UW Graduate School

April 23, 2015

Conflicts with Advisor

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What do you do when it becomes clear your graduate advisor will never let you graduate due to personal conflicts?     —Anonymous

Yeesh. I am so, so sorry. It’s clear from the tone of your question that you are not being dramatic or flippant. This is one of the worst case scenarios for a graduate student. But please be assured that you are not the first nor the only, and there are protocols and strategies in place just for this. First, it’s essential that you document your interactions and conflicts with your advisor. The Graduate School has Guidelines for Good Practice in Graduate Education. You need to be able to be able to point to the specific responsibilities that your advisor is failing to fulfill, rather than just claim a vague “My advisor has it in for me.” The first step is usually to talk directly to your advisor. If that doesn’t help, then usually you should go to your Graduate School Representative (GSR) and other committee members. Of course, all this depends on your situation and your relationships with these individuals. It also sounds like you are past this point?

In that case, you should start following the Graduate School’s Academic Grievance Policy. You attempt an “informal conciliation,” where you invite the director/chair or dean to conciliate the grievance with your advisor. If this discussion with your advisor and the facilitator does not resolve the grievance, you then request the Graduate School to assist in an informal resolution. An associate dean of the Graduate School then acts as conciliator, either directly or with the involvement of the Office of the Ombudsman. If you’re still dissatisfied with the informal conciliation, you can then file a formal complaint with the Graduate School. This is an involved process, outlined here. Please note that there are certain time limitations. I hope this doesn’t sound daunting. Such a process is in place for your protection, really. I truly hope it works out!

Kelly Edwards, associate dean for student and postdoctoral affairs in the Graduate School, has these tips for additional strategies and self-care while you go through this process:

Facing conflicts with your advisor is one of the hardest things you do in your academic career. I know from talking to many students that it can take an emotional toll as well as a professional one. Knowing how to manage yourself (the one thing you can control in the situation) can help you get through it. These are a few strategies that have helped some students in the past, which may be helpful to you:

  • Stay calm (hard to do!). While it is understandably frustrating/upsetting/infuriating, do things (yoga, walking, breathing, venting conversations with allies) to help calm you. It will be easier to do what you need to do when you are thinking more clearly, and calming your stress response helps you think.
  • Put the roadblock in perspective. It might feel like the end of the world, or the end of your academic career, but is it really? Talk to others about your situation. When necessary, have someone from the outside (the department chair, my office in the Grad School, your GSR) explore the conflict or current barrier with your advisor. It may not be what it seems, and there may be a way past it.
  • Know when to move on. There are times when a personal conflict presents too large a barrier to work through with the usual channels, and the emotional cost to you may not be worth it (the professional cost too—as deep conflicts with your advisor will not often yield positive letters of reference, etc). Even though it feels like a set-back (and it often does involve taking some extra time in the program), changing advisors, finding a new research team, identifying a new project is sometimes the best way forward.
  • Find allies. This is tough, and you shouldn’t do it alone. Find safe people to talk to, including those you can vent with (family, peers) and those who you can strategize with (other faculty, staff, and leaders).

Optional:

  • Be transparent and direct. It may not be safe to do this, in which case, take one of the other communication routes, but it can be helpful at times to just name what you perceive from your advisor. Stating this as descriptively and non-emotionally as possible is important. Something like: “Can I run something by you? I’ve been noticing a trend with my drafts and your feedback in that it seems you are really not happy with my work. Can we talk about what I can do differently that will help me move forward? I am really motivated to finish and I want to know what steps I can take to make that happen.” Document the conversation in an email to confirm what you have heard, and that becomes a learning contract of sorts for the two of you, which you can refer back to as needed.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →