Jump to content
lm3481

Stay with difficult but influential mentor, or leave and lose his support

Recommended Posts

Some people say that your mentor is EVERYTHING in grad school. How important is it to stick with a big, influential name who knows and wants me, in a really bad department/school, when he seems to have some control issues that could impact our working relationship over the next 4 years?

Here is the TL;DR version for those who get frustrated by the tons of text that follow :P  :

Program A: Great metro area; low program ranking; my advisor is the big kahuna in the department and field but he has some troubling personality quirks; he's the only faculty member to work with in my dept.; I'm already set up/would not have to move; I'm already well known and respected in the department; students tend to leave with very publications; my mentor has put his name on the line for me here and would take it personally if I leave.

Program B: Excellent reputation and curriculum; very high ranking; many faculty to work with an opportunity for collaboration; no one-perfect-faculty-member-fit for me; strong methods training; would have to move and create new relationships with faculty and prove my reliability; somewhat geographically isolated but 3-hour drive to major cities; strong department culture of cohesiveness; attending would burn bridges with my current mentor.

***

I'm in my last semester of a master's program in a field at a poorly-ranked program, but with an advisor who is an influential name and who knows everybody, everywhere. (Why is such an important person at a crappy school? We're in DC, and he likes living here so that he can skip down to Capitol Hill to testify or to sit with the policymakers and come up with solutions - when they actually do that stuff.)

I came to this school specifically so I could work with him, even though he doesn't normally work with masters students. I emailed him relentlessly before and after I was admitted, and then campaigned to be let into one of his theory-based PhD-level courses in order to prove myself to him. It worked; we are now co-authors on a forthcoming paper, and he is the one who told me to apply for a PhD. He was so adamant that I do so that he put himself on our admissions committee to "ensure" that I was accepted to our doctoral program. He is my biggest advocate.

This person comes with a very particular set of difficult personal characteristics, however. As a family man, he seems unable to avoid giving into his paternal instinct with his mentees (all of whom are female). He gives unsolicited advice on our personal lives and situations, gets angry with us when we do not take his advice, and then does not seem to understand why we get upset with him. As someone with a brilliant mind and ivy pedigree, I also think he is just accustomed to being the smartest person in a room, and he really does think he know what's in our best interest better than we do. Although I believe it comes from a good place, the end result is a peculiar kind of toxicity: I admire him, but I am 'afraid' of him in that I know better than to cross him, and I am reluctant to pitch my research ideas because so few are 'good enough' for him to support.

I got into my home institution, of course, but I have another offer that is at an objectively better institution (he didn't want to write me a LoR, but eventually did. Whole other story). If I take my current advisor out of the equation, I pick the other school in a heart-beat. But given this person's reputation, prestige within our field, nearly identical interests to mine, and the fact that he has personally invested so much in me so far - I'm reluctant to leave him. This week I told him I was leaning toward leaving, and we spent an hour arguing, as he was certain I would be "making a huge mistake" if I leave. He said he would take me off all of our current projects if I do go, and he said, "I feel like I'm giving you the keys to a Ferrari, and you just want to go drive a Mercedes ."

Funding is basically the same at both schools, but there is a big difference in the cost of living in DC vs. NY state.

Here is some information about these two programs.

Program A: At my current school, in DC.

It has a fairly low ranking (21/32).

My mentor's pros/cons I detailed above.

The department is poorly organized, no one in it likes each other, and only 2-3 people actively publish (there are a TON of coasters). The doctoral students report no sense of community within cohorts or within the department, and several have complained of a kind of boys club mentality (no tenured women faculty, the rare male student is empowered and the female students are discouraged from doing innovative work). There are 3 academic tracks, and mine is the smallest and most devalued. In fact, my mentor is the only professor that teaches in it. That means that he is the only person with whom I could collaborate, and the only one to have on my comp and dissertation committees. The department doesn't permit us to invite people from outside institutions, or even from other departments within the school. When I have requested they hire more faculty for my track, they say it might be possible in 2-3 years. We have notoriously poor methods training. We are located in DC, however, so that opens up certain professional opportunities, and means that we can meet many of the fancy speakers who come to the school.

