This looks like a job for Downer Prof.

The Bittersweet One needs a little support and encouragement, if you’re at all inclined to provide any.  She had to put the boots to a student who is seriously stalled in her work:

But somewhere along the way Jane fell victim to the perils that afflict so many graduate students: anxiety, self-doubt, fear, paralysis, and shame. I’ve seen this many, many times (hell, I was in that same black hole for most of my own graduate career!) but I just hadn’t expected this for Jane — and, frankly, it took me a while to figure out just how serious the situation was. Jane is not making the progress she needs to make — I can no longer say with any confidence that she can finish her degree in the time frame we had planned — and, obviously, there are serious consequences for the next stage of her career.

There’s a lot more to be said about why even brilliant, self-motivated students get stuck in the grad school black hole — and there are other details about Jane’s situation that I am not including which would explain why this is an all-or-nothing moment — but this is a post about me so please excuse the one-sided-ness of this discussion.

At our last meeting, I found myself really struggling to break out of the established pattern of our relationship — the one in which we are very friendly, I am very upbeat and supportive, and in which I tell her there is no question she can do it all — and shift gears to this new reality — in which I express concern about her progress, start to talk to her about alternatives (deferring the PhD program; taking some time off; considering other careers), and basically convey that our relationship was going to have a different flavor. I really didn’t want to give up being Supportive Prof because that is such a positive role — it feels good to be Supportive Prof. I didn’t want to have to be the one to break the bad news, force Jane to acknowledge the situation she’s in — be Downer Prof. Downer Prof sucks.

I feel that, Bittersweet Girl.  But, we’re not really earning our (modest) paychecks if we’re only “helping” the brilliant, hardworking, and deadline-meeting students who just need a nudge here and there.  I really don’t think you broke any bad news to Jane–she knew she was in a jam.  She might even come to appreciate your intervention, especially if you can morph quickly back into Supportive Prof and help her out by setting small, feasable deadlines that may help get her started in her work again.

If you think about it, Downer Prof does the dirty work so that Supportive Prof can do her job, right?  Think of Downer Prof as Bad Cop to Supportive Prof’s Good Cop.  For example:  Downer Prof can smash Jane’s head against your desk a few times while she insults Jane’s parentage, and then Supportive Prof can offer to bring her a pack of cigarettes and a Tab.  (Well, it works for me, anyway.)

BS Girl doesn’t say, but I’m guessing the issue is writing or writing-related.  If it is a writing problem, here’s another idea:  tell her to start a blog in which she complains about you and the other faculty she works with–that might get her creative juices flowing again!

0 thoughts on “This looks like a job for Downer Prof.

  1. It is difficult to opine when not knowing all the facts and the student as well. Yet in my own experience at a doctoral program, sometimes students themselves already know that this is not for them. They know it, but they are overwhelmed with a paralyzing fear, feelings of failure and of “Now what?” That happened to me in a master program which wasn’t right for me, and I don’t regret dropping out. I am now in a doctoral program which is right for me. You are doing her a kindness if you help her face this. Maybe she belongs somewhere else, will flourish and be happier elsewhere. It is still up to her, you know. But continuing to play the cheerful, upbeat prof in the face of her crisis is almost unconscionable. It still sucks, but you’re helping her figure this out might actually provide her with tons of relief, even if not immediately.


  2. “Downer Prof can smash Jane’s head against your desk a few times while she insults Jane’s parentage, and then Supportive Prof can offer to bring her a pack of cigarettes and a Tab. (Well, it works for me, anyway.)”

    Let me tell you, this was very much my approach with BES throughout the final months of her senior thesis. Did I enjoy being Downer Prof? No. But she needed me to be the bad cop/good cop – not for me to blithely go along and be the good cop in spite of the fact that she was stalled. She had lots of people around her to be supportive – what she needed from me, that she wasn’t necessarily getting from those other people was harsh honesty. And, now with all of that behind us, we’re real friends – I’m not sure we would have become real friends in the long term if I’d thought more about my comfort than about her success when I was in the adviser role.

