“… he doesn’t like me or care about my research”

Grace is an African American student and mother of four. She is also vice president of a small non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the role of women in the workplace. She returned to the university in her mid-forties to pursue her Ph.D. degree in women’s studies and, so far, has completed more than half of the coursework. Grace entered the program with a clear idea of her research interests. She wants to study the role of women in the workplace. She is very passionate about her topic and takes every opportunity to share her research with others and to work on her preliminary drafts. When her friends ask how her work is progressing, she enthusiastically answers, “Quite well, thank you” then proceeds to give them an update on her progress.

However, her friends have begun to notice, in the last few months, Grace does not seem to be as eager to talk about her work. Her professors have also noticed. Grace has grown unusually quiet and avoids opportunities in class to discuss her research interests. One professor, Dr. Holmes, who has taken a keen interest in Grace’s progress decides to have a chat with her. One day after class, she stops Grace, as she is about to leave. “Grace do you have a minute?” Grace hesitates but remains standing at the door, “ah… yes, I suppose so.” ” I have noticed that lately you have been unusually quiet. Is everything all right?” Grace hesitates again but only for a brief second and this time she walks toward the professor. “Thank you for asking,” she says, “it’s my research. I think it is a much-needed area for research, and I am committed and passionate about doing it. I don’t mind the effort and time it will take, but I am having difficulty thinking it through.” Dr. Holmes smiles, “Is that it? Well, don’t worry. That is why we are here, to help you do just that. Have you discussed your concerns with your advisor?”

Grace’s face stiffens, and the mask returns. She looks hard at Dr. Holmes as though studying her face. Apparently satisfied with what she sees, Grace seems to relax, somewhat. “No, I couldn’t do that. He is always busy. I can never reach him.” “Well, Dr Holmes paused, “he is here today. I know, because I saw him in his office.” Grace looks interested. “I didn’t know he was here on Thursdays. He didn’t tell me. But then again, I didn’t ask.”

“Well I’m glad we are having this conversation. Perhaps you can go up to his office and speak with him.” Dr. Holmes looks hopeful. “Perhaps,” says Grace, “but I don’t know if that will solve the problem. You see, (Grace sits down) I am a woman, a black woman with a strong interest in promoting the role of women in the workplace and especially in senior management. My advisor is male and white. The first time I mentioned my interest in the topic, he looked at me oddly and asked me to write a one-page proposal. Well I did and I gave it to him. That was two months ago and the last I heard or saw of it.” “I see,” Dr Holmes replies, “have you followed up… asked him for his reaction?” “Yes, yes I did. He merely said, ‘we’ll talk.’ I think he was avoiding me. I don’t think he likes me, or cares about my research. It is just not working. I have a problem. What should I do?”

You are Dr. Holmes. What is Grace’s problem? What should she do?

I would advise this student that she should put her request for a meeting with her advisor in writing. then, explain – other than what’s in your petition – why your research is important and how it will contribute to current and future discussionso about women in the workplace.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Grace needs to choose another advisor.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

To those people that simply state that she can always change her major professor, you are being misleading. You don’t just tell a professor to be you major professor: you have to “sell” yourself and your study, and have the professor accept you. In some faculties, professors are already pushed farther than the “policy” number of students. Who has yet to hear the “I am the chair of [3] Ph.D./Masters committees, and am on another [12] grad student committees, and I only have so much time.” In at least 1 case, a Ph.D. student at UGA, dissatisfied with the relationship s/he was having with the major, went looking for another and did not find one, and thus was forced to return to the dissatisfying relationship. This actually happened twice to that same student. S/he feels that s/he can do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about this relationship, and it completely at the mercy of the major professor and his (lack of) time and attention towards him/her. The professor has tenure, so the student has no recourse.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

There are always power dynamics existing within the university setting; whether that involves gender, race, education level, student vs. faculty, etc. What has remained consistent in advice from fellow peers and some professors is: your dissertation is not your life’s work; it is the means to an end–the PhD. I think Grace will need support in how to navigate that conversation with her advisor. It is inevitable, but is not the end of the world for her. Be clear and direct!!! If he can not be the advisor then seek someone who can, the thing is you need at least one advocate to successfully go through the process. After the PhD, she can focus on her true passion…she’ll need studies for publishing purposes.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

The role of the advisor is to advise. If the advisor either does not know about the topic, is not interested in advising on the topic, or is not in agreement with the topic, he or she is not in the position to provide advice. I have had a similar situation several times. One that I am thinking about was a student who I was quite fond of and who was also fond of me. However, she had an interest in gender and I did not and, frankly, was uninterested in learning more about it. I advised the student to find another advisor but to include me on her committee. It worked out well for her and me. We still have friendly relations and I wrote her a positive letter when she went on the academic job market.

