Dear Kate – March 2016

Dear Kate,

My graduate advisor told me that I’m ‘not cut out for science’ and does not think I could ever ‘think like a scientist’.  I trusted her to support my scientific goals and now the trust is broken. What do I do?

– Broken

Dear Broken,

If your graduate advisor truly believes that you are not cut out for science and does not think you could ever think like a scientist, then it is time to switch advisors. The mentorship and sponsorship of your graduate advisor is absolutely crucial; you are counting on them to help you get to where you want to be. If they do not believe you can get there, they cannot help, never mind that you cannot trust them to write a sufficiently strong letter of recommendation when it becomes time to look for postdocs or faculty positions.

Before immediately taking such a drastic step as switching advisors, however, it is important to make sure you are correct that your advisor means what she said. There are two other possibilities for why she could say such a thing. One could that she believes that she should say horrible, tough things to you, in order to prepare you to thrive under adversity. That is: maybe she believes that one thing she needs to teach you in the world of science is to have a thick skin, and defend yourself in the face of doubt, mockery and abuse, and part of her job is to provide the adverse environment. If this is the case, I personally would switch advisors anyway; this is not a tactic I think is at all helpful to me, and I believe I am more likely to succeed with a less abusive advising style. However, when my friend was at music conservatory, one of the very famous teachers was known for saying the musician equivalent to all first year students, by third or fourth year, he would tell them he was wrong, and maybe they weren’t hopeless after all, and by the final year, if he said “well, I guess you aren’t so bad after all” they would be over the moon excited, because that was his version of high praise. But he was known for supporting his students as they graduated and beyond. What is your advisor’s reputation with her other students in terms of what she says to them?

The second possibility, was you momentarily disappointed your advisor and she was just complaining at you, or you were in the middle of a heated argument with your advisor, and she said this in frustration. In other words, this is a passing emotion on her point, and while it might be her opinion today, it might not be her opinion next month. What was the context in which she made these remarks? Did you just do something really disappointing?  (for example, did you fail to triple-check a calculation and nearly send out a co-authored paper with her with an error?). Alternatively, were you and your advisor in the middle of a heated argument where you fundamentally disagreed about something or someone in the field (for example, you just told your advisor you admired someone whose entire research program she does not respect on technical grounds). Alternatively, have just told your advisor you cannot do something that she thinks (right or wrong) any successful person in her field needs to be able to do? Certainly, we are all sometimes frustrated with ourselves and think we will never make it; I promise you, that sometimes as an advisor, I am frustrated by my students and think that they will never make it. I have had such feelings of doubt at least once about all my Ph.D. students, even the ones who went on to be most successful. I have never said words to this effect to any of my students, however, and I don’t think this tends to be a productive thing for an advisor to do. Nonetheless: even advisors can get frustrated and have bad days and let their frustrations show more than they ought to. Do you know what caused the problem? Is it some particular issue that you can address?

Bottom line: this is serious. You need an advisor who believes you are cut out for science, and who believes they can train you to think like a scientist. You do not necessarily need an advisor who doesn’t deny that they will be that person, but do figure out if they really mean it.

– Kate C
(a faculty member who has successfully graduated a half dozen PhD students)

Dear Broken,

Here are my thoughts:

1. How on earth did you get to graduate school at MIT, of all places, if you are “not cut out for science” or unable to “think like a scientist”?  Clearly, your graduate advisor is wrong.  This is not about you at all, but has something to do with her.  There is some kind of misunderstanding or good old fashioned personality conflict between you and with your advisor.  I don’t know the context here or whether this is a long -term advisor or someone you have been assigned to since September. Is it possible to get a new advisor?  I am not in academia or at MIT, so I don’t know the process or possibility of these things.  If it really is an outcome of the fact that you and your advisor just don’t get each other, a change might be in order.  Are you working with this advisor on a project of your dreams, or are there other things you could be working on that would be fine with you?  

2. If this is the person you really need to work with or want to because her project is what you want to spend your time studying, I’d suggest requesting a meeting and asking her what she meant by that.  I’d make sure I was calm and collected before any interaction with her. Be ready to discuss what you bring to the situation and you qualifications and contributions that she has overlooked.    

3. Some self -examination might be in order.  Is there anything you could have done to give her this impression?  Are you in awe or intimidated by her?  She might interpret your reticence or shyness as a lack of ability if you freeze up in her presence.  I don’t know the situation, so I am trying to think of various issues that could have prompted to her to say this.  In this case, I don’t think I’d request a meeting to tell her I am afraid of her, but you could then work on yourself to be your most positive, flexible, gracious, (and scientific) self whenever she is around.  

4. Lastly, are you where you really want to be with this advisor?  I am reaching on this one, but I am wondering if you are someone who did well in science from high school on and made it all the way to graduate school at MIT (clearly a sign that you have the ability), but did so because it was what was expected of you, and you haven’t yet stopped to think about whether it is what you really want to do.  Perhaps she is picking up on that.  If this is the case, spend a little time thinking about and exploring what you really want.  

I recommend you think through all these possibilities and decide whether it is worth it or necessary to you to continue with this advisor.  If it is, then you have to convince her that she is mistaken in her assessment and that you will be a great contributor to her project.  If it isn’t, then work on moving on to find another advisor.  Good luck!

– Kate F

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate C., and Kate F.

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