Doctoral students generally graduate with only 1-2 publications, usually co-authored with faculty or another student, and they have been described to me as "solo missions" without much/any support from the department. Graduates who work with MY advisor are generally well-placed into academic positions; however, the other grads tend to go into government, non-profits, or else I have no idea where.

 

Program B: Located in upstate NY; no national name recognition (school itself is considered middling overall, but my program is their star jewel.)

It has a high ranking (consistently 2/32).

Out of the faculty of 16, there are 10 who share overlapping interests with me. No one person is a perfect "fit", but, the department is very big on the whole "it takes a department to raise a PhD student." You don't work on your advisor's work so much as that person guides you to figure out the logisitics of projects YOU want to lead, and then gives you advice on how to accomplish it. It's a highly collaborative department - everyone works with one another: faculty-faculty, faculty-student, student-student. There is a strong culture of inclusiveness, very high productivity, and teamwork. Everyone publishes constantly, and the school houses two of the top journals in our field. The faculty is 1/3 women, most of whom are tenured. Students tend to graduate with anywhere from 4-10 publications, depending on how hard they push themselves. Graduates are generally well-placed.

There are also unsubstantiated whisperings that there were sexual harrassment issues in the past. When I have asked their current female students directly, though, they claim to know nothing about it. It could be just a rumor, or it could be something that happened years ago and was dealt with.

My main reason for wanting to go there - aside from the strong sense of community they create - is their incredible methods program. They are very strong in quant, and invest in making sure that their grads are, too. They also offer other types of research methodology training. I believe I would emerge from their program a much stronger researcher, overall.

As my current mentor points out, though, I would be starting from zero there and would have to "prove myself" to the faculty all over again. It's also upstate NY, which means lots of cold and snow, but also, the Adirondacks, and proximity to other lovely places like Vermont, Boston, NYC, Montreal, etc. There is the issue of the frigid cold and snow, but I'm originally from Chicago, and I could tough it out again. Cost of living is very decent there, though, and I could comfortably live alone on the stipend - whereas in DC, I would likely continue living in a group house situation (which I am loathe to do).

Most significantly, for me, going to Program B would likely mean that my mentor would cut off any possibilities of future collaboration between us, and I'd be severed from our current projects. It would feel like a great personal blow to lose him. For all of his faults (and everyone has some), I like him personally, and I wouldn't have come this far without his encouragement and mentorship. I don't want him to feel that he invested all of this in me for no personal ROI.

***

I'm trying to talk to him again this week to see if he would walk back this whole 'punishment' thing (my word, based on how it feels). He did send me a note of apology after our uncomfortable talk, so I think we may be on the verge of negotiating a detente. However, there is only one week left to decide, so... figuring this out needs to happen ASAP!

 

Thanks for any feedback/ideas!

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
25 minutes ago, lm3481 said:

Some people say that your mentor is EVERYTHING in grad school. How important is it to stick with a big, influential name who knows and wants me, in a really bad department/school, when he seems to have some control issues that could impact our working relationship over the next 4 years?

Here is the TL;DR version for those who get frustrated by the tons of text that follow :P  :

Program A: Great metro area; low program ranking; my advisor is the big kahuna in the department and field but he has some troubling personality quirks; he's the only faculty member to work with in my dept.; I'm already set up/would not have to move; I'm already well known and respected in the department; students tend to leave with very publications; my mentor has put his name on the line for me here and would take it personally if I leave.

Program B: Excellent reputation and curriculum; very high ranking; many faculty to work with an opportunity for collaboration; no one-perfect-faculty-member-fit for me; strong methods training; would have to move and create new relationships with faculty and prove my reliability; somewhat geographically isolated but 3-hour drive to major cities; strong department culture of cohesiveness; attending would burn bridges with my current mentor.

