concern for your welfare. It can only come from dark, manipulative motivations.

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          1. Yes. I was very traumatized, and had to cure myself with a blog, finally. ๐Ÿ˜‰ What people were after: having their own choices confirmed; confirming their idea that I, a girl, could only do well “in school,” all sorts of things like that … then there is also just this Hispanic effusiveness, no nos abandones, which is not meant to be taken literally. And some of these people, or a lot of them, really did not realize that I had not gone into this profession as a first choice necessarily, and wouldn’t be as devastated about doing something else as they would be. And others really, really thought that my plan to leave was just a play to get encouragement to stay.

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            1. “What people were after: having their own choices confirmed; confirming their idea that I, a girl, could only do well โ€œin school,โ€ all sorts of things like that”

              – Exactly. This, of course, betrays a profound sense of doubt about the correctness of one’s own choice. In the immigrant community, there are many people whose purpose in life seems to be to convince their former compatriots that emigration is the only right choice. It is very obvious that they are not happy as immigrants.

              “And some of these people, or a lot of them, really did not realize that I had not gone into this profession as a first choice necessarily, and wouldnโ€™t be as devastated about doing something else as they would be.”

              – Or maybe they feared that if you left and became very happy doing something different, this might make them doubt their own choice. My two best friends chose to leave academia and do something different. Both are very happy. And none of us ever tried to debate the other person’s choice.

              “And others really, really thought that my plan to leave was just a play to get encouragement to stay.”

              – This approach is a little condescending. It isn’t like you are a child to wrangle out encouragement this way.

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              1. “But, as you point out, the average person does not mature beyond age 12, soโ€ฆ ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜‰ !”

                – Ah, so they are projecting. Totally makes sense.

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  10. My PhD supervisor told us two things when we started on the thesis: first that it was possible for us to get an academic job but that “at this stage the probability is very close to zero” and second that if, when we finished the PhD, there were no jobs in our PhD specialism and we had to take a generic graduate job, we thought we would be angry and feel that we had wasted the years spent on the PhD, then we should think very hard about whether it was the right course for us. Even though I did my PhD at a top research university, my supervisor encouraged us to explore a range of options, meet people doing different kinds of jobs, etc., and my funders (the national research councils) actually provided a week long course on the range of industrial jobs STEM PhD students might go into with lots of things like practicing the kinds of interview tests you might encounter and doing business-type games and exercises so that we could have a good idea of our options and how to sell ourselves. At every stage, he said to us “an academic job isn’t the best job for everyone, and it isn’t the only job out there” and “make sure you have a range of skills” – so for example he advised me to not do so much teaching when I was a postdoc and instead to take on an organising role (department seminar, helping with local conference, something like that) to diversify my c.v.

    Of those of us who got the advice, two now have very prestigious academic jobs, two have respectable academic faculty jobs (me+1), two have jobs broadly connected to their PhD area, three work in totally different areas. Our supervisors ‘pets’ – the people he thought were particularly brilliant, and told them and the rest of us that – one has a star academic job, the other is a school teacher. Those he had to correct and nag at the most? The other in a star job, and me. I think we got stubborn!!

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    1. This is a talented adviser. Some people are pedagogically gifted but that’s unfortunately rare in academia. My adviser killed pedagogy and buried its corpse in her backyard, so I envy you. ๐Ÿ™‚ (In a good way.)

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  11. My advisor was very negative about my prospects to both finish my PhD and get a job. It made me all the more determined to do both. I’m very stubborn so the best motivation for me is someone telling me I can’t do it. I think all these “honest” advisors are actually making people more determined to stay on the market longer.

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    1. “My advisor was very negative about my prospects to both finish my PhD and get a job. It made me all the more determined to do both. ”

      – I admire your strength. It’s really great to be able to turn other people’s attempts to undermine into fuel for yourself.

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      1. I never really had any support from my family. They pretty much thought I should be a nun. Then, when I got married, they thought I should be a stay-at-home mom. If it weren’t for trying to prove my parents (particularly my mother) wrong, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Of course, it makes me wonder what would have happened if I had grown up in even a modestly supportive environment.

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        1. I read your posts about Christmas, and they almost made me cry. But you overcame that environment and created a very different one for your children. That’s a great achievement!

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  12. Whatever advice your advisor gives should be calculated to help the advisee on the job market. Supposedly once an institution accepts a candidate they are invested in the outcomes at least on a professional level. It seems like people get into a sunk cost state of mind so any kind of advice about non academic job markets feels like a sharp criticism even if they are already thinking about that. But I’m not in academia so YMMV as to my assumptions.

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    1. Yes, you are absolutely right. A person who goes on the market with the thought “My own adviser doesn’t even believe in me” is already at an enormous disadvantage. The only thing worse would be to think, “My parents don’t even think I’ll find a job.”

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      1. I had both of these things going on and still kept getting jobs, although never of the kind I wanted … I guess that is the reason, I was always slightly “off” …

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  13. There is no correlation between a job candidate’s qualifications or talent and his or her likelihood to get a job. When advisors tell students their work is good and they will get “snapped up,” they generally mean it because they don’t know otherwise. Educating themselves on the reality and standing in solidarity with job seekers – as opposed to acting as intellectual mentors aloof from the dirty business of employment – is what they need to do now.

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    1. “There is no correlation between a job candidateโ€™s qualifications or talent and his or her likelihood to get a job.”

      ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

      “Educating themselves on the reality and standing in solidarity with job seekers โ€“ as opposed to acting as intellectual mentors aloof from the dirty business of employment โ€“ is what they need to do now.”

      – I have to ask, do you speak this way in RL or is this just a persona you cultivate for blogging? Because if this is just a pose, that’s cool, it’s funny. But if you are being serious, then oy.

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  14. I agree. Advisors need to be positive. They can be realistic of course–making sure to remind job seekers that the market is competitive and that even very good people may take a while to find a job. I remember the most comforting thing that my advisor did: she compiled statistics from the last few years of our university’s job placement with English PhDs. And she found that within 3-4 years of graduation, something like 90% of seekers had found tenure track jobs, 5% switched careers, and 5% were in visiting positions. So her main advice was to not give up if we don’t get a job the first time out and that despite the hand wringing, the statistics were actually on our side. And it did take me three years to find a tenure track job. I still got upset and depressed during the process of course. But her little compilation of statistics was enourmously comforting to me as I navigated the job market.

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    1. Graduate students are, more often than not, so racked with self-doubt that any comment from their advisor of the “You should just stop looking, you’ll never find a job” is likely to produce an emotional crisis of enormous proportions.

      You had a great advisor, too. This is a very smart strategy.

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