Jump to content

Pros and cons of controversial advisors


HyacinthMacaw

Recommended Posts

Hey folks,

Hope everyone is doing reasonably OK. I've been thinking about how an advisor who has done work to advance some controversial theory and earned enemies in the field can both promote and hinder your success. I mean, it's inevitable as social psychologists to take theoretical positions on controversial academic issues, but I get the impression that some people and theories simply rankle a few nerves more than others.

Perhaps a controversial advisor is inherently prominent, or at least has won the respect of his or her peers to publish widely. So having a such an advisor can earn you a second look when applying for jobs. On the other hand, I can imagine that it's easy for people in the field to stereotype you and develop preconceptions that they can't easily surrender. For instance, every time I give a talk at a conference, I wouldn't want to preface everything I say with "I worked under Professor X but don't agree with him/her 100% on every issue." Similarly, I wouldn't want to spend most of the Q&A defending my advisor's theory rather than fielding comments about the study I've presented.

Even if there is flexibility within a doctoral program to pursue projects that have not been spearheaded for the sole purpose of lending support for a particular theory, somehow I feel that having a controversial advisor can haunt someone for years. After all, what if someone who disagrees with my advisor's controversial theory is reviewing the manuscripts I submit for publication? It's not inconceivable that theoretical adversaries have rejected each other's work, that being embroiled in such disputes can halt publication rates to a trickle.

In my area, intergroup relations, I can think of at least a half-dozen controversial theories and their major proponents. Feel free to add to this list. What do you all think about the advantages and disadvantages of advisors who have courted controversy but nevertheless have stature in the field?

Stereotype content model - Susan Fiske

Social dominance theory - Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto

System justification - John Jost, Aaron Kay

Decategorization - Norman Miller and Marilynn Brewer

Superordinate categorization - Jack Dovidio and Sam Gaertner

Stereotype accuracy - Lee Jussim

Realistic group conflict theory - John Levine, others

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You missed one that, in my mind, is the best example: Terror Management Theory. The original group (Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski) and their students (e.g., Landau, Arndt, Sullivan, Schimel) are exceptionally prolific, influential, and well-known... but some of them (definitely not all) have have a reputation for being a wee bit hostile to those outside the TMT camp. I think it's something that happens when you've spent years having to fight for your theory's acceptance.

There's also Roy Baumeister, who doesn't have a specific theory that's controversial, but rather likes seeking it out in many areas (e.g., self-esteem, gender relations).

To get back to your original question, my advisor is actually one of those people you listed. I think it's exceptionally important to differentiate yourself from your advisor's work. Otherwise you're known as just another TMT (or SDO...) researcher. This true with any advisor, but might be especially important when one's advisor is well-known and controversial.

There are also ways writing diplomatically, and I think my advisor is especially good at this. You acknowledge the work of your peers even while pointing out its limitations. Acknowledge that their theory might be right in some circumstances, while then going on to describe the circumstances where your theory is more right. Some people won't take ANY kind of criticism, but it can often be done in a way that doesn't seem belligerent.

Put simply, write so that potentially hostile reviewers become friendly ones.

There are also practical steps, such as requesting that certain people not be your peer reviewers. Advisors who seek perpetually seek controversy should be familiar with these ;)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't really think those are controversial theories begin with, but the only danger to me seems that a student might get caught up in his advisors theory and not think for himself and grow on his/her own

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The best pro of all:

When you don't get the job you want, you already have a reason outside of yourself to shift the blame.

I heard people are really good at this and even prefer to set themselves up into situations where they have an easy blame-shifting out, even when this set up actually hurts their chances. ;)

But seriously, if they are doing work you like and if you could see yourself being able to put up with them for 5 years and if they have a strong placement record (always ask about placement records!!!), then go for it!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You missed one that, in my mind, is the best example: Terror Management Theory. The original group (Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski) and their students (e.g., Landau, Arndt, Sullivan, Schimel) are exceptionally prolific, influential, and well-known... but some of them (definitely not all) have have a reputation for being a wee bit hostile to those outside the TMT camp. I think it's something that happens when you've spent years having to fight for your theory's acceptance.

There's also Roy Baumeister, who doesn't have a specific theory that's controversial, but rather likes seeking it out in many areas (e.g., self-esteem, gender relations).

To get back to your original question, my advisor is actually one of those people you listed. I think it's exceptionally important to differentiate yourself from your advisor's work. Otherwise you're known as just another TMT (or SDO...) researcher. This true with any advisor, but might be especially important when one's advisor is well-known and controversial.

