Essay on the motives of faculty members seeking dissertation students to advise

Dissertation Advisers and Their Motives

June 30, 2014

The prominence of Marxist thinkers in many academic fields ensures that graduate students study commodification; the prevalence of self-serving pedagogical practices ensures that those students too often become commodities themselves. You’ve read the book, now act, or be acted on, in the movie.

Competition for graduate students, some of it inevitable, occurs frequently within and among graduate programs. They may vie with each other to attract the most desirable candidates for admission. (Justifications of the decision at Johns Hopkins University to increase graduate stipends tellingly conflate the laudable motives of helping students to avoid debt and the dubious one of encouraging them to select this program even if other institutions might offer a livable though somewhat smaller stipend and a program that is more appropriate to the applicant in other ways.) And decisions by administrators to downsize doctoral programs may lead to competition for warm bodies to fill a seminar that might otherwise be canceled.

Most troubling, however, are the techniques some professors use to encourage students to choose themselves as dissertation director. These issues assume different form in disciplines, notably the sciences, where graduate students often join a team addressing the adviser’s own project. Hence this essay concentrates instead on areas where students’ projects do not involve actual participation in the adviser’s research — and on institutions where the regrettable behavior in question flourishes. Its absence or delimitations elsewhere (including Fordham University, where I now teach) demonstrates that many issues are not only field- but also institution-specific.

A professor’s motives for attracting — when does it become luring? — potential dissertators, like the practices deployed to do so, occupy a spectrum: the unexceptional, the ambiguous, the dubious, and too often the downright egregious and pernicious.

At one pole, being a good teacher typically involves delight in sharing interests and enthusiasms; one may also wish to support new or, alternatively, neglected trends in the field. All those understandable, even desirable, reactions may lead us to encouraging students to choose a topic for which we would be the obvious director. Some faculty members may believe they are in a better position to help a given student intellectually and professionally, though that realization can be compromised by more self-serving motivations.

Similarly, attributing to certain colleagues prejudices and stereotypes — racial, misogynistic homophobic, and so on — that would render them bad choices for a given student, a faculty member may attempt to steer that dissertator away from such people. The  intentions may on occasion be largely or entirely honorable and the anticipated outcome  preferable — but even in such instances one always has to be sure that a desire to supervise the thesis oneself is not being rationalized and that the information about the putative prejudices is grounded in solid evidence, not the gossip that jealousy and resentments often breed.

Departments that base course reductions or other perks on the number of dissertations supervised thus encourage competition for dissertators. Faculty members who discover — or fear — that they are supervising fewer theses because other people are dubiously attracting dissertators may feel that justifies similar behavior, thus turning regrettable behavior into a snowball, or an already-stormy departmental climate into a thunderstorm or blizzard.

Sadly, the most common motivation for pressuring students to choose oneself as director may be ego and the attendant rivalries with other faculty members. Indeed, as noted below, sometimes longstanding animosities and more generalized competition between Professors X and Y, not necessarily the desire to supervise the dissertation in question, may impel X to discourage students from working with Y.

But more to the point, faculty members too often judge themselves and others by the number of theses being supervised. The widespread practice of listing on vitae not only the dissertations we have directed but also the current professional position of the student indicates the significance of such status systems. Even more troubling: the desire to replicate oneself, so risky in more literal parenting, sometimes encourages people not only to corral dissertators but also to try to encourage undue imitation of one’s own work. In short, the line between enthusiastic and disinterested engagement with a student and pernicious pressure is an important — and sometimes blurred — boundary.

Some war stories culled from reliable sources around the country abound (repeated here with a few minor details altered):

  • Graduate students in one department soon learned via the grapevine that Professor A would consent to work on dissertations only if selected as director or co-director — and only if Professor B was not on the committee.
  • Elsewhere a faculty member heard reliably that another department member was telling students that if they chose her as director they were very likely to get a job but very unlikely if they chose my informant. Any scholar who knows this person’s field and her sterling reputation within it would realize the advice was not worth the venom it was written on.
  • Too many students continue to report being instructed in virtually so many words by a potential director that she or he, not a colleague with similar credentials, is the only appropriate director. This pressure intensifies if the person applying the pressure is someone with a major reputation or someone in a respected administrative position in the department.
  • Debating between working with Professor X on one topic or Professor Y on a topic for which he would be the more logical supervisor, the student is firmly instructed by Y not to mention in any way to X that he is considering an alternative topic and director. Does Y fear that that knowledge would propel X into pressuring the student? Or does Y see the situation not as a collegial collaboration where he and X are working with the student to identify his best interests but rather as a rivalry where the stealthy bird will get the worm? (And at their worst scenarios like this do indeed treat students like worms, though ones that are attractive fodder for the more predatory birds.)  Or are both explanations true, proving that we attribute to others our own behavior and values in such situations?
  • One faculty member was puzzled about why, after being asked to serve on committees and sometimes direct for several years, these requests abruptly dried up. He learned that a colleague senior to him had recently started offering informal evening workshops, both on campus and at his house, for people approaching the point of choosing a director. Given that this person had a reputation for dropping students who didn’t follow his advice, my informant could not help but suspect that these sessions were designed to attract students their organizer wanted to work with. And others might wonder whether or not a senior colleague, aware that someone junior to him was increasingly attracting students, perhaps felt a need to define and protect what he saw as his territory.

