At UMD, doctoral students depend on their advisers. What can happen when things go wrong?

Aasya, a doctoral student in the agriculture and natural resources college who agreed to be identified by a pseudonym, had to switch research topics after she said her adviser abruptly announced he didn't approve of her dissertation proposal — casting aside a year of work. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

In March 2016, three years into a doctoral program at the University of Maryland, Aasya felt her life being crushed.

For a year, she had combed through study after study, familiarizing herself with the topic she had chosen to pursue for her dissertation in the agriculture and natural resources college. She’d spent hundreds of hours examining the dataset she planned to use and had kept her adviser keyed into her progress.

In the end, though, none of it mattered.

A week after she presented her dissertation proposal to her classmates, her adviser announced he took issue with the dataset she planned to use — even though he hadn’t raised concerns before, she said. To her bewilderment, he told her to find another topic, effectively sending her back to square one.

“I hysterically cried for three or four hours,” Aasya remembered. “I did not know what to do.”

There she was, an international student an ocean away from her family and friends in the Middle East. Thousands of dollars in tuition and student fees down the drain.

“I was afraid that, since this didn’t make any sense, could it happen again?” said Aasya, who agreed to be identified by a pseudonym. “Could I have worked on another proposal and spend another year, and he could just, for whatever reason still unknown to me, say, ‘You know what? I don’t like it.’”

Aasya had discovered what leagues of other doctoral students had before her: In graduate school, advisers retain incredible power over their charges. Not only could Aasya’s adviser toss her proposal aside without warning, he could also drop her any time he liked or jeopardize her status in the country.

And she would feel helpless to stop it.

The Diamondback spoke to 13 graduate students who either once pursued a doctoral degree at this university or are doing so now, as well as 13 faculty members and university officials, to better understand the relationship between aspiring doctorates and their advisers — and what’s at stake when things go wrong.

Some students, like Aasya, spoke on the condition of anonymity about their relationship with their advisers or former advisers for fear of retribution. They worried that sharing their experiences could endanger their academic progress or future employment opportunities.

“If you have the right adviser, you can be incredibly successful and incredibly happy. I’ve seen it with a few people,” one said. “But the wrong adviser can do the opposite. There is a lot of power that one person has over your experience in university.”

“Your adviser runs your life. They really do.”

*****

There are 81 different research doctoral programs at this university, but a common thread runs through them all: The success of students, both in graduate school and beyond, is inextricably intertwined with who they choose for an adviser.

Graduate advisers don’t just recommend courses. They’re also the people charged with shepherding students through the mounds of stress, sleepless nights and marathon work sessions that make up the process of writing a dissertation — which means a doctoral student needs their adviser’s support to move forward.

When all the gears in this relationship are working properly, the student is likely to move steadily through graduate school.

But when there’s a glitch in the machine — whether it be because of a draining pool of money, fruitless research or grating personality differences — a student’s dissertation can spin off track, their job prospects can plunge into uncertainty and their mental health can deteriorate.

In a statement sent by a university spokesperson, graduate school Dean Steve Fetter recognized that in a community of more than 10,000 students, issues “inevitably arise.”

“We take the concerns of our students seriously and work hard to address issues that they may face,” the statement read. “We are committed to the academic success of our students and have resources available in the Graduate School and across campus to help them navigate the graduate experience.”

Of course, the power dynamic associated with the adviser-doctoral student relationship exists beyond this university. It’s the common denominator across the experiences of doctoral students at research universities nationwide, pushing some to their breaking points and leaving others vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Since the first U.S. research university opened its doors in 1876, social movements have wrenched apart and resewn the fabric of American life. But in all that time, the nature of the relationship between doctoral students and their advisers has mostly stayed the same: private, personal and largely isolated from the rest of the department and graduate school.

There certainly are benefits to this relationship’s intimate structure, said Leonard Cassuto, an American literature professor at Fordham University who studies graduate education. For one, it generally means both sides of the duo are deeply invested in the student’s learning process.