    Some students need their advisers to beat them up a little bit. I know I needed that when I was a student. I can’t imagine it felt good for my dissertation adviser to beat me up when I needed it, but I really respect him for doing so. It got me to a finished dissertation and ultimately to a tenure-track job. Being a little harsh doesn’t mean that one can’t still be supportive. I’d say that being a little harsh actually *is* being supportive, when harshness is what is called for.

    (This is not to say that I think one should be harsh all the time, or that all students respond to the “tough love” in the same way. All of this needs to be undertaken based on the individual student’s needs.)


  3. Good mentoring is a lot more than being “supportive”. If the mentor and the mentored (“mentee” makes me want to torture cute little kittens) never feel uncomfortable, then mentoring is not fucking happening. This prof needs to sack the fuck up and tell the student the truth about the current state of affairs, tell him what his options are, and tell him what the consequences of each of those options are likely to be. Knowledge is power.


  4. Heh. You all probably have figured out that I talk a tough game, but I’m actually a huuuuuge softie who does not seek out confrontation. It’s always easier to give this kind of advice than to take it.

    CPP is right. I find myself wishing there were a gender-neutral way to say “sack up,” but I haven’t thought of one yet. Sometimes it must be done, and you just have to tell yourself that it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do for the student.


  5. Speaking as a grad student, there are definitely moments when Downer Prof needs to be there — although, frankly, a better name is Honest Prof. When I go into my advisor’s office and say I’m stressed and feeling uncertain about where something’s going, I HATE hearing, “Aw, you’re doing great!” and “Things will work out!” and worst of all… “You don’t need to be worried about this.” Well, sorry, sir, I AM worried, and telling me I don’t need to be gets inferred as “your perception of things is warped and your self-doubt is silly.” I get cheery no-matter-what support from my father and spouse, I need brutal honesty from my academic mentor.

    (I’m more frustrated than usual at the moment because I just went to my advisor’s office on Friday, hoping to discuss some concerns I have about a 30-page paper due Monday that is undergoing extensive rewrites and citation-searching, and I just got vague assurances that my writing style is great and my underlying argument is sound. That just feeds the cycle of me not wanting to take more serious issues to him, certainly nothing personal that might affect my academics.)

    Graduate students are (usually) more mature and have more invested in their academic careers. Honesty is critical to guiding us to a productive end, and keeping us from floundering or self-sabotaging.


  6. Thanks for picking up this topic, Historiann.

    A few more comments about the gender dynamics at work in this situation: Unfortunately, Jane has been plagued with self-doubt from the beginning — she’s one of those smart young women who just doesn’t believe in herself — so I was such an enthusiastic cheerleader to counter this tendency. It sucks to now have to be more critical because, in many ways, this fulfills Jane’s existing narrative about herself. When I began to confront her about her failure to make adequate progress I did not get any resistance from her — rather she acted like she knew that was what was coming all along. I want her to be realistic about her situation without falling back into the mindset that she’s not smart or capable enough — and that’s a difficult balance to achieve. I also don’t want to send her off to PhD if she’s just going to suffer more setbacks — but how much of that is a narrative she can learn to overcome, given the right kind of guidance and support?

    It’s a tricksy one.


  7. As one of those stalled graduate students, please, please activate Downer Prof when appropriate. While I realize that my inertia has a lot to do with myself, the laissez-faire attitudes of my two primary committee members (one of whom is retiring this week; the other going next year) certainly doesn’t help. Dissertation writing has often felt like being in a nasty storm in a wooden dinghy – Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean that I have any clue how to do it, or even how to ask the questions that will get me what I need. Mentoring has to come in both the kind, friendly form and the tough-love form.


  8. In response to Anon.: the trouble is, there is no one way to write a dissertation, so it often is hard to advise students. It’s sort of like the question one gets from undergrads all the time, “How do I get an A?” Answer: there is no magical formula, you cannot read my mind, there is no invariable procedure for writing an A paper. It involves creativity and care and discipline, but I can’t describe an A to you in the abstract, only recognize one when I read it.