Pressuring students to choose oneself as a director is dangerous in several ways. The student may select an adviser who is not ideal in terms of interests and pedagogical practices. To ensure the desired outcome, faculty members may urge those students to choose a director early, before they know their own interests and the options well enough to make an informed decision. These types of behavior build tension among colleagues and, as noted above, may snowball.

Moreover, the faculty members who pressure students to select themselves as director often also pressure them to become intellectual clones. As one distinguished professor observed to me, “If students try throughout graduate school to become better versions of themselves, they may well succeed; if they try to become versions of someone else, they are likely to turn into second-rate imitations.”

Other fallout from the practice of competing for dissertators too often includes what insurance companies often describe as cherry-picking: seeking the most desirable clients or dissertators while hoping to avoid the others. The attitudes that lead certain faculty members unabashedly to compete for the top students often make them uninterested in working with the people whom they perceive as less promising — hence more time-consuming for the director and less likely to yield reflected glory. This too can compromise collegiality: faculty members who are willing to work with such students may resentfully note the fact that their colleagues never will assume what is often a more burdensome responsibility. And mightn’t being rejected by a potential adviser, especially one known to encourage other students to work with her or him,  create insecurities in the students not sought after, thus compromising productivity and turning the perception that these students are less promising into a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The most perilous consequence of pressuring students in these ways is also the most subterranean: faculty members who do so are modeling regrettable behavior for their students — instructing them not only in how to write a thesis but also how to compete with colleagues and manipulate students.

How can we limit the deleterious effects of aggressively hunting for potential dissertators? Perhaps the most promising potential solutions are also the hardest to effect. Competition is inevitable in our profession, like so many others, and not always destructive. But some of the attitudes that encourage pernicious rivalries might be modulated, although of course a comprehensive discussion of these broad issues demands a different conversation. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, the huge salary inequities resulting from matching outside offers can encourage rivalries and resentment. One professor aptly responded to my queries about avoiding competition for dissertators with, “Morale is all.” 

Moreover, celebrating both undergraduate and graduate teaching may discourage some from putting all the fragile eggs of their fragile egos in the latter basket; such celebration can occur when the most respected professors volunteer to teach elementary classes and when hiring committees make a good faith effort at the difficult task of determining whether a candidate would perform both pedagogical roles well. Graduate seminars can not only teach critical approaches but also model attitudes critical in more senses than one; for example, classes  in which students edit each other’s papers can, if that system is carefully structured, encourage cooperation and respect.

Other possibilities for limiting competition for dissertators involve responsible mentoring and thoughtful institutional practices. Faculty members can counterbalance pressure students may receive from other quarters by encouraging them to delay choosing a director until they are further along in the program and, in particular, have worked with more people and by stressing that the decision about a director needs to be made by the student himself, not anyone else.

Some graduate programs have also adopted structural solutions to destructive competition for graduate students. Co-directing arrangements can be successful. The transformation of the position of director and second reader into a committee structure is working well at certain Ph.D.-granting institutions, of which Harvard University is one of many examples.

Graduate students at some universities now have the option of either retaining the traditional first reader (director) / second reader model or setting up a three-person committee. One member of those committees is designated the nominal director for administrative purposes; in many instances the triumvirate does assume equal responsibilities, though in some the nominal director proves to have a significantly larger role. But even when one person in practice becomes the main supervisor, the committee structure may well encourage the student to consider a number of professional models, avoiding the risks of cloning. And such procedures reduce the possibility of one a faculty member without warning calling for a major overhaul very late in the game. This system is not without its own risks— for instance, one observer at another institution reports situations where one member is happy to get the credit for supervising the thesis while passing the lion’s share of the hard work onto other committee members. But the committee structure is proving a fruitful option in many instances.

In contrast, the fruit of the poisoned trees of coercion, which thrive in all too many academic orchards gardens, is the knowledge of commodified goods and professional evils.


Heather Dubrow is the John D. Boyd SJ Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University and taught previously at several other institutions. Among her publications are six single-authored monographs, a co-edited collection of essays, an edition of As You Like It, and a volume of her own poetry.




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