Annie Rappeport was one of the luckier ones. When considering whether to pursue a doctoral degree, she took the advice of friends and family who had taken the plunge before her, and toured advisers — not campuses. She found her match in College Park with Jing Lin, an international education policy professor.

Now, four years later, Rappeport is president of the university’s Graduate Student Government and recently advanced to candidacy in her pursuit of a doctorate in international education policy. She says Lin gives her the right mix of autonomy and structure. But beyond that, she says she feels cared for.

“I’ve had to go to her several times, and be like, ‘There was a death in the family.’ Or, ‘I’m really sick right now,’” Rappeport said. “She’s been caring.”

On the other hand, Cassuto said, the nature of this relationship means accountability can be limited for advisers and, at times, nonexistent.

In a 2018 report on sexual harassment of women in STEM fields, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommended academic institutions diffuse the power imbalance between trainees and faculty members. It suggested universities implement committee-based advising, establish mentoring networks or divert funding lines from specific advisers to their departments.

At this university, Fetter said it’s up to advisers to gauge whether the research their students are pursuing sufficiently advances knowledge in their field, and whether they’re making satisfactory progress toward earning their degree.

He says there’s good reason for this structure. With research doctoral programs ranging from linguistics to quantum physics, Fetter said, there’s really nobody else — certainly not him — who could adequately judge a student’s qualifications.

“The measure of a Ph.D. student is the ability to do original research,” he said. “There’s no alternative to relying on the faculty, who are experts in the field and who know both what it takes to do the original research in that field and what qualifies.”

But the power dynamics associated with doctoral education also meant Aasya’s adviser could unilaterally decide to throw out her proposal without warning.

She didn’t dare challenge him, though. Like most international students, Aasya is studying under an F-1 visa, which is only valid for a set period of time. If she needed more time to complete her degree, the university’s International Student and Scholars Services office could grant her an extension — but only if her adviser supported her continued enrollment.

In an emailed statement provided by a college spokesperson, Joseph Sullivan — associate dean for academic programs at the agriculture and natural resources college — encouraged students to report any issues they experience. He said the college takes the mental health of its students seriously.

For Aasya, the prospect of maintaining a relationship with an adviser she didn’t trust began hurting her psychological well-being.

Before coming to the university, Aasya only knew the sort of anxiety that flutters up when a big test or assignment is on the horizon. Now, she said she takes medication to manage her mental health and regularly sees a therapist.

It wasn’t just that her adviser brushed aside a year’s worth of research and work, Aasya said.

“It was a constant feeling of, well, you can’t really upset that person because that person is in charge of your status as a graduate student here,” she said. “So, pretty much your future.”

*****

In May 2017, about three months before Sarah was set to graduate, she walked into her adviser’s office and laid it all on the table, she said. She was starting to feel discouraged, she told him — they’d been working to get a publication out for a while, and she felt like every time she met a milestone, the goalposts would move again.

Her adviser lashed out at her, Sarah remembers, proclaiming he didn’t really care about her goals or ambitions, and didn’t think she deserved a Ph.D.

Even before this encounter, Sarah, who asked to be identified exclusively by her first name, had been struggling with depression. Her mental health had deteriorated over the five years she spent in the computer science, math and natural sciences college. She had begun equating her worth with her ability to generate data. It didn’t help that she felt like her adviser spoke to her and her female colleagues like they were stupid.

After this meeting, though, she found herself crying in the bathroom without knowing why. Walking across the parking lot at the end of a long day, she hoped a car would hit her. She felt so tired, so beaten down, so scared her adviser would announce she had to stay another year.

In the end, her adviser gave her the OK to defend her dissertation in August 2017. Sarah was ready to finally drag herself over the finish line — but instead, her dissertation committee announced she wasn’t done yet. She had revisions to make.

A day later, she texted a suicide hotline.

Research has shown that Sarah is far from alone in her experiences.

In 2018, a peer-reviewed study in Nature Biotechnology detailed a “mental health crisis” in graduate education. Researchers found graduate students to be more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as the general population.