    Writing a diss. — or for that matter, prospering in grad. school generally — is somewhat similar. Profs. can give feedback on what students write, and help make it stronger, but we cant give you an abstract “recipe” for how to write, how to conceive taxonomies, how to interpret.

    And, if it’s any consolation, every single PhD I know went through the exact same struggles. I truly believe that it’s something one has to figure out for oneself, in a way that works with one’s own unique material and scholarly temperament. No one can tell you how to do it, and it was/is hard for everyone else, too.


  9. And, if it’s any consolation, every single PhD I know went through the exact same struggles. I truly believe that it’s something one has to figure out for oneself, in a way that works with one’s own unique material and scholarly temperament. No one can tell you how to do it, and it was/is hard for everyone else, too.

    This is very wise.


  10. I frankly prefer Erica’s notion of “Honest Prof” to that of Supportive vs Downer Prof.

    The mentorship I experienced in my top-tier graduate program ran hot-cold and, as a result, was pretty dysfunctional. Basically, when things were going well the faculty seemed always ready to engage, but, when things started going south, most retreated. This is what I experienced and what I observed in my cohort. (To be absolutely clear, my difficulties/struggles were of my own making and I have great affection, gratitude and respect for each of my mentors as individuals and as scholars.) And, in my personal case, as one who began a superstar went awol and then barely squeaked to finish, it became especially weird when dealing with those who fancied themselves “supportive profs”…

    What I realized when I began to mentor graduate students (many of whom suffer the typical strains of under-confidence and/or uneven preparedness) is that it was way too easy for me to not actually listen to a grad student who was struggling. My impulse was to diagnose, assess and correct — rather than actually listen. It was a bit hard to let go of the privilege of “having the answers” but, now, I try to mostly listen and offer a restatement of what I’ve heard before I do anything else. Then I ask what they might need/want in the way of support and, together, we strategize where they might find such support. At the same time, I offer my honest input on what I see to be the most practical concerns at stake.

    It IS more gratifying to be the supportive prof, but — based on my experience on both sides — I can only be supportive if I stay humble and stay honest. And, as I learned most recently, sometimes being supportive means staying supportive when a really talented student chooses to bail right when they’re soooo close to being done. (This student’s relationship with all her other mentors has now curdled, while she and I remain in open communication about what’s she’s going to do next.)

    So I vote for being the “Honest Prof” — in good times AND all those other kinds of times.


  11. I’m coming to this a day late, but wanted to throw my two cents in. It’s not just that individual profs need to figure out when to be “the Downer” and when to be “the Supportive”–it’s something that different profs on a committee need to negotiate with each other. Students may knowingly or unknowingly use one committee member as the Supportive one when they are tired of dealing Downer prof. Oddly enough, this seems to tougher to do when one is not the director. When you’re director, you’re ultimately responsible for determining how much progress the students is making, but when you’re a committee member, you have to follow the director’s lead while also serving as a good mentor.

    I’m on a dozen dissertation committees and they all seem to be a little different. But trying not to send contradictory signals can be harder when you’re working to match up with someone else. This isn’t even getting into the possibility that you have an honest disagreement with the director over the quality of the work. I’ve never said “I can’t sign this” as a committee member in an instance when the director pronounces it satisfactory–but it is my name on the page, so I have to take responsibility for my own evaluations. It can be tough.


  12. IME, 1) people who always tell you everything is fine don’t know enough about what’s going on to do their jobs properly. And 2) if you are a good advisor there’s always a time when you need a “come to jesus” moment (or moments) with whoever is relying on you to offer your expertise. “This is where you are, these are the problems, here are your options. Now you have to make a decision/take a course of action. Let’s think about that decision/course of action.”

    IF you have been informed, informative, and honest with them all along, those moments will be foreseeable by both parties and much less painful than you imagine them. This is because you have made sure that the actual problems are the problems and see your mission as helping to solve them.