***

I'm in my last semester of a master's program in a field at a poorly-ranked program, but with an advisor who is an influential name and who knows everybody, everywhere. (Why is such an important person at a crappy school? We're in DC, and he likes living here so that he can skip down to Capitol Hill to testify or to sit with the policymakers and come up with solutions - when they actually do that stuff.)

I came to this school specifically so I could work with him, even though he doesn't normally work with masters students. I emailed him relentlessly before and after I was admitted, and then campaigned to be let into one of his theory-based PhD-level courses in order to prove myself to him. It worked; we are now co-authors on a forthcoming paper, and he is the one who told me to apply for a PhD. He was so adamant that I do so that he put himself on our admissions committee to "ensure" that I was accepted to our doctoral program. He is my biggest advocate.

This person comes with a very particular set of difficult personal characteristics, however. As a family man, he seems unable to avoid giving into his paternal instinct with his mentees (all of whom are female). He gives unsolicited advice on our personal lives and situations, gets angry with us when we do not take his advice, and then does not seem to understand why we get upset with him. As someone with a brilliant mind and ivy pedigree, I also think he is just accustomed to being the smartest person in a room, and he really does think he know what's in our best interest better than we do. Although I believe it comes from a good place, the end result is a peculiar kind of toxicity: I admire him, but I am 'afraid' of him in that I know better than to cross him, and I am reluctant to pitch my research ideas because so few are 'good enough' for him to support.

I got into my home institution, of course, but I have another offer that is at an objectively better institution (he didn't want to write me a LoR, but eventually did. Whole other story). If I take my current advisor out of the equation, I pick the other school in a heart-beat. But given this person's reputation, prestige within our field, nearly identical interests to mine, and the fact that he has personally invested so much in me so far - I'm reluctant to leave him. This week I told him I was leaning toward leaving, and we spent an hour arguing, as he was certain I would be "making a huge mistake" if I leave. He said he would take me off all of our current projects if I do go, and he said, "I feel like I'm giving you the keys to a Ferrari, and you just want to go drive a Mercedes ."

Funding is basically the same at both schools, but there is a big difference in the cost of living in DC vs. NY state.

Here is some information about these two programs.

Program A: At my current school, in DC.

It has a fairly low ranking (21/32).

My mentor's pros/cons I detailed above.

The department is poorly organized, no one in it likes each other, and only 2-3 people actively publish (there are a TON of coasters). The doctoral students report no sense of community within cohorts or within the department, and several have complained of a kind of boys club mentality (no tenured women faculty, the rare male student is empowered and the female students are discouraged from doing innovative work). There are 3 academic tracks, and mine is the smallest and most devalued. In fact, my mentor is the only professor that teaches in it. That means that he is the only person with whom I could collaborate, and the only one to have on my comp and dissertation committees. The department doesn't permit us to invite people from outside institutions, or even from other departments within the school. When I have requested they hire more faculty for my track, they say it might be possible in 2-3 years. We have notoriously poor methods training. We are located in DC, however, so that opens up certain professional opportunities, and means that we can meet many of the fancy speakers who come to the school.

Doctoral students generally graduate with only 1-2 publications, usually co-authored with faculty or another student, and they have been described to me as "solo missions" without much/any support from the department. Graduates who work with MY advisor are generally well-placed into academic positions; however, the other grads tend to go into government, non-profits, or else I have no idea where.

 

Program B: Located in upstate NY; no national name recognition (school itself is considered middling overall, but my program is their star jewel.)

It has a high ranking (consistently 2/32).

Out of the faculty of 16, there are 10 who share overlapping interests with me. No one person is a perfect "fit", but, the department is very big on the whole "it takes a department to raise a PhD student." You don't work on your advisor's work so much as that person guides you to figure out the logisitics of projects YOU want to lead, and then gives you advice on how to accomplish it. It's a highly collaborative department - everyone works with one another: faculty-faculty, faculty-student, student-student. There is a strong culture of inclusiveness, very high productivity, and teamwork. Everyone publishes constantly, and the school houses two of the top journals in our field. The faculty is 1/3 women, most of whom are tenured. Students tend to graduate with anywhere from 4-10 publications, depending on how hard they push themselves. Graduates are generally well-placed.

