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wannabescientist

Switching advisors at a later stage in the dissertation process

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I'm currently in a bit of a dilemma that has been making me really anxious. First of all, I'm in the prospectus stage of my dissertation/phd program and in a real rut right now; the stress, the anxiety, the toxicity  is mind numbing and I'm at a stage where I just want to complete my degree. However, as I get my committee together, I already have three confirmed members (we only need a minimum of three). the fourth person is who I have a question about. They were the main reason I came to this program but since starting, they have been completely unhelpful: not responding when I email; not providing recommendation letters, not leveraging their connections when I went to the field (so much I had to seek out another mentor) and being very discouraging. No matter what my idea is, this person would thwart it.  So a bad advisor. I made peace with the fact that they would not be my advisor but kept them on as a "committee member" or "mentor". But I am reconsidering now. I do not want this person on my committee anymore, but I dont know how to handle this. It's such a small department that not having this person on my committee would be very conspicuous (which is why I kept holding on anyway). Both within the department and even to outsiders, since their work bares the most semblance to mine ( they are the only one doing anything closely related to mine in the program).  Also, I had already started sending them drafts and even told them they were a committee member. This person is just so incredibly toxic, everyone in the program knows this and students run away from them.. In the past, they have badmouthed a former phd student to a potential employer. But mostly, they only care about their own work and not any student. Their comments on your work can be disparaging and the peace that comes with them off my committee would be exhilarating. Yet, I just don't know how to tell them I don't want them on my committee anymore. Honestly, I'm not even too worried about them badmouthing me, since at this point, I don't want any part of academia anymore so that's fine with me. But how do I deal with a.) telling them? b.) With staying on in the program after what would definitely be a broken relationship? It also doesn't help that I am the least confrontational person. 

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This is unfortunate but not as uncommon as you would expect. I know quite a few people who came to our university and ended up with a toxic advisor. Some trudged through, some switched advisors early, and some switched pretty late. I also had an advisor who I wouldn't describe as toxic, but I would definitely say that she was not entirely supportive and was a terrible communicator. I was especially frustrated with two things: 1) she frequently backtracked on things she said to me and I was perpetually confused about what I was doing because she kept changing her mind, and 2) her feedback on anything written was extremely generic and would require lots of going back and forth to determine what was the problem. I ended up getting a new advisor at the end of my third year, but thankfully this hasn't affected my research or time to completion trajectory.

You are in a somewhat better position in that this person isn't actually your advisor, but instead is an unofficial committee member. There are a number of options for you, some better than others:

1. You can tell them that you have enough members on your committee and won't need them after all and thank them for their time helping you. Since they haven't signed off on anything, it's not like they can do anything to you to hinder your progress, and this can be done by email if you want to. Just be polite and don't place blame.

2. You also have the option of ghosting them. It's rude and would reflect poorly on you, but if you really can't stomach telling them that they're off the committee, it is always an option to just stop communicating with them.

3. You can keep them on the committee and ignore the unhelpful comments. Not all committee members have to contribute equally. Ideally, your advisor should be mentoring you and helping you the most, while the other committee members can vary in what they bring to the table. A good committee will be made of up people who can all contribute to your development as a researcher and advise you on your research, but that's not always the case, particularly if you are in a small department with faculty of a wide diversity of backgrounds.

Since your department is small, I imagine it might feel awkward to be around this person after telling them that you don't need them on your committee anymore. However, if you've been polite, there's no reason for hostility, and it may be that this person would actually be happy to be off your committee. The only real negative I can see is that not having someone with research experience in your area on your committee might make it harder to get an academic job, but since you aren't interested in academia, you don't need to worry about that.

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I wonder if there's a way to say something like, "although I would love to have your expertise, I've been advised not to have more than 4 members on my committee because it can be hard to reach consensus with larger committees. I hope you know that I value your mentoring thus far, and would still be honored to talk with you about my work should you have the time, but I do not want to obligate you to be a superfluous committee member."

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