The authors found a link between mental health issues and having a negative mentoring experience: More than half of graduate student respondents who indicated experiencing anxiety or depression did not agree that their advisers valued them or felt they were an asset to their careers.

Two of the researchers behind the study, Lindsay Bira and Nathan Vanderford, explained the reasons for this correlation. For starters, Bira said the relationship a student has with their adviser is often their main source of social support. And, Vanderford said, the power dynamic between advisers and their charges has great potential to influence a student’s mental health.

“They’re the lynchpin or the gatekeeper on whether or not this student is going to be able to finish,” Vanderford said. “And so there can be a lot of animosity.”

It’s not uncommon for graduate students to blame issues that come up with their advisers on themselves, Bira said. Often, when a student comes to graduate school, it’s before they’ve formed a firm identity — they haven’t established the credibility or earned the degree to prove their capabilities, she said.

For graduate schools looking to better support their students, Vanderford and Bira stressed the importance of offering mentorship training to advisers — teaching them how to keep open lines of communication with their students, encouraging them to share any issues they’re facing and recognize when they are struggling.

Beyond this step, the researchers emphasized the need to normalize seeking psychological help. Bira encouraged graduate programs to make the mental healthcare resources their university offers a common topic of conversation at luncheons, orientations and other graduate student meetings.

“Let’s break it down and talk about it, add some humor so that people can relax a little bit,” she said. “And that’s when people who access the resources feel comfortable about doing so.”

These resources shouldn’t just live in graduate program handbooks, Vanderford said. When students need psychological help, they’re often in crisis mode, and flipping through a handbook isn’t usually at the front of their minds.

This university’s graduate school hosts a guide on its website to help faculty members and staff recognize red flags that could indicate students are struggling with mental health issues. It also recently hired a counselor who will work in conjunction with the ombuds office to connect students with mental health resources and, if necessary, coordinate leaves of absence.

In response to Sarah’s experience, Jerry Wilkinson — associate dean for faculty affairs and graduate education at this university’s computer, mathematical and natural sciences college — encouraged students experiencing difficulties to share their concerns with faculty members or take advantage of the university’s mental health resources.

Today, almost three years after she graduated from the university with a doctoral degree, Sarah is seeing a therapist regularly — a step she hesitated to take throughout graduate school. She worried it would take away from her time in the lab, and wanted to avoid the stigma that came with seeking help.

What’s more, she has a job she loves with a boss who values her outside of the work she produces.

But still, she struggles with mental health issues fostered by the relationship she held with her adviser, she said. While she largely has her panic attacks under control, now and then, questions force themselves back into her mind:

“Did I deserve a Ph.D.? Is he right?”

*****

Back when Charles Delwiche directed the cell biology and molecular genetics department’s graduate program, and a student walked into his office with a complaint, he’d think of a classic Japanese film.

The movie, Rashomon, tells the story of a single incident from four perspectives, each one a conflicting, self-serving narrative. Delwiche says it reminds its audience there are multiple sides to every story — something he says is also true for graduate student conflicts with their advisers. These relationships just can’t be divided into good guy-bad guy narratives, he said.

“It just is not as simple as all that,” he said. “Overall, this relationship consists of two people who are just trying to make it all work.”

Faculty members face their own stressors: securing funding to keep their labs afloat, racing to earn tenure, managing students with little to no training. Vanderford and Bira both emphasized that advisers’ mental health is in need of just as much attention as that of their trainees.

Meet Paul Paukstelis, a professor in this university’s chemistry and biochemistry department. Over the ten years he has taught at this university, he has guided three students through earning doctoral degrees and has had four leave his lab — three of them with a master’s degree, and one who switched advisers.

Paukstelis stressed that while his students may work in his lab, they don’t work for him — they work for themselves, producing research that eventually turns into their dissertations.

Still, to apply for grants to keep his lab up and running, Paukstelis needs his students to be generating data he can show to funding agencies. Pulling these applications together is a draining process that can take up to six months — and one that has been rife with rejection for Paukstelis. He hasn’t received a grant for a couple of years now.