    If you have been uninformed, uninformative, and less than honest all along, then you will likely never have that come to jesus moment(s) and will let your advisee/client twist in the wind until they wander away or get an unsatsifactory outcome they didn’t anticipate and are bitter and angry about it. This is because you have made the advisee/cliient the problem and see your mission as avoiding the problem until it goes away.

    IME, anyway.


  13. Emma makes a great point that echoes what the grad students said over at Notorious’s a few weeks ago. I think most of us are prepared to hear some stern criticism at some point or other. I, for one, get incredibly suspicious if I feel I’m just getting vague assurances or even just surface criticisms. For example, there’s a difference between commenting on a new chapter draft (which is of course important) and addressing more substantive concerns about methodology, structure, research gaps, etc.

    Hearing from faculty their nervousness about coming down hard is slightly more reassuring so I’m glad to read about this from the other side. But the problem is that if there are real problems, they’re going to have to be addressed at some point. That point cannot be years after initial concerns started to crop up. What’s much worse than hearing the criticism is hearing that an advisor had reservations early on but said nothing. (Here, I’m referring more to a PhD program, not a terminal degree program like Bittersweet’s talking about.) Finding out an advisor stayed silent erodes or eliminates trust in the advisor and also taints the past years of work, which may have been harder than they needed to be, if only conceptual problems or writing issues or whatever had been addressed early on.


  14. I’m late to the game here, but I think that a student with low or faltering self-esteem might benefit from the drill sergeant approach, rather than the honest prof, or downer prof approach. What I mean is not shouting, but a little reminder that its not all about Jane, and that Jane is f*ck!ng this up, letting down her advisor, her cohort, her family, her friends, and her undergraduate advisers who wrote letter for her: in short, the people who helped her to get this far…

    A simple, get your act together and don’t let your buddies down speech could be pretty effective. People are motivated to do things for others that they might not do for themselves. I am thinking of this now, since its graduation week. When students succeed and complete their degrees, everyone has their “I’d like to thank the Academy” moment, where they thank their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc. As scholars, our success often rests on the help and faith other people have in us. I think its OK, and probably necessary to flip that around and tell the student, look, you are not here alone, and you owe it to the people who helped you get this far to straighten out, fly right and get the job done. You failure reflects badly on the people who helped you get here. So don’t make them look bad.

    Now drop and give me twenty-five push ups on the spot, and fifteen pages by Thursday.


  15. As an aspiring PhD student, I’d much prefer constructive criticism. If there’s a problem, tell me, and give me some direction in how to address it. Challenge my work to help me find holes. Even if you’re delivery is less than encouraging, if the purpose is to make my work better (rather than to just randomly crap on me), I’ll be ok with that.

    Here is my question: When I speak with potential committee members as I search out schools and programs, is it fair to ask what someone’s approach to advising is?


  16. It’s certainly fair to ask that, and I would think that any potential advisor to whom such a question was off-putting you probably wouldn’t want to be advised by. It might be a question that would give some small pause, simply because the person in question hadn’t thought to articulate it in those terms, but conversations like that would probably be to the good all around. But if the preliminary answer seemed to be somewhat boilerplate, I’d probably interpret it in this last light; i.e. that the advisor in question doesn’t quite have the vocabulary at hand to articulate hir “approach.”

    I missed this thread in transit, but just thought to say that I was the beneficiary of a pretty non-judgmental and light-handed advisorial approach, myself, which turned out to be right for me. But maybe not as a general rule.


  17. Here is my question: When I speak with potential committee members as I search out schools and programs, is it fair to ask what someone’s approach to advising is?

    Absolutely! I am very impressed when potential trainees exploring the possibility of joining my lab ask me about this. And I make a deliberate point of explaining my mentoring approach very clearly. The last thing anyone wants is someone joining my lab whose mentoring expectations are not realistic given my style.


  18. Thanks for fielding that Indyanna and CPP. I agree that it shows maturity and insight just to ask the question. (And quite frankly, it’s one that NEVER would have occured to me 20 years ago when I was deciding on which grad school to attend. But then, I was quite young and green, in so many ways!)


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