There are also ways writing diplomatically, and I think my advisor is especially good at this. You acknowledge the work of your peers even while pointing out its limitations. Acknowledge that their theory might be right in some circumstances, while then going on to describe the circumstances where your theory is more right. Some people won't take ANY kind of criticism, but it can often be done in a way that doesn't seem belligerent.

Put simply, write so that potentially hostile reviewers become friendly ones.

There are also practical steps, such as requesting that certain people not be your peer reviewers. Advisors who seek perpetually seek controversy should be familiar with these ;)

Thanks for bringing up TMT, which I neglected to mention. I can see that working under the tutelage of a controversial advisor does not necessarily wed you to his or her theory 100 percent. Some assertive but diplomatic differentiation--or self-definition--seems prudent. I imagine some degree of flexibility would be desirable within these programs. I wonder, however, if that becomes more challenging when it comes to ambitious theoretical frameworks such as social dominance. Virtually any intergroup phenomenon can be analyzed through the lens of hierarchical power structures (e.g., stereotypes as legitimizing myths that enhance hierarchies).

So how much should I agree with a controversial theory before signing on to work with one of its proponents? This is where I'm having trouble. The theory already appeals to me--this is why I applied--but I suspect that my advisor would expect me to endorse at least the core principles of his or her theory, if not most of it. And at this stage in my career I'm not sure I'm prepared to confine myself to a theoretical framework like that.

By the way, the theories I mentioned don't all have adversarial relationships with each other, at least as far as I can tell, and I'm sorry I didn't make that clear. The stereotype content model folks and stereotype accuracy folks disagree on some fundamental issues, but I don't believe they argue with anyone else. The decategorization and superordinate categorization camps primarily battle one another.

Thanks for your input, and all the best!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for bringing up TMT, which I neglected to mention. I can see that working under the tutelage of a controversial advisor does not necessarily wed you to his or her theory 100 percent. Some assertive but diplomatic differentiation--or self-definition--seems prudent. I imagine some degree of flexibility would be desirable within these programs. I wonder, however, if that becomes more challenging when it comes to ambitious theoretical frameworks such as social dominance. Virtually any intergroup phenomenon can be analyzed through the lens of hierarchical power structures (e.g., stereotypes as legitimizing myths that enhance hierarchies).

So how much should I agree with a controversial theory before signing on to work with one of its proponents? This is where I'm having trouble. The theory already appeals to me--this is why I applied--but I suspect that my advisor would expect me to endorse at least the core principles of his or her theory, if not most of it. And at this stage in my career I'm not sure I'm prepared to confine myself to a theoretical framework like that.

By the way, the theories I mentioned don't all have adversarial relationships with each other, at least as far as I can tell, and I'm sorry I didn't make that clear. The stereotype content model folks and stereotype accuracy folks disagree on some fundamental issues, but I don't believe they argue with anyone else. The decategorization and superordinate categorization camps primarily battle one another.

Thanks for your input, and all the best!

The answer is: It depends. I work with an advisor who's put forth a controversial theory (with multiple adversarial theorists at odds with him). He welcomes challenges to the theory, and feels it's just part of good science. But, we've heard through the grapevine that students under other theoretical camps do not fare as well. A good way to ascertain which one a POI is would be to ask what current grad students are doing (or not doing) when visiting schools.

Edited by socialpsychg
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Look at what your potential advisor's past/current students are doing. Have the current students published? If so, where/what? (What is particularly important if you don't necessarily agree 100% with your advisor's stance - I have heard of people not letting their students publish in such situations.) Where did the past students get jobs? One con of having a controversial advisor can be that it's a "niche" and that you will only get jobs in certain departments... but that can also be a pro, as well, because it means fewer people are "qualified" for jobs in those departments.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Look at what your potential advisor's past/current students are doing. Have the current students published? If so, where/what? (What is particularly important if you don't necessarily agree 100% with your advisor's stance - I have heard of people not letting their students publish in such situations.) Where did the past students get jobs? One con of having a controversial advisor can be that it's a "niche" and that you will only get jobs in certain departments... but that can also be a pro, as well, because it means fewer people are "qualified" for jobs in those departments.

