Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 19: 

My thesis adviser is more of an obstacle than an aid.”

A student once volunteered that he was having trouble writing because “my advisor is the anti-Christ.”

For some odd reason, of all the negative feelings about writing that students have voiced in my courses, this one got the hugest response. People burst out laughing. Perhaps it was nervous laughter rather than sympathetic laughter, but the truth remains that a hypercritical mentor is a real obstacle. This is especially the case if you must work closely with him or her on the article you are revising for the workbook.

If you are in this situation, you have several choices.

Ask for Time

If your adviser’s criticism is shutting you down, and preventing you from writing, try telling your adviser that research shows that when drafting an article it is a good idea to focus on what is working rather than what is not working. Add that you would like the space to develop your project without too much detailed feedback and that when you are done with a second draft you will welcome all of your adviser’s comments, negative and positive.

If your adviser argues that he or she is just trying to head you off at the pass, before you dedicate too much work to an errant direction, state that you are happy to revise when the time comes and to throw out sections if need be. This technique is risky, because your adviser may be even more critical if he or she has not had the opportunity to be so early on.

But, since you will have had more time to develop your ideas, and defend them on paper, your direction may seem more palatable than it would have in an early draft. Professors can describe as wrong or untenable those ideas that you simply have not yet fully defended. Once you marshal more proofs, their objection fades.

Switch Advisers

If a rational conversation like this is not possible, consider switching advisers. While not common, such a move is not rare either. There is nothing wrong with letting an adviser know that you think you would both be happier working with others. After all, you are freeing up their time. There is no need to say specifically why or to offer the professor a critique of his or her advising style. Just focus on moving on. Of course, make sure you have found another professor who is willing to be your adviser before you take this step. 

Report Adviser

If your adviser is truly abusive, then you might consider reporting them after you switch (not before). You can tell your chair or the graduate school or an ombudsperson. Many graduate students are reluctant to do so, as abusive advisers are often vindictive too. This power dynamic is why certain faculty continue to steal their graduate students’ ideas, take credit for their work, have them do their babysitting and dry cleaning, or sexually harass them. If you really can’t afford to report them now, do vow to yourself that if you get tenure, you will do so.

Get in a Support Group

If none of the above is possible, make sure to have some arena where you go for responses that are more positive. I recommend a writing group that focuses on offering support and encouragement. Feel free to tell the group that you are getting all the negative feedback you can handle and you would be grateful if they would focus on the positive.

Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 19, one of the human obstacles listed on page 32 of Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (University of Chicago Press, 2019).