There are also unsubstantiated whisperings that there were sexual harrassment issues in the past. When I have asked their current female students directly, though, they claim to know nothing about it. It could be just a rumor, or it could be something that happened years ago and was dealt with.

My main reason for wanting to go there - aside from the strong sense of community they create - is their incredible methods program. They are very strong in quant, and invest in making sure that their grads are, too. They also offer other types of research methodology training. I believe I would emerge from their program a much stronger researcher, overall.

As my current mentor points out, though, I would be starting from zero there and would have to "prove myself" to the faculty all over again. It's also upstate NY, which means lots of cold and snow, but also, the Adirondacks, and proximity to other lovely places like Vermont, Boston, NYC, Montreal, etc. There is the issue of the frigid cold and snow, but I'm originally from Chicago, and I could tough it out again. Cost of living is very decent there, though, and I could comfortably live alone on the stipend - whereas in DC, I would likely continue living in a group house situation (which I am loathe to do).

Most significantly, for me, going to Program B would likely mean that my mentor would cut off any possibilities of future collaboration between us, and I'd be severed from our current projects. It would feel like a great personal blow to lose him. For all of his faults (and everyone has some), I like him personally, and I wouldn't have come this far without his encouragement and mentorship. I don't want him to feel that he invested all of this in me for no personal ROI.

***

I'm trying to talk to him again this week to see if he would walk back this whole 'punishment' thing (my word, based on how it feels). He did send me a note of apology after our uncomfortable talk, so I think we may be on the verge of negotiating a detente. However, there is only one week left to decide, so... figuring this out needs to happen ASAP!

 

Thanks for any feedback/ideas!

 

Oof. I don't know that many people would recommend you stay with the DC school. Working towards with a constant background level of fear is just not healthy. 

Just make sure that the grass is actually greener at Syracuse. I switched programs going from MS to PhD. Now the reason for my switch had nothing to do with any unhappiness about with my MS institution. However, I did notice that my impression of my PhD school came back down to earth after 8 months on the job. I am happy with my choice, but it wasn't all it was billed to be. Thankfully, I fully expected this to happen. 

Also, don't fall into the rankings trap. Small differences in actual program reputation (3.7 vs. 4.0) on US News' scale might translate into a huge difference in ordinal ranking (#15 vs. #30). Just make sure #2 vs. #21 really translates into a meaningful difference in program perception.

Good luck with a difficult situation. I think I would leave if I were in your shoes, but that is easier said than done.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, lm3481 said:

This week I told him I was leaning toward leaving, and we spent an hour arguing, as he was certain I would be "making a huge mistake" if I leave. He said he would take me off all of our current projects if I do go, and he said, "I feel like I'm giving you the keys to a Ferrari, and you just want to go drive a Mercedes ."

This is VERY concerning. I would not want to work with this person for four more years. While it is nice that he wants you to stay so badly, the fact that he is low-key threatening you if you don't stay at the school/is going to be detrimental towards your career is the most telling part of all of this. I know you like this person but no professor should take the fact that you want to go to a much better program so personally that they're going to remove you from working with them. 

I would let the other program know that I was accepting their offer like....yesterday. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@lm3481 Your current advisor has threatened you with retaliation after you asked him his opinion about this. This is especially obscene for him to do because school B really does have benefits that school A does not offer. For example, at School B, you could form a functional committee, something School A actively prohibits you from doing. (Which is ASTONISHING.) 

