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Want to quit program because of advisor

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I am in a grad program at the same university where I got my bachelor's. My advisor is my former and current professor. As an undergrad, I disappointed him by not attending a writing competition in another state. (I couldn't afford to go). As a result, rumors circulated in the department about my reliability. It's true that I turned down the competition, but the rumors included disparaging remarks about my personality as well as out-and-out lies about my behavior.  When I applied for graduate school I suspect I  was turned down based on these rumors.  Fortunately, one of the other applicants  declined admission and I was asked to take her place. I had to interview before I was accepted--which is not ordinarily part of the process. (My p/a addressed these rumors in an email before the interview.) At the interview, my p/a  seemed reluctant to allow me into the program. Fortunately, another professor supported me, and I was accepted. Since then, I can't seem to please my p/a. My work has been published nationally in periodicals, and another of my pieces was published by a major  publishing house. I was an arts critic for a small community newspaper and a reporter for the university's paper. Yet he says that my work isn't "graduate level." Honestly, the students in my cohort are not producing work that's any better than mine, yet they get better grades (and more TA-ships!). I told one of my cohorts about my B- grade  and he was genuinely surprised and suggested I go over the p/a's head.


My last complaint: I wanted to take a class offered by our state's poet laureate. I was given permission by the poet, but not by my p/a. He told me I have to take another (required) class that's offered at the same time. This required class is offered every semester. Whenever I ask him for permission to take an elective class, he says, "Is that going to help you write?" I've told him that I don't know how to choose acceptable electives and he just laughed. I could go on and on about how he plays favorites, but that would be petty and boring.


Anyway, I am really hating school now. I have until the 28th to drop out and still get a full refund.Getting this degree was my dream. But maybe I can get it somewhere else?  Any advice would be appreciated. Am I just being a big baby or do I have a legitimate complaint? Help!

Edited by miss sisyphus
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It sounds like you have a legitimate complaint. He should never laugh at you when you bring him a problem. That's humiliation, which is harassment, which universities take seriously. He says you aren't writing at the graduate level, but did he explain why? Did he have a constructive response when you asked? You asked a fellow student, but you can't get reliable feedback because people don't want to hurt other people and will offer solidarity rather than criticism. You should not go over your p/a's head. You should, instead, take it directly to him. Don't take him complaints, but rather ask for suggestions to improve. He wants you to take a required course rather than the poet laureate's course (unless you're getting an MFA in poetry, I don't see how he's wrong here). His reply is a good one for a university student: is it going to help you write? If you think so, you should not only say so, but explain how and why. Yes, because Poet's work focuses on compressed narrative, imagery, and accented prosody, which is where I need work with my writing. While you have to have him sign off on courses you take--your candidacy is his responsibility--you aren't exactly asking for permission. You're a graduate student, so you should have looked at the course offerings, your requirements for candidacy, your interests, and your weaknesses in scholarship before you ever went to his office for advising. If you want a specific course, you should have reasons beyond who is teaching it. He's told you what he wants to know: is it going to help you write? So you should be able to answer the question. It's not about picking interesting classes, it's about selecting classes that will improve you and will help your job prospects. If he's right about your level or writing, will the required class be better for your over all scholarship? Sometimes, you have to let what appear to be great opportunities go in favor of your academics.


I think it comes down to this: can he help you help yourself achieve your degree and put you in a place where you're a strong job candidate? If not, the program might not be the fit for you.


I also think you should talk this over with someone who is able to understand both sides of this situation, knows university policy, and can advise you on how to resolve problems with this professional relationship in order to have a better experience in graduate school. That person isn't a fellow student (they don't know how policy works and will usually prefer solidarity and sympathy over constructive) or someone in the department (you don't want to add to your reputation). Your university's counseling services are a good place to start. They can help you work through this with confidentiality, and in enough time to drop with a full refund if necessary. They can also help you deal with the hostile work environment this guys presents, either personally or officially, as the case may be.

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I would argue, first talk to him.  Ask him if you are meeting his standards, and if no, why not?  If he has legitimate reasons, take from that, if not, consider going higher up.

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I agree with Nicholas Cage (never thought I'd say that in a forum post, hah!). So many of these kinds of issues are a function of academic stress (both the student's and the faculty member's). 


I encourage you to send an email to your advisor and take them out for coffee. Get out of the office. Be genuinely honest with your advisor. Discuss your issues, but be sure to preface everything with how much you care about your own success. Few faculty will outright reject someone with genuine interest in succeeding. 


Good luck!!

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"Going over [someone's] head" is never a good first step.  Laughing at you does not qualify as harassment.  It's rude, but it's not harassment.

Sometimes, advisors can be surly for no particular reason.  If this person is really so petty as to be angry with you for not attending a writing competition one or two years ago, he has serious issues.  But he shouldn't stop you from getting the degree that you really want.

Recognize that you are a person of worth and while your advisor may be more senior than you, he is not more human than you.  You don't have a duty to "please" him; your duty is to produce good work.  So politely challenge him without challenging him.  When your advisor says that you are not producing graduate work, ask him (politely and matter-of-factly) what he means by that and for him to provide you with feedback to improve your work.  When he tells you you can't take a class, ask him why you should take this class this semester rather than next semester.  You have every right to ask for an explanation to understand his reasoning.  You may be surprised - they may be valid.  If not, then you'll recognize BS for what it is.  (Also, do you have to get your advisor's permission to sign up for classes?  I've found that grad students often ask for permission to do things they don't actually need permission to do; for my part, I have never really asked my advisor's permission to take classes.  I just told him what I was going to take and asked for his thoughts.)

If asking him for clarifications and explanations doesn't produce an understanding of his behavior, have a frank conversation with him.  "P/A, perhaps I am misunderstanding our recent interactions, but I am getting the message that you don't believe my work is up to par.  Is this so?  And if so, how can I fix it?"  Ask it with a genuinely open mind to hear what he says.

If his answer is ridiculous, or you have independent confirmation that your work is fine (from other professors, not cohortmates), find out if you can you switch advisors.  You can ask your DGS about this; you can cite a workstyle mismatch.  But you have to try to make it work first, otherwise the DGS is just going to tell you to make it work.

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