“Depressing. That’s the best way to describe it,” he said. “For a variety of reasons. I mean, you want your ideas to be validated and you want people to think that they’re good.”

Paukstelis has taught a mixture of graduate and undergraduate courses. He recalled how overwhelming this balancing act seemed when he arrived at the university as a new faculty member who only had experience in postdoctoral work.

“As a scientist, you know how to do experiments,” he said. “They don’t teach you how to teach, and they don’t teach you how to manage people, either. So when you become an assistant professor, you take the job, you’re sort of winging everything.”

And at this stage in the game, new faculty members often have to worry about getting tenure.

Typically, about 15 to 20 years of education goes into earning a spot as a tenure-track faculty member at a university, Delwiche said. Then, at least within the University System of Maryland, assistant professors have about five years to generate research to prove themselves to higher-ups. If they don’t receive tenure in their sixth year, they’re soon out of a job.

A key factor in whether a faculty member earns tenure is whether they’re able to show that they’ve successfully mentored students, said biology professor Karen Carleton, who earned tenure about a decade ago. So, she said, advisers need to get students writing papers as fast as possible.

“Everybody breathes a huge sigh of relief once they get through that,” she said.

The way Eric Haag sees it, the relationship a doctoral student has with their adviser should be smooth sailing.

In his time as a research adviser in this university’s biology department, he has guided several students in earning their doctoral degrees. Starting out, Haag said, there isn’t any conflict between what’s good for a doctoral student and what’s good for their adviser. It’s in everyone’s benefit to produce plenty of “beautiful data” and “glorious papers” — this opens doors for students after they graduate, and keeps funding flowing to an adviser’s lab.

But, of course, Haag said, things don’t always work out this way.

In his experience, conflicts tend to crop up when research isn’t going well and it’s not clear why things aren’t progressing. An adviser might trace the issue back to the topic itself — maybe the chosen avenue of study is just impossible to pursue, Haag said — or, they may trace the issue back to their graduate student.

This really is the hardest situation for an adviser, Haag said. He would know. He’s seen projects droop when they should be chugging along just fine. Then, he said it may be kinder to tell the graduate student behind the curtain that a career in research just might not be for them.

But it’s a call that comes with high stakes.

“You are really sitting in judgment of somebody’s career, to a large extent,” he said.

*****

In 2016, Aasya paid the graduate school’s ombuds office a visit.

She was frantic, still reeling from her adviser rejecting her proposal without warning, she recalled. She wanted a guarantee that the same thing wouldn’t happen again — that she wouldn’t spend a year on a project only to have him throw it out the window.

But the ombuds officer couldn’t give her that guarantee. Aasya left the office feeling even more alone than she did before.

“[Advisers] are not held accountable,” Aasya said. “[They] could overload you, bully you.”

So, she steeled herself and proceeded along a careful tap dance to extricate herself from her adviser, even though she knew doing so wouldn’t salvage a year of research. Tactfully, cautiously, she eventually succeeded.

That decision wound up rerouting the trajectory of her career, as she re-oriented her research away from what she had studied for years to match the concentration of her new adviser. The second time around, it took her much longer to pull together a dissertation proposal, as she waded through an unfamiliar area of her field.

Today, the end is finally in sight for Aasya. She’s set to defend her dissertation at the end of this semester — more than two years after she originally planned to. Because of this delay, Aasya said she has accrued more than $10,000 in debt. Coming into graduate school, she thought she had saved enough to graduate debt free.

Struggling to make ends meet, Aasya said she hasn’t had the money to visit her family back home in two years. And for all the time she’s spent in her department — six years of her life — she feels no sense of community there. How could she, when she felt like nobody had ever looked out for her?

“I don’t feel I’ve been protected by this school,” she said, “so I don’t feel any sense of belonging here.”

Part 2 of this story will focus on the mechanisms available for addressing issues between doctoral students and their advisers, their flaws and efforts to bolster them.

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