That leads me to the question: if you choose to stay with this advisor for your PhD, are you really confident, given his behavior so far, that you can get through four or five years of working with him without doing anything that offends him so much that he cuts you off?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Honestly? I would go to the other school. And, I would patiently explain once (twice max) to your current advisor that you have decided to attend School B for its ranking and because "academic incest" is considered undesirable on the job market. I would also express my desires to continue to collaborate and work on projects together in the future, along with thanking them for helping you gain this acceptance and wonderful opportunity. And then I wouldn't look back. Because my guess is that you can find other former students of this advisor who had a similar experience and that other current students will be glad to see that someone stood up to this form of bullying and intimidation.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
21 hours ago, hats said:

@lm3481 Your current advisor has threatened you with retaliation after you asked him his opinion about this. This is especially obscene for him to do because school B really does have benefits that school A does not offer. For example, at School B, you could form a functional committee, something School A actively prohibits you from doing. (Which is ASTONISHING.) 

That leads me to the question: if you choose to stay with this advisor for your PhD, are you really confident, given his behavior so far, that you can get through four or five years of working with him without doing anything that offends him so much that he cuts you off?

Srsly. Your career trajectory is at the whim of a very unstable-sounding individual. You need to be somewhere where there is an academic support infrastructure independent of your advisor.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree with the above posters. I also wonder if you have anyone else in your department that you could speak to about this such as a dean of students/graduate director because regardless of choice you should be able to complete your current porjects while at the school. Also, if he has to pass your thesis/etc and has this unfair bias someone else should be made aware so you can still graduate.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This sounds like a bad situation, and I strongly encourage you to get out and take the other great offer. Yes, this guy is famous; but I'm willing to bet that his interpersonal reputation precedes him, as well. He may make noise about trying to damage your credibility in the field, but if others know of his egoistic and manipulative style, they likely won't give his criticisms much weight. I think it is a much better option for you to escape this abusive advisor relationship and forge a genuine connection with a mentor who will actually care about your needs as a trainee.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4/7/2018 at 11:09 AM, lm3481 said:

my mentor has put his name on the line for me here and would take it personally if I leave

If I'm being honest, I think you know the answer to your question but you're looking for validation. And that's fair! It seems like if you chose Program A, it would be because of how your mentor feels, not how you feel. When it comes down to it, this is your life and your future and your career on the line here. You will be much better off if you're in a program that is set up to help you succeed, which it seems like Program B is. Your current mentor seems intimidating and also a bit of a bully and I get that you might be afraid to burn that bridge. That being said, I'm almost 100% sure his "personality quirks" are known to others within the field, including maybe some of your potential mentors at Program B, and if you ever find yourself having to explain why there is bad blood between you and this mentor, I think people would understand. Threatening to take you off your current projects is petty and vindictive and you say he is your biggest advocate but everything else in your post indicates that he doesn't care about what's best for you at all. It's going to be awkward and somewhat painful, but you will be so much better off at Program B.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Coming here to also chime in: Don't attend program A. You've listed all the warning signs of a terrible mentor-student relationship and like others have said: you're in his good books now, but what about later? How long are you willing to have to put aside making your own decisions to please this guy? Eventually, inevitably, there will be something that you want to do that will upset this guy and burn bridges. It sounds like whether the bridge is burnt now or later will make no difference to him (i.e. he's not going to be any happier with you later than now) but you would have already invested all this time doing what he wanted. So I'd say it's better to cut him off now, than later.

In addition, I feel like this guy is super creepy/sleazy/unethical/manipulative. Getting himself on the admissions committee so he can let you in? Telling you this? Making you feel like you "owe" him your admissions and your success? Say no to that. You don't owe him anything. You say that he put his name on the line at your home dept to get you in, but he didn't really do it for you. He did it for himself. Committees are supposed to act in the best interests of the department, but he forced his way onto the admissions committee to get what *he* wanted. He told you that he did all of this for you, in order to make you feel like you need to do what *he* wanted. 

No wonder the rest of the department does not get along with him. He sounds like a terrible colleague and an even worse mentor/supervisor. If you can be happy at School B, go there! You don't have to do anything to actively burn the bridge with this guy---remain friendly and keep communication open but don't do favours for him or anything. If he wants to cut you off, then I think you might actually be better off. After your PhD program, you won't need his letter and from the way he acts, I would not be surprised if everyone knows what kind of person he is.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.