Dear PhD Advisor–a decade on

I am going to write this letter to you, and then I’m going to not send it.

I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had another advisor.  One who took the time to develop my career, and knew how to do that, and cared enough to.  I literally didn’t see you for 18 months because you were abroad, and you weren’t answering my e-mail.  And it wasn’t 18 months at the end of my thesis; it was my third and fourth year, right when I should have done the bulk of my work.  You were among the worst bosses I’ve ever had.  It’s hard for me to say that, because you were a nice enough person.

You explained it by saying that you have a sink or swim philosophy, because in real life when you are a postdoc and later a faculty member, people don’t hand you the research questions.  What a cop out.  The point of a PhD is to learn those things; if you come in knowing them then you don’t need the degree.  When students start out, you have to help them a bit…they don’t have perspective on the field, on careers, on what questions to study that are “hot.”  In my day, there wasn’t as much of an Internet, and it wasn’t possible to find basic information, like where alumni had gone.  Had I known, I would not have joined your group.

And while you did nothing to help me, you sure did a lot to tear me down:  My work wasn’t good enough.  The problem wasn’t interesting.  The model wasn’t a good model.   Never mind that you were the one who had vaguely proposed it.

You had the attention span of a flea; you’d propose a project, I’d do a ton of work, and then you’d lose interest.  It’s a good thing you left for 18 months.  That’s how I got my first paper out–entirely without your help.  And by the time you tried to tear it down, I was done writing it.  I’m not sorry you left, but it’s bad that you sucked so much as an advisor that your being away was better than your being around.

You had a few students who made it in spite of you…generally they found other co-advisors, or changed fields.    I wish I had been one of those students, and I often ask myself why I didn’t have the initiative to do that, and blame myself.  I trusted you too much, for one thing.  In a department full of egos, you were territorial and didn’t encourage collaborating–and I was way too loyal.  I suppose I half-made it; I did ultimately land a tenure track position and the opportunity to stay in my field, sort-of.  Just I didn’t land a good one, and had I stayed there I’d have spent the rest of my life single and teaching in a backwater, with neither the time or resources to do the research that was the whole point of going into science to begin with.  It wasn’t worth it.

As it was, I invested six plus years of my life, for very little return.  I spent my graduate years lonely and miserable, delayed marriage, and since I left academia, the fancy PhD hasn’t helped me at all.  In fact it’s an albatross–people ask me “you graduated from THERE and ended up HERE?”

Yeah.  I did.  I was good enough to get THERE, but once I did, I was poorly mentored.  I had a fantastic postdoc (and a fantastic postdoc mentor), but postdocs are short and one great postdoc isn’t enough, especially when you are applying for jobs in the middle of it.  My postdoc mentor taught me what an awesome mentor was, though.  I still did all my own work, but he guided me, and he really cared.  It’s thanks to him that I found that academic job.

Anyway, I feel better having vented.  It’s been over a decade since I finished my PhD.  I wish I didn’t feel bitter when I looked back; that I could forgive my advisor and also myself.


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