ask a scatterbrain (breaking up is hard to do)

Our question of the week: How do you “break up” with your adviser? If you feel like the relationship isn’t going well, and you’ve already made the decision to go with someone new, what is the best way to do this without upsetting the adviser?

18 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain (breaking up is hard to do)”

  1. Doesn’t that depend heavily on the school you’re at and the department? For example, in my wife’s department you are accepted (and funded) by the department and although you nominally have an adviser, nothing is set in stone until you pick your committee. In the department where we did out BA and MA, PhD first year students are assigned an adviser based on their interests and/or who they think they want to work with, but are free to change with (basically) no hard feelings until they go off training grants and are funded by someone. In my wife’s secondary department here though, the grads are accepted and funded by their adviser from the start, and switching can be a bureaucratic nightmare aside from anything else.

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  2. If the relationship isn’t going well then the advisor may be just as interested in ending it so far from being offended may be relieved by the idea.

    Drew is right though, if this is all entangled in issues of funding then this can be more complicated and may require more preparation than cases that are independent of such logistics.

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  3. Is anyone else bothered by the “breaking up” metaphor (even when in quotation marks)? I know it’s prevalent and I assume that it appeared in the original question. However, I can’t get past feeling like it represents a misapprehension of the advisor-student relationship (as vs. a romantic relationship) and that this might make switching advisors seem fraught in ways that it need not be.

    I am returning to the manuscript revision I’m working on before I start making lists of “how advising relationships are similar to/different from romantic relationships,” so this will remain an impressionistic query.

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  4. My main advice on this issue is: if you are thinking about or talking about changing your advisor and using the metaphor of “breaking up” to do so, stop. Yes, I recognize that one believes one is doing so with a full sense of irony, but I had way too many conversations with (multiple) peers in graduate school where their ironic use of “should I break up with my advisor?” was followed by basically talking about the decision the way one talks about whether to continue with an inattentive or otherwise wanting boy/girlfriend. It’s like, “I want to change advisors and have it be professional and not weird, but I want to use a metaphor for talking about it that highlights the potential to be unprofessional and weird.”

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  5. I want to note that:
    1. I started my comment @4 before Sara posted hers @3.
    2. I was interrupted by a phone call in-between, so I don’t actually spend 15+ minutes writing comments on posts.

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  6. I’d love to hear the answer to this from a professor’s point of view. However, I’ll say something about how I did it successfully.

    When I started grad school, I was assigned an advisor and I stayed with her because our substantive interests were similar. Eventually, she seemed to take a dislike to me—clearly finding my requests for attention annoying. I got the distinct impression that she thought I was stupid. The first time I tried to change to a new advisor, that professor said that since my interests didn’t align with hers, she wouldn’t take me on. She was kind about it, though. I tried again with another professor after my fourth year, this time successfully.

    My new advisor agreed to take me on under two conditions:
    1. I clear it with my old advisor.
    2. I make sure my old advisor remain on my dissertation committee (I was still in the proposal preparation stage).

    I did these things successfully. My old advisor’s only comment was, “We were never a good fit anyway.” She didn’t have one kind thing to say to me.

    It didn’t feel like a break up (though I was nervous about talking to her). It felt like I fired her. While deflating at first, I was later proud of myself for getting out of that terrible situation. My new advisor was great and without her, I don’t think I would have finished.

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  7. It is important to note that professors are also human, and so, depending upon their personalities, *they* might see losing a student as a form of “breaking up,” even if the student does not. This can affect the student’s future in various ways. If indeed it happens, it is not always simply a matter of nervous graduate students doing the mountains-out-of-molehills thing.

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  8. Perhaps it is useful to specify the reasons why one might sever or change a working relationship, rather than focusing on what one says after the decision has been reached. Not that the second issue is unimportant, mind you, but rather it seems derivative of the answer to the first.

    If you, student, feel that your interests are no longer closely aligned with your advisor, or finding meeting times is chronically difficult, or you wish to have more/less/different feedback on your work, then it is relatively easy to explain this, simply and clearly, and kindly. (One might, for example, thank the soon-to-be-former advisor for all their assistance to this point.) I’ve just had a student do this with me (it was a “my interests have transformed under the supervision of another professor and so I’d like him to take the lead on paper, since his is in practice” situation). It was extremely easy to wish him well and sign him over, and it increased the respect I have for him that he carried himself with such grace and dealt with it professionally and simply.

    If you, student, feel that your advisor has become abrasive, abusive, is stealing your ideas, or other unprofessional, unethical, or just unkind actions have taken place, then you might be best served if another faculty member gets involved. This person might be your next advisor, and might provide you with advice on how to deal with the situation. They also might help ease you out of it, and they certainly can help you to protect yourself. Btw, if this sort of thing ever happens you really must immediately begin keeping records of interactions (save emails, write dated letters to yourself after each meeting) and consider bringing the issue to the chair of your department. If the actant is the chair of your department, you might appeal to a dean.

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  9. It felt like I fired her.