Thanks, that seems like wise advice. A professor who suppresses research that exposes the limitations of his/her theory does not strike me as someone with whom I would like to work for 5+ years, no matter how ambitious or appealing the theory may be.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for bringing up TMT, which I neglected to mention. I can see that working under the tutelage of a controversial advisor does not necessarily wed you to his or her theory 100 percent. Some assertive but diplomatic differentiation--or self-definition--seems prudent. I imagine some degree of flexibility would be desirable within these programs. I wonder, however, if that becomes more challenging when it comes to ambitious theoretical frameworks such as social dominance. Virtually any intergroup phenomenon can be analyzed through the lens of hierarchical power structures (e.g., stereotypes as legitimizing myths that enhance hierarchies).

So how much should I agree with a controversial theory before signing on to work with one of its proponents? This is where I'm having trouble. The theory already appeals to me--this is why I applied--but I suspect that my advisor would expect me to endorse at least the core principles of his or her theory, if not most of it. And at this stage in my career I'm not sure I'm prepared to confine myself to a theoretical framework like that.

By the way, the theories I mentioned don't all have adversarial relationships with each other, at least as far as I can tell, and I'm sorry I didn't make that clear. The stereotype content model folks and stereotype accuracy folks disagree on some fundamental issues, but I don't believe they argue with anyone else. The decategorization and superordinate categorization camps primarily battle one another.

Thanks for your input, and all the best!

I think you're right that "ambitious" theories tend to butt heads with others more often. Any time one tries to argue that it's ALL about something (death, dominance, the unconscious, meaning-maintenance), people will take exception because one explanation often precludes another. Being really strident is one strategy that can get one well-known. Another strategy is to be more circumspect and be careful to write things like "Our theory predicts X in this circumstance..." while acknowledging that other theories predict different things in different circumstances.

The advice above, about seeing what other advisees do, is also wise.

After being accepted, you could ask your future advisor about this. Like, what would he/she expect you to work on? Where do they see the theory developing?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think you're right that "ambitious" theories tend to butt heads with others more often. Any time one tries to argue that it's ALL about something (death, dominance, the unconscious, meaning-maintenance), people will take exception because one explanation often precludes another. Being really strident is one strategy that can get one well-known. Another strategy is to be more circumspect and be careful to write things like "Our theory predicts X in this circumstance..." while acknowledging that other theories predict different things in different circumstances.

The advice above, about seeing what other advisees do, is also wise.

After being accepted, you could ask your future advisor about this. Like, what would he/she expect you to work on? Where do they see the theory developing?

Thanks, that seems like the perfectly sensible thing to do. I would hope that my mentor doesn't expect that I become some hired gun, so to speak, a cookie-cutter acolyte who assumes the business of generating evidence to corroborate the theory.

This begs another question, though: How much influence are you OK to afford your mentor in shaping your work and future, and when does that influence become coercive? I guess it's just a personal preference--but even for people inclined to hierarchical apprenticeship models, I would be wary of advisors who "spoonfeed" (to use a pejorative term) ideas, materials, and unfinished data sets as long as your goal is to become an independent researcher.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks, that seems like the perfectly sensible thing to do. I would hope that my mentor doesn't expect that I become some hired gun, so to speak, a cookie-cutter acolyte who assumes the business of generating evidence to corroborate the theory.

This begs another question, though: How much influence are you OK to afford your mentor in shaping your work and future, and when does that influence become coercive? I guess it's just a personal preference--but even for people inclined to hierarchical apprenticeship models, I would be wary of advisors who "spoonfeed" (to use a pejorative term) ideas, materials, and unfinished data sets as long as your goal is to become an independent researcher.

A metaphor may be apt here. Mentorship in social psychology is like working in a garden. At first, you'll work in your advisor's garden, tending to his plants. He'll help you figure out how to plant things just right, how to bring them to fruition, etc. After you've gained enough experience working with him, you'll go and start you own plot.

To put this in more concrete terms. You get into graduate school, and you sign on to work with one of your advisor's projects (or one of his ideas). Over the course of your first year or two, you'll also develop your own ideas about what you want to do - most research ideas will be bad, so it may take time before you land on something worth pursuing. Some people start off with their own research ideas right away, while some begin later. It's usually the case that you'll start with at least one project directly from your advisor, though.

Depending on how collaborative your dept is, greater or lesser amounts of swaying away from the main research interest is okay. I'm in a very collaborative department, and they're much more open here for me to pursue divergent interests than at other schools, where it's more often an 1 student:1 advisor model.

Link to comment
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
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use