Consequently, I see that the student has two choices: (a) to find another advisor; or (b) to change her research topic, understanding that she can always investigate her preferred topic at another time. The dissertation is, in fact, her first research project, but possibly not her last.

– Professor, UGA

Dr. Holmes could assist Grace to articulate her expectations of her advisor and how she might talk over these with him. These should include clarification of the relationship and the role of the advisor and the student, how often they will meet, what work she expects to do and what kind of feedback she needs.

It would be helpful, in general, if this kind of process was suggested when a student enters a program. When returning to school after so long, it is unclear how everything works. There is also a degree of professionalism which older students bring that younger students may not expect. It is reasonable for Grace to expect a response without hounding her professor, but it may require more planning on her part.

On the other hand, Grace may simply need a new advisor who will support her work. I don’t think she has enough information at this time. It could be that he has simply been busy and not mindful of her responsibility to his advisees or the particular needs of this returning student. Dr. Holmes could also assist Grace to articulate how she will determine if her advisor is inadequate to address her topic and needs and a timeline for determining this.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

It all boils down to relationships. If you do not maintain a positive relationship with your advisor, you will not finish.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

I actually ran into the same situation, but it was more that my advisor and I were not on the same page. I felt she was more traditional and I was more into recent trends in the field. After a semester of debating on what to do, I guess she felt the same way and recommended that another professor be my major professor. It was such a relief, and though I didn’t go with her suggestion, have found a major professor that is incredible. My current major professor and I do not share the same research interests, but is extremely interested in what I am doing. It has been educational for her and she has been such a great guide. In the end, I think you should choose someone you feel comfortable discussing topics with and approaching them with questions and respecting their opinion. You don’t want to choose a major professor just because of their notoriety, publications, etc. You need to be with someone approachable, reliable, available, and enthusiastic about your research topic.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Grace should interview other faculty and find an advisor that fits and is willing to work with her.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

1. Why did she choose him? 2. Track him down and have a respectful but frank discussion about my concerns and what he thinks might be done. 3. Remind the student that this is HER education and she goes this way but once: Make the most of it. If this professor does not fit the bill for your dissertation topic, find someone who does. The best advice I got on entering the doctoral program, and the most frequent advice I heard was: Choose your major professor VERY CAREFULLY. As well as choose your committee very carefully. Do not be afraid of asking for what you need to be successful. Shyness or meekness does not cut it around here. 4. Yes, while this will not be your only research project, it is your first and the one that you will remember the most for a long time. Many a professor (for good or bad) has built a whole career on what started out as a dissertation. DO SOMETHING YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT, don’t let anyone talk you totally out of your topic. Whittle it down, maybe, allow editing, for sure, incorporate your committee’s thinking, you can’t get out without doing that. BUT WORK ON WHAT YOU WANT TO WORK ON.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Grace might benefit from a preliminary meeting of her entire committee, or a group of trusted faculty with whom she is comfortable meeting. Her focus could be brought to light, receive adivsement, and carried on with the confidence that all are on the same page so to speak. Following such a gathering, a second meeting with her major professor could indeed have a clearer purpose.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

This is a communication issue. Dr. Holmes should advise Grace to keep trying, to assume good will on the part of the adviser. While racial and gender differences may contribute to Grace’s relationship with her adviser, there is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate this is so. Dr. Holmes might advise Grace to put her fears at bay temporarily and try again with the adviser. Maybe he was just too busy. She ought to confront him about it in a tactful way, expressing her concern.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

This is one of those uncomfortable situations that is so difficult for everyone to deal with, especially Grace since she is in the low power position. I encourage students in this position to be honest with their faculty advisor and to read the faculty person’s nonverbals. Rarely will faculty say “no” or “I can not direct you.” Thus, students have to read between the lines. Grace might say something like “Dr. X, you know of my strong interest in researching topic B. You are a very busy person and I know this topic is not in your area, would you advise me to select another person as my advisor?” He or she may not come out and say Yes, you should switch. But, you can usually tell how they feel by watching their Nonverbal behaviors.

– Professor, UGA

I think Dr Holmes should assist Grace in discussing with her major professor about the topic. I believe that elaborate discussion on the project proposal with the major professor would help Grace to carry out the research work.

– Doctoral Student, UGA

Copyright The University of Georgia, CGS Project


This project was made possible by a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools, with generous support from Pfizer Inc., and the Ford Foundation.

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