    Sounds like she was glad you finally quit.

    if you are thinking about or talking about changing your advisor and using the metaphor of “breaking up” to do so, stop.

    Stop with thinking about it as a “break up” or stop the relationship? I’d say both.

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  10. jlena said a lot of what I’d say. I’ve dealt with this from all possible angles over the years. If you are leaving an advisor for “cause,” i.e. something has gone overtly bad, it is best to talk with faculty for help. The chair or the director of graduate studies can quite appropriately be talked to about such issues; I handled quite a few of such cases when I held those roles. (I used to send out emails telling students that they could change advisors and that they could ask me for confidential advice about how to do it.)

    I’ve also taken on advisees who were switching away from other advisors, sometimes because of a problem and other times because of interests. I’ve also agreed to be the advisor for students who were worried about a problem with their employer/mentor who ended up dropping me off again when what they were worried about got fixed.

    Students usually find a new advisor before telling the old one about it, and that is understandable. But when you have made a decision, it is good form to tell the old advisor. I have never been upset about a student who wanted to change from me to another advisor, but it has definitely made me feel awkward to think someone was my advisee and find out otherwise only by seeing a change on the student review list. If the advisor is like most advisors, s/he won’t be upset about it, but it is nice to know. As far as I am concerned, it can be done by email, if you are worried that the in-person meeting will be awkward.

    If you are worried about possible repercussions of an advisor change (i.e. funding), you should talk to the director of graduate studies.

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  11. *i know nothing*, but i’ve always thought that grad students overestimate the degree to which faculty care about this. it seems to me that if the relationship doesn’t feel good/fruitful/helpful to you, it probably doesn’t to the faculty member either. if it involves something unprofessional/unethical/etc, then seek help from the DGS.

    i had a similar situation in grad school where i picked an advisor who wasn’t *objectively* a good substantive fit over someone who was (for a variety of reasons that i won’t go into)… i know it caused problems but at the time, i was too green to know better and didn’t handle it well. i didn’t speak to the DGS before it was too late (so there wasn’t much she could do) and things had gotten very bad — i think it’s important to get others involved early if needed. that said, my situation was not typical. most of the time, if you are honest, respectful, and don’t make it out to be something huge, you should rarely have problems.

    In addition to getting rid of the advisor/advisee relationship as romantic metaphor, could we get rid of the parent/child one as well?

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  12. as a faculty member, I just want to say that I am *never* offended if a student takes me off of her/his committee or switches advisors because her/his interests have changed. in these instances, students often seem nervous when they approach me, but i really do understand and expect that these things will happen and i think many many faculty members do. I also agree with olderwoman that it is fine to communicate this change by email. the important thing is to let the faculty member know if you are removing her/him from your committee!

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  13. [Insert requisite “my situation wasn’t typical, but…” qualifier here]

    My first advisor was great for starting me off, orienting me to how research and writing works, commenting on my MA paper, and generally getting me started in the whole sociological enterprise. Then, once I figured out what I really wanted to do, it was a natural shift to go with someone else whose interests lined up with what I planned to do in my dissertation and beyond. It just so happened that the most logical person for that was Advisor A’s partner. It was a smooth transition that just seemed to make sense for all involved.

    I bring this up not because I think it actually adds advice for anyone reading, but because I’m amused by the potential ways to best fit my scenario into the accepted metaphorical terms. In case that wasn’t fun enough – I am now in a postdoc working with Advisor B’s advisor.

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  14. I just came from a “how to get to ABD and beyond” kind of meeting, moderated by one of the professors in this interdisciplinary PhD program at my school. (it is the same one that LBN went to). I’m so far behind in my work that I would avoid my advisor if I wasn’t taking classes from her (and I still avoid talking about how my prospectus is coming), but she’s still the best one for my project on the FMLA.

    Anyway, the meeting made me realize that “real” PhD programs are HARD, man. I am slightly reconsidering transferring to this program just because I have already sunk so many years into my blah one (which will still get me a job at a law school, with luck). My doctor of juridical science degree has no requirements other than “take 24 credits, 8 of which are independent study, and write a long article within three years.” I do not envy students who have to assemble committes for their qualifying exams and dissertations. It’s hard to find even one person who will commit for those years.

    Anyway, the prof at the meeting said repeatedly that it is OKAY to change advisors–pick one as soon as you can just to have someone to start talking to, but if they don’t seem to fit, change as soon as you can too, and don’t be afraid to change a third time, or have two chairs. He said that students tend to be too concerned about offending their advisor, when it should be about the student’s project and how well the advisor fits.

    I can imagine it’s a more difficult discussion to have when the intellectual fit is fine, but the advisor just isn’t giving good feedback or has a personality conflict. I wish I had changed advisors in my masters of law program last year. I was all het up to do a thesis on bias crimes and the 14th amendment, and he had me change to the federal regulation of child pornography. Now I have a thesis of unpublishable crap that made me feel miserable and sick for a year as I read one terrible case after another.

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