The nine types of PhD advisor (actually, I think there are a lot more than nine!). Which type is your advisor – or which type are you? (Click to see at larger size.)
But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about evaluation of advisors. It would be useful to know what type of person a prospective advisor is, and sometimes it can be hard to get a good read. Furthermore, there are some types of advisors that really don’t have pros and cons; they only have cons. They’re not shown in that comic up above, but you know what I’m talking about. The egomaniac, who will take credit for your work and will try to keep you from being first author on your own papers. The sexist pig, who will horrify and humiliate you and make your lab a living hell. The flake, who will not live up to their commitments and will make it impossible for you to progress. And so forth. How can you dodge these types of advisors?
In the present system, the best way – really the only way, unless you are an exceptional judge of character – is to talk at length with your prospective fellow grad students when your prospective advisor is not in the room. But that requires that you do an in-person visit (a lot of people wouldn’t complain about their advisor over email), and it requires some degree of trust and honesty all around (with people you probably just met that day), and it can be hard to get the advisor out of the room in a short visit – and of course the prospective advisor might be a great fit for your prospective grad students but a terrible fit for you, or vice versa.
What occurred to me just now is: why on earth doesn’t the university administration take any interest in evaluating advisors? During my undergrad, at the end of every course I took I was given an evaluation form to fill out, asking for feedback on all sorts of details about the quality of teaching I had experienced. I think that form was four pages long, and I must have filled out 30 or 40 of them. Those forms then went into the official record, and were used in tenure evaluations and departmental planning and all sorts of things. Compare that to the feedback that was asked of me regarding Andrew as an advisor: None. Nada. Zip.
Wouldn’t it make sense for such evaluations to be requested at the end of one’s time as a PhD student? Indeed, wouldn’t it make sense for annual committee meetings to be an opportunity to discuss the advisor’s performance, as well as the student’s, since both sides of the relationship need to be functional? I can see huge issues with lack of anonymity, and revenge exacted in response to negative feedback, and so forth, and so it would have to be an optional process, and perhaps the advisor themselves could never be allowed to see the results directly; it might have to be filtered and time-delayed and anonymized to provide a safe context for the student to be honest. Maybe the feedback couldn’t be given to the advisor until a few years after the student had left their lab. Nevertheless, doesn’t this seem like something that ought to happen? Such a process would let advisors who care about their performance receive suggestions and feedback from their students – feedback they are unlikely to get otherwise. It would let departments evaluate the quality of advising of their tenure-track faculty, so they could choose not to offer tenure to advisors who made their students miserable. And if these feedback forms were available online, it would provide an invaluable source of information for students trying to decide which lab to choose.
As the system works now (or fails to work, more accurately), my friend – who is not at McGill, I should state – is halfway through a PhD with an advisor with whom they are utterly incompatible. They didn’t see it coming because they were unable to get a read on their advisor’s personality ahead of time. Now they're stuck with a choice: another two years of misery, or an attempt to switch labs or even schools, or drop out and become That Guy.
Can’t we do better than this?